August 2008

Hilton Hotels Adds Eco-Roofs to Baltimore, Asheville Properties

Posted August 29, 2008 by Zak Patten

Solarpvarray Who says eco-travel has to mean wearing mosquito netting while avoiding quicksand in a Central American rainforest? Certainly not Hilton Hotels, which is about to have a pair of properties with greener roofs—and last time I checked, neither Asheville nor Baltimore is anywhere near Costa Rica.

What's most interesting about these two projects is that they achieve eco-positive status in two completely different ways. According to Green Lodging News, Asheville's new Hilton Hotel in Biltmore Park Town Square is focused on cutting emissions and fuel costs by installing a "large-scale solar water heating system" on its roof. The new system is expected to supply the 165-room hotel with over 2,000 gallons of hot water per day, and save an estimated $10,000 per year in energy costs, all while giving the hotel a much smaller carbon footprint. In doing so, the Hilton Asheville is set to become one of the first major hotel s in the country to use the sun's energy to heat its water. Combined with "an energy optimization program, the use of recycled, nontoxic and local materials, and the installation of Low-E materials throughout the entire hotel," the fancy solar roof may make this one of the greenest big hotels in the U.S.

The new $300 million, 757-room Hilton Baltimore is also going green, but instead of solar panels, the roofs on its east and west buildings will be home to a 32,000-square-foot garden. With six species and tens of thousands of plantsthis won't look like Grandma's backyard. As The Green Meeting notes, such roofs "are used to provide urban habitat to wildlife, reduce storm runoff, improve air and water quality, lower temperatures and boost aesthetics." So while you may not be able to take an environmentally friendly shower at the Hilton Baltimore, at least all those plants are a lot nicer to look at than a roof full of solar panels. Either way, it's nice to see Hilton blazing an eco-travel trail—without all the bugs.

(Photo: dvorak.org)

JetBlue's Voice Recognition Software Hears What You’re Sayin’

Posted August 28, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Yellingintophone2 I was actually tempted to title this post “JetBlue Doesn’t Want to Hear It,” but that would have been unfair; they just want their actual human customer service reps to have to hear it as rarely as possible. They, as in the Greater They of JetBlue-dom are still listening, they’ll just be routing your calls to brand-new voice recognition software.

I heard that groan. And I know: Your average voice recognition seems to be about as reliable as … well, as your average flight departure time, come to think of it. The recorded voice comes on all nice and pleasant and asks you to speak your information to her (It's almost always a her). You do. She says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t get that. Please repeat your departure city.” “Akron,” you say. She says, “Do you mean Jakarta?” And it goes on like that until you finally wonder what made you think that picking up the phone would be easier than looking it up online in the first place.

JetBlue seems to think that this system will have 90 percent accuracy. Hey, super! But one of the biggest challenges with voice recognition software is both the variety across callers’ lexicons (e.g. yes, yep, yeah, uh-huh, you bet, sure thing, abso-freaking-lutely) and callers’ accents. One man’s “yes” is another man’s “yay-us” and yet another’s “yuss”. And that’s just within the native-born American accent spread. I’m reminded of a British former boss of mine who was trying to use the company’s dial-by-name system to call “Robert Whirrell” and ended up repeatedly screaming into the phone: “Ro-beh Wee-OOOO! RO-BEH WEE-OOO!”

If JetBlue’s new system really is as good as they say it is, though, this could be a big boon for the company and for callers. JetBlue gets to save money by keeping human-operated call centers small and routing most calls through the electronic system. And customers, on the other hand, get to voice and even yell frustrations about flights, fees, and general life ailments at a computer that sounds just like a person but won’t have to go home crying about how mean people can be. In some situations, including the emotionally charged travel realm, the most humane interactions might just be those that don’t involve humans at all.

(Photo: blog.wired.com)

Hilton Hotels Have Michael Phelps Swim to Beijing

Posted August 21, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Hilton_beijing_phelps3_2 At first glance, the "Hilton Swim to Beijing Relay" sounds like something the Hilton Hotel chain relied on heiress, celebutante and dubious pride-and-joy, Paris Hilton, to conjure up: With a whopping 6,250 miles in between Los Angeles and Beijing, let’s just say it was lucky for the other relay swimmers that this swim to Beijing was more metaphorical than literal.

Paddling in pools all across the United States, swimmers participated in the cause marketing event by contributing laps to reach a 6,250 total for each of those L.A.-to-Beijing miles. In return, Hilton Hotels & Resorts is donating upwards of $100,000 to swim education programs. Super. But even more impressive is their major marketing coup that undoubtedly cost the chain beaucoup: Michael Phelps was secured to begin and end the relay.

Phelps, the eight-gold-medal golden boy is officially worth more than his weight in gold when it comes to marketing contracts, so it will be interesting to see whether other major players in the ailing travel industry have gotten in on the Phelps Phenomenon. Hilton Hotels & Resorts, while oh so altruistically donating a nice chunk of change to nonprofits, has also reminded the world about the pools in its hotels. Ooo, pooooooools. Don’t you wish you had a pool? Well, you could—if you stayed in a Hilton.

Here’s another great marketing opp: The camera pans down the aisle of an airplane and finally settles on a contented face that seems familiar somehow. Why, it’s Michael Phelps. Phelps closes his Sports Illustrated magazine and looks to the camera. “My six-foot, four-inch height and freakishly large feet used to make air travel a pain. I’d be crammed into tiny seats and have to worry that leg cramps would affect my unparalleled swimming ability. But on AIRLINE X, they’ve got plenty of legroom—even enough for the best Olympic Athlete ever: me."

I’ll offer just a few more freebie ideas before signing off (people pay me for this stuff, you know): This time, the commercial opens on a big band in a glamorous ballroom. The camera pulls back to reveal women in sequin gowns and men in tuxedos dancing to the music or seated at bountifully laden dinner tables. The camera begins to narrow in on a table and we notice that this tuxedoed man is none other than Michael Phelps, wearing all eight of his Olympic gold medals! Phelps smiles and looks to the camera. “Hi, you probably already know me, but I’m Michael Phelps. Ever since I won my eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, I’ve had a hard time finding a place to wear all of them where I don’t feel overdressed. But here, in the CRUISELINE Y ballroom, I fit right in. Everyone and everything is dressed to the nines in swanky style—though no one can compete with my jewelry. Plus, this cruise line has an amazing buffet of fine gourmet foods. I recommend the glazed donuts because they’re small and round and shiny. Just like my eight gold medals."

That’s right folks, I’m giving these ideas away, but they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. What about a pirate/Olympics/Michael Phelps-themed seafood restaurant called Pieces of Eight? Luxury cruise speedboats being billed as “just as aerodynamic and hairless as Michael Phelps"? SeaWorld shows where Michael Phelps proves that he does the dolphin kick better than actual dolphins? Intriguing, no? Contact me to discuss my consultant rates on an hourly or project-by-project basis.

Also, Michael Phelps, I’m willing to work directly for you. Just think of the money you could be making—it’s the chance of a lifetime. Or should I say, it’s a golden opportunity? (Puns, Michael! All of these could be yours—and more! Call me!!)

(Photo: www.businesswire.com)

Delta and Other U.S. Airlines Flying Fewer Jumbo Jets

Posted August 19, 2008 by Zak Patten

Delta_air_lines_boeing_747 The image of a jumbo jet pulling up to the gate is not unlike that classic movie poster from Jaws, which features the massive shark's teeth rising menacingly toward the swimmer—but in a good way!  It's hard to say why exactly, but I've always been partial to jumbo jets. My earliest flying memory is of a transatlantic crossing on an Aer Lingus 747, and the behemoth planes have held a certain allure for me ever since.  Which is why I'm somewhat saddened that USA Today is noting the decline of jumbo usage by Delta and other U.S. carriers.

According to the article, on an average day, U.S. airports see 143 flights on wide-body jets like Boeing 747s and 767s, almost a third fewer than just one year ago: "Delta and American have scheduled the most wide-body service, with 65 and 54 flights per day, respectively. On average, United scheduled 22 flights per day, US Airways two, and both Continental and Northwest none." Obviously, the trend doesn't look good, but let's not forget some of the advantages of the big birds:

  • Business travelers love 'em. They've got more quality seating than smaller planes, which means there are more chances at an upgrade.
  • There's just more of everything. Higher ceilings mean no bumped heads for taller folks, more lavatories translate to less knee-squeezing, and greater overhead bin space results in fewer bag-cramming injuries.
  • Two aisles! Yep, these double-barreled beauties keep passengers moving smoothly at all times.

On the downside, and this is especially true for older models, jumbos burn through fuel faster than their pipsqueak peers. USA Today quotes MIT engineer Bill Swelbar as saying, "The average wide body has 248 seats and burns 1,937 gallons per hour, while the average narrow body has 148 seats and burns 876 gallons per hour." With airlines still reeling from high fuel prices, the last thing they want to do is guzzle more gas. And given the raised awareness of how global warming is affected by air travel, airlines don't want a carbon footprint any bigger than it has to be.

It's not that jumbos are being hunted down like some great white shark that's got a fondness for water-skier flesh. These noble beasts still have their place in the skies, but perhaps we are witness to their slow decline. All I know is that when the last 747 makes its final runway taxi, I'll be waiting at the gate, nose pressed to the glass, waving goodbye.

(Photo: Airline Empires)

JetBlue Now Taking Cash, US Airways Not So Much

Posted August 13, 2008 by Zak Patten

Currencyusbills There's nothing like a fistful of dollars or a nice, fat stack of twenties to make you feel rich. Looking at your online bank statement or listening to an automated recording of your credit limit just doesn't have the raw visceral power of cold hard cash. Which is what makes two recent airline initiatives so intriguing. On the one hand, there's JetBlue, which has partnered with Western Union to allow passengers to use cash to pay for tickets. On the other hand, there's US Airways, which is eliminating onboard cash payments altogether. To understand this Tale of Two Airlines, we just have to follow the money.

With what has to be one of 2008's most old-school moves, JetBlue has set up its website so that after booking, customers can cruise over to their local Western Union office and slap down a pile of real paper money to pay. Sure, you might have booked online or by phone at 800-JETBLUE, and Western Union might have performed some high-tech wizardry to transfer your payment to the airline, but come on, you just paid for your ticket with money hidden in your sock drawer—how 1970s-cool is that? Customers have until midnight on the day after they book to pay up. Sounds a little Sopranos-esque, but I'm guessing the consequences of not paying are merely that you'll lose your seat, as opposed to your kneecaps.

At the same time JetBlue is letting folks pay for flights with spare change, US Airways is taking the opposite tack and equipping its flight attendants with handheld credit card readers. Starting in 2009, crew members will be able to use these gizmos to easily collect payments for the airline's new charges, such as those for soft drinks. According to Michelle Mohr, US Airways' Spokesperson, “It’s more convenient for our customers. We realize consumers these days aren’t going to have a pocket full of cash. We want to move to a cashless cabin.”

Actually, JetBlue is already using the credit card readers, as are American and Delta. US Airways is hardly breaking new ground here, but in these tough economic times, it probably helps airline bottom lines if people just have to fork over their credit cards rather than fishing for a few bucks in their pockets. After all, when you give someone your credit card, you always get it back, good as new. When you fork over your cash, it's gone for good.

(Photo: Index Open)

United Unveils Cool New Ads for Olympics

Posted August 12, 2008 by Carl Unger

If you've watched at least an hour of the Olympics this year, you've no doubt seen one of United's fancy new animated commercials. They are meant to convey a sense of wonder and magic, as if either of those two words apply to the average traveler's flying experience these days (except to say, "I wonder how late my flight will be"). However, if you've managed to miss them, fear not, for I have included them below. And since these commercials are clearly aiming to create a cinematic experience, I'll be putting on my film critic's hat and offering a little commentary on each.

Butterfly:

 

This United ad is aiming for a Surrealistic expression, representing the joy and comfort of flying in a swirling field of color and shape. Unfortunately, to me it looks like a chalk drawing done by a (admittedly very talented) kid on his parents' driveway. This ad doesn't quite do it for me, so I'm giving it 1.5 stars.

Heart:

 

This ad has all the emotional depth of a Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey  romantic comedy, but it does contain, at its core, some truths about relationships: Nothing is worse than leaving your loved one behind, and nothing is better than returning. Also, it's socially acceptable to attend business meetings with a heart-shaped hole in a … er … conspicuous area of your clothing. The animation is uninspired, but I'll give this ode to amore 2.5 stars.

Two Worlds:

 

This is where the creativity really starts to enter United's ads, and it comes with a thrilling storyline to boot: Ordinary man follows runaway plane ticket, which leads him to a secret world where—gasp!—he is abducted by freakish death fairies! Always resourceful, the man escapes down some floating stairs, leaps off a star, and floats back to safety with his umbrella as a parachute. But wait—his presence changes the colors of the real world! Is he a death fairy, too?! I smell a sequel. Oh yeah, the animation rocks. 3 stars.

Sea Orchestra:

 

This commercial picks up on the Finding Nemo oeuvre, but absent a clear plot, it can't come close to that film's heart and charm. That said, the animation is very, very cool, and the ad features a fat, laughing orca slapping its belly. Add that to my ever-growing list of images I could never have imagined seeing. 3.5 stars.

What do you think of United's new ads? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

JetBlue Offers New Routes to a Sugar High

Posted August 7, 2008 by Nicki Krawczyk

Rockstar I was once wandering the aisles of a local retailer when a kid about the size and speed of a wildebeest came barreling around a corner, wailing like a member of Van Halen, and nearly knocked me into a display of Hormel Chili. Following relatively close behind was his mother, who collared the kid and hissed through clenched teeth, “Ryan you are being very bad. If you don’t calm down and behave right now I’m taking you home.” Then, she grabbed one of those giant, frosted, wrapped-in-plastic-because-it-was-actually-baked-in-1992 sugar cookies from a display next to her and said, “Here: Eat this.”

There’s a basic chemical process that happens in the human body whereby, to break it down in non-technical terms, your internal organs absorb sugar and metabolize it directly into crazy. Little Ryan’s body was undoubtedly already undergoing this process and his Mommy was adding fuel to the fire, not understanding that “the hair of the dog” doesn’t apply to cookies. Indeed, this is what we call being “at odds with one’s goals.” You can’t soothe a hyper-hypo with sugar.

Neither can you soothe a riled-up customer base with sugar, as Southwest has tried to do. Now, JetBlue has announced that they’ll be adding a bevy of new beverages to their in-air aperitifs. Specifically, look for ROCKSTAR Energy Drinks, Stirrings Cocktail Mixers and glaceau vitamin water. For those of you who’re keeping track, that’s a “potent herbal blend”of fruit juice and cane sugar, and, um, “nutrients” at the same time you're being asked to "remain in your seats with your seat belts securely fastened” for the duration of this four-hour flight.

Plus, not only is this at odds with one of JetBlue’s goals, it’s also at odds with another: revenue generation. Sure, they’re charging $3 a drink for the high fructose, but they’re also now charging $7 for a blanket and a pillow. Clearly, at four bucks more, the pillow and blanket take the bottom-line cake in terms of profit, but if that cart starts coming down the aisle early in the flight and you’ve got people juicing up on, well, juice, I’d expect a dip in the pillow-blanket income column. And for those passengers unfortunate enough to procure a pillow and blanket but possess a seat next to an imbiber, well, I think that’s probably a mistake they aren’t likely to make again.

(Photo: www.rapidcityjournal.com)

Delta Adding In-Flight Wi-Fi to Entire Fleet

Posted August 6, 2008 by Zak Patten

Ibookairplane Airplanes have gotten a bad rap lately. Whether it's bloggers griping about cattle-car seating, columnists complaining about the latest checked-bag fee, or reporters investigating safety violations, the glory days of air travel seem to be behind us. But maybe, just maybe, there is a new hope. A way forward that would unite the titans of industry with the passenger in 6B.

What is this path, which has so much promise, yet has proven so elusive, you ask? Well, it's in front of you right now, and it's called the Internet. Yes, the World Wide Web into which we are all woven may just bring these opposites together—if Delta's exciting new venture comes to fruition, that is. The Atlanta-based airline is going "all in" by planning in-flight Wi-Fi for its 300 mainline domestic aircraft. Other airlines, including JetBlue, American, and Continental, have flirted with in-flight Wi-Fi, testing it on certain planes or certain routes, but Delta is ready to bring it to the masses, hoping the new service will bring the masses to the airline.

Of course, like any new service, Delta is counting on this to bring in some revenue. In-flight Wi-Fi will run $9.95 for flights of three hours or shorter and $12.95 for longer trips. It's not exactly cheap, but if you're using it for work, you won't get any raised eyebrows when you submit that charge on an expense report. If you're more of a recreational user, it'll cost you about the price of an onboard lunch box. Let's hope those of us in the media will give Delta credit for innovation, even if it comes at a price.

(Photo: MacNN.com)


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