March 10, 2011
Four Seasons London, Day Two: Meeting with the General Managers
This morning began with seven meetings with eight heads of Four Seasons hotels around the world, and with several members of the corporate team. I’ll be writing up a long story about what they had to say later on, so for now, here are a couple quotes from the conversations:
Rene Beauchamp, General Manager, Four Seasons Hotel Prague: We’re always innovating with new ideas. We try to set one big goal each year for something new. You can’t stay still. You have to see what’s happening around the world.
Cesare Rouchdy, Regional Director of Marketing—Egypt: Hotels in Cairo are seeing business in the teens. Sharm El Sheikh and Alexandria are seeing numbers in the 20s…Corporate business is trickling in. They’re looking to rebuild. Leisure business will take longer.
Michael Purtill, General Manager, Four Seasons Canary Wharf: London is moving east. People are looking for a unique experience, and the east end is innovative, young and edgy.
Jim FitzGibbon, President, Worldwide Hotel Operations: We’ve built a reputation for service, buildings and consistency. Now we need a brand personality…New markets need to establish style, and older ones need to establish consistency.
Charlie Parker, General Manager, Four Seasons Hampshire: I like hotels where people choose the hotel instead of the destination. You have their full attention. It’s a live interface—it’s not just breakfast. That’s what our industry is about.
Yves Giacometti, General Manager, Four Seasons Gresham Palace, Budapest: I was previously based in Buenos Aires, a city of vibrant passion. Budapest is a more passive passion…It’s the Paris of central Europe.
Susan Helstab, Executive Vice President of Corporate Marketing: Markets don’t control the brands anymore. It’s shifting to the consumer. It’s a power shift, so make sure that you exceed expectations…Guests have more platforms to voice their complaints, so you must check every medium for expressing opinions. Nothing is so valuable as a room-service person who mentions that a guest does or doesn’t want something.
After the meetings, we headed over to Westminster Abbey for a quick tour of the thousand-year-old building. Our guide, Peter Craggs, walked us through all of the different rooms and pointed out the many tombs and memorials of famous Britons, and even plenty of foreigners who have been honored with a plaque. (For example, Henry James, the American novelist, has a memorial, as does President Franklin Roosevelt.) The most notable tomb, of course, is not Queen Elizabeth I or Henry V or any of the other royals and legends who are buried in the abbey…but the poppy-covered Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the only tomb that no one ever steps on. If Kate Middleton follows tradition when she marries Prince William next month, rather than toss her bouquet to the single ladies in attendance, she will leave the flowers on the tomb.
Sadly, details about the upcoming wedding are rather scarce, so we didn’t get much gossip about who will be in attendance and what will happen at the ceremony. Be up bright and early on April 29 to watch the festivities on TV, and enjoy the arcitecture of the Abbey while you watch the nuptuals.
Oh, and in case you thought I was exaggerating about the size of my room's terrace, here are two photos:
November 09, 2010
World Travel Market in London: Day Three (Part Two--Hotels)
With regrets, I left the Egerton House Hotel this morning. I'll miss the place--it has a wonderfully homey vibe (probably helps that it's built from two converted townhouses) that makes it very comfortable and a nice retreat from business meetings. (I'll especially miss those fireplaces, and the amazingly multi-lingual staff. I couldn't keep track of all the languages I heard going back and forth.)
I caught a taxi over to Mayfair (and got taken for a ride in more ways than one by the cabbie...be sure to check the meter before setting off on a trip and make sure it's not already pre-set to some ridiculous rate) and dropped off my bags at the Athenaeum, which I've always wanted to see. The hotel has a green wall of living plants designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist, and it makes for a very striking facade. At the door, I was met by Jim Burns, the hotel's wonderfully outgoing and informative doorman and greeter, who remembered my name when I returned in the evening and offered a very friendly "Welcome home!" Sweet.
I'm staying in one of the hotel's suites on the top floor, which has views over Green Park (the sun was setting when I got in, so no pictures yet), and a four-poster bed with post-modern plastic posts. The room is very spacious (lots of chairs--good for casual entertaining), and has nice perks like free drinks (of the non-alcoholic variety, alas) from the mini-bar and a walk-in closet that can double as a changing room. The bathroom is very large and has two sinks (great for couples getting ready in a rush).
Even better: The hotel's spa has just reopened after some renovations. On the downside, I won't have time to use it. Woe.
Tomorrow: Puttin' on The Ritz!
November 07, 2010
Arriving in London for World Travel Market
You know that wonderful new-car smell that car fans love to talk about? Turns out, planes have that, too. I got to ride in one of Continental's new 777 jets from Newark to Heathrow, and yes, it smelled like a new car. Also? Wide-screen TVs with lots of on-demand programming on the back of every seat. Nice way to start a trip to London!
A quick and very convenient ride on the Heathrow Express got me right into the heart of London in fifteen minutes and, at Paddington, I learned firsthand how difficult it is to navigate the Tube with luggage. Most New York City subway stations have at least one elevator or ramps for people in wheelchairs (or people with luggage), but on the Underground, one must carry one's luggage up and down numerous flights of stairs. That's annoying enough, but how do people in wheelchairs get around London?
I finally arrived at the Egerton House Hotel in Knightsbridge, a lovely boutique property that really conjures old-fashioned glamor. The bed in my room is a four-poster, and the housekeeping ladies wear black dresses and white aprons. The keys are the old-fashioned heavy metal things you see in period dramas, and the lounges have fireplaces. It's so Jeeves & Wooster that I keep waiting for PG Wodehouse himself to pop out and offer me a martini.
Which is not to say that the hotel is completely old-fashioned, of course--there's complimentary Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs in both the bedrooms and the bathrooms. But the vibe is very classic, and I'm looking forward to exploring more of the hotel after I've shaken off the jet lag.
May 14, 2010
Kirk Cassels' Weekly Wrap of User Comments: May 10-14
Before we get started this week, I'd like to suggest agents (particularly those with clients who are eager to visit Great Britain) take time this weekend, or sometime soon, to go see the new Robin Hood film by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and William Hurt. I had the privilege of seeing an advance screening this past Wednesday and, in my layman's opinion, not only is the film a subtle and original take on the legendary figure (that is neither hoaky nor driven by a Robin Hood that speaks with an American accent- sorry, Costner), it has some beautiful scenery that could further entice clients to make the journey across the pond. The backdrop of the film can remind clients about the bucolic regions of the country where they can go to truly escape and, perhaps, get in touch with the original sources of thei heritage. Visit www.visitbritain.com/en/campaigns/robinhood for more and you'll see what I mean.
That being said, let's take a look at what readers have been saying at TravelAgentCentral this week. I'm glad to report that most of the comments this week have been focused on helping agents through advice or warning.
More on Vacation Rentals
We've been discussing the potential impact that vacation rentals can have on an agent's business for almost a month now, and the conversation is not going away just yet. In fact, two readers shared some information on the topic just this week.
First up this week was michael chisholm, of Wimco Villas. He wrote:
As a sales agent working for a villa reservation company, we help Travel Agents all the time as we apprciate the need to further the villa vacation market. The company I work for, www.wimco.com represents villas in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Europe and Nantucket and ALL our destinations have on island support for vactioners. In the ever expanding vacation rental marketplace, specialising in specfic destinations is important as this provides better accuracy overall.
Perhaps you are weary of potentially subjective information coming from a supplier, which is understandable. Therefore, I suggest you listen to Amanda, who posted:
Staying in hotels on vacation is a thing of the past! So many more people love the option of getting a vacation rental and having more privacy and more space. Not to mention how affordable they can be. I believe that vacation rentals are a great market for travel agents. I myself book vacation rentals and get nothing but great reviews.
Lisa is another non-supplier who is a strong supporter of this niche market, stating:
When in Hawaii, staying in a vacation rental whether it is in a villa or a home, it is the only way to go. I had the opportunity to work with the friendly staff at Tropical Villa Vacations, who showed a genuine concern for all of my travel needs. The location that we chose was perfect!
The fact that so many comments have been coming in on this topic over the course of a month (which is like years in Internet timing) is more than encouraging, to say the least. I hope agents take the opportunity to keep sharing more on the topic both here and at a discussion thread on AgentNation.
Speaking of AgentNation
Last week, we reported on Expedia's new Travel Agent Affiliate program and, although there have been no comments posted (yet) directly on the story, we've received feedback at our discussion thread on the matter at AgentNation. If you haven't signed up and/or logged in yet, here's what some agents had to share on the matter.
Angie was the first to respond, writing:
I am excited about this because now clients can't say "we booked it on Expedia". They will know we can get them the best price available no questions asked. I do have one question. I am trying to sign up online for the free sign up before June promo. It wants my bank info. Is that so they can bill us the 50dollars?
Meanwhile, user macaw_mom does not appear as enthused as Angie, posting:
I am not that excited. I see the online agencies like this worried they are losing to the True Travel Agent. Commission levels for TAAP are: 10% for Expedia Special Rate hotels $6 per booking for Agency Hotels 5% on vacation packages (flight+hotel, flight+car rental, flight+hotel+car rental). Note Minimum 3 night/3day Land Content 3% on vacation packages (flight+hotel, flight+car rental, flight+hotel+car rental). Note Less than 3 night/3day Land Content 10% for activities I just booked a 7 day vacation - Hotel/Air - my commission is $347.00 If I did it through Expedia - at 5% - my commission would have been $160.00 I work hard for my money - to build my business not theirs If people want to book from Orbitz or Expedia, I say okay... In 2010 I have seen an increase in customers, who say they are tired of spending so much time on the internet finding the best price. I will remain "true" to my agency & my customers, without affiliating with these online booking companies.
What's your take? Is the Expedia program an opportunity for agents as online travel agencies (OTAs) seek new relationships or is it, perhaps, a waste of time too late in the game? Agents chimed in on the subject at our Facebook page as well. Here is what some of them had to say.
Dedra Shahan wrote:
While it's wonderful to be recognized as valuable, I can't help but think these giant companies will market direct to our clients thus becoming Their clients. My prefered tour operators will price match. I work with companies that have always valued my expertise.
Laure Poffenberger shared:
They are chasing their tails now & realize what a great asset using a travel agent is. So much of travel just cannot be planned over the Internet & when there is a problem our clients want help from someone the know & trust. I in turn want to use a tour operator that I know & trust. I think OTA's are in trouble & are grasping at straws.
What are your thoughts? Hit us up by posting a comment below or at the original posting. You can also join the conversation at our Facebook page, send a tweet to us at our Twitter page (@travelagentmag) and join the discussion in real time at AgentNation.
Readers Request Answers
Sometimes, we write a report about a new business or supplier and some readers, apparently, believe that means we are that same business. That's flattering, in some regard, as they consider us the ultimate source of information on the matter. But as an organization that does its best to cover all aspects of the travel trade, it can be hard to answer specific questions.
For instance, we've received a lot of attention to our initial report on the introduction of Pet Airways to the industry. Most recently, one reader inquired about potential flights to Europe on the carrier.
Gisela Gonzalez Flores-Clarke wrote:
Your service looks fantastic!! When are you opening flights to Europe? I need to travel to England twice a year and need to bring my 5 kilo Yorkie. Sending him in the hold is definately not a option for me!!! I do hope you start service to Europe asap!!!!!!!!
I wish I had an answer for you, Gisela. With the company now just more than a year old, I kind of doubt they will be doing flights outside of the United States just yet. However, perhaps if you take a gander at the Help section Pet Airways web site you can find the answers you need, be it a timetable on potential flights or a straight up answer if it is going to happen, ever.
James Collier recently commented on a story in a similar manner. After learning about Tourism Ireland's new Golden Trekker for seniors riding Irish Rail, he commented:
This development is very welcome, my sister was born in UK of Irish parentd and they returned to Ireland when she was 2, she went to nurse in UKwhen she was 18 and has lived there since. She comes to stay with us each year and this will be very useful. I write for the Senior Times and I would appreciate an e-mail of this information and any other useful information for seniors travelling, including reserving seats, etc.
116 Sea Park, Malahide
James, I'd be delighted to help you by sharing any information I can find. However, you did not provide an e-mail for me to contact you. Can you post it in a comment or contact me at email@example.com and I'll see what I can do? Until then, if any agents and readers out there can share additional information on this program, that would be a great help. It runs through the end of the year. Here's the Tourism Ireland web site, which may provide answers: www.tourismireland.com.
America('s Vacation Center) is Under Attack!
Two months ago, there was a lot of attention on the temporary demise of Travelport and it transitioned to discussions on how an agent's leads may be affected. But as much as the conversation was based around Travelport, one reader brough America's Vacation Center (AVC) into the fray.
Mary brought it up, writing:
Beware of AVC They will take 70% of your commission and all referrals generated from that one lead will be their's, again taking 70% commision. I was promised the referrals as my own, which I thought would be worth giving up that initial commission,but boy was I wrong. I was hounded on every extra person that booked their trip and asked if they came from their live lead. They took that customer as their own because they were referred.. Also, all of my customer base that I put into their system at the time so I could market to them, are still being marketed to by AVC after I quit them as my host agency. That is so wrong. Just my 2cents worth.
Note that this is Mary's opinion and not that of the staff her at Travel Agent. Regardless, that's disappointing to read. Anyone out there able to support or rebuff Mary's take on AVC? I'd like to learn more (and I doubt I'm alone).
Advice for an Editor
Normally, an exchange between readers and writers/editors on the site involves our staff responding with some information to help our audience. But this week, we was a bit of the reverse happen as our own Jena Tesse Fox journeyed to Durban, South Africa for the 2010 Indaba trade show (the largest in Africa). Read her most recent report here.
But before Jen hit the trade show floor to share reports, she took a seemingly endless journey across the Atlantic Ocean, most of it pleasant thanks to South African Airlines. On the topic of drinking too much or not enough coffee before a flight, reader Alfredo Tor-Paz made a suggestion to Jena, stating:
In spite of the strong coffee, never drink so much caffeine after 6pm, it is a very good airline, SAA, my comment, would be over the transfer to domestic, there is no place to complain much....have you tried to fly via the USA??? Horror, thanks for reminding that, I still prefer transferring thru JNB...my grain of sand or salt.
I am currently in the midst of what has been numerous attempts to cut back on coffeed, and it is indeed hard. Still, Afredo's comments are spot on regarding drinking it at night. Hopefully Jena takes his advice before flying back next week.
Speaking of next week... we'll catch up again on what's causing buzz around the industry and at TravelAgentCentral. Keep the comments coming (below or elsewhere) and don't forget to extend to conversation to other outlets such as our Facebook page, our Twitter page (@travelagentmag) and in real time at AgentNation
By: Kirk Cassels
March 18, 2010
Report from Best of Britain & Ireland Exhibition
The floor of the Best of Britain & Ireland exhibition
After two days of constantly running around the city, it was almost a relief to stay in one place for a whole day. The Best of Britain & Ireland exhibition brought dozens of specialists and tour operators from all over the British Isles together to celebrate all the things to see and do here. A much longer recap will follow, but here are a few attractions and destinations to bear in mind.
* Kent is hyping up its tourism campaign, reminding people that Canterbury has been a popular tourist destination ever since Thomas Becket was murdered (some would say martyred) in its cathedral almost 1,000 years ago. Two somewhat more modern attractions around Kent are the neighboring properties of Hever Castle and Penshurst Place, where Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn. (Like I said, only somewhat more modern.) Naturally, the two estates celebrate their Tudor history with tours and events, and we heard tell that there is a package visiting sites used in the film The Other Boleyn Girl.
* In Devon, geology buffs can rent a car and drive along the Jurassic Coast line, where exposed rocks show off the layers of the earth. For those less inclined towards geology, there are cycling routes, walking tours and intimate bed-and-breakfasts for a genuine escape from the outside world. At The Globe Hotel, a small inn in the town of Topsham, General Manager Liz Hodges hosts unique events—like a community-wide pot-luck dinner that brought 1,500 people together for a locally-sourced meal. (She hopes to repeat the dinner this year.)
* Last year’s Homecoming Scotland campaign worked very well, said Linda McAllister, trade marketing manager with Visit Scotland. While the recession kept many people home, North American numbers to Scotland remained steady, and are “way up” for this year already. “Value-for-money is the most important message,” she said. “Events and festivals give clients a chance to really experience cultures.” She said some new fam trips were in the works, and that Scotland would begin promoting itself as a destination for adventure travel, including sea kayaking and mountain climbing.
March 17, 2010
London Museums, Shopping and The Eye
Shopping at Carnaby Street
Why has America never picked up on the simple, pure, perfect creation that is beans on toast? I mean, it’s baked beans on toast! What’s not to love? We’d be a much, much happier country if we started our mornings with beans on toast for breakfast. Just trust me on this.
After a much-needed night’s rest and a very fortifying full English breakfast, we set off for the Serpentine Gallery (tucked away in the greenery of Kensington Gardens), which is featuring an exhibit of Richard Hamilton’s politically themed artwork. Hamilton has been creating pop and multimedia art for well over 50 years, and the collection traces his reactions to global politics over the decades. Some of the most fascinating pieces include an installation that looks like the “therapy” from "A Clockwork Orange," but with the subject forced to watch video clips of Margaret Thatcher; various versions of Hamilton’s most famous work, "Swingeing London," which depicts Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser hiding from flashbulbs as they are led away in handcuffs; and his tribute to Israeli activist Mordechai Vanunu, photographed in a pose that eerily echoes "Swingeing London."
From the tiny, intimate Serpentine, we made our way past the Albert Memorial to the massive, elaborate Victoria and Albert Museum—one of the world's largest museums, which reportedly holds a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. We were given one hour to explore. (I know. We needed at least a week to take it all in.) A current special exhibit displays 250 pieces of artwork collected by Horace Walpole at his estate, Strawberry Hill, including paintings by Van Dyck and antique armor. I, on the other hand, got lost in a room of medieval artwork, and was particularly struck by a limestone effigy of a knight. While most of the limestone was a plain bleached white, some original color could be seen in places, giving an idea of what the original statue might have looked like.
Before Stendhal syndrome could set in, we walked down the street to a lovely little French restaurant, Racine, for lunch. My companions praised the bream and the skate; I highly recommend the duck confit or the daube de boeuf—beef so tender it doesn’t need a knife. Exquisite. There isn’t a bad seat in the restaurant.
From there, we had a little more than an hour to explore the city on our own. I caught the Underground (amazing how much easier these things are to navigate after a little practice) to Oxford Circus, where I met up with a wonderful guide who took me on a speedy tour of some of London’s best shopping districts: Mayfair and Soho. From chain stores to bespoke tailors, these two districts are a shopaholic’s dream come true (though as my guide pointed out, the stores here tend to cater to those with champagne tastes. Nothing wrong with that, of course.) While many of the stores could be found on Fifth Avenue in New York, some of the most intriguing and unique shops are located in “arcades”: narrow covered streets that look like something from a P.G. Wodehouse story.
We reunited at the iconic London Eye and, thanks to our hosts, were able to get a pod (or “capsule”) to ourselves. The Eye moves at a snail’s pace—30 minutes to make a complete rotation, in fact. This not only offers plenty of opportunities for pictures, it helps make reaching the extreme height (443 feet!) seem much less scary. You know that horrible dizzy feeling you get on a rickety ferris wheel at a fairground as it creaks up to the top and then begins to swing you down much too fast for comfort? There’s none of that at the Eye. Just amazing views for 25 miles, and all of London—quite literally—at your feet.
March 16, 2010
London's New Hotel... and More
The Underground tube
After delays of more than 2.5 hours (thanks, American Airlines!) and getting lost on the Underground (the Circle Line and the District Line share a track, and only the District Line trains are marked… did everyone else in the world know this except me?), we finally made it to our brand-spanking-new hotel right off of Westminster Bridge. This isn’t just brand new—the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge is still partially under construction, especially on its upper floors, making its debut at once delightfully swanky and comfortably rough-hewn. (When the construction is complete, it’ll be a gem, but it’ll lose that new-hotel smell.) The rooms— at least, my room— aren’t extravagantly huge, but they’re quite comfortable and have a very funky mood-lighting system. Awesome touch for literature lovers: The carpeting is inscribed with a selection from a poem by Keats.
View of Parliament and Big Ben from the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge
After a quick luncheon in the downstairs lounge (and honestly, these new restaurants with their wonderfully fresh food are going to turn all my jokes about bad English cuisine into lies), we took a quick tour of the still-in-progress top floors with the Penthouse Suites. Pictures were strictly forbidden, but we were able to get a quick video of the view from one of the terraces.
The London Eye
Onward to the Queen’s Gallery, which will be presenting a special exhibit of art collected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during their 21-year marriage. There are gorgeous paintings of the Royal Family together, clearly delineating Victoria as head of the State, but Albert as head of the household. Visitors can see a dress Victoria wore to a fancy-dress ball (we call them costume parties) that belies the statuesque woman who appears in most paintings: Victoria was barely over five feet tall. Some other unique features include some furniture the couple owned, such as sofas and chairs made of stags’ horns and a beautiful white throne from India. The exhibit opens March 19.
From the Gallery, we strolled over to the historic Goring Hotel, which is celebrating its centenary this year. We chatted with General Manager Graham Copeman and communications director Lucinda Buxton, who shared some cool trivia about the hotel (it was a favorite hangout of the Queen Mum, and remains the only hotel with one of her favorite recipes). We also learned that, in spring, the hotel will be turning its famous gardens (the largest private gardens in London, we hear) into a croquet lawn.
Copeman and Buxton took us on a tour of the hotel’s six “Silk Rooms,” which premiered last year with hand-woven silk wall coverings from Gainsborough Silk Weavers, the Royal Warrant-holding textile mill in Suffolk. The rooms have a classical luxury sensibility, but feature some cool modern touches as well: There are rubber duckies in the bathrooms, and the lightswitches have more creative notations than simply “on” or “off.”
The Goring was opened in 1910 by O. R. Goring, whose great-grandson Jeremy is now the fourth in the family to manage the hotel. It is now the only five-star luxury hotel in London that is owned and run by the family that built it (there has always been a Goring at the Goring), and the staff takes its sense of history very seriously. “The new wing was built in the ‘20s,” Copeman quipped over champagne in the hotel’s popular tea room. “We’re getting used to it now.”