There are some days when I truly feel I am special. Today was one of them because, while checking through airport security in San Diego, I believe I actually removed my laptop from my carry-on bag while simultaneously taking off my shoes. This was all in one movement. The choreography involved was stunning and the only reason I'm not going to try to explain to you just how I did it is that I don't want to jinx myself so that I'll never be able to do it again.
I was in San Diego because I had attended the Preferred Hotels conference, which was held at the The Grand Del Mar, a member hotel that opened a year ago (more on that later).
At the conference, I moderated a panel of some of the top travel agents in the country: Dan Beschloss, executive director, corporate sales and industry relations, Valerie Wilson Travel; Wido Schaefer, chairman and CEO of the Travel Store; David Odaka, president, All Star Travel Group and Jerry Greenberg, general manager/Leisure Division, Cassis Travel Services.
The questions I asked the panel, for the most part, had been submitted beforehand by the hoteliers in attendance. Someone wanted to know if consumers were being swayed yet in their buying decisions by how "green" a hotel was. The answer was a flat "No." One of the panelists had had the very occassional request to rent a hybrid car over the past year, but that was about it.
One major concern for the panelists was hotel pricing. All agreed that they'd rather see hotels create value-added programs, such as free nights, transfers, breakfasts and other incentives than see hotels slash prices to spur consumer travel in this downturn.
An intense dislike of dynamic pricing was voiced by David Odaka, who says he hates to see a hotel priced differently for every single night of the week.
All concurred that the newly more favorable exchange rates for the dollar vs. the euro and the pound could encourage travel to Europe and that selling Europe will now become simpler since the need to deal with guaranteed dollar rates would likely no longer be necessary. And, of course, the fact that the presidential election was about to be over was also making panelists optimistic that those consumers who have been taking a wait-and-see stance on discretionary trips would soon start to travel again.
Laced amongst this optimism, however, was the concern that corporations have already begun scaling back their travel dramatically. The panelists noted that some cancellations for 2009 meetings have already occurred and, in other cases, high-end corporate travelers are selling themselves down from booking the biggest suites in a hotel.
All in all, it wasn't clear to these super agents what 2009 will hold but, I must say, my sense from these four gentlemen was that they are seeing this downturn as a mere blip on the radar. The scope of their individual businesses is vast and diversified so they're not vulnerable to the loss of any one client or the demise of any one sector.
The Grand Del Mar
The Grand Del Mar was a great location for the event. The service is delivered in a friendly Southern California style and I, who watches cautiously for such things, didn't see one wrinkle in its delivery during my four-day stay. Of note was the concierge desk, which I called in error one morning at 6 a.m. instead of room service. The attendant who answered was wide awake and cheerful, and actually helped me to reserve a ride in the resort's town car over to the nearby The Lodge at Torrey Pines later that day (the Grand Del Mar provides the town car service for free within a 12 mile radius).
Other Grand Del Mar highlights? We stayed in Room 295, the one-bedroom Veranda Suite, which, while a distance from the main resort facilities, is very close to the spa and the workout room. We also loved dining inside at the Mediterranean-style Amaya (outdoor dining is also available) and a highlight of our dinner was our waiter, Ryan, whose service delivery was somehow all at once was friendly and accommodating and elegant.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines
We also took the opportunity to visit the nearby The Lodge at Torrey Pines, an amazing craftsman-style lodge that recently hosted the U.S. Open golf tournament. We met up with Steve Pelzer, the executive vice president of sales and marketing for Evans Hotels, who gave us a tour of the Blacker and Thorsten suites. These are amazing accommodations that can be closed off together to create a four-bedroom enclave with a private entrance, ideal or your celebrity clients. They also look out over the resort’s 18th hole, an amazing view for even those who are not enamored of golf.
The lodge, which sits on oceanfront property, has an agreement with Audi, which puts its newest models on display at the entrance of the resort (guests are also given access to use the luxury cars during their stay).
Another highlight of our visit to the Lodge at Torrey Pines was lunch at A.R. Valentien, whose cuisine follows the farm-to-table practice. Once you actually taste food that's been prepared along these lines (the chefs either buy the food that morning at local markets or farmers make direct deliveries to the restaurant) you get what it's all about. The flavors are just remarkable and the added benefit is that this practice is sustainable; local suppliers are being supported and there's no carbon footprint created from flying the food in from some far-off destination.
That rounds up my stay in southern California, and I guess I can say I enjoyed it all which is probably what lent itself to my remarkable agility on the security line on the way home.
By the way, here are two airline-related food observations from my trip and they're not gross. In the American Airlines terminal at JFK in New York, they've opened an upscale bistro called Vino Volo, where you can sit in a quiet environment and sample some great wines (you can even buy by the bottle). We loved it and the only dangers are you can find yourselves spending a fair amount before you've even begun your flight, which you can even risk missing if you get too comfortable in the posh setting. But we love it and highly recommend it.
My other culinary observation is that, on the way to San Diego, I paid $10 for a turkey sandwich on board my American Airlines flight. Shame on me for not bringing my own food on board but that's even more than I pay at Teresa's Cafe in our building here at 757 Third Avenue in Manhattan, and I consider that place to be the rip-off of all time. To its credit, American's turkey sandwich was pretty good and even included a few potato chips. At the very least, I hope this pricing helps American with its financial travails.
You may hear me commenting on American Airlines (although not Delta) in the coming weeks since I'm trying like heck to maintain my "elite" status with them through the end of the year. You have no idea how great it makes me feel when I can be one of the first people to get on the plane just because I have Gold status.
See, it all goes back to feeling special.