Category Archives: tourism

More than just the meter

Taxis have been a hot topic in the news this week and this has got me thinking about the different ways taxis and minicabs feature in our travel experiences.

For many of us, a cab ride to and from the airport signifies the beginning or the end of a trip. These threshold moments, as we shut the car door and hear the engine rev, bring a host of different feelings. It could be the sheer excitement in knowing you’re jetting off somewhere exciting…it could be the anxiety around needing to get to the airport in good time or the unease, even guilt, at having left loved ones behind when off on business. In many cases, on the return leg, it’s the sinking feeling in knowing the holiday is really over and it’s back to the grind…or for some, even concerns around finding your home as you left it.

So lots of emotional highs and lows depending on numerous circumstances… From the type of trip you are going on, the time of day and whether you are alone or with others… to whether it’s driving to or driving back home from the airport. All of these things can affect the mindset of a traveller and taxi drivers need to pay attention to more than just what’s on the road and tune into the needs of their passengers.

In many cases they don’t know how to. For example, a cab ride with friends to Luton airport a few days ago (at 4.45am) involved a 10 minute stop for petrol, despite us talking en route about being pushed for time and the likelihood of having to battle through the crowds at the check in desks. The driver definitely had enough in the tank to get us to Luton but for some reason hadn’t paid attention to our sense of urgency or even checked what time our flight was before deciding to stop.

I’ve also had numerous encounters where I am on my way home from Heathrow after a long transatlantic flight with little sleep and all I want to do is spend time thinking, reflecting (and more commonly nodding off). In these circumstances I’ll often pull the short straw and get the driver who insists on interrogating me about my trip…asking about my job and offering opinions, verdicts, solutions and stories of his own. Normally I appreciate the chit chat, but not when I’m so tired I can barely string a sentence together.

This type of conversation is best suited to when I’m on my way to the airport, especially when I’m going to a new destination. For example, I went to India for the first time a couple of months ago and the cab driver who took me to Heathrow had been to India several times before. Our conversation added to my intrigue and suspense about the country I was about to spend the next two weeks discovering.

And what about the taxi drivers at our destination? Cabbies on the other side are often our first insight into the new culture we have entered into…the first physical contact we have with a local. Often the shoe is on the other foot here and my co-travellers and I will be the ones asking them the questions and seeking their advice, making small talk to try a get some initial insight into our new temporary home.

Sometimes we’ll end up having deep and meaningful conversations and I’ve occasionally found myself thinking back to conversations in cabs and words of wisdom shared by taxi drivers themselves…from discussing the Tibetan population in New York City to the extreme poverty and slum life in New Delhi.

Right now I’m staying in a small village in Cyprus and was delighted to discover that the taxi driver who takes us back from the restaurant area is the son of the person who works in the village pizzeria and the same person who came to sort the WiFi in our villa. Speaking with him (albeit after a few drinks) resulted in a really memorable 5 minute journey where we ended up learning some of the local lingo.

The best drivers in my view are the ones who stay with you for long run. The ones in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand who, for an agreed upfront charge, accompany you for the day and go beyond being just a driver, becoming more of a ‘tour guide’ or ‘partner in crime’…doing whatever it takes to get you to your meeting, event or tourist attraction in time and even waiting patiently for you until it’s finished to take you back without you having to worry about transport.

The worst, on the other hand, are the rude, obnoxious drivers who barely acknowledge your existence, the ones who take the strange back streets and make you question your safety, and the ones who seem to just want an argument. I had an incident a couple of weeks ago in New York where the driver misunderstood me asking to go to a street number rather than a building number and nearly reached boiling point whilst blaming me for the mishap. Needless to say he didn’t get a tip.

So lots of examples of the different ways taxi drivers can affect our travel experiences, for the better and for the worse. It goes without saying that cab drivers, often far more than they are aware, contribute enormously to the highs and lows of a trip and set the tone for the journey, day or holiday ahead. And in many cases they become more than just a driver. We, as travellers, where possible should reap the benefits of this, learning from their knowledge and expertise and adding colour to our overall travel experience.

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The hotel mini bar saga

Something I pay close attention to whilst staying in hotels is the mini bar. In fact, one of the first things I do when I check into any hotel room is suss out the mini bar situation. This has become a kind of ritual as I settle in and familiarise myself with my temporary ‘home’, despite the fact that 95% of the time I wouldn’t actually buy anything from it. We’ll come onto that.

The contents of a mini bar can tell you more about the hotel brand and the location you are staying in than you might realise. For example, I stayed in a quirky boutique hotel in Moscow a couple of years ago called the Golden Apple and was amused to discover that vodka was cheaper than water. Got to love the priorities in Russia!

This mini bar in the Eros Hotel, New Delhi also intrigued me in its dominant offering of British branded alcohol:

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Coincidence? Or a reflection of how prominent British culture is in modern India?

And this picture below taken of a mini bar in the Zetter hotel where I stayed a couple of weeks ago in Farringdon London, has moved away from your typical classic ‘open-the-cupboard’ mini bar to having all the tempting snacks in full display on the unit next to the bed. What is more interesting is the hotel’s choice to supply a product called ‘Faust’s potions’ – a relatively new product on the market, described as a ‘recovery pack aimed at professionals to help you feel your best’… or in other words, to help ease the hangover. Says a lot about the clientele… I had in fact just come from an evening of wine tasting!

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So we have lots of different types of mini bars offering a range of different products. But who is actually buying the contents? Apparently very few of us according to TripAdvisor who shared results from a research study conducted for them by Ipsos earlier this year which suggests that mini bars are soon to be a thing of the past. Only 14% of global travellers consider the mini bar an important amenity whilst 63% of global hoteliers have already done away with the mini bar.

This made me question why I very rarely take anything from the mini bar and I came to two conclusions. Firstly, the majority of snacks in a mini bar are loaded with carbs and covered in chocolate. Although I love to indulge, especially when I’m on holiday, I tend to do my indulging when I’m out and about. Snacking on crisps and chocolate is often the last thing I want to do when I come back to my hotel room after a heavy meal, or when I leave the room first thing in the morning. Mashable, in its 15 ideas that would vastly improve travel suggests that healthy vending machines offering olives, dried fruit and organic foods would go down well in hotels and I have to agree…not just for corridor vending machines but within mini bars in bedrooms too.

Secondly, there’s the guilt thing. We all know that the prices of products in mini bars are likely to be at least treble the prices of the same products in the shop just outside the hotel. We have also clocked onto the fact that mini bars are designed to catch us at our weakest moment, with some hotels now (like the Zetter) having their mini bar products in full display, eyeing up their guests and luring them in. As tempting as the display might be, I think that travellers are outsmarting the system and realising that popping down to the 7-11 to stock up on water and snacks for the room is the way to go. People just can’t justify the current cost of products from a mini-bar, even business travellers using the company credit card. We want to feel smart about the choices we make when we travel and spending over the odds for a bottle of water, a packet of crisps and a shot of whisky doesn’t seem so clever. So we’ll apply control, restrain ourselves and resist temptation…or be shrewd and come armed with pre-purchased snacks.

Perhaps if hotels considered significantly lowering their mini bar prices to a level that guests are more likely to be able to justify (with less margin but still enough to make some profit) the impending death of the mini bar might be less of a reality. Oh and they should look to supply some healthier product options. Personally I think it would be a shame if mini-bars ceased to exist. They are an iconic feature within hotel rooms and, like I said earlier, having a look at what’s on offer helps ease us into our temporary ‘home.’

I’ll finish this post with a story of a mini bar incident that occurred on a business trip earlier this year which still makes me chuckle. We were in New York, staying at the Intercontinental Times Sq. One of my colleagues, the newest member of the team who was excited to be on his first trip away for work, started getting to grips with his room. He was intrigued by the bright coloured packet on top of one of the cupboards and upon closer inspection, realised this was a condom pack. He then realised that attached to this pack was a wire and that wire ran back behind the cupboard connecting to something else. By the time he had registered what it was connected to – the mini bar – it was too late. He had nudged the condoms and they had now been out of position for over 10 seconds. The sign next to the bar said that anything out of place for 10 seconds or more would be charged – the bar had a sophisticated sensor system so could recognise this. The panicked expression on his face and shaky explanation to our team of what might be appearing on his room bill at checkout is something I’ll never live down.

Dog friendly hotels

My three favourite things in life (aside from all the things you are meant to say) are travel, food and my dogs! This weekend I was fortunate enough to combine all of these on a trip to Lymington, a small town on the edge of the New Forest.

We (6 adults and 2 dogs) stayed in a dog friendly hotel called Stanwell House, right in the heart of the town.

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This got me wondering about dog friendly hotels in general, namely how challenging it must be to provide great service, not just to ‘human’ guests, but to those of the canine kind too.

Stanwell House certainly made my two ‘canines’ feel at home right away with the lovely greeting they were given by the staff at reception. I guess the key part of ‘dog friendly’ is the word ‘friendly’ and this was absolutely my first impression of the hotel staff as they stroked and cooed at my two furry boys whilst assigning us to our rooms.

The welcoming feeling continued as we moved into our room to discover some dog treats and a blanket laid out with an accompanying note:

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This was a lovely, unexpected surprise and in fact more satisfying to receive than the pack of shortbread biscuits laid out for myself and the hubby, knowing the hotel had cared enough to consider that a happy dog means a happy owner.

I have stayed in ‘dog friendly’ places before where, although dogs were technically allowed, this wasn’t really publicised. This resulted in us feeling like we were doing something wrong during our stay whenever other guests saw our dogs.

Let’s face it – even the most well behaved dog will bark, smell, knock things over, chew stuff, slobber, whine, growl, pee on things – you name it…these are the things that dog lovers let go over their heads. So a ‘dog friendly’ hotel has a big challenge on their hands – striking the right balance between making guests with dogs (and the dogs themselves) feel at home whilst keeping their other guests – those who couldn’t care less about dogs or those (I hate to say it) who detest dogs just as happy.

Stanwell House got this balance spot on. There were no traces of ‘doggy smells’, the hotel was immaculately clean with lots of doors to access the garden areas and there was even a separate eating area for those with dogs which, importantly, didn’t feel cut off from the rest of the dining area.

It’s a lot of fun travelling with your dogs, but my family and I often find it tough to locate half decent accommodation where having a dog on display in a hotel doesn’t offend other guests and make the hotel staff feel uncomfortable. I’d like to hope more of the places who claim to be ‘dog friendly’ follow the example of Stanwell House. Rocco (below) certainly slept very peacefully:

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And if you’re wondering about my other love – the food – this was absolutely exceptional. It was beautifully presented and tasted delicious. These pictures don’t do it justice:

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Hotel website: http://www.stanwellhousehotel.co.uk

Larry David’s take on the travel customer experience

I am a massive fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While some may find him irritating, I can’t help but think that Larry David’s experiences in hotels, restaurants and on aeroplanes beautifully capture some of the anxieties and inconsistencies we endure as customers of travel.

If, like me, you think Larry David hits the nail on the head, take a look at some of my favourite LD clips here:

Larry David on tipping a bellboy

Does a thorough tour of the room really deserve a $20 tip or is it an unnecessary waste of time?

Larry David on sticking to your cabin
The unwritten rules around sticking solely to toilet usage in your own cabin.

Larry David on how the chosen attire of other passengers can affect the in flight experience
How the hairy legs of the guy next to you can be a rather unpleasant distraction on board!

Larry David on sample abusers
How far is too far when it comes to ice cream samples?

The future of travel booking websites

Just sharing this thought provoking post from http://qz.com on the future of travel booking websites.

To give you a flavour, Steve Kaufer, CEO of tripadvisor reckons that “the next big revolution in travel is going to be about serving the traveler when they are in market, and we think technology will be driving that change.”

To read more about this visit :

http://qz.com/196746/tripadvisor-doesnt-just-want-to-help-you-choose-a-hotel-for-your-holiday-it-wants-to-come-with-you/

India – a few first impressions

I have been in India for a few days on a business trip and can now say that this is the most chaotic, unpredictable yet magical country I have ever visited. The work I am doing over here has mainly been taking place in the afternoons and evenings so I have thankfully been able to get out and about a little bit to see some of the sites, to observe and to experience the Indian culture and way of life (though never by myself as have been told on several occasions now that Delhi is not particularly safe).

I thought I’d share a few first impressions from the capital city of Delhi before I head down south to the city of Hyderabad in a few days time.

Organised Chaos: We had a car pick us up at the airport and as soon as it got onto the main road I was deafened by the on-going drone of horns honking all around us. These were coming from the surrounding cars, rickshaws and our driver himself. After a few moments it became apparent that, despite being on a 4 lane road in a fairly modern car, there is absolutely no highway code, indicators are either considered as décor or no one understands how to use them. The horn seems to be honked at every opportunity – for changing lanes, to tell other drivers off or perhaps to just let off steam. I soon realised that as crazy and chaotic as these roads felt, the honking system somehow seems to work and strangely starts to convey a sense of order and structure. In fact, the following day whilst en route to a meeting, our driver made a wrong turn and decided the solution was to do a U-turn in our lane on a busy main road and start driving back in the direction we came from, head-on against the oncoming traffic. Despite the surrounding drone of horns momentarily getting louder with our driver now contributing to this, no other vehicles seemed to imply this was out of the ordinary. This leads me to believe that the system on the road is simply ‘anything goes’ as long as you use the horn…and holding on for dear life is pretty pointless as the chaos of the roads just seems to work. Or as our driver put it “In India you need good horns, good breaks and good luck.”

The head wobble: I was informed about this pre coming to India. It is a unique movement which consists of bobbing the head from side to side in response to a question or a statement. I find this particularly fascinating because I know quite a few Indian people in the UK yet have never really seen this trait in action, whilst over here EVERYONE seems to do it. I haven’t exactly worked out what it means and I’m not sure if Indians really know themselves – it seems to be used in lots of different situations and there are some attempts to explain it such as the one at this link and a possible theory behind it here. As intriguing as it is, it can make the experience quite tricky for a visitor as it means you don’t really get a straight answer… leaving you to feel like you don’t know quite where you stand, even with the simplest of things such as opening hours, directions and availability of food on a menu.

The food and waiter service: I love Indian food back in the UK and so far have thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve eaten over here – and it tastes even better albeit even more spicy (probably because it hasn’t been modified for an the British palate). I’ve also been safe so far from any kind of Delhi belly (though don’t want to jinx anything!!) The service has been interesting and on the whole waiters have been extremely attentive and smiley, creating an impression that they are willing to do anything for you. We did hear from one taxi driver that the Indian way is to consider ‘the guest as God’ and visitors are treated in line with this.

Stares and Smart Phone pics: Something that does make the experience over here rather unsettling is being stared at and having your picture taken everywhere you go. We have been to visit the Lotus temple and the Red Fort (which are absolute must sees in Delhi) but the experience was slightly tainted when realising that other people are more interested in staring at you rather than the actual site. I can understand the intrigue and the fact that we look different so have just about managed to let the staring go over my head, but have also been approached on numerous occasions now to have my photo taken with people, almost like I am some kind of ‘celebrity’. At first it was an absolute no as I felt uncomfortable with the idea of someone I don’t know having my photo on display in their home (which one man said was the reason for asking) – but when realising that they are just going to take my picture anyway (which everyone else around who hasn’t had the guts to ask is doing) I have started to give in and pose for pictures only if it is with a woman or a family. What is peculiar here is that when trying to engage in conversation with them – asking their names and where they are from – they have no interest in asking anything back – they simply just want a picture. Our Indian colleagues explained that it is a way for people to feel a sense of status, showing pictures to their family and claiming they have a westerner ‘friend’. So I guess, as nonsensical as it is, I can on some level accept it and am trying to not let it bother me, especially since it is even happening in the 5 star hotel we are staying in!

And a few other shorter, yet equally interesting observations:

  • It’s over 30 degrees here at the moment yet most of the men seem to be wearing smart shirts and a guy in the hotel gym even started running on the treadmill wearing a full on suit.
  • The extent of poverty is heart breaking with children coming up to your taxi door in the middle of a busy road and begging for money – one girl must have been as young as 6. We have been advised to restrain for giving anything as it will go to the corrupt people who have, in many cases, kidnapped them and it is much better to give to an official charity. There are also stray dogs everywhere which is sad on many other levels.
  • Bribery seems to be the done thing. One of our taxi drivers got told off about parking somewhere by a policeman and we noticed him hand over a wad of cash and he seemed to go away.
  • Men seem to really dominate the streets and whilst walking around you see lots of groups of men together but few women without men. Many of the men are very affectionate with each-other, often walking along holding hands which seems to be socially acceptable. I looked this up and there is some explanation on this blog: http://www.womentravelmotherindia.com/i-wanna-hold-your-hand-not-in-india/

I wonder what else I’ll encounter over the next week. So far I have realised anything is possible!

Another great Social Media example

Thanking my friend Alice who, after reading my post this week about Social Media shaping our travel experience, shared this with me:

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It seems Tripadvisor are going to new lengths here to encourage in the moment feedback via QR codes and the Cullen hotel in Melbourne is working hard at reminding people to go and shout about their experience on Google, Facebook and Twitter. This certainly helped prompt Alice to share this status with all of her Facebook friends:

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How Social Media is shaping our travel experience

We know for a fact that word of mouth now plays a key role in customer experience with customers increasingly using social media sites as platforms to provide feedback and share experiences… the good, the bad and the ugly! Some argue that this phenomenon has led to customer experience being more powerful than advertising, with blogs such as business2community.com claiming that 85% of customers who have had a bad service experience want to  warn others about doing business with said company. I agree with this claim, but it seems that word of mouth has become a massive form of advertising in itself with companies striving to make customers happy simply to encourage them to generate positive buzz
on social media. This is especially evident in the travel space with review websites such as Tripadvisor playing a key role when it comes to booking any kind of travel. I for one will not book a hotel unless I’ve sussed it out first on Tripadvisor and my final decision is always based upon reviews from others who have recently stayed there. Travel companies have now started to cotton onto this and more often than not it seems that anywhere I go when doing something touristy, I get encouraged to go directly to Tripadvisor to shout about how good it was to the rest of the world. I’ve even been handed out business cards from companies working with Tripadvisor to better ensure this happens:

Tripadvisor card from Poseidon
Tripadvisor card from Poseidon

But that’s not the only way Social Media is shaping the travel experience. Many airlines and hotels are pulling out all the stops to engage with their customers via the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it, whether it be encouraging them to share feedback, having full on conversations with them or getting really creative with characters and campaigns. A couple of favourites are the Air New Zealand Fairy who with nearly 60,000 likes on Facebook uses her magic wand to provide gifts for loyal customers or entertain them with her ‘happy dance’. There was also the British Airways Race Against the Plane campaign during the launch of the new Dreamliner route which encouraged British Airways followers to get on board the ‘Tweetliner’ and race against the 787 on it’s first route to Toronto.

And the story published last week which sums up how pivotal social media is when it comes to our travel experiences is the #Pleasehelp incident on a Virgin train. A customer, irritated by a banging noise under his seat, turned to Twitter to raise the issue rather than alerting a member of the crew. As a result, the service was stopped and Virgin acted promptly, with another customer stating “It shows the world has changed, that passengers get listened to and can play a part in customer service.”

Bonjour Edinburgh

I am currently in Edinburgh for a ‘city break’ long weekend with the hubby. We knew before we made the last minute booking a week or so ago that it was set to be a busy weekend with France playing Scotland in the 6 Nations rugby. However I don’t think we quite anticipated how busy it would actually be and moreover how FRENCH it would actually be…

Pulling up at the hotel the first thing I noticed was a French market and creperie stand:

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I got quite excited about this as I do love anything French – especially if it’s food related.

When checking into the hotel I heard an excitable buzz of French accents surrounding us and noticed lots of signage up in French. For a split second I questioned whether we might have somehow mistakenly flown to Paris rather than Bonnie Scotland.

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My confusion didn’t stop there. When venturing out into the city centre and the Golden Mile ALL we could hear were French voices and ALL we could see were swarms of berets and French flags. Trying to get into a pub for a drink and bite to eat was an absolute impossibility with every inch being taken up by boisterous French rugby fans.

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Eventually we managed to get a table in an American style diner – not the quirky pub we’d hoped for but at this point we were willing to take anything. However, even in here we seemed to be the only non-French tourists, so much so that the waiter was genuinely surprised to be serving two non Frenchies (and also possibly slightly relieved) with loud chants of ‘Allez les bleus’ erupting around the room.

After lunch we decided to go to the Scotch Whisky Experience for some Whisky tasting thinking it would be rude not to after hearing somewhere that Scotland is the only place in the world where Whisky outsells Coca Cola…or maybe that’s Irn Bru?! Either way, whilst queuing for a ticket, again we seemed to be the only non-French tourists in here, noticing that there were special deals for the tour aimed just at the French:

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When reaching the front of the queue, we were pretty shocked to be told by the assistant that the whole tour would in fact be conducted in French and, if we needed to, we could listen to it in English via a special headset…!? This didn’t particularly bother us as I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice my French… It was just rather fascinating – the extent to which a tourist attraction had re-adapted itself for it’s clientele on this particular weekend:

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We really enjoyed the tour and the opportunity to taste and learn about different types of Whisky, despite the bizarreness of it not being conducted in English, in the UK…! If anything I think it added a little bit more amusement to the whole experience…well for us anyway as there did happen to be one other rather disgruntled looking British couple who seemed a little lost among the sea of ‘Ooo la las’.

The rugby match took place last night and saw the French win in the last 5 minutes. Even today there are still swarms of French tourists in and around the city clearly enjoying a long weekend. Edinburgh certainly is a beautiful place and a great destination for a short city break – even if it does feel more like we are in France right now. Perhaps tomorrow once all the rugby fans have departed we might get more of an authentic Scottish experience?!

One thing’s for sure – Scotland may have lost out on winning the rugby match, but they’ve certainly scored lots of points and earned heaps from tourism by pushing out all the stops to cater to a specific target market this weekend!