Friday, July 3, 2015

MaxGlobetrotter's Ten Favourite Countries - Numbers 1 to 3

Publishing lists seems to be the craze right now, and indeed the new owner of The Great Canadian Travel Company, the redoubtable Ian Kalinowsky, has asked me to pen my top ten “new destinations for 2016”, which in due course I shall.

However, for now I am going simply to answer one of the most common questions that I am posed, “Which is your favourite  place in the world?”.

It is not a simple question, and there really are no straightforward answers, and so I am picking my Top Ten, and, in no particular order, am posting them on a daily basis on my new Facebook page, a page that I would strongly urge you to visit and “like”!! I am also marching blindly into the world of Twitter, and taking this most peculiar communication more seriously; I don’t quite get it yet, but am advised that with perseverance, its logic structure and  will become apparent.

We shall see.

In the meantime, however, I have given a great deal of thought to my favourite destinations, and felt the need to lead the pack with Portugal, and more specifically, the slice of the country that lies from Lisbon south to, but not including the Algarve, and inland to the Spanish border.

Portinho d'Arrabida
It is a land that holds many, many memories. I was introduced to travel when I was young, and from the time that I was seven-years old my parents rented an apartment for the month of August. I learned Portuguese, although my accent and vocabulary was limited to the in-shore fishermen with whom I passed many happy daysgutting fish. My particular linguistic skills, of which I was 
inordinately proud, had shortcomings that only became apparent at a Christmas gathering of my (then) girlfriend’s family; they were senior Portuguese diplomats, and surprised to hear the frothy vernacular of the sea in their rather particular salons.

I have continued to travel to Portugal, and love this special area of coastline, the Costa Azul, the plains of Alentejo, the plaintiff sounds of Fado music from its heart in Lisbon. The region has been good to me, and I am sure that I will continue to visit for as long as I am able.

My second choice is Suriname. I have been fortunate to visit four times in the past couple of years and each time gain a deeper admiration for the people of this fine country. For visitors, Suriname offers the frisson of excitement that travelling to “new “destinations brings; it has exquisite birdlife, and the expanse of the Amazon rain forest can only make Costa Rica weep.

There arejungle lodges (fly-in only) that offer the flora and fauna of the jungle on an “up close and personal” basis, and there are any number of simple resorts along the Suriname River. There are communities whose lifestyles have changed little in the three hundred years since their ancestors ran from slavery and founded the Maroon villages, and there welcome is genuine and open. For those who love to fish, the rivers are full of fine sport, and for those whose outdoor pursuits are more gentle, the butterflies that dart into and out of the canopy in true visions of colour.

Amazing Butterflies! 

Rural Suriname

And then there is the capital, Paramaribo; built apparently from the leftover bits of Amsterdam in the mid nineteenth century, it houses wonderful period houses, fine public buildings, and then tumbles into the contemporary suburbs of any growing city. Nationalities and religions coincide with mosques adjacent to synagogues and all celebrating each other’s’ High Days and holidays.  The river is magnificent, as are all of the massive waterways of The Guyanas, and to sit in the evening at the marvellous Baka Foto restaurant lying within the walls of Fort Zeelandia, built in the 1650s by the Dutch.

What a fine country Suriname is!

And so is Uruguay; not a hot destination among travellers to South America, it is really a very fine place to visit. I have been there several times, and love the balance between the cosmopolitan nature of Punta del Este, one of the world’s preeminent beach destinations, and the rather rakish nature of Montevideo; the steamy colonial towns of the western regions and the frontier nature of the inland communities of Trienta e Tres and Tacuarembo are dusty, unvisited and quite delightful.

It is also the home of Corned Beef, that disgraceful staple of English school food in the 1960s, and the massive and now fortunately dilapidated factory at Fray Bentos is a testament to just how much of the stuff was made. The office, closed in the late 1970s remains as it was on that final day, looks for all the world like a relic of the Victorian era, it is hard to imagine it at work only forty years ago.

There are lovely ranches, horse riding tours, music, street markets, wine and fine food; there are good roads, a sixteenth century town, the massive Rio de la Plata, and for any travellers venturing south to Argentina, I would urge a few days in Uruguay be added to the journey. It is a terrific place, and will not disappoint.

And so these are the first three; seven more to come, and frankly I have yet to determine just who will make the list. There are destinations that I visited decades ago whose charms and idiosyncrasies have stayed with me, and there are countries that I have visited only in the past year or two that have enchanted me.

We will indeed see. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Travel and The Sharing Economy

I just made my first booking through Airbnb; it is for a fine looking apartment in London, and the process was, for a techno-phobe such as me, relatively painless.

I had problems “verifying” myself - don’t you just love the vocabulary of the internet - but much to my delight this proved to be an issue with the Airbnb “app” and not an intellectual failing on my part. The host, or at least the property’s manager Jan (in Belgium) was great, and the booking made. Next time I will be quicker.

And more importantly, we have a fabulous-lookingapartment in Central London confirmed for four nights at a most reasonable price (for London) and the pictures, which have been judged by impartial reviewers to be accurate, look wonderful. C$360 per night for a family of four (when we are travelling), in a fine apartment in a central location seems pretty good to me.

I shall report.

I am unlikely to use Uber to get to the apartment, and because London is my home town, I may not engage a local guide through Tours byLocals, but one never knows. Travel has become much more intimate with these astonishing services, and in many ways, considerably simpler.

But my goodness, how they have upset the status quo.

And this, I find both amusing and a touch bewildering. Amusing because for most of my life, and those of many others, we have been taught not to waste; “waste not, want not” I was told (repeatedly). Do not waste food, not time, not emotion nor anything else within our control. And now we have the ability to share our unused capacity in a variety of genres, we are facing a wide and vociferous throng telling us that to share is wrong, dangerous and very economically short-sighted.

Well, I am not sure about this. I see the regulatoryissues of Airbnb being quite important, but not beyond the capacity of people to rectify through new lease arrangements, insurance modifications and potentially the broadening or retargeting of tourist taxes. 

Uber face the wrath of a variety of established businesses, principally those who have paid significant amounts of money for taxi licences; these licences are expensive, and in some cases inflated by the fusion of the taxi-licence price and a concomitantly lucrative immigration business. In either case, purchasers of these licences should, perhaps, have been aware of what was happening in The Ether, after all, I am sure that many cab drivers have used Airbnb and other on-line sites themselves, and should have positioned themselves accordingly.

We live in a brutal era that has seen entire industries become obsolete and eliminated within very short time frames; we, wearing our “consumer” hats have driven the change that has negatively affected us when we don our “employee” hats.

It is a rough world trying to balance each side of the equation. However, the equation still exists, and new opportunities to “sell” surplus services are bursting onto the scene each week. They offer  guides, rooms, electricians, plumbers, photographers, guides and virtually every other field of endeavour that one might need.

The regulation of Citizen Professionals will be interesting and for some time, a work in progress. The fact that the regulators around the world deal with the very services that they themselves find so appealing, will surely have an impact on the final outcome of these rules.

Uber, Airbnb, Tours by Locals are here to stay, and are an integral part of a travel program. They are tools that travellers and travel-professional alike should be embracing, and incorporating into itineraries. The danger comes, of course, when some of the more intimate on-line companies become absorbed into the behemoths of the internet world.

I think that many would be surprised to know which brands belong to the Expedia and Trip Advisor “families”. Successful on-line companies get purchased; this is life, and as more become part of the three or four major global drivers, the independence that we now have will be rapidly eroded.

That is the price, and that will be the cost. However, for now, make hay while the sun is shining, and just don’t give them more personal information than you have to!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The changing Geography of Aviation.

I remember being in Dubai in the mid-eighties, and being introduced to the new airline, Emirates, that was just being launched. I was there to seek some business with DNATA, the national travel company, and all the talk was of the development of this upstart.

It was difficult to believe, on the one hand, because we were sitting in a dusty, hot and very isolated emirate, and the Dubai of 2015 was still thirty years and several trillion dollars away, but enthusiasm was not in short supply.

“The key”, I was told, “is our location; in the middle of everything”. My conversationalists this day were Tim Clark and MauriceFlanagan, two of the most significant men in the global aviation industry; they were fun, interesting and most engaging, and probably still are; I thought of staying, and throwing my hand in with this idea, but as with most of us and the opportunities that come our way, I packed up and went home instead.

They were, of course, quite correct, and now we see the global travel industry in the throes of a major shift. Who will win, what victory will look like and when it may be proclaimed are all fuzzy, but we can say for certain that the industry in ten years will be a very, very different beast.

Airline geography is a function of population diffusion and migration, of the ability of aircraft to fly immense distances and of political and financial sway.

There is no doubt that modern aircraft with the ability to fly for sixteen to eighteen hours have made the most difference; they have placed the Gulf States in the global centre of the aviation world. Most centres on the planet can be connected with a single transfer; Europe to Australia, South America to Asia, Africa to anywhere.

And herein lies the rub; the major Middle East carriers, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad have had the money to invest, and invest, they have. They offer brand new aircraft, superb in-flight service and regular and punctual service. They serve the world’s diasporas with ever-larger aircraft moving hundreds of thousands of families home to SE Asia, the sub-Continent and Africa, while offering the high-yield business travellers a level of service that is rarely equalled by their Western counterparts.

The US carriers, in particular, no strangers themselves to the benefits of duopolies and cartel-like behaviour, cry “foul”. Their route strategies, so dependent on trans-Atlantic flights connecting to “partners” for onward travel are being usurped by airlines overflying Europe for the final local disbursement to be made from their Gulf hubs; considerably more efficient for their passengers, but a commercial stake-in-the-heart for those promoting the transfer hubs of Europe.

So we see a storm brewing; Canada refuses additional traffic opportunities for Emirates so the government of the UAE closes a Canadian military camp in Dubai; The US Three (United, Delta and American) cry foul at the perceived advantages that the Middle East Three may have with subsidised fuel; the Middle Eastern trio respond with stories of the American governments’ own anti-competitive instincts (just ask Norwegian about their welcome to America). And so it goes on … but to what end?

American carriers have old aircraft (by and large), indifferent crews and poor ground services; they suffer from immense legacy costs from both union contracts, pension obligations and bloated management that are not a part of the Middle Eastern carriers’ obligations. This may or may not be fair, but most certainly adds significantly to the cost of their tickets. They are losing passengers, but instead of whining, perhaps they should seek to control costs rather than chip away and monetising every perceived benefit their passengers might enjoy. Perhaps they should offer better service, and perhaps they should simply stop being so damned adversarial to their customers.

And perhaps all six of these behemoth airlines should be watching Istanbul.

Under, perhaps, the cover of darkness, or perhaps because nobody ever took Turkey as seriously as they should, in a wide variety of arenas, both economic and political, Turkish Airlines has grown into one of the world’s most powerful airlines.

They already fly to more countries than any other carrier (105), and with their hub in Istanbul within range of so many second and third-tier cities of their smaller A319 fleet, their growth is only just beginning. Transiting in Istanbul is an extraordinary experience; so many aircraft, so many destinations and so many people; their expansion plans are ambitious and their government an integral part of this future.

When is governmental investment in infrastructure a “vital key to economic growth” and when is it a “subsidy”?

It all depends on who is asking.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why airlines dislike (most) of their clients.

Mark my words, airlines and their clients are rarely in the same boat.

The aviation industry has always been peculiar, and it is, indeed, a very difficult one to regularly make a profit. It is said that the cumulative financial results of the world’s international airlines from the end of the Second World War is a nett loss. Currently this may be changing as the US carriers finally make money, and serious piles of the stuff, but if history is any guide to the future this will change.

Change happens for many reasons, but today’s attitudes of airlines and their staff really takes the cake. Forge the sycophantic “Thanks for your business, we know you have a choice” message one hears upon landing, they know that in general, there is no choice. Depending on where you live, there is a single dominant carrier with pricing of a level of predation that would make a bald-eagle blush.

Most city pairs can be flown by one of the three major carriers; the determinant factor is, however, the number of flights available. Yes, one can travel from Minneapolis to New York with Delta, American or United, but only Delta offers a non-stop service, and prices it accordingly. The others will offer various levels of discount depending on the day of the week, how individual flights are selling at any given moment and a variety of other factors that feed the pricing algorithms that they all operate. 

This is, of course, fair enough, but not inclined to make the public believe that the airlines care about them one iota; and on non competitive routes (Winnipeg/Minneapolis), fares are simply disgraceful, and cynical in the extreme.

And then they get you; having found a reasonable fare, now there is the fight over baggage, flyer points, boarding sequence, refreshments and so on. The airlines spin doctors like to tell us that this is all a wonderful utopia designed solely for our “choice”, but the sad truth is rather different.

Airlines seem to be the only business whose heavily advertised product is deliberately made so dreadful that we will pay anything not to have to use it as described.

Unless one is one of a carriers’ most favoured clients, and here we are looking at only the top 20th percentile, one can be expected to face a cynical barrier of auto-responses and disinterest in response to any and every irregularity. Dealing with impossible call centres in distant lands solves no problems; hiding behind veils of inaccessibility allowing such gems as “The computer says no” to become the stock answer, and the pretence of the fusion of Alliances to help travellers mask a rapidly growing corporate contempt for their customers.

Airlines are behaving like governments; disinterested and too big to fail.

But why? I believe that they are simply too big. Senior executives, and even most middle managers, have never bought a plane ticket in their lives, and have absolutely no idea what the customer interface with an airline is all about. They have “Interline Desks” and travel free; other airline staff help them because they all know and participate in the same game.

I don’t begrudge them the pass benefits at all, but I do wonder how it is that an entire industry has evolved that is run by people with absolutely no practical knowledge of the customer/industry relationship. Senior folks in the grocery industry have often purchased milk themselves, or go to a Home Hardware store; they know what expectations of service are. Airline executives have simply no idea whatsoever.

They have no concept of the lunacy of the ticket restrictions when trying to piece together a complex vacation, or the difficulty in corralling three friends or family together to plan a trip. And when they do, suddenly they offer a “lock in the fare” option for (only) another $75! They simply don’t understand the vast range of motivations for purchasing their product.

And herein lies the glimmer of hope. Pride, as we know, goes before a fall; sadly, falls don’t always follow pride, but we can’t have everything.

Airline profits are slim on a percentage basis, and one that returns 3 - 4% is considered quite spectacular. This implies, of course, that 97% of their income is spent operating the business, and this leaves a dangerous group of passengers who are basically ignored. For many, travel is completely discretionary, and the choice of airlines is too. For those living at gateways, those with choice, market share of the local dominants is being slowly eroded by the newcomers. Witness the extraordinary vitriol being spouted by the normally diplomatic CEOs of Delta and United over the growth of the Middle Easter Three: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad.

They know that they are losing, and spitting blood over “subsidies” is a poor substitute for raising their service to a point that people will actually want to purchase their tickets.

And while we are on the subject of subsidies, US Government requirements for thousands of employees, contractors and others to travel on a US carrier, and pay vast fares for the privilege generate billions of dollars of revenue for the airlines in a hidden subsidy.

The contract for the US Mail is another major source of subsidy; original awarded to Pan Am to allow it to operate the first long-haul routes to South America and Africa, this tool has long been a well-used part of the government’s arsenal of support.

It is time that airlines realised that their passengers doubled as human beings, and would react positively to good service off the plane. Air Canada’s service on board is exemplary, but it does not mirror the off-line support offered by their baggage folks, airport staff, sales staff and most certainly the reservation desks. If carriers are to secure their now-found financial stability, ensuring clients’ loyalty by delivering an attractive service from beginning to end rather than by forcing loyalty through geography and nicely designed web tools would be a good move.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Here we go again! A new airline in Canada

As if the Canadian skies weren’t crazy enough, we now have a brand new airline (well, actually a small but established airline (Flair Airlines) with a new and marginally catchy name “NewLeaf Travel Company”) starting in Winnipeg.

The lessons of Greyhound, JetsGo and Canada 3000 are learned, says their new CEO, and they are ready to do for the travelling public what no other carrier has successfully done before. Challenge the might of Air Canada and WestJet, and the depth of their pockets.

And money is only the starting point; Air Canada is a public company with a soaring stock price; WestJet's shareholders include the Ontario Pension fund. Neither like competition; they don’t even like each other, although they do use each other to fly their crews around, and start-ups are a menace. They might take business, and this needs to be stopped at all costs.

We will see predatory pricing; we will see additional shots of the travellers’ cocaine, Frequent Flyer Points, and we will see some pretty demanding advertising. We will also, soon enough, hear the cry of the stranded passenger seeking somebody’s assistance to bring them home in the event that NewLeaf Travel fails to deliver.

I would love to see new, low cost carriers survive; however, they regularly do so only in highly populated environments with an average flight-length of about one hour. Charter flights are, of course, a different matter, firstly because the risk is shared with the tour operator, but stand-alone scheduled airs service is not for the faint of heart. It is a high-risk and basically low-yield business.

It is very difficult to wean regular flyers from their preferred carrier/alliance, and the passengers who are driven completely by cost are about as fickle as any market can be; they will be off to an alternative as soon as a piece of bait is tossed their way, and will only look to pay as little as possible. Adding car rentals and hotels is a nice idea, but it took EasyJet and Ryanair, the doyens of this genre of airline,  many years and much investment capital to do so.

And they didn’t start their business life in Winnipeg. We may be a singularly cheap city, but we still remain a long, long way from anywhere. The key to a successful low-cost operation, apart from the obvious lack of legacy costs, pensions, ultra-highly paid executives and so on, is the ability to fly often; with an average on a one-hour flight, one can offer twice as many rotations as one can with an average flight of two hours in the air. This makes a huge difference.

When WestJet first started, they operated on the Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Kelowna routes; all short and all popular. They started a Calgary / Winnipeg route, but soon abandoned it, realising that it took five hours to get the aircraft from Calgary to Winnipeg and back, during which time they could have flown three or even four legs in their familiar environment.

We will, of course, happily allow ourselves to be seduced again; but remember Zoom, Astro (yes, who remember their four months of scheduled service to Winnipeg), Nationair, Roots Air and of course Royal, the reincarnation of JetsGo.

I do wish NewLeaf success; I just don’t want the travel community, and the community at large to have to pick up the pieces.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How travel agents should be paid.

The remuneration of travel agents has always been an issue of debate, form the halcyon days of unending airline commissions to today’s “nett fare” environment.

“You pay me a fee for me to tell you, independently, that the best way for you to travel is by utilising the carrier/hotel/operator that pays me the most commission,” is not really a solid business model.

It is not a defensible position were it ever to be legally challenged, but it is a position that every single travel agent finds themselves in on a daily basis.

And frankly, from the time that the profession was crawling out from under United Airline’s 2.00pm fax (does anyone else remember that watershed moment?), we have been setting our remuneration on the fly, and based on “what we can get”.

This is, of course, an exaggeration, but not a large one. The simple fact is that clients have no clue what we do and by and large, nor do the agents themselves.

Travel agents are important. They act as interpreters of movement within an impossibly complex world, they are supposed to understand and counsel  the High Theology of international politics, climate variation, currency controls, transportation schedules and a myriad of other arcane pieces of knowledge that are dealt with on a daily basis.

The remuneration, however, is even murkier. A price is quoted by an agent for a specific product at which they can make some money; be this a cruise or a small hotel in Corsica, the principle remains,  each and every product in the world has a price on The Web, and it doesn’t take their clients long to find it. And it is frequently more than the agent has quoted.

And here is the problem; until travel agents distinguish between the architecture and the construction of their product (clients’ trips), there will never be peace, and deception will reign.

Vast amounts of expensively-acquired knowledge are being compensated by a mark-up on a remote (but possibly wonderful) bed & breakfast. Agents are being forced to deceive their clients by transferring their remuneration from their knowledge to the product.

They are not being paid to know that Corsica will fit their professional interpretation of their client’s needs, but are being compensated by adding €20 to the base price of any product in Corsica that can be prepaid; and it is a base price that is known by all who choose to look at the property’s website.

Agents who counsel a couple prior to booking a vacation at a resort on the Mayan Riviera, and whose knowledge is being sought to assure that the choice of resort fits the clients’ needs are not being compensated for that insight.

And here’s the thing; clients, inundated with fabulous photography and endless images of drinks with umbrellas are none the wiser! Often they don’t have a clue, and book based on what their neighbours like, or what day the flight leaves. Travellers want knowledge and are willing to pay for it.

It is time that the architecture and the construction are separated; professional agents with a suitably robust knowledge base should be able to commend up to $300/hour to counsel clients on a complex and expensive trip. After all, if one is going to spend several thousand dollars on a vacation, spending a few hundred with a competent professional is a quite logical and reasonable expectation.

The key, however, is the individual agent’s capacity and competency for counselling; and if there is none, then perhaps that counsellor should seek employment in an alternative field. Given the prospect of billing at $150 - 300 / hour, there is an incentive for travel professionals to invest in their own careers; becoming an expert in a region, a genre of travel or any other sub-speciality will pay off; agencies will grow to resemble professional offices, and this is as it should be.

We need to remember history, and how we came to this position. In Days of Yore, travel agents knew where the brochures were; clients wanting foreign travel had little alternative than purchasing through these specialists; airlines did not appoint agencies unless they wrote a paper explaining why their appointment would be of benefit to the appointed carrier. The profession was meant to be of incremental value.

Today, of course, everybody has access to the information, but not everybody has access to the interpretive skills necessary to maximise the benefit of this flood of facts.

This is the role of the travel agent; the interpreter and intermediary.

By offering clients the opportunity to take counselling and have a plan drawn up that they can purchase on a “cost plus” basis, many will take this option, and once again the agency will shine and be remunerated.

If there is a future in the profession, it is because we take the responsibility of representing our clients’ interests first. Our nominal principals, for whom we were agents in the past, and perhaps to whom we are still tithed, do not compensate us well enough for the servility that is demanded, and in fact, they compete with us for the very same passenger.

The future is in representing our knowledge to our clients, being remunerated for guiding them through the thicket of information and finally, if requested, to finalise these arrangements in the most cost-effective manner with all prices being fully revealed.

I for one am simply tired of the deception.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Buying Travel on The Web

Here’s the thing.

When companies of whatever stripe and purpose spend millions of dollars on developing a website, it is done for one reason, and one reason alone: to maximise their profits.
When any one of us go on-line to search for an item of whatever purpose, it is for one reason: to minimise our expense, and the rather touching belief in the neutrality of the net leads to many unfortunate decisions

These two positions are, of course, mutually exclusive; while they may appear to combine, particularly in the rather naïve belief that some hold, from time to time, the truth is that for most people they do not. The on-line, world is inherently binary: you ask a question and you get an answer, and the entire promise that most companies base their product line-up on is that you don’t know the correct question to ask.

I love the internet, and I, and my many colleagues spend our lives using the deep resource base it offers to hone our skills and develop our professional knowledge. It is the same in every industry, and the extraordinary growth in our access to information is one of the marvels of the 21st century. It is, however, only information, and not knowledge.

For years, one of the most common questions asked of my agency was “What is the cheapest ticket to London?” Our answer was always “Where in London do you want to get to?” This gave us the opportunity to direct them to Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted if appropriate, and offer a sound service.

The answers however were rather interesting; at least 50% said that they were not, in fact going to London, but to Hull or Birmingham or Cardiff or some other UK point. By telling us this, we were able to advise them to spend an additional $50 or so, and fly straight to a local airport, the existence of which had, to that point, been unknown.

Now, in our binary world, the same question will be asked and the correct answer given. However, it is the correct answer to the wrong question in so many cases. Happily unaware of the options that might have been better, our traveller trots off to London in ignorant bliss.

It is curious how many times that travellers have come to our agency to book travel within Australia having already found “a great deal on-line” for a ticket from Canada to Sydney. When the first thing they want to buy is a connecting ticket from Sydney to Cairns, and are advised that a “Canada to Cairns” ticket would have been the same price as the ticket to Sydney that they had just purchased, disappointment often set in.

It is not that the information is unavailable, and had they asked The Web for a ticket to Cairns they would have found out that it was the same price, it is that sadly, most people don’t know what to ask for.

The biggest problem, I believe, is that traditionally there have been a lot of very, very bad travel agents. It has not been a respected profession, and by and large, with virtually no entry requirements, it became a default career for friendly people who liked beaches and drinks with umbrellas in them.

This, fortunately, is a professional model that has, for a large part, passed on. Travel professionals are now considerably fewer in number, and those that remain do so because they offer expertise and a very valuable input into a vacation decision. More are also offering a pure consultancy, paid for on an hourly rate; this option, to pay $500 - 750 for four or five hours consultation on a trip that will cost some $15-20,000 is well worth the money; insight, expertise and the ability to synthesise the information that can be gleaned on-line is well worth the investment.

It also makes sense.

In virtually every facet of the travel world, be it airlines, accommodation, tours or whatever other service you can imagine, the cost of sale is between 25 and 30 per cent. This figure is a macro-number, and applicable to the overall cost of distribution, not the cost of any single unit. It make no difference if the money is invested in commissions paid to the network of brokers, wholesalers and retailers who make up the chain between a fishing guide in Nunavut and the client in Hannover or if the money is invested in sophisticated web presence and the associated costs of servicing enquiries and reservations. The number firmly remains stuck at 25-30%

So from the sellers’ perspective, better to build a web with which to lure then unsophisticated with promises of a better and cheaper life, last-minute deals or whatever gimmick they dream up then risk losing a client to the comparative consultation that the (good) flesh-and-blood travel professionals offer.

From the purchasers’ position, I would think that more thought should be given to the benefits of shopping at a store that discourages questions, and only offers comparisons based on its own sales algorithm.

After all, a major European airline did not pay a major on-line retailer £1 million per month for advantageous placement on their availability displays for nothing.

Neutrality on line? Think again!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Buying and selling Travel on the internet

I have been extremely remiss in failing to add to my blog for the past month.

Consider it a month’s vacation, or even a month’s block, but here I am again. It has been a very interesting period; I have been based at our rather peculiar house in Esperaza in the South of France,  first warding off the excesses of the local wine festival, then brief trips to London for family and philatelic reasons and then to Georgia to finalise our new company “Are Mare” .

It is the Yellow shop with the blue shutters!

 I have been working here, compiling a substantial proposal for a consultancy to work on tourism product development in the three northern Territories, designing some new tour programs for The Great Canadian Travel Company, (curiously) putting together a “supply chain” to deliver 5,000 metric tons of chicken-feed every month to Azerbaijan (some really odd opportunities come my way), and simply enjoying the burst of spring in the Pyrenean foothills.

The view from the office 

However, I have had time to get riled, and it is for you, my dear readers, that I am annoyed.

I have written much about the double-edged nature of the internet; it is an environment that has made so many completely suspend credulity and hurl themselves into this unregulated market with the most surprising gusto. It is a fine place; “things” of all manner are available, and because the common credo of “cut out the middle man and save money” is so simple, folks buy stuff by the ton.

It is also interesting to note how many folks hit the “buy” button at nine o’ clock in the evening, quite conceivably with a bottle of wine inside them, and at a time when their protective middlemen are presumably hitting their own “buy” buttons.

And now we find that the principals who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars/lari/euros or whatever designing their websites have done so for self-serving reasons. Shock! Horror! Their sole interests in designing their sites, and it is likened to a web for a very good reason, is to maximise their revenues, and lure you in.

It is not designed to minimise your expenditures.

Have you noticed how, during the purchasing process, the price or “availability” of the items, seats, beds or cabins that you are trying to buy changes? Sometimes discreetly with “Only two left at this price” appearing from nowhere, subtly telling you that you are on the right track, and should finalise, or more forcefully with a $10 increase in price?

Yesterday, a hotel I was looking at that initially offered four options only showed two (highest/lowest) ten minutes later; by resubmitting on a different search engine, I got the middle two quotes back and booked.

Well, "they" follow you; each key-stroke is measured, and with the new generation of phones, "they" listen to your calls, and will translate your level of excitement for an upcoming trip into another few dollars onto the room. It is quite extraordinary how much privacy we all give up by ticking the “I accept” boxes; a paradox considering how those self-same companies will give up no informations at all, citing “privacy issues”.

There is a weapon.

Each browser offers an “incognito” or “private browsing” option. These covers, usually used by folks trying to cover the tracks of their various fetishes that are so diligently pursued at work, are your friends. By going “underground” as you search the web for prices, these windows will (to a great extent) muddy your tracks and make you less likely to be followed.

And remember too that Google reads all G Mail, and then promptly sells the information thus gleaned of your upcoming trips, ideas or whatever else you may unwisely communicate in this electronic fashion to a wide range of suppliers who are eager to pay for such “qualified” customers.

And finally, should you wonder why it makes a difference to an airline or hotel where you live before you get a quote, it is simple. Certain markets are perceived to be more lucrative and North Americans seem to be the cherries on the cake.

If I were you, I would fib; tell them you live in Cameroon, and see what happens then.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Car Rallies for Everyone

Who among you hasn't had the phrase "Paris to Dakar Rally" stir a little envy in your soul, or wondered just how these drivers could be so lucky, even though this race is now confusingly held in South America? Well, fret no longer, the days of the populist car rallies are upon us.

There has been a quiet revolution in the world of travel during the past ten years, and one that has opened up a number of new opportunities and options that lie far outside any normal concept of touring. Perhaps the corny, catch-all phrase “Adventure Travel” might do, but this moniker is so completely overused it has almost become obsolete.

We live in a “sharing economy”, we are told, and it is one that carries a very finely sharpened double-edged sword. Ecologically and intellectually, sharing our own unused capacities, as hosts, drivers, guides and other activities makes sense. “Waste not, want not”; the advent of the computer has allowed a rapid growth in services like Air BnB, Uber, Couch Surfing and many others. It is a brutal world; folks who have previously paid large licence fees to drive taxis and now being challenged by part-time students with a GPS; cities are realising the loss to their tax base as vast numbers of tourists stay in effectively tax-free accommodation.

And it will, of course continue to grow.

And there are other opportunities in this world of citizen-professionals; my personal favourite is the new breed of car rallies. Previously the domain of wealthy corporate teams, the idea of slogging across inhospitable terrain for days on end, camping in deserts and running out of petrol in  some dangerous and dusty backwater has gained followers, myself among them.

I am currently looking to put together a team of a dozen or so like-minded idiots who want to drive a school bus over the Sahara desert from Budapest (yes, I know Budapest is not even close to the desert, but that is where this expedition starts) to Bamako in Mali. Once safely (sic) in Mali, the school bus is donated to a local charity and we fly home, or off to the next adventure.

The Budapest/Bamako is just one such route. One I have been toying with as well is the London/Tashkent odyssey, restricted to cars that cost no more than £500, although the Murmansk Challenge also seems to have its merits. The UK-based company Dakar Challenge, is a fine outfit, coordinating a series of “crap car challenges”, for those willing to pick up some cases of vodka and pot noodles and head out in an old car (a "banger" in the vernacular of the British Isles) with a number of like-minded individuals to an almost certain series of misadventures.

Breakdowns, border controls, harsh weather, wilderness camping, deeply peculiar food, insects previously unkown to any of us and the general feeling of reclessness that will permeate every fibre of our beings just add to the fun. I can't wait.

So what drives this passion? Is it the pendulum swinging back to balance the ever more anodyne “six-star, all-inclusive” experience? Is it a reaction to our increasingly regulated working lives? Who knows! What I do know, however, is that the experience is going to be priceless.

So the planning starts; anyone wanting to talk to me about joining the gang, please contact me at  ; anyone wanting to assist by sponsoring this school bus, and donating to the cause (it will cost about $12,000 to buy the vehicle and take it down), I would love to hear from you as well …  and it all happens in January 2016!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Germanwings; airlines, technology and people

From West Africa to Canada’s Arctic, the conclusion of a two-month wander, a week in the office and now in France for a further two months while GermanWings planes hurtle into mountain sides and disruption on a major scale is caused to Amsterdam airport by a “technical fault in a transformer”.

Yes, a great deal has happened in the two weeks since I last put fingers to typewriter, and while sometimes it gets to a point that I simply block and don’t write a single thought. Not, however, this time.

Let us start with the tragic crash of the GermanWings plane; on March 24th, I suggested in a Facebook posting that we were looking at pilot suicide simply because there appeared to be no other possible explanation for the event short of the most improbable series of independent failures. Now I appear to have been correct, and this is not the first such incident, and sadly, nor will it be the last.

How an airline pilot can be so deeply disturbed that he feels driven to fly his aircraft into a mountain taking 149 innocent lives with him is completely beyond my capacity to contemplate; how a company as technically astute as Lufthansa can have such a person work up within their ranks with no inkling of this ambition is also astonishing, but perhaps indicates more strongly than ever that mental illness is indeed and illness, and its recognition and treatment are extremely difficult.

From the few such suicides reported, and the victims of the Malaysia crash are not included, although they perhaps should be, some 500 people have been slaughtered in this manner. How many could have been prevented had cockpit doors not been made impregnable we will never know, but II fear that more had died because of this security requirement than have been saved.

Flying is, of course, an extremely safe way to travel, and none of these aberrations will change that fact; rogue elements within any industry will cause headlines be they corrupt Japanese nuclear-plant officials or self-centered developers condemning our national institutions to decades of financial struggle.

Accidents happen, and we see today that Schiphol airport, Amsterdam’s global hub, has been affected by  a “technical fault” at a substation. While not yet causing direct danger, this mishap will lead to tens of thousands of passengers being stranded, business meetings being delayed, weddings interrupted, concerts cancelled and days of putting life back together again.

It is very easy, particularly in the glow of spending weeks in Sao Tome and Cabo Verde to wonder about technology, its speed and application, our control of its development and whether or not, if we project forward to the period that Artificial Intelligence rules the world and its airwaves, we will be safe.

Or will some malignant hacker inject a malevolent sequence into our daily lives and start to create havoc on a level that we have yet to contemplate.

On a happier note, after three days, I did get my baggage back from The System’s evil maw.