Friday, December 25, 2009

Tyneham, Dorset; a village of the 1940s

This year I am in England for some difficult family reasons, but it is nonetheless delightful to be here over Christmas. Other than the wild snow and ice of a couple of days ago, the weather has been superb, and the countryside is gorgeous. Staying with friends in their Victorian cottage in Manston, a small village in central Dorset is quite delightful, and their traditional Christmas dinner of goose with all the accompaniments was simply irresistible.

And so today, a perfectly clear and gorgeous Christmas Day, we headed out to visit Tyneham, a very curious spot.

If you have ever wondered where the old days went, and idly suspected that there might be a flake of the nineteen forties left somewhere, you are not speculating idly. Only 90 mile to the southwest of London lies Tynham, an anachronistic village, left to remember 1943, and the day that the village was abandoned.

1943, you will recall, was a year in which Europe was plunged into the darkest days of the Second World War. London blitzed, Europe in retreat, bad news on every doorstep. In its pursuit of a perfect solution, or at least a piece of the puzzle, the Ministry of Defense determined that it would create a firing range in the Purbeck Hills. The sole drawback to the plan was the hamlet of Tynham, home to 100 villagers, pursuing a quiet country life.

Now the idea of an idyllic country village may be fiction or it may be fact, but nevertheless, the villagers of Tynham were “requested” to temporarily leave their village to allow the army to practice gunpower in the neighbouring valley. The promise was that they would be allowed to return as soon as the war ended, and armed with these assurances, they left.

The village is old; very old. Ruins and pickings from the site date back some 2000 years. Continuous habitation of a sort that we might recognise has been there since the early 12th century. History happens during this sort of period, and families grow, dominate and build. In Tynham, the Bond family came to own the village in the 1500s and has dominated village life ever since. Apparently benevolently, but we will never know.

And so came 1943. The army decided that it should stay on for a few years, and now, in 2010 they still fire their big guns over the valley, and it is only on weekends, for the military seems to respect bankers’ hours in these parts, that there is access to Tynham.

And what a worthwhile visit it is. The village lies only 10 miles or so from the centre of Poole, a major town on the south coast, and deep in the Purbeck hills. The region is quiet, beautiful, tranquil and quintessentially English; small villages, delightful pubs (and I have to admit to sampling a few in my travels), thatched cottages, and castle ruins. The England of post-cards and bunting, monarchists and hunt balls, fine buildings and sensible shoes; all in a very accessible area.

From London, one may travel to Poole simply by train, coach or car. The adventurous may choose to arrive by ferry from France. In any event, there are many suitable accommodations, and opportunities to rent a vehicle for the exploration of the region, and a stay here of three or four days would not be out of line.

Here, I feel I have to digress. I have stayed in this area a number of times over the years, and once lodged at the Quality Inn several times during the Fall of 2004. On one evening I happened to be in the small hotel bar; in addition to myself there was only a small party of six German tourists, a touch out of place, I thought, but nevertheless apparently convivial.

One approached the bar and asked haltingly (to the delightful barmaid recently arrive from Cabo Verde) for “Zwei Beer”. “Bitter?” she asked?. “Nein Bitter” was the reply. She proceeded to pour nine pints of bitter for the bewildered tourists. I could, of course, short-circuited this misunderstanding, but firstly I was rather amused, and wanted to see its conclusion, and secondly, I felt it fairly certain that I would become the beneficiary of the error. In this I was correct, and three unwanted pints of bitter later I went to sleep.

The drive to Tyneham is simple; heading toward the sea from Corfe Castle, past Steeple the knowledgeable will spot a discreet road sign pointing left (or right, if one approaches fro the opposite direction) toward Tyneham. Three or four miles down the road lies the village, as it was, but missing a few roofs, when the villagers left. The school is intact, the church open and wonderful, notices tacked on the walls announcing teas. The village is complete, although the buildings are a touch ruinous; wandering around, listening to the birds and noticing the paths, built for bicycles and not motor cars, seeing the house pads and gardens, stumbling through the green and looking at the village pond, the vision of the nineteen forties was powerful.

I have never been to such an evocative place. The village is deserted, and will remain so. The promise of return for the villagers some sixty years ago lies shattered among the lanes. But there is hope; and there are thanks to be offered to the military for breaking their promise. For Tyneham offers we “twenty-first centurions’ a rare glimpse to the past. While the village is uninhabitable, the ecological system, untouched by fertilizers, antibiotic by-products, discarded wrappings and old tires remains pristine; and rare.

A unique ecosystem in exchange for a broken promise? As a wandering observer, I am not qualified to make such judgments, but I am delighted that I could enjoy a glimpse into the past.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Duty Free Deception

I have always liked duty-free shops; one of the minor deceptions of travelling internationally is the idea that you can save $5 or $6 on a bottle of vodka and somehow stick-it to one tax collecting authority or another.

It is, like so many other rather petty transactions a touch deceptive; alcohol pricing is such a dog’s breakfast worldwide, that the concept of “Duty Free” representing any consistent saving is simply not on. The cost of booze is so low, relative to the price that with the elimination of one or more taxes, duties or levies the specialist retailers at airports worldwide can make a big deal over the savings.

I remember some years ago having a friend who worked in the promotions side of a famous Scottish distillery. Not only is she a fine person, but having a friend with the ability to offer whisky at cost price (in limited quantities) had its benefits. At the time, a bottle of their single malt was selling for about £30, but the distillery was allowed, for promotional purposes only, you understand, to write-off whisky used for this purpose at only about £2.25 per bottle; the balance, representing the take of Her Majesty’s Government.

Duty Free shops take advantage of this spread to offer travellers’ terrific “bargains”, and extraordinary profit margins for themselves. The world’s top brands too, use the system to their advantage. Brands like Louis Vitton, Tattinger Champagne, the top-end Swiss watch makers and so on do not want their products discounted in the normal sense of the word; you will not see them subjected to the usual department-store mark-down in an attempt to move volume. They do, however, use the airport shops heavily, and as a vehicle for discounting to shift their surpluses, and in the current economic turmoil, sales of these fashion icons are hurting.

Another sign of the growing power of duty-free retailing comes through the commercial arrogance that is developing among some producers, and should be firmly rejected by whisky lovers everywhere. The Macallan is a terrific whisky, and a friend of mine has, for many years enjoyed their 12 Year Old that was branded “Elegencia”. This is no longer available, and the reasoning, as described to him by a whisky seller is interesting.

The Elegencia has been replaced by a deceptively similarly-packaged product called “Select Oak”. “A good brand”, he mused, “for a paint or a wood-stain, but hardly suitable for the water of life”. This new brand shows no year on the label, a very odd omission for a true whisky drinker; apparently this allows the distiller to “maximise consumer benefit” by allowing them to mix the products of various years together in this delicate offering.

It does of course beg a couple of questions; firstly about why distillers have, for so long been espousing the virtues of single batches, and selling gallons of the stuff according to the year, and secondly concerning whether sales of The Macallan in duty-free stores to a frequently unsophisticated audience have outstripped sales to whisky lovers to a point that they are prepared to toss away hundred’s of years of goodwill to their previously superb brand.

We will never know.

I have to admit that I rarely buy at airports; many years ago I purchased a bottle of cheap Tia Maria in Mexico, but put it down rather heavily on the floor at the Minneapolis airport on the way home. Seeing an increasing brown circle appearing at my feet, I sidled away and watched the process of spread, for it must have been only a hairline fracture of the bottle, surprise at the appearance of the puddle and its eventual clean-up from a balcony.

To this day I feel embarrassed by my behaviour at the airport, and have rarely bought a bottle of duty-free since.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Crazy Airline Week

Well, it has been an interesting week; a collapse of a substantial UK-based charter carrier Globespan, the on/off drama of the British Airways cabin-staff strike, the looming possibility of baggage handlers on strike in the UK and the general malaise of the airline industry has made interesting reading and thinking.

The Globespan collapse was notable in a number of ways; timing, of course is important, and when a company is placed into receivership it is always when the party pushing the issue feels that the business has the most money in its coffers. For an airline with bank accounts full of Christmas passengers' money, yet before they had the expenses of flying them, the timing was predictable and understandable.

However, one of the primary reasons that the airline was short of money is very interesting indeed. Their credit-card processor E-Clear, was apparently withholding a substantial amount of money owed to Globespan; cash-flow that the airline needed to operate. During the past few weeks, there have been reports that a Jersey-based investment company Halcyon Investments were to be injecting new capital into Globespan. This hope fell yesterday, and now it appears that there is a close relationship between E-Clear and Halcyon Investments, a relationship that the administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers will be keen to examine.,

As long as customers believe that credit-card companies will refund their money should a default occur, the credit-card processors will need and place ever more onerous conditions on the company; this may be in the form of a pledge against real assets, a large letter of credit or it may be that the card processor simply holds up the payment of cash to the business until they are comfortable. With no real assets, many businesses are being forced to accept payments at a pace that is simply too difficult to operate with, and force the company into receivership.

This was one of the contributory reasons to the Conquest Vacations bankruptcy, and I think that this trend will trigger increasingly frequent closures and mergers, if not actual bankruptcies.

And while British Airways, who are rarely out of the news today, may have their Christmas period free of a strike, it does not eliminate the dreadful labour relations that seem to characterise that airline. Their sales are 1.2 billion below the first six months of last year, their pension-fund shortfall is over $8 billion and the airline industry is more precarious than ever.

One would wonder if their union really thinks that this would be a good time to withdraw their labour, or if BA management will actually be able to come up with a plan that will set the carrier back on a profitable course. Personally, I doubt it.

All this should make consumers think twice about who they choose to fly with. It may, for a short time, but soon enough, seduced by improbably low fares, safe in the knowledge that someone else, the credit card companies, a government fund or and insurance company, will underwrite their decision; and if they don't, you can be sure that the screams of indignation will be heard from legislative building to legislative building across the land.

But the adage remains, and more critical each day; Buyer Beware.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Charter Flights vs Scheduled lights: Part II

The second part of the equation is, of course, money. Aircraft are extremely expensive to operate, airline seats are extraordinarily perishable, and the margins are extremely tight.

However, while margins are tight, they are potentially hugely profitable, and it is this risk/reward ration that attracts new entrants each year.

Simply put, a charter operators will work out the actual costs of flying, determine (an upmarket word for a guess) the potential market, divide the latter into the former and come up with a “price”; this fare will be compared to alternatives, the market forecast will be dropped a little, and a new “price” will be reached.

The operating vagaries of a weekly flight will be examined; how many seats will be sold from each end, for example, and will they have similar prices in each market? This is a difficult calculation as each seat from A to B will need a corresponding seat from B to A to come home again; if you sell too many passengers originating at either end, the balance can be badly skewed.

And finally, and this is the bit that the consumer needs to know but never will, what is the operator’s tolerance for loss? At what point will they pull the rug out and say that there is appearing to be insufficient revenue to continue the program?

This creates difficulties; in an ideal world, consumers will have their money returned by the operator and few will have badly affected trips; no tour programs forfeited due to the cancellation of the program and no money lost. However, should the operation of the charter be undertaken by a new company, established solely for this purpose, monies paid to the company may have already been spent on deposits, salaries and marketing with none left, and a bankruptcy will ensue.

The difficulty is always in knowing one’s suppliers. Is the charter carrier well respected with a strong track-record? Are they well known and bonded? The more partners that are involved in a program may appear to increase the chances of success, but this depends on allocations and sales; two strong partners may be brought to heel by a poorly performing third company.

Is the consumer world, now so used to outlandish prices on virtually every good and services inured from making a rational choice? The travel industry seems to reflect this observation with low price being the single driving force behind so many transactions.

Too frequently people buy products solely based on price with little thought given to whether or not the operating company, be it hotel, tour company or airline needs an improbable 90% load factor to break-even, and the effect that this threshold being failed will have on their own travel plans.

If a price is low there are shouts of joy; when a company goes badly there are please for government intervention. When did personal responsibility and logic disappear?

There are no simple answers; in Canada some provinces offer consumer protection and regulation, and some do not. In those provinces where there is no protection at all, there is one and only one simple solution.

Buyer Beware.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Charter Flights vs. Scheduled Flights (Part I)

There are enormous differences between charter flights and scheduled flights, and sometimes we all forget to take these into account when we book travel. Simply because a flight is regularly "scheduled" does not make is a "scheduled flight"; it is simply a charter flight that operates on with regularity. Similarly, a scheduled airline, operating a weekly service to a sunspot throughout the winter, carrying holidaymakers does not make it a charter airline. Unless, of course, it is an airline that has chartered its aircraft to an inclusive tour operator.

Get it?

It is, in fact, important to note the differences between each type of carrier before one purchases a ticket to ride; they each offer benefits and there are potential drawbacks that may not be obvious at first.

The most important difference is in the operating license. This is a code determining the standard of service that must be offered by an airline offering seats for individual sale. A charter operator is permitted a substantial freedom to alter their schedule by "up to 24 hours up to 24 hours prior to departure". This freedom is often used by vacation charters to offer departures on Fridays and Saturdays with their touching and everlasting optimism that this year will be the best. The flexibility in operating schedule means that they can "consolidate" the two flights a day or so prior to departure with no penalty.

Successive legal suits for damages resulting from this circumstance have found for the carriers with the overriding legal principle being the befit of the greater good; many more folks are able to take advantage of lower-priced vacations by allowing carriers this flexibility than those inconvenienced.

There is a message, however, and that is that travellers should make absolutely sure that they know the rules under which they have purchased an airline ticket.

Scheduled carriers, in complete contrast, must publish schedules and stick to them, even if only one passenger shows up to fly from Winnipeg to Timmins on a blustery Tuesday morning in February; consolidation is not an option. I must say though that there have been a number of suspicious "mechanical" cancellations that have stretched the credulity of a half-dozen or so inconvenienced passengers from time to time.

Carriers play this card with care; if a scheduled carrier arrives more than four hours late, they are required to file a "show cause" explaining why they are delayed. They run the risk of forfeiting their licenses should they develop a pattern of tardiness or cancellation, and do play this hand with great care.

We all use charter carriers from time to time; sun vacations, in particular, depend on a complex matrix of airline seats, hotel rooms, transfer vehicles and matching catering to maximise both the offering to the travelling public and the return to their own shareholders. Tour operating is extremely high-stakes poker, and I have boundless respect for those who play in this game; there are great risks and potentially great rewards.

The ability to vary their schedule to match their loads from time to time, however, is both a right and a privilege that they enjoy and use wisely, and a vital tool that allows them to offer a broad range of vacation products.

However, passengers booking flights with these carriers should be aware of the possible issues arising from this ability; do not book non-refundable tickets from far away to connect to a charter flight that might subsequently alter its schedule. You will be stuck with two exclusive contracts; one from the connecting carrier who has absolutely no obligation to make your trip work (after all, they only contracted to fly you to and from Toronto), and one from the charter operator who does not care how you "get to the airport"; their operating regulations permit schedule changes, and if they do so that have no obligation to passengers who suffer financial or geographic inconvenience.

So beware, buyer; know that rarely can one purchase the same product with wildly variant prices without a very good reason. Find out the reason, and then decide if you are willing to accept the potential risk.

Of course, one reason for chartering flights may well be to allow behaviour that may otherwise be though to push the envelope somewhat; a German carrier has recently advertised nudist charter flights. An expression of joie de vivre that might be frowned upon by a more staid carrier.

Next time, a financial snapshot of the differences between charters and scheduled flights!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Crossing the Black Sea: som ereflections

All travel must come to an end, and it is now over a week since I returned from my journey from Odessa to Tbilisi and Baku.

I have missed posting, and have not done so for a couple of reasons; firstly, of course, is the requirement to work when one returns after a two-week absence, and secondly posting shifts from a daily report to a more reflective commentary, and I have been reflecting.

I love to travel to unusual places, and like so many other wanderers pretend to substitute observation with understanding. Observation is simple; it is a matter of watching and reporting. Understanding takes time and needs context, a commodity in very short supply. For myself, it was the enforced stay on the ship that allowed me to meet people whose acquaintance I would never otherwise have made, other than fleetingly, without our unscheduled respite on the Black Sea.

The countries of the former Soviet Union are unique, and their development has taken many different forms; from the Eurocentric evolution of the Baltic States to the inward pose of Belarus; from the resource-driven economies of Central Asia to the rather individualistic and quirky countries of the Caucuses and Black Sea, they are all different. There are, however, similarities; all have some legacy of the Soviet central planning in which a single country became a centre of production of a few items required by the Soviet block as a whole. By extension, other than a country's assigned product, everything else was imported from another specialised region. While one may argue the logic of such a system, when the block breaks up it leaves a lot of independent countries with some degree of singular skill and no breadth of expertise.

Of course, many of these specialisations were illusory, with industrial plants that were outdated fifty years ago, and little strength in a modern economy; today, the mantra of all is the absolute need for jobs to bring each region or country out from their malaise. There are vast differences between the major cities and the balance of each country, and the gulf between those who have money and power in and within the emerging economies and those who do not is striking.

Which leads me to the conversation on the boat, and the difficulty that my travelling companions had in seeing a future. "Without jobs", they said, "there is no possibility of development; and as long as we allow the Chinese to make everything we will not have jobs." It was instructive to hear how often China came into the conversation. From comments about China's manufacturing juggernaut and its effect on local business to their on-going quest to control the resources of Africa, China was on everyone's mind.

How developing economies, fragile at best, will be able to forge a path between the corresponding desires of the Chinese manufacturers and the West's desire to control the global levers of economic power remains to be seen. The issue is, however, noted by all, and that is a good sign. A high level of public education is a very strong legacy of the Soviet system, and in many cases of a level that is considerably higher that one might expect; this legacy also bodes well as people struggle to find their country's place in the global firmament.

As a destination to travel to, I think that the Caucuses are tremendous; they offer visitors stunning scenery, fascinating rural life, interesting cities, wonderful food, pleasant wines and above all some of the most hospitable people in the world. And they are accessible; frequent flyer point redemption puts Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan on the same level as Southern Europe; those travelling on mileage redemption to, say Rome, would use no more points to extend their trip to include one of the Caucasian capitals, and I would highly recommend doing so.

I loved both Baku and Tbilisi, Yerevan too from a previous trip, and am already booked to return in August for a longer look, and a journey that does not include a ferry.