THIS IS THE GOOD STUFF
By Joe Brancatelli
November 9, 2011 -- Here's a startling statement: There are good things about life on the road as a business traveler.
You have to look for the good stuff. There aren't as many good things as there used to be. You have to accept that "good" is a relative term. And you have make some of the attitude adjustments I suggested a few weeks back. But you can find the good, the better-than-the-alternative choices and the genuinely laudable.
In case you've become so jaded and so disgruntled that you can't find the good stuff on your own, let me suggest a short list of the small perks and tiny privileges that make my life on the road bearable.
National Emerald Aisle
The dreary and relentlessly commoditized nature of car rentals has changed in recent years. It's actually gotten worse: Base prices for rentals have risen, incomprehensible add-on fees have skyrocketed, and states and municipalities have loaded on the taxes to fund all manner of infrastructure projects. Oh, and the vehicles themselves have gotten older as rental firms trimmed fleets and kept higher-mileage cars in service. Which is why National Car Rental's Emerald Aisle service is such a standout. Once you join, your midsize reservation allows you to choose any vehicle in the specially marked Emerald Aisle area. Choice is a rare commodity in business travel today, and Emerald Aisle at least gives the impression of freedom as you wander the lot to select the vehicle that most matches your mood or personality. On two recent rentals, I bypassed SUVs, sporty sedans, and more familiar luxury cars and chose the intriguing, 5-cylinder Volvo S60 T5 and the big, honking Hyundai Genesis. In the long run, neither car was my personal chariot of fire, but they were fun to test-drive while I was otherwise engaged in the day-to-day minutiae of a business trip.
Hyatt Place Hotels
Hyatt's newish entry into the "focused service" lodging market currently dominated by Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn, Hyatt Place is not universally loved. Built on the bones of a renovated Hyatt acquisition and built out with new properties, some of Hyatt's own best customers criticize Hyatt Place's less-than-lavish bathrooms, occasionally distracted service, and even the loud air conditioners. But I like the simple foods available in the lobby's 24/7 kitchen-cum-café, and I like what Hyatt Place guest accommodations offer: a 42-inch flat-screen TV monitor with a panel that connects to your laptop, tablet, music player, or smartphone; free WiFi; a wet bar; a decent table/desk and comfy desk chair; and the big sectional sofa that lets you spread out. Do I want to stay in a Hyatt Place on every business trip? No. But I like that they are there and upping the competition in the most cost-effective segment of the business-travel lodging market.
The TSA deflects the endless (and more-often-than-not valid) criticism of its operations by claiming it offers the most speed and efficiency it can without compromising airport security. The most effective counterargument to the TSA's bureaucratic and officious stance: Global Entry, the simple, effortlessly effective, and quick-access program operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It allows registered and approved travelers to use automated kiosks to bypass the customs and immigrations lines at nearly two dozen U.S. airports. The fee is ridiculously low ($100 for a five-year membership); the application process is thorough yet relatively painless (an in-person interview at a convenient-enough enrollment center); the data you surrender is not overly intrusive (a reasonable amount of business and personal background and biometric information); and the payoff is great (fast, secure bypass of the long lines that the hoi polloi face when entering the United States). And as far as anyone knows, not a single undesirable has undermined the nation's security by being a "trusted traveler" using Global Entry. And the TSA has tacitly admitted how good Global Entry is: It's the basis of the too-timid, long-overdue bypass program that the TSA has been testing for the last month.
The Alternate Airlines
The nation's legacy carriers, the supposedly full-service airlines that were around when the commercial air-travel system was deregulated in 1978, have coagulated into four mostly indistinguishable lumps. Except for a wrinkle here and there, it's hard to tell the post-merger United, Delta, American, and US Airways apart. They infuriate and disappoint in exactly the same ways and often in complete lockstep. Which explains why alternate carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines are flourishing on all fronts: They are profitable, gaining market share, and winning mostly plaudits from customers. Southwest is literally the model of a low-cost, relatively low-fare carrier, and passengers come to depend on an airline that does it the same way every seat, every flight, every route, every day. JetBlue Airways has brought some frills (free in-flight TV, seats with acceptable legroom in coach) back to everyday flying. And hidden away in Seattle, outside of the business-media maelstrom, Alaska Airlines makes a plausible case that a traditionally configured two-class airline can work, make money, and keep customers comparatively happy.
As the world of business travel has contracted, many unhappy businesspeople have adopted a "grass-is-greener" mentality. Trapped by elite status in a frequency program that often keeps them loyal to a travel provider they no longer even like, they are convinced that they'd be much happier somewhere (anywhere) else if only they could have their perks and privileges honored at the new place. Big Travel (if we can call it that) is happy to fuel that fantasy with the so-called status match. Sometimes with no strings attached, sometimes accompanied by a "challenge" to prove your worth as a customer, airlines, hotels, and car-rental firms will often honor your elite status in another frequency program by giving you the instant recognition and equivalent benefits you think you deserve. Do I think the grass is greener somewhere else? Not usually. But I am a great believer in sampling what the other guy has to offer. You can find status matches online from United MileagePlus, Delta SkyMiles, US Airways Dividend Miles, and Best Western Rewards. Car renters can play National and Hertz off each other as they battle right now for elite customers. And a call to any travel provider's frequency plan will yield information on its status-match policy.
The Biscoff Biscuit
Once upon a time, airlines made honey-roasted peanuts the snack of choice. Chains such as Molton Brown and L'Occitane kick-started their retail business by distributing toiletries in airline amenity kits. And airport duty-free shops made gigantic, pyramid-shaped Toblerone bars famous around the world. But now the comestible of choice among discerning (or desperate) business travelers is the Biscoff, a carmelized, cinnamon-spiced "speculoos" cookie popularized in the Low Countries. When United Airlines reduced the size of its Biscoff packets in 2007, the carrier's travelers revolted. A recent brand extension into snack spreads even garnered the attention of The New York Times. Why do business travelers love the Belgian Biscoff? Well, they're free (duh!) on flights. They're tasty and not offensively fatty (about a gram per cookie). They dunk nicely in the dreadful coffee most airlines serve. And they have an air of sophistication since Biscoff isn't seen all that often on the ground at retail. Yet.
The Fine Print…
A followup to last week's column about airline labor relations and Qantas' unprecedented management shutdown. The carrier is now in damage-control mode and has promised to give away 100,000 tickets as part of a publicity campaign. And an Australian regulator has demanded that Qantas up the amount it pays in compensation to the estimated 70,000 travelers it stranded around the world.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.