Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Atlanta (Hometown 3)

Although I literally moved there on two days notice in 1986 and did not intend to spend much time there, I developed a strong attachment to—and fondness for—it and spent ten years in the city, and followed the transformation of the city wrought by the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Part of that transformation was the development of nearly every major museum in the city. Except for its art museum (which opened in its Richard Meier-designed building a few years a few years before the city began campaigning for the Olympics), several major institutions opened between the time Atlanta won the right to host the Olympics and the start of the Olympics, including the Atlanta History Center (which had the land, but lacked an appropriate museum building), Fernbank Museum of Natural History (a school-based science center existed, but not a full museum), ZooAtlanta—a complete reworking of the local zoo, SciTrek, a science and technology museum (which has since closed), and the World of Coke (dedicated to the world famous cola, whose manufacturer has its world headquarters in Atlanta).

The growth has continued since, with the conversion of the former SciTrek space into an open exhibition space, the expansion of the High Museum, the renovation of APEX (African American Panoramic Experience), a new World of Coke, and the Georgia Aquarium.

To further cement Atlanta’s place as the New York of the south, and a world-class destination, city leaders might consider the following:

  • Fill the void left by SciTrek with another science museum. At its opening, SciTrek claimed to be one of the top 10 science centers in the US. But that’s only because SciTrek bought its exhibits from the other 9. Furthermore, when the museum was failing, it brought in another off-the-rack exhibit, Mathematica, a duplicate of the original in Massachusetts. What SciTrek lacked was original exhibits—and it’s that originality that makes a museum worth visiting.
  • To make such a museum both unique and relevant to the people of Atlanta and its environs, it would need to scrap the abstract, off-the-shelf approach of SciTrek and present, instead, exhibits focused on concrete and relevant topics, probably tied to local industry and everyday life. In fact, its mission should be explaining the science underlying current and past daily activity. It could then link the economic and daily activities to the underlying science. A prototype exists in the Hong Kong Seicne Museum. Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors and are relevant to the local economy, include transportation, finance, retailing, agriculture and food processing, and mass communication. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the living room to the mall.
  • A “terrarium.” On the one hand, I understand that, when someone gives $200 million for an aquarium, you build it. But why Atlanta would want an aquarium is beyond me. There’s a terrific one two hours away in Chattanooga, so there’s no immediate need. But more significantly, Atlanta’s defining characteristic is its land, not its water. (The Chattanooga isn’t even a major river in Atlanta.) So how is an aquarium representative of Atlanta.

    I always thought a terrarium—or an exhibition that’s based on showing indigenous land animals in replicas of their local habitats—would be more relevant to the Atlanta context. It would not need to compete with the Zoo, which focuses on exotic animals from other parts of the world, rather than local animals and plants. Models exist, including Wildlife World –a companion to Sydney, Australia’s aquarium, and Montreal’s Biodome.
Next hometown: Montreal, Quebec.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Rochester, Minnesota (Hometown 2)

 Rochester,  Minnesota is a small town located 40 miles (about 65 kilometers) west of the Mississippi River, and about 90 minutes south of the Twin Cities.

It’s also the place where I began my adult life.  I figured if Minnesota was good for the fictional Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it would be good for real me.  And it was.  As someone said, Rochester is a perfect place for a young adult who has no idea where they’re going in life.  It provides a space to figure it out.

During my time in Rochester, my primary cultural focus was local theater, which is surprisingly active.  The museum scene is a bit lighter; most people drive to Minneapolis and St. Paul to take advantage of their excellent museums.

But why?  People in southern Minnesota have a culture and heritage that’s worthy of collecting and studying.  So I propose two museums that could strengthen the cultural life in this small community.

  • Museum of Wildlife Art.  Although the Rochester Art Center focuses on symbolic, modern art, a more typical indigenous form of art is the more representational wildlife art.  Indeed, many of the winners of Federal and state duck stamp print competitions—highly competitive annual events among the best artists in the discipline—come from the Southern Minnesota region of which   Rochester is the largest city.  Many galleries in the region specialize in wildlife art, and a museum that collects, studies, and provides education related to it would be representative of the local art.  One set of galleries could present winners of various wildlife stamp competitions, another could present original paintings, a third could present applied arts (furniture, jewelry, and related arts) inspired by wildlife arts, and a fourth gallery could present changing exhibits on special topics in wildlife art.  
  • CMA—a museum of the regional economy in southern Minnesota. Although some might think it refers to the Country Music Association, it would really be a museum about the work of computers, medicine, and agriculture—three major industries of Southern Minnesota.  
  • A philosophy guiding this museum might be a systems approach—showing both systems at work in individual industries as well as how a core organization provides the basis for an economic “hub.”  

    Consider the medical part of the museum, which could be boosted with contributions from the collection of the Mayo Museum (which tells the story of the work of the Mayo Clinic).  In this museum, the exhibition would explore (a) how the Mayo Clinic forms a hub of activity that contributes to health, and (b) the contributions of Southern Minnesotans to the human health.  

    A second segment of the museum would focus on the hub of computer-related activity centered on IBM.  More than merely detailing the history of IBM in Rochester, such an exhibition might take a current computer and show how IBM and other companies in Southern Minnesota have contributed to technology that has become commonplace.  

    A third segment of the museum would explore the agricultural industry in the region, perhaps starting with a dinner table and then showing how farmers and businesses in southern Minnesota contribute to the food that people eat. 

    A fourth segment would feature changing exhibitions, exploring themes that cut across the different industries, such as the changing nature of work, the changing nature of worker expertise, the impact of global competition, and similar types of topics.

Next hometown:  Atlanta, Georgia.   

Wish List for Hometown 1: Baltimore

Wish List of Resources for My Home Towns—Museums 
Visiting museums in so many different places and seeing how they preserve and strengthen the local cultures and enhance the spirits of their communities has encouraged me to think about museums that could be established in my various home towns—and that could preserve and strengthen their cultures, and enhance the spirits of these communities.

And yes, I use home towns in the plural.  For those of you who know anything about my life story, you know that I’ve moved around a bit.  The home towns I’ll address here include:

  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Rochester, Minnesota
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Montreal, Quebec

(Although I’ve also lived in Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Hong Kong, I don’t have suggestions for them.)

Hometown 1: Baltimore
Although less than an hour from the US capital, Washington, DC, Baltimore—the town where I was born and raised—is not only a physically separate city, it’s culturally separate, too.  Where Washington has primarily served as a government town and now has industry (nearly all service and defense-related) that emerges from government, Baltimore was a port town with heavy industry, though both have diminished in importance in recent decades and, as the civil service outgrows Washington, has attracted some agencies, such as Social Security.

That industrial wealth initially funded Baltimore’s cultural institutions, which include two world-class art museums, a public library system, and a history museum, as well as the more recent  National Aquarium, Museum of Science, Museum of Visionary Art, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History.

Baltimore also has had a series of smaller museums that preserve pieces of Baltimore’s working class and everyday heritage, including its Museum of Industry, and closed City Life Museums and Museum of Public Works (closed in the past year due to a city budget crisis).

What’s special about these museums is that, although they’re world class, they emerge from the community that hosts them.  For example, Baltimore has a large African American population, so a museum of African American history is organic to the community.  Baltimore has a working class history, and a museum of industry honors that history.  And Baltimore is not just a port town; the harbor, river, and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows are all integral parts of the area. The Aquarium honors the role of the maritime in the life of the region.

For Baltimore, the ideal is bringing the museums lost to bankruptcy and budget cuts back to life, while remaining true to their spirit and the stories they tried to tell.  In addition, such a museum must be located in a place where it is likely to attract many visitors—and contributors.

That museum might be a Museum of the Baltimore Spirit, which—like its name suggests—celebrate the spirit of the city.  Taking a lead from the approach taken by the Minnesota Historical Society, but focusing on a city rather than a state—this museum would have two permanent exhibits.  And as the Minnesota Historical Society has two permanent exhibits, so would this museum.  One would introduce local culture, but rather than taking the A to Z approach that the Minnesota center takes, this one might take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach and, in the process, celebrate the histories of the many ethnic groups that comprise the local culture.  The second permanent exhibition would present a chronological history of the city.  But rather than a large board of dates and events, perhaps this one would provide a walk through the history of the city.  A third gallery would present temporary exhibitions that would explore themes in the life of the city.  Some could be upbeat, such as the role of sports teams in civic pride. Some would be critical, exploring social changes and their effect on the landscape of the city.

Location would be an essential part of this story.  One possibility is housing this museum in the Inner harbor, which hosts many of the other museums and attractions in the citywould take a chronological approach.  Indeed, it could be used to revive the sagging Gallery and Harborplace malls.

But another possibility is to locate this elsewhere, near another cultural institution like the Museum of Art or the Baltimore Zoo, to create a new cultural hub and bring visitors and the related economic impact to other parts of town.  Should such an approach be taken, quick access to the city’s Metro system would be essential to the success of the institution.
Next hometown:  Rochester, Minnesota.   

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Travel Experience on Subways

Rail basically lives up to its reputation as a “more civilized” way of travel—and so does its “cousin,” subways (also known as metros and mass transit).  Perfect? No.  Travel by mass transit posed some interesting challenges, like these.

My first experience on the Madrid Metro was an experience in getting lost. Totally lost.  Admittedly, it was partly my fault; I didn’t call the hotel in advance to find out which Metro stop to take, much less write down its address and telephone number.  But the hotel shares some of the blame; it did not list the actual name of the Metro stop on its website, much less the name of the specific exit to take.

My first indication of a problem was at the train station.  I went to the information desk to get information about the Metro system.  The guy at the desk said he worked for the rail system, not the metro.

We made it to the presumed subway station and discovered it had 5 exits.  We didn’t know which one to take, and couldn’t find an area guide on the walls that might suggest which of the five was most appropriate for us.  I chose one; I quickly learned that wasn’t the right one.   I learned two valuable lessons from that experience; useful, tourist-oriented signage is an essential component of a great Metro.  In the meantime, make sure you have thorough directions.

Déjà vu all over again in Berlin.   I had traveled on the Berlin subway system before, so I felt comfortable using it this time.  It’s extensive, it goes nearly everywhere we wanted to go (except directly to Museum Island) and runs on an honor system (there are no turnstiles to go through).

So I wasn’t prepared for a bizarre situation that happened my first time using the subway on this trip.  After the fifth station, the sixth stop on the line was the same as the fourth stop.  And the seventh station was the same as the third stop.  According to the map on the train, that wasn’t the plan.

Apparently, part of the line on which I was traveling was closed for renovations.  There was an announcement on the train but, because it was in German, I couldn’t understand it.  I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: when lines are interrupted or stations closed for renovations, place a temporary marker on the subway map over the area to provide a visual cue to passengers. Also update the website with similar information.

That said, I found the subway maps for the Berlin metro to be unusually complicated and difficult to follow in contrast to systems of similar size and complexity.  This system has many routes, but the small type on the route maps made identifying route and station names all the more challenging.  Directional signage within stations was similarly confusing.  For example, no direct link exists between the S-bahn and U-bahn trains though directional   signage in the station suggests otherwise.  .

The City Tour in Istanbul:  Istanbul has both traditional subway and light rail systems.  We found both systems to be incredibly easy to use.

Travelers buy tokens (called jetons) from a vendor near the station, then enter the station.  The system was reasonably bi-lingual; visitors who do not speak or read Turkish could easily navigate the system.

Although cities primarily build mass transit systems to ferry locals through the city, we figured out quickly that an above-ground system, like the Light Rail system in Istanbul, could also provide tourists a great tour of the city, too.  So we rode the line end-to-end, traveling from the downtown of the city to a suburb near the airport, and back to the historic section where we were staying.  We took the ride at sunset and traveled over the river--certainly adding to the charm of the experience.  

In general, we found travel by mass transit in all of the cities we visited to be exceptionally convenient and cost-effective when walking was either not practical or not reflective of our moods.  Admittedly, signage and directions posed challenges in some cities.  But in each case, we quickly overcame the challenges, adjusted to the systems, and became regular users. We purchased unlimited travel passes on the Paris and Berlin systems.  We did not need the passes in other cities but used the systems when walking or city tour buses could not take us where we wanted to go.  
Next post:  Wish lists of cultural resources for my home towns. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations

As a result of the frustrations that travelers experience or anticipate with air travel, when feasible, many are turning to trains.  For the most part, train travel offers an easier travel experience but some issues could make it an even smoother, more seamless user experience.

In this post, I explore some of the strengths of the rail travel experience and opportunities for improvement, both from the perspective of the station and the train itself.

The Traveler Experience with Central Train Stations
Train stations address many of the issues that arose in my critique of airports.

  • Reasonably priced food and trinkets.  In Canada and Europe, prices for food at airports seems far more reasonable than it did at airports.  At Montreal’s train station, for example, many people working in nearby offices eat lunch at the train station’s food court.  (That a significant investment in the ambience of the food court was made probably persuades lunchers; it’s the nicest food court in the area (in my humble opinion)). 
  • Reasonable distances from arrival to taxis and car rental stations.
  • Clear directional signage.
  • Excellent shopping in several train stations, offering practical items like groceries, office supplies, magazines and newspapers, and personal care and pharmacy items.  
  • In Europe, transfers among trains are a snap.  Some only provide 2 to 3 minutes between trains, and the connections are so easy that passengers can make the transfers with time to spare.  (Not that I trusted these short changes, but they are surprisingly smooth.)

Where train stations fall short is in the link to certain ground transportation options.  Links to  buses seem to be inconvenient; it seems that, in many train stations, they’re located in the most distant corner of the station.  (That said, bus links with the central train station in Enschede, The Netherlands is seamless.)

More significantly, links to metro systems seem to be clunky. In Toronto, Paris, and Montreal, the link between corresponding subway stations and train stations do not seem to be designed for travelers with luggage.  All involve winding pathways, and walks up stairs (with no options for escalators or elevators).  Most of the turnstiles in subway stations are not designed for people traveling with even small suitcases, much less large ones.  The problem is especially serious in Paris, where the make shift solution doesn’t always work.  

The Traveler Experience on Trains
With stress free boarding procedures (even those trains requiring security checks seem to handle them more quickly than airports), wide seats—even in coach  class, leg room, electrical outlets at most seats (once again, even in coach), and spacious on-board wash rooms, trains are, as Canada’s VIA Rail advertises, a “civilized alternative.”

In first class, passengers even receive a meal—with complimentary wine.

And, as train stations offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, so trains themselves offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, for the most part.

But, as train stations have room for improvement, so do trains themselves, little things that affect the user experience.  Consider these.

Clarify the value proposition of a a Eurail pass. When I first traveled on a Eurail pass, in the 1980s, it provided unlimited travel within a period of time, few requirements to make reservations, and rarely a reservation fee.  In 2010, a Eurail pass basically seems like a discount voucher.  Reservations were required for all rides, all reservations involved additional fees (sometimes as high as 100 euros) and we were limited in the amount we could travel.  In the end, even with ground transportation fees, traveling on Air Berlin would have been a more cost- and time-effective solution.  (Admittedly, this is a Europe-only issue.)

Eurail passes used to have a reputation as a good deal, but the reality seems at odds with the reputation.  That could catch up to the European national railways.

Provide room for luggage on European inter-city trains.  Although checking luggage isn’t an option on most European trains, they also do not provide room to store luggage.   The overhead bins aren’t good for much more than a handbag or computer case.

Canada’s VIA Rail might have older trains (and, in many cases, used ones from other countries), but they have plenty of room for luggage.

Watch the timetable:  On the one hand, Northern European trains run so closely to the time table that travelers can set their watch to them, and VIA Rail usually follows its schedule closely, even in bad weather, Amtrak in the U.S. is a different story.  Except on well-traveled routes (like the Boston-Washington corridor), schedules are merely a suggestion and actual arrival and departure times can occur hours after published schedules.

Additional thoughts: The review of train stations focused on central stations.  Suburban and rural stations offer a significantly different experience.  Because I rarely use them, I could not comment on them.

Compared with the number and scope of issues with the user experience that airlines and airports need to address, those the challenges facing airlines and airports, the traveler experience of trains and train stations is significantly smoother and more pleasant.  That may result, in part, from the differences in the number of passengers airlines and airports must process, as well as the significant difference in travel conditions and challenges.

In the scheme of things, these are minor issues.  But the value and luggage issues in Europe, and schedule issues in the US, still have the ability to annoy passengers.
Next post:  The Travel Experience on Subways.  

Friday, August 27, 2010

Germany seems poised to limit use of primarily social networking sites, like Facebook, for employment purposes. Although news reports suggest that Facebook believes its privacy settings are sufficient, it seems that the legislators feel otherwise.  

This is not the same thing as a school district in Florida, in which the superintendent unilaterally banned teachers from using Facebook.

That pronouncement only exacerbates confusion over social networking, rather than clarifying confusing points and moving the conversation forward.  In the case of Florida, the issue that seems to have prompted the pronouncement is inappropriate communication between teachers and students.  Banning use of Facebook won't stop inappropriate communication--rather, it avoids the discussion about what is appropriate communication.

The German situation seems different.  It's motivated by a broader concern about what rights employers have when monitoring employees and potential employees, and is part of a bill that has much broader implications than just Facebook.  In addition to social networking, the proposed legislation apparently addresses issues like video monitoring and how employers handle suspected criminal activity.

The proposed legislation distinguishes between social networking sites primarily intended for work-related purposes, like LinkedIn, and those intended primarily for purely social purposes, like Facebook.  Although the news reports I've read do not comment on this, my guess is that the ultimate goal is to avoid situations like those in which bright, 22-year-old university graduates lose good job offers because an employer checked out the candidate's Facebook site, saw a party photo (which is what Facebook was intended for) that ruffled his or her feathers, and rescinded the offer.

Most discussions about the use of Facebook in workplace learning and communication have focused on ways to exploit Facebook for our purposes, without acknowledging the fundamental issue that Facebook was primarily intended for social purposes.

Certainly Facebook hasn't encouraged that acknowledgment, with privacy settings that are only easy to use in theory and, as a result, many users are sharing all of their data whether or not that's their intention.

But it behooves us workplace learning and communication professionals, who are supposed to be sensitive to issues of work-life balance, to recognize that a distinction exists between business and personal social networking sites, and we have a responsibility to launch that discussion.

Although I have a feeling that some social media enthusiasts will not respond enthusiastically to the proposed German legislation, as the lines between work and home life continue to blur, I have a feeling that the discussions of this issue will continue.

For more information about the German legislation, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/26/business/global/26fbook.html?

The real issue with

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports

The Usability of the Travel Experience

At the end of my last post of travel pet peeves, I made the observation that many of the snafus happen because different aspects of travel are coordinated by different organizations, and no one has responsibility for the “big picture,” that is, the end-to-end travel experience.

As a result, the interfaces among these experiences are often clunky—between air travel and ground transport, subway and train station.  Rummler and Brache noticed that, when organizations fall down, the cracks are the interfaces between different groups within the organization—the kitchen and the wait staff in a restaurant, manufacturing and distribution in a plant, sales and set-up in a marketing organization.

This type of problem seems especially true in the travel experience—air, train, and metro.  It’s as if the people who work in them are especially oblivious to the experiences of the travelling public.  Furthermore, no one seems to have responsibility for the end-to-end experiences in each of these modes of travel.  Traveling as much as I did during the sabbatical last year provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on these interface issues—and in the next several posts, I share some of the issues that arose:

  • Experience, usability, airlines, and airports
  • Usability of train stations and trains
  • Usability of metro (subway) systems

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports
My dad used to say that half of the fun of travel was the experience of getting there.

He died in 1965, and never lived to see the state of travel to day.  Its primary role seems to be selling prescriptions for Xanex and other tranquilizers.

In theory, airports serve as centers of welcome and fond farewell for their communities and airplanes are the means of building up to these experiences.  But I wonder what words travellers would use if asked to describe the nature of the welcome and farewell they received.

More specifically, designers of the air travel experience seem to overlook the welcoming role played by planes and airports because they tend to overlook or, worse, callously ignore, key specific aspects of the travel experience.  In this post, I’ll look at some of the issues that seem most visible to me.  In the Comments section, you might add to the list.

The Airline Experience
The concerns with the end-to-end design of the air experience of airline travel begins with the process of making reservations.

More specifically, the issues start with ticket prices. Although a la carte pricing seems to have rankled most air travelers, since I compared an a la carte price on Air Canada that was loaded with extras (seat selection coming and going, pre-paid meal, and the admittedly rip-off “On Your Way” service) and still cheaper than the prices on Expedia and Travelocity, I have no issue with it.

My concerns, instead, focus on issues that clearly suggest that airlines are, at best, indifferent to the experiences of their customers.  Here are some specific issues, from the beginning to the end of the experience:

Grossly misleading advertised prices.  This is primarily a problem in Canada, where airport taxes are admittedly exceptionally high.  But it’s also a problem elsewhere.

But airlines don’t make the problem any better by advertising one-way ticket prices sans taxes.  They know that most travellers make round-trips, and that want to make these decisions based on total price, not the pre-tax price on a one-way fare.  (And the fine print always says that the fare is only applicable to a round trip anyway.)

Airlines in Canada claim that consumers want to know how much they’re paying in taxes.

Perhaps—but only after they know what the entire ticket price is.  And when a trip whose teaser price is $79 actually balloons to something like $369 (I’m not exaggerating), these practices seem all the more deceitful.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that consumers don’t really read this type of information so carefully so they’re not likely to process the details anyway.

If airlines really want to raise consumer awareness of taxes, more effective—and less deceitful—practices exist.  They could print them on receipts (as they already do) as well as boarding passes and other check-in documentation.

Furthermore, the documentation of taxes could be visual—a pie chart (taking a lead from gas stations, which already do this).

Consumer groups have raised awareness of the problem, but the Canadian government seems listless in addressing the problem.  They said they’re working on it, but that’s a euphemism for hoping the issue is going to go away.

But on a more practical level, if the initial conversation with consumers is based on misleading information, how can the trust that builds true consumer loyalty ever develop?

Charges for making reservations by telephone.  On the one hand, I recognize that, when customers make their reservations online, they save staff and airlines want to pass the savings along to customers.  On the other hand, there are times when this seems to be a self-defeating proposition.  Some people have exceptional difficulty making reservations online—like those who don’t have, or are uncomfortable using, computers.  Two of the groups  can ill afford unnecessary additional charges.  Elderly people—many of whom are good airline customers—are one group.  Low-income flyers, some of whom do not have home internet service or computers, are another.

A third group is people who have tried to make reservations online but, for reasons that usually have to do with glitches in the airline’s own computer system, can’t.  In such instances, airlines should pay customers for their diligence rather than penalizing them.

Dis-loyalty programs: While airlines have ratcheted up opportunities to earn frequent flyer points through credit cards, dining partners, shopping on their website, they’ve decreased opportunities to earn them the traditional way—by flying.  For example, Air Canada only awards full credit for flying when paying full fare.  Otherwise, customers receive about half the points.  To be honest, the points aren’t worth the differential in price.  But at least, Air Canada is up-front about its reduced mileage.

In contrast, Delta hides some of its new practices.  A tradition among “partner” airlines like Delta’s SkyTeam is that miles flown on one airline earn mileage in a partner’s frequent flyer program, even if the original airline issued the ticket.  Apparently, no more.  I bought a ticket on Air France through Expedia and tried to receive credit on Delta.  They wouldn’t offer it, identifying the flight as “free.”  (At $1,000 a ticket, it most definitely was not free.)  When I inquired, they the fare wasn’t eligible for the transfer.

Naturally, Expedia did not inform me of this either.

Grumpy service.  Years ago, I heard an executive from Southwest Airlines explain their personnel philosophy:  “Treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers.”

A lightbulb went off; I understood why Northwest was so horrible to its customers.  During that particular year, the pilots had gone on strike, the machinists were taking work actions, and the flight attendants were threatening to strike.

Unhappiness is more contagious than the Avian flu.

Admittedly, remaining enthusiastic in the flying environment isn’t easy.  But that’s the service that airlines are paid to provide all the same; their management has a responsibility to inspire their workers, not only to ensure safety but to ensure a pleasant flying experience.

Mis-communication about flight status:  Although airlines resisted it, frequent flyers  applauded U.S. government intervention when airlines showed continued indifference to excessive wait times on tarmacs when flights were delayed. Even in the face of exceptionally poor publicity that bordered on communicating incompetence, airlines refused to improve their practices.

But those are merely extreme situations.  Mis-communication and unrealistic expectations about flight operations seem endemic to airline operations.  When airlines delay flights, they are almost never forthcoming with information.  At the least, if they know nothing, airlines could communicate that to waiting passengers and tell them they’ll give an update in 30 minutes.  If they still know nothing, they can communicate that.  Instead, gate staff rarely communicate anything, and the not knowing only enrages passengers—and unnecessarily so.

This flies in the face of crisis communications strategy.

But airlines must be willing to endure this for a reason: if the flight delay is caused by the airline, they’re responsible for assisting passengers, including giving them a hotel room if needed.  If passengers don’t know what’s going on, they can’t ask for the services that consumer laws provide.

Or perhaps airlines are simply so deaf that they can’t hear how foolish they sound.  Something I overheard in Baltimore’s airport sheds light on this.  Two Northwest flights at adjacent gates were both delayed: one for weather, one for mechanical reasons.  A Northwest gate agent made an announcement, telling passengers on the flight delayed by mechanical failure that they would be given some sort of meal voucher and those on the weather-delayed flight that they would receive nothing.

Mis-handling their own ground operations.  Although this level of mis-communication would be embarrassing to any other type of organization, mis-communication seems to be de rigeaur for most airlines.  Consider the situation when a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago arrives early, and the plane waits at the gate for 15 minutes because there’s no one to open the gangplank.

Seriously, how can the arrival of a 747 that’s been flying for 15 hours and in constant communication with air traffic control be such a surprise that no one is ready for its arrival?

And given that these planes fly the highest profit routes, wouldn’t they be of such a high priority that the company would redirect resources their way? Although it’s against the rules, one can easily understand how passengers who have been cooped up on the plane are anxious to depart and might even work on it.

These are just four examples of mis-communication in the airline experience that creates mis-trust, anxiety, and frustration. This persistent, institutionalized, and systemic mis-communication elevates these activities from a simple communication problem to a user experience issue, and affects the ways that passengers feel about—and respond to—the wait for flights.

But have no fear; most airlines are matched by their closest partners, the airports, for creating an unnecessarily frustrating customer experience.

The Airport Experience
As I mentioned, the airport is supposed to be the welcome and departure point for visitors.  But many offer something short of a warm welcome or a heartfelt farewell.  Here are some specific areas where the experience can be improved.

In Winter, Provide Heat at Charles de Gaulle Airport:  We had a 3-hour layover at the airport in February. Even with hot coffees in our systems, we had to wear our coats in the terminal to try to stay warm, and that really didn’t do the best job.  I’ve been told that the temperatures in August are sweltering.

Stop the Price Gouging at European Airports:   $5.00 for a can of coke?  That’s the price at Charles de Gaulle.  Coke wasn’t much cheaper at Schipol airport.  Although some of the more durable merchandise was sold at prices competitive with those in local stores, food at European airports (and train stations) seemed a bit on the high side—as if the operators know that they have a captive audience and want to take advantage of it.

These airports could learn from Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, which have had “best price guarantees” to prevent airport businesses from over-charging.

Better link airports with subways.  In some instances, link between an airport and a subway or intra-city train is nearly seamless, like the links the airport and subways in Atlanta, Schipol and Reagan National airports.  Atlanta’s subway and the entire railroad system of the Netherlands literally come into their respective airports, and Reagan’s comes up right along side the airport, with central access to it.

But linking to subways and trains at other airports is a separate journey of its own, with the link itself often eating up an extra 15 to 30 minutes of travel time between the baggage claim and the train.  Boston’s airport stop actually is about a mile away from the airport, requiring a special shuttle bus.  The Amtrak station at Newark’s airport is even further away.  Technically, there’s an O’Hare stop on the Chicago subway system, but it’s quite a hike from any of the terminals—and directions to the and from the terminals aren’t particularly well marked along the way.  It suffers, like the similar odyssey from the baggage claim to the Light Rail station at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport—from the creation of a transportation hub (which will be discussed later).  And the Amtrak link from downtown Ft. Worth and Dallas to the DFW airport runs so rarely and is far enough from the terminal that,  as a ground transportation option, it has little practical value.  (It’s not even on the intra-airport train system; reaching it requires a special shuttle that does not leave from every terminal.)

A number of reasons exist for the poor links between subways and airports, but they often come down to a core issue:  different groups need to work together in the best interests of the passengers and, in the end, the passengers’ experience rates lower than other considerations—sometimes within the control of all parties, sometimes not.

Although the stated goals of linking airports and high-speed rail is to encourage travelers to take public transit, the “link” must be easy to traverse for people to actually use it.

As long as  I’m complaining: If you need to transfer lines when taking the subway to the airport, many travelers quickly find that the transfer is a challenge in its own right. Subway systems built before the 1970s typically do not have escalators at exchange lines, and almost always require going up a staircase—which not only builds weight lifting muscles, but also slows the passenger down and, at times, infuriates other travelers behind them who are also slowed down in their climb up the stairs, as no escalators or elevators are available.
This issue is admittedly not an airport issue, but it’s just one other minor frustration in travel.   Except where court-mandated to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities, the costly renovations to these stations to simplify the interchange is unlikely to occur.

The next time they remodel, many airports should seriously explore ways to shorten distances.  Admittedly, larger airports need to accommodate an ever-larger number of gates and have limited space to grow or, even just remodel.  Moreover, some of these airports are working with designs that little flexibility to grow.  For example, Montreal’s airport is space constrained as are Chicago, Newark, Minneapolis-St-Paul’s, and Los Angeles’ (just to name a few).

When they do expand, many of these airports simply extend their jetties further out—and further away from terminal services, like immigration, baggage claim, and ground transportation.  That’s great for those interested in a workout, but most arriving passengers aren’t really interested in that.  Lugging suitcases, laptops, handbags—often with diminished energy from an overnight or overseas flight—an extra-long walk isn’t what they’re interested in.  The walks in some airports is especially lengthy, such as those in Minneapolis St-Paul’s Terminals A and B, and Newark’s Terminal C.

Some airports have installed walkways, but these walkways are often outside of arrivals areas.

Others have installed trains to ferry passengers from the gates to baggage claim, but unless those trains were part of the original design, the distance between the gate and the train is so far, that the train nearly loses its value.  Some particularly questionable intra-airport trains are the  ones at the Newark, Dallas-Fort-Worth, and San Francisco airports.

The intra-airport train in San Francisco is especially bothersome for arriving passengers.  It is not well-connected to the terminals (and its stops are particularly inconvenient for some airlines that do not have hubs at the airport). And, in some instances, requires that travelers walk up stairs—sometimes with hefty loads of luggage—to get to the train.

In contrast, to these retrofits, the Atlanta airport was designed to handle large volumes of passengers, and to grow easily as volumes increased.  Denver adopted the same design as is Dulles airport (though it’s the longest renovation I’ve ever seen).

Provide a Ground Transportation Solution to Reaching Ground Transportation Hubs: Designed and implemented to free up some airport space for other purposes and accommodate growth in demand for ground transportation, ground transportation hubs have created new inconveniences for arriving passengers.

On paper, the hubs at the Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis-St-Paul airports both probably looked good.  Ground transportation hubs would be located in a central facility that’s accessible to all of the terminals in the airport.  In reality, both resulted in hikes guaranteed to help arriving passengers lose 5 pounds (OK, I might exaggerate but…)  In the case of O’Hare, the pathway to the hub to the terminals isn’t particularly well marked.  The hub is well marked in Minneapolis-St.Paul, it’s just plain far and adds unnecessary steps.  For example, to get a rental car, arriving passengers must hike to the transportation hub, then pick up an intra-airport shuttle, then take an elevator up to the rental car area.

Atlanta and Baltimore-Washington have tried to eliminate those unnecessary steps—but do so by literally shipping  passengers miles way to not just off-site, but way-off-site car rental facilities.  Atlanta’s is connected by a high-speed train, Baltimore-Washington’s by a shuttle bus.  Although the spacious facilities are touted as a benefit to customers, getting to and from these car rental facilities adds 15 to 30 minutes to a trip that weren’t there before.  

One Last Problem that Needs Addressing:  When arriving in Los Angeles on certain airlines, passengers need to literally leave the airport terminal to catch a stair or escalator downstairs to the baggage claim.  That seems like poorly thought-out traffic design.

Some Additional Thoughts: Individually, expanding airport capacity, linking airports and cities by subway or intra-city train, providing transportation hubs, and similar measures were meant to accommodate increasing numbers of passengers and demands for services.  But rather than adding convenience, these measures have made some airports more complicated and time consuming to traverse, and added to an already frustrating experience.

Experience designers—airports offer plenty of opportunity.  

But more opportunity exists.
Next post:  The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Big Donations and Big Weddings

This fourth posting of recent news to catch my eye.

On the subject of nonprofits, Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar explores the problems underlying the mega-donations that are increasingly popular these days, wondering if their rise is causing smaller donors--who are the backbones of most organizations--to cut back, feeling that their donations matter less.  Check out her thoughts at http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/846321--goar-mega-donations-pose-deep-questions

And for a different perspective...
Andrew Brown of the Guardian weighs in on the wedding controversy--no, not the gay-straight one, but the big religious versus small civil one.

The great point about completely impersonal ceremonies, whose form is the same for everyone, whether these are religious or entirely civil, is that they remind us that the problems and difficulties of marriage are universal. They come from being human. They can’t be dodged just by being our wonderful selves, even all dusted with unicorn sparkle. His comments were an Idea of the Day ( http://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/06/the-trouble-with-weddings/).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Corporate Responsibility, Possible Money Grabs, and the ROI of Tutoring: News Stirring Thought about Workplace Learning

  • Business owner Paul Downs wonders "Do I owe my employees a career path? Although he wants to retain employees and found that specialist workers are the most productive, he wonders what happens when workers "top out" on the career paths within his company.  He voices a concern that many employers feel--but concludes the value of supporting his workers outweighs the costs.  Read his thoughts at http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/12/do-i-owe-my-employees-a-career-path/?ref=business.
  • Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd make 10 predictions about the future of training in a recent posting on ASTD's Learning Circuits.  Most of the post focuses on the of technology in the future of workplace learning.  But they present more of an enthusiastic rather than critical look at the technology. For example, they see 3-D applications as a low-cost alternative to labs, without addressing the sometimes considerable cost of developing the software-based simulations.  Similarly, they talk about the increasing role of mobile apps but fail to link it to the larger--and ongoing--conversation about supporting performance and transferring training, which is the real process by which these applications for mobile devices offer value to learning.

They also note the role that public policy plays in encouraging workplace learning, and talk about individual learning accounts that some jurisdictions are offering their taxpayers.  But once again, they fail to demonstrate critical thinking about these accounts.  Meister and Willyerd present the accounts as additional revenue sources for tuition for workplace learning.  Why should workers pay their own cash for training on proprietary skills and products that only benefit the employer, when they could invest those funds in a neutral third-party provider who would provide the worker with durable, transferable skills that would make the worker attractive to all employers?  
In terms of the future of trainers, Meister and Willyerd advocate for mostly clerical role: accrediting workers' skills, saying that workers won't necessarily demonstrate competency through courses but, rather, through on-the-job activities. Meister and Willyerd present that certification responsibility as an exciting role--and the primary viable option for trainers.  But they only partially describe exactly what that role is for trainers.  Reading between the lines, if this role is similar to the role that Meister saw for in-the-trenches trainers at corporate universities, one real possibility of this view is that primary role of in-the-trenches trainers under this vision is to serve as contract administrators and trainers of on-the-job coaches—kind of like a specialized purchasing team for training.  This is hardly the "strategic partner" who has a "seat at the corporate table"  view advocated by the trade press and actively explored by strategic HRD research and theory.
Read the full article at http://www.astd.org/LC/2010/0710_meister.htm.

  • Although, ostensibly about parents purchasing tutoring services for their children (a booming industry, which grew 5 percent last year, despite the recession and cuts to schools), Paul Sullivan’s exploration of the “returns” on such tutoring offers some glimpses into the challenges of tallying the ROI of training.   For example, some parents come to tutoring with unrealistic expectations—that the only successful outcome is acceptan999ce to an Ivy League school. I was also surprised by the fees that some of the Manhattan-based tutors charge—as high as 8 times the rate of many contract instructional designers and technical writers. Check out Sullivan’s analysis at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/your-money/21wealth.html?hpw=&pagewanted=all. Visited August 21, 2010.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scandals, Unnecessary Expenses, and $320K Kindergarten Teachers: News Roundup about Research, Schools and Higher Education

This second posting of news focuses about

  • Research 
  • Schools
  • Higher education

New from the research front: The recent announcement about a test for Alzheimer's disease is one of the first fruits of an unprecedented willingness among researchers in government, universities and industry (including pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers) to share data immediately.  This limited the amount of unnecessary duplication in research, thus allowing researchers to act on findings more quickly.  Apparently, the next area on which researchers have agreed to share data is the fight against Parkinson's disease.  Another plug for the "open" movement.  Check out the entire story at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/health/research/13alzheimer.html?hp=&pagewanted=all.

News about  schools

  • My former home town of Atlanta is giving high-stakes testing a whole new meaning.   Seems that the improvement in some of the public schools is too good to be believed, resulting in widely believed accusations of cheating on the standardized tests, with the superintendent of schools receiving the most of the blame.
An independent investigation has made significant inroads into clearing the superintendent of schools but that's not good enough for some.  A recent New York Times article provides an outsider's take on the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/education/08atlanta.html?_r=1&hp=&pagewanted=all .
  • On a brighter note, David Leonhardt reports on an economic analysis showing that the most effective kindergarten teachers have a strong--and quantifiable--long-term effect on their students.  In one long-term study of former kindergarteners from Tennessee, the research suggests that the impact is $320,000.  Read "The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers" at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/business/economy/28leonhardt.html?src=me&ref=business for details.

(Note to teachers:  Don't expect the pay raise any time soon.)

Meanwhile, higher education is taking quite a rap in the press.

  • In his OpEd piece, Academic Bankruptcy, religion professor Mark C. Taylor explores the real cost of the high-cost, high-stakes game of competition in higher education.  I'm not sure that he gets at all of the issues driving up academic costs, but he certainly identifies some key ones.  Read the piece at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/opinion/15taylor.html?hp.  
Also check out readers’ responses to Taylor.  Most challenge his arguments based on their personal issues, rather than meaningfully extend it.  
  • But a couple of authors are asking a more fundamental question: is a college education even worth the cost.
    • Time author Ramesh Ponnuru wonders whether Society "should help more kids go to college — or that we should make it easier for people who didn't go to college to make a living?"  (Visit http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1967580,00.html for the complete argument.)
    • New York Times reporter Kristi Oloffson suggests that an oversupply of college graduates exists on the job market--an oversupply that goes beyond the current recession--and many graduates face the real possibility of not being able to replay their student loans.  Certainly some Canadian research by the WALL team at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for the Study of Education suggests that many degreed people are over-educated for the jobs they have.  Read Oloffson's article at  http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1946088,00.html?iid=sphere-inline-sidebar.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Life and Death of e-Mail and e-Books: Roundup of Recent News on Media and e-Books

The next few posts take a brief pause from the account of my sabbatical over the past year to report on some of the news that caught my eye over the past few weeks about:

  • Media (general)
  • e-Books


  • Research
  • Schools
  • Higher education

Next, workplace learning

  • Nonprofits
  • And a different perspective

News about media (general)
The blogosphere is chockablock with predictions of various technologies.

For example, a couple of months ago, Tim Young declared the death of e-mail on the Knowledge is Social blog (http://blog.socialcast.com/social-networks-spur-the-demise-of-email-in-the-workplace/).   On the one hand, he was accurately reading surveys saying that use of e-mail was declining, especially among younger people, who prefer instant messaging, texting, and social networks for communicating.

Over time, however, we in the media tend to love hyperbole about media.  The typical story goes like this: a new medium is going to “kill” an existing one.  Television was going to replace radio and movies.  Cable would kill broadcast television.  Computers will replace the classroom.

But as sociologist Neil Selwyn observed at the recent ED-MEDIA conference in Toronto, such hyperbole can, at times, sound “ridiculous” (he was specifically referring to a comment that social media will replace schools).

Steve Lohr puts the situation into a broader perspective in a recent analysis in the New York Times, observing that—in the long-run—media adapt.  Radio lost its primacy as an entertainment medium, but found new lives—first as background music, news and talk (which has taken a primary role in shaping political debate (my addition))—and later, through satellite radio with a  wide range of music and conversation.  Lohr even identifies podcast as a reinvention of the radio show.

Similarly, rather than lose to television, movies reinvented themselves, first with gimmicks like 3D (geez—and now television is trying the same thing) and, later, with a richer viewing experience not feasible through television.

E-mail?  That’s not dead either.  It’s just morphing in use as are telephone calls.  People may be calling less, but some evidence suggests that some of all of all that increased texting is used to schedule phone conversations.  Merely calling people to say hi unannounced is increasingly seen as an intrusion.

Check out Lohr’s analysis, Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech, at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/weekinreview/22lohr.html?ref=weekinreview.

News about e-books

  • Michael Wolf declares that "e-Books Won the War." I didn't realize we were at war (at least, not over books).  From my perspective, the conversion from print to e-books is part of a larger, systemic conversion from print to online information, and the conversion is very much in process and likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  But, like most industry pundits, hyperbole is intended to drum up attention and, perhaps, business.  Read his comments at http://gigaom.com/2010/08/06/how-e-books-won-the-war/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OmMalik+%28GigaOM%29&utm_content=Twitter.
  • For a more fact-based account of the situation with e-books, check out the current issue of Spectrum, IEEE's magazine.  After providing a current assessment of the brutal market conditions for manufacturers of e-book readers, Spectrum's  editors report the results of their testing and ranking of all the e-readers out there, including obscure ones that no one ever hears about, like the Bookeen Cybook Opus and the Hanvon WISEreader.  Among the useful information in the reviews are the strengths and drawbacks to each reader, and a list of formats that the readers can display.  No format is universal (a problem), but the ePub and PDF formats seem extremely popular.  Read the article at http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/tools-toys/the-ipad-the-kindle-and-the-immutable-laws-of-the-marketplace/0

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Travel Pet Peeves

Although I learned a lot from my travels, a lot of things bothered me while I was on the road.   

In this posting, I describe some of the little everyday things that irritated me. In the next several posts, I explore some of the systemic issues—specifically, the usability of airports, train stations, and metro systems.  

  • Musicians on the Metro (as opposed to those in the Metro station, who usually have to go through an audition process).  Just as I would get into a meaningful conversation with my partner, or go into a deep thought, a not so quiet-nor-comforting concert (I’d hardly call it a serenade) would start.  Something upbeat, with an accordion or something similarly loud.   
  • Panhandlers on the Metro.  They walk from car to car, cup in hand, yelling at people or parading disabled relatives, in a bid for passengers’ money.  Perhaps my irritation is cultural; in Atlanta—where I lived for a decade—the city has posted signs throughout the city advising people not to support panhandlers.  In contrast, the Parisians seem quite supportive of their panhandlers.  I felt bad for those on the train from the airport to the center of the city; most were stingy tourists like me. 
  • Panhandlers in McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Same as on the Metro, but in a more stationary location.  One tried to hit us up just as we were sitting down to eat at McDonald’s.   
  • Street signage—or lack thereof.  The older the city, the more invisible the signage, and the more challenging the task of finding a destination.  
  • Mis-directions from locals.  Although well-intentioned, they’re often inaccurate.  For example, someone told me, “The metro station is just 5 minutes from here.”  I’m sure it was 5 minutes from here, but a different “here” than where we were.  In another place, someone said, “It’s just one block to the Metro.”  Then how do they explain the other two blocks?   
  • Internet access fees in European hotels.  They’re over twice as expensive as in the few North American hotels that still charge for Internet access.  But at least the better hotels explain their fees.  One hotel failed to mention it, then tried to stick me with a 65 euro bill when we checked out.  
  • Texting everywhere.  What’s annoying is that it slows people down when they walk, and they block the walkway.  
  • People who have to yammer on their cell phones in a plane up until the minute the flight attendant announces that they must be turned off.  One time, I had to listen to some guy talking to his kid in graphic detail about her stomach ache.  
  • People who have to yammer on their cell phones on a plane the second the flight attendant says that they can be used again.  It’s especially bizarre on cross-country, red eye flights that arrive on the east coast at 5:30 or 6 am.  Who’s awake to take the call?  
  • People who yammer on their hand-held cell phones when they drive.  Even if they weren’t putting the safety of others at risk, on highways, they usually drive about 15 to 25 km slower than all of the other traffic, and selfishly cause traffic to back up.  
  • People who text and drive.  One can look at the road or look at the screen of their phone, but it’s hard to do both at once.
  • The lack of public information campaigns about talking on hand-helds, texting, and driving in states and provinces that have supposedly outlawed them.  As drivers need to be reminded about the speed limit, they also benefit from occasional reminders about the local mobile phone laws.  
My biggest pet peeve?  The way that traveling makes all of us irritable people who become so focused on our pet peeves, we forget the amazing opportunities that we’ve been given to see new places, meet new people, experience other cultures and, most significantly, stay in touch with people who would have otherwise left our lives.  

It's a situation in which the user experience is overlooked by everyone except the user, because the problems occur--as Rummler and Brache observe--in the "white space" between organizations.  Or more specifically, the black hole that's "not my fault" but isn't anyone else's either.  The next several posts explore three specific travel experiences that are ridden with black holes: airports, trains, and subways.  
Next post:  The Usability of Airports and Planes.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hotel Recommendations in Europe

In addition to opinions about the museums and attractions we visited (and have consumed this blog these past months), I also had opinions about the hotels where we stayed.

This post shares those opinions (which I’ve also posted on TripAdvisor.com), so people who are thinking about visiting these cities— 

  • Berlin
  • Barcelona
  • Istanbul
  • Madrid
  • Paris
  • Valencia 

can figure out if they, too, would like to stay in the same hotels.

But first, I describe the challenge of finding hotel rooms on the Internet.

Finding Hotel Rooms on the Internet: As I’ve aged, I’ve become pickier about the places where I sleep.  And because I was visiting new places on this trip—and visiting others where I still did not feel I knew the city well—I invested a fair amount of time in researching hotels.

At times, it felt like too much time.  I could spend hours checking out hotels in a single city looking for possible bargains, then comparing prices with other websites to see who offered the best deal.  (In most cases, it’s the hotel’s own website that offers the best prices.  Or, if the price is the same as another site, then the hotel’s site offers more flexibility (such as refundable hotel reservations.) (And if the search was conducted over several days, I had to verify rates, which could change daily or even more frequently.)

Once I found a hotel that had the right combination of features and prices, I wanted to check out its look—and checked out the photographs on the official and tourist websites.  But not trusting these, I also turned to reviews.  TripAdvisor.com became the most valued source.  It rates hotels numerically and provides written reviews. For 3-star hotels and up, I looked for hotels with an 8.5 rating or above; for 2-star hotels, 7.5 or above.

But I also paid attention to the number of reviews (for a hotel with just 5 reviews, one bad review can significantly lower the ratings) as well as the written comments (to determine whether the people who offered low ratings had a valid complaint or seemed like complainers with unrealistic expectations).

In the end, I was pleased with the advice TripAdvisor gave as I was generally pleased with all of the hotels I visited, except one. In that particular case, the concern had to do with the staff, not the hotel itself.

Barcelona—Hotel Europark:  The only difficult part of this hotel was checking out.  The process itself was easy; we didn’t want to leave.  This hotel pleased on every level.  The reservation process was easily handled online and we were able to easily change reservations online, too.  The website is easy to navigate and provides an accurate depiction of the hotel.  The hotel made a great first impression; it’s clean, attractive, handsomely furnished—with a black, white, and gray stripe motif that shows up everywhere, from the lobby to the sheets on the beds.

Because we arrived early in the day after an all-night train ride from Paris (around 9 am), we did not expect to be able to check in.  But we had no problem.  After a scary all-night train ride in coach (that included a brush with a scary looking stowaway and some possibly illegal immigrants), we would have been pleased with any room.  But this room was particularly appreciated—with those striped sheets, hardwood floors, clean lines, and comfortable bed.  Ours was the smaller double room but it was sufficiently large.  The bathroom was terrific—a large counter beside the sink with sufficient space for the toiletries of two people and a huge tiled shower.  The flat screen TV had a great choice of channels, including an Andalusian channel with an addictive soap opera late at night.  Free, wireless Internet is available in all rooms.

The only limited aspect of the room was the view—an interior courtyard with views of other windows and a brick wall.  Breakfast (extra, but a good deal if you purchase it with the reservation) is served in a pleasant room on the first floor.  The selection of food was large, without being gluttonous.  The orange juice was freshly squeezed and the coffee freshly brewed.  And it gave me a glimpse at the other guests.  In terms of looks, they seemed interesting.  In terms of other things, I have no idea.

The location is excellent.  It’s about a 10- to 15-minute walk to Passeij de Gracia, the main shopping street, another 10- 15-minute walk to the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, and a 5- to 10-minute walk to the Metro, which is 4 stops from the main strain station (which is not the one where trains from Paris arrive, but that’s an unrelated issue).

Berlin—Holiday Inn Express Berlin City Centre: In terms of basic facilities, this comfort-priced hotel is adequate. The room, while on the smaller side, has an OK bed, small desk, and a fine bathroom.  The TV was older and had a broken remote control, but did offer only 2 English channels (both news—but this is Germany, so any English language programming is appreciated).  Breakfast is standard (I still remember the days when it was standard at all European hotels, which is no longer the case) and, for a cold buffet, is more than adequate.  The highlight is the sophisticated coffee machines, which can make nearly every imaginable espresso drink.  Location is fine—about a 5-minute walk from an S-bahn station and 10-minute walk from Potsdamer Platz and its U-bahn station or Checkpoint Charlie (and its tourist spots).

My hesitation is with the staff, whose failings were numerous.  Because of a change in travel plans, I needed to change the arrival and departure dates (arriving a day earlier, leaving a day later).  I called the hotel and they changed the reservation. But when I checked the online record, the reservation had not been changed.  When I called the hotel to correct their error, the guy at the front desk gave me a hard time, until I pointed out that his colleague was the one who made the error, not me.

During the stay, the front desk staff provided inaccurate information about public transport. After convincing me to take a bus (I wanted to use the subways), they didn’t change my 20 euro note, saying that the bus driver would make change.  That was not correct—it seemed that correct change was needed, as is the case in North America.,

But the most serious problem occurred at checkout.  They tried to charge me for Internet use.  I was kind of taken aback; the website specifically mentions complimentary access.  Furthermore, when I connected to the net in my room, no splash page appeared warning of the charge, as is typical of all hotels.  The guy at the front desk said I was supposed to be told at check in.  I wasn’t.  When he said that he had to charge me for the service, I told him he could, and the first thing I would do is put the charge into dispute.  He relented.

I went back and checked the web page—in bold face type, it says, “Complimentary Internet access” and in non-bold type (almost guaranteed to be missed), it then says, “in the lobby.”  Furthermore, the site never specifically mentions there’s a charge for access in rooms.  This—coupled with the failure of the staff to mention this at check-in and the lack of a splash screen warning that every other hotel (including all of the other ones in the Intercontinental chain)—makes me believe that this is a scam to scrounge up a few extra euros from clueless travelers.

Istanbul—Crowne Plaza Istanbul Old City: I strongly recommend this hotel.  In terms of service, it was great.  The staff was responsive, even with the oddest request (we wanted a knife delivered to our room to eat some cheese and crackers we had bought).

The room was large, had great TV service, and great bathroom, and made for a comfortable trip. The bed was excellent—I think it had memory foam mattress (but I didn’t check).

The location was excellent, too—an easy walk to the tramway, and a slightly longer walk to the Metro station.  (It’s about 5 blocks.)  On a decent day, it’s easy to walk to most of the major sites like the Grand Bazaar (about 5 to 10 minutes), Topkapi Palace and the Archeology Museum (about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your pace), Great service. Responsive staff.  Great location.  Use the trams—convenient.  The Metro is fine, too—but a little further away.  The hotel also offers free Internet—not just wireless access in the room, but also use of a free station in the business centre.

The only hassle is traffic—the poor taxi driver seemed to have to solve the Rubik’s cube puzzle to get through to the hotel, because the streets nearby are so narrow and crowded.  But if it’s your first trip to Istanbul, I’d still recommend getting a taxi from the airport to the hotel.   That said, once you become familiar with the public transit system, it’s faster and easier—less than half the time.  But as I said, this is a minor issue and not a reflection of the hotel.

Madrid—Ibis Madrid Centro:  I didn’t like this hotel at first.  It was impossible to find when getting out of the Metro.  Admittedly, that’s partly my fault, because I didn’t print the map.  But it’s just as much the Ibis Hotels’ fault.  The map on one of their official websites did not name the Metro stop, much less mention which of the six exits to choose.  When traveling with a now frustrated partner, and you both have heavy luggage that must be carried up a flight and a half of stairs to get out of the station, that’s key information.  Worse, one of those six exits is half of a block from the hotel.

Few people we asked knew about the hotel, it’s not marked on any of the maps in the Metro station, and when we finally did get near the hotel, its entrance is nearly impossible to find.  Unlike most hotels, this hotel has a simple, single door underneath the vertical sign—defiinitely not a typical hotel entrance.  Furthermore, the street entrance is one level below the registration desk, and there’s only a stair and a tiny freight elevator to reach it.

So I wasn’t exactly a happy traveler when I checked in.  But the perky front desk agent got past my admittedly sour attitude, and the room—while basic (especially in contrast to our rooms in Barcelona and Valencia)—was comfortable, had a great bathroom, and had free Internet.

After we recovered our happy moods, we went exploring and realized that the hotel was in a good location, about a 20-minute walk from the Gran Via, and another 10- to 15-minute walk from the historic Plaza Mayor, a half of a block from the Metro station, and had a number of restaurants nearby, including a terrific Peruvian restaurant and a local chain restaurant we liked—Vips (whom we learned owns the Starbucks operation in Spain and Portugal).

One drawback to the location is that a theater is on the lower levels of the building and there are lots of clubs and restaurants nearby.  That results, in turn, in a lot of street noise late at night.  We had no difficulty sleeping, but we did hear the noise.

Although we didn’t purchase it with our room, we took the ample and reasonably priced breakfast buffet each day. Though less extensive than in Barcelona and Valencia, our expectations were also changed because the Ibis is a tourist class hotel, not a boutique or luxury class one as the other two hotels were.  The buffet actually compared favorably to the one at the Holiday Inn Express in Berlin.

The guests, too, seemed like nice people from all over Europe and the UK.

Although the lobby and breakfast area on the entry level seemed a bit compact, the staff had room to store our luggage on the last day of our visit, when we had to check out by noon but were not leaving for the train station until 5 pm.

In fact, the staff was always kind and helpful, and provided knowledgeable tourist information about the sites and the Metro system whenever we asked for it.

I’ve not been an Ibis fan in the past.  But I am now.  All in all, this hotel offered  a pleasant tourist class experience.

Paris—Crowne Plaza Paris—Republique: Excellent hotel—strongly recommend.  In terms of the staff and service, they’re superb.  Greeted warmly and promptly each time I visited the front desk.  They even humored me by speaking with me in my broken French, even though we were all capable of conducting the transactions in my native English.

Rooms were a bit on the small side, but still excellent and comfortable.  I thought the bed was comfortable but my partner felt otherwise.   When I requested a wake-up call, it was signaled both by phone and through the TV.

One thing to note about the room: it has a digital mini-bar.  We didn’t buy anything, but did use the refrigerator for food and drinks that we stored. There’s a miniscule personal area in it (about enough for a candy bar and a small can of Coke).  And if you move anything in the mini-bar, it automatically charges the purchase to the room.  The staff is excellent about taking the charge off of the bill.

The hotel does not provide free Internet. By North American standards, it’s ridiculously pricey.  But there’s free Internet access nearby in the McDonald’s and Quick fast food restaurants.

In terms of location, it’s less than a block from the Republique Metro stop, which is served by 5 lines (which, according to an informational sign in the station, represents one line for each of the five republics).

The Republique area is well-located—lots of restaurants on the beautiful square, as well as some cool shops.  And if you’re looking to control food costs, there’s a small urban grocery (Monop) a half of a block from the hotel (as well as two other similar markets within one-half-block of the Republique square).  And within a 5- to 20-minute walk are many of the boutique museums in the city (like the Musee des Arts et Metiers and the new Chocolate Museum), and as well as the stores of the Grand Boulevard (a bit more of a hike).

Valencia—SH Valencia Palace: Because the conference I attended in Valencia was housed at the SH Valencia Palace, I stayed there.  Frankly, the process of making the reservations online only raised concerns about the hotel.  Rather than make reservations through a secure website (as is typical of most hotels these days), I had to complete a form offline (with my credit card number), scan it in, and send it un-encrypted to the hotel. They responded quickly and confirmed my reservation, but with my guard always up, I had concerns all the same.

But the speed and friendliness the staff showed in responding to my request for a reservation was backed up by a hearty greeting when I arrived at the hotel.  In fact, trying to practice my Spanish, I spoke with them in Spanish and they humored me (initially responding in English, but I asked to practice).  Check-in went quickly, and we soon entered our phenomenally spacious room (had to be at least 20 feet long, plus a 12-foot bathroom, with a separate room for the toilet and bidet).

But I understood the reservation process after seeing the hotel; it is an elegant hotel, but it is somewhat dated, perhaps 20 years old. And, despite having flat screen TVs in all of the rooms, it is probably ready for a major renovation giving it a contemporary look—and a website giving it contemporary reservation capabilities.

But that’s no complaint about the hotel.  The staff was always ready to help, offered accurate tourist information, and always offered a friendly hello.  More importantly, they were one of the few staffs who remembered us from day to day.

Breakfast was included in our room fee, and the buffet was easily the most bountiful of all of the hotels we visited.  It was the only hotel with a large hot display—made-to-order omelettes, as well as an extensive selection of meats and salads, a wide array of fresh fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice, and tempting sweets (doughnuts, pastries, and pies).  The display even included crackers and cereal bars.  The selection of breads, however, seemed limited and getting coffee seemed to be an effort. (Most days, they served, but were not always around; but one day, it was self-serve.)

The location of the hotel was good: a 5 euro cab ride from the  train station and an easy walk to the Metro, the historic center of the city, and the architecturally eye-grabbing City of Arts and Science. Directly across the street from the hotel is an ancient river that has since run dry—and the city has turned into a lush park, whose orange trees were full of oranges when we visited.

Although the hotel offers Internet access, it’s not free nor cheap.  

But the huge bed, excellent views from the window, and kind hotel staff are included in the room rate.  All in all, a great hotel.
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