Saturday, 19 of April of 2014

Goodbye and Hello!

An amazing chapter of my life has come to a close. A new one is opening that looks to be just as enlightening and fun. I am no longer working as a Virtuoso travel agent. Two years ago I entered into a partnership with Judi Walker ( @alliancetravel on Twitter) the owner of Alliance Travel Partners. She has spent 15 years building a very successful luxury travel business. She made the audacious decision to bring in a former stock market trader and analyst and teach him the business of booking luxury travel. I had a wonderful teacher. We end our business relationship as friends.

I had become disenchanted after 18 mostly successful years trading stocks. Those closest to me urged me to find a niche in the travel industry. It was suggested I become a travel agent, but after researching the industry I did not see an easy entry point. I was at the point of looking for another option when my hairdresser Hilda Villaverde suggested I talk to Judi. Hilda is an ordained minster, inspirational speaker, author, and a friend whose opinions I value. After getting to know me, Judi rolled the dice and my journey to becoming @Tomtravel2 began.

I first took a careful  look at the Internet landscape in the industry. It was my opinion (and remains my opinion) that most travel agents and most travel agencies were doing a poor job using the web to attract clients. I set out to build a better online mouse trap. After much study of website design, SEO and SEM I built the site that Judi continues to use with some success. The strategy worked well enough that I could have built a business for myself as a luxury travel agent over several years. What works even better is providing exemplary service which leads to referrals. Random leads are often dead ends that can be annoying. The calls generated by referrals mostly lead to bookings.

After much study and some great couching by my mentor I became a pretty good travel agent. It would have taken many more years to gain the product knowledge and sales skills I would need to become a great one. During this process I was urged to check out Twitter by Judi’s sister Linda  who works with some social media luminaries ( @lindaatv3 on Twitter). I began to study the social media gurus and by trail and error inserted myself into the travel community on Twitter. I discovered that this medium was a much better fit for my skill set than being a travel agent. By the time Travel Mart was over I realized I needed to start looking for a niche in travel that would put my best foot forward.

I was an early adapter of the Internet starting in the 1980’s. I helped my previous associates migrate from proprietary systems for stock market news and quotes to Internet based systems as they became usable. Anyone who remembers dial-up access via compuserve and aol knows that it took time for the Internet to mature into what we see today. By the time broadband was widely available and affordable, I was already hooked on the utility of the medium. I also was a fan of the early social tools via chat, forums, and user groups. Twitter is a natural extension of my personal web evolution.

So where is all of this heading? I am not sure of the destination at this time, but  I am confident that the journey will be interesting! I still feel that travel agents, travel agencies, travel consortiums, and agent organizations could benefit dramatically if they stopped looking at the internet as the problem. The problem they face is how to win market share back from the OTAs. The Internet is the solution for companies and organizations that understand how to play the game. The advent and spread of Twitter and other social media have made this game even more winnable.

I also am of the opinion that most travel suppliers could make far better use of Twitter and other social media. I am interested in helping those companies who would like to make full use of a very complex medium. I see some making great strides, and some doing their brand image more harm than good. It is my hope to provide some insight based on what I have learned over the past year building my own brand on Twitter.

I look forward to continuing to connect with all of you on Twitter. I also plan to share insights I have gained on this blog. I took some time to consider my next steps and say my goodbyes to the great people I was associated with as a travel agent. My journey as a blogger and advisor to the travel industry has now begun. Goodbye, and Hello!

I welcome your comments…

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Phoenix Mountain Preserve Hike

Snow on Four Peaks

For many people Phoenix is an enigma. What is the appeal of living in a desert? Isn’t it hellishly hot there? Why did all these people move there recently? Why would you stay in a place that has such backwards politics? For me, it is a pretty simple explanation. I was born here and have lived here most of my life. My family and friends are all here. I have lived elsewhere and liked it, but the Sonoran Desert and the people have always drawn me back.

The summers are extremely hot here. The whole dry heat myth was created by local boosters. It is dry, but so is your oven and you don’t hang out there. What makes the summers tolerable are frequent escapes to cooler climates (some just up the hill in Arizona-see the snow on Four Peaks?)  and the glorious climate in winter spring and fall. Some transplants from the East and Midwest complain about the lack of seasons here. We have seasons, just not the ones these people are used to. The Papago tribe here describe 3 seasons: dry hot season (May and June), wet hot season (July-September our “monsoon”), and the time of the pleasant cool (October-April). Today was so pleasant I decided to take a hike.

Cholla Cactus

I usually walk for an hour in the park one block from my house. If I am willing to take 2 hours I can easily do my exercise in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, or the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve. The trail head I hiked today is about 10 minutes from my house by car, and I can get to the McDowells in about fifteen. The Phoenix metropolitan area is home to the world’s largest system of urban wilderness. There are maintained hiking trails in all of the mountains in and around the city. As anti tax as people here can be (this is a tea party red state after all) twice we have voted to raise our taxes to set aside land in our midst as wilderness. I was 18 when the first measure passed in Phoenix and I voted to “save our mountains” in my first election. Scottsdale amazed me when they passed a similar bill just a few years ago to save the McDowells (I live on the Phoenix side of the border between the two cities). By the way if you see one of the pretty cactuses in the above picture don’t touch it! That is the teddy bear cholla, aka jumping cactus and they are painful to remove from the flesh.

Equestrians Phoenix Mountain Preserve

In addition to hiking, most trails are open to mountain bikers and equestrians. I saw these two riding off as I started out today. There are a variety of access points in both mountain preserve systems. I like the 40th street trail head for proximity to home in the Phoenix Preserve’s Piestewa Peak/Dreamy Draw section. This preserve is scattered through the city and is composed of several separate mountains, Camelback and Piestewa being the most well known and frequently hiked. On weekends the trails to the top of these two mountains can get pretty crowded. I mostly sneak in on weekdays and do my weekend hikes in the Mcdowells or out of town in the Tonto National Forest. 

Desert and Vista

We have had a wet winter thanks to the El Nino effect. Somehow warm water in the Pacific off Peru turns on the rain and snow machine in the Southwestern US. Although the photos don’t quite do it justice, our desert is about as green as it can get in 2010. We have been in a drought most of the last decade so this is a rare treat. The frequent cold fronts (which means rain and temperatures in the 50’s for Phoenix) have kept things cooler than usual this winter and although the desert is green, the spring wildflower bloom has not hit it’s peak yet.

Fiddlenecks

These yellow “fiddlenecks” are always among the first bloomers. There were quite a few starting to show color today, but many more wearing buds that haven’t opened up yet. What will come over the next few weeks is a splash of color that will be spectacular. If you have never seen a desert in bloom you have led a life deprived of one of the most beautiful sights mother nature can deliver. During the last good spring bloom our rocky desert mountains were wearing sashes of yellow, orange, purple and blue. If you have a chance to come to Arizona this March you will not regret it. Unless you foolishly fail to take a hike!

Early bloomers Phoenix

This cluster of fiddlenecks is typical of what I saw today in many parts of the preserve. Areas that hold moisture have the lushest growth such as washes and beneath bushes and trees. Although the green growth was evident everywhere, most of the flowers have yet to show color. Next week and the week after will be awesome, and I can assure you I will be out gawking and hiking as much as I can fit into my life. If you do go flower watching please do not molest the plants (no picking flowers) as it is harmful to coming blooms and against the law as well.

First Lupine I've Seen

The blurry flower above is the only lupine I saw in bloom today. There will be many more to come. The lupine is one of my favorite desert wild flowers. I have seen entire hillsides covered with these bold blue beauties and it is a striking sight. Some of my other favorites are indian paint brush, brittlebrush, shasta daisy, and mexican yellow poppy.

Rocks Phoenix Mountains

The trail I chose today skirted these rugged rocks. They really stood out against a sky that was almost surreally blue. Some people see the desert as stark and foreboding. I can see how those who grew up in the cloistered greenery of cooler climes feel out of place here. It is a different environment for most, and likely the most starkly unusual location for a city in the US. But getting out into our urban wilderness may give you a far kinder impression. To me, home is the Sonoran Desert of central Arizona. On a 73 degree day like today, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Come July, Victoria BC may look awfully good.

Piestewa Peak Phoenix Icon

In the distance is Piestewa Peak whose summit trail is the most loved and hiked of all the urban trails in the Phoenix area. It is one the most hiked trails anywhere on earth. There are so many trails available in the Phoenix area that it is not hard to find a more lonely path to enjoy a walk or a ride in our extensive urban wilderness.

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Mandarin Oriental San Francisco

Mandarin Oriental San Francisco Fan

I rarely win anything. Although I have been very lucky in life I don’t seem to have much luck in games, gambling or contests. At many travel events travel agents put their cards in a bowl for gifts from suppliers with a winner being drawn from the bowl. I had never had my card drawn, nor did I have any expectation that this would occur in this lifetime. At this summer’s Virtuoso Travel Mart I opted to attend a lunch hosted by Mandarin Oriental Hotels. Judi and I usually pore over the schedule and counter program the events. If she wants to visit with Crystal Cruises I register for Oceania for example. This way we can share with one another any helpful tidbits we learn. I had several hotel companies to choose from on this particular slot. Since neither of us had personally experienced a Mandarin Oriental they were a perfect choice.

Towards the end of the excellent presentation they announced a prize drawing was imminent. Being confident I would not be drawn I decided it was an opportune time to get a head start at the buffet. As I put the finishing touches on my plate I heard a familiar name mentioned from the podium “Tom Lewis, Alliance Travel Partners.” With my track record I was at first convinced I was hearing things as I headed back to the table. As the presenter repeated my name I realized they were in fact talking about me, and I had won a stay at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco! I am never one to turn down a free night at a luxury hotel so a trip was soon planned for January of 2010 with two members of my family. One had never been to the City by the Bay so a very touristy time was to be had by all.

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I knew the reputation of Mandarin Oriental was one of modern Asian chic design, and pampering service. The Mandarin Oriental San Francisco did not disappoint on either count. I liked the look of this urban center luxury hotel. Everything is very up to date, but with just enough retro Asian touches to make it distinct from it’s many competitors in the commercial district of San Francisco. Red dragons, red carpet and red upholstery in the large lounge make a clear design statement. How apropos for a luxe lodging a short walk from historic Chinatown.

I have very few criticisms to offer about this hotel. I would stay here again for sure. I also would be much more inclined to opt for other MO properties in the future after experiencing this one in person. Despite having a very cool and ample lounge on the lobby level, and a lovely restaurant one floor up, there is not a great deal of public space in this hotel. The workout room is on the small side, and those who need a particular type of machine or a variety of every type might find this property lacking. The common areas are on the first 4 floors while the rooms begin on the 36th. This takes away from the unified feeling one might find at some other urban properties. The views from the rooms on the other hand are outstanding due to their lofty perch. My only other quibble is that there is a charge for Internet access. As anyone who follows me on Twitter can attest, this is one of my pet peeves in the luxury hotel business.

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A foggy view of San Francisco and the terrace of one of the suites.

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I loved being up in the clouds and fog during our stay in the City by the Bay. We were blessed with two rain free days at the beginning of our stay, and fog mixed with rain for the last two. Being a native of a desert city I always look forward to experiencing weather when I travel. I know that makes me unlike most people, but where I live there is an absence of anything one might refer to as weather 300 or so days of the year.

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I am now a “Fan.” The spacious room offered views (as seen above) in two directions including a slice of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island. The decor was modern with all the expected conveniences including a flat screen TV. All of furnishings were light wood which I found soothing and in keeping with the Asian flair.

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The beds were firm and comfortable and the linens were high quality and attractive. One member of the party was recovering from a recent illness so we spent a good deal of time in the room. It was large enough to never feel crowded or cluttered despite several rounds of room service. There was a cozy and ample sitting area with a very cool high backed love seat we would have liked to take home.

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The accent pieces and artwork were soothing and in keeping with the overall Asian theme.

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The most enjoyable thing about this stay was the service. The management at the Mandarin Oriental San Francisco have done a great job in staffing and training. Throughout our stay little touches made the difference. On the rainy days the bell staff courteously and promptly offered umbrellas to all as we began our outings. A warm “welcome back” greeted us on arrival from the bell staff and desk staff. Check in and check out were a breeze with all of the details done to a tee.

We did not eat in the restaurant but instead opted to eat out two nights and in room for one. Room service was excellent with a broad menu to choose from. Service was prompt and always friendly. With our varied tastes we sampled a number of different items and all were to our liking. Upon returning from outings the room was always fresh and tidy. Of course, turn down was provided.

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We were not sure how much we would be able to do with one of our party still feeling a bit off. I would usually have many things planned and arranged ahead of time on a trip like this. This time we played it by ear. This gave us many opportunities to call on the concierge staff. I cannot say enough about how excellent they did their job! At one point we had asked about reservations in Chinatown for seven. Within a few short moments the phone rang and “Your friend from downstairs!” informed us that an envelope had been delivered to our room. By the door we found the envelope with a nice personalized note, a reservation confirmation with the restaurant address and phone number, and a walking map to guide us there. This is just one example of how well we were taken care of by one of the best concierge teams I have had the pleasure of dealing with. All of their recommendations were excellent as well.

I will write about my very touristy visit to San Francisco soon…

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All Over the Seas

My first two attempts at blogging went sorely afoul! This is the conundrum of travel and social media. When you most want to share (which would be while travelling) the sharing is most difficult. All of the nifty tools I use to make Twitter and my blog easy and time efficient failed to work well with the ship internet system. Anything I choose to do from here out will be using the 500 minutes of Internet that I purchased using some of my own cash and the generous credit Princess Cruise Lines gives to their Elite Level Captain’s Circle Members. This is the second thing that has been a paradox on this cruise.

As a Commodore (a graduate of the highest level of Princess’ travel agent training program) I am entitled to Elite Level benefits such as an Internet access credit. This entire cruise is given free to me as a “Commodore Graduation Cruise". This is one of the reasons I feel Princess is among the most travel agent friendly cruise lines. I was offered free an inside cabin and could have upgraded to obstructed ocean view or balcony for an additional modest amount (still far less than full fare for either category). For this cruise I opted to experience an inside cabin just so I know first hand what it is like. I have always sailed in a balcony or suite up to this cruise. So I am in the lowest cabin category with the highest level of benefits!

Since this is a working vacation I take seriously what Princess has asked me to do on this cruise. After boarding I was given a packet to complete during the cruise. I have been on a scavenger hunt to all the various departments of the ship filling out a lengthy questionnaire. Most of this is done now. Part of what I was asked to do was to utilize all of the Elite Member benefits: 10% boutique discount, Internet package credit, Grapevine wine tasting, priority tender embarkation, complimentary laundry and shoe polish, complimentary mini-bar, deluxe canapés in room, traditional afternoon tea in room, and priority disembarkation. The boutique has been hit by my wife and myself, we sent our laundry out today, took cuts at the tenders yesterday in Panama City, are enjoying the mini-bar, and had afternoon tea yesterday on the bed of our smallish stateroom. I have a date for the Grapevine on Thursday and look forward to the priority disembarkation at the end of our sailing.

Elite members have a black cruise card and most crew recognize this quickly which leads to great service. I have had the chance to chat with a number of passengers who earned their Elite status by sailing often with Princess. I learned that most relish the benefits it brings. They do have one of the best loyalty programs in the travel industry. It has been fun to be a VIP level guest. Then I go back to our lower level inside cabin and come back down to earth. I am used to larger cabins that open to the sea and sky. I would not prefer to book inside in the future, but it really hasn’t been that bad. At the right price differential I would sail inside again.

This is also the first cruise I have taken without a group. My wife and I usually opt for independent travel (FIT in travel agent lingo) trips. We also like land based luxury all inclusive resorts. We have been having a blast on this cruise! I think we would do this again down the road even if it wouldn’t be the first thought for either of us. There are many reasons why cruising is among the fastest growing segments of the travel industry. It is easy!  Unpack once and see many places. Service at your fingertips where ever you are. Food, drink and entertainment scheduled all day and night. Privacy when you want it, and people to chat with when feeling social. Mostly, a cruise is a great value in travel.

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Setting Sail on Island Princess for the Panama Canal!

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Tomorrow we are off from Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale. We spend one night there which gives us a chance to see family for dinner. I am looking forward to that. Mid-day on Thursday we board the Island Princess for a 10 day sailing. This is my “Graduation Cruise” which is offered free of charge by the generous people at Princess Cruise Lines to all travel agents who complete their online training program. I have taken many travel supplier trainings in the past two years and this was by far the most rigorous and difficult to pass. Now as a “Commodore” I had my choice of joining a number of sailings since I passed the course in April of 2008. Due to schedule conflicts we had to pass on some good itineraries until this one came along. We both liked the idea of sailing through the man made wonder of the Panama Canal.

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The map above outlines our journey. Starting of course in Phoenix we fly to Fort Lauderdale to meet the ship. We sail between Cuba and Hispaniola with a sea day before we arrive in Ocho Rios Jamaica. We are doing a waterfall and dolphin encounter tour booked through Princess. This is a new destination for both of us. Now that USAir is offering direct flights from Phoenix  to Montego Bay it is a good time to check out the island. Jamaica is followed by another day at sea.

Next we transit the Panama Canal most of the day and have 5 hours in the evening to explore the old city of Panama and check out a local restaurant. We plan to ad lib this adventure by cab. Our next destination is Puntarenas Costa Rica. We actually passed nearby this town on our way to Manuel Antonio where we spent a great week in Spanish immersion classes three years ago. Rather than revisit places we already have seen we opted for a river rafting and wildlife viewing trip through Princess.

The next day finds us in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua. This is probably the poorest country we will experience. Costa Ricans (or Ticos) look down on “Nicas” who flood across the border to take menial jobs locals shun. Sound familiar? We are taking a walking tour of Granada which is one of the oldest cities in Central America. We also will be doing a lake tour by boat, all arranged through Princess. We follow this with a day that starts at Puerto Quetzal Guatemala. We are doing a shopping experience at handcraft markets and a jade market (guess who picked that tour?). This is Maya country so I expect to come home with some colorful chatchkes!

We have only half a day in Huatulco Mexico which is a place we have visited before. We took our kids to the Club Med there (which is now part of a different hotel chain) once. It is a made for Fonatur destination so there is not much to see in that area except resorts. For that reason I am cashing in another travel agent graduation gift. I am a big fan of AmResorts properties (there are a number reviewed on this blog from a FAM I did with AmResorts to the Riviera Maya). This is one of the finest purveyors of luxury all inclusive vacations with their Zoetry, Secrets and Dreams Resorts. We will be pampered in all inclusive luxury on the beach of Dreams Huatulco with my “Master Agent" day pass I received after completing their training.

Our journey ends in historic and fabled Acapulco. Best known as a tropical destination resort now, this city was the primary port on the Pacific  Coast of Mexico for almost 200 years. Riches flooded through Acapulco as the Spanish galleons plied the Manila Trade Route buying spices and manufactured goods from the orient with Aztec silver from Mexico. Pesky English and Dutch pirates added further spice to the history of the region. We will be touring the city, the history museum, the famed cliff divers, and seeing some of the resorts before settling into the Fairmont Pierre Marques for one night. Thanks to another travel agent incentive program we are enjoying the Famous Agents rate which is a great deal. We fly home mid-day the next day.

I am really looking forward to a real vacation! As time and our limited internet access allows I will post some photos here on my blog (I can upload much faster than on facebook). I will post on facebook and tweet on twitter when a new post has been uploaded. I hope you enjoy!

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Tempest in a Hashtag: Before I Sail on Princess a Note on #followmeatsea

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When I started my adventure in learning to be a travel agent I took dozens of trainings from suppliers of travel. One of the first was Princess cruise lines very exhaustive online course. I have to say that it was the most thorough and difficult to pass of all that I have taken thus far. One of the benefits of completing this course and becoming a “Commodore” is a complimentary “Graduation Cruise.” Princess offers space on select cruises at no charge for an inside cabin, and at very reduced rates for some better categories to travel agents who have graduated as Commodores. The agent has 2 years to use this cruise or lose it. The cruises are offered fairly close to sailing, so many great options came and went due to scheduling conflicts. I could have had Reykjavik!

With only four months of eligibility for my free cruise left, I had about given up finding one that worked for our schedule. Then came the email offering 10 days Panama Canal on December 10th. This worked for me and my better half as we both wanted to experience the canal crossing by ship, and the date aligned with winter break. We have been helping with our granddaughter while mom and dad are both trudging through graduate school. After  getting the thumbs up from the wife, I booked the cruise on a Friday and began booking air and hotels. On that Sunday evening a tweet from a friend introduced me to #followmeatsea.

Princess had offered a group of travel bloggers and writers an opportunity to experience a Caribbean cruise in hopes that they would blog, tweet, and write about their experience. What started as a PR experiment quickly devolved into a twitter hashtag battle. Some environmentally minded people in the travel world on twitter began to attack their compatriots who went on the cruise on two fronts: the ethics of taking freebies and the environmental failings of cruises. For those unfamiliar with the whole hullabaloo, some of it got pretty nasty.

As I had just booked my own cruise I took an immediate interest in the goings on. I ended up reading all the tweets in #followmeatsea daily. I also followed most of the links that were put out by those tweeting into the hashtag. Several blogs talked about the PR aspects of the affair, mostly emphasizing the lack of a response on the part of the cruise’s sponsor. As an avid student of Twitter, and best practices thereof, my first reaction was one of agreement. It was baffling why Princess failed to address the critics head on. There was very little offered by those critics that was specific to Princess. Most of the links the offered were fact light and opinion heavy. I did learn that some people think cruise ships are a plague upon the earth, but I still am not sure why some of them hold this opinion due to so few facts being included.

Eventually most of the critics slunk away from the hashtag. The people who went on the cruise quickly lashed back at their critics. Many of the fans of the well known tweeters and bloggers also came to their defense. By the after cruise postings I had changed my mind about what Princess did and didn’t do in regards to the critics. When you have allies and friends defending you from criticism there really is no need to defend yourself. Without lifting a finger Princess, and the cruise industry in general, came out of the whole mess the winner!

Anybody who looked at the totality of #followmeatsea would come away with two main impressions. There is a small group of people who hate cruises and think bloggers shouldn’t take freebies, Secondly the people who went on that cruise sure had one hell of a good time! It was the latter impression that was by far the most powerful. Despite the impassioned intent to sink “The Love Boat” the critics failed to even put a dent into the overall positive PR the trip generated. It was clear from the tweets and blogs of the invitees that most had never been on a cruise. Many had low expectations of how they would like the experience. For most the trip far exceeded their expectations. Thus, what seemed early on to be PR stuck on a reef turned out to be PR clear sailing!

Like the bloggers of this journey, I had low expectations before my first cruise many years ago. It came as a compromise for a multi-generation family adventure. The whole experience was much more fun than I could have imagined. It was not my last cruise by a long shot. Even though I prefer land based trips to cruises, I continue to add an occasional cruise to my plans. They are particularly great ways for families or groups of friends with varied interests or degrees of hardiness to travel comfortably en masse. My looming sailing will be the first I have taken as a couple without an entourage of family or friends. I am really looking forward to it. We have sailed with Princess several times and I can’t wait to get a bit of pampering.

People who have been on their first cruise report a very high level of satisfaction with the experience on surveys. The vast majority state that they would be likely or very likely to cruise again in the future. A very small percentage of Americans have taken that first cruise, so the market is sure to continue to grow. It is secure in this knowledge that the industry steams ahead doing better than the overall travel business in the worst travel market of all time. Some new ship orders that had been put on hold have been put right back into the queue. The public demand for cruise vacations just keeps expanding and new ships will be needed to fill that demand. Once they get you on your first cruise, they know almost all of you will sail again. 

This is bad news for those who think of the industry as the scourge of the earth. If the goal is to get the public to stop taking cruises, what we have here is a massive FAIL! As I have written before I see travel as problematic in environmental terms. I have very green intentions, and live my life with as little impact on the earth as I can within reason. I am a practical person first and foremost. Most people will make greener choices only when it fits into their lifestyle. It is my opinion that working for green alternatives to fossil fuels for airplanes, cars and ships makes more sense than urging people not to travel a certain way, or not to travel at all. If there were green alternatives I, and many others, would opt for them. I will not opt to stay home.

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It’s Over, Now What?

Today a panel of leading economists agreed that the awful recession of 2008-2009 probably ended some time this summer. (article) As some of you will recall, back in August I took exception to the gloom and doom outlook of the keynote speaker at Virtuoso Travel Mart. Larry Hochman spoke at length on “cutting costs without cutting your throat” and other cheerful concepts. My response to that tone was that the elephant had left the room. Most economists have a great rear view mirror, but that usually is not a good way to drive. As I suggested at the time it would be wiser for travel businesses to focus ahead on how to cope with the imminent recovery. If you were cutting in August you were late to the game.

I am not an economist and have no formal education in the field. I like to say I went to the Levy school of economics. For 18 years I worked managing a bond portfolio and trading stocks with a former floor trader in commodities. In order to maximize our investments we spent much time reading economic tea leaves focusing on getting ahead of the market when things change. I was taught to focus on leading indicators and often mundane things like how many shopping bags one can see at the local mall. In travel 2009 brought fire sale prices on hotels, cruises and tours. By May I noticed a sharp drop in what was being offered at a steep discount. There were still good deals on select travel products this summer, but I felt the everything must go sale had ended.

There are still some relative bargains to be had in travel this fall, but even those places like Arizona and Las Vegas which were hardest hit are starting to tick up in price. My many conversations with the “boots on the ground” people from the luxury travel suppliers reinforced my belief that the worst of the economic pain was behind us some time this summer. As business slowly picks up (it may be a very gradual recovery) hiring will as well and the lagging indicator of employment will begin to improve as well. The most important thing Mr. Hochman pointed out at Travel Mart was the only point of agreement for me: are you ready to deal with recovery? What goes down will eventually go back up. The only market strategy I ever used was to try to buy as close to the bottom as possible. I would have been buying travel this summer.

The bigger challenge facing our industry is how to cut through the clutter and get our message heard in the brave new world of information technology. The Internet has indeed changed the rules of the game. Just as we have begun to rise out of the economic mess, we can also find a way to rise above the noise on the web. New media represent not a problem, but an opportunity. The winners in the internet game have been those that connect people to what they are looking for, not those who are selling to people. The emerging stars are those sites and services that are finding the best ways to connect people to one another such as Facebook and Twitter. This sea change in the internet game works in the favor of a business model that works on person to person contact. The challenge facing the travel consumer using the internet is not finding information, it is finding information they can trust.

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The Resort at Paws Up, Greenough, Montana Part 2 “The Last Best Place”

Wild Turkeys at Paws Up Resort

Wildlife at Paws Up

The 36,000  acres of forest and meadows that comprise the ranch where The Resort at Paws Up was built are rich in wild game of many species. These wild turkeys were spotted several times along with many dozens of deer and raptors of several types including 4 bald eagles. I described it as a North American safari experience. There are also domesticated animals including a number of horses and quite a few dogs (this is a very dog friendly resort). In fact each cabin comes with a dog (a cute ceramic pooch is found in each luxurious abode. Animal lovers you will absolutely love Paws Up!

Among the other wild animals that can be seen at Paws Up are bears, both black and grizzly, mountain goats, elk, moose, and coyotes. Small critters also abound including rabbits, squirrels and skunks (one of which I smelled along the highway), With the wild waters of the Blackfoot River flowing through the heart of the resort it is also a great spot for birders. Bird watchers can see most of the endemic and migratory species found in Montana including wading birds (I saw two species myself) hawks, ducks, geese, songbirds and the aforementioned bald eagles. Bring your notebook and binoculars if you like watching our feathered friends!

For me the most important wild animal species to be found here is the cutthroat trout (and their rainbow and brown cousins). The Blackfoot River is the river alluded to in the title of the book and movie “A River Runs Through It.” Run through it indeed! At Paws Up that famed river is never far from where you are on the property as it bisects the 36,000 acre ranch resort. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a few hours wading and casting into the free stone waters of the Blackfoot River thanks to the kindness of Jim Nielsen the general manager at the Resort at Paws Up. When we were speaking at the first dinner I attended I mentioned that I hated to come all the way to Montana and not have the chance to cast a fly. He picked me up early the next morning with his extra fly rod and gear and got me on the water.

In the first few minutes of casting I failed to notice that I had waded deep enough to give my camera a bath. When I am fishing I tend to focus on the casting and the water ahead of me. I saw this excellent swirl in front of a rock shelf that looked like perfect trout habitat out just beyond my casts. I eased deeper in an attempt to gently lay a fly on the slick and noticed my camera case was 1/3 of the way into the river! After wading back to shore I managed to get most of the water off of the camera which seems to have survived the dunking. Some moisture found it’s way into the lens so that was the end of my photography for the trip! I apologize for the subsequent lack of photos in this post.

In two hours of casting I experienced something an Arizona fisherman rarely sees; ice formed on the rod ferules and fly line! Every ten minutes I had to break the ice off the rod and strip it off the line in order to be able to cast. Due to the early hour and the low temperatures the trout did not cooperate that morning. This time of year they stay inactive until the sun warms the water and the aquatic insects begin to stir. We gave it another try before lunch for half an hour and Jim had two hookups and I had one as well. He almost landed one of his, but mine shook off quickly after the strike. I did not catch any fish but it was still my favorite activity of the trip.

 

 Indoor rodeo arena at Paws Up
 

Activities at the Resort at Paws Up

Fishing is just the start of the many outdoor experiences available during a Paws Up ranch vacation. I would love to do their “Three Rivers in Three Days” package. This includes guided float fishing trips on three of Montana’s legendary trout rivers. I was able to experience an ATV tour which was absolutely a blast. We crossed meadows, wound our way through the forest, and even drove under a bridge. Along the way we stopped at Lookout Rock which was visited by Lewis and Clark and used to survey a way across the continental divide. They offer rappelling off that steep sided cliff. At the end of our ATV tour we found our way to “River Camp” where a fantastic hot meal awaited us. I enjoyed (after dashing into the river for some fly casting) quail, pheasant, prime rib, several vegetables and a fresh garden salad. What I most enjoyed was the amazing mousse that was served for dessert!

I also had a chance to visit the shooting center for “sporting clays.” This is a sport where one attempts to shoot clay pigeons and rabbits with a shotgun. As a youth I did a lot of shooting and hunting which ended for me in my early twenties. I now know it is not like riding a bike. I did not hit many of the targets! It was fun anyway. This is a world class competitive course set up and designed by a several time world shooting champion. Set on a forested hillside overlooking a broad mountain meadow full of black angus steers it is a very scenic place to practice one’s shotgun skills.

Some of the other members of our FAM group enjoyed river rafting (during high flow seasons white water kayaking is also available), horse back touring, and guided hiking. Other summer sports offered are geo caching, mountain biking, canoeing, paintball, wagon ride, carriage ride, disc golf, nearby golf courses, and upland bird hunting. Winter activities include snowmobiling (snow machining for Alaskans), cross country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, sleigh rides, ice skating and snow tubing. Horseback riding, ATV and Upland bird hunting are offered in both seasons. If you like outdoor activities you must get up to Paws Up, “The Last Best Place!”

 

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Lodging Options at Paws Up

The photo above is the back porch of the Wilderness Estates cabin I stayed in at Paws Up. Each of these rustic mountain cabins is furnished and decorated in a comfortable western style that says “welcome to Montana!” The decor, art and furnishings are unique in each cabin but all reflect a similar ambiance appropriate for a mountain ranch resort like Paws Up. These Wilderness Estate cabins are 3248 square feet large and feature three large master suite bedrooms two with king beds and the upper loft suite with two twin beds and an open sitting area. Each bedroom comes with “The Last Best Bed” featuring 300 thread sheet cotton linens, duvets, down pillows, and very comfortable beds that invite you to sleep in.

Don’t let the mountain look fool you, this is modern convenience at it’s finest! 42” flat screens are found in the family room, loft and each bedroom. Satellite TV service is available for those who want to stay in touch with the outside world (our TV never went on during our stay there was so much to see and do outdoors). Excellent hi-speed wireless internet access let’s you email pictures to your envious friends and family back home (or facebook and twitter your adventure like I did). There is a full kitchen with all needed kitchen tools and quality stainless steel oven, range and fridge. Coffee maker and espresso machine await those who need a jolt of Joe and can’t wait for room service to arrive. A large user friendly gas and wood combination fireplace sets the romantic mood we all love on mountain getaways.

The high tech angle reaches it’s peak in the three master baths. Two vanities well stocked with eco minded lux amenities and the requisite hair dryer feature the latest in sinks and fixtures. The large bath has Jacuzzi jets to sooth sore muscles and mood lighting below the water line. There is also a 8 person Jacuzzi outdoors on the deck. The shower features a rain head and a hand held wand option. There are also jet heads that I didn’t have time to sample. My favorite option was the digital temperature read out on the wall! Making all of this bath luxury even more accessible are the heated floor tiles and heated towel racks! I stay in some very nice hotels (as you can see from this years visits on this blog) and have not seen a bathroom that can top the features found here at Paws Up. I now have a severe case of bathroom envy!

There are several one of a kind lodgings available as well. One is the historic Morris Ranch House which has been home to ranchers as well as to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh who legend has it landed his plane and took off from the adjacent hillside. This carefully restored antique has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and all the modern conveniences found in the other cabins. The other specialty cabin is the Blackfoot River Lodge. As the name would suggest this four bedroom three bathroom home is so close to the Blackfoot River you would be tempted to cast from your room. It features a master suite with a private office, and wonderful views of the river that runs through it. Of course equipped and furnished in high style!

The Big Timber Homes are similarly appointed and equipped. They are smaller than the Wilderness Estates homes. The largest is the Ponderosa Pine cabins at 2400 square feet with one king bed room, one queen bed room, and a twin bed loft. They have 2 baths. The Douglas Fir cabins are 1900 square feet with one king bed room and one twin bed room. There are two baths. Lodgepole Pine cabins have 1440 square feet in one king bed room and one twin bed room with one bath. The smallest cabin is the meadow home at 1300 square feet with two baths one king bed room and a queen bed room. All have the same rustic feel and creature comforts I sampled in the Wilderness Estates.

Glamping in style at Paws Up Montana

Glamping at Tent City and River Camp at Paws Up

There are two tented camp options at The Resort at Paws Up. Tent City has six spacious tents all with furnishings similar to the cabins including “The Last Best Bed.” Each tent has it’s own private master bath in the bathhouse. There is a dining pavilion with top notch cuisine, full housekeeping including turndown, and 24 hour butler service. A conversation fire pit outdoors and horseshoe pits make this a nice family gathering place. Just across the meadow the Blackfoot River awaits for those wanting to cast a fly. River Camp tents are all facing the nearby Blackfoot River so the sound of the rushing water will lull you to sleep in your 270 square foot luxury tent. Dining, bathrooms, housekeeping and butler service are here for you just like at Tent City. This isn’t camping, it’s luxury “glamping.”

 

Seasons and Special Events at The Resort at Paws Up

The Christmas holiday season is probably the most special of all the events of the year at Paws Up. Enjoy your own personal Santa, sleigh rides, and all the winter activities mentioned above. There are a few openings left for this Christmas so don’t delay. Bring Fido and the family! The Montana Master Chefs is coming up in October and also has some openings. This is a live version of the TV contests pitting one famed chef against another. It really sounds like fun, and the tastings must be off the hook good with the caliber of chefs they attract. For dog lovers the event not to miss is “Wine and Bitch” which combines wine tastings from celebrated vineyards with doggy day care with special gourmet dog treats and a dog whisperer! Off season rates are found in October, and January through April. The resort is closed in November. Best weather is during the summer high season May-September. Visit The Resort at Paws Up web site for details on all the events and activities.

 

Passionate Knowledgeable People Make Paws Up Special!

The people who work at this special resort love what they do! Hats off to the management for staffing with such joyful and passionate people. Every activity is led by someone who knows their stuff and is eager to teach you the ropes. There is a strong focus on safety in every adventure undertaken. These are people who really want you to take away some new skills and knowledge not just go through the motions. They revel in telling the back story of the area and the property itself. They are happy to show you the safest way to enjoy the Montana outdoors. Every person I dealt with from kitchen service to bell staff were courteous, friendly and attentive. My biggest “take away” is the memory of all the great people that made this stay special!

Another wonderful thing about The Resort at Paws Up is a very strong green sensitivity. Each cabin comes with an electric car or golf cart to cut pollution. Local sourcing is featured with home grown free range black angus beef, and extensive gardens for produce in all the dining facilities. The preservation of thousands of acres of forest and meadows has led to carbon offsets that make this the first resort in America that is carbon-neutral! Other environmental measures here: ride sharing, catch and release fishing, energy efficient appliances and lighting, and recycling. There is an iPreserve Center at the gift shop PUGS to educate guests about all of the steps taken here to make your vacation as green as the Montana forests.

I would like to say thanks to the people who made this FAM trip possible, and to those who made it special as well. I had the opportunity to meet Jena Gardner of JG Blackbook of Travel and she is as delightful as she is renowned in the travel business. I shared a cabin with Amy Menci who helms the VIP desk at JG Blackbook. My other cabin mate was Stacy Small aka @EliteTravelGal who I know well from Twitter, tweetups, and Virtuoso events. Stacy has also written a blog about this trip. John Romfo who is the director of sales and marketing, and Tracie Mardock the guest services manager were our host and organizer for the various events, meals and activities. They and their staff do a wonderful job. I can’t thank Jim Nielsen (who is the general manager of Paws Up) enough for taking a morning out of his busy schedule to take me fishing. I owe you one Jim! Thanks also to all the guides, servers, activity leaders and other staff who do a great job for their guests.

 

Be a Virtuoso Guest at The Resort at Paws Up

Of course I want you to book your next stay at Paws Up with Alliance Travel Partners. As a Virtuoso agency we can enhance your stay with VIP status and the following Virtuoso amenities: Upgrade upon arrival subject to availability. $150 adventure credit for the activity of your choice once during your stay. A bottle of wine upon arrival. Using a Virtuoso travel agent adds the above value to your vacation without costing you more. We can book your stay for the same rates available on the internet or for self booking by phone but give you more for your money. Whether you choose to book with us or not, do yourself a favor and talk to a Virtuoso advisor before you book your next luxury vacation.

To open a slide show in a pop up window click the first image below. Mouse over the pop up to advance the slides with the arrow to the right. To see more images of the Resort at Paws Up see my previous blog posting.

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Paws Up Resort Montana (Part 1)

Paws Up Resort Sign

 

Welcome to the “Last Best Place!” I arrived in Missoula and was met by our driver for the scenic 40 minute trip to Paws Up. Most of the drive was along the lovely Blackfoot River and through forested mountain countryside. Rustic barns and meadows with grazing horses and cattle are the rule in this neck of the woods. We even saw a herd of mountain goats munching grass along the highway. It is a quick and scenic trip. On our arrival we met Stacy Small (@EliteTravelGal) at the lovely cabin we will be sharing. We also met our doggy:

our cabin dog

Each cabin comes with a unique ceramic dog and many are friendly to the live sort as well. The Resort at Paws Up is all about family and friends (even the four legged ones). We quickly unpacked and met John Romfo, the director of Sales and Marketing who took us on a tour and site inspection of the property. I am on a FAM trip to familiarize myself with this resort. Our sponsors are Paws Up and J G Blackbook of Travel who I thank for this opportunity. Paws Up website. and Paws Up on Twitter and J G Blackbook on Twitter and J G Blackbook website for more information or to tweet with them.

Bar in the Lobby

We saw one of each category of cabin on the property details of which will come later, much later. This is just a quick update to let you know I am not in a black hole, and to show some early photos of this scenic mountain resort with top notch creature comforts.

Last Best Bed

This is what they like to call the “Last Best Bed.” I haven’t had a chance to test that theory yet but will let you know after I spend a night sleeping in one. All of the bedding is unique and saluting place. Everything about the resort and the decor reminds the guest this is a ranch resort in Montana.

Last Best Bath

The baths remind the guest that they are in a luxury resort as well as being in scenic Montana. Granite and state of the art fixtures are the rule. Our cabin features master bath suites for each bedroom (I like that).

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Artistic touches are found throughout such as this equestrian themed piece.

Wooden Cowboy Hat

This hat is a piece carved out of wood.

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This fire pit is at the tent city which is being packed up for the winter season now. What an inviting place to sit by a wood fire and chat with friends. Everywhere you look the green pine covered mountains frame the scene.

Equestrian Center at Paws Up Resort

This is the amazing state of the art equestrian center. The picture doesn’t show the scale of this enormous facility.

I will share more detailed descriptions and photos over the next few days. I just wanted to give a quick snapshot of where I have landed. This is absolutely beautiful country up here. I can’t wait to explore more of the 36,000 acres of land here at The Resort at Paws Up in the Big Sky Country of Montana! Enjoy the slides below by clicking the first image and advancing by mousing over the pop up and clicking the arrow to the right.

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Social Media will work better for Travel Agents than for Internet Travel Sites

twitter-brand

The Writing is on the “Wall”

Sounds crazy doesn’t it? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Social media are after all “social” and no one is more sociable than travel agents. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are a series of interpersonal interactions, and often rebroadcasts of those interactions. Person to person is the name of the game (or person to person to person ad infinitum). Large companies are often struggling to understand this. Providing a personal view of the world of travel has been what my social media brand has been about from day one. Interacting with people and responding to comments and questions is how I built that brand.

Travel agents were preceded on Twitter by all the big names in the Internet travel business. The people tweeting for these companies have used a marketing and brand building approach with a few exceptions. Like many other companies in a variety of business sectors most are missing out on the most elegant aspect of the media which is the interpersonal nature of the communication. Would you rather talk to a person or a company? Advantage: travel agents.

Anyone who studies the industry of travel booking knows that the Online Travel Agencies have a very poor customer retention rate. The vast majority of people who book online express no loyalty to any one brand or web site. The very business model that drove them to early success is what is leading to their current problems. OTAs came onto the scene well funded with venture capital and stock market money. They used that money for traditional advertisement on all the big media outlets. What this gained them is shoppers and customers who are more than happy to shop elsewhere if the perceived bargain is better. They did a good job of selling the perception that they offer bargains which are most often the same bargains a travel agent has access to. They have not done a good job of creating and sustaining relationships.

Let me Recommend…

One of the great things that has happened to me on Twitter is getting personal endorsements from clients. Some of these have mentioned specific things I have done to add value to their personal travel experience. These are the hidden benefits of using travel agents many consumers in today’s Internet focused world are unaware of. When someone tells their network “Thanks @tomtravel2 for getting me a room upgrade and free breakfast for no extra cost!” the benefits of using my services are broadcast with a personal touch. Most people trust personal recommendations more than web site reviews and far more than advertisements. I see this happening to other travel agents I know as well. That is the power of social media. It also is the strong suite of travel agents who succeed. Most of us build our businesses by personal referrals from our satisfied existing clientele. Sounds kind of like #followfriday doesn’t it?

A knowledgeable travel agent can quickly and personally answer questions about travel. I  do this daily and see other travel agents doing it as well. This publicly demonstrates how much easier it is to just contact someone who already knows the answers. Most people click through many different web sites before booking travel online. One tweet to a professional travel agent often gets a better answer than a consumer would find on their own after much time spent. We travel frequently to preview destinations, cruise ships  and lodgings. We take extensive trainings on the above to constantly expand our knowledge. We are actual travel experts who spend our days helping people select, price, book and their travel. Many of us also provide assistance to our clients while they travel when the unexpected occurs. Online travel companies are experts at setting up and advertising do it yourself travel booking web sites. What do they know about travel beyond the prices?

The Numbers Game

As the travel agent community becomes more aware of the potential power of using social media, the number of travel agents grows. Recent trainings by Virtuoso at Travel Mart on the subject have prompted a ground swell of new users to join Twitter and Facebook. Many will choose not to participate for a variety of reasons. Considering that there are around 100,000 travel agents in the United States there is a potential for a large number of us to be on the popular social media over the next few years. There are already considerably more travel agents using social media than online travel agencies and our numerical advantage will continue to grow.

As the number of travel agents using social media grows their imprint will grow as well. It took me several months to get the hang of Twitter and develop a strategy to increase my impact. I am confident that other travel agents will also do well in the social media environment. Most already have a large client base to work with. A good travel agent is also a relentless networker. Think of the impact when we all have our Twitter profile and Facebook address on our business cards, email signatures, and web sites (why did I have to buy 1000 cards before I realized this would be important?). Travel agents are already winning back market share from the Internet booking sites. Our growing use of social media will help us win back even more over the next decade.

What do you think? Please leave me a comment and let me know!

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