Jun 162014
 
located near the Moscone Centre is the Marriott Marquis hotel

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great feature mapping apartment rental service AirBnB’s effects on the city’s economy.

By trawling through the AirBnB database, The Chronicle found 4,800 properties for rent in the city to glean a great deal of information that the company is not keen to share.

A key point from the survey is that over 80% – 3200 – of the properties are householders renting out spare rooms or their places while they are away, which is exactly what AirBnB claim their service is designed for.

The other, professional hosts are what’s attracted the wrath of regulators in cities like New York, where it appears unofficial hotels are skating around taxation and safety regulations.

A new breed of middleman

Catering for these professional hosts has seen another group of middlemen service pop up and The Chronicle features Airenvy, a service that helps landlords manage their properties.

Airenvy is now the biggest San Francisco host, managing 59 properties on behalf of its clients and charging 12 percent commission for dealing with the daily hassle of looking after guests. Since launching in January it employs twelve staff.

Unlike many of the internet middlemen, Airenvy does seem to add value to the renting process above being a simple listing service. For absentee hosts, the fees would seem to be worthwhile in reducing risks and problems.

Filling the gaps

A unique thing about San Francisco is the concentration of hotels around Union Square with 20,000 of the city’s hotel rooms within a ten minute walk of the Moscone Centre.

For non-convention visitors, particularly those visiting family or friends, AirBnB is an opportunity to get a place out of downtown.

The price ranges reflect the service’s diversity as well; from $18 a night for a couch through to $6,000 for a mansion. The average though is close to a typical hotel rate of $226 a day.

The effects of AirBnB

What the survey shows is AirBnB has diversified San Francisco’s accommodation options without the problems being encountered in New York.

That isn’t to say there aren’t problems – the Silicon Valley model of pushing responsibility and consequences onto users leaves a lot of risk for the both the service and its customers – however AirBnB is another example of how industries are evolving as information becomes easier to find.

Another thing this survey shows is the new breed of data journalism and how analysing the numbers can be the foundation of building great stories.

The AirBnB and the changing global travel industry is a great story in itself as the San Francisco Chronicle has shown.

 

May 182014
 
ferry-sign-palm-beach-to-ettalong

Newcastle, a 160km north of Sydney is a drive easily done in less than two hours but for masochists and commuters there’s the three hour train trip affectionately known as the shitkansen by the locals.

The train trip itself has parts that are genuinely spectacular as it winds through the hills and rivers of the New South Wales’ Central Coast, albeit at speeds that are slower than in the 1933 timetables.

One of the reasons for the slow and spectacular trip is the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay and that presents a natural barrier between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle.

That natural barrier also presents an opportunity for a third, prettier route between the two cities using the private ferry service that runs between Central and Sydney’s northernmost suburb of Palm Beach.

Catching the slow train

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Starting from the original Newcastle Railway Station, the trains run twice an hour during the day with one ‘fast’ service taking two-and-a-half hours and slow trips taking three.

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Inside the trains things are relatively comfortable although quite grubby. The purple colour scheme are the refurbished older carriages, the original 1970s ones being in a fairly awful green. The news trains feature a modern vandal proof colour scheme although the seats are more uncomfortable for a three hour journey.

Another weakness with the train service is the spartan facilities, apart from graffiti covered toilets there are absolutely no passenger amenities so bringing your own food and drink is essential along with fully charged electronics as there are no power outlets available.

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Amazingly, rather than improving the railway service to the state’s second biggest city the government plans to abandon the last five kilometers and replace the trains with buses. If there was one example of the 1960s thinking that dominates Australian politics, this venal and ill-thought out proposal is a wonderful example.

The Central Coast

While the parts of the ride between Sydney and Newcastle are spectacular, the stretch south to the Central Coast are the boring parts featuring little more than housing estates and low grade scrub until arriving at Gosford where the train runs alongside Brisbane Water until Woy Woy.

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On alighting the train at Woy Woy, the immediate impression is a town that won’t win any heritage awards with its neglected main street and an anonymous shopping mall. All of which is a pity as its location between the hills and waterways is sensational.

Sadly there’s little reason to hang around so getting a bus to Ettalong is the best thing to do.

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From Woy’s Woy’s dismal transport interchange – a fate that waits Newcastle’s truncated railway service – buses leave every few minutes for the 15 minute journey to Ettalong. If you have a Sydney transport travelpass then your ticket is valid on the private bus service.

Ettalong

If you’re stopping for lunch or a break during the journey, Ettalong isn’t a bad choice with a lot more coffee bars, restaurants and bakeries than the rather depressing choices at Woy Woy.

Since this writer’s last visit to the town three years ago when its centre was struggling with many empty shops; its fortunes have improved dramatically and it’s gone back to being a good destination for a day trip in itself.

Catching the ferry

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The ferry itself is a twenty minute trip including a brief stop at the village of Wagstaffe. Its route winds through the sandbanks of Brisbane Water before getting to the open water of Broken Bay.

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Midway across the bay, the ferry passes Lion Island and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River before entering Pittwater and the Northern Suburbs of Sydney.

Palm Beach

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The wharf at Palm Beach is a classic wooden structure in a lovely location. Across the carpark and road is a general store, the Barranjoey House restaurant and a fish and chip shop.

For a takeaway meal, the fish and chip shop is nicer than the general store but you can enjoy either at the park alongside the ferry wharf.

For a sit down meal, Barrenjoey House has an expensive restaurant along with a bar with an outdoor seating area if you’re looking for a cold drink while waiting for a bus to Sydney.

The bus to Sydney

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The bus back to Sydney takes about 90 minutes. It isn’t the most comfortable journey however the views of the city’s gorgeous Northern Beaches are worthwhile if you’re sittiing on the left side when heading south.

Once past Long Reef, the journey is mainly suburbia except when crossing the Spit and Harbour Bridges. A more interesting option that will add another hour to the journey is to switch buses at Warringah Mall and travel to the city via the Manly Ferry.

Taking the Slowkansen from Newcastle to Sydney isn’t the trip for anyone in a hurry with it adding up to two hours to an already slow three train hour journey but it’s a lot more interesting than the regular way to travel between the two cities.

Nov 032013
 
paris-gare-du-nord-departure-board

During last week I spent the last two days travelling by train between conferences in Spain and the UK while trying to work, write and blog. The lesson is you need to leave the tech at home if you want an enjoyable holiday.

Some of us however are travelling for business so the option of leaving the technology at home isn’t an option. Here are some tips on how to work effectively while on the road.

Charge, charge, charge

If you want to be connected you have to charge your devices at every opportunity, you never know when the next opportunity will arise.

Three pin European power socket

Three pin European power socket

One trap for players is the earthed adaptor plug as the third pin basically renders your equipment useless on most trains and bathrooms. So beg borrow or steal one that lacks the pin which will almost certainly leave you with dead batteries on a night train.

Get Connected

Don’t rely on WiFi, in many places it’s patchy and in France requires convoluted sign up plans. When you can get it, consider it a bonus.

If staying more than three days in a city buying a local pre-paid SIM saves money, but when travelling a lot in Europe it’s best to buy a European wide SIM which will cost more but won’t die at the border.

The dying on the border shouldn’t be understated. On the night train from Barcelona to Paris the service – which the salesman assured would work in France – stopped working the moment the train exited the tunnel from Spain at Cerbere.

Avoid night travel

Should you be intending to work while on the road, avoid night travel. You’ll get more work done in a hotel room or hostel than on a stuffy night train and be more productive than after an overnight flight.

Travel light

Keep things to a minimum, if you’re working that might mean laptops and big cameras but for leisure keep it simple. The less tech you carry, the fewer the power, security and other hassles you’ll encounter.

Forget a schedule

Work where you can and when you can. If you’re diligent then flight and train delays can be your friend in getting stuff done.

Get a room

Working in hostels is almost impossible and you risk having things stolen, staying with friends and relatives is great but their hospitality makes it hard get things done. Get a cheap room so you can work in peace.

An important thing about travel is that you are away from home to learn about and experience other places, spending your time stressing about finding a power socket or Wi-Fi access point is not why you’re on the road.

Overall, tech is a hassle when you’re travelling. If you’re on the road for pleasure keep most of it at home, if you’re working then keep it all to a minimum.

Nov 022013
 
the-golden-fish-hotel-arts-barcelona

Sitting next to Frank Gehry’s giant goldfish on the city’s waterfront and marina, Barcelona’s Arts Hotel was part of  the city’s redevelopment after the 1992 Olympics.

Like the giant fish, the hotel is a quirky building with a strange layout including an entrance that requires guests to catch a lift to the lobby on first floor.

Once you find the lobby, the staff are an incredibly friendly bunch hailing from around the Eurozone, including Dutch, French and Icelandic workers among the Spanish staff.

If you happen to be in the hotel between five and six, the management puts on free cava and nibbles in the lobby.

Free Wi-Fi is available is available in the lobby which adds to it being a comfortable place to sit if you have time to kill after checking out.

The standard suites, known as Deluxe Rooms, are comfortable with all the features expected in a five star hotel.

standard-room-hotel-arts-barcelona

Double beds are comfortable with a high tech bedside control panel with several pre-set lighting configurations, a built in alarm clock and electric blinds that do a very good job of keeping the sun out if you want to lie in.

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The bathroom has a spacious bath with a separate shower, bidet and toilet along with a generous range of toiletries, toothbrush and razor. The bathrobes are particularly comfortable.

bathroom-standard-room-hotel-arts-barcelona

The writing desk is good but suffers from a lack of power sockets with only a double, standard European three pin plug slot that’s already used by the desklamp and cordless phone. You’ll have to at least unplug the phone to get some work done.

 writing-desk-in-standard-room-hotel-arts-bacelona

Both ethernet and wireless access are available with a 25 Euro a day charge for access. It is possible to leech off the free hotel access as it appears to allow consecutive logins after each twenty-four period expires.

in-room-coffee-machine-hotel-arts-barcelona

The inroom coffee machine is a Nespresso unit — the innovation that has change hotel coffe. One drawback with these devices is that management restricts guests to two free cartridges a day with additional ones charged at an extortionate four euro each. If you’re a coffee addict, it’s worthwhile buying a box of cartridges from the supermarket two blocks away.

min-bar-fridge-hotel-arts-barcelona

While you’re at the supermarket it’s worth buying some drinks and snacks to get around the standard extortionate five star minibar prices, be warned though that the term ‘mini-bar’ was coined for the tiny fridges in the hotel so if you bring your own supplies don’t expect to fit in anything larger than a 600ml bottle.

A similar problem affects the room safe which is big enough to fit passports, wallets and phones but not a 10″ iPad.

Bull-in-the-cafe-hotel-arts-barcelona

One of the features with the Arts Hotel are the delightful roof top gardens with quiet nooks and crannies featuring various sculptures and architectural features.

rooftop-garden-hotel-arts-barcelona

The hotel’s swimming pool is 25m but is fiendishly cold, it’s good to wake up to but the idea of doing 40 laps quickly evaporates as any more than ten minutes in the pool isn’t comfortable.

swimming-pool-hotel-arts-barcelona

Warming up after a swim isn’t so bad with some hammocks to relax in, these are popular with conference delegates killing time after checking out from the hotel, so grab one early.

cosy-hammocks-hotel-arts-barcelona

Overall, the hotel is a good choice if you’re not travelling on a budget. While the location is a little way from Barcelona’s major tourist attractions it’s a 15 minute walk from the El Born district of Barcelona and two of the city’s tourist bus routes.

Bull-in-the-cafe-hotel-arts-barcelona

The most notable thing about the Hotel Arts is the friendliness of its staff – even if you can’t afford to stay there it’s worthwhile dropping around the lobby at 5pm for a glass of cava.

Oct 302013
 
singapore-airlines-777

The unusual Singapore Airlines service to Barcelona and Sao Paolo service is a long journey made easier by it not being very full.

Singapore Airline’s SQ 68 is a truly long haul flight with a 14 hour leg between Singapore and Barcelona followed by another nine hours onto Sao Paolo.

The Singapore to Barcelona leg departs just after midnight and arrives at dawn on the same day, for all but the last hour the flight is in complete darkness. It’s a flight made for sleeping.

Luckily for those of us in Economy Class, the flight was only one third capacity and sitting down the back of the Boeing 777 in seat 54A meant getting a full row of seats — perfect for stretching out on the three abreast seats.

sq-68-spare-seats

Even without the spare seats, the Singapore Airlines 777 has the same seat dimensions as their A380 services which makes the seats reasonably comfortable with adequate rest room.

sq-68-leg-room

sq-68-leg-room

Being able to stretch out does make a difference and it was possible to get a fairly solid eight hours sleep by stretching across the three seats.

sq-68-dinner

As usual with Singapore Airlines the food was good with a nice dinner of roast fish in white wine sauce shortly after leaving and a breakfast choice of barbecue pork noodles or a standard eggs and chicken sausage – the noodles are good.

sq-68-breakfast

With 14 hours in the air KrisWorld, the inflight entertainment system, gets a solid workout and in many ways the service is bizarre with a few informative business or news channels but an impressive collection of crappy reality TV shows including My Cat From Hell and the Totally Insane Guinness World Records Christmas Special.

Like the Sydney-Singapore flights, satellite Internet access is available on this service and coverage is constant through the flight.

sq-68-power-outlet

A notable point for Australian travellers on Singapore Airlines’ 777 services to Europe is that the inseat power sockets are 110v and don’t support Australian plugs. So take a European or Asian adapter if you want to charge devices enroute.

Staff did have a habit of vanishing into the galley during the night, but they were obliging in providing water, juice and snacks during the long night time leg if you asked.

Were the flight full, this journey wouldn’t have been fun as the 777 economy class cabin would struggle with toilets and food service during the trip but when half-full it’s quite a pleasant way to fly.

It’s hard to see how the Singapore – Barcelona – Sao Paolo is going to be sustainable if the load factors on my flight were normal but in the meantime, getting a row to yourself means it’s a nice way of getting to Southern Europe from East Asia.

Oct 282013
 
singapore airlines a380

The twice daily Singapore Airlines A380 flights between Sydney and Singapore is probably as good as economy class air travel can get if you’re able to snag a seat on the upper deck.

On the way to Barcelona to attend the Cisco Internet of Everything conference I took seat 71K in that upper deck economy section for what turned out to be a pleasant seven hour trip to Singapore before a 14 hour trudge to Spain.

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Window seat 71K has the advantage of being just forward of the rear exit door so there’s no passenger behind, the upper deck economy section also has the advantage of only being a 2-4-2 seat configuration which makes relations with your fellow passengers a lot more comfortable if you’re in the window seat.

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For someone just on six foot like me, the leg room is fine and there’s plenty of space to stretch the legs out under the seat. Power sockets are inside the ends of the moveable armrests so in the case of these seats, the single power outlet is shared.

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If you choose the Window seat so you can sleep against the fuselage then A380 on all airlines is a disappointment as the cabin wall’s curve means there is a wide gap between the seat and the windows. The advantage of this is are the useful storage bins by the window

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During the flight the crew were friendly and quite happy to keep the alcohol flowing to the more enthusiastic passengers over and above the three regular drinks services.

Being upstairs in the smaller economy cabin also means slightly better service and the toilet to passenger ratio is somewhat more friendly too.

The food was tasty with the Sydney caterers doing a good job with the Asian options.

20131028-000201.jpgDinner service was a tasty Thai beef on rice with a Cornetto ice cream dessert.

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Chicken Noodles were a delightful evening snack before landing, the vegetables in this dish were so good they’d have been a nice meal in themselves.

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A nice touch with Singapore Airlines are the toiletries and complimentary tooth brushes and combs in the toilets. This something that’s largely been lost with most airlines.

The inflight entertainment is what you’d expect of a modern airline with several hundred channels offering everything from language services to recent movies.

Watching World War Z on the system was an interesting experience. The plane crash was edited out with a strange leap in the narrative as no doubt showing air disasters isn’t a good idea on flights.

The IFE also had a strange bug where the movies would be in different languages when you switched between them. It took five attempts to get Brad Pitt to speak English.

In Flight Internet

Singapore Airlines is now offering inflight internet which is nice but insanely expensive. An attempt to run Speedtest blew through the 15Mb limit and hit $20 US in twenty minutes. Choose the plan that disconnects you on reaching the limit to avoid nasty surprises.

For those looking at working online for the flight it’s worth noting the service wouldn’t have worked the whole route, while Australia has granted regulatory approval for inflight internet, Indonesia hasn’t so a third of the flight wouldn’t have approval.

This is an interesting problem for the on air service as approval hasn’t been granted by other large countries – most  notably India and the United States.

One quibble with the flight was the cabin was quite warm and without individual air vents, there’s no way to cool yourself.

Apart from some minor quibbles, the Singapore Airlines Sydney to Singapore service is probably as good as it gets in Economy.

If you can snag a seat upstairs on an A380 it’s probably the best place for long haul travel in economy class.

Aug 272013
 
hotel_in_the_wild_west

Speaking at the recent ADMA Global Summit in Sydney, Starwood Hotel’s Phil McAveety described Generation LuXury – the changing hospitality expectations of Gen X and Ys.

McAveety sees the new generation of travellers as being more diverse, younger, female and increasingly from emerging economies making them very different from the middle aged Caucasian male from Europe or North America which seems to be the focus of most of the hospitality industry.

The lessons from McAveety’s presentation weren’t just for hotels, much of his message applies as to almost every other business sector.

3D printing featured heavily, with McAveetry seeing the technology as delivering the personalised experiences demanded by Generation LuXurY, as an example he cited a concierge being able to create a pair of running shoes for a guest in exactly the size and style required for a guest.

Big Data played a role too with McAveety illustrating how hotel managers used to watch for important, valued guests with hidden windows letting them see who was checking into their establishment, a role that’s now carried out by Big Data and social media.

McAveety though had a warning about social media in the risks of giving away business intelligence and intellectual property to the services.

The big risk though is in technology itself – that hotels treat it as an end in itself instead of tools to deliver better experiences to guests.

“It’s not about tech,” warns McAveety. “If so, we are going to lose.”

That’s a lesson all industries need to heed, that technology is a means to the end of delivering better products to customers. Understanding what Generation LuXurY perceive as a better product is one of those uses for tech.