Weekly Roundup Friday 21 October 2011

The Travel Insider turns 10

Good morning

A slightly reflective newsletter this week, to note the end of our annual fundraising drive, and the event of our tenth birthday.

Please read on to enjoy in this week’s roundup, or click a link to be taken directly to the section of interest.

(Note :  If you are getting the SUMMARY version of the newsletter, these links won’t work, because you don’t have the full newsletter downloaded to link to.  You should either convert to receiving (or add) the full text version of the newsletter, or click over to read the full newsletter on the internet.)


Annual Fundraising Appeal

Our annual fundraising drive has now formally closed, in the sense that I’m not going to be bombarding you with requests to participate any longer.  On the other hand (do I even need to say this, I wonder?!) if you haven’t yet contributed, you are still most welcome to do so.  No support will be refused!

We ended up on Thursday night with 431 people having kindly responded to this year’s fundraising appeal, and I have twelve letters that I’ve yet to open, so we have definitely exceeded last year’s total of 422 supporters, and are tantalizingly close to reaching our 500 supporter goal.  We received still more super supporters in the past three days – Edward, Paula, Tim from Australia, Alan from Australia, Allen (not from Australia), Jeff, and Charles.  Special thanks to the seven of you, and thanks also, so much, to all 443 of you who have responded.

There are two quotable quotes I’d like to end up with.  The first is from supporter Kevin, who has been sending in $5/month on the automatic subscription basis for as long as my records go back.  He says

My pleasure – I know it’s a tiny amount each time, but I know it does add up.  I just wish more people could see how such a trivial expense per month could really make a difference.

And he is absolutely correct on both points.  There are few among us who couldn’t spare $5, whether it be every month or every quarter (or even every year), and the happy unbalanced part of that equation is that these tiny amounts for you, when amalgamated in total, really do make a huge difference at this end.

The other quote comes from the Manager for Public Affairs of a large international travel company’s US headquarters – a company I’ve occasionally, ahem, found fault with in the past in my newsletters.  This happily hasn’t prevented the reader from sending in another $100 donation this year, and they write (I’m deliberately keeping this person anonymous)

I love the newsletter and often go to it as a point of reference, so it’s my pleasure to support you and your endeavors (even when you’re pointing out truthful elements of where we may be lacking a bit!).  Keep up the great work.

Things are especially great when even the people I occasionally criticize choose to turn around and support The Travel Insider.  And if you haven’t done so already, it is still not too late to help me ‘keep up the great work’.

Happy Tenth Birthday to The Travel Insider

I remember waking up one morning, just over ten years ago.  I had sold my travel company the preceding year, and was in the process of writing a book all about how to buy travel, full of what I was going to call insider tips, traps and tricks, gleaned from my time working in the travel industry.

My alarm clock radio woke me, and I listened to the news, which was excitedly talking about how some light plane had apparently accidentally flown into a building in New York.  Yes, it was the morning of 11 September, and within a few more hours, it was clear to me that any plans for a book about travel would have to be placed on hold for perhaps a year or more.

But what to do prior to publishing my travel book?  Well, I’d seen how the best selling books about travel weren’t necessarily the best books about travel, but rather were written by people with name recognition.  So I decided, while waiting for the travel industry to recover, to start a small website and newsletter, generally/loosely themed on travel topics, so as to get a bit of name recognition.  A friend, Joe Brancatelli, had also experienced a transformation of his own travel writing business due to 9/11, and he allowed me to ‘hitch a free ride’ on his coat-tails for a while, promoting my newsletter to his readers.  The Travel Insider was accordingly born in mid/late October, 2001.

The Evolution of The Travel Insider

At first The Travel Insider had a url on my own personal website, but as time passed, it took on more and more of its own life force, and shortly after the first anniversary, I got the url TheTravelInsider.info.  I had hoped to get TheTravelInsider.com, but wasn’t displeased with the alternate .info domain, because the site was to be all about giving out information, not making money.

Another year later, the .com domain became available, so I bought it up too, and nowadays people interchangeably come either to the ‘correct’ .info address or else they simply assume that of course it is .com; type that in, and get there too.

As for the travel book, it has – sort of – never been completed.  A lot of the content has ended up as the base for articles on The Travel Insider, and my best guess is that currently there are more than 1000 webpages on travel and travel related technology topics on the website, totalling several million words of information – in other words, not just one travel book, but about the same number of words as 20 or more travel books!  It has been an intense ten years.

As longer time readers know, the site has evolved in all sorts of unexpected directions.  A delightful development was responding to the interests of readers who wanted to go touring together and with me, and we nowadays have one, sometimes two, very rarely even three Travel Insider tours each year, to all sorts of places, from the wilds of rural Russia to the wintry wonders of Europe, from outlying islands off the Scottish coast to the bustle of Istanbul, from inaccessible parts of Balkan nations still riddled with bomb and bullet damage suffered in recent conflicts to stable friendly welcoming New Zealand, full of sheep and green pastures.

On one occasion I was traveling overseas and wanted my cell phone to work when I traveled.  Researching that ended up with The Travel Insider becoming, for several years, one of the country’s leading sources of phone unlocking codes and services, allowing tens of thousands of people to unlock their phones to work internationally, and with cheaper calling plans.  These days the need for third party unlocking services has massively diminished.

Then there was the time a reader who over some years evolved into one of my closest friends pestered and pestered me to spend (or, as I thought at the time, waste) four full days learning to shoot pistols in the heat of the Nevada desert in midsummer.  I hate excessive heat, but eventually agreed to go, and that brought about a sometimes controversial series of Travel Insider ‘Group Shoots’ subsequently.

Some topics I thought I would run out of things to write about after only a few months or years.  But there are as many Security Horror stories to recount each week now as there were in the first excitable days immediately after 9/11 – indeed, it almost seems there are more such stories now than then.  And the follies and petty venalities of the airlines and their executives – these also continue unchanged and possibly in greater measure.  Who’d have thought, ten years ago, that these days we’d sometimes be paying an airline more for a suitcase to travel in the hold than for us to travel in a seat (a suitcase that back then we could take with us for free)?  Who’d have thought that traveling on a ‘free ticket’ (most notably on BA to Europe) could cost hundreds of dollars in fees, and end up being only very slightly less than the cost of buying a regular ticket.

So, as I look back, the last ten years have been a wild ride, for me, for the Travel Insider, and of course, for you as travelers too.

Some of the things I’ve done with The Travel Insider have proven very successful, and other things have either been very disappointing (some of the article series I’ve written have been almost totally ignored, while some of the ‘throwaway’ things I scribbled out as ‘filler’ and never expected to be read have become very popular, and of course I’ve then expanded on them greatly) or else, after an initial burst of popularity, have been displaced from priority listings in search engine results and are no longer so visited.

The Future of The Travel Insider

So what of the future?  They say that internet years are like dog years – things evolve at seven times normal speed.  So ten years represents pretty much a full lifetime of three score years and ten; and it is very true that today’s internet is extraordinarily different to that which greeted The Travel Insider in 2001.  Social media and mobile/portable internet access were two things undreamt of back then, and while people have long understood the internet’s ability to connect people together, if you’d said, even five years ago, that people would want to share every part of their lives – and in 140 character soundbites (via Twitter), who would have thought that could possibly be?!

The future is at this stage both uncertain and challenging.  I don’t believe I currently have the best approach to exposing the rich variety of content contained in The Travel Insider, but I’m also massively handicapped by lacking the capital to fund a dynamic growth spurt to the ‘next level’ of operation.

Two things are certain, however, or I hope so, anyway.  The first is that I’ll continue to do the very best I can for all of you, as long as I can continue to do so.  And the second is that I hope I’ll continue to receive your support, encouragement, and feedback to keep me on track and to keep the project viable.

There are two other things I’d like to recognize, too.  Without you as readers, there’d be no purpose or point to The Travel Insider.  And without you as supporters, there’d be no possibility of its presence.  You are the lifeblood, the heart and the soul of everything I do.

If you’d like to pass a small Tenth Birthday Present on to The Travel Insider, it is still not too late to join this year’s fundraising appeal.

Travel Bags, Safety and Shooting

I received an interesting new product announcement earlier this week.  It is for a product called the iSafe bag, but notwithstanding the i- prefix, it is nothing to do with iPhones or iPads or iPods.  Instead, it is a type of fanny/waist pack or backpack which comes complete with – wait for it – an alarm/siren.  Apparently the manufacturers believe that if you’re attacked late at night, activating a siren on your backpack is the best form of defense.  Details here.

Alas, studies show otherwise.  With only one exception, people who resist any sort of malevolent attack end up suffering more harm than those who cooperate fully.  If you’re confronted by a rapist/robber/whatever, your best strategy is to cooperate fully.

One has to wonder just exactly how pleased an attacker would be if you turned on a siren.  It makes one also wonder about the guarantee on this product’s home page – ‘Risk Free’!

Unless, of course, you choose to take charge of your life and refuse to be a victim.  That one exception?  People who arm themselves with a firearm.  People with firearms enjoy the most favorable outcome when confronted by an attacker.  As for their attackers, well, let’s just say they don’t enjoy quite such a favorable outcome.

Would it be a clumsy segue from this to remind you of our upcoming Travel Insider Group Shoot at Front Sight in Nevada, from Friday 11 November through Monday 14 November (and with optional concealed weapon permit classes on Thursday late afternoon 10 November)?  We still have a few places remaining if you’d like to come and be part of this group – the two previous Travel Insider groups have all enjoyed their experience immensely and learned a great deal too.

Top Travel Innovations – What Do You Think?

In keeping with the backwards/forwards perspective that celebrating a tenth anniversary brings, here’s an interesting article that lists what it claims to be the top travel innovations of the last however long period.  And, ambitiously, rather than limiting itself to the top ten, it goes all out and lists 40 different innovations, ranging from foam earplugs to Foursquare (a smart phone app), and including some that seem a real stretch to include in any list of travel innovations, such as hot stone massage, and some which are of dubious ‘goodness’ such as airplane meals.

A strange list indeed.  But having seen the list, it might be fun to come up with a Travel Insider reader list of travel innovations, and it would be a great thing for a reader survey.

As the first step in this process, can you suggest any things that should be on the list of possible innovations that readers can then vote on?

Please send in any suggestions you may have by clicking on this link to send me an email, and very briefly mentioning whatever it is you suggest might be worthy of inclusion on the list.

I’ll then put together a list of ‘finalists’ and create some sort of enhanced survey/voting form which we can then vote on next week.  Let’s limit our innovations to things that have happened in the last, oh, 25 years or so.

Apple Deliberately Goes Slow on Innovation?

Talking about innovations, as part of the instant beatification of Steve Jobs, we are told that in his dying days, he worked on plans for four years of new product releases as his ‘secret legacy’.

That sounds very impressive and exciting, doesn’t it.  But it begs a question I’ve not seen asked :  Why spoonfeed this to us in small drips over four years?  Why not give it to us all at once?

The answer to that is of course obvious.  I’m sorry, but the now sainted Jobs has never had our best interests at heart.  He has always been driven by the need to create profit for his company (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Happily that objective has been implemented by a policy of releasing good products, but – as this four year staged release of new products suggests – if there is a way to spin a new product out over multiple releases rather than drop it in our laps, all at once and fully formed, he’d be delighted to do that.

This is perhaps a bit overly unkind.  Some concepts need to wait for technological capabilities to catch up.  But you do have to wonder, for example with the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S – two devices that are so trivially improved upon from their predecessors – whether or not Apple isn’t presently trying to walk a tightrope between too much and too little innovation.  These two lackluster products will be very easy for Apple to upsell/upgrade you from when they come out with what should have been released this year, but what will be released next year instead.  Net outcome – you’ve bought two products instead of one, and Apple has of course sold two products rather than one.

This thought is given further relevance when we look at two competing Android phones released this week – one by Motorola, the other by Samsung.  Both phones would seem to be somewhere between at least as good as the iPhone 4S and possibly very much better.  Maybe Apple held back a bit too much with its iPhone 4S?  I write about the Samsung release in particular in the next article in tonight’s newsletter.

Branson the King Maker?

Sir Richard Branson has never been one to be bashful about his abilities; indeed this week he has been prancing around (or should I say, rappelling down) while opening what he terms the world’s first commercial spaceport.

This stretches the definition almost to breaking point, not in the least due to the lack of any commercially operating spacecraft in the spaceport, which currently is little more than a building in the middle of the New Mexico desert, opened embarrassingly ahead of his well behind schedule ‘spaceships’.  Indeed, the spaceships themselves are craft that with typical Branson hype don’t actually go into what we’d understand as space, which don’t even do a complete orbit of the earth, and which never escape the earth’s gravitational pull (although the passengers who pay $200,000 per ticket will get to experience a brief period of weightlessness during their flight).

But that’s just normal Branson the boaster at work.  What about a story that hasn’t received quite as much coverage – his part in a plot to oust Robert Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe?  Actually, you could well be justified in considering this a much nobler contribution to the world than his ‘spacecraft’.

Details here.

How to Promote (and Not Promote) Tourism to a Foreign Country

As you know, I’ve been lamenting the US’ relative inactivity on the world stage when it comes to promoting the country as a tourist destination.  Not only do we inadequately promote our country; we actually seem to actively dissuade people from visiting by way of our very unfriendly visa issuing policies.

Maybe we could learn a lesson from Japan.  What with their earthquake/tsunami and then nuclear power plant problems, Japan’s international tourism business has tumbled this year, being at least 30% down on last year.  So what does Japan do?  It announces plans to give away 10,000 free trips to Japan as a way of jump-starting its tourism business for 2012.

Winners of the free tickets will be expected to write an account of their travels, which the Japan Tourism Agency would post online in an attempt to show people that it is still possible to visit and enjoy Japan.

Details here.

The Best Way to Promote a Destination?

This amuses me because the Japanese are (partially) doing something I’ve long said is the best way of promoting tourism to a destination.  Giving away free flights to the country in question.  Indeed, in the past, I’ve worked closely with some foreign tourism promotion agencies, and I remember one case in particular where the organization was paying US$50 per person in marketing/promotion costs simply to get a person to call an (800) number to request a free brochure/book on the destination country.

They didn’t know how many of the people who asked for the free book ended up traveling to their country.  Based on what I knew of the number of books distributed, the number of people traveling, their purpose in traveling, and how/where/why they booked their travel, I guessed perhaps one in fifty, maybe less, of the people getting the free book actually traveled.

If they had one person out of every 50 who asked for the free book actually travel to their country, that meant it was costing them $50 x 50 = $2500 per person to get visitors to travel there.

An airfare was less than half that cost – more like a third the cost.  I made the point to them they could close down their entire US office (saving a huge amount in salaries, office costs, and other overhead in the process) and simply give away three times as many free tickets (actually very many more if all the overhead savings were then repurposed for free tickets too), getting an immediate and certain boost of tourism.

Being as how I was recommending this to the people who would lose their jobs if they acted on my recommendation, it never happened.  I’ve often thought about this as a brilliant (bad) example of a government run bureaucracy that clearly existed for the benefit of the bureaucrats (who lived extravagantly like princes in the US, with tax-free salaries, allowances, expense accounts, accommodation, and all sorts of other benefits) rather than for the purpose of fulfilling their mission (boosting tourism to their country).  They could have trebled tourism just by doing a deal with their national carrier and/or any of the other carriers flying there.

This Week’s Security Horror Story :  Mission Creep and Empire Building

Let’s continue talking about bureaucracies.  The road to hell, we are told, is paved with good intentions.  And one of the problems, any time we create any sort of bureaucracy, is that it takes on a life of its own, and becomes not only self sustaining, but also grows wherever it can, however it can.

This is particularly true of government bureaucracy, because it is, alas, largely unconstrained by the icy reality of funding and the need to generate profit that restricts commercial ventures.

Case in point #1 :  When the plan for the TSA was first announced, we all understood that their job was to replace the ‘rent a cop’ privately contracted security screeners in airports with better government employed workers, right?  Few of us even thought to examine the assumption that government employees are automatically better than private sector employees at anything, and few of us thought to appreciate that the reason that security was not very effective prior to 9/11 is because no-one thought it needed to be more effective than it was.  We as passengers were happy with it, the airlines were happy with it, the government was happy with it.

So we had the sudden rush to blame 9/11 on lax security screeners was rather unfair, and the instant decision to create possibly the largest government bureaucracy ever – the Dept of Homeland Security.  It allowed us all to shift the blame to a convenient scapegoat, the people who we’d all been happy to allow to screen us prior to then.

But – ask yourself this.  When we all passively accepted the creation of the TSA, wasn’t it our belief that their job was to replace airport screeners at airport screening stations?  Okay, we could sort of understand an expansion/integration of their role into the rest of airport security as well, but did any of us ever expect they would now be stopping trucks on interstates to check their cargos?

Mission creep.  Details here.

Oh – and one more thing.  Initially airports had the option to opt in and to opt out of having the TSA screeners.  Some airports (notably SFO) never opted in.  Some airports have been thinking of subsequently opting out, but the provision to opt out has been removed.

Case in point #2 :  On 9/11 the ‘border crossing’ in Port Angeles, WA, was staffed by four Border Patrol agents (the quotes are because it is a harbor/port, not a land border crossing).  It has a handful of pleasure boats come and go each day, and a couple of passenger ferries doing several crossings.  Today that border station is manned by more than 40 agents, and with a new $5.7 million building soon to be opened, the total could rise to over 50.

In the nine years since 9/11, overall border patrol staffing all along the Canadian border has increased seven-fold – while the number of people seized for illegally attempting to enter the country has almost halved.  Sure, you could say the reduction in apprehensions is due to more effective policing.  But that’s not what the border patrol agents themselves are saying.  In this story, one of the Port Angeles agents complains there’s nothing for them to do, the agents there are bored, while bizarrely, they are also being called upon to work overtime.  Doing what?

There’s one more interesting thing about this enormous growth of staffing along our relatively secure unthreatened northern border.  It is at the expense of extra staff on our southern border – you know, the one that is as leaky as a kitchen sieve?  In 2001, only 3% of the border patrol staff were posted to the northern border; in 2010 that has grown to 11%.

Empire building.  But in the wrong direction.

An Amazing New Technology

Lastly this week, and extending the theme of past, present, and future, here’s a stunning video clip on Youtube showing an extraordinary 3D projection technology being demonstrated on the outside of a building in Berlin earlier this year.

We’re of course seeing it reduced to 2D low-quality video.  One can only guess what it would have looked like in person.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and please lift a glass, somewhere in the world, and offer a small toast to The Travel Insider’s past and next ten years.






2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 21 October 2011”

  1. Regarding crossing into the US from Canada. In July of this year my wife and I drove a rented car into the US from Quebec. We crossed at Derby Line, Vermont (Interstate highway 91). This is not a minor back road with little traffic. There was a single person checking vehicles. We stopped and he asked us how long we’d been in Canada, where our home was, and then he waved us on. No ID check, no vehicle inspection, no other questions of any kind. I was absolutely astounded. While we appreciated the ease of re-entry I feel that it should have been a bit more thorough. I understand that our license plate was photographed as we approached but, as I said, it was a rental and not directly connected to us.

  2. Why did anyone who had the slightest interest in history not know what was going to happen as soon as the Government set up the Dep’t of Homeland Security. I have an implanted knee so I get patted down in every airport without an x-ray machine in the U.S. But when I leave my home airport in Hong Kong, the security people pass a wand over me before sending me on my way. When I suggested that during a recent pat-down, I was told to remember the Diaper bomber. I pointed out that the pat down did not include my underwear, thank goodness, so how was I safer since I had never been patted down before my knee replacement. Was the fact that I set off the alarm a clue that I was carrying semtex in my shorts. He of course had no response. I just get angrier and angrier with the games being played supposedly in the interest of my security. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “Those who trade security for freedom deserve neither.”

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