Aug 05

The St. Petersburg, Russia, Holiday Inn is no vacation

There's poor customer service, there's NJ transit and then there's the St. Petersburg, Russia,
3-1214_holiday-inn-logo
Holiday-inn-moskovskie Holiday Inn. The last is in a class of its own and could easily lay claim to a global 'worst in class' top spot.
  
I had the serious misfortune to begin my two-week Russian climbing adventure at the Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg.
  
Upon waking the second morning, I sauntered into the bathroom and flipped on the shower faucet. That's when I spied a Holiday Inn sign on the wall that read 'Please use orange floor mat when bathing.' So, I did. Big, big mistake. Bigger, in fact, than the 18,800 ft high Mt. Elbrus I was planning  to climb.

I put one toe on the orange mat and, swoosh, I was sent flying head over heels. My head cracked (and broke) the toilet seat. Simultaneously, my  left hip slammed full force into the side of the porcelain tub. The pain was exquisite.
  
I sucked it up, downed some Aleve and continued on the trip. Each day, the pain would move from one part of my back to another. A doctor traveling with our climbing team thought I'd suffered a pinched nerve. Being the take no prisoners type of blogger that I am, I shook it off and began training with the rest of the team.
  
We flew to the Baksun Valley, hiked on the spectacular, lower level hills, attended rescue and survival courses (it's so uplifting to hear crevasse horror stories) and took in the local sights.

Now, fast forward to summit day. We began at 2am. By 11:30 am, we'd made it to the 'saddle,' a spot just below the peak. My back was screaming 'Nyet!' But, I plowed ahead anyway before the searing pain made me turn back a mere 800 feet from my goal. All because of an orange Holiday Inn bath mat.
  
My assistant, Dandy Stevenson, will be sending copies of this blog to the CEO of Holiday Inn and the general manager of the totally irresponsible St. Petersburg unit. Oh, by the way, six other members of my climbing team also fell on those same malevolent mats.

If
Holiday Inn has any sort of image and reputation left over from its heyday in
the mid 1960s, I'd like this blog to be my way of placing a virtual orange mat
in front of their brand. I hope they slip on it and  suffer the same
degree of pain and disappointment as me.

Holiday Inn's tagline is: 'Stay you'. They define the brand promise in the following ways: 'Stay yourself,' 'Stay picky,' 'Stay indulgent' 'Stay Impressed' and ''Stay Invigorated.' I suggest a slight variation on the 'Stay' campaign: 'Stay someplace else!"

Jul 28

You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the U.S.S.R.

Phoenix and its 116 degree heat and Manhattan with its hazy, hot and humid spell of six million
St-petersburg-russia straight, 90 degree days have nothing on St. Petersburg, Russia.

Having had the pleasure of touring the historic Czarist city the past few days, I can report on the following:

The Russians don't do air conditioning. Period. And, that's not a good thing. I thought London struggled with excessively high heat, but the Brits could learn a trick or two from the plucky Russians. Most merely shrug their shoulders, sigh and deal with it. As Pauline, our tour guide put it: “Your Mr. Albert Gore was sure right about his world warming theory, da?”

To begin with, there's St. Petersburg's overall miasma: daytime temperatures soar well in excess of 100 degrees (F). But, unlike Phoenix and it’s much heralded and over-hyped 'dry heat,' the humidity here is Vietnamese jungle-like in its intensity (courtesy of its proximity to the Baltic Sea).

Stir in absolutely no carbon dioxide emission standards whatsoever, never-ending road construction work which sears the air with a heady aroma of burning tar and a sun that, due to our extreme Northern exposure, doesn't set until 11pm and one gets hot, hot, hot to paraphrase another pop song.

But St. Petersburg's special charm is its cigarette-addicted populace. When it came to conquering the Russian population, Napoleon and Hitler should have studied Phillip Morris instead of Carl von Clausewitz. Nearly every uber attractive, scantily-clad Russian lass can be seen strolling the Neskiye Prospekt with a cigarette dangling from her lips. And, the men puff away just as enthusiastically. So, if you're an investor, hang onto your tobacco stocks- Phillip Morris is making a killing here, literally.

On the plus side, St. Petersburg has beautifully restored 17th and 18th century Russian Orthodox churches on virtually every street corner. They also have a subway system that is clean and cool. (Yes, I said, cool. I was actually thinking of bedding down in one for the night.) There are also lots of historic sites for the hyperactive tourist. (But, one morning of inhaling noxious fumes and sweating through my clothes many times over was enough to put a damper on any extended tours for this blogger.)
 
Another plus is the World War II memorabilia. The Russians proudly display many of the weapons used to fight back the Nazi siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during the Communist regime). And, there's even a brief tour of the Astoria Hotel (not to be confused with NYC's Waldorf-Astoria) where Hitler had already made plans to host a gala celebration of the fall of Leningrad. (As our guide, Pauline, beamed, “So, he did not have the chance for that, no? So, instead, Stalin came here and he give big, big celebration.”)

I found it curious that there were no statues or murals of Stalin to be found, but Lenin is everywhere. I guess those 30 million mass murders tended to dampen the Russians' pride in Uncle Joe.

Anyway, my climbing team leaves St. Petersburg this morning for a day-long flight South to Mineral Vody in the Caucasus Mountains, where we begin our assault on 18,840 foot Mt Elbrus. With cell service being as scarce as tobacco and nicotine are plentiful, this blogger doubts he'll be able to file an update until we reach Moscow midweek of next week. Here's hoping in advance that Moscow copes with the heat a little bit better than its neighbor to the North.

St. Petersburg was nice to visit, but here's one comrade who wouldn't want to live there. Dasvedanya, Amerikanskis.

Jul 23

And, now, it’s on to Mother Russia and let’s win there

This Sunday, Chris “Repman, Jr.”, Cody and I leave on a two-week trip to Russia. Our goal is to
Elbrus-map summit Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus. If successful, it will enable us to lay claim to having bagged two of the world’s ‘Seven Summits.’ We celebrated New Year’s Eve 2007 on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa, and hope to top out on Elbrus on August 3rd.

‘Kili’ was a beast, and Elbrus looks to be no easier. At 18,481 feet, it’s Europe’s highest point. It’s a double-coned volcano that is wrapped in ice and snow (which, if nothing else, will provide a welcomed break from this horrific hazy, hot and humid weather we’ve been experiencing for the last month or so).

In addition to the climb, we’ll be touring St. Petersburg and Moscow (and, possibly, ducking stray bullets and mortar shells from irate Chechnyan rebels).

As I’ve done on my previous trips abroad, I’ll be asking locals their views on the image and reputation of the U.S. (being careful not to offend any irate Chechnyan rebels in the process). This is my first big trip abroad since Obama assumed office, so it will be interesting to see if, as was the case with his predecessor, I hear the locals say something to the effect, “We love Americans. We just hate your President.” Most Tea Party members, Evangelicals and Glenn Beck fans would probably say the same thing.

I hope to file at least one blog from the former Soviet Union if the vagaries of wireless connection enable me to do so. If not, Repman readers will be blessed by content provided by a host of able and willing guest bloggers who have volunteered to fill the void (however miniscule said void may be).

And, so I end by paraphrasing the final, immortal words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy: “And, now, it’s on to Mother Russia and let’s win there.”

Jan 06

There’s no dark side to this moon(ey)

January 6 - teacher-doris-day Imagine the ideal teacher. Someone who takes the time to first, demonstrate, how something should be done. Someone who then instructs you on the step-by-step process with which to achieve your goal. Someone who allows you to fail, but insists you learn from those failures. And, finally, someone who heaps praise on you for accomplishing the original objective.

Art Mooney is the ideal teacher. But, he doesn’t teach in a conventional classroom. Art instructs novices like me on the rudiments of ice, rock and mountain climbing in the Green and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, respectively.

I mention Art because I believe teaching and creating a learning environment in which risk and failure are allowed, is more critical than ever. Why? Because in these brutal economic times, everyone is afraid to think outside the box, take risky decisions or, god forbid, fail.

I consider myself something of a teacher. Along with Ed, Ted and other Peppercom leaders, I try to foster an environment in which failure is permitted. Like Art, I try to instruct others by showing them, step-by-step, how a goal can be accomplished. And, like Art, I try to never overreact to failure.

I believe the best clients are also great teachers. We’ve had the opportunity to work with many over the years who, as great teachers do, took pains to make sure we understood their business strategy, organizational DNA and subtle cultural nuances. They linked our success to theirs. Tom Martin of ITT and Richard Aldersea of Mercer Delta are two erstwhile client/teacher hybrids who come immediately to mind.

Like every other strategic communications firm, though, we’ve also had our share of absolutely awful teachers who were diametrically opposed to the Art Mooney School of Instruction. I recall one who, warning us about her boss, hissed, ‘You get one chance to fail with Beth. Only one.’  Another, more recent, client reminded me of a brutal school teacher in a Dickensian novel. He’d publicly berate team members if he felt they didn’t grasp something quickly enough. Other times, he’d let out long, exasperated sighs on conference calls when we took exception to something he said. Worst of all, he’d claim credit for our successes and throw us under the bus for our failures.

Great teachers can make or break a student, or a relationship. Art Mooney, Tom Martin and Richard Aldersea are three ‘teachers’ who infused passion into their instruction, created an atmosphere in which failure was not only permitted but embraced and, finally, energized ‘students’ like me who eventually became their brand ambassadors. Hey, who said life isn’t a circle?

Dec 22

Bloggers of a certain age

December 22 - menofacertainage I'm starting to warm up to the new TNT series, 'Men of a Certain Age.' It stars Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher as three erstwhile college buddies who have stayed tight and are now helping one another navigate the murky waters of middle age.

Romano, who owns a party store, has lost a marriage because of a gambling addiction. Bakula, meanwhile, is an actor, who pays the bills as a temp working at an accounting firm and dates a 25-year-old woman. Braugher is an obese, diabetic who holds down a stressful job as a salesman at his father's car dealership.

The guys bond during a daily, two-mile hike in the hills. It's there that they discuss women, careers and failed ambitions. It's good stuff.

I like the gritty reality of the show. Middle age brings with it a stark reality that young people simply can't imagine. Parents die. Friends grow old. The eyes grow weak. The joints grow stiff. The reactions become noticeably slower. And, yet, the Mets and Jets still somehow keep losing (at least there are some constants).

Middle age is also an interesting battle ground for one's image and reputation. My friend, Maria, is appalled by people 'our age' who have 'given up' and refuse to exercise or party because '….they think they're too old for that.' She argues that, actuarially speaking, people of a certain age still have another 35 or 40 years ahead of us and should 'keep fighting the good fight.' I agree, Maria. Go get 'em.

While I fight my daily battle to keep things in place, I also look forward to learning new things and experiencing new experiences. Someone once said, 'youth is wasted on the young.' I don't necessarily agree. I don't think I would have enjoyed running Peppercom, performing stand-up comedy, climbing on ice, snow and rock, cycling, blogging or the myriad other things that fill my days and nights. The fact is I wouldn't have had the depth or breadth to do most of the things I've done in middle age.

December 22 - mountain
Many men of a certain age possess a world weariness to be sure. But, others exude the confidence and wisdom that only comes with experience. That's huge. And, that's why I really enjoy being a blogger of a certain age. Sure, I have my fill of bad days. Days when I feel like chucking it all and settling down on Scotland's Isle of Skye for perpetuity. But, then, some new challenge or opportunity presents itself and, boom, I'm off and running again (literally). The newest challenge: occasional guest blogger Rob Longert and I will be running the Central Park half-marathon in late January. Brrrr.

Middle age? Bring it on. This blogger of a certain age is ready for what's next.

Dec 01

Beasting it in the bothy

My trusty sidekick Chris 'Repman Jr.' and I have been hiking and climbing Scotland's breathtakingly beautiful Isle of Skye this week.

December 1 - motoring in isle of skye
The chamber of commerce weather has been picture perfect (bright sunshine and daytime temperatures right around freezing). But, come nighttime, which at this latitude begins at about 3:30 p.m., duck and cover. The winds begin howling and the temperatures drop faster than the NY Jets winning percentage.

Our resolute guide, Peter Khambatta suggested we stay several nights in a bothy in order to fully experience a Scottish highlands trek. My goodness. Talk about a trip back in time. The bothy in which we slept is a small, compact stone hut with four tiny sleeping rooms and one fireplace. There is no running water, heat or electricity. One sleeps on the floor in one's sleeping bag, collects firewood along the beach and cooks a spare dinner around 6 p.m. (which feels like midnight since its been dark for so long). And, when nature calls at about 2 a.m., one braves the sub-zero wind chills to accomplish the task at hand.

December 1 - 192493074_a8dac6e02c
After dinner and conversation, we did what people did for centuries prior to the invention of all our modern conveniences: we piled on layers of clothes, snuggled inside sleeping bags and hunkered down to snooze (which, after six hours of arduous climbing came rather easily).

I cannot tell you how much the bothy enhanced the overall experience. It was so austere, so remote and so unforgiving that I half expected to see a Viking war ship turn the corner near the Isle of Rum across the Irish Sea and begin heading our way. But, the bothy was also way cool in a manner that defies this blogger's best attempts to describe it.

Trips that test endurance and everyday niceties accomplish two things for me: they totally refresh my mind (i.e. does losing an account really matter in the grand scheme of things?) and, second, it further increases my admiration and respect for the hardiness of those who came before us.

That said, I'm looking forward to returning to all the creature comforts and mindless entertainment that America can provide.

Sep 28

I am the happiest man in the world

September 28 - mountain

Those were the final words of 71-year-old multimillionaire Clifton Maloney, spoken shortly after successfully summiting the 26,000 ft-plus peak of Cho Oyu, the world's sixth highest peak. Maloney, the husband of U.S Representative Carolyn Maloney, went to sleep after making the comment and never woke up again.

What a way to go! If I could orchestrate my own passing, I'd do it the way Maloney did: accomplish something truly magnificent, share my post-event adrenaline high and then leave my friends and companions with some memorable words.

I'd hate to die behind a desk. Or, after being struck by a car or, god forbid, on the NJ Transit 7:28 to the city.

Not this blogger. I'd like to go right after 'killing' a stand-up comedy performance. Or, completing a grueling 18-mile run. Or, like Maloney, summiting a brutally-challenging peak.

We're not given the option of picking the time or place of our departure. But I'd like to think that, wherever he is at the moment, Clifton Maloney has to be pretty pleased with his manner of passing. He went out at the happiest moment of his 71 years on earth. To me, that's living.

Jun 29

Reelin’ in the years

June 29 - cupcake It’s my birthday. No big deal in the grand scheme of things but, as Pink Floyd once wrote, ‘Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.’ Maudlin to be sure, but since we’re all mortal, it’s tough not to reflect on what’s been accomplished and what’s still to be done.

In that spirit, I’ve given some thought to what I’m most proud of and what I’d like to do between now and the inevitable appearance of the Grim Reaper. Here goes:

Accomplishments:

  • Chris and Catharine
  • Peppercom
  • McGraw-Hill published book, ‘What’s keeping your customer up at night?’ (continues to fly off the bookshelves in Third World countries while gathering dust here)
  • 75 or so stand-up comedy performances
  • One ‘improv’ performance at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in NYC (easily the toughest mental challenge I’ve yet faced)
  • Mountain climbing, ice climbing, three half marathons and two 18-mile marathons
  • PR industry awards, bylined articles, speeches, panels, agency of the year, yada, yada
  • Mentoring more than one dazed and confused college student

Goals:

  • Learning a second language
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Climbing at least three more of the Seven Summits
  • Rock climbing
  • Antarctica and the Galapagos
  • Acting
  • Completing my swimming lessons and finishing a sprint triathalon

Reflecting on my mortality, I’m reminded of the classic William Saroyan quip, ‘Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.’ If only……

Jun 02

Mo knows

I'm a huge dog person. Always have been. Always will be. Named my agency after our black lab, Pepper. Love hanging out with our two current pooches, Mick and Rooney. But, for all my contact with canines over the years, I never thought I'd have a dog to thank for leading me to the summit of one very tough mountain peak.

June 2 - mountain

Last weekend, 'Repman, Jr,' his buddy, Mark, and I attempted to climb 14,197 ft Mt. Belford in Buena Vista, Colorado. We'd been warned we might encounter snow and ice near the summit, but nothing prepared us for the whiteout conditions we hit about 2,000 feet below the peak. It was too intense and, since we were climbing without our friend and guide, Stafford Davis (a victim of altitude sickness), we decided to turn around.

We were bummed. But, with the snow howling and the wind intensifying, it was the smart, sensible thing to do. And, then, after about 500 feet of descent, we spied a couple and their dog happily making their way towards us. 

They were locals who knew the mountain well. They told us the snow would let up (it never did, btw) and to just follow their dog, Mo (short for Mohave. They'd found him abandoned in the Mohave Desert and rescued him).

So, with more than a little trepidation, we shrugged our shoulders, retraced our steps and followed Mo, which wasn't easy. Mo adored climbing in the snow. He'd bound ahead of us at Mach speed and then stop and roll around in the two-foot snow drifts. The pooch really lifted our spirits, gave us a canine compass to follow and, sure enough, after a few more grueling hours, led us to the peak.

June 2 - hiking

Aside from a pat on the head, I never had a chance to properly thank our guardian angel of a dog. So, here's to you Mo. There's definitely a place in dog heaven for you.