Mar 09

Standing Room Only

This is the first of two transportation centric posts and was written by Peppercommer Ann Barlow.

Until now, one of the few complaints that I've had about BART, San Francisco's commuter and city  train service, is the lack of adequate seating to accommodate all the passengers. But after reading a report shared by Peppercom friend Greg Schmalz, I'm starting to feel grateful for the many times when overcrowding has forced me to stand. 

Bacteria_cartoonIt seems that some testing conducted by a supervisor with San Francisco State University's biology lab revealed that the cushioned, upholstered seats contain a lot more than the behinds of passengers. Drug-resistant bacteria and fecal matter (among my favorite euphemisms) were discovered, and attempts to clean them with wipes doused in alcohol failed to adequately remove the disgusting and potentially dangerous organisms.

When I moved to the Bay Area from the New York area five-plus years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the commuter train service. Like RepMan, I suffered for years from NJT's utter indifference to passenger comfort and customer service. Contrast that with the BART experience, which begins with joining an orderly queue to wait for the train at designated points in the stations. If the train you are riding is delayed, you can expect frequent updates and apologies from the conductor. The trains seldom break down and are normally on time. Sure, there are occasional problems, and the system managers don't seem to have cottoned onto the idea that if a line goes down, they should provide an alternative means of getting you to your destination. You're on your own.   But all in all, as commutes go, it's a pretty pleasant experience.  Or it was.

I admit to often having eyed at the teal-colored seats with suspicion.  They're comfortable, but can anything with that much fabric be hygienic?  Apparently not.  BART says plans are in the works to change out the seats, which were installed decades ago when comfortable seats were thought to encourage ridership.  In the meantime, it does clean the seats nightly and spend hundreds of thousands on yearly dry cleaning.  It plans to survey riders on preferences.  Really?  I think you can bet that riders want safe, hygienic conditions.  If that means cold, plastic, hard seats, so be it.

If a lot of other riders read the study today, I suspect we may go from 'standing room only' to 'sitting room only.'

Jan 05

Be still my heart

Every now and then something positive occurs that renews my faith in the basic intelligence of  mankind.

Quiet-CarYesterday, I was struck by two such rare occurrences.

The first came while boarding NJ Transit's infamous 6:01pm to Long Branch. I say infamous because this particular train can rival LaGuardia for the number of indefinite delays.

But, no sooner do I board the dreaded Scoliosis Express than I hear the conductor announce the first and last cars had both been designated as 'silent'. He went on to say the use of cellphones and loud talking would be strictly prohibited.

Wow! There'd be no more Jersey Shore housewives screaming into their phones, 'But, Paulie, I told yous this morning to pick somethin' up for the kids!' No more groups of rowdy, Foster Beer-quaffing businessmen bragging about the world-class talents of their soccer-playing offspring. Not even a gaggle of old world garment district buyers lamenting the latest price cuts. Nothing. Not a peep. Just silence. Sweet, beautiful silence. Be still my heart. And, thank you, NJ Transit (did I actually just write those words?).

The second revelation came while scanning the pages of Ad Age on the now quiet-as-a-church mouse 6:01 (and, what's with church mice keeping quiet? Are they the only mice who do so? Are they in fact mute? I doubt it. In fact, I can't recall a single instance of bumping into a loudmouthed mouse. Church mice need to hire a PR firm).

Anyway, an Ad Age editorial informed me someone is finally doing something about impossible-to-open, atom bomb proof, skin-tearing product packaging.

Product packaging is one of the other true banes of my existence. I've spilled enough blood ripping open packages of Gillette Mach 3, Purina Cat Chow and Nature's Path Flax-Plus Granola to supply Haiti's needs for a  fortnight (actually, I'm not sure of Haiti's current need for blood, so the actual time frame may be more or less). But, man, have I ever bled as a direct result of some foolish package designer's intent to make these products more impregnable than Fort Knox.

But, wait! There's actually someone listening. Walmart (ugh) is challenging vendors to reduce the amount of packaging to cut carbon footprints. And, Amazon is launching 'frustration-free packaging.' Talk about an oxymoron.

Now, if only someone could create frustration-free commuting, I'd literally be home free. And, Paulie, yous really did drop the ball on getting dinner for the kids."

A quiet ride home and injury-free package opening experience may not seem like much to you but, in these days of 24×7 doom-and-gloom news, they're bright, shining lights for this battered and bruised consumer.

Dec 14

The W Deserves an F

Robinsonjack_Tomlin11 W_Hotels-logo-CCE5D496E7-seeklogo.com Today's guest post is by Ann Barlow, President, Peppercom West.

If you’ve stayed at a W hotel, you know how hard they work to be hip.  I was at one for three  nights this past week, and when I tell you the priority they gave coolness over service wore a little thin by the time we left, I’m being kind. 

was fortunate to go to the first TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C.  As usual with these things, the conference had ‘deals,’ (there’s no such thing in that neighborhood) in this case at the Marriott, the Willard and the W.  The Marriott was sold out, and the Willard was a little pricier than the W, so I chose the W. 

  When you arrive, the bellmen are all in black shirts and  pants, so initially it’s not easy to spot them.  (I can’t imagine how that could possibly work in NY, where black is the signature color.)  At any rate, we were shown to our room, which looked eerily like the inside of a refrigerator.  White drawers, a bluish brushed glass on shower, white bed. I half-expected the headboard to read ‘crisper.’

The shower is a good example of hip over what’s actually good for the guest.  The bluish, but nonetheless transparent, glass faces the room and entranceway so if you are showering when, say, room service walks in, you’ll be revealing more than your preferences for tea over coffee.  What is the point?

In the bathroom, there are the requisite toiletries, tissues, towels and robe.  There’s a little white bag hanging next to the robe labeled ‘plan B.’ What’s in this mysterious bag?  A roll of toilet paper.  Seriously?  Couldn’t they just put an extra roll under the counter and be done with it?
The worst, though, is when you want to call for anything from a wake-up call to housekeeping to room service.  In what must have seemed like a great idea at the time, some marketing guru decided that the guest should dial ‘1’ no matter what they needed, and they would be served. 

Three problems with that:
1.    They answer with an impossibly cheerful ‘Whatever, whenever! How can I help you?’  Try being greeted that way more than twice and see if your nerves don’t begin to fray.
2.    About half the time, the line is busy, especially since the same people who answer also man the front desks.
3.    Because they wear so many hats, the Whatever Whenever people sometimes forget to do what they said they would for you.  When that happens, the Whatever Whenever greeting makes you want to go through the phone at them.

One of several cases in point:  We asked for a wake-up call at 7 am.  The Whatever lady asked if we would like a 7:15 follow-up call.  I thought that was a great idea, because being on West Coast time (we’d flown in from California), I knew it wouldn’t be easy to wake up.  So I said yes, please.  She asked if we wanted breakfast, and I said no thank you.

Well, they must have taken the Whenever part a bit too seriously, because the wake-up call never came.  We woke up at 9:30.  My husband missed his 10 am meeting in Reston, and I was late to register for the opening day of the conference. If that had happened the second or third morning, the results would have been disastrous. We weren’t pleased. 

I want to point out here that the hotel did its best to make things right, taking $200 off our bill and sending up wine and cheese.  And the next morning when apparently they once again took Whenever a little too much to heart and showed up late with our breakfast, they comped it.

The point is, trying hard to be hip at the expense of service is so 2008.  In this kind of economy – and to my way of thinking, in any economy – why not focus your energies on good customer service instead of being cool?  Turn down the ‘unz unz’ beat in the lobby so that the concierge can hear your question and the bartender hear your drink order.   Let the operator direct my call to housekeeping or room service.  I’ll sacrifice the one-touch saccharine greeting for knowing that my request will be honored.

This is hardly the first time I’ve stayed at a W.  No doubt, the hotel chain will say, ‘whatever,’ but whenever do I intend to stay at a W again?  Never. 

Oct 20

The ‘Other’ Big C

I'm in the midst of flipping through Jon Stewart's laugh out loud coffee table book, Earth. It's   TMCQuentinMeaseCroppedRGB written for aliens who have stumbled across planet earth long after we humans have annihilated ourselves. In it, Stewart provides his P.O.V. on the who, what, when, where, why and how humanity got itself into the mess that is life in the year 2010.

As is the case with all of Stewart's humor, the text is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. One section, entitled ‘The Phases of Man’ is both hilarious and insightful.

The middle-age section naturally hit home with me. It features a photograph of a portly, balding middle-aged guy rocking a Hawaiian shirt, mandals, a couple of tats and an earring. Various arrows point to the man's anatomy and contain captions such as this one about his visible chest hair, “Men of a certain age were eager to show the world not all of their hairlines were receding.” Another arrow pointing to the man's sagging chest reads, “Decreased metabolism manifested itself in the form of love handles, spare tires, saddle bags, walrus knees, beluga back and manteats.”

Stewart describes middle age as the period of time between 45 and 60 (Phew! I still qualify). He then goes on to say that middle age varied greatly due to changing life expectancies. “For instance,” he writes, “victims of midlife crisis during the Dark Ages would comfort themselves with the thought that 20 is the new 16.”

Tuesday's New York Times Science section neatly complemented Stewart's wisdom on middle age with an in-depth analysis of how and why centenarians make it to 100 years of age and beyond. There are now 96,548 humans 100 years of age, or older (there were only 38,300 in 1990). That's enough oldsters to fill the Rose Bowl! Of course, they'd fall asleep before halftime, but still…

According to the article, which cites findings of a New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, there's a direct link between longevity and people who are extroverts, have a healthy dose of self-esteem and strong ties to family and community (note: two out of three ain't bad). It also reports on a University of Pittsburgh study that followed 97,000 women for eight years and said those 'deemed optimistic' were significantly less likely to die from heart disease than were pessimistic women, which the study described as “cynically hostile.” (Note: I've had more than one cynically hostile client over the years). Pessimists were also more likely to be overweight, smoke cigarettes and avoid exercise.

Here's the kicker, though. A Swedish study of identical twins separated at birth and reared apart concluded that only about 20 to 30 percent of longevity is genetically determined. That's huge. That means we can play a major role in determining how long we live and whether we can make it to the 'other’ Big C.

My game plan to reach 100 is two-fold:

– Challenge my body with intense physical exercise such as this past weekend's rock climbing in New Hampshire  , the Tour de Pink charity ride and other seemingly nonsensical middle-age pursuits.
– Challenge my mind with daily blogs, bi-monthly podcasts, performing stand-up comedy and trying to devise new service offerings for Peppercom. I find battling with Ed also keeps my mind fresh. I may die before this blog is even posted, but I've got a ‘Big C Plan’ that I'm implementing. What about you? Are you thinking of making it to the other Big C? If so, share your game plan. Lifelong learning is another key ingredient in the lives of centenarians portrayed in the Times article. And, I'm all ears (minus the eDSCN4689arring, of course).IMAG0066 (2)

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 16

We put the ‘cuss’ in customer service

I have never had a worse user experience than my ongoing, nightmarish relationship with New 
Njt1 Jersey Transit.

Today's train ride is a classic example. We've been stuck sitting just outside Penn Station for 40 minutes with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. Why? Because NJT is a public utility, has no competition and could care less about its image, reputation or customer service.

The NJT user experience is one, long holistic descent into a transit version of Dante's Inferno. It's not just the dirty trains, rude conductors and tardy arrivals. It's the quality of one's fellow passengers that puts NJT into the top slot of my personal 'Brands Hall of Shame.

My thanks to Scott Rosenbaum and Juke Box Hero Productions for sharing this recent photograph of a typical NJT passenger. Note the upscale attire and care with which he treats his seat. Thanks buddy. Right back at you.

In the past, I've suggested myriad taglines for NJT that would underscore its shoddy performance and enable it to deliver on a credible brand promise. Fellow Peppercommer Matt Purdue suggested a new one that I just love….

“NJT: We put the 'cuss' in customer service.”

Apr 28

Stranded in Europe

Guest Post by Meghan Prichard, Peppercom UK

I doubt Jimmy Buffett would ever have predicted that his song “Volcano” would become so many people’s theme song over the last week, but many of us really didn’t know where we were “gonna go when the volcano blow.”


April 28 As I boarded the plane April 14th for my first journey out of the country since arriving in England four months ago, trouble was brewing on another island nation 1,000 miles away, erupting later that day into a crisis that continues to wreak havoc on travelers, consumers and businesses alike.

As both a traveler and a consumer affected by the alphabet soup volcano Eyjafjallajokull, I was surprised by the lack of communication offered by any of the organizations I expected would serve as the most salient sources of information—specifically, my flight company and my home country.

There were no resources on the website for the U.S. Embassy in Germany. There was advice on the U.S. Embassy website in the United Kingdom, but it was for Americans stranded in the United Kingdom. I had registered my trip abroad with the Department of State, but received no email updates or suggestions on how to get home.

Meanwhile, Ryanair canceled my flight, which I learned from a prominent link on the website. A day later, Ryanair informed me of the cancellation by email and text message. The airline also offered a free rebooking for the following day. When that flight was canceled, it appeared that Ryanair’s already tenuous communications skills were collapsing. No email, no text, just another ominous link on the homepage.

Ryanair is notorious for its poor customer service, even when not in times of crisis. Any customer helpline number I called promised to charge 60 pence per minute and would undoubtedly cost more than my original flight by the time I got through to someone. Yet any travel alternative promised to cost even more time and money.

Continue reading

Dec 29

It’s Scotland, not Ireland, that needs a tourism campaign (or not)

Ireland has launched a new publicity campaign focusing on U.S. television, newspapers and the Internet. Ireland needs a new tourism campaign about as much as that drunk at the end of the bar needs another pint of Guinness. It’s Ireland’s Scottish sibling that is in need of publicity (or not).
December 29 - cuillin-mountains-scotland-backside

I’ve traveled throughout England, Ireland and Scotland, and the latter is far and away the most beautiful. In fact, there’s really no comparison whatsoever. Ireland’s Ring of Kerry is to Cleveland what Scotland’s Isle of Skye is to San Francisco. And, even that analogy doesn’t do the latter justice.

Scotland is an amazingly well-kept tourism secret. Aside from golfing and fly fishing, few Americans, if any, give the nation a second thought. And, according to my most excellent Scottish friend and guide, Peter Khambatta, that may be just as well. The last thing Scotland’s pristine lochs, mountains and landscapes needs is a horde or American tourists mucking up its finery. So, perhaps, it’s just as well that Ireland spends the money to attract Americans to an otherwise mediocre vacation experience while (whilst?) Scotland remains a decidedly under-the-radar and absolutely world-class destination.

Dec 14

All aboard for the pain train!

My daily commuting experience on NJ Transit is almost always marred by some sort of delay, over-crowded and under-heated cars and a cell phone user who insists on sharing his conversation with everyone.

December 14 - makeup The worst offenders, though, are the women who 'put on their face' right alongside me. As I'm reading a book or paper, or editing a bylined article, Jane Doe has her compact out and is carefully applying her lipstick, powdering her nose and fine-tuning the eyebrows. Recently, I sat across the aisle from a woman who was actually plucking out her gray hair and flicking the strands in the aisle.

I was simultaneously amused and appalled.

Leaving behind one's newspaper and empty coffee cup is one thing (and, in some ways, it's a silent 'up yours' to NJT for its horrific service). But, yanking out one's hair in public is way, way over the line.

Ah, but there's the rub. There is no line anymore. As the pillars of society implode so, too, do the rules for conduct and behavior. I think it's actually worsened in the wake of the recent economic downturn. I see and experience behavior that leaves me speechless.

I believe one should be prepared for work when one boards the 7:28. So, here's a note to Jane Doe: leave the damn cosmetic box at home. In fact, if you don't immediately cease and desist, I'm going to bring my shaving kit along and lather up as you're plucking. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Readers, please feel free to share any other particularly egregious behavior you’ve witnessed by others during the morning commute.