June 2012

Soap and change

by Steve Brock on June 27, 2012

Last time we looked at how staying at fancier hotels usually results in getting fewer amenities like free parking, Internet access or breakfast. One other thing you also don’t get – or at least I haven’t yet – at the more expensive hotels is body wash in a dispenser.

In the last six months or so, I’ve stayed at three different moderately priced hotels for work. In each, they now have dispensers in the shower for both shampoo and body wash.

I understand that getting guests to use a squirt of body wash is far cheaper than having them use a whole bar of soap for a single shower. But here’s the rub (pun intended) with body wash: It’s a hassle to use.

You have to get that blob of liquid in your palm, carefully cupped to prevent undesired dilution before it even reaches your body. Then you have to try and smear it over your skin before the oncoming water washes it all away. I usually have to make a half dozen trips to the dispenser just for one shower, head to toe.

With a bar of soap, you have the little rectangle or circle or oval right there in your hand. You don’t have to huddle over it like you’re protecting a meager flame in a gale force wind. You don’t have to turn away from the stream of water to lather up. It all works exactly as nature intended. Soap up, rinse off, be clean.

With a bar of soap, you never get confused over which liquid is for your body and which is for your head, though once, I intentionally did swap the two.

On a trip through Western China, I lost my bottle of shampoo on the last leg of the journey. On the final day there, I figured that using a bar of soap was better than not washing my hair at all.

I figured wrong.

After lathering my hair with soap and rinsing, I almost broke a tooth of the comb trying to run it through the glop that was now my hair. Then, I spent the rest of the day obsessed with the substance on top of my head that felt like waxed cardboard. I learned that soap and shampoo are like dogs and cats. There’s a reason you don’t interbreed them or confuse or combine the two. It’s downright unnatural.

But with body wash, all that is shifting. The two are becoming potentially interchangeable. And the consequences of this?

I’m not implying that the world’s going to end, but if we start seeing an increase in disasters or wars or panic in the streets, don’t say you haven’t been warned as to the cause.

Ok, so this may be a bit melodramatic about a seemingly small shift in consumer personal care items. But the problem is that this shift has been introduced by someone other than me.

Even those of us who travel a good deal and travel precisely to encounter the new and the novel don’t like it when that novelty is forced upon us. We like change when we’re the ones orchestrating it.

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, this really isn’t about bars of soap versus body wash. It’s about how we handle change, on a trip or at home.

I once had a Dilbert pen that summarized this issue far better than any silly discussion about soap or body wash can. On the side of the pen it read this:

“Change is good…You go first.”

Even if that means using body wash.

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Boiling frogs and business travel

by Steve Brock on June 21, 2012

Business travel is a rather odd sort of business, especially when it comes to hotels.

If you ever look closely at the pricing and services offered at various hotels, you’ll realize that the typical rules of economics don’t seem to apply. Or rather, they do but in ways that raise an eyebrow or two. Or at least mine. The left one to be precise.

Here’s my question: Why is it that I can stay at a budget or mid-priced hotel for under $100 in many markets (more in big cities) and get a free newspaper, free hot breakfast, free Internet access, free parking and oftentimes free local (and with some, even long distance) calls?

Yet if I pay twice that amount or more at a “nicer” hotel, I am charged at least $15/day for parking or use of their wifi. Local calls can cost $5 and that same anachronistic newspaper I can get for $.50 outside costs me anywhere from $2 to $5 to have it laid out in front of my room door.

In other words, with hotels catering to business travelers, the more you pay for your room, the less you get.

I understand the why of this: business travelers are usually on expense accounts and will pay these additional charges because they can. I’m in marketing, so I get issues of price discrimination, market segmentation and the whole psychology and make-up of the business travel culture. But the whole system seems a bit suspect to me.

The funny thing about it is that I usually don’t notice it. I’ve become like the proverbial frog in the pot of water. You know, the urban legend-like story that if you want to boil a frog (which itself begs the question of why you would want to do that), you need to place the amphibian into cool water and heat it slowly. If you just drop it in already boiling water, it will just jump out.

Turns out that none of that is true. But let’s not let reality get in the way of a good metaphor. The point is that I’m so accustomed to the way business travel works that I just buy into it.

Or I used to.

Lately, I find I don’t like playing this game any more. Recently, I’ve become aware of how many “games” I play, from hotels to airline’s mileage programs to the way rental cars try to scare you into buying insurance you likely don’t need (since your regular car insurance may already cover you in a rental).

All these little cross-sells, up-sells, surcharges (let’s not even start on airlines’ added fees) and special taxes not only add up, but they take away from the meaningful aspects of travel.

How about you? Ever notice how many things you pay for, especially on a trip, that don’t add value to your experience but are just ways for companies to make more money at your expense?

Hop out of that pot.

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Prairie dogs and business travel

by Steve Brock on June 12, 2012

Though you can barely see the second rainbow here from this photo taken not in Colorado but Yellowstone, it gives you some idea of a double rainbow

Business travel sometimes feels like all business. You go through the routine and nothing outside of the task at hand registers.

Other times, you can’t help but notice some of the more unusual occurrences on your trip. Take my business trip to Colorado last week for example.

I land in Denver through such turbulence that I feel like the inhabitant of a snow globe. I get to the rental car office outside the airport and suddenly the manager starts screaming at people to get inside and move away from the windows. All transactions stop as collectively we watch a small tornado pass through the parking lot fifty feet in front of us.

I’ve never seen a twister in person before, much less one this close. Apparently neither has anyone else judging from the excited chatter that follows, hands swirling in spiral reenactments, voices raised a few decibels higher than normal describing the objects flung effortlessly around in the twenty-foot-wide point of the funnel.

I find my rental car (fortunately parked in a different lot) and depart thinking I’ve had my fill of unusual weather for one trip. Within an hour of that phenomenon, however, as I drive south I encounter the following:

  • multiple lightening strikes to the east, not the zig-zaggy patterns that appear high up and work their way to earth like a PowerPoint slide transition, but quick straight lines of white flashing all at once like a neon burst against a charcoal background;
  • cloud patterns and colors that seem more like CGI effects than acts of nature;
  • wind that wants to drive my small car sideways as much as I want to will it forward;
  • rain that falls gently at first then comes down in drops the size of marbles;
  • hail that matches then exceeds the volume and size of the rain and pounds the car’s roof with a rhythmic intensity that seems almost melodic (though I find out the next day that in some areas the hail reached three inches in diameter and piled up in drifts two feet high);
  • and to top it all off, in the midst of all of this, a double rainbow (you have to say the words “double rainbow” with awe like the guy in the popular YouTube video for full effect).

None of this was on my itinerary or meeting agenda. But I find in such dramatic situations, I have no choice but to pay attention. What starts as mere curiosity becomes enthrallment. I am a spectator in the theater of the sky, a performance I did not sign up for, but now I cannot resist. I am witness to it, but also a participant, part of the disruptive weather that surrounds me.

At one point, as I am driving through a more remote stretch of highway amidst the thin vertical bars of brilliant light erupting to my left, I notice on the right side of the road a lone prairie dog. It stands up as only prairie dogs, curious squirrels and small children at a circus or parade can do on its hind legs straining for the sky; watching, giving witness to the magnificence before and around it.

“Amen,” I think as I drive on.

 *******

Normally, I too easily become jaded, especially on business trips where practiced precision drives my decisions and movements. But experiences like this remind me that there is more to life than work, more to travel than just getting someplace else.

This may all sound rather dramatic or possibly, over-the-top if you weren’t there. That’s the point. That’s what made this business trip something much more: Being there to experience the wildness and wonder of it all.

But don’t take my word for it.

Just ask the prairie dog.

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Gratitude and the slippery slope – Part 2

by Steve Brock June 6, 2012

Big surprise: I didn’t die on the icy trail to Annette Lake. But I did remember, then forget, then remember again the reason why I came there.

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The best travel advice for a first-time traveler

by Steve Brock June 1, 2012

The best advice I ever received on how to prepare for a trip which includes the all-important appreciation for anticipation

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