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Introducing 'Dear Yanni'

Introducing 'Dear Yanni'

Face-to-face vs. FaceTime, status hacks, and making sense of hotel reviews in our first installment of 'Dear Yanni' 

Dear Yanni,

I’m traveling a lot for business these days, and I always want to stay at the best place. The problem is that I can’t tell which hotels are actually the best reviewed. One site is showing totally different reviews than another, and it’s hard for me to know which reviews to trust. They’re not even using the same star system!

How can I make sense of all the review noise and feel confident that I’m booking a great hotel?

-Starstruck in San Diego

When traveling to a new place it’s so easy to go down a rabbit hole of reading reviews by a presumably upset traveler and watching the play-by-play drama unfold with hotel responses like your favorite reality show. Meanwhile, just when you thought it was safe to believe in 4 star ratings, 5, 6 and beyond stars started appearing. “What gives?” you ask. Truth is, it’s not some exact science under the supreme reign of a reclusive association of star ratings superdelegates, nor are all reviews even by actual guests of hotels. 

To understand the now, let’s understand the back then. Before the days of the interwebs, hotels were given a version of 1-4 star ratings from travel guides and acronymed travelers’ associations, with reviews often done by guidebook writers. Having done this myself, truth be told, while the “stars” had some criteria to go by, the reviews were entirely subjective and could be based on a 5 nights’ stay or a 5 minutes’ tour. Cut to the early 2000s and a positioning of hotels online, where attempts were made in earnest to aggregate star ratings information, with a lot of flaws. Then, online ratings began popping up through a couple of behemoths in this space. With the explosion of crowdsourcing reviews at that time, I heavily advised that relying on such reviews was the equivalent of WebMD-ing yourself to the right specialist. You could be right, surprised, or super wrong (my eye is twitching, I must be dying). 

Since then, hotels have become incredibly astute at online reputation management, sometimes farming out  “actual” guest reviews, other times writing bad reviews for frenemies (see the oft-alarmist “bedbugs!” reviews) or vigilantly responding to all reviewers and looking, well, thirsty. The major websites have also added layers of quality control to avoid angry ex-employees writing wacky reviews in reckless abandon.

What to do? Third parties which aggregate reviews and star ratings are a good at-a-glance option. Think of it as a poll-of-polls. If you have a friend or colleague that has stayed somewhere, you’re better off having a 5 minute conversation rather than spending 55 minutes reading alleged reviewer feedback. Absent that, aggregate star ratings should be a fairly reasonable metric. For business travel, I like to consider the following breakdown 5*= I’m the boss/that’s our VIP client/I swear nothing else was available; 4*= justifiable if in-policy/regular client; 3*= I just started working here/4* wasn’t available for a client; 2*= proceed with caution/OMG I’m so tired I’ll sleep anywhere; 1* = in case of emergency, break glass (#sorrynotsorry). 

In short order, my review of reviews- look at the bouquet rather than the roses or thorns and be weary of the virtual bedbugs.

-Yanni

 

Dear Yanni,

Our startup is starting to tighten its belt a bit to keep costs low. Travel is important to us for visiting customers and prospects and attending events  — but it’s also one of our biggest costs, and hard to prove ROI for. My boss is suggesting that we rely more on video calls, but I worry that this will hurt us down the road.

Should we abandon corporate travel or stick with it even though we’re trying to control costs?

-Budget builder in Boston

Yes! When it comes to client and team relationships, face time > FaceTime. While one can have the usual conference calls, it’s not the same. Plus there’s the whole scramble of conference call drama (14 digit dial in code- ugh!), the “sorry I was on mute” sorts (=secretly watching NCIS, come on, you know you were thinking it), and not being able to put a face to a name. We can all agree that long distance professional relationships work, but they need the occasional in-person interaction without the disruptive fire truck sirens in the background from some undisclosed location. 

If the team is up against a travel budget that’s near exhaustion for the year, consider altering the travel strategy. It goes without saying that grouping client visits is optimal, but often deference is understandably given to client schedule. In the instances where meetings are close but not close enough, consider sending a team member that can work remotely for a few days between, and if it involves a weekend, opt to keep them at a hotel-- weekend stays in many business districts are most often much less expensive than weekdays/another roundtrip flight anyway. Plus, who doesn’t love a good bleisure weekend in Boise amirite? 

Should there be concerns about the general economy, keep in mind that when fewer people are traveling, there is less competition for meeting times and yet often the same number of people. Having worked in fundraising after the recession and immediately after the Madoff scandal, I opted to go right into the heart of the lion’s den, Palm Beach. With the competition hiding away and cancelling events, it was easy to waltz in and book meetings with key donors that were sitting idle, scooping up donations along the way. The moral of this story is that following the pack in cutting back on travel can be a missed opportunity. When economies turn around, the relationships you fostered along the way can bear more fruit later. 

The overarching travel ethos should always be to prioritize face time with partners, clients and with other teammates across offices. Budget or no budget, be strategic with employee time and offer/advocate for options that cut costs and keep people happy, like not sending someone from NYC to Seattle and back on Tuesday only to send them from NYC to Portland, Oregon on Thursday. Because, geography. 

-Yanni

Dear Yanni,

I’m a regular road warrior (traveling for work 3-5x each month) but I never seem to get the plush treatment my fellow jet-setters get. I make sure to get loyalty points for all my work trips, but I’m still somehow stuck in Economy when I fly and by the ice machine when I stay at hotels. 

What am I doing wrong? Who can I sweet talk for some sweet upgrades?

-Status starved in San Francisco

Why do you ask, has this already worked for you? If so, who do you know? I’d like some names… seriously. Alas, the days of talking yourself into an upgrade, while not entirely out of reach, now take some maneuvering. 

First things first, be loyal. Yes, we already know that being loyal to an airline gets you the automatic perks, but there are some hidden ones. If you have status, sometimes it’s good to get in a status priority line at the airport, hotel or car rental facility and check in the old-fashioned way, rather than electronically. If you are traveling solo and a flight is at or near capacity in your cabin, staff that work the priority lines are usually the most empowered to upgrade folks, and may hook it up. If you are traveling with a colleague or two who don’t have status, pay it forward and have them check in for a flight with you, asking if you might be seated near each other or if there is something closer to the front if you’re on a deadline for a client. That can sometimes help land an extra legroom seat for you and a friend (just make sure that friend doesn’t abuse the free drinks at 11am before a meeting with said client). The same can be said of a hotel. While you can sometimes use a kiosk or your phone to bypass another line after a long day, check in with a human if you can. 

Second, be kind. It sorta goes without saying, but it really does go an incredibly long way to be a standout customer in a sea of the disgruntled masses. 

Third, try and hack your way to the sweet ding of real china --seasoned travelers, you know that magical sound-- by doing a few things. Book flights that are often full, don’t check in online, don’t check a bag and show up late but not too late. Wait, what? Yes, if you are thrown into the throngs of coach for a long haul flight between busy destinations towards the beginning or end of the week, being one of the last to arrive can sometimes get you bumped up, but this is a risky seat roulette game. I prefer to consider this approach if I’m not on the last flight out. 

The one thing I must always advise in one’s pursuit of the sweet joy of upgrades is be careful what you wish for because you just might get it, and then miss it. A lot.

-Yanni

Have business travel questions you want answered by an expert? Send in your queries to DearYanni@Lola.com.


About the Author: Yanni Poulakos
Yanni has had the travel bug from a young age. From traveling to over 50 countries and stints spent living in Asia, South America, Europe and the Caribbean, his insights into hacking personal and business travel are grounded in first-hand experience. As a former road warrior, he once covered every province in Italy in 6 weeks by car, served as a travel manager for dozens of colleagues across the US and Europe while leading a fundraising team, and customized exclusive travel experiences for a smattering of politicians and celebrities. No matter whether at home or on the road, Yanni stringently adheres to his approaches to nutrition and self-care, with a fervent commitment to help others do the same.