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Extreme Road Warrior Part II – Something in the Air

Friday, November 2nd, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

16 days later, I’m back.  (See Part I as well.)   I found a few things rather useful for those traveling on business and wanted to share these with you.

Skype Pro
Skype Pro is a relatively new offering that costs only $3 per month but offers many features particularly useful to the road warrior.  Most notable is the international traveler calling plan.  Users pay no per minute charges for calls to landlines within the same country or region (a connection fee per call, $0.045, may apply).  Coverage includes 28 countries, all of the ones I visited (Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands) with the exception of Denmark.  In some countries, including Argentina and France, only certain major metropolitan areas are included.

With Skype Pro you also get a $30/year discount on a SkypeIn number, a free Skype To Go number (you can make international calls from your mobile phone at SkypeOut rates), and free Skype voicemail.

Research in Motion and Verizon Wireless: BlackBerry 8830 World Edition
I also tested Research in Motion’s BlackBerry 8830 World Edition CDMA/GSM.  Part of RIM’s 8800 series of phones, all of which share a full QWERTY keyboard, the pearl-like trackball for navigation, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and a built-in speakerphone.  The 8830 supports dual-band 800/1900 MHz CDM-2000 1x EV-DO as well as dual-band 900/1800 MHz GSM/GPRS.

For Verizon Wireless customers who travel internationally, this makes it very easy to have a single number that works almost anywhere, something ordinarily not possible with most Verizon Wireless phones, which work only with CDMA networks.  The phone itself, however, was not that easy to use.  I found the keyboard, both for typing and for dialing, not nearly as user-friendly (in terms of not hitting the wrong key) as the smaller format Pearl, which given its quasi-QWERTY keyboard uses RIM’s SureType technology to allow users to compose messages quickly.  The centered dialpad was much easier to use on the Pearl than the 8830′s keyboard, which is not centered.  The 8830 also frequently refused access to the + key, necessary for dialing country codes.  Normally one presses down zero for a few moments and + comes up.  With the 8830, the + only worked occasionally and I had to resort to saving the + and using the paste function in order to dial calls.

These issues not withstanding, Web browsing, BlackBerry e-mail, and placing and receiving phone calls all worked perfectly.

Hotels
I visited multiple hotels and wanted to pass along a few observations important to the business traveler.

1.)    Hilton am Tucherpark, Munich, Germany
Internet worked well.  Rooms were comfortable to work in.  Location was a bit out of the way but on the other hand it was alongside the English Garten.

2.)    Mandarin Oriental, Munich, Germany
Couldn’t ask for a better location, within the heart of the Altstadt and close by to practically everything.  The rooms were recently refurbished and provided a comfortable work environment, although a more appropriate desk chair would have been icing on the cake.  Good Internet service.  Very personalized services, for example check-in formalities are done in the room.  Guests are always addressed by name.  Restaurant Mark’s is one of the top restaurants in the city and deservedly so.  It was too cold to really enjoy the roof-top pool but the views from the pool deck were magnificent.

3.)    Hilton am Stadtpark, Vienna, Austria
Excellent location across the street from the Stadtpark, Executive floor lounge had two free computers but they were always in use.  Internet was slow.  Reading lights for in-bed reading were weak.

4.)    Holiday Inn, Munich – Schwabing, Germany
Recently renovated rooms and lobby, plus a wonderful breakfast buffet.  Not overly luxurious but very comfortable.  New business center is a nice touch with a sufficient number of computers to accommodate most comers.  Internet service through Swisscom offered business-level service with quality-of-service guarantee (no questions asked).  I found the service slow and told them.  I was immediately offered a credit.

5.)    Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten, Hamburg, Germany
Located on the western side of the Binnenalster lake, an impressive location to say the least, the Vier Jahreszeiten is also in the heart of the business district and its cafés, bars, and restaurants attract a local crowd in addition to visitors.  Hamburg, a city of merchants, is a bustling port on the edge of Scandinavia, with never-ending river traffic along the Elbe.  I noticed many Hamburgers came to afternoon tea, which featured live piano music.  Rooms are equipped with antique furniture, Wi-Fi that was usually OK but sometimes slow, comfortable work environment, and incredible views of the Binnenalster (the Alster is divided into the Binnenalster and the Außenalster, inner and outer Alster, respectively).

6.)    Die Swaene, Brugge, Belgium
The first thing I noticed about Brugge were the town’s narrow streets (on which local residents drove very quickly), centuries-old buildings that time had left untouched, and the city’s canal systems.  Brugge was, in the 14th and 15th centuries, a cultural bridge between northern and southern Europe.  It was rediscovered by English tourists in the mid-1800s who had come to see the nearby battlefield of Waterloo.  Today, it is a hideaway for business meetings and romantic journeys.  Die Swaene, a beautiful small luxury hotel run more like an inn, is a wonderful setting to meet but perhaps not to work in if you require Internet access.  Since my stay was largely during a weekend and in addition to my meeting my plans were mostly to see the city, I didn’t live or die by Internet access but it was limited to the lobby and first floor salon and never worked in the salon and worked only part of the time in the lobby.  When asked, one of the managers smiled and said that it must be “something in the air.”

7.)    Park-Hotel Bremen, Germany
Located in the middle of the Bürgerpark, my stay there was brief (arrived Monday at 21.00) in order to be in nearby Bremerhaven for an early morning meeting.  The hotel’s services were exemplary, Internet was lightning fast (although their system required that I connect both the USB cable and the RJ-45 cable to my laptop), and I was sorry to leave only 12 hours after arriving.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

What If the Well Runs Dry?

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

A Brief Note from the Road Warrior

I’m writing this at the Tacoma Sheraton where I am speaking at a conference.

The hotel is tired and faded but it boasts wireless Internet in every room.  What the hotel doesn’t promise, however, is that there will be working Internet.

Yes, here we go again.  As I sat in my room with a colleague, preparing for my presentation, every tab on my browser was replaced by a Sheraton “Connect to the Internet” tab, which in many cases just would not go away.  Only rarely was I able to connect to a page and that lasted at most for a minute or two.

I spoke with someone at the front desk.  The finger was pointed at a possibly weak signal (yes, the signal was weak but that wasn’t the problem).  They offered to send up a wireless bridge, which wouldn’t help but the front desk seemed to feel it would improve the signal (it didn’t, as I knew before we plugged it in, but I had to humor them).

I then spoke with technical support, located several states away.

No problems reported but I gave them ping times for www.yahoo.com of over 700 ms and he agreed that something was amiss.

To the hotel’s credit, the front desk clerk immediately offered to credit the cost of the Internet (“why should you pay for something if it’s not working) but on the whole, I’d rather have working Internet and pay the fee.

24 hours later, the system was “working”.  It was slow, but at least it worked.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Review: Tacoma Sheraton

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

WHAT’S IT LIKE

Built in 1986, the Tacoma Sheraton appeared not to have been vacuumed since opening day. I had an uneasy feeling about this hotel from the moment I walked into the lobby and I was not disappointed. As I checked in (I was a speaker at a conference, and my room was to be part of the master bill), I verified the billing arrangements only to be told I was to pay for my own room. I told the front desk clerk to look into this and just to check me in. This was eventually resolved, eventually, but the front desk clerk needs further training in how to interface with guests. Aside from this person, everyone else at the hotel was exceptionally pleasant and friendly.

WHERE IS IT?

It’s in Tacoma. I only went there to speak at a conference. Why the organizers selected this venue is beyond me.

ROOMS

I was given a room on the 22nd floor, a “Preferred Floor,” with a view of the water, some buildings, and a few condemned houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a third world country.

The room was spacious and the armoire smelled of fresh cedar. It did not seem very clean; the furnishings were old and tired. The bath, which had an almost brand new shower curtain, also had a three-foot long hair curling around it. The lighting in the bathroom sometimes took a minute or two to get to a decent level of brightness.

ROAD WARRIOR SUPPORT

The hotel is tired and faded but it boasts wireless Internet in every room. What the hotel doesn’t promise, however, is that there will be working Internet.

As I sat in my room with a colleague, preparing for my presentation, every tab on my browser was replaced by a Sheraton “Connect to the Internet” tab, which in many cases just would not go away. Only rarely was I able to connect to a page and that lasted at most for a minute or two.

To the hotel’s credit, the front desk clerk immediately offered to credit the cost of the Internet (”why should you pay for something if it’s not working?”) but on the whole, I’d rather have working Internet and pay the fee.

The next morning, the system was “working”. It was slow, but at least it worked.

RESTAURANTS AND BARS

The rooftop lounge would have been pleasant if its furnishings hadn’t appeared to come out of a thrift store. The view of Tacoma at night was much prettier than when the city was actually visible during the day. Service was pleasant but sporadic. The restaurant served a hearty buffet breakfast and the service was excellent.

BUSINESS AND MEETING FACILITIES

Meeting rooms were exceptionally well sound-proofed although very bland. Two of the meals (a sit-down lunch and dinner banquet) were quite good all things considered; the buffet lunch left a bad taste in my mouth, literally. The on-site AV company managed to change mic and sound board configurations (I was presenting three times and the sessions were being recorded for an eventual podcast) without explanation. They connected our recorder to an input rather than an output so the first session was lost.

LEISURE

I was too busy trying to get the Internet to work than to seek out the gym.

MY VERDICT

I couldn’t wait to leave. And I could not in good conscience recommend this to anyone nor would I ever come back. There are far nicer hotels nearby in such cities such Redmond and Bellevue. The carpeting in the elevators and halls looked like it had last been cleaned when Jimmy Carter was president. Breakfast trays from room service that were near the elevator on my floor mid-morning were still there when I returned at 5 p.m.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

The Internet is in the Hands of the Lawyers

Thursday, November 10th, 2005 by Jonathan Spira

Wednesday, 9 November 2005, New York City
I start writing this column in Lufthansa’s Senator lounge.  I’m about to depart on a flight from New York (JFK) to Munich (MUC).  First things first: Lufthansa has the best beer; perhaps I shouldn’t mention this, but they have Spaten Oktoberfest on tap.

But I digress.

I’m going to Munich for several reasons, including client meetings and to participate in BMW’s European Delivery program.  The trip also presents an opportunity for me to finally test the Lufthansa FlyNet service (powered by Connexion by Boeing).  Earlier this year, Lufthansa added the service to New York flights; it had been available on the Los Angeles – Munich route for over a year now.

Before boarding the aircraft, I stop in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge for a snack and a drink.  For a variety of reasons (see further down), I am glad I do.   I open my laptop, briefly scan some news and e-mail messages, and board the flight.

By the time I board, we are already 30 minutes delayed due to thunderstorms in the area.  After boarding, we wait almost two hours for takeoff due to a backlog of 60 aircraft.  I’m glad I had that snack as it is 22:30 before we take off and the flight crew doesn’t start the meal service until almost an hour later.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005, 11,000 m and 860 km/h
I plug my laptop into the convenient seat outlet (the outlet accepts American and European Schuko connection systems) and – nothing.  No Wi-Fi.  No signal.  I ask the purser as she happens by, and her response is simple and to the point: “es ist kaput.”

Given the late hour, and the fact that I have fairly early meetings scheduled, I must confess, that I am not too distressed.

Lufthansa’s flat beds are quite comfy and I am able to get in about 4 hours of sleep before breakfast.  When I awake, I assume we only have one hour of flight left as we had definitely made up lost time in flight.  Unfortunately, just as we finish breakfast, the captain announces that, due to a dense fog (something not uncommon this time of year in Munich), we have to circle.  We do this for ca. 45 additional minutes, making our arrival time 11:45.

Thursday, 10 November 2005, Munich, Germany
The original plan called for me to proceed to BMW’s Freimann Delivery Center for my car (for the curious reader, I will be happy to provide greater detail; however, since this is not a column for Motor Trend, I am limiting my comments to explaining that the car is a BMW 330xi, in Sparkling Graphite, and yes, it has Bluetooth).  A driver was waiting for me at the airport, and we arrive quickly enough, but by then, my schedule is off by 90 minutes.

One of my scheduled meetings was with Herrn Helmut Pöschl and a few colleagues of his who are working on the BMW Welt program.  Herr Thomas Roller, the director of BMW’s delivery center, offers to take me to my meeting first and we speed off in a very fast 130i.  We don’t make it back until 17:30 (more on BMW Welt in an upcoming column) and the Center is empty.  Herr Roller himself does the delivery and off I go to my “Stammhotel” on the Leopoldstraße.

Met at the door by the manager, Herr Klein, who is very happy to see me and wants to give me an Internet report; specifically, he wants to accompany me to my room to ensure that my room has a working Net connection.  “How has the Internet connectivity been working?” I enquire.  His reply: “It is now in the hands of our lawyers, as we are unable to get the service provider (Swisscom) to keep the system up and running.”

First room, nothing.  Second room, the “Hunting Suite” (hunting lodge decor, no dead animals on the wall, happily), nothing.  Third room, the Confetti Suite (please don’t ask) – we have connectivity.

TO BE CONTINUED

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.


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