Clicking for business

Sandbridge Travel is a small agency with big dreams. Sure, the Virginia Beach, VA retailer is only a year old, doesn’t have a specialty, and handles mostly leisure travel. But it’s got two things going for it: An ambitious blueprint to expand its fledgling Web site, Cheapairlines.com, and an online customer service tool called Click 1-2-1 that it credits for a 5% boost in business in two months.

Not another beeping pager

The last time I tested a pager – a few years ago – I vowed I’d never carry another gadget like it again if I could help it. People beeped me at night, on the weekends and holidays. I had no privacy. So when Motorola asked me to take a look at its PageWriter 2000X two-way wireless communications center, I faced a dilemma: How do I evaluate the unit without actually using it. I found a way.

First class fading fast

Last year I called for the elimination of first class. Now it looks like premium service really is on its way to extinction, at least if you’re flying domestically. You can still buy seats at premium prices – an advance purchase, round trip ticket from JFK to LAX that costs $360 in economy will run you $1,360 round trip in first – but you won’t necessarily get premium perks. At least that’s the impression you get when talking with passengers like Mike Rahimm, who says that on domestic flights, first class is a sham.

A column about columns

Since this is an Internet feature, I think I’ll call this a meta-column. I’m not one to coin a new term, but how else do you describe a posting in which you try to tie up all the loose ends from older postings? Print reporters like to label it a “follow-up,” broadcasters take a “second look” but online journalists, I think, do meta-columns. A meta-column is a column about columns.

Bermuda’s ‘weblet’ initiative

Can a single Web site increase the number of visitors to a destination by 10 percent in just a year? Sounds almost too good to be true, but that’s essentially what Bob Wilke, the CEO of Baltimore-based circle.com, is claiming. His interactive design company conceived, designed and implemented Bermuda’s official tourism Web site last year, using an innovative and proprietary application called a “weblet,” which Bermuda is using for customization through the Web. Supported by the Bermuda government and a stateside public relations and advertising agency, the weblets are responsible for part, if not most, of the increase in visitors.

Waiting at the gate

The only thing better than an on-time arrival is an early arrival. At least that’s what Bill Thomas thought when his recent TWA flight touched down in St. Louis 15 minutes ahead of schedule. “There was an aircraft at our gate, so we parked next to the gate for about seven minutes, waiting for the plane to pull out,” he remembers. “Then we taxied away from our gate to another gate, where we parked while waiting for gate personnel to come the gate and park us.” His flight was still five minutes early.

Headsets and headaches

A few weeks ago while I was researching the annual holiday gift guide for my travel column in Entrepreneur magazine, a Plantronics representative called me to pitch her company’s latest product. The CHS 142N Hands-Free Headset, she assured me, made the perfect Christmas present. Might well be, I answered, but doesn’t the CHS142N work with a cellular phone? Uh huh, she said. Just one problem, I replied: I don’t have a cellular phone. The public relations manager, bless her heart, promptly put together a care package with the CHS 142N and a DuoSet Headset for a regular phone, plus an adapter. And, she added, “if you ever get a cell phone, don’t forget to try the CHS 142N.” I would, I promised. But in the meantime, I found myself the reluctant owner of a headset I couldn’t use and one I that didn’t particularly want to use.

That’s a wrap!

The scene on the tarmac at Miami International Airport looked like something taped by a hidden camera for a TV news magazine: a baggage handler carelessly shot-putting checked-in luggage from a buggy to a conveyor belt. Inside the American Airlines MD 80, the passengers with window seats watched in disbelief as each bag sailed through the air and landed on the pulley with an audible thud. “Can you believe that?” an incredulous passenger asked.

How one traveler found his voice

Our occasional series of profiles about frequent travelers and how they interact with technology continues this week with a story about how one passenger found a virtual home on the Web. Terms like “virtual” tend to get thrown around a lot when it comes to the Internet, but in the case of Michael Steinberg, the community he founded is indeed best described as virtual. A Boston-based technology marketing consultant by day, Steinberg set up his Business-Trip.com site in his off-time as a way to reach out to his peers.

Do seminars make good software?

You’ve taken the seminar. Now buy the software. At least that’s the pitch to travelers for two new products, Franklin Covey’s Franklin Planner and Kiplinger’s Taming the Paper Tiger. Both programs are aimed at the minority of frequent flyers who still idealistically cling to the notion that computers can make their lives less complicated. They ought to know better, but that’s beside the point.

Stale air up there

When Arthur Danziger boarded a British Airways Boeing 777 in Tampa, Fla., bound for London’s Gatwick airport, he noted the carrier seemed to have crammed in extra seats. Then he wondered if the plane had enough air for all those additional passengers. “The air smelled stale,” recalls Danizger, a retired oral surgeon from Lake Luzerne, N.Y. “It appeared to me that the design of the ventilation system either was not sufficient to handle such an increased load or else was not being operated properly.” British Airways wouldn’t talk about its air supply.

Don’t do their bidding

Win-win. That’s how a new crop of travel bidding sites want you to think of their businesses. The airline wins by selling a seat that would otherwise go unused; the hotel wins by giving you a surplus room. And you win because you get to “name your own price.” Win-lose is more like it. The suppliers win; the sites win. But for you, the traveler, the outcome is much less of a sure thing. Although Web sites that let you bid on travel products can be a good deal, they also can prey on customers who are uninformed or in a rush to buy a ticket. The online bidding sites effectively profit from your ignorance.

Can you trust your technology columnist?

The call from Julie Olsen, the public relations manager for the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, Fla., was anything but friendly. “My general manager saw a story you wrote about fishing in Florida,” she began. “He wants to know why we’re not mentioned in it.” I had stayed at the Cheeca Lodge about a month earlier, while researching a book about Florida. I ended up writing an article on fishing in the Gulf of Mexico that appeared on ABCNews.com. “Well,” I said, “There just wasn’t an opportunity to mention your hotel.”

Long lines, short tempers

Helen Doyle abhors the long check-in lines that greet her at the airport whenever she travels. In Boston, where she works as an administrative assistant, she endures the longest waits at the Delta Air Lines counter. “No matter what time you get to the airport – and especially for the early morning flights-the line is out the door,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how they ever get a plane off the ground when they can’t organize an efficient check-in procedure.” (Delta wouldn’t comment on its long lines in Beantown.) Airlines know that the check-in procedures are deeply flawed. And some of them, I found, are actually doing something about it.

Does adding an ‘e’ to fax improve communication?

The Hewlett Packard OfficeJet fax machine next to my desk is, for all intents and purposes, an antique. It takes minutes to receive a transmission and half an eternity to print it. Sometimes it gives up the ghost midway through a fax and stubbornly refuses to budge. The paper sticks together when I send multiple pages, shooting a stream of unintelligible data to the baffled recipient. As my old HP ages, its problems become more critical. A few months ago, I got a mysterious error message warning me that my cartridge was out of ink even though it wasn’t. I was on the verge of throwing the whole unit out the window until my younger brother decided to open the malfunctioning machine and operate without the benefit of technical manuals or any prior fax repair experience. He removed a metal bar at random and, wouldn’t you know it, the darned thing started printing again.

Fast food rules on the road

Michael Robinson hates fast food. But when he travels, his disdain for hamburgers and French fries seems to melt away like a slice of cheese on a Big Mac. “I have a very difficult time with fast food in general,” says the Washington media consultant. “I’m very aware of the environmental impact that packaging has, from the inks to the paper. But when I’m overseas and I don’t speak the language and I can’t read a menu, I eat a lot of fast food. It’s cheap, I know what I’m getting and it’s fast.”

Can e-mail and phones perform in concert?

Electronic mail by phone? I know what you’re thinking: it’s another ploy to send junk-mail to travelers. You sign up for the service and then field a constant stream of unsolicited advertising messages. Not this time. Orchestrate E-mail by Phone is a legit service that turns your electronic messages into computer-generated speech, temporarily liberating you from a laptop computer. It also lets you respond to an electronic message by phone without the benefit of a keypad.

Meeting Puerto Rico online

When the new meetpuertorico.com site debuts Aug. 11, there will be the usual fanfare of press releases and announcements to accompany the launch. But what the casual observer won’t see behind the sleek, information-rich Web site that took nearly half a year to develop are the changing attitudes about online marketing that drove the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau to the redesign its Internet presence in the first place. “We feel the Internet is changing the way we do business,” says Felix Laboy executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, a nonprofit corporation responsible for bringing meetings to the island. “We are considering this to be another sales office. We’re putting resources into this site as if it were one of our other sales offices.”

Attendants with attitude

Do flight attendants hate us? After Jay Johnson’s last trip on US Airways, he might be forgiven for thinking so. Traveling from Baltimore to Charlotte, he overheard an elderly woman ask an air host for help lifting her carry-on luggage into an overhead compartment. “She refused,” he says. “Then the flight attendant chastised her, saying the airline didn’t pay her to lift luggage and that she would not get disability coverage if she injured her back. I helped the woman get her luggage stowed.”

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.