31 March 2006

April 1st - God is it that point in the year already?

Just received a email from the Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guidebook people, saying 'help we'll have to change our name!' and attaching this clipping...

Although they are a day early, I was instantly suspicious, and rightly so ... the byline confirms it!

Good try though. Presumably this is for publication in a paper tomorrow. I wonder if any readers will be taken in!

Who is watching who at Alton Towers?

Interesting use of technology being pioneered at Alton Towers.

Basically they are installing automated cameras throughout the park that will be triggered by RFID-enabled (Radio Frequency Identity) wrist-bands worn by visitors, creating a personalised DVD record of their visit that can be purchased on exit. (see story)

When I suggested to the spokeswoman for Venue Solutions, who are setting up the system at Alton Towers, that no doubt other theme parks will be watching with interest (Busch Gardens in Florida are already in the frame) she said "yes, Alton Towers are anticipating receiving a large number of visits from theme park managers next year!"

I can see why. It's not just an attractive new service for visitors and revenue stream for the park...

In their coverage of the story, computer magazine VNU mention that "The Sony video cameras will also be used for security purposes, to help tackle vandalism and prevent break-ins".

Alton Towers are not clear yet on exactly how they will distribute the wristbands at the entrance. (They are optional. Visitors don't have to wear them). If the park records a name against a tag, or just match credit cards to wristbands, they will have a pretty powerful 'Big Brother' security system.

Even if wristband wearers remain anonymous, imagine what detailed marketing data the system will provide when managers are able to watch and trace individual visitors' entire visit to the park: where they go, in what order they approach rides, what choices they make, where they pause, what they buy, etc.

I'm not sure it's the visitors who are going to have the most fun with this system!

30 March 2006

Space Tourist - Wrong Name

Given that hardly anyone - Dennis Tito and a handful of others whose names we've all forgotten - has gone into space on a paid-for trip, I do seem to get a disproportionate number of press releases about space tourism - 95% of them from Sir Branson.

Today's is quite interesting (and comes with the usual irresistible photo)...

Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic today announced an agreement whereby pilots flying for Virgin Atlantic could become astronaut pilots of the future. Virgin Atlantic pilots will have the opportunity to be seconded to Virgin Galactic and trained as fully-fledged astronaut pilots flying space tourists on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo from 2008/9 onwards. Any of Virgin Atlantic’s 700 pilots can apply for the scheme, which will involve a 27 month secondment to Virgin Galactic, where they will receive all the necessary training to make their flying skills out of this world.

Virgin Galactic is a company established by Richard Branson's Virgin Group to undertake the challenge of developing space tourism for everybody. It will own and operate privately built spaceships, modelled on the history-making SpaceShipOne craft. These spaceships will allow affordable sub-orbital space tourism for the first time in our history.

So where shall I put this story on my travel website, in Travel Headlines or New Holiday Ideas/Products?

Wait a minute. What exactly has this got to do with travel and tourism?

This is not tourism. Who gave them the ridiculous name 'space tourists'? They are simply 'amateur astronauts'. Professionals are paid, amateurs pay.

And it's not 'travel' despite its links with an airline. Airliners take people somewhere, where they then get out and do something for a day, a week, two weeks, whatever.

This is just a sightseeing trip. An excursion, like flying over Victoria Falls or the Grand Canyon. The people on those flights might be referred to as 'tourists' because in a wider context they are visiting the area but if a local joined them on the flight, he/she would be a 'sightseer'.

OK, a lot of less-than-solid semantics but my feeling is that when Virgin Galactic start taking people for a fortnight on the Moon or Mars, that'll be 'Space Tourism'. Meanwhile these are speculative press releases about mass-market sightseeing trips for amateur spacemen that are not yet a reality... and I don't think I'm going to give them any space (sic) on a website about travel & tourism. (Maybe a mention in a blog though)

28 March 2006

Be careful what you link for/to

You have to smile.

Nick Trend's 'Pulling a room out of the Web' article in the Telegraph this week surveys four accommodation booking websites - two of them 'quality' sites, two of them 'mass-market'. The two 'mass-market' are lastminute.com and laterooms.com (which I suspect may have had some catalytic effect on the article since it was coincidently revamped this week).

Of the two, NT preferred laterooms.com. A bit unfortunate then that whoever marked the article up for the Telegraph online left the hyperlink url for both set to lastminute.com.

IE click on preferred laterooms.com and you get sent to second-place rival lastminute.com!

21 March 2006

Post Office sorts out location of Dorchester Hotel

I'm going to a travel product launch at the Dorchester Hotel later today. I know where the hotel is, but I was just wondering whether to aim for Marble Arch tube station, or maybe walk up from Hyde Park Corner (one less train change for me) so I quickly call up the wonderful Google Maps and type in 'Dorchester Hotel, London'.

It finds it instantly, but there's something wrong. Instead of being located just off Park Lane, Google puts the Dorchester just north of Oxford Street near Tottenham Court Lane.

Eh! Google.maps is not usually wrong.

Is it the right Dorchester Hotel? Yes.

Well, maybe the postcode is wrong? I go to the Dorchester's own website and check it. It is correct.

I enter just the postcode, and the marker goes to the same spot just north of Oxford Street between Rathbone Place and Newman Street (where the ABTA offices are, I know it well!). Bizarre! I switch to satellite view. The marker is in the centre of a large building. I zoom in... and the rows of red vehicles give it away! It's that bloody great Royal Mail sorting office that all the vans whizz in and out of on Newman Street!

Obviously the Dorchester has its own PO Box there!

17 March 2006

Is it the end of the [cruise] line for Swan Hellenic?

It certainly looks like it; their only ship ignominiously snatched away from them by a determined parent and handed over to their big sister, Princess Cruises, on the grounds that it will be used more efficiently. (Background info)

David Dingle, MD of Carnival UK, says he doesn't want to see the end of the Swan Hellenic (and I'm sure he doesn't) but his support for the brand has been pretty lukewarm - 'we might charter another ship to operate Swan Hellenic cruises or we might sell it. The worst case scenario is that the brand gets parked for a while'.

Cruise lines are used to planning way into the future. They have to. Management teams work on port bookings and cruise itineraries 18 - 36 months in advance, particularly for complicated ones like world cruises. Yet Carnival is unable to say what will happen when Swan Hellenic's existing schedule ends just 12 months away in April 2007?

Apparently the announcement was made now because they couldn't wait any longer if Minerva II was to be included in the promotions and brochures for Princess Cruises 2007 season...but that same timescale doesn't apply to Swan Hellenic brochures?

It doesn't look good.

I fear this is an application for Duck Theory - if it looks like a duck, floats like a duck and quacks like a duck... it's a duck.

In Swan Hellenic's case it looks to me like a dead duck.

16 March 2006

Let's hope more and more of us visit Argentina

I hope we do. It's a huge diverse and fascinating country. Good for British travellers, and good for the Argentinean tourist industry who are salivating over the latest figures for arrivals from the UK; up last year by almost a fifth and contributing significantly (we stay longer and in more expensive hotels) to the country's tourism sector which now accounts for 8% of GDP.

The only dark cloud is the old Falkland issue. This week Tory MPs are pressing the UK government to respond to growing economic and strategic harassment by Argentina. Recently a Falklands fishing boat was impounded by an Argentinean coastguard vessel on the grounds that it was fishing in Argentina's economic "exclusion zone". British MPs are also expressing concern over Argentina's growing military forces and Falkland islander claims that Argentina is operating an economic blockade.

None of this attention on the Falklands is likely to go away when in 2007, the 25th anniversary of the war will focus minds on both sides.

Tourism officials always gloss over the effects of this sort of thing on what I call the "white paper" stage of holiday planning. Faced with a selection of 192 countries to visit on the planet, why would any holidaymaker at the blank sheet stage of planning, consider going to a country where there's even a small chance they might be inconvenienced or feel the need to keep a low profile?

EG. "Let's not go to the USA this/next year. It's such a hassle getting in and out through their post-911 immigration & security... let's go to South Africa, Canada or Australia instead"

Far from being sustained, I fear the sudden boost of UK holidaymakers to Argentina is going to turn into a 'blip' on their visitor graphs.

I hope I'm wrong (UK visitors to the USA actually bounced back quicker than I thought) and certainly everyone in the tourism industry on both side of the Atlantic & Equator will do their best to keep visitor numbers from the UK to Argentina buoyant. But I fear the numbers may fall before rising again in 2008/9.

10 March 2006

Disneyland Paris - Do try to keep up

Press release just in...

"Disneyland Resort Paris is to celebrate the opening of Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, a new fun-filled and interactive attraction inspired by the Walt Disney Pictures presentation of the Pixar Animations Studios film Toy Story 2 the ride that's been in Florida and, with a special money saving offer for guests visiting between 20th April and 20th July 2006." ...etc etc

What? The Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin ride that opened in Florida in 1998 based on the film Toy Story 2 that was released in 1999... only with a new name?

Bang up to date then!

I know DP has been struggling and maybe this is a cheap way to introduce pre-tested rides, but accompanying this press release is another about the launch of The legend of the Yeti ride in Florida.

Kids are not stupid. They know what's new and what's cool. There's a real chance that they'll disengage from their 'local' Disney park if they feel they are being fobbed off with a brand that's nearly ten years old (a lifetime to a ten year old!) while all the new stuff opens in Florida.

A Madagascar-based attraction in 2006 would have been a good 'half-way house'. But Buzz Lightyear simply doesn't cut it... at least until Toy Story III opens in 2008, by which time there'll be a new ride.

07 March 2006

USS Oriskany reef project

I've just been writing up a short item about the fascinating project to sink an old aircraft carrier - USS Oriskany - 22 miles off the coast of Florida to be an artificial reef and diving attraction.

The hope is that it'll attract loads of marine life, divers and sports fishermen and put Pensacola on the map as a dive destination, generating lots of jobs and tourist dollars.

Looking at various photos (DiveMiami, Association of Underwater Explorers & OES Project) I realise just how huge she is going to be underwater, but also what a 'technical' dive challenge she'll be.

It's very hard to find any dimensions but my guesstimate is that she'll sit about 52 metres above the sea bottom (8m draught + 25m waterline to flightdeck + 19m to top of island (no mast)). She is planned to sink in 64 metres of water.

So that means ordinary PADI open water divers could visit the island (and stay inside the PADI 18-metre recommended safe depth). PADI Advanced divers could get down to the flightdeck at 31 metres. Only serious nitrox-breathing wreck divers could contemplate entering any part of the hull including the hangers.

I think they are right. She could be a real boost to tourism on the Florida panhandle.