China Help Line: Translators on Call
During frequent trips to China, Harvard Business School grads Eric Moffett and Manoj Dengla wished they had access to a translator from time to time. They regularly found themselves calling a friend in Shanghai whenever they got in a jam. "He'd always solve our problems," says Moffett. Eureka! "After doing some research we found that there were lots of Westerners who were willing to pay for such a service." In January, Moffett, Dengla, and another partner, Karen Zhou, launched the China Help Line, a phone-based service in Shanghai that offers real-time translation between Chinese and English. First, you sign up at chinahelpline.com. Then, next time you're lost in a taxi in Shanghai, call 021-6100-9700 and tell one of the staffers where you need to go. Hand the phone to the driver, and your request will come through in the appropriate language. The system was created with business travelers in mind, but it also works well for tourists--especially because users get the first five calls free (37¢ a minute thereafter). The line is staffed seven days a week (from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. locally), handles three-way calls, doesn't impose a time limit, and even serves as a concierge by giving advice on restaurants and trip planning. Right now, the only call center is in Shanghai, so if you're elsewhere and want assistance, you'll have to pay long-distance charges. A local number for Beijing is in the works.
Walt Disney World: The Happiest Airport Transfers on Earth
Since May, guests have found it significantly easier to get from the Orlando airport to Disney World, thanks to a free shuttle, the Magical Express. "The roots of the idea come from the Disney Cruise Line," says John Padgett, vice president in charge of products and services. Disney cruises have transported bags and offered airport transfers since launching in 1998. "We thought, Why not do that for all of Disney World?"
If you've booked a Disney-owned hotel, you'll receive special tags in the mail to attach to your luggage. Upon arrival at the Orlando airport--it doesn't matter which airline you fly--the bags are loaded into trucks bound for the park, so you can breeze past baggage claim and head directly onto the Magical Express. Disney staffers are on hand to answer questions, and a video explaining some resort basics (including what happens on the return to the airport) is shown on the drive over. You're dropped off at the hotel and bags are delivered to guest rooms within a few hours. When you're ready to fly home, certain airlines-- American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Song, United, Ted, and Northwest-- let you pick up boarding passes and check in luggage right at the hotel. The only line at the airport you have to worry about is security screening, and there's no getting around that. "If we can find a way to take one of the most difficult parts of a vacation and make it easier," says Padgett, "that's a big win."
Announced as a temporary initiative to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Magical Express is scheduled to run through fall 2006. Feedback from customers has been fantastic (Orlando cab drivers, not so much), and Disney executives are looking into extending the service.
Continental Airlines: Making Frequent-Flier Miles Easier to Redeem
Anyone who's tried to cash in frequent-flier miles for tickets knows the drill: Call the airline's 800 number, wait for an agent, ask him or her to look up availability on a particular date, find out there are no award seats, then repeat the process until you get lucky or give up. Even the Internet offered little relief. But last September, Continental introduced an online calendar that shows exactly when you can use miles on your selected route. Days are color-coded to indicate whether you're allowed to trade in miles for an economy or first-class seat.
Since the calendar was launched, there's been a 15 percent increase in customers booking award tickets online. The system was dreamed up with clients as well as reservation agents in mind--both groups were frustrated by how long searches took. But the agents haven't been as fortunate. Says Ken Penny, Continental's director of Internet planning, "Our reservation agents tell me, 'I wish we could have that calendar tool.' "
In April, Continental added the ability to book award flights via the Internet on partner Northwest Airlines, and plans to do the same for other partner carriers down the road. None of this means that Continental is more generous than other airlines regarding the number of award tickets it allows per plane, but the calendar sure makes it a snap to find out if seats are available.
Club Med: Giving Teens a Cool Hangout
Family-friendly resorts tend to gear activities to either young children or grown-ups. Notably missing is anything aimed at teens, who don't want to be stuck in the kiddie pool and aren't yet welcome at the bar. As many parents would attest, making teens happy is never easy. But that's what Club Med is doing with The Ramp, a teen-only hangout opened in March at its resort in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. A large skateboard and inline skate ramp marks the hub of the area, which only allows guests 14 to 17 years old. Designers did their best to add features that wouldn't be dismissed as lame: a hammock big enough for a half-dozen people, an open-air lounge with self-serve soda and flavored syrup shots, built-in binoculars for scoping out who's on the beach, a photo booth not unlike the one made famous on MTV's TRL.
Kids can hang out 24/7 if their parents don't mind. At the entrance is a red door frame with the words the door is always open, on which it's become custom to leave a note, a tag, or random graffiti in Magic Marker. "It's as popular as any technological item we could have installed," says Mark Wiser, vice president of marketing. "Teens like the idea of leaving their mark, and it doesn't hurt that this is something they're normally not allowed to do." Versions of The Ramp are expected to open in 2006 at Club Meds in Ixtapa, Mexico, and in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
Microtel Inns & Suites: A Hotel Room Telephone That You'll Want to Use
Hotels often view phones as moneymakers along the lines of the minibar. Dialing long-distance can bring connection fees and ridiculous per-minute rates, and a local call might cost as much as $2. Many hotels even charge guests for toll-free calls. "What's outrageous is when you pay $300 a night and get nickel-and-dimed," says Jon Leven, executive vice president of marketing for Microtel. "Our guests, who pay around $50 per room, don't want to pay $5 to make a phone call." (Who does?)
The Atlanta-based chain figured out a way to make guests happy. As of February, all Microtel rooms in the continental U.S. come with free local and long-distance calls (within the lower 48). You can order a pizza, keep in touch back home, or chat with an old buddy across the country, all without using minutes on your cell phone, dealing with mobile-phone static, or worrying about the cost. Then, to sweeten the deal, Microtel added free Wi-Fi.
Travelocity: Adding Good Service to the Booking Engine
For years, there's been an assumed trade-off for booking online: You may find a deal, but you're on your own if something goes wrong. In May, Travelocity challenged that notion, announcing a customer bill of rights and pledging that its agents will intervene if your expectations aren't met. For hotel stays, if you book a suite but are given a standard room, or if you show up and the pool is closed, they'll talk directly to the property to correct the situation or find you a different place to stay at no extra charge. And if you book a flight with the wrong dates, you have 24 hours to make a change for free (dates only, not routes). "This is our way of telling customers there is a face behind the computer screen," says Michelle Peluso, president and CEO. "We've got thousands of customer service agents here ready to help people."
The initiative includes steps that traditional travel agents have taken for years. But Travelocity is the only major booking site to plainly spell out its services. In August, Delta Airlines upped the ante, allowing customers to change or cancel tickets-- totally free, no questions asked-- within 24 hours of payment, through its central reservations or its website. This is a trend we really like.
Google: A Revolution in BothMaps and Directions
Though still in testing stages, Google Maps (maps.google.com) and Google Earth (earth.google.com) have changed the way travelers locate addresses, directions, and more. To scout out a hotel, type in the name at Google Maps. A map IDs street names, shopping centers, and train stations, and there is an option for a satellite view--you can often zoom in and see the hotel pool--or a hybrid view, with streets and landmarks listed on aerial photos.
The maps allow you to scroll and zoom without having to reload images. There are also services you wouldn't expect from a map. Type in "free Wi-Fi" and a zip code, and hotspots will appear. Plug in keywords--"barbecue," "Omaha"-- and up pop nine restaurants on the city map, with phone numbers and links to dining reviews. But the heart of the operation remains helping users get from A to B. "We want to make sure our driving directions are the fastest and most accurate," says Bret Taylor, Google Maps product manager. "We'll stop tweaking the site when my dad stops e-mailing me complaints that our directions take him the slow way." Maps aren't available everywhere, though the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. are covered fairly well.
Google Earth has even more promise, incorporating the best of Maps (directions, business listings) with high-resolution 3D images, in some instances making it possible to check out the scenery from whatever angle you like-- including the view from a rooftop restaurant. A toolbar pulls up selected info to accompany the images: crime statistics, hospitals, pizzerias, tips written by friends or random users. At press time, there were hi-res images of most major cities worldwide and well over 100 U.S. towns. It only works with PCs, and using the high-tech program can be time-consuming. But the potential is, well, earth-shattering.
InterContinental Hotels Group: The Rewards Program Willing to Test Your Loyalty
InterContinental, the company that owns Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and other hotel brands, understands that customers like options. Its Priority Club Rewards program has often introduced new ways to thank clients: About 25 percent of all points are now traded in for non-hotel rewards, often in the form of cool merchandise-- golf clubs, iPods, mountain bikes, DVD players.
In July, InterContinental expanded the possibilities, allowing club members to exchange points for Any Hotel, Anywhere cards. The prepaid lodging cards, valued between $100 and $250, are accepted at all hotels that take American Express-- including non-InterContinental properties. "The first reaction we get is often, 'That's insane!' " says Steve Sickel, senior vice president of Priority Club Rewards. "Why would you want to let your customers stay in a competitor's hotel?" The risk of a brand-loyal guest defecting was outweighed by InterContinental's confidence in its hotels, as well as in its members' gratitude at having more choices.
The cards can be used for stays at five-star resorts, family-run B&Bs, and anything in between--as well as for meals and services provided by the property, such as massages and valet parking. What's especially nice is that there's no reservation code or special procedure required. It works like an ordinary debit card.
Independence Air: A Free Flight If Your Luggage Arrives Late
As too many of us know from experience, checked bags don't always show up when or where they're supposed to. Nearly all airlines cover the costs of toiletries and other minimal expenses passengers incur due to delayed luggage. Independence Air, based at Washington-Dulles Airport, saw a better way to compensate travelers. If your bags don't arrive with the other luggage on the plane, you're eligible for a free one-way ticket, to be used within a year of the original purchase. "Everybody in the industry pretty much only does the bare minimum required by the government," says Rick DeLisi, the carrier's director of corporate communications and the man most responsible for the new policy, which was introduced in May. "We were trying to stand out in an industry in which people have become accustomed to indifferent, sometimes surly, service." The program is valid on flights through the end of 2005, and at press time, Independence Air was considering extending it.
Hyatt Hotels & Resorts: Radio That's Sure to Please Everybody
A little music in the hotel room can set the right mood. Struggling to find good tunes in a city where you don't know the stations can do just the opposite. "The way most hotels are set up, you don't get good reception, and the sound quality is poor," says Matt Adams, vice president of operations at Hyatt. "That $15 clock radio just doesn't cut it anymore." As of this fall, Hyatt guests won't have to fuss with static and constant commercials. All 50,000 of its guest rooms in the continental U.S. are being outfitted with complimentary XM Satellite Radio, both in the clock radio and in a separate unit at a desk or entertainment center. The service is the same one that XM subscribers receive at home or in the car, with more than 150 channels separated by genre (country, rock, sports, talk, etc.), including 67 commercial-free music stations. Guests have the option of listening to vintage radio programs from Jack Benny and Abbott and Costello, news and talk shows from all sides of the political spectrum, every Major League Baseball game