Friday, April 18, 2014

Virgin America on the Cover

Photo-Airways magazine
In journalism, I've enjoyed meeting so many people with unique personalities. Their passions and perspectives have been refreshing and serve to inspire new ideas in others. Uncovering the stories behind this passion has been a lot of fun for me. 
Here is my new cover article on the San Francisco-based Virgin America. This airline is attempting to redefine customer service and return an exciting passenger experience to air travel. For the June 2014 issue of Airways, we also welcome our new Editor-In-Chief Enrique Perrella!   
This has been a lengthy assignment of one-year. What Anthony Bourdain finds fascinating as a chef traveling the world for CNN sampling dishes and cultures, is similar to what I find fascinating about my work as a journalist--in this instance--of commercial aviation. At the core, is my love of people and what makes them tick. This becomes the focus of my business interviews involving the CEO's "behind the headlines" of the business press. This particular article is without an interview. Either way, while some may loathe this as less than exciting reading matter, I beg to differ. The passion of new ideas invariably stimulates readers to consider new points of view in whatever career field they are pursuing. Think of comedy, and comedian Bob Newhart comes to mind with his observation: "Funny is funny". Similarly, I suggest that excitement and innovation can inspire others from one business to another. The motivation to create a product of value out of one's passion has always been the focus for me in my writing, not airliners or their technology. Don't misunderstand me. Each is a fascinating subject. But the people who drive ideas with a multitude of interesting personalities is key for this writer.  
What led me to create this assignment was, in part, the personality of Sir Richard Branson--who has his finger on the pulse of more than 400 Virgin branded companies. His  charisma and enthusiasm for running businesses with dynamic verve is always part of "pushing the boundaries" of the status quo. A part of his core philosophy is creating a business model and a product so unique from the competition, that the challenge is to match this intrigue by delivering quality service that is superior to anyone else.  
In this regard, it's no secret that the domestic airlines in the United States have not only consolidated--much to my regret--they've also become lackluster. Strong words, but true. The American public has always demanded value for their hard-earned travel dollar. When it became obvious in the mid-1990's that airlines in the U.S. indistinguishable from the other and far from exceptional, Branson saw a need to "mix it up". He did so by introducing an airline that focused so intensely on providing a high level of customer service, that competitors either wouldn't or couldn't match this effort. Moreover, he endeavored to leave the passenger with a feeling of genuine excitement associated with their air travel  experience. Think about it. When was the last time you took a commercial airline flight and felt that the experience was fascinating? It's safe to say that the aura of travel has generally become more of a nuisance than a pleasure outing. This begged the question: "What makes Virgin America so different?" I hope to answer that question shortly in the June issue. Have a great weekend!   

Monday, April 14, 2014

Requiem for the Hotel Mini-Bar?

The mini-bar may soon be consigned to such top resorts such as the Royal Palms in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo: Michael Manning
Credit must go to Robert Arnold, former Food and Beverage Manager of the now defunct Hong Kong Hilton for creating the hotel mini-bar. Returning from a flight to Bangkok during the summer of 1974, his imagination was ignited after he ordered a drink, and the flight attendant brought him a miniature bottle of whiskey. Gazing at the bottle, Arnold reasoned that mini-bar refrigerators in hotel rooms could store liquors and food snacks to become profit generators.
Photo: Adelphi Hotel, Melbourne
Indeed, this unique marketing advantage reportedly boosted the hotel’s in-room service by a whopping 500 percent. With the exception of independently owned and operated boutique hotels, those halcyon days of the 1970s are rapidly disappearing.
Last night, I picked up some food items from Trader Joe’s, a privately held chain of specialty grocery stores. An elderly married couple stood in the check out line in front of me. The husband announced to the cashier that they were visiting from Illinois, and asked if the store would honor an obscure coupon for a discount.  The husband was purchasing three bottles of wine, and stated that the savings were “substantial”. In all, his savings amounted to five dollars. More than a mere metaphor, is it any wonder that hotel mini-bar’s are being removed from four and five-star hotel chains?
In defense of the Chicago native, no one enjoys paying eight dollars for a chocolate bar, or up to ten dollars for a bottle of Coca-Cola (two items that are thankfully not in my diet). The concept of the mini-bar allowed hotel guests to feel as if they were receiving the same treatment accorded to VIP's who booked a suite in a five-star hotel. It’s permissible to wonder if VIP's themselves have now waved off the mini-bar. Some background is in order.  
Back in 2001, an airline executive told me during a magazine interview that “we’ve become more of a fast food society”. He was attempting to explain the now extinct full meal service on domestic U.S. flights. With the remaining empty refrigerators still plugged in at some hotels, guests now bring along food from nearby convenience stores. The demand for Wi-Fi computer service has clearly eclipsed the mini-bar as an in-vogue item from the 1970s.
If it's any consolation, be advised that certain chic hotels and resorts will not only continue offering the mini-bar. Many will also enhance the quality of international candies and assorted gourmet treats, with such items as local wines and chocolate covered grapes. This may become a shrewd move by capitalizing on a reverse strategy of the trend.
For certain celebrated chain hotels, the economics of the storied mini-bar are--in the words of the Illinois native--"substantial". Mini-bars need to be checked, cleaned and restocked daily by room service personnel. This adds up to additional time and labor costs, not to mention the expiration of unsold items. Theft is also a problem.  
A hotel that I book annually has taken to displaying mini-bar items on desktops. Friends of mine who are seasoned world travelers tell me that they steadfastly avoid this temptation. An argument could be made that the savings from removing mini-bars from a hotel enables management to reinvest the savings on renovations, and higher room rates.
In spite of these considerations, the hotel mini-bar will never completely go away. You'll simply have to become more creative in selecting your hotel of choice and level of service.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prelude to an Arizona Summer

All Photos by Michael Manning
This is my most recent success using my new iPhone camera this year. On a Saturday morning hike with a group of friends, I snapped this photo--one of several hot air balloons descending for a closer look at the scenery. A friend of mine yelled to the passengers, "Do you have any champagne?" They laughed and waved.
This is the front half of a Volkswagon van, reminiscent of the one singer/songwriter Jewel Kilcher lived in before she became famous. Yes, the van is, indeed, cut in half and serves as part of the frontage of a hamburger stand in Phoenix that was closed on Sunday.  
 A mid-century drug store sign adds the necessary "ambiance".
I wonder what designer Martha Stewart would think of this setting? An outdoor conversation area, better used for gazing at the stars on cooler nights, than braving the daytime triple-digit Arizona temperatures. The summer heat is quite oppressive. But Arizona has a tremendous spirit for the cultural arts, and friendly people to go along with it.

Friday, April 04, 2014

On David Letterman's Retirement and Mentor

David Letterman
(Photo Courtesy of Chad J. McNeeley and Wikimedia)
David Letterman announced that he will retire as television host of "The Late Show" on CBS sometime in 2015. But few people know about a humorous morning show originating from downtown Cincinnati that inspired Letterman's comedy.
Paul Dixon
(Photo Courtesy of Avco Broadcasting)
Broadcasting on the Avco television network from Cincinnati to Dayton, Columbus, and Indianapolis, "The Paul Dixon Show" was a live weekday morning variety show. Dixon was a seasoned radio news reporter who worked in the New York City and Chicago markets, before returning to Cincinnati. He made the transition to local television in 1951. Created by Dixon and WLWT executive producer John Murphy, "The Paul Dixon Show" began airing in 1955, and continued until Dixon's sudden death in 1974. 
A hallmark of the 90 minute show was the unpredictable hilarity involving Dixon's unscripted banter with his co-hosts and the audience, a desktop filled with props mailed into the show by viewers, and improvised live commercials. Sponsor's products ranged from Pringles Potato Chips to Bounty paper towels and Osherwicz Kosher Salami's.
Bonnie Lou Okum and Colleen Sharp were Dixon's co-hosts, and the house band was The Bruce Brownsfield Orchestra. Daily repeated skits were nonetheless unpredictable every morning, with a penchant for silly humor. Dixon would toss items over his shoulder and joke about his hair piece. A studio audience member making her way to the rest room was an excuse for the show to be interrupted by the house band playing the "Theme Song from The Bridge on the River Kwai". The camera would be trained on the hapless audience member leaving, and later returning to the studio--to much embarrassment--as the audience clapped in unison to the music. The gag was just as quickly forgotten as Dixon moved on to another humorous topic. He often referred to "this dumb show" with sincere bewilderment at its success.   
Launching into a soap commercial, Dixon would ask his studio audience, "How many of you girls took a bath this morning?" Dixon's facial expression would feign shock as reached for a spray bottle filled with water, and repeatedly sprayed a stream into the audience amid much laughter and sound effects from the house band drummer.
In 1966, "The Paul Dixon Show" began broadcasting from the Ohio State Fair. Attendance at the fair grew in 1967 by 1.2 million people. At it's peak, there was a two-year waiting list for tickets by mail to attend the studio show.  On March 11, 1969 after a buildup of several months, Dixon and his staff created a "Chicken Wedding" around two rubber chickens that were mailed in from viewers--aptly named Pauline and Harry. Hosts from other Avco television shows were cast as members of the wedding party, and record numbers of Cincinnatian's stayed home from work to watch the show. Dixon officiated wearing a top hat as "The Mayor of Kneesville"--a reference to Dixon's binocular-donning stunt at the beginning of each show, as he "reviewed" the knees of women seated in the front row of the audience bleachers.  
 In a 1997 Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper interview, Letterman recalled, "I was just out of college (in 1969), and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And then all of a sudden I saw him doing it (on TV). And I thought: That's really what I want to do!"
Weeks after the departure of Jay Leno as the 22-year host of NBC's "The Tonight Show", Letterman's retirement will similarly mark the end of an era.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Happy 9th Birthday to Trevor Tredaway!

Trevor Tredaway
(Photo Courtesy of Amanda McNeely)
Multi-media platforms are amazing, and Blogger is one of them. No matter how fascinated we become with the technology that enables us to communicate to a broader audience of people, I am particularly mindful that not everyone uses Facebook. With this in mind, allow me to share with you that Trevor Tredaway is celebrating his 9th birthday today!
Trevor with Actor Robin Williams
Many of you will recall Trevor from his appearance with actor Robin Williams on television during St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's "Thanks and Giving" campaign. St Jude has been an invaluable resource for Trevor's treatment and recovery. Over the years, Trevor has endured two brain surgeries, numerous MRI's and nine different chemotherapy medications. The hospital and staff have been magnificent in their dedication to making Trevor well.
Over the past year, Trevor has been chemo-free, and his brain cancer is showing tangible signs of receding. This is the best news I could possibly imagine sharing in a blog post! So, to each of you who have come to know Trevor on these pages, today is a great day. To others who have left messages on Trevor's Caringbridge website for he and his family, today is a day to celebrate as well.
Happy birthday to a terrific little boy who has never met anyone that hasn't become a new friend. Trevor has inspired countless others with his courage, determination, sense of humor and compassion. We could all learn a lesson about life from Trevor. Today is a great day! And if you happen to be a Facebook user, you can stop by and wish Trevor a Happy Birthday by visiting Melinda Ricketson Tredaway's page. If you wish to visit Trevor's Carningbridge site Click HERE. The news is all good, and I have a feeling that there will be plenty of birthday cake passed around in Midland, Texas tonight! Happy Birthday, Trevor!




Sunday, March 16, 2014

Neil Young's Mission to Restore the Music We're Missing

 (Images Courtesy of reprise)

"The simplest way to describe what we've accomplished is that we've liberated the music of the artist from the digital file and restored it to its original artistic quality – as it was in the studio. So it has primal power."--Neil Young
Far be it for me to claim to be a technology expert. But credit must go to legendary rock musician Neil Young, and his relentless efforts to offer the public higher quality audio for music lovers everywhere. Through his Kickstarter project for PONO--a digital music device created to support high-quality recordings--audio encodings will increase from the current level of 256 kbps (kilobits per second, a measure of data transfer speed) to 9216 kbps. Translated into English, this means that consumers will be able to hear music as it was originally created by musicians and producers in the recording studio. More on this in a moment. To this end, approximately 10,000 people agreed that there was a need for such a device to deliver music in its original form. As a result, $3.7 million was raised for research and development. A Vimeo film was created featuring musicians Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and others expressing their excitement after listening to the results on the hand-sized portable PONO player. Click HERE for a look.

Before his death, Apple founder Steve Jobs met with Young to discuss how music quality could be improved. Jobs himself was unhappy with the quality of CD's, and was an ardent vinyl record listener. Sadly, Job's passed away in 2011.

With the state of the music industry in disarray, this device may bring a ray a hope. It is sad that recording studios are sparse, and artists make little money on CD sales. Their income is derived primarily from live performances. Annual "Record Day" celebrations are encouraging, and as I've mentioned in previous posts, my two-year effort to restore my own vinyl record collection was completed in 2013. I also enjoy my vintage stereo equipment. In many respects, it's also shame that the wheel of time cannot be turned back several years ago, before Sound City and other renowned recording studios were forced to auction off their analog equipment, and shutter their facilities. To be fair, there are recording studios still in existence, such as Capitol Records and Ocean Way Recording in Los Angeles, and Bearsville Studios in New York. But many musicians have taken to installing digital studios in their homes to produce private label recordings. 

At the recent South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, Neil Young took to the stage and explained how the music industry first began showing signs of trouble in the early 1980's, when digital music players were initially designed. In essence, an entire industry of music studio producers and staff members were deemed to be redundant, and were consequently unemployed. Digital sellers such as iTunes eventually emerged and Mp3 downloads began an incursion into the music industry that fundamentally changed the conventional recording studio process, along with distribution channels. All of these changes came at a steep price. 

Young claims that what we are currently hearing with CD's is just 5 percent of what was originally recorded. For Young (and others to follow), this became a travesty. In the Vimeo film, listeners agreed. Whether PONO can restore the original way records were once made is unclear. However, one thing is certain. Young's commitment is truly a "rescue mission" to restore existing recordings to their original quality. In this manner, the listener can  experience how the music was intended to be heard. This experience is said to be one of a fuller and richer fidelity from the recording studio process to listener playback. Again, in plain language, the remaining 95 percent of the music Young says we've missed hearing due to file compression is now available. This is an amazing development! I am curious to see where it takes us.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Recalling an Interview Guest

Captain Jim Tilmon (ret.) American Airlines
CNN Aviation Correspondent
Due to a hectic schedule, I haven't been able to blog with regularity. But last night, I received a Tweet from a reader thanking me for the 2011 interview I was privileged to conduct with Jim Tilmon. It is accessible on my Blog Page by clicking on "The Interview" button. A veteran commercial aviation pilot and a meteorologist, today Jim is an aviation correspondent with CNN.  
This past week, the entire world learned of the terrible news surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370--a Boeing 777 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A number of pilots and experts from various transportation agencies have appeared on television outlets, in an attempt to bring some rational understanding to this unsolved tragedy. A total of 239 passengers and crew members are missing. Jim's authoritative analysis has proven to be helpful as the massive search effort continues. My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers and family members at this difficult time.