Monday, December 31, 2012

(No.224) "Heads in Beds": hotels & travel reality

"HEADS IN BEDS": an insider's expert advice for travellers about hotels

by Alastair Rickard

Jacob Tomsky, a university graduate with a philosophy degree and no prospects of employment, found a job working in a large new hotel. He has now worked for more than a decade in various hotel jobs particularly in front office roles.

Tomsky has now written a recently published book entitled "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels. Hustles, and so-called Hospitality" (Doubleday, 2012). It is partly the story of his life working in the hotel business and partly the giving of an insider's expert advice about hotels and the hotel business.

From reading this book the hotel client will learn far more about the reality of being a hotel guest, using a hotel, taking advantage of a hotel and being taken advantage of than from a decade of reading the weekly Travel Sections of, say, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star combined. Having read both papers for many years I can't recall either publishing a Travel Section hotel review that wasn't positive, certainly not one that was frankly and negatively critical. The reasons for this I will deal with elsewhere, including why this is the standard in newspaper travel articles with too rare exceptions.

Tomsky's hotel experience has all been in the U.S., mainly in a major New York City hotel. However the Canadian reader will still learn a great deal about booking a hotel room effectively, checking in, being a guest who enjoys her stay, and so on.

As a longtime traveller for both business and pleasure I think Tomsky's comments and advice offer verisimilitude. They not only reflect my own experience and lessons learned (plus a great deal more I didn't know) but provide an insider's explanation of why.

I have long preferred whenever possible and practical to deal directly myself -- when booking --  with travel providers, whether they are airlines or hotels or cruise lines. Tomsky's comments about the way in which Internet  travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity, et al operate vis-a-vis hotels reinforce my own preferences and will be an eye opener for many travellers. They explain much.

For example, Tomsky explains that in a hotel "the worst rooms are given to very specific guests for very specific reasons. There are larger factors, such as being part of a huge faceless group, that make a guest more likely to receive one of the poorer rooms. Reservations made through Internet discount sites are almost always slated for our worst rooms. ... why? ... we cull the least amount of profit from these reservations. ...  The guest pays the Internet site a specific rate and then the hotel charges the Internet company an even lower rate. ... So less profit [for the hotel] equals less priority. ...

"So, since we have no reason to assume Internet guests will ever book with us again, unless our discount is presented to them, it truly makes business sense to save our best rooms for guests who book here [directly] of their own volition. And there is always, always a better room."

Based  on my experience over the years, particularly if I am booking a room in a hotel with which I am unfamiliar, I try to talk to a staffer in that hotel unless I have access to a highly knowlegeable concierge service like the one provided by Fairmont Hotels. I have been stung by assurances provided by a hotel chain reservation call centre on some point I have raised only to discover on arrival at the hotel that what I was told was wrong or misguided.

Tomsky explains why this can happen: "Outside [Internet travel] agencies know absolutely nothing about specific properties. In fact, even if it's a large [hotel] chain, it will have 'central reservations' which is some remote desk in India or Canada, and the agents there generate reservations for more than five hundred properties ... they will never, ever see. Certainly the [reservations computer] system lists the features ... but it is fallible. If you  truly want to know what you booked and what that means, you have to call the property itself."

When was the last time you read a really useful and candid review of a hotel in a newspaper or a 'travel' magazine? Probably not for a long time unless you read the New York Times.


A major reason is that the 'travel' articles about hotels and resorts (among other aspects of travel) are often if not mainly written by people whose stays have been paid for by the hotels or city tourist offices or other financially interested parties. Such logrolling by travel article writing freelancers and even publications' own journalistic staff is prohibited by the New York Times in its code of ethics, but by few others.

Sometimes a newspaper will allude to the inherent bias of such perks and payments to article writers by inserting a cryptic word or two at the end of a travel article relying on euphemisms like 'assistance' or 'subsidy' -- but often not. For the newspaper the bonus from such a 'journalistic' arrangement is clear -- lower costs. But such articles are too often little more than thinly disguised promotional pieces, and why not? What hotel or resort or airline  or tourist office or other interested party is going to pay someone's travel expenses to write other than positive articles?

Even major newspapers are so anxious to cut their costs and attract and please travel advertisers that the reader is most unlikely to read anything in them in the form of useful warnings that this or that hotel or resort is over-priced or inadequate or a place to avoid -- and why. The glossy travel magazines which populate newstands are in the main little more than uncritical platforms for ads from various travel-related interests.

Such realities make the candid and informed commentary provided in "Heads in Beds" by hotel business insider Jacob Tomsky a welcome and helpful bit of counterbalance to the usual gushing of the travel media.




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Thursday, December 13, 2012

(No.223) Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera at the AGO

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the AGO:
a wonderful exhibition

by Alastair Rickard

The first time Pat and I saw an exhibition of paintings by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo they were a part of a three person show that ended its 2002 North American tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was billed as "Carr, O'Keeffe and Kahlo: Places of their own". Kahlo shared the stage with the Canadian Emily Carr and the American Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibition had come to Vancouver from Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts.

By the 1990s 'Fridamania' had begun to elevate Kahlo to feminist heroine complete with the moustache and unibrow Kahlo had made sure to include in her many self-portraits. Indeed, of the 150 or so of her paintings that survived her death in 1954 (age 47) most are self-portraits of one sort or another.

A major influence on Kahlo's life and her art was a near fatal bus accident when she was a young woman. It inflicted gruesome injuries on her, the effects of which were with her the rest of her life.

While the focus on Kahlo's life in recent decades has tended to omit inconvenient facts that are at odds with her current image as a long-suffering artist and wife or to which her enthusiasts might today object, it has reinforced the elevation of Frida Kahlo the artist over her art.

Pat and I were sufficiently interested by Kahlo and her work to make a point of attending the new exhibition brought to Toronto by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), one of the several organizing institutions, of "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting". (It runs at the AGO through Jan. 20, 2013.)

It is a fascinating exhibition on several levels and for several reasons, not all of them relating to the quality of the works on display. It brings together brilliantly a significant display of some of Kahlo's work with a selection of those painted by Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist 20 years her senior, her husband (twice), philanderer and a self-described political revolutionary who shared with Kahlo a profound political naivete. They were both longtime Communists who came to admire Joseph Stalin and latterly dedicated themselves to him and his version of Communism and did so after the millions of deaths for which he was responsible had become more widely known.

During their often stormy lives together Rivera (who died at age 70 three years after Kahlo) achieved a fame as an artist not only in Mexico but internationally that far exceeded Kahlo's. Today it is the opposite. The beginning of the reversal dates from the publication of a 1983 biography by Hayden Herrera: "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (2003).

This book helped prompt and was followed by the taking up of Kahlo's work by celebrities like Madonna as well as by various American feminists -- indeed Kahlo has been called "Gender Studies' emblematic victim". The growing public recognition culminated in the making of the 2002 Hollywoood movie "Frida" starring Spanish actress Salma Hayek as Kahlo (but minus the moustache and unibrow) with the marvellous English actor Alfred Molina playing Rivera.

The effectiveness of the AGO exhibition has been enhanced by a wonderful collection of photographs (and even one silent video) of Kahlo and Rivera, together and separately, up to and including Kahlo on her "funeral bed".

When it came to his own life Rivera was not just a notorious womanizer (Kahlo had her share of extra-marital affairs) but an inventor of the narrative of his own life story. But he was certainly one of what were termed Mexico's leading "revolutionary painters". While he was perhaps most famous for the  murals he painted in Mexico and also in the U.S., often depciting aspects of the Mexican revolution or of workers rallying for various causes, Rivera also was known within Mexican political circles for betraying allies and political causes.

For example: Rivera and Kahlo helped get asylum for the Russian exile Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1936. Trotsky and his wife stayed in Kahlo's family home where Kahlo seduced him as well as worshipped politically for a time at his feet.

However it seems that both Rivera and Kahlo decided to turn against Trotsky. Rivera is even suspected of assisting in a minor way Stalin's NKVD assassin of Trotsky in 1940. After Trotsky's murder both Kahlo and Rivera came out publicly against Trotsky apparently because (typical of the political  naives they were) they had become devout Stalinists.

You will not read such unflattering details in the notes and explanations accompanying the works in the exhibition at the AGO -- hardly surprising. But the art speaks for itself, even Frida's sometimes grotesque self-portraits like "Self-portrait with brace" (1941), "Without Hope" (1945) or the small paintings inspired by Mexican folk art like "My nurse and I" (1937).

The range of Rivera's talent can be measured by viewing not merely photographs of his murals but his paintings in this exhibiton such as "Portrait of Natasha Gelman"(1943) and "The Hammock" (1956).

The AGO exhibition puts on display the lives as well as the art of two people whose lives were not only joined and stormy but absorbed with each other and themselves in a  way that was obsessive.

For information on the Art gallery of Ontario exhibition "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting" visit the AGO website:




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Sunday, December 9, 2012

(No.222) CISRO, the AMF & a new LLQP: cui bono?

CISRO, the AMF and a new LLQP life insurance licensing regime:
to whose benefit?

by Alastair Rickard

In early October I wrote a column (No.216) "CISRO's 'harmonizing': life insurance licensing revisited", expressing my scepticism about the wisdom of the proposal from the life insurance regulators who comprise CISRO (the Canadian Insurance Services Regulatory Organizations) to introduce a new modular regime (exams and content) to be developed by Quebec's AMF (the Autorite des marches financiers) for use in both Quebec and the common law provinces.

It has been dubbed "the Harmonized Life Insurance Licensing Qualification  Program". It would replace the existing content and exam of the LLQP program (the Life Licensing Qualification Program).

Regulators like those in CISRO know, both through instinct and experience, that it is easier to win an argument when you get to frame it yourself. Following the presentation by CISRO of this plan to industry and other stakeholders in July as an implied fait accompli it seems to have taken a while for those affected to focus and push back.

This too is one of the several parallels with what occurred when the regulators came down from the mountain more than a decade ago with their initial approach to the original LLQP.  I was a somewhat reluctant participant in the lengthy process involving regulators and industry reps which followed.

Among the 14 approved LLQP course providers I am aware of only one which seems in favour of the new CISRO plan for an AMF-designed 'LLQP mark II'. In comparison with the July tabling by CISRO of their holy tablet, an October letter to all 14 LLQP providers from Saskatchewan's Ron Fullan, the lead regulator on this file, was considerably less peremptory in tone and worked at appearing somewhat conciliatory.

The opposition to the proposed new approach seems to range from serious doubt to vigorous opposition. My guess is that most would welcome enhancement of the existing LLQP content but oppose a new AMF-designed modular regime on the exiting Quebec model to be imposed on the common law provinces. This all the more so because the existing AMF life insurance licensing regime in Quebec has not produced results superior to the LLQP, i.e., results to which LLQP course providers might at least have cause to aspire.

In a nutshell many of these providers and stakeholders wonder: why complicate and make it more expensive and difficult for those in the common law provinces who might seek to become licensed to sell life insurance when a proven licensing regime (the LLQP) already functions and is in place, one which followed a lengthy process in which stakeholders were directly and materially involved? Cui bono? To whose benefit?

As I pointed out in my previous column on this subject, a core element of the answer involves more money and funding from applicants and stakeholders to provincial government licensing programs and agencies -- not improved licensing standards.

I speculated previously and continue to be interested by Quebec's "involvement with a supposed 'harmonization' of the Quebec [licensing] system with those of other provinces" and that this deal with the common law provinces on a new national licensing regime "may well run afoul of the recently elected PQ minority government (including ... the removal of Quebec's unique CGEP requirement as part of the 'harmonization' deal with CISRO). This separatist government, including its Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau, may not be all that keen on any 'harmonization' of a unique Quebec system with that in the common law provinces ...."

Minister Marceau is a former university professor and a committed sovereignist. The AMF exists within Revenu Quebec -- his ministry. Because of the new PQ government's minority status in the Quebec legislature the minister and his premier Madame Pauline Marois have had to abandon or dilute several of their separatist-related election positions.

I find it interesting that Quebec's Finance Minister Marceau (if indeed he is even aware as yet of the deal the AMF has negotiated with provincial insurance regulators outside Quebec) would allow the replacement of a licensing regime developed by and unique to Quebec by one that will necessarily have to accommodate and be diluted by at least some of the needs and desires of English-Canadian regulators.

The intention is that development and implementation of this new process is to stretch over a three year period. I think it is a fair bet that at some point sooner rather than later Minister Marceau may well be asked about this action and policy change vis-a-vis the PQ government's approach to the other provinces of Canada; also to clarify the muddy water around its lack of harmony with the commitment he and his PQ cabinet colleagues have made to enhancing, not diminishing Quebec's approach to sovereignty.




blog archive: to access back numbers of RickardsRead, go to the blog
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