Friday, July 26, 2013

Controversial Arenas

The economic conditions in many states have caused government officials to seriously evaluate budgets and how taxpayer dollars are being spent. The ultimate goal is to come up with a spending plan that will dispense funds to areas that need them the most, while also helping to stimulate economic growth and make a profit through investments and new business opportunities. However, there is not always agreement over how or what will accomplish that goal. For some, education, public defense, infrastructure and healthcare, are considered the most important investments, as they are beneficial to locals. For others, tourism, hospitality, athletics and entertainment, qualify as the most worthy of state money, as they bring in lots of foot traffic and profits.

Detroit plans to spend more than $400 million in taxpayer funds to build a new hockey arena for the Red Wings. In addition, the developer committed another $200 million to build retail, office, residential and hotel spaces. Advocates say it is the kind of development needed to attract people and private investment  dollars in Detroit, which is in the midst of a financial crisis. In fact, just last week the city filed for bankruptcy, becoming the country's largest public sector to do so. The move could cut pension benefits to city employees and retirees, a big concern for many residents. Even with the bankruptcy, Detroit still plans to build the arena. Opponents of the idea say the project won't have enough economic impact to make it worth the cost, and argue that it is the wrong spending priority for the city, which has a number of other areas that trump a sports stadium.
Detroit's current hockey stadium. Source: CNN

But the governor and city planners believe a stadium is the right move, as it will create an estimated 8,000 construction jobs, a big boon for a city with high unemployment. Not only that, but the stadium is estimated to create more than $1 billion in direct spending in Detroit over the next 30 years, according to a university study. This is due to the fact that it will be in the middle of a depressed city and in a good location next to a baseball and football stadium, which will encourage private investment in other infrastructure.

While a new stadium in Detroit might be the answer, it may not be the best move for other cities. More often than not, stadium and arena projects have little economical impact because a city may already be thriving or they are in a poor location.

Chicago recently announced plans to build a $173 million basketball arena for DePaul University next to its convention center, McCormick Place. The stadium is part of a larger plan, called "Elevate Chicago," to revamp the center, as well as Navy Pier--considered one of the top attractions in the city. While the arena is ultimately to serve as the home of the Blue Demons (DePaul will fund a portion of the construction cost), it will be used more as an event center for McCormick Place, hosting trade shows and conventions.
Digital rendering of DePaul Arena. Source: Huffington Post

The amount of money from taxpayers to pay for the DePaul stadium is about $55 million--considerably less than Detroit--but there are a few people who do not agree with using that money for an arena. There are many people who think Chicago already has plenty of arenas that can be used for games, events, shows, etc., and the money could be put towards other things--such as education.

Advocates for the project argue that the arena, along with a new hotel, will bring in more private investments for retail, dining and other attractions around the convention center. In fact, one of the goals of the project is to beautify the two blocks north of the center, which are pretty vacant and boring. Building up the area will make it more of a destination for not only tourists, but for locals, too.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Travel News Update

A lot has been going on in the world this week...and it's only Tuesday!

IT'S A BOY! Prince William and Duchess Catherine welcomed their newborn son on July 22 at 4:24 p.m., London time. He weighed in at 8 pounds, 6 ounces, and no name has been announced yet. The world anxiously awaited outside St. Mary's Hospital to see the couple with their new baby. The set of doors to Lindo Wing has not been watched so closely since Princess Diana gave birth to William 31 years ago. William and Catherine emerged on Tuesday evening, carrying the baby in a cream-colored blanket. After a quick wave to the press and cheering crowd, the couple strapped their son into the car seat of a black SUV and drove off to Kensington Palace.

The Pope returned to South America on Monday as Francis arrived in Rio de Janeiro to thousands of admirers who gathered in the streets to see him. The crowds were so enthused to see the Pope that they mobbed his car as he drove through the Rio city center to his reception ceremony. As people gathered around his small, four-door Fiat, blocking the route to the government palace. Francis, however, was unfazed. In fact, he rolled down the window to greet people, shaking hands and kissing babies...what a great politician he would make.

A Southwest flight crash landed at New York's LaGuardia Airport on Monday evening after the landing gear collapsed. Flight 345 from Nashville landed on runway 4 before the gear collapsed, causing it to skid the rest of the way on its nose. The cabin filled with smoke as people's items went flying everywhere. Ten people were injured in the incident, with no casualties. The National Transportation Safety Board is investing what might have caused the accident. The Boeing 737 had last been inspected on July 18, but no details of that were released. (I hope all other Southwest planes are inspected, because I'll be flying on one next week.)

An earthquake struck northwestern China yesterday, killing at least 89 people and injuring hundreds more. The Gansu province felt the first and strongest tremors at 7:45 am Beijing time. The quake, which measured 6.6, toppled farmer's homes and severed power lines. Nearly 2,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 22,000 were damaged. About 123,000 people were affected by the quake, and 31,600 were moved to temporary shelters.

Chicago Tourism:

  • On Monday, NBC 5 Chicago reported that Chicago had the highest ever hotel occupancy rate in the first six months of the year, leading to the most money ever generated by the hotels. For the second straight year, more than 90% of hotels rooms were booked for the month of June. And in 2012, Chicago welcomed more than 46 million tourists, and is on pace for even more this year. 
  • The Taste of Chicago, one of the city's most popular festivals, had an estimated 1.5 million visitors--my family included--for an average of 300,000 people per day. 
  • Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a private investment of $500 million from a Denver-based company will be used to improve the port of Chicago, boosting infrastructure and jobs. The money will be used to make an asset out of the port, which has long been underused and a drain on funds. The deal will also provide training, internships and jobs to students at nearby Olive-Harvey College. The area's alderman said Chicagoans are very unfamiliar with the port, and hopefully the project will help change that.

Survey stats:
A recent survey found that 61% of Americans plan to work during their vacations this year, compared to 52% last year. The Harris Interactive survey also showed that 34% of respondents plan to work but won't be happy about it; while 14% said they would be happy to work during vacation. About 22% said they would refuse to work on vacation, and 2% said they would quit their job if they had to. So why this need to work during play time? The recovering recession is the biggest reason, as workers want to show their bosses that they are indispensable to the company, even while out of the office.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Brazil Welcomes Pope for World Youth Day

There have been reports that the youths of today are not as religious as past generations, that they are not as connected to their faith and do not attend mass on a regular basis, if at all. And yet hundreds of thousands of young people flocked to Rio de Janeiro this week for World Youth Day, a week-long gathering of young Catholics celebrating their faith, learning about God, and engaging with others who share their interests and passions. It was founded by Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1984, with the first official event being held in 1986.

WYD happens every three years in a different country and features a new theme each time. The most recent WYD was held in Madrid carrying the theme "Rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith." -Col 2:7. This year, it is being held in Brazil, an event made even more special by the fact that the new Pope is from the continent and has traveled from Vatican City to be a part of the festivities.

Pope Francis arrives in Brazil. Source: CNN
Pope Francis, the first Latin American Pope, journeyed to Brazil for his first trip abroad as pontiff. Not only will he be speaking to a country with more Catholics than any other, he will also be addressing millions of tourists visiting from around the world, putting him front and center of an extremely large audience of admirers. According to local officials, about 700,000 youths have already arrived in Rio, with the total expected to reach about two million.

Francis reportedly will not ride in the traditional glass-enclosed Pope-mobile, but rather an open-topped car, showing that he both is not afraid of the people and wants to be close to them. Upon his arrival in Rio, Francis made himself known as the "Pope of the poor," saying that he had neither gold nor silver, he only brought the "most precious thing" given to him: Jesus Christ.

WYD and the Pope's visit come at a crucial time for Brazil. The country has been experiencing a slew of street riots and protests against government corruption, largess, poor education and lackluster medical care, not to mention anger over World Cup and Olympic issues. The Pope is well aware of the turmoil in the country, which has been driven by the large wealth gap. Many protesters hope to use the visit to shine a light on the controversy they face in the country. The organizers of the protests that took place in June want to send a message that says, "look how we're treated."The energy surrounding the visit has led many to worry about security and safety. (A recent update reported that an explosive device was found near a religious sanctuary the Pope was planning to visit on Wed.)

While the political issues in the country are important, many believe the Pope also needs to focus on the waning Catholic faith. Yes, Brazil still has the most Catholics than any other country, as I mentioned before, but it has also been losing many followers. A recent study showed that about 25 years ago, Brazil was 90% Catholic. That has dropped to 65% today. There is also a growing group of secular Latin Americans with no religious affiliation. The Pope's visit could be seen as a reconciliation for the Catholic faith, and could help reverse the trends that have been going on the last few years.

To learn more about World Youth Day, check out the official website.

A Trip to the Neighborhood Hotel

Imagine having an hour-long massage at a resort spa, and then soaking in the hotel hot tub for a bit before heading back to your house just down the road. No, it's not a dream. Hotel amenities like restaurants, gyms, spas and pools, are no longer reserved just for guests. Locals are signing up for special memberships at hotels that get them perks even guests might not get.

The concept serves a couple purposes. First, hotels have these immaculate facilities that often are underutilized by guests, leaving pools and gyms practically deserted. Giving city residents access helps to boost business and make the initial investment worth it. Second, these memberships bring in people during off-peak seasons, which also gives hotels a revenue boost.

While leisure and dining packages are a big part of hotels' strategy, they are also looking for ways to lure residents for work. Business travel has slowed in recent years, and hotels are hungry for professional events that result in big profits. As a result, many have created workspaces for locals to use for interviews, small meetings or larger group get togethers. Hotels believe that this could result in people spending more on drinks and food while they work.

The hope is that these incentives could lead to larger bookings, such as a wedding or convention. Because who knows what kind of people will walk in next. If nothing else, hotels that are offering these kinds of packages and deals will gain positive word-of-mouth, which could also lead to more business down the road.

Of course, hotels are still providing nice perks to guests. Kimpton Hotels recently teamed up with boutique bicycle and gear company PUBLIC to create a customized fleet of bikes, which are complimentary for guests to use at all locations nationwide. The Kimpton bike features a cherry-red frame with orange and blue accents, cream tires, double walled rims, brass bell and rear basket. Kimpton is also offering custom picnic baskets with fare from chefs of hotel restaurants. The baskets come in three themes: light and healthy, romantic shareables, and local flair. Each basket will be inspired by the location and will have locally-sourced goods.
Kimpton Bike. Source: PR Newswire

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Chicago, The Adventurous City

There are all kinds of athletic activities--traditional and offbeat--that are cropping up all over the place. And if it's something new, chances are people in Chicago are willing to try it. At least that's what a Facebook analysis of status updates indicates. The social network looked fitness-related mentions and check-ins over the last three months, as well as tracked usage of fitness-related apps. What it learned was that Chicago has the most mentions of "starting a new sport," and therefore dubbed it the most "Adventurous City."

While the accuracy of this analysis is somewhat arguable, I will say that being named the most Adventurous City is certainly a positive accolade. Especially considering that "adventure" is such a big trend. I recently spoke with the president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a global organization driven to help businesses thrive in adventure tourism, and he talked about the array of opportunities out there.

Now, when you think of adventure, what comes to mind? Climbing Machu Picchu? Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef? Skydiving...anywhere? Well, you're right, to some extent. Adventure travel does incorporate those kinds of intense experiences, which usually appeal to thrill seekers. But it doesn't have to be that level of excitement to qualify as adventure travel. It can be a bike tour through a forest preserve, or an easy hike around a reservoir, or even a culture tour of ancient ruins. A trip must have three elements to categorize it as adventure travel. First, it has to have some sort of physical activity, and it does not necessarily have to be extreme. In fact, hiking is probably the most common pursuit on adventure tours. Second, there has to be some kind of connection to nature. Third, it has to include some kind of cultural experience.

Chicago is home to people eager to try new sports, according to the analysis. Luckily, there are plenty of adventurous activities locals and visitors can enjoy in the city. The lakefront welcomes runners, bikers, boaters and swimmers, as well as paddle boarders and rowers. There are also a number of specialty fitness clubs for kickboxing and karate and spinning and so much more. Personally, I'd like to try rock climbing. I went a few times growing up in Colorado, but haven't done it in years. It would certainly be a change and a fun experience.

There are only a few rock climbing walls in the city, and most of them are part of fitness clubs, so I assume I have to be a member to use them. Some locations have a day pass to use the rock walls, such as Hidden Peak, which costs $10 for a day or $7 for a lunch time pass. I may have to do a little more research on it, but it could be a fun weekend activity.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Challenges and Changes

The dream is slowly becoming a reality. A little over a week ago, I was offered the opportunity to work as a content manager for a travel marketing company. My initial reaction? Pure terror.

I know, it doesn't make any sense. For years I've been dreaming of this moment, the chance to work in the travel industry. And more accurately, in the travel writing and content creation side of it. This is exactly what I've been waiting for. So why did my stomach leap two feet into my throat? Why did the butterflies continue to whip around uncontrollably for hours? Why did tears sting the corner of my eyes?

One word: Fear.

I've been living in a comfortable bubble the last two and a half years. I like my job, and I know how to do it well. I like the people I work with, and I have a wonderful, supportive team that looks to me for direction. I have a daily routine that keeps me centered and organized. It's safe, it's predictable--for the most part--and there isn't much to challenge me. But this new job will change all that.

There was a brief moment where I considered turning it down, staying put and continuing down the same road I've been on. But then reality set in, and I knew that this was a chance I had to take, this was an opportunity that would not only let me do what I'm passionate about, but could also open more doors in the future. Why would I even think about passing it up?

So I accepted.

And ever since I've been unable to shake this uneasy feeling. I know it's nerves. Fear of change, of a new team, a new routine, new challenges. But mostly, it's fear of making a mistake. What if I can't do the job? What if the client doesn't like me? What if I fail? What if I make the wrong move? What happens then?

I've felt this way before, and it usually accompanies major life decisions: college, graduate school, my first job, serious relationships. It's called being pulled out of your comfort zone because you're meant to feel uncomfortable. When you take a risk, it's only natural to wonder if it's right, if it will really get you to where you want to go. It's one of life's cruel incongruities. Something that is meant to elicit joy and assurance, actually makes you feel sick to your stomach.

So how do you shake the feeling?

Face it head on. Tackle the challenge with enthusiasm, determination and confidence. I plan to start this job on the right foot, diving right in and showing that I am the best person for the position. This will help ease my worries and squash my fears. And, in the long run, will help me grow in my professional and personal life. It will get me to where I want to be.

My recent inspiration came after watching this TED talk from Roz Savage. She was also just floating along in a comfortable job, where she probably would have stayed for many years had she not realized it would not lead her to the life she wanted.

And then I saw this talk from Ben Saunders, a modern-day explorer who will attempt to journey to the South Pole and back. In his talk, he answers the question, Why bother leaving the house? Obviously, my job opportunity is very different from what he does, but the concept of taking on a challenge is the same.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Air Travel Fears and Accomplishments

The Fourth of July holiday weekend brought celebrations, parties and friends...

But, unfortunately, it also brought some tragedy. Over the weekend, there were two fatal plane crashes. The first was an Asiana airlines flight that crashed while landing at San Francisco's airport on Saturday. The plane apparently lost speed and hit the ground, killing two passengers and injuring hundreds of others. It is believed that the pilot did not have much experience flying Boeing 777 planes, and it was his maiden flight to that airport on that jet.
Asiana Airlines crash. Source: CNN

The second was an air taxi that crashed at a small airport in Alaska, killing all 10 people on board. It is still unknown exactly what caused the crash, and investigators have been sent to the small town to determine what happened.

While the events are horrible, there is a silver lining. When events like these happen, we tend to forget that air travel is as safe as it's ever been. According to officials, the San Francisco crash was the first fatal crash in a commercial airline in the U.S. since February 2009. Accidents for commercial aviation have been extremely low the last 10 years, and the number of accidents per 100,000 flight hours is also very low. This means that the risk of death is pretty slim (1 in 45 million flights).

The reason for the decline is mostly attributed to more reliable planes and engines, which have been helped by advanced navigation and warning technology. There is more communication among pilots, airlines and regulators about flying hazards and best practices to avoid them. And in the off chance there is a crash, passengers are more likely to survive nowadays.

I'm not suggesting that these stories are not horrible, they will certainly remain in my mind the next time I board a plane. However, I hope the events and investigations will lead to further improvements in air travel so that we can continue to keep accidents and fatalities to a minimum.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reward Travel

A credit card offer came in the mail for me the other day. Most of us are familiar with direct mail marketing from banks, credit card companies, airlines, etc. Businesses spend thousands of dollars to send out hundreds of thick envelopes filled with fancy fliers and booklets detailing all the great perks that come with signing up for this checking account or joining that frequent flier program. This is all done in the hopes of getting some return on investment, which, for many companies, could be as few as one person per 50 mail pieces. (Yes, that's considered a successful campaign.

Like most people, I usually toss these in the trash without even bothering to break the seal. But this one made me stop. It was from United Airlines--of which I am a frequent flier member--and it was for their MileagePlus Club Card. The special offer was, if I signed up now, I could get the card for a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year. The perks: A United Club membership, which grants unlimited access to all United Club locations and Star Alliance lounges; 50% mileage bonus, which means earning 1.5 miles per dollar spent and two miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United; Premier Access services, allowing for priority check-in and boarding; two free checked bags for me and a companion; and no foreign transaction fees. A pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

Now, I already have a really good rewards credit card--in fact, it ranks in the top 10 best airline credit cards on gets me points and rewards that I can redeem for travel whenever I want. However, it does not offer these kinds of travel privileges. So I thought to myself, maybe it's time to get a dedicated airline card that gives me some bonuses? My parents have the platinum card from United, but they fly all the time and my dad has a ton of miles earned from his days as a loyal Continental flier. I don't travel as often, usually about three or four times a year on average. However, the fact that those few times I do travel could be made better with this card definitely made it more appealing. Another aspect I like is that this card was named "best credit card" by Global Traveler Magazine in 2012.

Then I read an article on CNN with tips to savvy travel. One woman talked about using miles to get where you want to go, and using a rewards credit car to help earn and save up miles that can be put towards more expensive trips down the road. She used a Delta Skymiles card, which works well for her, but every person is different. While the sign-up bonus is nice, and the priority boarding and club access definitely sweeten the deal, it's the mileage earnings that are really important. Since I don't travel as often as some other people, the fact that this card gives me extra miles for daily purchases is certainly helpful.

The only off-putting part of this card is the annual fee--a whopping $395! The offer gets me the first year free, but once that time has expired, I would have to decide if the card is worth the price or decide to give it up or downgrade. Luckily, there is a perfectly good downgraded option, the MileagePlus Explorer Card, with an annual fee of $95--much more reasonable. Perks: first checked bag free; double miles on tickets and one mile per dollar spent on other purchases; priority boarding privileges; no foreign transaction fees; miles don't expire; and two one-time passes every year to the United Club. Obviously not as great as the Club card, but still decent.

And so this one time, I decided not to throw away the offer.

I'm not suggesting that you sign up for every deal that arrives in your mailbox, because that would not be smart, and could seriously hurt your credit history. And, let's face it, some are not all that good when you think look at the fine print. Some can sound like total scams--and might actually be scams. However, if you're looking to sign up for a good credit card that gets you nice travel rewards or other perks, definitely keep your eye on the mail, as many of these great deals can slip through the cracks--and into your trash. If you want a good list of top reward and travel cards, check out bankrate's website.