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Archive for the ‘Customer Experience & Reviews’ Category

This past Sunday I called ahead at Pick-a-Bagel so my order would be ready to pick up and pay for when I arrived. I did this to save time waiting on their line, which can be a little long on a Sunday morning.

When I arrived I saw that there was just one line for ordering and paying. I didn’t feel comfortable walking directly to the front of the line to pay for my order—if someone had done this to me while I was waiting to pay for my bagel, I would have hated it—so I went to the middle of the line and asked a few people whether they had already ordered their bagel, or if they were just waiting to pay. I thought a good, non-jerk-y compromise would be to enter the line between those people who had already ordered their food, and those who hadn’t.

I went up to one older woman on the line and asked her if she had ordered already. Her response to my question was, “BACK OF THE LINE.” I explained that I had already ordered over the phone, thanked her for her polite waiting on line advice, and walked to the back of the line.

After a minute or two one of the workers asked me what I wanted. I explained that I had already ordered over the phone. He told me my order was in the front by the cashier and I could just pick it up and pay. But again, I didn’t feel right about cutting the whole line of people, most of whom had ordered and were just waiting to pay like I was.

Ten minutes later—after listening to the palaver of three 20-something guys, about how their friend’s co-worker who came out with them last night was a total, um, witch—I reached the front of the line and paid.

I didn’t lecture the cashier for not having separate lines for called in orders, or throw a fit of any kind. But I learned the lesson that calling in an order at Pick-a-Bagel won’t save me any time—that is unless I want to be the jerk who openly ignores all BACK OF THE LINE opprobrium from old ladies.

I wonder what H&H Bagels’ policy is on call-in orders. Hopefully it’s less rigid than their policy on celebrating new holidays

What do you think? Should I just have gone to the BACK OF THE LINE right away? What would you have done in a similar situation?

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Whenever I quote Dumb & Dumber in front of my mom—which almost always goes over her head, leading me to explain that it’s from the movie—she reminds me of the day she took me to see it.

For whatever reason, she allowed my friend Nicky and I to pick the movie she that day in 1994, and she and her friend Lana agreed to see whatever we chose.

Jim Carrey was fresh off of In Living Color (Fire Marshall Bill, anyone?), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask had already come out that same year. Our pick was a true no-brainer: Dumb & Dumber.

To hear my mom and Lana tell it, it was the worst 107 minutes of their lives. But for Nicky and me, at age 12, it was the funniest movie we’d ever seen.

When I talk about my favorite all-time comedies I still put Dumb & Dumber as my runaway #1 (the rest of the list, in no particular order: Austin Powers: Goldmember (or at least the opening scene), Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, Groundhog Day, My Cousin Vinny and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

I have many friends with whom I can quote the movie’s most obscure lines and still get a chuckle if the context is just right.

  • If someone asks you if want to grab a bite to eat, you might say, I swallowed a big June bug while we were driving. I’m not really hungry.
  • If you come into work on Monday and someone asks you how your weekend was, you might say, Not bad. Fell off the jet way again.
  • If you are planning a vacation with your significant other, you might say, I want to go someplace where the beer flows like wine.
  • If you and a friend can’t remember someone’s name and then your friend finally gets it, you might say, I was way off! I knew it started with an S, though!
  • If you’re having a singles night out with friends and they want to do a lap, you might say, I’m gonna hang by the bar, put out the vibe.
  • If you’re waiting on line at the post office and the customer in front of you is arguing about needing extra postage for their package, you might say, You can’t triple a double stamp.
  • And if you can’t figure out how to end a conversation, you might say, Big Gulps, huh? All right! Well, see ya later.

When I heard the Farrelly brothers were making a sequel to the movie I considered a comedic masterpiece—and maybe the last Jim Carrey film before he was Jim Carrey—I admit I was bummed. Why mess with perfection? (They made a D&D prequel in 2003, but as far as I know no one from the original movie was involved, so it felt more like a student film homage to my favorite movie. I didn’t see it.)

"Let's go get a coupla bowls of loud mouth soup." (Photo via collider.com.)

“Let’s go get a coupla bowls of loud mouth soup.” (Photo via collider.com.)

Nevertheless, I knew I’d have to go to the movies and see for myself whether a 20-years-later sequel did anything to tarnish Dumb & Dumber’s legacy, à la Rocky V.*

*Until the sixth Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, came out in 2006, Rocky V was the only Rocky film I’d been old enough to see in theaters, so I had no frame of reference for how bad it truly was relative to the original, or the first three sequels, until years later.

As I was watching Dumb & Dumber To (the sequel) in the theater a few weeks ago, the following thoughts crossed my mind: If I saw the original D&D film for the first time today, as a 32-year-old, would I enjoy it as much as I did when I was 12 years old? And would my 12-year-old self have enjoyed D&D2 if it came out back in 1994?

I have these debates with people every so often, about whether certain movies “hold up” over time. Do they feel outdated if you watch them ten years later? And for comedies in particular, are the best lines from a movie be as funny the second time you hear them, or the fifth, or the hundredth? When you watch the same comedy five years later on TBS (without the curses!) do you even laugh at all? Or by that point is the movie’s value to you solely nostalgia?

Dumb & Dumber To, when judged on a standard of all comedies, is average to below average. The plot is pretty stupid (especially the first scene that explains the last 20 years in Lloyd and Harry’s world, as teased in the first trailer); the main characters are definitely stupid.

The tone was similar to the first film, and to other Farrelly brothers comedies, where the humor borders on mean-spirited until you realize that the joke is always on Lloyd and Harry, even if they’re being jerks to someone else. Most of the jokes ranged from slapstick to overtly crude and/or gross to dumb wordplay misunderstandings (in the original Lloyd uses the phrase “tea and strumpets”; in the sequel he mispronounces “g-nat”), which were all common to the first film.

"I gotta take this. It's my dead dead. (Photo credit: nypost.com.)

“I gotta take this. It’s my dead dead. (Photo credit: nypost.com.)

Over the course of two hours I had a couple of big laughs, a few small laughs, and the rest of the time I sat there thinking about what the sequel does or doesn’t do to the original film’s legacy, if it has one.

Because I was so young when Dumb & Dumber came out in 1994, I can’t recall with great accuracy the climate around comedy films or the movie business in general. But I looked back and it turns out 1994 was actually a ridiculous year for movies. The top grossing films of that year were Forrest Gump (depending on who you ask, this is one of the best movies of all time), The Lion King (arguably the best animated movie of all time), and True Lies (anything James Cameron directs does a gazillion dollars at the box office).

Here are some other titles that came out in 1994: Speed, Pulp Fiction, Interview with the Vampire, Angels in the Outfield, Little Women, Might Ducks 2, Major League 2, oh, and The freakin’ Shawshank Redemption. Not to mention the two OTHER aforementioned Jim Carrey comedies. For the full list of movies from 1994 with box office grosses, go here.

So with all those memorable films, Dumb & Dumber somehow emerged as my favorite comedy of all time. Again, perhaps it was nothing more than the fact that I was 12 years old Jim Carrey was becoming a star. I can’t know that either way.

I don’t care at all what the critics say about D&D2, though I think most of the reviews have been negative (25% on Rotten Tomatoes and 36 on Metacritic). Even if it was just an ersatz version of the original, an unnecessary coda to an already perfect comedy, I don’t care. Because if nothing else it gave me an excuse to replay all the best jokes from the original in my head, and to go out and see a movie with a friend who I don’t see as often as Harry sees Lloyd. And as for Dumb & Dumber‘s legacy, I’d say it’s still in tact.

Big Gulps, huh? All right! Well, see ya later.

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Yesterday I competed in the 2014 Men’s Health Urbanathlon in New York City.

I went in thinking the Urbanathlon would basically be like a Tough Mudder course, which I ran in 2012 in New Jersey, minus the mud. Beyond that my frame of reference for timed or racing events is mostly running races I’ve done in Central Park and other parts of New York City, as well as the Anthem Richmond Marathon I completed in 2012 in Virginia.

Yesterday’s Urbanathlon was a 10-mile course within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, starting and ending at Citi Field, where baseball’s New York Mets play.

Like so many “adventure races,” including Tough Mudder’s rival Spartan Race (not to mention the CrossFit Games and the American Ninja Warrior competition), the gimmick here is that it’s not just a running race–which adventure race promoters often disparage as “boring”–but an obstacle course with running built in. But with the Urbanathlon, I’d say it was essentially a 10-mile running race with a few not-so-difficult obstacles added in.

For someone like me, who runs about a 10-minute mile (which is not particularly fast) I had hoped to make up some time against faster runners on the obstacles. I have decent upper body strength and can pull up my body weight pretty easily with my arms, so I figured I’d gain at least a few minutes on monkey bars, wall climbs, etc. However the obstacles were fairly easy to complete and I never felt like I made up more than a couple of seconds on them. I can’t remember any obstacle taking more than a minute or two, at which point it became a foot-race again.

Most of the obstacles involved simple over or under moves–including jumping and ducking police barricades–or navigating short tire runs. The course did include monkey bars, but I was through them with just four or five swings. (On the Tough Mudder course, the monkey bars were spaced farther apart and were built like a peaked roof so you had to climb on an incline and then a decline. Also, they were greased up and your hands were already covered in mud, so the level of difficulty was much higher.)

By far the toughest and most unique obstacle I encountered at the Urbanathlon came in the last mile or so of the course, which took us into Citi Field. Once inside, competitors had to walk or run up and down the stands of the stadium for about six sections, a mini tour de stade. (I imagine this would have been much cooler if I was a Met fan.) From there we got to actually run on the warning track of the field–which, even for a Yankee fan, was pretty cool–and eventually out into the parking lot where we crawled under some propped up Volkswagens (sponsor!), jumped over some NYC taxi cabs (I saw a couple of guys do that slide across the hood thing you see in the movies), and up and down a cargo net stretched over a school bus.

I completed the entire course in an hour and 40 minutes, which is just about my usual 10-minute mile running pace (the course was just over 10 miles). Considering my time included conquering 14 obstacles, it’s safe to say they were nothing more than a minor hindrance to my overall pace. Overall I finished in the middle of the pack, 495th out of a field of 1,056.

Speaking of time, I had also assumed that like Tough Mudder, there would be long waits for some of the obstacles due to a high volume of competitors. (That race took me almost five hours to complete 12 miles plus all the obstacles.) But at Urbanathlon, I hardly waited for any of the obstacles besides when the people ahead of me started to slow up on the stair climb.

The Urbanathlon cost about $100 per entrant (slightly more or less depending on how early you registered). For an event of this distance that’s not a bad price, especially if it serves as the motivation for otherwise sedentary competitors to get off the couch and train for it. As for me, who’s generally pretty active, I was hoping to be pushed to my physical limit a little more than just summoning the stamina to run 10 miles. I thought the mud theme at Tough Mudder was a little overdone, but that event also has some really difficult obstacles outside of the mud, a few of which I couldn’t complete.

Obstacles aside, the Urbanathlon NYC course was beautiful as a running race. Most people who live outside of Queens (any many who do) don’t realize how much Corona Park has to offer. Aside from the U.S. Open and Citi Field, the park features baseball and soccer fields, water, biking, and even a small zoo.

For runners who want a little something extra in their races to break up the all the running, the Urbanathlon is exactly that. But for non-runners in the market for a challenging and fun obstacle course that will test both their upper and lower body, I suggest trying out for American Ninja Warrior instead.

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If you’ve done any air travel in the last year or so, the airline you’re flying has probably asked you to solve a problem for them—for free. I know I’ve been asked, and I don’t like it.

Because the airline business is apparently a tough racket in which to turn a profit (fuel is expensive, etc.), many airlines now charge customers to check their bags as a way to drum up some more cash (or haven’t you noticed?).

The domino effect of charging for bags, of course, is that more people are carrying on smaller luggage avoid the checked baggage fees. This means that the once-sufficient overhead compartment space on planes is now full of bags that would have been checked (if checking was still free). The lack of overhead space is the problem they’re asking us to solve.

Airlines are now asking passengers with carry-on luggage to volunteer to check their bags (free of charge!) at the gate to cut down on delays when boarding; this was the case on my last few trips with Delta and Sun Country. The thinking is, if we all take our carry-ons onto the plane and there’s no room left in the overheads, some of us will have to check our no-longer-carry-on bags with the flight attendants anyway, which takes more time than if we’d done that up front.

As a Business Insider article points out, it’s unclear what the airlines’ incentive is for even bothering to ask passengers to gate-check Are airlines really concerned about these boarding delays, considering the whole industry constantly experiences customer-facing delays? Is there anyone among us who, when traveling by plane, doesn’t automatically assume their travel will take longer than it’s “supposed to”?

But the part that confuses me is the incentive of a customer to gate-check a carry-on bag for the greater good, i.e. the rest of the passengers on the aircraft, in the hopes of moving things along a bit more quickly.

I have, nor will I ever, volunteer to check my carry-on—which, incidentally, I packed specifically so that I wouldn’t have to check it, and thus wait at baggage claim. How much time does it even save? On my last flight I overheard the flight attendant say that 24 carry-on bags were checked at the gate, and yet there still wasn’t enough room for several of the unlucky last-boarding passengers’ bags in the overheads. (I was fortunate to find some overhead space a few rows behind my my seat, and after we landed another passenger was nice enough to pass my bag forward so I didn’t have to wait for the plane to empty to get it.)

Not to belabor the point, but seriously, why would anyone volunteer to check their bag? I saw a clergyman board my plane this weekend and even he carried his bag on and stuffed it into the remaining space in the overhead!

The aforementioned BI article suggests that the stick, i.e. penalizing non-checkers, is the best way to incentivize people to check a bag at the gate. (He recommends threatening them with no in-flight beverage service.) But I think the carrot would work better for someone like me. Currently, the “reward” for checking at the gate is nothing other than allowing the checkers to board the plane first (after first class, people with young children, disabled people, active duty military personnel, etc.). But in my view, the only benefit to boarding first is to make sure you get a spot for your bag in the overhead. Why do I care if I’m boarding first if I still have to wait at baggage claim when we land???

People like free stuff. Why not simply offer a $10 or $20 credit on the airline, good for future travel or an alcoholic drink or for-purchase food on the plane? Money towards cab fare or parking? A Best Buy gift card? Or literally anything else worth any value to a customer? (Think about it: what would it take for you to agree to gate-check your bag? Not much, but something, right?)

A New York Times columnist recently applied similar logic to the question of reclining one’s seat, which has drawn the attention of the air traveling public. Some planes have had emergency landings because of passengers fighting over leg room gained/lost by a reclined seat. The columnist suggested that if airlines want to avoid this, they should pay passengers not to recline. But I’m not sure the right to recline, knowing it will make the person behind you uncomfortable for the entire flight, is the same as the right to carry-on your carry-on.

I realize that it might not be worth it to the airline to save a few minutes while boarding if they have to pay people to do something (checking at the gate) they were previously asking them to do out of the goodness of their hearts. But if that’s the case, then I’d really like for Delta, Sun Country, or whomever I’m flying, to stop asking its customers—who have already paid for their seat with dollars—to now also donate the most precious currency they have, their time, without getting something in return.

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Sitting is the new smoking.

For the last six months or so I’ve seen that phrase pop up in dozens of articles admonishing readers about the dangers of sitting all day at work. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and Google it!

I’m not here to sell you on the veracity of scientific studies that equate desk chairs and couches with cigarettes. I’m here to tell you that I personally have bought into the hype around such studies, and I’ve done something about it.

Like most white collar workers in America, I have spent at least 95% of my work hours in my career sitting at a desk, looking at a computer monitor, only getting up for coffee and bathroom breaks. On most days I eat lunch at my desk.

Outside of work my weekdays tend to be fairly active. I play competitive sports; I sometimes bike to work; I exercise at the company gym; and I run. But one of the bullet points from the many sitting-is-the-new-smoking articles that really got my attention was that despite an office worker’s active lifestyle, sitting actually negates most of the exercise we are getting when not sitting.

One of the solutions to sitting all day at work is, of course, standing. But most of us have desks built at sitting height. Bending over from a standing position to type on a keyboard meant for sitting won’t work long-term. And getting up frequently to stand or walk around is not practical for those of us who need to be at their desks most of the time to answer emails and calls, and to interact with our cubicle-mates.

Seeking possible alternatives to sitting all day, I started reading up on basic standing desks. Like their name suggests, these workstations are meant for working while standing–basically they’re just a higher desk. The problem with standing desks is that standing for our entire workday is no good, either. (I even came across a New York magazine article in which the writer attempted to stand for a whole month.)

After some more research (while sitting, of course) I found the perfect hybrid solution: the sit-stand desk (a.k.a. an adjustable standing desk), which is designed to adjust for both sitting and standing positions (duh), allowing the worker to go back and forth throughout the day.

Earlier in the summer I decided to go ahead and request a sit-stand desk from work. If they said no, I was back where I started and would consider building my own IKEA-based solution.

But they said yes!

I received a Varidesk Pro Plus ($350), which required little set up except to make sure the wires from my laptop, secondary monitor, mouse and keyboard didn’t get caught in the mechanism when I moved it up and down. (There was some trial and error on this part in order to make sure the sit-stand desk, when in sitting position, was flush with my actual desk.)

The Varidesk Pro Plus.

The Varidesk Pro Plus.

As for the standing while working, it has been totally fine. Wearing dress shoes most days, my feet did start to hurt by the end of the day for the first few days. I’d read that a lot of people who use sit-stand desks buy floor mats—just like chefs use—to cushion their feet. I bought the NewLife Comfort Mat for $40, and it has made a huge difference.

Generally I try to stand about 60% of the time, and sit for the other 40%. If I’m working on a spreadsheet or a project that requires intense concentration, I can find myself standing for over an hour without noticing. And when I eventually do notice and sit down, it’s a nice sense of relief for my back, legs and feet. At first I tried to look at the clock to make sure I was sitting and standing enough, but now I mostly just listen to my body. When I feel like sitting, usually towards the end of the day, I sit. And while I still rarely get out during lunch, I make a point to stand after I’ve finished eating.

One unintended consequence of getting a sit-stand desk that I hadn’t considered is all the attention I’m getting from co-workers, many of whom I’ve never spoken to. Generally their reactions fall into one of two camps. About half the people see me standing and say, “Oh wow, that’s so cool!” and then ask a bunch of questions about where I got it, whether I like it, how it works, etc. The other half look at me like I’m from another planet. “So…you’re gonna stand all day? Why?” Even after I talk about the health benefits, and explain that the desk goes up and down and that I can sit whenever I want, they don’t quite get why I would want to go to all this trouble to stand any more than I have to.

I can’t say that I’ve lost any weight in the last month since getting my sit-stand desk, or that I feel physically better than I felt before my new desk. My posture might be a little better but it’s tough to say. I mostly feel the same. A sit-stand desk is hardly a panacea if you have any serious health issues (and as far as I know, it will not help you quit smoking). I like to think about my decision to use a sit-stand desk the same way I think about my decision to take vitamins every day: I know I won’t see any immediate, quantifiable results from doing it, I believe that in the long-term it will benefit me.

I wouldn’t recommend a sit-stand desk for everyone, especially if you’re paying for it out of your own pocket—it could be a costly gamble if you end up hating it. But for me, I’m a month in and very happy with my decision to go for it. And for those of you out there who think I’m crazy, well, I might be. But don’t be surprised if the sit-stand desk comes to a cubicle near you!

What do you think? Am I crazy, or does the sit-stand desk sound kinda cool to you?

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Please note: This post has been updated from its original version, “Review: Hotel Impossible, Sandy Part 1.” In this revised version, I have included an update at the end of the post based on the “Sandy, Part 2” episode, focusing on the controversial Thunderbird Motel project.

I’m a big fan of the business makeover shows, including Restaurant Impossible and Hotel Impossible. As someone who doesn’t own my own business, but might like to some day, it’s interesting to see how someone at the top of their profession can quickly get to the bottom of why a business is failing.

But my biggest frustration with these shows, as I’ve written about before on this blog, is the projects they select. More often than not the biggest reason why a hotel or restaurant fails–at least on these shows–is the ownership. They’re typically lazy (kitchens or hotel rooms are filthy, obvious repairs aren’t made, the customer service is half-assed, etc.) or clueless (“We thought it would be fun to buy a restaurant!”). I have yet to see an episode where a hotel or restaurant owner is doing mostly everything right but is still struggling to turn a profit. While that would be decidedly less “impossible” to turn around, I might prefer that every once in a while to helping people who have been unable or unwilling to help themselves.

In the most recent episode of Hotel Impossible, hotel guru Anthony Melchiorri takes his talents down to the Jersey Shore to help reverse some of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy last October. A worthy cause, or so it seemed.

The episode takes place about a week before July 4, the following summer after Sandy. As he arrives, Anthony seems genuinely shocked at the condition of the hotel he’s there to fix, the Thunderbird Motel in Seaside Heights, NJ (a.k.a. the town where Jersey Shore was filmed), nine months later. The rooms on the ground floor are still being gutted and he’s been told that 20% of the hotel’s inventory is not ready to be sold.

When Anthony questions the family–a couple in their fifties and a grown son and daughter–as to why so little has been done, they talk about how the insurance money was slow to come in. The patriarch tells Anthony about the Thunderbird: “You’re lookin’ at my 401K here” and that the hotel was meant to be the parents’ retirement.

Anthony goes in for a room inspection–a room the son has assured him is ready to be rented immediately–and finds the usual stuff he always finds: dirt, dead bugs, filthy shower heads, and, of course, a week-old pizza box in the fridge (with one slice left!). The son, Ray Jr., goes into the contrite routine we see often of hotel owners on the show, falsely accepting the blame but clearly believing it’s someone else’s fault, in this case housekeeping

Anthony, in classic straight-shooter Melchiorri style, tells Ray Jr. (who believes he runs the hotel), that he is not general manager material. Anthony leaves, and Ray Jr. follows a few minutes behind him, cursing Anthony under his breath. Later, Ray Sr. is recorded behind closed doors saying that he wants to chop Anthony’s head off–so there that is.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family gangs up on Anthony, telling him that they were too hard on Ray Jr. (Direct quote from Ray Jr.’s mom: “He didn’t have to chew my son sixteen new a**holes.”) As he usually does, Anthony gives the family a chance to cool down and explains that he’s there to help, and he can only do that if he’s completely honest. The family seems to get it, sort of, but Ray Jr. still won’t speak to Anthony. Given a chance to walk away from the project and cut his losses, Anthony chooses to stick it out.

Next, Ray Sr. and Anthony take a drive, having apparently patched things up after the whole “chop off his head” thing. Ray Sr. casually points out other real estate in the area he owns, explaining that his assets total about $40 million. Yup.

Anthony doesn’t start screaming at him (as some of us might have) but calmly asks him why, if the hotel was so important to him, he didn’t consider selling off some of his other assets to pay for the repairs. Ray Jr. replies, “I prioritized. I don’t like digging into capital.” Totally see his point. I mean, who does?

Later, Anthony has another closed door conversation with the family, where Ray Jr. asks him to delete the footage of the hotel inspection from the beginning of the episode that shows Ray Jr. in a negative light. Anthony refuses, saying the only way the footage would be deleted is if they cancel the show. Ray Jr. walks out.

Then, still behind closed doors, it is revealed that Ray Jr. was not actually being tapped to be the general manager, and that a new GM the family had already hired would be starting in a few months. This is the last straw for Anthony, who pulls his crew off the set. He declares that he never leaves a job unfinished, but that he can’t deal with the family’s dishonesty. He believes he’s being “played.” If that’s true, it’s hard to see what the family’s game plan was, since Ray Jr. blatantly told Anthony about his substantial assets without any probing. Nevertheless, Anthony is outta there.

The show ends with previews of Part 2 of the Sandy episode, which has Anthony helping other Jersey Shore hoteliers get back on their feet (plus a cameo by NJ Governor Chris Christie!). Disappointingly, the last scene of the preview has Anthony trying to reconcile with the family from the Thunderbird.

Meanwhile the family that owns the Thunderbird Motel is none too happy about how they were portrayed on the show, as scammers. If I came off the way they did, I wouldn’t be, either. Not to mention, $40 million doesn’t go as far as it used to.

***UPDATE!*** 
The end of Sandy, Part 1, teased that Anthony would attempt to reconcile with the Braun family, who own the Thunderbird Motel. Reconciliation proved, well, impossible.

Ray Jr. was barely willing to look at Anthony when he tried to open a dialogue about restarting the project. Meanwhile Ray Sr. expressed, again, that he felt the family was blindsided and that Anthony’s crew had come in and wrecked his hotel. (This statement was confusing, as I don’t believe they actually did any work on the hotel apart from Anthony taking a week-old pizza out of the fridge in one of the rooms.)

Anthony and Ray Sr. shook hands and went their separate ways. However the dialogue continued between Ray Sr. and Anthony’s camera crew, who apparently brought bodyguards. Ray Sr. took offense to HI‘s “muscle,” and said he would bring his own muscle next time.

After they shook hands–which was about as forced as Ray Sr.’s previous handshake with Anthony–Ray Jr. asked whether HI still planned to use the footage from the beginning of the first episode, which he felt made him look foolish. The producer said that they would be using the footage, which was a different story than the one Anthony told him at the end of the first episode. Anthony had told him the footage would be deleted if the show was canceled–but clearly it was not…

I don’t feel great about the way things played out, especially considering that it seemed like Anthony lied (or at least misspoke) about the footage. While the Braun family clearly did not deserve Anthony’s help, they were basically used by the producers to create enough footage for an entire episode and didn’t end up getting a hotel renovation out of it. I don’t know about the waivers they might have signed or the legalities involved, but it seems kinda messed up.

Finally, Anthony goes back to the Thunderbird one last time. As a peace offering, he tells Ray Sr. that his designer had had three rooms and a front desk’s worth custom cabinets made for the Thunderbird already, and that if he wanted them, they were his (on the house). In a cliffhanger that only a reality hotel renovation show can have, HI cuts to commercial before we find out whether Ray Sr. will accept the free cabinets. I can tell you it was a VERY long ninety seconds waiting to find out if Ray Sr. would, in fact, accept the free cabinets. (He did.)

Oh yeah and a bunch of other stuff happened in Part 2, including some hotel renovations. Here are the TripAdvisor pages for all the hotels in the two episodes:

Thunderbird Motel: 4/5 rating on 17 reviews (but none since Hurricane Sandy)
Palm Villa Suites Motel: 3.5/5 rating on 51 reviews
Tradewinds Motor Lodge: 4/5 rating on 14 reviews
Charlroy Motel: 3/5 rating on 49 reviews

Did you watch both episodes? What do you think?

RELATED: Hotel Impossible’s First Mission: Gurney’s Inn on Long Island

RELATED: Hotel Impossible: After Anthony Special – A Review

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“TMI,” the popular acronym meaning “too much information,” is typically reserved for when someone overshares details about something such as their romantic endeavors, or their bathroom habits. But I never thought I’d be using it when it came to reading online customer reviews while trying to book a vacation.

Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve struggled with online customer reviews. A few months back I blogged about the “paralysis by analysis” I encountered while sifting through countless Amazon customer reviews for iPad Mini cases. The sheer volume of reviews became overwhelming, but luckily my time spent reading them paid off, as I ended up with a great iPad Mini case from Devicewear. Still, it was a tedious process considering the item was relatively inexpensive ($27) to begin with.

If my Amazon experience was the minor leagues of reading online customer reviews, then I was called up to the majors last month while planning a Caribbean vacation with my fiancee. We headed over to TripAdvisor to see which hotels had the best reviews based on the handful of islands we were interested in.

Knowing that there would be more reviews on TripAdvisor than I could possibly read, my strategy for reading reviews was to read only those in which the reviewer graded the hotel a “3” on a 5-point scale. I’ve found these reviews to be the most honest and useful ones. Too often, a 1 out of 5 review overstates the negative aspects of a customer experience, e.g. an indifferent hotel staff becomes “rude,” or a mediocre meal becomes “inedible”; while a 5 out of 5 is too glowingly positive to the point that there’s nothing to learn from it, and it often lacks any detail, e.g. an “amazing” dinner. (The 2’s and 4’s are usually not much better than the 1’s and 5’s as far as exaggeration.)

Luckily, TripAdvisor’s reviews do allow readers to filter by “Couples,” “Solo,” “Families,” and “Business.” Traveling with my fiancée, I selected Couples to see only reviews written by those people who had been on couples-style vacations. Using this filter we got a few good tips, such as asking for a free room upgrade upon check-in.

But despite my 3-rating strategy and the Couples filter, after a few days of reading reviews my head was spinning. Where one reviewer would laud a hotel’s staff for friendly and helpful service, another would trash them. Some people loved the beach at a hotel, where others found it too crowded or noisy.

Just as I was reaching the brink of complete frustration, I had an epiphany.

Because my TripAdvisor account is connected to my Facebook account, I could see that one of my friends had previously visited one of the hotels we were looking at with his wife back in 2006. His wife wrote a glowing review about a particular hotel and about the island in general. Though a lot about a hotel could change in seven years, I reached out to them anyway in the hopes that they could give me the inside scoop. They explained that their trip to Curacao was a great vacation for them at the time, in their mid-twenties, especially since it was their first Caribbean vacation together. However, they said, Curacao was not necessarily a place they would go back to after having been to other islands such as Turks & Caicos, where they were married and have been to several times since.

My epiphany was that I wanted to read more reviews written by people I know–friends and family are typically a more trusted source of information and recommendations than strangers. However, going off of only personal recommendations would be a little impractical unless I planned to solicit reviews about specific destinations or hotels from my social network via Facebook.

The next best thing, I realized, was to read reviews by people like me, even if I didn’t know them personally. By people like me I mean people who are around my age; have a similar travel budget; who live in New York City like I do or at least another major city (preferably on the East Coast); and who have comparable previous travel experience. (That last one, travel experience, is important because someone who rarely travels might not notice or care about the same things I do when they travel.)

I began to re-scan the reviews (already filtered on Couples) for people from the New York area, since this was the only real demographic information available on TripAdvisor. I knew I was on the right track when I found one NYC-based reviewer who said that a hotel bar had “New York prices.” To further filter for travelers like myself and my fiancee, I skipped over reviews from people who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as they were obviously in a different lifestage than we were. (Note: This is not to say older travelers’ opinions aren’t valid, just that they don’t resonate with me as much as the opinions of travelers closer to my own age. Again, it comes back to travel experience.) I also read the reviews more carefully for language that might suggest these people were frequent travelers.

Ideally, I’d like to be able to filter reviews by the factors I mentioned above to give me a reasonable chance to make sense of all the reviews. (This might require TripAdvisor asking a few innocuous demographics questions to its reviewers before they can post a review, but it’s worth it!) I’d also like to see a search box like they have on Yelp so I can search within the reviews for terms like “renovations” (is the hotel under construction?) or “palapas” (do I have to get up at 5 am to reserve a little tent on the beach?). TripAdvisor’s current set up shows frequently used words in its reviews, but they’re not useful for anything more specific than “restaurants” or “happy hour.”

I love that TripAdvisor allows me access to so much information, but sometimes it’s just TMI and goes past the point of usefulness.

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When I moved out for the first time after college and in with a new roommate, he had a premium cable package including HBO (dude was a huge Sopranos fan). I was worried that I’d be asked to pay for half of something I didn’t really want, but soon after I found that HBO had enough quality original programming and movies to warrant the cost of half a subscription. But for the few weeks after I moved in, I didn’t yet have a cable box in my bedroom until the cable guy could come to install the additional box. So when my roommate was home and watching his beloved New Jersey Devils hockey games, which I had no interest in, I was relegated to watching Scrubs DVDs for hours at a time. This was the closest I’d come to “cord cutting,” i.e. canceling one’s cable subscription.

Held Hostage by The Cable Company
As I recently wrote in a blog post called “Time Warner Cable Sucks—But You Already Knew That (And So Do They),” I believe Time Warner Cable, well, sucks. Their service is spotty, with rarely a month going by without some sort of interruption, usually a frozen cable box and an ambiguous “Please Wait…” message when I’m trying to use their on-demand services. Each time I call the response is “try restarting your cable box,” which usually fixes the issue. But when it happens at an important time (important relative to TV, not to, you know, life), such as during one of your favorite shows’ season finales, it’s fairly inconvenient to miss the last fifteen minutes of the episode while you’re waiting for the box to turn back on. (After years and years of calling, only recently did a rep tell me that if I turn my cable box off at night, it gives the box a chance to receive updates from the mother ship, which would reduce the freezing incidents.)

During the eighteen months in which I worked in market research, specializing in customer loyalty, I learned the term “hostage,” which refers to someone who is only loyal to a brand because they don’t have many other options, but are dissatisfied with the brand as a whole. Since my days as a Cablevision subscriber on Long Island and in New Jersey, through my current period as a Time Warner Cable customer, I’ve absolutely felt like a hostage of The Cable Company, whichever one it is.

I’m also regularly teased by the onslaught of Verizon FIOS commercials, which make their service sound like the best cable and internet provider in the world—and for which I’m not geographically eligible. The satellite companies also seem to offer a better package than The Cable Company, but I’m not willing to lay out the non-refundable equipment fees for a service I’m not certain I will want to keep for at least two or three years.

So for years I’ve complained often about The Cable Company, but never actually canceled my cable. But this week I came extremely close.

So You’ve Decided to Cut Cable
I’d been discussing my cable woes with two coworkers who are bonafide cord cutters. They both watch all their favorite TV content without a cable subscription.

Remember these?

Remember these?

For the four major broadcast networks—that’s ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC—I could get those “over the air,” though I might need to purchase a separate piece of equipment, a tuner, for around $50. Ironically, despite all the technological advances of TV, I’d be reverting all the way back to some version of “rabbit ears” and praying for decent reception.

For my favorite cable shows, I could look online for recent episodes; I could try dubious online streaming sites; or I could purchase or rent the episodes from iTunes, Amazon Prime Video or Google Play for about $2 an episode.  If I was less concerned with the timeliness (and selection) of the TV I watch, I could subscribe to Netflix or Hulu Plus for about $8 a month.

But I’d effectively lose most of the Yankees’ games, besides the ones that air on local broadcast TV once a week or so, or a nationally televised Saturday games on Fox. I wouldn’t be able to access any of their games using the MLB package online, as I would be considered an in-market subscriber. (Strangely, I could watch Yankees through the very same service if I moved out of the New York market.)

As for HBO, well, I pretty much lose any (legal) access to their program. Again, I could buy individual digital episodes (or DVDs) of HBO shows, but that’s a costly venture. Amazon Prime Video offers season passes, but at $45 for 12 episodes of a given series, it doesn’t seem to add up. That means that like millions of other Game of Thrones fans, I might be tempted to watch the series through other, slightly less legal methods.

What Can I Do to Put You in a Cable Box Today?
Still uncertain about what I should do, but with my cord-cutting coworkers’ voices still ringing in my head, I called Time Warner Cable this past Monday night. I explained to a rep from the cancellations department that I was seriously considering canceling my cable subscription (which was true), and asked whether there was anything they could do to lower my bill significantly. If they couldn’t, I would start making preparations to cancel by the weekend.

After a few minutes on hold, my rep informed me that she could lower my bill by $25 a month based on a “promotional offer,” and I would still be able to keep all the channels I was already getting. Leading up to the call, I had been thinking about what sort of offer they would need to make to keep my business, and this was pretty close.

I thought it over for a minute, and decided to take the deal.

I’m probably still paying a little more per month for cable than I would pay if I pieced together all my same preferred TV content online as a cord cutter. But the convenience of having my content already sent to my TV screen through my cable box—assuming the cable box is not frozen—is baked into that high monthly bill. To me it’s not worth the leg work just to save $10 or $20 a month by the time I factor in the costs of online content subscription services like Netflix or buying episodes à la carte from iTunes.

But more than the specific programming set aside time for, it’s always nice to be able to flop onto the couch and mindlessly watch a rerun of Duck Dynasty or Seinfeld without having to actively select exactly what I’m in the mood for. For example, I don’t own a DVD of 8 Mile, but I get disproportionately excited when I catch the last fifteen minutes—the rap battle!—on MTV. (“This guy’s real name is CLARENCE!”)

Through this exploration of my TV content options, I can hardly call myself a “hostage” to The Cable Company anymore, since I’ve actively made the choice to keep purchasing their services month after month, year after year. They know this and I know this. For now, or at least until my “promotional offer” expires and my bill goes back up, I guess we’ll call it a stalemate.

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This past Monday night I was watching Sundance Channel‘s new show Rectify, about a guy who spent 19 years on death row in a Georgia prison before recent DNA evidence overturns the verdict and he’s released back into society.

The show has been pretty good so far, but for the last 15 minutes of the last episode I found it a little hard to follow.

It’s not that the plot was hard to follow. It was for those last 15 minutes of the show, instead of a picture, I only saw a black screen with a simple message from Time Warner Cable in white font: “Please wait…”

I still had full audio, but it’s a little distracting when you’re told to “Please wait…” for your $70/month cable provider (not including internet) to show a picture to appear on your TV screen. The ellipsis–those three little passive aggressive dots–are particularly obnoxious; they’re Time Warner Cable’s way of letting me know that it’s an open-ended “please wait.” They’re not telling me to wait five seconds or five minutes or five years. They’re simply telling me to wait. Please.

I’ve called Time Warner Cable’s customer support enough times to know that they were going to tell me to reboot my cable box, which is about a 15-minute process and would have meant missing the end of Rectify anyway. So I tried another approach: Twitter. I tweeted this:

They responded shortly after, asking me if I had rebooted my cable box yet. I responded:

I direct messaged TWC my account info, just to see the whole thing play out, and the representative known only as “SS” explained succinctly: “I do apologize. At this time we are experiencing an outage in the area.”

I turned off my cable box and went to bed.

This post is not necessarily meant to pick on Time Warner Cable, which recently lost in the quarterfinals of Consumerist’s Worst Company in America 2013 tournament to fellow cable provider Comcast. In truth, my customer service experiences with their phone and physical customer service center representatives haven’t been entirely unpleasant. But if a big company like TWC is going to go through the trouble to hire someone to troll Twitter for negative comments about their product only to have them apologize for circumstances beyond their control, they’re doing something wrong.

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When I received the generous gift of an iPad Mini for my birthday last month, I thought a lot about how owning the state-of-the-art tablet would enhance my day-to-day life. I was excited to set up the device, personalize it, and start using it for all it’s various, well, uses. But at the thought of taking it out of its sleek packaging and then out of my apartment and into the world, I was struck with a sense of panic.

I had no iPad Mini case to protect this gorgeous piece of machinery from the various perils of New York City!

So off I went to Amazon.com. I knew Amazon would have a variety of cases at every price point. And more than that, it would have reviews, thousands and thousands of wonderfully helpful reviews! (If you’re one of six avid readers of this blog, you know that I love to review things. And when I’m not reviewing things, I’m reading reviews of things.)

I budgeted about 15 minutes on a Sunday afternoon for the task of finding the perfect iPad Mini case that would be protective, decent-looking, and not too bulky. I didn’t need anything fancy or expensive, so I started off my search with a price point of $30 and under and I only viewed products with an average customer rating of at least a four stars (out of five). I had no idea what I was in for. I did my best below to paraphrase the deal-breaking features of each case I found, primarily based on each product’s negative (one- and two-star) reviews:

Bear Motion ($16) doesn’t protect the iPad Mini’s edges; Moko Slim Fit ($18) is shoddy; Belkin Quilted ($26) and i-Blason Leather ($20) are bulky; Snugg Leather ($25) is actually polyurethane leather (which is not “real” leather, as advertised); Photive Smart Cover ($18) has an ugly “Photive” logo on the cover; Acase Folio ($13) is hard to prop up to watch video; Finite Degrees ($10) and Poetic Slimline ($11) are flimsy; SupCase Leather ($14) has a chemical-y odor to it; Belkin Striped ($31) doesn’t close properly because its magnets are weak; Speck iGuy ($23) just looks ridiculous (that’s not actually in the review…just see below).

Right?

Right?

Jeez! Feeling like I’d read one too many Goldilocks-style reviews–each one was too this or too that, without finding my “juuuuust right” case–I invoked my 15 months of market researcher work experience and chose a new strategy for evaluating the reviews. Rather than only reading the 1’s and 2’s, which were overly negative (or the 4’s and 5’s, which were overly positive), I read the three-star reviews, which tended to list pros and cons rather than only the deal-sealers, i.e. what they loved, or deal-breakers, i.e. what they hated. (I imagined each three-star review was being read to me by an even-keeled imaginary friend who never really gets too negative about anything, but who also never really gets super excited about anything. Is that weird?)

After two separate research sessions, I finally found a winner from a company called Devicewear ($27). Of its 260 reviews, 242 were five stars, with just two one- or two-star reviews. If it had a drawback, per the reviews, it was that it was not going to protect the iPad Mini from a serious drop (but then, how many cases would?). Other than that, it fit my price point and seemed OK looking. (If it turns out to be uglier than in its pictures, I’ll just cover it with Garbage Pail Kids stickers or something.) Once I receive it and use it for a week or two, I’ll report back on Amazon with a review of my own.

Because everyone loves blog posts with an appendix at the end, here are a few other notes from my review-seeking process:

  • Thinking now about having to sift through so many reviews to find one common theme for each product (e.g. “shoddy” or “doesn’t protect the edges”), perhaps Amazon would consider showing suggested keywords or phrases that appear most often in each product’s reviews. Mr. Bezos: Call me.
  • I realize I could have expanded my search to cases well over my $30 cut-off, but I’m simply not willing to pay that much for a case. My assumption, correct or not, was that spending another $10 or $20 on a case wouldn’t offer more protection or practical functionality, only more bells and whistles or a sleeker look, which I didn’t care about.
  • The case that Apple makes got surprisingly poor reviews and was almost $40, so I ruled it out.
  • I bought a great Amazon Kindle case for just over $30 from M-Edge. I even reread the reviews of that case to see if I was making too much of the iPad Mini cover reviews. It was rated as well as I remembered it with the only drawback being bulkiness, which I didn’t mind after breaking my first Kindle’s screen a week after receiving it. However M-Edge’s selection of iPad Mini cases was expensive and not particularly well-reviewed, so I moved on.
  • I clicked on some of the reviewers profiles to make sure they’d reviewed other things. I know sometimes companies are sneaky and place “false positive” reviews on their product page. This didn’t seem to be the case on any of the reviewers I investigated.
  • I also factored the number of reviews into my evaluation process. From a statistical standpoint, I realize that someone might rather a product with a slightly lower score across  1,000 reviews than a much higher score across, say 25 reviews. But I found that most products I viewed had a robust enough sample size of reviews (at least 200) to make it a non-issue. The Snugg Leather (the “fake leather” one) had a four-star average rating, like the others, across over 3,100 reviews–far more than any of the other products I looked at. I considered letting the higher number of reviews be my tiebreaker, but that’s like choosing to eat at a restaurant simply because it’s full of diners (or not choosing a restaurant because it’s empty). Sales volume is not necessarily the best indicator of quality. If you don’t believe me, watch any highly-rated reality TV show.

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