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Archive for the ‘Customer Experience & Reviews’ Category

Over the last decade I’ve grown increasingly sensitive to advertising both as a consumer—now that more ads are targeted to me—and as a professional, since I’ve spent most of that time working in the advertising industry.

I’ve written before on this blog about how one form of advertising, product placement, can go from seamless—almost subliminal—messaging to get us thinking about a brand without directly being fed a commercial in the traditional sense, to something that feels so out of place and distracting that the entertainment value of the content suffers.

On my brother Danny’s recommendation, I recently started catching up on FX’s new-ish series Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis (the show was co-created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel).

Very early on in the series, the first episode in fact, one brand is prominently featured repeatedly on the show: Costco.

Galifianakis’s character, Chip Baskets, is a “classically trained” clown (he studied at an academy in France—which is in Europe, if you’re a fan of this show) who can only find clown work at a rodeo in California. As he climbs the walls to avoid being gored by a bull, his co-worker and fellow rodeo clown tosses him a t-shirt gun to help Chip win the crowd over. Inside the gun are Costco branded t-shirts. (The arena sponsor signage also includes Kirkland Signature, Costco’s private label brand.)

Later in the episode we meet Chip’s mother, played by Louie Anderson (yes, you read that correctly), goes on and on about the great deals she got at Costco, parading out a number of Kirkland Signature products for the camera to capture.

Furthermore, the insurance adjuster Chip meets when he crashes his motor scooter works for—you guessed it!—Costco. Did you know Costco offered auto insurance services? Me neither!

After the first couple of episodes I texted my brother: Baskets is kinda funny but it’s also a long commercial for Costco. So many Costco labels in every shot!

His reply: Haha yea I like to think of Costco as a character on the show.

As an advertiser, I suppose that’s the best possible outcome for such an overt product placement, isn’t it?

Later episodes take place partly at Costco, either with Martha talking to her boss there, or Mrs. Baskets taking Chip’s estranged wife Penelope there to shop. “A dollar fifty for a hot dog! Can you believe it?”

In another episode, Martha was on the verge of being fired because she hadn’t sold any executive memberships to Costco. After unsuccessfully trying to accomplish this feat, Chip’s mom eventually buys Chip the membership. “You don’t have a membership to Costco? What’s wrong with you?”

Oddly enough, as I was Googling to learn more about Costco’s paid product placement, I learned that this so obviously paid for season-long commercial for Costco was actually not paid at all! As it turns out, the agreement the show has made with Costco is that no money will exchange hands, Baskets will get access to a Costco store to film, and Costco will have no creative input. So while Costco–the character on the show–may at times be the butt of the joke, it is amenable to this condition in exchange for free screen time a.k.a. advertising.

So, whether it’s paid or unpaid, Costco’s heavy presence may have had a greater effect on me than I knew–despite supposedly being hyper-aware of advertising thanks to my profession.

Just today as my wife and I made a Costco run—a perk of moving to the suburbs!—we found ourselves at the checkout line when the cashier asked me if I was the primary cardholder on my account. Yes, I said, and so he introduced me to presumably his boss, who asked it me if I had considered—wait for it—an executive membership to Costco. My default reply was to ask what it was, but of course I was already familiar with it thanks to Baskets. After getting all the information I decided to pass on it, for now, but I was, let’s say, 10% more open to hearing more simply because I had known a little bit about it before I was approached.

And now here I am blogging about it, and you’re reading it, and you’re wondering what a Costco executive membership can get you. So the next time you say, “Advertising doesn’t work on me,” think about that for a moment longer and remember: It’s not always about getting you to open your wallet right now. Sometimes it’s just about planting the seed.

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Guest blogger and Austin, Texas, native Danny Calise reviews his experience at this year’s Austin City Limits music festival.

For the first time, my girlfriend, Maya and I attended Austin City Limits (ACL) music festival this year. It was a two weekend event, the second of which we attended. Practically a rite of passage for any Austinite, we were initially drawn to it by the lineup, and eventually realized that it was about much more than just the music.

Buying tickets for such a popular event turned out to be an event in unto itself. The festival organizers announced a window of time weeks before the festival when discounted tickets would be on sale for students and military personnel. The “line” started at 5AM and tickets were to go on sale at 10. We arrived promptly at 5, and there was already over a hundred people in a scrum to reach the ticket window. Heck, we could barely find parking to line up to buy tickets. Most of the people in this line were UT students, willing to suffer for cheaper tickets. But what we learned after abandoning our post around 9 AM, was that when it comes to ACL, sometimes it’s worth it just to pay more for convenience. Thus, we ditched the line and bought tickets on Craigslist later that day.

Officially, the festival got underway on Friday afternoon. After I was released from work at 4:30, I rushed home, picked up Maya and proceeded to the Capital Metro Rail station near our apartment. The plan was to catch the train to downtown, walk nine blocks to the festival shuttle (which, hopefully didn’t have a massive line), and arrive at Zilker Park before Future went on at 6. Well, the train got us to downtown at about 5:45. Making a gametime decision, we noticed a bicycle cab riding by and flagged the driver down. “How much to Zilker?,” I asked, knowing it may be a lot due to festival inflation. “Normally, I charge $30 per person, but for you guys I can do $20.” Too much. We can just take an Uber, I thought. “Thanks anyway.” “Okay, how much would you like to pay?” “I was thinking more like 20.” “How ‘bout 25?” “Sold!” And off we went on the back of a bicycle taxi at sunset. We rode over the Congress St. bridge, soaked in the view and the sun, and passed by all of the cars in traffic heading towards the event thinking, “Suckers!”

The bicycle cab took us as far as he could, right up to a police stopping point for cars. We had about a 5 minute walk to get to the festival. Hungry and ready to hear music, we were delighted to see a random dude with 10 Papa John’s heat-keeping pizza bags stacked up near the gate. “Two dollars a slice?,” he offered. “Sold! We’ll have two…each.” What a world!

Entering the festival gate, we could hear Future playing. To the left we saw huge monitors and an enormous crowd. We had made it.

* * *

Future’s set delivered. Accompanied by a DJ, he energetically played all of the best tracks from his latest album, Dirty Sprite 2, as well as his mixtape with Drake, What a Time to be Alive. Following Future on Friday night, we saw Flosstradamus, presumably a rap/DJ duo whose set consisted of remixes of other artists’ well known songs. This was a common thread among DJ performances at the festival. Floss climbed up their speakers to be seen by the concert goers in the back. Towards the end of Floss’ set, we decided to patronize the food stands, labelled “ACL Eats.” The available stands included local favorites such as P. Terry’s, Stubb’s BBQ, Amy’s Ice Cream, and a lot more. Being vegetarian, Maya and I opted for Frank’s BBQ, which offered a Veggie Chili Cheese Dog for $9. This was by far the best vegetarian option, and as two people who have been burned by a lack of options in the past, we were grateful. We dined under a very large canopy at picnic tables. It felt like camp.

To close the night, Foo Fighters headlined. Their set, like their most famous songs, was epic. Old songs like “Monkey Wrench,” as well as newer, older songs like “Best of Me” were injected with an instrumental break right before the very last chorus, showing that the band could rock like no other. Dave Grohl was seated for the set, still on crutches from his injury months ago. But it didn’t stop him from being funny on the mic, and at the very end of the set, admitting “Okay okay, we’ll play the damn last song now.” Clearly, he was referring to “Everlong.” It sent us away that night with an unforgettable tune in our heads and smiles on our faces. We swam through the enormous crowd and made our way to a bus stop that would take us to the train stop that would take us to our parked car that would take us home. The next night, we decided to drive in and pay for parking.

* * *

On Saturday, which also happened to be my birthday, we skipped the morning performances and drove into downtown at 5:30 PM. We got to Barton Springs Rd., parked in a $10 lot, and, although we were disappointed that the Papa John’s guy wasn’t there, we made it into the gate in time to catch some of Modest Mouse’s set. After seeing Foo Fighters the previous night, our expectations were high for the remaining festival bands to rock, and Modest Mouse didn’t disappoint. Isaac Brock’s voice sounded just as otherworldly live as it does on record, and hearing “Float On” live was exactly what the thousands in the crowd wanted. From there, we caught R&B youngster Alessia Cara. Her soulful voice rang out as she sang her current hit, “Here,” much to the pleasure of the small but receptive audience.

After Ms. Cara, Maya and I settled down on our sheet towards the back of the audience area where Drake would be playing later on. Bassnectar, apparently a dubstep DJ, performed on the stage next to us, his silhouetted figure and extra long hair swaying and bopping to some raucous, bass-heavy electronic tunes.

Drake’s set was the highlight of the weekend for us. He played just about everything you’d want him to. From his one-off features (“Come My Way,” “Tuesday”) to his current hit, “Hotline Bling,” to his deep album cuts (“Crew Love,” “Worst Behavior”) and just about everything in between, spanning all of his three official albums and various mixtapes. He was energetic, honest, and candid, admitting that he was “about to do something very Drake-ish,” and playing yet another song just for the ladies. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the show occurred when the lights went out and another figure appeared on stage, J. Cole. Cole played his current song with Jeremiah, “Planes,” as well as snippets from “Power Trip,” and “Work Out.” To see two huge rap superstars, neither of whom represents the “gangsta” image, touting one another and sharing an on-stage hug, was a treat. It made me wonder why these two don’t have a hit together.

Following J. Cole’s appearance, Drake closed the show with fireworks shooting out of the stage, capping off his headlining set with yet another unforgettable moment. After the last note was played, everyone in the crowd attempted to exit the park simultaneously, a process that took an hour and a half including the painstaking process of inching our way out of the parking lot. Well worth it.

* * *

We wanted to get an early start on Sunday, so we headed downtown around 2 PM, wanting to catch one of Maya’s picks, Kali Uchis at 2:45. It was a sweltering day with much of Zilker Park drenched in oppressive sunlight. However, we were pleased to discover that Kali was playing underneath a huge tent. Kali played her smooth, reggae/island infused pop jams to a loyal fanbase under a canopy. Her band consisted of young guns: teenaged musicians rocking out while she swayed front and center with long, pink hair. She posed questions to the daytime audience such as, “Who are y’all excited to see tonight?,” and she disclosed that she was pumped to watch The Weeknd later on. Her set was a personal one, clearly early on in her career, and those of us who were familiar with her music (as well as her endorsement from Tyler, the Creator), were excited to be there for that moment.

Knowing we didn’t have much we wanted to see at the festival before Chance the Rapper went on at 6, we decided to forgo the food stands and venture out into civilization to a nearby Mexican joint, Chuy’s. To sit down in a comfortable restaurant was a much needed break from the sun and from the dusty grass that was starting to fly around everywhere at the festival. And just before our waitress dropped our check, who walks into the back dining room at Chuy’s, but Kali Uchis! She didn’t stay, but we did let her know that we were fans. Truly, a classic ACL experience.

By 6, we were back at the fest and ready to watch Chance. He performed all the best songs from his very popular mixtape, Acid Rain, as well as select songs from his band project, Surf. The full band sound was something very interesting to watch and listen to for the audience, differing from other hip hop acts. Surf established Chance as not just “the Rapper,” but a veritable band leader, which translated well in a live setting. In between songs, he hyped up the crowd with a call-and-response “Woo-OOH” chant, and generally rambled about the positivity he found reflected at him by the audience. He acknowledged that he values his personal time very much and that he has mixed feelings about flying to a different location to perform. While it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear, this revelation was consistent with Chance’s honest persona and certainly makes for a more interesting artist than someone whose whole life consists of touring and recording. Nonetheless, hearing our favorite songs from Acid Rap in band format was very enjoyable.

To fill the two hour gap between Chance and festival closer, The Weeknd, we once again laid down our sheet and went horizontal on the grass. Nero, a DJ, played in the background, and we weakly fist-pumped each time the beat dropped.

By the time The Weeknd went on, we were both ready to wrap up the..well, weekend. However, he brought a lot of energy to the stage, as well as his numerous recognizable songs. His collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Love Me Harder,” had new life as a one man song. He played some of his salacious anthems from his early stuff, “Glass Table Girls” and “Wicked Games,” and wowed the crowd with his Michael Jackson-esque banger, “Can’t Feel My Face.” Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack hits, “Earned It,” and “Often,” reminded the crowd why this guy was headlining. We were exhausted by the end of the set, and decided to venture off to the parking lot before the whole crowd was released. On the way out, though, we heard the song I had been waiting for the whole festival, IMHO, undeniably the song of 2015, “The Hills.” Having already exited the festival gate, we sang along with Abel Tesfaye as he declared that when he’s f’ed up, it’s the real him.

* * *

All in all, the weekend was music and fun-filled. We didn’t have any complaints or regrets, and got to dance, eat, drink, and relax to our hearts’ desires. Would I recommend ACL to someone who’s never been? Heck yes. But be ready to fight crowds, inflated prices, and funked up transportation along the way.

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On May 7 the New York Times published an expose about the horrific working conditions for manicurists in many of Manhattan’s nail salons, “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Specifically, the article pointed to many cases where workers were being paid abysmally low wages—after initially being forced to pay salon owners for the job in the first place—with little opportunity to earn more or work their way up to a decent living wage. Even well-tipping customers are no boon for these workers, because the salon owners are skimming their workers’ gratuities, too. The article also pointed to the hazardous conditions brought on by manicurists working with and breathing in harmful chemicals all day, often with no masks.

Suffice it to say the Times did not paint a pretty picture of NYC nail salons and many customers, including my wife, were left wondering if there was a way to be a “responsible” mani-pedi customer.

On Thursday night she had her first post-NYT mani-pedi. She went back to a salon she’d been to many times before, Angel’s Nail on the Upper East Side. Despite the claims in the Times, she felt Angel’s maintained a clean shop, the workers usually seemed in good spirits, and the prices weren’t dirt cheap to the point where she felt they were cutting corners on employee wages.

As the Times article pointed out, mani and pedi prices in NYC are actually lower than in other parts of the country—which is unheard of for basically any product or service I can think of—because a) the area is so much more concentrated with salons and b) salon owners pay their employees so little. From the Times story:

The typical cost of a manicure in the city helps explain the abysmal pay. A survey of more than 105 Manhattan salons by The Times found an average price of about $10.50. The countrywide average is almost double that, according to a 2014 survey by Nails Magazine, an industry publication.

With fees so low, someone must inevitably pay the price.

“You can be assured, if you go to a place with rock-bottom prices, that chances are the workers’ wages are being stolen,” said Nicole Hallett, a lecturer at Yale Law School who has worked on wage theft cases in salons. “The costs are borne by the low-wage workers who are doing your nails.”

If there was any question as to whether Angel’s Nail was aware of the NYT article (and the potential backlash against Manhattan nail salons), it was answered right away on the price board. My wife reports that in previous visits she paid about $33 for a mani-pedi at Angel’s. But this past Thursday, the same service was priced at $43–a 30% increase.

The way I see it we can interpret the big price bump in one of two ways: either the $10 difference represents the salon’s mea culpa over previously paying its workers poorly, now showing its customers that Angel’s has seen the error of its ways; or it represents a smart salon capitalizing on an opportunity to monetize its customers’ guilt for previously paying so little for their mani-pedis (though, why should customers feel guilty if the salon wasn’t doing anything wrong?).

The salon was nearing closing time when my wife arrived so she got the benefit of having two workers tend to her, one on the mani the other on the pedi. When she went to pay her total came to $47 (not the $43 from the price board, so now it was a 42% increase from her last visit). With the article in mind, she didn’t feel like she was in a position to argue, so she went ahead and paid it. On top of that she tipped BOTH workers, more than she normally would have. All told she paid around $55 for a the same mani-pedi that used to cost her about $38.

I can only assume other nail customers are seeing changes in the pricing–and possibly the level of service, cleanliness and customer service–at their local salons. I’d like to think its made the bad salons clean up their act. If that means the good salons are using it to make a little more money for themselves, well, I’ll leave the laws of supply and demand sort out whether that’s a smart strategy moving forward.

Have you been to a Manhattan nail salon before and after the Times article? Have you seen a difference?

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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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