Travel

First hotel group joins the free wi-fi campaign

Best Western has set up its own free wi-fi campaign in an effort to get other hotel groups to offer online access to guests.

The company claims that by offering free internet access it will boost British business – and I’m not entirely convinced by that rationale. Someone will have to pay for it somewhere along the line and in this case it is the hotels themselves – I’ve always argued that it’s not just the cost of internet access at hotels that riles but the nickel and diming of customers that I find really annoying. When I’ve paid a couple of hundred quid for a hotel room, I don’t see why I should have to pay another £20 or £30 just to get online.

They don’t charge for the gym, use of the pool or shampoo and soap, these are all accepted rolle-in charges where available – so why charge to get online?

Nonetheless, it’s about time someone in the hotel industry came out and started shouting about it… so well done Best Western. Perhaps now, some of the other hotel groups will join in? IGH? Hilton? Are you there?

Full press release from Best Western below:

FREE INTERNET COULD SAVE BUSINESS HOTEL GUESTS OVER £1.4BILLION A YEAR

BRITAIN’S biggest independent group of hotels has launched a national campaign encouraging free Internet for everyone, after revealing it could save British businesses a massive £1.4billion a year in charges.

Best Western offers free Internet to all guests staying at any of over 270 hotels across Great Britain – saving them more than £28million annually and now wants others to do exactly the same to help the British economy.

After studying the latest figures released by acclaimed industry market research organisation BDRC, Best Western believes that if all major hotel groups offered free Internet it could save businesses an incredible £1,431,000,000 in the UK every year.

The astonishing figure is based on BDRC statistics which show there were 106 million room nights for business travellers in the UK during 2010, with an average hotel Internet charge of £13.50 per visit.

The average frequent business customer stays away at UK hotels 11 times per year. According to the same BDRC statistics, meaning an average saving to each business person of £197.89 per year.

Now Best Western have launched an online campaign to add further weight to their cause (www.bestwestern.co.uk/freeInternet) where they are inviting others to sign up in support of free Internet for everyone.

Tim Wade, Head of Marketing at Best Western, said: “At Best Western we already offer free Internet as standard for all our guests. Based on the average cost of £13.50 for per-visit use of hotel Internet during hotels stays, we calculate we are saving each guest almost £200 and overall our guests are saving a substantial £28 million every year.

“Imagine if this was standard across the entire UK hotel industry. It would add up to a huge saving for businesses that routinely have to pay anything up to £18 every time one of their executives stays at hotel and needs to access the Internet for work.

“Not only would free Internet encourage more hotel overnight stays thus boosting the hotel industry in the UK, but it will also save businesses a phenomenal £1.4 billion every year.

“We are hugely committed to this. We are hoping our lead, and the success we have seen by introducing free Internet across our entire portfolio of hotels, can be replicated in hotel groups up and down the nation. It would be a massive boost for the hospitality industry and for UK business in general.”

What’s more with over 4,200 Best Western hotels worldwide all offering free Internet keeping in touch will no longer have a sting in the tail.

Tim Sander, Research Director at BDRC Continental and editing author of the annual British Hotel Guest Survey added; “’The importance of the Internet offering in hotels has surged in recent years. For business travellers it has developed into a hygiene factor with guests stating that the provision of the Internet is important when choosing a hotel.

‘But how much is the consumer prepared to pay for Internet? £5 seems to be a threshold in the business market at the moment but even at this price point the odds of buying or not are fairly balanced which implies that they would prefer to get it for free. Hotels still try to squeeze revenue for the Internet out of guests but this could have some very damaging consequences, as for around half of all business travellers free Internet is more important than staying with their 1st choice brand, assuming location and cost factors are satisfied. It appears to be an opinion changing product attribute and clearly gives a competitive edge. That some brands have actually retracted their free Internet recently and started charging for it seems crazy.’

Best Western is Britain’s largest group of independently owned hotels. Each of its 270 hotels are packed with personality from castles to manor houses ranging from the top of Scotland to the bottom of Cornwall.

For more information and to sign the petition please visit www.bestwestern.co.uk/freeInternet and find us on Facebook and Twitter at http://www.facebook.com/#!/BestWesternGB and @bestwesternGB

Newly designed worldofjames.com

So I’ve spent the last week or so re-designing worldofjames.com and moving it from a wordpress.com hosted blog to a self-hosted one (wordpress.org).

You may notice some not-so-subtle changes in the design in that the home page has now changed to a showcase of some of my latest published work rather than a blog and the blog has moved, in newspaper parlance, to the back of the book.

The simple reason for this is that since the arrival of our new twins in October last year and with other work commitments abounding, I’ve hardly had chance to blog on the old site, meaning almost eight months had passed since there was last an update – shameful.

The change now takes the pressure off having to come up with something interesting to blog continuously, while allowing me to retain a brand presence on the web.

I hope you enjoy what you see – hopefully, I’ll be able to grow the site a bit more with the added options that self-hosting the blog gives me. Check out the new homepage at worldofjames.com

Let me know if you have any thoughts and/or suggestions.

Cheers

James

 

Spiritual travel bloggers wanted

I’ve had a request to put this up by a friend of a friend if anyone is interested:

Looking for Bloggers to write about Religious Travel, Pilgrimages, and Spiritual Retreats.

Patheos.com, a religion and spirituality website that launched in May 2009, is looking for bloggers — from all regions of the globe —  to contribute to a new travel and retreat portal:http://www.patheos.com/Find/Travel-and-Retreats.html

Interested? Please contact information@patheos.com

At least we'll be safe in Yemen

Beach on Socotra Island, Yemen

If you’ve been put off holidaying in traditional hotspots like Thailand, Greece, Turkey and Israel this summer by varying bouts of civil unrest, perhaps you are looking for somewhere new.

How about Yemen, tucked at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula? There’s tonnes of history, it’s hot, there’s sand (lots of it) plus the Arabian Sea in which to cool off. They’re also taking the safety of tourists very seriously according to a release from the ministry of tourism that brags of 125 new high tech tourist vehicles that have been acquired.

Apparently, “These vehicles, which have been distributed around the country, have been fitted with tracking systems which allow personnel from a remote location to monitor the car’s movements and location. In the advent of a kidnapping, drivers of the vehicle can simply press a button which will notify the monitoring centre of the event, at which point they will take over control of the vehicle’s movements or disable it altogether.”

And if that doesn’t make you feel safe nothing will..

Seriously, there’s a host of tour ops now offering packages, if you do fancy a trip and to find out more, try the following

Live Travel
Nomadic Thoughts
Pioneer Expeditions
Silk Road and Beyond
Steppes Travel
Undiscovered Destinations
Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel

If the iPad is going to revolutionise travel, it needs some travel apps

On Friday morning, I did something I have never considered doing before and went and queued outside a shop… To buy a new iPad – my first foray into early adoption!

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to do it, except for some reason it feels like a groundbreaking device and I felt I wanted to be one of the first to get my hands on one. Plus, it seemed a great piece of kit to take with me when travelling – I can access email, write stories, store pics, surf the net… All sorts of stuff that will help me work contained in something smaller than a hardback and much lighter.

That it can also carry 1000s of books, films and music to consume on the go adds to the appeal of course.

Since I got home on Friday night, it’s been virtually grafted to my hand as I try things out and play around. Not only is it a lovely piece of kit, but it’s also incredibly intuitive to use. In fact, I’m typing this post on it right now.

One of the things I was keen to try were the various travel apps – applications, or bits of software, that help you perform specific tasks – and I was surprised and disappointed to find a lack of them.

While I can find apps to help me find a new house or suggest dinner dishes based on what I have in the fridge, I can’t find anything to help me book a holiday…. Seems like holiday companies are missing a trick to me.

Most of the apps available are mapping ones which seem a little silly as the iPad comes equipped with Google Maps anyway. Why do I need to pay £1.79 for a walking map of Seattle when I have a gadget that let’s me see exactly where I am on a map and also zoom in to street level?

The others I’ve tried so far are enhancements on either existing services or more advanced iPhone apps.

Currency Covertor XE.com has an app that does an auto conversion for you when you enter an amount and Free Translator will allow you to enter phrases and have them output in the local lingo. I’ve tried it with Greek (a language I speak) and it works surprisingly well.

Another is The Times app. While not strictly a travel one, never again will I have to sit in a hotel breakfast room reading a local English language paper if I want news from Blighty. Every morning, a new copy of the paper downloads to my iPad for an average cost of about 40p a day. One thing the iPad, it seems, could do is preserve our status as newspaper journalists!

It’s a shame there’s not more out there really, as the possibilities are endless for the travel world – whoever gets in first will make a killing.

One area that is making full use of the iPad in travel is luxury hotels that are using them to provide services for their guests. The Luxury Travel Bible has a great article on which hotels are doing what here

http://www.luxurytravelbible.com/Product.asp?active_page_id=115

Wizarding World of Harry Potter to open today – first pics

In a few hours time, Virgin Holidays customers will be the first people into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventures in Orlando – the rest of the not-so-wizarding world gets in from June 18.
Lookswise, the new park is pretty spectacular – see some of the pics below – but sizewise, it could see some people queueing for a quite a while to get into star attractions like Olivander’s Wand Shop where, through some cute acting and clever animatronics, your wand may choose you (before you then pay $25 for it).
Some people are bound to be disappointed by the signature ride Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey, not only will some larger people be unable to ride it, there is a form of ritual humiliation for them outside. They have to sit in a tester ride seat in full public view: get a green light and you are good to go, get a red one and you’re off…
The snow-capped houses and shops of Hogsmeade village
Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express
Hogwarts Castle home of the signature ride - unlucky if you're overweight
Souvenir wand, it picks you for $25

No more green waiver forms?

So America’s Department of Homeland Security (also know as ‘we scare you witless when we come on holiday’) has finally decided to scrap the need for visitors from Visa Waiver countries to fill in the green I94W form on arrival.

Frequent visitors to the US will know that a supposed paperless system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that last for two years,  was brought in last year to pre-approve entries. Despite the new system being operational for more than 18 months though, people still had to fill in the old paper forms, making entering the US a bigger headache than ever.

The DHS has now said the green forms are going, ‘to be phased out by the end of the summer’. For this, read ‘it will be more likely winter’…

On top of the Esta/green form/being treated like a criminal debacle on entry, we are soon to be charged a new $10 entry tax in the USA. The tax is being introduced to fund the country’s new marketing board – that’s right , we will pay to go on holiday so America can promote itself as a holiday destination!

Sometimes it makes me wonder why we bother visiting our ‘friends’ across the Atlantic – it’s really not like they welcome us with open arms at the border.

Exclusive: first pic of cast members at Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps

This morning, Harry Potter film stars Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, Emma Watson, and Oliver and James Phelps began their sneak peek tour of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by entering Hogsmeade. The group was invited to Universal Orlando Resort for a first-look at the immersive environment, and will spend the day visiting many of the iconic locations made famous in the popular Harry Potter series. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort grand opens on June 18.

A first look at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

You can't come in. Okay, well some of you can

I’m currently over in Orlando for Virgin Holidays 25th birthday celebrations and managed, along with a couple of other journalists, to get a sneak preview of the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The ‘theme park within a theme park’ at Universal’s Islands of Adventure opens next week to special Virgin Holidays preview customers with a grand opening on June 18.

On the tour, I got to see Hogmeade village which comes complete with a host of shops from the JK Rowling books and the films such as Gladrags Wizard’s Wear, Dervish & Banges and Olivander’s wand shop, where with some cute acting from the shopkeeper and some special effects, your wand chooses you. Of course, you then have to shell out $24.99 to take one home.

We also got to go into The Three Broomsticks inn where we tried Butterbeer, non alcoholic and like a frothy caramely ice-cream float, pumkin juice and Hog’s Head Brew – an ale brewed in Scotland.

There are three rides in the park, two rollercoasters (Flight of the Hipogriff and Duelling Dragons) and Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey which is set in a scale replica of Hogwarts school. The first two are open and we got to ride them, the latter is in the final stages of testing.

The park’s attention to detail is amazing and fans of the series will be magic-ed straight into sets that could be in the film.

While there, I got to talk to the park’s supervising art director Alan Gilmore, who was seconded from the films to help create the park.

All aboard the Hogwarts Express

For my full review of Wizarding World of Harry Potter, see Saturday’s Daily Express travel section, but Alan’s thoughts on the park are below…

On JK Rowling’s thoughts on the park:

Everything you see has passed through JK Rowling, luckily because I work with the film team in London, we already had a large degree of acceptance with her. I’ve been working in the UK industry for 15 years and I’ve worked with Stuart Craig who created the films. We’ve taken the films and brought them to life.

If we had to come up with a new storyline, she had to write that for us and approve it. We also had to check everything with her when it came to the placing of the buildings. The Three Broomsticks is in Hogsmeade but here we have Honeydukes next door and that is in Diagon Alley in London in the films. We had to bring the two together and she had to approve that.

On building the park:

I’ve worked on the films for 10 years but still watched them again and again and took notes. The team I worked with in London designed this three years ago. We built models after studying the site and worked with Universal to work out what stories they wanted to tell. We fleshed out all the spaces: they wanted a restaurant, they wanted a bar, they wanted a space for owls and a shop to sell Quidditch gear… whatever they asked for, we made it happen and made spaces for all the elements.
We already knew about Hogsmead, it’s a very strong part of the storyline so we made it a proper town with much more detail then ever before, even for the films. We obviously had to have Hogwarts too, so we had two main spaces, Hogsmead and Hogwarts. The big challenge was to bring them together. We used a lot of film techniques like forced perspective, special film colours and pulled it together.

It’s a strange composition. By the books, Hogsmead should be in the valleys of Scotland, Hogwarts should be several miles away but here they are very close.

 

Hogwarts Castle - made from concrete!

On the bit he’s most satisfied with

Hogwarts. It looks amazing, I love the Three Broomsticks too. Theme parks aren’t done this way. Theme parks aren’t grungey and dark and dingey, they are shiney and clean. This was a whole new departure to create something that looked so aged. We used concrete – everything is made of concrete. It’s sprayed on the walls by a technique called shotcrete and then we used trowels to shape it all. We had to train the guys out here in Orlando to do this. They had never done it before. We then had the special effects painters from the films come in and paint it all, water runs, soot… we had to think back to Victorian times and create something that looked similar.

On The Three Broomsticks:

The idea of the Three Broomsticks is that it is an inn where wizards come and stay, so we have fake walkways and bridges above us that lead to ‘bedrooms’ that obviously don’t exist. We also have special effects here that cast shadows on the walls, there are elves, owls, cups and brooms that appear randomly. It’s done so it looks like the sun is creating them. They appear everywhere in the Three Broomsticks and there are 25 different ones.

On the amount of detail in the park:

Everything you see around you is from the films. The pictures on the wall are from the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, we don’t have a Leaky Cauldron pub here but we do have the Hog’s Head pub. Unlike the films, where people only catch a glimpse of things, people are able to study everything here, which means it needs much more detail to make it all work. This has also been designed for however many million people are going to come through here in the next 15 or 20 years – it has to last.

Would he film here:

This is camera ready. I don’t think either myself or Stuart Craig would have any hesitation with filming a scene here. There are a few things I would change – the Exit signs would have to go. I tried to fight some of those things to try and keep it all as authentic as possible. The fire officers here in Orlando said we had to have a sprinkler system, so we’ve made it a feature, the pipes around the walls are like an old British hospital with the pipes on the outside. Electricity is another one… we have tried to hide it as much as possible by theming things so they look realistic… the lights for instance look like flickering candles.

On completing the park:

It took three years to complete but only 18 months to construct. Universal didn’t say ‘no’ to anything I asked for. They have agreed to do things that have never been done before. The level of finish is like nothing seen anywhere else in any other theme park, even the guys down the road [Disney] don’t go this far. Theme parks are normally about the rides, not about the architecture. They are normally about getting you in and out, this gives people more time in the park and on the rides.

I came here on my own, with my bags and said: ‘Let’s build a theme park.’ We’ve used people from far and wide, they’ve been trained with new skills and everyone is loving it. They’ve never aged things in America… everything is new here, it’s a new country.