Gadling Q & A with Daniel Edward Craig, author and hotel consultant

Daniel Edward Craig shares a name with the current James Bond, and like 007, he’s a world traveler and a man of many hats. He’s taken a career in hotel management and a keen ear for storytelling and parlayed it into a murder mystery book series, an engaging industry blog, and a hotel and social media consultancy. Here he tells Gadling about his history in the travel world, who’s providing the best social media content for travelers, and what’s next in hotel trends.

Tell me about your history in the hotel and travel business.

I’ve worked in hotels off and on for about twenty years. I started on the front desk at the Delta Chelsea Inn in Toronto and went on to work for a range of hotels, from big-box to boutique, in positions ranging from duty manager to vice president. Most recently, I was vice president and general manager of Opus Hotels in Vancouver and Montreal.

What title do you think best captures your profession these days
?

These days I work as an author and hotel consultant. I left Opus at the end of 2007, shortly after my first novel was published, to complete the second and third novels in the Five-Star Mystery series. Now I am working on a fourth book as well as various consulting projects for the hotel industry, ranging from social media strategy to executive coaching. I also continue to write my blog and articles about the hotel industry. It’s been a rough few years for hotels, and I think we could all use some levity, so in my writing I try to take a lighthearted look at issues.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to managing a hotel?

I hope so. Hotels are my first love; writing is secondary. As a hotel manager, I feel fully engaged and at my best, whereas as a writer all my neurotic tendencies come out. Writing is a solitary profession, and I’m better as part of a team. Once I finish my current book at the end of this year, I’ll decide what’s next, and that could very well involve a return to hotels full-time. I’ll always write, but after a year of 4:00 AM mornings and late nights, I promised myself never to write books and manage a hotel at the same time.

What are you most critical of as a hotel guest?

I’m extremely service oriented. I’ll cut a property a lot of slack if it isn’t my style or if facilities are limited, but bad service can ruin my trip. In particular, I dislike overly scripted, apathetic service. I love a hotel with originality and a lot of life in the lobby. And I look for soul, a combination of design, culture, clientele and spirit, that intangible feeling that I’m in the right place. That’s why I prefer independent boutique hotels – it’s easier for them to do these things well.

What’s your favorite hotel?

Don’t make me choose! It depends on my mood and the nature of travel. I was just in Chicago and was blown away by the new Elysian Hotel. If I’m relaxing or working, I like the Four Seasons. I can’t always afford to stay in them, but I will splurge on a drink in the lounge and will hang around until I’m asked to leave. My favorite is the Four Seasons Georges V in Paris. But I also love contemporary boutique hotels. I’m a city boy, and when I feel like socializing I want to stay in a hotel with a scene, like the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, and the Clift in San Francisco. XV Beacon in Boston is also one of my faves.

Given the many social media experts today, how do you stand apart?

I’d never call myself a social media expert. Who can keep up? I’m a hotelier first, who happens to know a lot about social media and reputation management. Social media allows me to combine my two professions as a hotelier and an author, because essentially it’s about storytelling. Social media touches every department in a hotel, and as a former general manager I understand the interplay and interdependence involved, and to rise above individual departmental interests to develop a strategy that benefits the hotel as a whole.

What hotels/travel companies do you think are doing social media “well”?

I think there are a number of hotel companies that do certain aspects of social media well, but nobody is doing anything particularly innovative. HKHotels in New York are doing a great job of reputation management. Best Western runs a good Facebook page. InterContinental Hotel Group makes great concierge videos. The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee manages Twitter well. Red Carnation Hotels in London and Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver have good blogs. Joie de Vivre Hotels does great contests.

Hoteliers are great storytellers, and with all the comings and goings of guests we have a rich resource of content to draw from, and yet this isn’t translating to social media. A lot of hotel content is trite and uninspiring, and most of the voices sound the same: perky and vaguely annoying. Hotels can learn a lot from online reviewers, who spin the best stories, with strong points of view, hooks, humor, trivia and facts. I think there are huge opportunities for the hotel industry, and I’d love to help a hotel become the social media hotel in a given destination.

What made you start writing murder mysteries?

I always wanted to write, and naively thought that writing a mystery would be fun and easy. They say write what you know, and at the time I was working as a duty manager, so I set it in a hotel. Ten years later, Murder at the Universe was published. For me it was a one-off, but my publisher liked the idea of a hotel manager who writes mysteries set in hotels, so they contracted me to develop it into a series. Since then I’ve published Murder at Hotel Cinema and Murder at Graverly Manor.

After three novels, I started to get bored with my protagonist, the hapless hotelier Trevor Lambert, and all that whining. And there could only be so many murders in his hotels before people started suspecting him. The book I’m finishing up now is non-fiction, an irreverent insider’s look at hotels, written for travelers.

What do you see as the next big trends in hotels?

Mobile is huge. Increasingly, people are researching, booking and recommending travel via smart phones. Social media will grow as people continue to bypass travel journalists and hotels for travel information in favor of travelers, friends and social networks, all from the palm of the hand. When it comes down to it, however, above all hotel guests still want comfort, convenience and value. They just have much larger audiences to air their grievances to when they don’t get what they want.

What’s next for you?

After I finish the book, I’ll put book writing on hold for now and will continue to work on hotel projects, to blog, and to write articles. I’m starting to book quite a few speaking engagements in 2011. My platform as an author and hotelier is quite unique, and social media reputation management are hot topics. If I find a good job with a progressive hotel company, great, but until then I have no shortage of things to keep me occupied.

Read all about Daniel Edward Craig, his books, and his blog at his website, www.danieledwardcraig.com

Odds are, you’ll be on a smaller plane

Airlines are using the little planes for longer runs, these days. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the average regional airline flight hit 461 miles in 2008, up profoundly from 274 miles in 2009. That’s an increase of 41 percent! This is an industry-wide trend, so shopping around isn’t likely to help you get a larger jet. The major carriers are relying on regional affiliates, so you’ll probably be out of luck. The regionals fly more than half the flights from some pretty hefty airports, including LaGuardia, O’Hare, Milwaukee, Raleigh and Memphis. And, these airlines account for 45% of the traffic at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International, the busiest airport in the United States.

American Airlines and United announced that they were adopting this approach back in September, particularly at airports such as Chicago and Denver. Delta has moved its Washington-to-New York shuttle to one of its regional carriers, as well.

[Via USA Today]

The Abbey Resort and Spa: A surprise foodie retreat in the Midwest

When you stay at a resort like The Abbey Resort and Spa on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, chances are that you’ll eat many of your meals at the property’s on-site restaurant. This can sometimes mean dining on uninspired dishes like rubbery “hotel chicken” or resigning yourself to the fact that you’ll be spending a fortune on each meal in order to avoid heading offsite in search of better or cheaper food.

So one of the things that impressed me most about The Abbey Resort was the clear dedication to quality food at affordable prices. Over the course of my stay, I had the chance to sample several of their signature dishes, from a hearty dinner that included grilled scallops, tender beef filet and rich espresso creme brulee to a light meal from the spa menu that featured an Asian chicken salad, fresh veggies and a dessert of grilled pound cake with strawberry puree. I’m a picky eater with a former chef for a husband, so I can be hard to please. But there was not one dish I tried that I did not like. Even more impressive: almost everything served at The Abbey is made from scratch.

The Abbey’s foodie focus extends beyond the kitchen walls though. On summer Sunday afternoons (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the resort hosts “Burning Down the Docks” -an all-day celebration of “brews, blues and BBQ”. Nearly 200 people attend each event and indulge in $2 Leinenkugel beers and BBQ straight from the onsite smoker while listing to live performances from local (and local to Chicago) blues bands.

With the season for outdoor barbecues behind them, The Abbey has moved on to a new series of culinary events for the Fall. For three weekends in October and November, The Abbey will host their third “Great Chefs at the Lake” series. Guests who pay for the package ($219 per person for two nights) will arrive on Friday for a welcome reception with that weekend’s featured chef. On Saturday, they’ll watch that chef prepare some of his or her signature meals and then enjoy a four-course dinner, with wine pairing, created by the chef specifically for the event.

The Abbey has pulled in some pretty big names in Chicago dining for the series. October 23-25 will feature the cuisine of award-winning chef Todd Stein from cibo matto and the trendy ROOF bar at The Wit hotel (and formerly of acclaimed restaurant MK). November 6-8 they’ll welcome Dudley Nieto from tapas restaurant, Eivissa. The last weekend, November 13-15, food from Coobah, helmed by chef Jimmy Madla (who is also the drummer for the band Veruca Salt), will be served.

To find out more about the strategy behind the food focus at The Abbey, I talked with Director of Operations, Michael Lucero, who previously worked as Food and Beverage Director of House of Blues in Chicago. Here’s what he had to say:

How did working at the House of Blues prepare you to run operations at The Abbey:
When first interviewing at the House of Blues, I realized that [with multiple venues in one] the operations were very similar to a resort, without the guest rooms. The main reason I joined the House of Blues [was] because of their dedication and commitment to the culture. . . They never wavered from the quality and service standards that helped build their brand. This is where I realized broader benefits of “scratch cooking.” Although it costs more to do so, the quality is always better and more consistent. It also allows creativity and this is where chefs thrive.

When I joined The Abbey, I wanted to bring that aspect to a resort setting. When compared to stand-alone restaurants, customer perceptions of hotel food tends to be lower – too expensive, inferior food, and relatively “staid” menus. We are changing those perceptions here at The Abbey. It started with our philosophy of “hiring the smile-training the skill” – bringing back service dedicated people. Then we focused on the food. Well over 70% of the menu is prepared with raw ingredients.

A great example would be our new BBQ menu in the Waterfront (restaurant). All meats and fish are butchered by our Chef, mixed with home-made ingredients, and smoked by our Pit Master on our outdoor smoker. The Pit Master is certified with the Kansas BBQ Society. This is as good as it gets. This philosophy extends throughout the kitchens in all food preparations.

Speaking of your Pit Master, Matt Whiteford, how did you select him as The Abbey’s BBQ master?
Matt was the perfect person to do the grilling. Our goal was to create a menu and an experience unique to our dockside location, a destination that locals can enjoy frequently, and a dining scenario where all guests would share in the gospel of great BBQ. We realized a great opportunity to align the resort with an award-winning Pit Master. [Matt] has competed for the last five years nationally. . his process was exactly what we were looking for. His “layers of flavors” technique, applying spice rubs and various marinades and glazes during the cooking process, followed by one of Whiteford’s gourmet BBQ sauces [which the resort sells], delivers exceptionally tender and delicious BBQ. He truly has a passion for BBQ and his personality is perfect, always interacting with the guests as they enjoy their food.

I didn’t get a chance to watch Matt in action (or try his famous pulled pork), but I did chat with him for a few minutes and it’s true, his love for what he does is immediately apparent. It’s that obsession with quality food that I think makes The Abbey stand out among other Midwest resorts. They not only serve delicious meals at a variety of price points, they recognize that their guests have a passion for creative cuisine too.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort and Spa did cover the cost of my stay, but the views expressed within my post are entirely my own. Gratis or not, the food here was delicious and I’m carrying the extra five pounds to prove it.

Escape from Chicago with low Fall rates at The Abbey

Several weeks ago, I had the chance to check out The Abbey Resort and Spa on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. 80 miles from Chicago and even less from Milwaukee, it’s the perfect Fall escape from either city. Chicago residents don’t even need a car to get there; the Metra train runs from downtown Chicago to the Harvard stop, where a resort shuttle bus will pick guests up. Relaxing on the train as the colorful Autumn leaves go by sounds like a great way to get into “vacation mode:”

Fall rates normally start at $216 per night, but for select weekends throughout the next two weeks, The Abbey is offering a special promotion for its Twitter followers and pricing rooms at just $79 per night. The deal is valid on October 7, 11, 12, 13 and 14 with limited availability.

Covered in the rate is daily admission to the spa, which includes use of the locker room, pool, sauna, steam, whirlpool, and all group fitness classes. The resort also offers plenty of Autumn activities onsite and nearby, like games, fall foliage drives, wine-tasting, and you-pick farm stands.

To snag the deal, follow The Abbey on Twitter, and book online using the promo code: TWEET.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: Luxury on Lake Geneva

Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.

There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960′s and 70′s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.

For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.

The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.

I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30′s to 50′s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.

If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.

The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.

The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.

To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.

Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.