In winter, Seattle is mine again.

November, December, Seattle. Typically, it’s raining and the temperatures hover around 40ºF. The sky is a dull, even gray that mutes all light and color. It’s miserable, by most measures, not cold enough to snow, but too cold to enjoy being outside without performance attire. Perhaps it’s the worst at the bus stop; cars roll by throwing water and wind, there is not enough protection in those shallow three sided shelters.

I am a California girl by birth. My childhood was spent up in a new suburb on the edge of an agricultural region that is now sprawling housing developments and shopping malls. But it used to be cornfields and fruit trees; the not quite relentless daylight was ideal for sunshine crops. During my junior and senior years at San Jose State University, I went swimming most days Afterward, I dried myself in the sun on the concrete pool deck. I rode my bike year round, sometimes climbing the coastal range before rolling back down into the fog banks of the San Gregorio coast. I have limited memory of California winter. There was — is — more sunshine in California than in Seattle. This is a fact.

In summer, Seattle is a hub for cruise ships heading to Alaska in summer. We’re a foodie destination and even though grunge is dead, we still get pilgrims seeking out the Crocodile and Sub Pop records — those who have done their homework know where to find the Black Hole Sun and the Sound Garden. Throngs of people choke the entrance to the flagship Starbuck’s. They block traffic at First and Pike as they photograph themselves with the neon over the entrance of Pike Place Market. Seattle is nothing short of stunning in summer, an ecotopia on the edge of Puget Sound. The long hours of daylight, the weather that is never too hot, the easiness of this city in the northwest corner of the US makes for an irresistibly appealing place to be — for three months out of the year.Making peace with Seattle’s winter does not come easy to me, even with over a decade of residency in the Emerald City, as one marketing campaign branded us. The darkness wears on me. A morning person, I have trouble getting out of bed, trouble staying up late. I own a “happy light” — one of those high wattage devices that’s supposed to help with Seasonal Affected Disorder. I now understand the value of a sun-break vacation, something I never even considered when I lived in California. My wardrobe is replete with Goretex and polar fleece and stocky footwear suitable for navigating puddles. And I have the cliched Seattle-ite’s relationship with coffee.

Still, there’s something slow and quiet about this city in winter, something cozy and inclusive about Seattle. When the cruise ships move to ports south, Pike Place Market opens up and is easy to walk through. The tone of the market vendors shifts, the “Where are you from?” conversation takes a completely different turn when the answer is “Here. I’m from here.” There’s a camaraderie, a “We’re all in this together” sort of feeling as we shake out our damp coats and shed the rain from our wooly sweaters.

Mid-morning at Alki Beach, in Pioneer Coffee, there are no strays from the water taxi, it’s just us locals. If it’s dry, we sit on the concrete steps of the beach promenade, watching the ferries slide back and forth between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton and downtown. Evenings, we sparkle in candlelight. We reflect our weird northwest brand of outdoorsy bookishness in glasses that hold bourbon cocktails, whiskey. We plan our escape while wrapped in the cognitive dissonance of being in this city that we love. Places that were promoted in Sunset Magazine and the AAA Journeys west coast edition belong to us again.

This last weekend, the husband and I joined a friend at the Seattle Art Museum to see Luminous, a stunning selection of work from the museum’s Asian collection. First we ate passable Mexican food in an nearly empty restaurant on the Harbor Steps, a stair climb that runs from First Avenue down to the waterfront. In summertime, the top of the steps is a popular spot for protestors and I have photos of my family standing in the fountain. On the Sunday, the wind flew up the slope from the Sound, hurling sharp rain into our faces.

After spending a few hours in the museum — where we did not have to jostle for space in order to view the artwork, we went back out to a nearby coffee bar. A football game was on the television but the volume was turned all the way down. Instead of sports commentators, we got Death Cab for Cutie as our soundtrack. We lolled for an hour, more, maybe, over mochas, mine with cinnamon and black pepper. We unraveled things, as people do in cafes. Where to go next (us, Vancouver, my friend to China for work), the user interface on a popular new video game, the mediocre writing on this season’s The Simpsons.

The rain had stopped. We walked back to the car, a block away, past a bundled up couple who were clearly not from Seattle in their stylish wool overcoats and scarves. “Chicago,” I said out loud — my husband had spotted them too. They looked cold but they were smiling, he had her arm tucked in his. “They’re lucky,” I thought. “They are seeing my city at its very best.” The late afternoon sky had turned the color of ripe mango and fire and the blue of a baroque palace ceiling. To the south, there was a tower of black clouds, another storm front coming in. I was irrationally pleased about this. I knew what would happen. The Chicago visitors would go back to their hotel. I would tuck into a bowl of pho at my favorite local place and the city, Seattle, would be all mine once again.

Photos courtesy of the author by UJ Sommer and Pam Mandel.

Gallery: More travel sketches from BBC’s Tim Baynes

travel sketches
We wrote yesterday about Tim Baynes’ delightful travel sketches from around the world on BBC and liked them so much we came back for more. You can (and should!) get lost for hours looking at his drawings on Flickr with fun anecdotes and scribbles bringing depth and humor to his slice-of-life artwork.

Check out some of our favorites in the gallery below, from a look inside the BBC Starbucks to the madness of Dubai immigration during the ash cloud to a quiet barbershop in Tripoli.

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See more of Tim Baynes’ work on the BBC, his personal Flickr stream, or order a copy of his book Doors to Automatic and Cross Check, direct from the artist.



All photos courtesy of Tim Baynes.

Single-serve Starbucks coffee may be coming to a hotel room near you … soon

Starbucks announced this week that it will provide single-serve coffee packages via Courtesy Products’ CVI one-cup brewing system to more than half a million luxury hotel rooms.

This move will mark a significant change for brands like Keurig and Tassimo, which currently dominate the market. The coffee produced for these single-serve machines will not be Starbucks’ VIA instant coffee brand, but rather a new formulation that is still in development.

AOL Travel reports that the company is in talks with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to provide coffee for the Keurig brewing system.

[Flickr via marcopako]

Royal Caribbean announces first cruise ship Starbucks

Actual Starbucks being built on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas
Royal Caribbean‘s Allure of the Seas is already an impressive ship, but soon it will be home to the only Starbucks at sea. The big story hit AOL Travel today and we’re delighted to bring you the good news: finally, you won’t have to give up your Frappuccino habit just to go on vacation.

“We are always looking for unique ways and places to connect with our customers and deliver the Starbucks Experience,” said Chris Carr, senior vice president and general manager of Starbucks Licensed Stores. “Starbucks’ presence aboard Allure of the Seas is another place where our customers want and expect us to be.”

We’re not sure we agree with that last part — we certainly weren’t expecting them to be there! Still, we’re not complaining. The Starbucks (pictured above) will be open from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM and feature the complete line of Starbucks VIA Ready Brew products as well as signature and seasonal beverages and food. This announcement comes on the heels of Starbucks’ plans to serve wine and beer, but there’s no indication they’ll be bringing booze aboard the cruise. That’s okay; there are other places to get it on a Royal Caribbean ship!

“We are passionate about delivering the WOW,” said Lisa Bauer, senior vice president of Hotel Operations, Royal Caribbean International. “Opening the first ever Starbucks at sea is another example of how Royal Caribbean is delivering distinctive beverage and dining options to our guests and exceeding their expectations. We are offering something that no other cruise brand can.”

Allure of the Seas is already the largest cruise ship in the world (along with its sister, Oasis of the Seas), and has a Central Park, Boardwalk, the Royal Promenade, the Pool and Sports Zone, Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Center, Entertainment Place and Youth Zone. Now, with the addition of the Starbucks, why don’t they just put an Empire State Building on it and call it “Manhattan of the Seas”?

Why don’t airlines call us customers?

Language shapes reality – there’s no way around it. It is evident in the general absence of profanity in children (at least in front of their parents), forgoing certain expressions except among friends (or, for some people, completely) and the selection of particular phrases for impact. Words have meaning, and thus they have power. So, it makes sense for a major company or industry to develop its lexicon around the turns of phrase that will work to its advantage: if words are inherently powerful, then a company should try to harness that power to pump up its revenue and profits.

With all this linguistic engineering, from hotels to coffee shops, airlines still haven’t gotten on board. Rather than even acknowledge the exchange of payment with an appellation like “customer” – and without having to use a word that implies a high level of service like “guest” – the airline industry clings to the relationship-agnostic “passenger” to identify the person who provides payment in exchange for the use of a tiny seat for a specified number of miles to a particular destination. And among the insiders, it often gets shredded down to “pax,” an expression used in public, not just behind the galley’s closed curtain.

Given that the realities of air travel – heavily influenced by market, regulatory and infrastructure constraints – are unlikely to change anytime soon, could an end run via language provide at least a little relief for employees and pax passengers customers?The Power of “Guest”
Perhaps the most famous story of choosing words for a reason is that of Starbucks, which eschewed “customer” in favor of “guest.” It signals the company’s commitment to treating well the people who keep it in business and deliver for its shareholders. Not only is this word, “guest,” a tool for managing internal perspectives, you hear it every time someone steps away from the cash register, when the barista calls for the “next guest.”

The use of “guest,” of course, is reminiscent of the hotel business, which usually has a higher standard than other consumer-focused businesses for customer service. Especially as you move up-market, hotel service levels are the gold standard for every other sector, with guests expected to be greeted by name and the smallest perceived shortcoming remedied immediately.

When I was a hotel software consultant, on one of my first projects, I remember getting a “when in Rome” lecture from my boss while we were in the hallway at the Renaissance Orlando Resort: “Say hello to any guest who’s within six steps.” When I asked why, he explained that that was the hotel standard, and since we were there on business with the hotel, we had to show the same courtesy to guests that hotel employees would.

Oh, and we had to smile – not a natural gesture for me, I confess.

We did this because the property’s employees did this, and I’m sure they had their share of bad days, personal stresses, sleepless nights and compensation complaints. The hotel staff found a way to overcome all that could get in the way and still delivered an outstanding guest experience.

So, “guest” has taken on a life of its own, with powerful implications, thanks to the hospitality industry, that have spread to other corners of the business (and consumer) world. The word indicates to the person writing a check or whipping out a credit card that there is an exchange of payment for services, and that the organization on the receiving end of the payment is more than happy to provide the services – in a manner that is made as enjoyable for the guest as possible.

What the Airlines Have Been Missing
The erosion of amenities and increasing of fees have made an already unpleasant experience worse. Yet, the airlines are doing something we’ve found in hotels for years, from internet access to gym use to spa and resort amenities. It’s starting to feel like there’s a double standard … what’s the deal?

Well, simply, the hotel business has done a better job of making the consumer feel like he’s in charge. Think back to the whole “power of language” discussion above. Would you rather be guest or a passenger? It doesn’t take long to determine which feels better.

The changes in hotel amenities and fees have not gone unnoticed – and they certainly have not passed without criticism. Yet, they haven’t sparked the outrage triggered by similar developments in the airline sector. Some of this, doubtless, is the result of an advantage that hotels have. They aren’t bound by the same regulatory restrictions as airlines, allowing them to deliver a slightly more comfortable and efficient experience (think of how bad it would be to have to go through the equivalent of an airport just to get to your hotel room!). Also, you can leave your hotel room whenever you want, while you’re stuck on a plane until you’re told you can get off.

On the other hand, there are areas where airlines have the space to improve and could. Customer (passenger?) service training for anyone coming close to the consumer should be mandatory, extensive and a major part of how employee performance is evaluated. It must be made a priority, with consequences for falling short (as there are in any other profession). Even when a customer is resisting the rules (e.g., not putting up the tray table right away), there are many ways to respond. The first approach doesn’t have to be curt.

Airlines definitely start out behind the eight ball, but it doesn’t mean they are out of options. There are plenty of small steps that can be taken to make the flying experience a little better … for the customer. And, this starts with how employees think and speak.


Take Control of the Language First

If I were still in the business of collecting a large fee (most of which went to my employer, not me) for giving advice – and were hired by a major airline – I would start by suggesting a simple word swap. Stop calling us passengers, and start calling us customers … or guests. I might even recommend throwing in words such as “valued” and “appreciated” a bit more. It sets the tone for all subsequent interaction.

This is a small step, but that’s often where transformation starts. To carry the concept forward, the airline would then have to realign its services with this concept. Tone of voice, addressing the guest by name and making him feel welcome would implement the linguistic change, keeping it from becoming an empty gesture.

Does it work?

Well, I remember being called “Mr. Johansmeyer” (somehow pronounced correctly, to my surprise) at the Ritz-Carlton Naples back in June 2008. It’s stayed with me. Also, when I was doing my weekly runs from Boston to Omaha in 2002, the gate agent, who had become accustomed to seeing me on Friday afternoons, would greet me with a smile and the sentiment, “Going home, Tom?” It made my flight home even better. If it can reach a perpetually annoyed business traveler (which is what I was in 2002), then I’m sure it would resonate with just about anybody.

By moving from passenger to guest, and delivering on the service obligation implied by the latter, the airlines could make considerable progress toward remedying their reputations with their customers. Before long, small measures accumulate, and real change takes hold. It may sound trivial, but this is a foothold that airlines (and airline employees) could use immediately.

Treat us like customers, and the rest will begin to fall into place.

[photos by joiseyshowaa via Flickr, swanksalot via Flickr, Tom Johansmeyer, Tom Johansmeyer]