Starwood Preferred Guest program offers FaceTime customer support

As a kid, I remember playing with a video phone at the local phone store – and thinking how cool it would be if we all had access to video phones in the future. Well, the future came, and along with a total lack of jet packs, video phones never really took off.

Apple has managed to change that with their FaceTime application, and while it is by no means the first video calling application, it is the first to become mainstream. Thanks to its easy to use interface, lack of need for configuring settings, and massive install base, FaceTime is a huge hit.

And with that huge hit, comes new ways to use the service. One of the first customer support applications in the travel industry comes from Starwood Preferred Guest, the loyalty program for Starwood hotels.

On Twitter this morning, an SPG rep announced that they will be offering live chat sessions with their customers using FaceTime. The actual practical applications are relatively limited, but some customers may prefer to talk to a rep face to face instead of using email or phone. What do you think? Would you use a FaceTime chat session instead of picking up the phone, or do you think this is more of a gimmick designed to make them look cool?


Enter to win jetBlue’s Jet and Drive Giveaway

I love a good travel contest, especially one that requires little effort to enter. So I’m excited about the jetBlue and Hertz Jet & Drive Giveaway, which runs now through through January 31, 2010. To enter, all you need to do is surf on over to the website, complete your free registration and then enter your email address. Easy, peasy.

For that minimal effort, you could win some pretty cool prizes, depending on the number of entries for the day. Yes, that’s right – the prizes will vary according to how many people have entered for the day, and you can enter every single day of the contest. If 2,500 people or less enter on a given day, the winner gets a $100 Hertz rental card. With 2,500 or more entries, the card’s value goes up to $250. But if 5,000 people enter, the lucky winner gets a $500 jetBlue gift card!

There will also be up to five grand prizes given away, one each time the total number of contest entries reaches another 50,000 milestone. The grand prize includes airfare to one of five destinations, Hertz rental car, and accommodations at a designated Starwood or Marriott hotel for two people. Destinations include New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando and Aruba.

Gadling hotel review – Aloft by W Hotels

This hotel review will give you a closer look at one of the newest brands in the Starwood chain. The Aloft hotels are touted as a “vision of W hotels”.

The Aloft hotels are smaller than W hotels, located outside the city center and offer rooms at a substantially lower rate. That said – the vibe and general “hipness” created in W Hotels is most certainly still present.
There are currently 25 Aloft hotels ready for guests, with 40 more opening by the end of 2009. This shows that Starwood really is committed to the brand, but it also means fans of Aloft hotels will have an easy time finding one for any upcoming stays. The Aloft concept is offered all over the world.

The hotel provides rooms with queen or king beds, no suites or executive style rooms. The rooms themselves are surprisingly well designed and a real departure from the usual blandness of most airport hotels.

The bed is up to the usual high standards found in most Starwood properties – a good mattress, good linens and of course, a hip alarm clock.

Each room is furnished with a decent size desk, cordless VOIP phones, flat panel TV. The smart designers built a desk/table over the otherwise ugly window AC unit. On the desk is a nifty docking station – more about that later.

The bathroom area is equally well designed, and offers Bliss amenities, a walk-in shower and a frosted window providing natural light in the shower area.

In the bathroom area is also a coffee/tea maker, a complimentary bottle of water as well as several blends of tea and coffee. Above the coffee maker is a rack with magazines (Wired, New Yorker, Spin and Dwell). I found the magazines to be a really nice touch, and much better reading material than the usual stuff left in hotel rooms.

One of the (geeky) highlights of the room is the multimedia docking station on the desk – instead of trying to reach behind the TV for its inputs, Aloft provides a nice box with HDMI, VGA, Component and audio, as well as several power outlets. My suggestion – bring the cables you need for your laptop, and lie in bed enjoying a DVD or movie off Hulu instead of trying to find something decent in the channel lineup.

That said – the TV channel lineup was quite excellent. The hotel offered almost 100 different TV channels, including most of the ESPN content, Showtime and a surprisingly good “wake up channel” which is a really nice way to wake up in the morning, thanks to the wake feature in the TV.

Unlike normal hotels where the services guide is provided in a tattered binder, all the hotel information for Aloft guests is provided through the TV or the welcome page when you log in to their (speedy) wireless. The hotel information options also offer local weather and some other interactive features. Of course, you can also order the usual lineup of overpriced Lodgenet movies.

One other surprise was when I called for a rollaway bed (for my daughter). Instead of the rusty old folding bed most hotels provide – Aloft delivered a bright orange duffel bag to the room. The duffel is part of “Camp Aloft” and contains a twin size Aerobed and a Hungry Caterpillar comforter. Needless to say that this was a huge hit.

If you happen to be traveling with a pet, you’ll be happy to know that you can bring your four footed friend along with you – in fact, Aloft welcomes them with their “arf” program. Dogs get their own special bed, a bowl and a doggie bag with complimentary treats.

The entire ground floor is one open and spacious area. It is home to the lobby, pantry, “w xyz bar” and several very comfortable seating areas. Around the seating areas are loads of board games, as well as a pool table! Despite the loud remixed music, the whole space feels very welcoming and comfortable.

The pantry is open 24/7 and offers a decent variety of soda, juices, sandwiches and other snacks. The pantry is also where you’ll be able to buy breakfast, as the hotel does not have its own restaurant.

Rooms come with their own unstocked small fridge. The front desk sells an assortment of handy items, including various painkillers, allergy relief, stain removers, intimacy kits and even several board games.

Given its close proximity to the airport, you’ll be happy to learn that Aloft caters to passengers with several handy tools – the hotel WiFi page offers a direct link to online check-in services, the lobby is home to 2 touch screen computers with printers and a large flat panel TV with departure information for O’Hare – brilliant. Of course, the hotel also provides a complementary shuttle service to and from the airport.

This particular location (Chicago O’Hare) offers self parking and valet. Self parking is $18/night with full in/out privileges. To get in and out of the garage requires you to have your ticket validated at the front desk, which is a bit of a pain if you are coming and going a lot. The hotel has a heated/cooled skywalk, which is perfect for the cold Chicago winters or the blistering summers (though summer this year has been quite lousy).

The hotel is also home to a swimming pool and fitness center, and guests can relax in the outdoor courtyard while getting some work done or enjoying a drink from the bar.

All in all a very hip place to stay – without being too pretentious. The whole atmosphere is cool, yet welcoming. I’ve stayed at W hotels quite a bit, and often felt they were a little too hip for me. The Aloft concept feels great, though it does take a little getting used to being greeted with “Aloha!”, but the smiling staff do a great job of making you feel welcomed. Their positive attitude towards pets and kids is a breath of fresh air, and a very good reason to pick Aloft over other hotels at your destination.

The only minor issues I had with the hotel are its lack of a restaurant and the complex parking procedure.

Rooms at Aloft hotels start at just $79, though these rates are of course only valid on certain dates/days of the week. Summer rates for the Chicago O’Hare Aloft hotel appear to be higher during the week and drop to just $79 during the weekend.

You can book a room at an Aloft hotel through your favorite hotel site, or directly through the Aloft web site.

One final tip for people visiting the Chicago Aloft location – within walking distance of the hotel is the fabulous Muvico movie theater. This multi-screen theater is one of just a handful of all-digital theaters in the nation. If you really like movies, you’ll love the Muvico Premier – a private level of the theater offering food, alcoholic beverages, reserved seating, free popcorn and complementary valet parking. Best of all (for adults) – the Muvico Premier level requires all guests to be 21 or older.

Save at Starwood hotels: your birth year equals your rate

Is it agist? (Or rather, reverse agist.) Or simply paying due respect to your elders?

In a new promotion at Starwood hotels, what you pay per night is determined by your birth year. You pay the last two digits of your birth year on your second and third nights. For example, if you were born in 1950, you’d pay $50/night.

Random, right? But hey, it’s a deal if you were born in 1935. Actually, I suppose it’s still a deal if you were born in 1980.

The rate is set for the first night (approximately $150-200, depending on the specific hotel). The promotion applies to the second and third nights, but not to additional nights after that (you’re subject to the best rate available).

Yep, sorry to say that they won’t take your word that you were born in 1910; you’ll need to present some valid ID on check-in.

The promotion is good on select US and Canadian Starwood hotels, which include Sheraton, Four Points by Sharaton, W Hotels, The Luxury Collection, Le Meridien, The Westin, and St. Regis. Guests are required to stay a minimum of two nights, and allowed a maximum of three night with this promotion. Valid on travel through December 31st, 2009.


Travel to lose 200,000+ jobs

Nearly 200,000 travel-related jobs were lost in 2008. Another 247,000 are forecasted for 2009. And, the financial crisis is still developing. While we lament the loss of six- and seven-figure investment banking jobs, let’s not forget what those big money gigs mean for the travel industry.

Consider your average Wall Street titan. He’s still pulling down more than $1 million a year (somehow). So, he’s sitting on the couch in his rather large Chelsea apartment, wondering, “Do I need to take that golf trip down to Naples for the weekend?” For him, it’s throwaway. If he doesn’t head out for a few days, his life doesn’t change much.

Now, multiply this by several Wall Street titans for that weekend. Most of them decide to stay at home. Who suffers?

Well, an empty restaurant is a waiter’s nightmare. It’s also rough for the spa therapists, housekeepers and everyone else along the “travel supply chain.” Eventually, the companies have to cut back, and we see how that 247,000 projection becomes a reality.

For this reason, 10 of the largest hotel companies in the United States have urged members of Congress to remember the importance of business travel when developing legislation and regulations that may “unintentionally hinder economic recovery and cost American jobs.”

The hotel companies are: Carlson, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group, Loews, Marriott, Starwood and Wyndham Worldwide.