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Green Globe Trekker: Costa Rican Eco-Luxe

Today on Green Globe Trekker: A preview of upcoming Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress panelist—Hans Pfister of Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.

A few months after Chef and I started dating in 2000, we went our separate ways for winter holidays—family in Mexico City for him; beaches of Costa Rica for me.  It was my introduction to Chef’s overactive imagination.

“Ay, just be careful,” he worried as I kissed him goodbye.

“Costa Rica is a pretty stable, safe country,” I said.

“I’m talking about the dinosaurs!  That’s where the Jurassic Park Island is!”

“Honey, that’s fiction.  And the movie was mostly filmed in Hawaii.”


No dinosaurs at Cayuga's Lapa Rios property as far as I can tell


On the ground in the very busy Manuel Antonio area, I couldn’t figure out how to get a phone card to work and dial Mexico.  So when I finally did reach Chef, he had been stewing for days—convinced my puddle jumper plane had crashed and I’d been killed by velociraptors.  But I had other things to worry about.  Besides the challenge of reading the tide tables so I could figure out when to climb over the rocks to get to the secluded gay beach (of course), it was one of the first times I remember being worried about tourism development ruining the pristine environment.

If only I’d known about the wonderful small hotel chain company Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.  The group of six eco-hotels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua is the winner of a Condé Nast Traveler 2010 World Savers Award because they are implementing break through social responsibility initiatives in everything from environmental preservation to education programs.  Recently, I have gotten to know so much about them because the President and Co-Owner Hans Pfister is part of the panel I’m moderating at the upcoming Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singapore on October 20.  The title of our discussion is “To Preserve and Protect—Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  And I posed that question to Hans in a pre-interview.

We do have to make certain compromises—we’re not purists.  If you want to attract $500 per night there are certain amenities and comforts that a guest wants.  The challenge is to provide it in a way that’s sustainable and not go overboard.  More importantly, we educate the guest about why they don’t need this luxury thing they might be used to.  We explain to them how we are trying to give them the best of both worlds, and the best way we do that is through our “sustainability tours.”  We offer our guests complimentary tours through our installation—back-of-the-house tours of employee quarters and laundry.  Once they see how much effort goes into reducing water use, decreasing waste, increasing recycling, their appreciation of their stay increases a lot.  The best thing is they take back a lot of ideas that they can implement at home.


Jicaro property


In the travel industry world, Hans’ belief in talking to guests is more controversial than you might imagine.  Some companies don’t want to engage guests in these discussions for fear of offending or being accused of preaching.  Hans disagrees.

It’s crucial to talk to guests about sustainability; we have to get guests involved.  There should be times when you open that window and let the guests ask questions and get answers that they can use.  Obviously it has to be something interesting—you can’t show them light bulbs and changing sheets.  Show them how you create bio gas, or plant nursery, or take them to a local school to show them your education programs.  Sustainability becomes relevant, entertaining.  You don’t impress anyone by showing them how you change light bulbs.

Bio gas?  A light bulb went off in my head.

At our resort in Lapa Rios we create a lot of organic waste.  It’s in the middle of a rainforest, so hauling it back to a landfill was very inefficient.  One of the employees suggested we could do a simple set-up to create bio gas—so we let him build it.  Basically, the system takes the pig excrement, washes it in a cement area covered with plastic, and the methane gas gets trapped.  It’s connected to PVC tube to the employee kitchen that we use for cooking.  It saves us about $3000 per year in methane gas and we don’t have to transport organic waste to the landfill.  Employees appreciate it.  And believe me, the pigs love it—they eat all organic, like gourmet pigs!

One of the questions I hear over and over in conversations is “Will guests pay more for an eco-friendly luxe experience?”

I think yes, but the other stuff has to be right too.  If you have two equally attractive hotels, right in front of beach and they’re both on the Condé Nast Traveler Hot List or Gold List.  But one of the hotels is telling  guests that it’s doing things right environmentally, and for the community, then I think people are willing to pay more.  I’ve heard that in conversations from guests who visited our property in Manuel Antonio.  That in the end, they decided to stay with us because of our sustainability programs.  But I hope it becomes a different decision—that if you’re NOT sustainable you don’t even play.  Maybe the magazine could create The Black List—the World Trashers Awards.

I promised Hans to take that idea back to the magazine, and I know where Chef and I will be staying on our next visit to Jurassic Park.


Arenas del Mar Staff



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Green Globe Trekker (Series Premiere)

Today on Alphabet City: JP premieres the new series Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel; first stop gay & green Amsterdam

Sometimes it’s easy for me to overlook the seeds of my interest in green travel, because my bookshelf is filled with pre-teen travel journals that include these hilarious pronouncements:

Age 12, 20 February 1981, London Journal “Today was so exaspirating! (sp)  We got on the plane o.k.  But, they put us in the smoking section!  So, we traded.  The movies were Hopscotch & Raise the Titanic.  The food was awful!  It was a great trip!”

Age 12, 24 December 1981, Canadian Adventure “I was not as impressed with the Four Seasons in Calgary as I was with others.”

Age 13, 16 June 1982, Rhein (sp) River Adventure “I say, you seen one palace, you seen ‘em all”

Dad holding me down

But next to these riveting written accounts of my early life as a travel critic, there’s an old black binder of pictures from a family eco-adventure I will never forget.  Instead of our usual cushy stay at Point Clear, Alabama’s Grand Hotel, my family spent six days white water rafting down the Grand Canyon.  At the time, I was six years old and one of the youngest kids allowed to undertake the semi-dangerous excursion.  Because I was so light in weight (and probably the loafers), my father had to sit on top of me in order to hold me down when we passed through treacherous rapids.

Bio-soapy fun with my sisters

The thing I remember most about the trip is not my mother wrapping her legs around my sister Pam to save her from going overboard—but soap.  Biodegradable soap, mind you.  I was fascinated with the concept that there were special, glycerin cleaning products for use in the muddy waters of the Colorado River.  My sister Paige, a budding environmental advocate who now works for Whole Foods Market, explained to me how important it was to try and leave as little impact on the surroundings as we could—and that included sensitive detergent that didn’t harm the ecosystem.

Queen Rania pumps it up at World Savers Congress

It’s been 35 years since my first taste of green travel, and now I am right back in the thick of it.  For the past four years, I have been advising Condé Nast Traveler on issues of social responsibility and the travel industry, including the planning of the magazine’s annual World Savers Congress.  The conference is a gathering of over 200 leaders of the travel industry designed to celebrate, promote and encourage a range of efforts—from poverty alleviation and health initiatives to environmental and cultural preservation.  Speakers have included everyone from noted economist Jeffrey Sachs to musician-activist Wyclef Jean, from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Queen Rania of Jordan (talk about stylish—staring at her Versace pumps almost got me in security trouble).

At this year’s conference on October 20 in Singapore with keynotes by Academy Award-winners Mira Sorvino (UN Goodwill Ambassador advocating against human-trafficking) and Louie Psihoyos (environmental activist and Director The Cove), I will be moderating the panel  “To Preserve and Protect: Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  Joining me will be Debra Erickson, Executive Director of the Kerzner Marine Foundation; Hans Pfister, President and Co-owner of Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality; Adine Roode, Managing Director of South Africa’s Camp Jabulani; Gary Stickland of Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke; and Brigitta Witt, Vice President Environmental Affairs, Hyatt Hotels Corporation.  I’m excited to dig into some important questions like how can big corporation scale up the amazing green advancements made by small hotels and lodges.  And perhaps, more importantly, how does (or should) a company communicate to consumers their commitment to these causes?

Some question whether the travel industry, thanks to its expansion, is responsible for killing the planet.  But visionary Virgin mogul Richard Branson tackled this thorny question rather well at a recent luncheon hosted by Condé Nast Traveler at the Council on Foreign Relations.  “I don’t think asking people to hold back progress is the way to deal with global warming.  Rather, we should all invest a percentage of our profits in energy that is clean.”  Whatever my feelings about Branson’s braggadocio, he is an innovator that is leading the way on clean aircraft fuel development.

Fellow Brit Tony Blair backed up Branson’s belief in the tourism industry being a positive force, albeit from a completely different standpoint.  Mr. Blair made a very powerful and forceful argument for tourism development as being critical to the Middle East peace process in helping Palestine achieve a viable economic state.  Blair in-person has that Bill Clinton-effect of mesmerizing an audience.  I hung on his every word.  At times, I wondered if maybe I had seen Love Actually too much, equating the real Blair with Hugh Grant’s version.  Regardless, by the end of his impassioned plea, I was ready to write a check and become an investor in a hotel in Gaza—for the sake of the planet.

Given my interest and knowledge of sustainable travel issues, I thought maybe it was time to start writing about it on ABCityblog.  So when the Holland Tourist Board asked me if I’d like to find out if it was true what their ad campaign proclaims—Everyone’s Gay in Amsterdam—I queerly said yes.  I have had some memorable, sexy times in Holland’s eco-friendly capital.  So what a perfect place to combine gay style and green travel in my new series of columns I’m calling “Green Globe Trekker—a personal look at stylish & sustainable travel.”

So stay tuned while I try to prove Kermit the Frog wrong—in this day and age it should be easy and fun and chic being green.

Let’s just hope that throughout this journey there are copious amounts of biodegradable soap.

The dawn of the Green Globe Trekker

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Cherry Popped

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s pops his (book tour) cherry on Fire Island.

As a young gay in Texas, my first brush with Fire Island was the 1989 Oscar-nominated movie Longtime Companion about the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  The movie’s powerful last scene of three surviving friends walking on a deserted Fire Island beach was (and still is) breathtaking.  At the time, I assumed the idyllic homo holiday community was a Hollywood story telling invention.

That changed the sophomore summer of my New York sitcom life when I found myself dating a doctor with a house in The Pines.  During the drive in his Saab convertible with his Corgie sitting in my lap, I fretted that I had been cast as some boy toy and was expected to put out in exchange for my weekend accommodations.  I wasn’t necessarily averse to that, just wanted to be clear on the expectations.

Doc put my mind at ease when he showed me to my own room, and then gave me a tour up and down the boardwalk dotted with charming red wagons (no cars allowed).  He provided a brief tutorial over the rules of engagement on the island—cocktails and dancing at something called Low Tea ended promptly at 7pm with a mass migration to High Tea and depending on day of the week ending hours later at Middle Tea.  If you still hadn’t successfully hooked up after all that, a trip through the wooded Meat Rack was in order.

Although those rules have changed much over time, I have been lucky enough to get to know Fire Island much better and understand the not-so-subtle differences between the two gay communities of The Pines and Cherry Grove.  My doctor friend was the perfect specimen of life in The Pines—fantastically decorated house, impossibly toned abs, finely tuned regimen.  In the Grove, things are more shabby chic, anything goes and devil may care.  Everything’s just a little looser—in so many ways, including bathing suit tops and bottoms that seem to loose themselves on the beach.  Turns out, I’m pretty much a Grove Boy who enjoys an occasional Meat Rack meander to drink in some Low Tea.

Neighbors on the left, with party hosts Chris and Tom on the right

Lucky for me, dear friends Chris and Tom purchased a home in the Grove nearly seven-years ago and began welcoming their city friends with open arms.  Over the years, they’ve renovated the original pillbox house into a charming cottage perfect for Coastal Living.  The couple met at the very first Condé Nast Traveler Hot List party, and I suppose as a sign of appreciation they let me steal out to the house and pound out pages on Alphabet City.

So this weekend was a homecoming of sorts for the book when they hosted the Fire Island stop on the book tour.  Frankly, I was a little nervous given my recent experience with self-professed non-reading gays at a NYC event.  But it turns out summering folk appreciate when the perfect beach read comes to them.  The guests listened to my reading with rapt attention and an audible gasp was heard during the excerpt about meeting Tyra Banks.  Two-dozen sales later and it was the most successful home book party yet.

JP with Chris

The next morning, Chef and I continued our Cherry Grove tradition of walking around the “town” taking in the new seasonal stores—last year’s ice cream shop, this year’s liquor store—as well as the perennial standbys—Floyd’s muffins, the everything-is-$5-grocery store.  We play the game “Where Would You Work” followed by “What’s Missing?”  Usually we debate the merits of starting a fine dining establishment.  But this year, given the voracious reading appetite of Chris and Tom’s friends, we’re thinking maybe a summer Book Nook.  That means I need to get cranking on 40, Love to have it in stock for Summer 2011.

Even Edie enjoys Alphabet City

Frida, on the other hand...


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Summering Worries

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s idyllic memories of “summering” are threatened by the oil spill.

JP and sister Pam beachside at Grand Hotel

“Summering” has been on my mind a lot lately.  One of my favorite passages I’ve been reading out loud on book tour is from Alphabet City’s Episode 3:

Until I moved to the Big Apple, I had never heard the word “summer” used as a verb.  But from what I could tell, the entire society stratus of New York City greeted summer with a mass exodus.  For those that could afford it, summering meant scheduling into two-day weekends all the things we took for granted on a weekly basis in Texas—swimming, tanning, boating, golfing…Summering ensnared all kinds—Fags to Fire Island, Snobs to Southampton, Monied to Martha’s Vineyard.  New Yorkers returned after Labor Day bronzed and exhausted.  In Dallas, we just went to Lake Texhoma and returned leathery and pickled.

For the most part, summering for my family meant visiting my grandmother in her mobile home trailer in the piney woods of East Texas near a Dairy Queen and catfish pond.  But every other year, my father loaded us up in our diesel-powered Mercedes sedan and drove from Dallas to Pt. Clear, Alabama to the Grand Hotel just outside Mobile.  Car trips with my father were lessons in endurance—bathroom breaks were limited and replaced by mandatory singing of odd German folksongs, Ray Charles ballads, and an occasional showstopper from Cabaret.  One time Dad ran the car off the road and into a ditch filled with Mississippi kudzu because he was reading—while driving.

But making it to the Grand Hotel meant a fortnight of frolicking.  I began by drinking copious amounts of Shirley Temples concocted by legendary bartender Bucky who called me Mr. Buchmeyer!  Afternoons were spent precariously riding a bicycle built for two with Dad, scoping out the twisted arbor for the annual awarding of the “Gnarliest Tree Award” complete with blue ribbon.  And off course, there was lots of time reading on the beach—scanning out across the murky waters of Mobile Bay and seeing a few oil drilling platforms on the horizon.

At the time, those rigs were nothing more than a curiosity.  As a young kid from the Lone Star State that was fueled by a powerful oil addiction, it never occurred to me that there was anything particularly dangerous happening offshore.  My uncle was in the oil business and my cousins even spent a few summers working on Gulf Coast rigs.  But when I returned a few years back with Chef for a story about the area for Condé Nast Traveler, I saw those platforms in a much different way—as a menacing encroachment on the area’s natural beauty.

On that trip, I experienced the towns scattered along the Gulf Coast in a much different way than the hurried road trips of my youth.  This time, my traveling companion Chef actually encouraged multiple detours and roadside stops on our sweep around the Florida Panhandle in a souped up Mercedes.  When we weren’t stopping for roadside Hot Nuts, we were delighting in the succulent (and cheap) oysters of charming Apalachicola.  Here’s how I describe it in CNT’s June 2008 issue:

Today, Apalachicola is a delicately balanced blend of Old and New Florida—historic buildings and houses mixed with funky boutiques and numerous cafés. I’m completely charmed by the place, but Chef withholds judgment until he tastes the local fare.

Oysters have provided stability to this region for years. Ten percent of the country’s supply comes from this bay, and they are some of the biggest, juiciest, meatiest, saltiest—and cheapest—oysters we’ve had the pleasure of tasting. At 25 cents each, compared to about four dollars a pop in New York City, Chef and I literally can’t get enough—we eat them morning, noon, and night. We eat them roasted, baked, and in shooter cocktails with peppered vodka and horseradish, not to mention in oyster po’boys for lunch, and served with eggs (and grits) for breakfast.

…we drive on to St. Joe Beach along a road that’s among the prettiest on this trip—baby palm trees dwarfed by giant cedars. Out of the car, we trudge up stairs over mountains of sand, and at the summit, take pause at the view: miles and miles of nearly empty snowy beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. We head down to splash in the warm water, agreeing that we will come back and bring friends: Oysters and beaches this delicious deserve to be shared.

If you’re still not sure of how much natural beauty is in danger of destruction from the country’s worst environmental catastrophe, I encourage you to read the full CNT story for just a taste of my own humble perspective.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

For hundreds of years, the Grand Hotel and the citizens of the Gulf Coast have shown remarkable resilience bouncing back from a series of natural disasters.  But as oil from the raging spill begins lapping at the shores of nearby pristine Dauphin Island, I have to be honest and say I’m worried for the hardworking laborers who trawl for the delicious oysters and succulent shrimp.  And I’m sad that the lazy, almost idyllic setting might be in danger for future generations of kids who might not experience Bucky’s charming hospitality or the thrill of tacking a ribbon to “The Gnarliest Tree.”

Summering used to be so much simpler.

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Miami Sex Machine

Today on Alphabet City: JP’s book tour alter ego Gary Tyler Moore becomes a sexy insider in Miami.

View of Miami from room at EPIC Hotel & Residences

“Other than a couple of minor bouts of anorexia in high school and college, I’ve always hovered around 23 pounds above my goal weight,” I write in Alphabet City, explaining some of my body image problems.  I suppose those issues have affected my rather awkward relationship with Miami over the years.  From the first time I visited years ago while working at Condé Nast Traveler, I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in with the gorgeously toned bodies parading along South Beach.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that I faced the second stop on the book tour wondering just how the citizens of South Florida would greet Gary Tyler Moore.  Everything is a little sexier—and crazier—in Miami, but this time I felt that the Capital of Latin America rolled out the red carpet for me.

Gay action hero in his Chevy Traverse

Miami is one of those cities that loves a good body—both your own and your car’s.  And I got many double takes tooling around in the swanky Chevy Traverse.  With plush leather interior, a Bose stereo and an A/C that works overtime in the sweltering humidity, I often thought I should just do my appearances inside this boyfriend magnet.  My favorite tricked-out accessory was the camera that kicked in when backing up, providing spy like images to the rearview mirror.  I felt like a gay action hero driving up to Kimpton’s high-design EPIC Hotel & Residences in Downtown Miami.

While EPIC’s grand scale may look unlike any other Kimpton Hotel, it has the same warm service I’ve come to expect from the company.  A chalkboard sign outside welcomed my little one Frida—making me curse my decision not to bring her on this leg of the tour.  My corner suite looked like the perfect setting for a J. Lo music video with wrap around views of the Miami port—making me wonder why I didn’t make this hotel the last stop on the tour rather than the second.

The EPIC team pulled out all the stops for my appearances at the hotel’s guest wine hour and later at a 52nd floor penthouse suite at the Residences with food by their delicious Area 31 restaurant.  Both events attracted folks from far and wide—at the wine hour I zeroed in on some visiting Germans (as you know from the book, I’ve always had a thing for the Boys from Berlin), and a sweet couple from Ft. Lauderdale traveled through heavy traffic to support Alphabet City and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Speaking at wine hour

Supporters from Ft. Lauderdale at EPIC Residences event

Loews Miami Beach Whoopi Pie

If the EPIC is sophisticated chic in Miami, then the Loews is accessible decadence in South Beach.  I was excited to experience the results of a recent $50 million renovation which are spectacular and comfortable—this is the choice on South Beach for those on business or with families that need a hotel combining functionality with design.  The food at Preston’s is also worth a stop for the fish tacos and the make-your-own Whoopi Pie—an Alphabet City-themed dessert that seems to follow me on tour.  My ocean view room featured one of my all time favorite bathrooms that was stylish but just worked—I’m still trying to figure out how I might import it to my home in Washington Heights.  And I can’t forget the location—steps from both the ocean boardwalk and the shops of Lincoln Road with parading beauties of both sexes.

View of South Beach & Loews Miami Beach pool from my room

My #1 S Florida Salesman Ryan

That night, many of those male beauties stopped in for an Alphabet City happy hour party at Bar 721—an event that landed me in my first gay bar magazine called “Mark.”  I was tagged a “must do” and my picture was labeled “Intellectual Surplus”—which I took as a swipe at me wearing glasses and that once again I didn’t fit into the culture of South Florida.  But the boys proved me wrong.  My cute straight friend Ryan, dressed in a tie fresh from his job as a U.S. Attorney, charmed the pants off the patrons—taking me from table to table and convincing folks to take a break from their partying and purchase Alphabet City.  Bless, Ryan.

Alphabet City is old at Book&Books on Lincoln Rd!

The final South Florida tour stop was an Alphabet City Book Party hosted by dear friends Isabel and Adam in Ft. Lauderdale.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far on Book Tour, it’s how much I treasure these intimate events—where I get to do some readings from the book and hear people’s reactions.  This party was special because it brought together a cross-section of my audience—gay guys and straight gals.  The boys loved the stories of making a pass at Gloria Estefan’s husband, while the ladies loved the tales of a gay Mary Tyler Moore trying to make it in the world.  I’ve taken to calling it a little bit Sex and the City and a whole lot of Will & Grace.

Just before the Ft. Lauderdale party, I went jogging on the path through South Beach for the first time in my life.  As I got to the newish South Pointe Park and stopped to take some pictures, a really cute couple approached and commented on my tattoo.  Nelson from Cuba and Eduardo from Peru were surprised I wasn’t from Miami—they told me I looked like a local—and invited me to go dancing with them later.  Somehow I had crossed the divide from nervous outsider to sexy insider.  Maybe it’s because I’m Latin-by-marriage.  Maybe it’s because I’m nearer my goal weight.  Maybe it’s the tattoo.  Whatever the reason, Gary Tyler Moore will be coming back.  Gracias y Adios Miami.

View from South Pointe Park

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BizSavvyBlogger’s Peek-A-Blog: PerrinPost.truth.travel

Today on Alphabet City: Peek-A-Blog boards the Wendy Perrin express, uncovering “Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know“* about this influential blogger, including how her print job keeps her from blogging 24/7 and what that means for PR folks. (*the name of Wendy’s book!)

Wendy, Chef, Wendy's first born and me at an event in Dallas. Photo taken by Tim.

Returning from a quick trip to Hong Kong in February 2003—just days before SARS took the world hostage—my traveling companion Wendy Perrin and I were like foreign exchange students plopped down in the middle of Cathay Pacific’s First Class Cabin.  Despite the fact that we traveled the world for a luxury magazine—Wendy as the publication’s well-respected Consumer News Editor, me in the more cushy job as communications expert—we actually had never been exposed to the glamorous life at the front of a Trans-Pacific jet.  But the magazine thought it important for our jobs to understand how the top .01% live.

The last ones to board, we raced to learn the proper etiquette.  Why are the other few passengers dressed in matching brown colored warm-ups?  Are they in some weird club?  Oh, those are special traveling pajamas gifted to us for the long journey.  We changed in a bathroom suite the size of my NYC apartment.  And by the way, where’s my blanket?  What kind of rinky-dink operation is this?  Oh, the down duvet comes to me upon request.  Duh.

“Can I take these attendants home with me?” Wendy asked sadly upon arrival at JFK.  “They would change my life.”

That’s what I’ve always loved about Wendy—her sincerity and wide-eyed wonder at the world.  Despite growing up in New York City, attending a fancy prep school, and graduating from that famous university in Cambridge, Wendy doesn’t have a cynical bone in her body.  And for an optimistic kid from Texas like me, I find that refreshing.  Wendy is no-nonsense, constantly in motion, and always speaks the truth—like a travelista’s Suze Orman.  Unlike America’s favorite financial guru, Wendy has never been on my Spit List, if you disregard the time at DFW she refused to eat with me at Chili’s Too, and almost made us miss our flight arguing with the Au Bon Pain attendant over mayo on her sandwich.

Traveling the world with Wendy, I often laughed at how the woman to whom even the savviest travelers turn for advice, actually had the worst travel karma I had ever experienced.  From malfunctioning hotel alarm clocks to surly gate agents to lost baggage, I experienced it all with Wendy.  My suspicion was always that she enjoyed the incidents as they provided fodder for her column.

Over lunch at Marseille, blogger to blogger, she verified my hunch and gave me the inside scoop on the complications that come with straddling the print and online world as “the most trusted name in travel journalism” (a moniker I gave her).

What’s the difference between your blog posts and your monthly column in Condé Nast Traveler?

On the blog, which comes in two flavors—one on cntraveler.com and one on truth.travel—I can address issues that are timely, like what you need to do right now about the labor strike that has shut down your airline.  In print, the advice has to be more about trends that are happening—that labor strike is already over.

How do you judge if a post is successful?

I don’t look at traffic statistics—someone else does that.  But one way I measure it is if the post gets syndicated—if it shows up on MSNBC or ABCNews.com because it means that it was advice useful to a lot of people.  On a more personal level, I know a post is successful when I get a lot of smart comments.  I love having the back and forth with really savvy travelers—it gives me article ideas.

An example of a post that’s generating lots of smart responses?

Right now, the “Maximize Your Miles” contest.  This is a contest with a very high barrier to entry: You need to submit your best personal frequent-flier-mileage success story, as well as your best tip gleaned from it. So just imagine how well-traveled and savvy you have to be to participate in this. First, you must have traveled enough to accrue significant miles. Then you must have successfully used them. And then you have to come up with a little-known tip that will be useful to others. More than 240 people have submitted so far.  Those are readers that I learn from.

How do you handle being inundated with questions asking for travel advice?

I have two different public email addresses: one printed in the magazine that goes along with my column; and another one online that goes with the blog.  The questions that I get from the two groups are incredibly different.  I can tell from the questions from print readers that they are well-traveled, have more money and are older, with very specific requests like, “I want advice on renting a villa in Provence but would like a chef to be on call who knows the local markets.”  The people who have just happened to find me online tend to be younger, less savvy, don’t know exactly what they want, “Thinking about going to Europe.  Thoughts?”

How do your over 12,000 Twitter followers fit into that?

They are actually very smart. And, because Twitter users are so active online–they just love to click on articles and post comments on web sites–they come in very handy whenever I’d like to get a conversation going on my blog. Say I ask a question on my blog that I’d like a lot of people to weigh in on. If I go on Twitter, ask the question, and invite people to answer it on my blog, within 30 minutes, there’ll be 30 useful comments posted.

For so long you have been a print journalist, but I get the sense that you love blogging?

On the one hand, blogging is so freeing and so much fun.  On the other hand, it’s overwhelming.  There are far more questions from readers than I can ever possibly answer.  But I love it so much I would blog 24 hours a day because I love the immediate conversation.  Unfortunately, I can’t feed the blog as much as I would like because of my workload.

What do you mean?  It seems like you are such a powerful online presence that your blog would be a priority.

Actually, the priority is my print deadlines. I don’t get in trouble with my boss when I don’t post on my blog frequently. I do get in trouble with my boss when I don’t hand in my print column on time. I’m forced to neglect the blog so often, which is heartbreaking because I want to spend more time having online conversations with travelers.

So that explains why sometimes weeks go by and there’s no post.

And when I am blogging, it’s usually on weekends or at 3am.  When I finally have time to blog, there are at least 10 ideas in my head as to what I want to write.  There are hundreds of ideas a month that I don’t get to write.  It’s just happenstance what does get blogged—it’s a matter of timing.  The people who lose out on that the most are PR people.  They could send me something great, that’s timely, that I want readers to know about—but there’s no time for me to post it.

But I feel like I get tweets from you a lot.  You have time for that?

Basically, I Twitter when I’m in transit or stuck in an airport or at home at night, not when I’m at the office. Condé Nast doesn’t allow us to have TweetDeck on our computers at work–just one reason why it’s difficult for me to do any useful Twitter stuff at the office.  That means, it’s all about my commute.  That’s when I have time to go on Twitter and see if anyone has sent me a message. When I’m on a business trip, I love getting on Twitter and seeing what friends are up to.

Given how important your anonymity is to you when traveling on assignment, do you worry that Twittering and Blogging compromise that?

All the time!  Because of the magazine’s policy that we are not allowed to receive any special treatment, I have to be very careful when I am on assignment not to do anything in the social media world that would alert a hotel or airline about my presence.  So as immediate as blogging and twittering can be, I often can’t comment online about an issue or problem until after the incident.  I have to be very careful about Facebook updates, and that’s one of the reasons I can’t use FourSquare.  It’s different when I am traveling to give a speech to a group of hotel executives—they all know I’m coming and where I’m staying.  So I feel free to tweet about those trips.

After 21 years at the magazine, it seems like hotels, cruise lines, airlines would have pictures of you plastered everywhere—like restaurants do for New York Times critics!

You would think, right?  But at the moment, travel companies are still not that sophisticated.  I get treated like crap all the time.  But that’s okay, I always get a column or blog post out of it.

Knowing the immediate consequences your words can have on a travel company, do you wield your power wisely?  For good not evil?

Because my blog posts do not go through a censor or editor, I am very careful about what I write so as not to be inflammatory.  My readers want me to be helpful, not bitter.  The recent incident I had with Hawaiian Airlines charging me a checked baggage fee despite my having a Continental MasterCard that waives those fees is a perfect example.  I had the name of the customer service agent who was in the wrong, and when I posted the photo I had planned on naming that person.  But I calmed down and realized I didn’t need to pick that fight.  The point of my post was to educate my readers about what to do in that situation—call the credit card company after the fact and they will credit your account.

Any concerns about putting your kids in your posts with pictures?

Blogs are really an emotional connection between you and your readers.  I put the kids in because people want to know me personally.  They want to know the real Wendy Perrin.  For some reason, they want to know about my travails as a parent and traveler.  The photos of the kids and me are in there because, frankly, those are the photos that it’s easiest for me to obtain quickly and download into my laptop. And that’s because my husband Tim is a photographer, he’s always right there traveling with us, and he’s always shooting pictures of the kids—I just happen to be in them!

Speaking of Tim, I’ve been lucky enough to travel with him on shoots to South Africa and Guatemala.  You two strike me as completely different types of travelers.  How does that work out for you?

Tim said the other day that, if we were ever on the same team on The Amazing Race or Competitours, we’d be divorced by the time we got to the first airport. That’s because we travel so differently. While I’m always on guard for anything that could possibly go wrong, Tim is very laid back.  I’m always eavesdropping, listening to what the gate agent or flight attendant is telling frustrated customers, and I’m always distracted because I’m busy counting the number of empty seats on the plane or recording the pilot’s announcement about a delay.  I can’t ever turn it off. Tim, on the other hand, is always saying, “Relax, why do you need to go pester the gate agent again.”  Is he kidding?!

All right, I have to ask.  Your first book, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, was turned into an Off-Broadway musical.  Are the rumors true about your blog becoming a stage show?

You must be starting those rumors!  Trust me, as my former publicist and traveling companion, you’ll be the first to know.


Filed under Biz Savvy Blogger, Peek-A-Blog

Green Globe Trekker: Settling Accounts

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul longs for hotel lobbies of yesteryear, but takes “art” in Kimpton.

Lil JP stealing one of my Dad's books at The Grand Hotel

Since I was a little kid traveling with my family every other year to The Grand Hotel in Pt. Clear, Alabama, hotel lobbies have enamored me.  My heart skipped a beat every time I saw the giant double doors fog up as the over air-conditioned interior fought off July’s southern humidity.  Once inside the kingdom, there was the smell that I describe in my Condé Nast Traveler essay on the experience as “an odd mix of pine floors and fried crab claws.”

As an adult lucky enough to travel the world, I developed an affinity for hotels that understood the lobby wasn’t just for shuffling people to and fro, but a stage.  And like good set design, I prefer my lobbies have a measured point of view so as not to overwhelm the actors guests.  While I could never quite square myself to the overt and uncomfortable theatricality of Miami’s Delano, I was immediately drawn in by the modern painting collection at Barcelona’s Hotel Arts.

The lobby of Kimpton's Hotel Palomar in Atlanta has a definite point of view.

Recent travels have left me slightly disheartened at the state of hotel lobbies with most companies adopting a Shake n’ Bake approach to dumb down design.  But a reception I attended last night for the unveiling of a 28-foot installation by artist Barbara Nessim gave me hope.  Kimpton Hotels commissioned this piece that will reach two-stories in the lobby of their new hotel Eventi, opening in “North Chelsea” in May 2010.  Kimpton’s interest in artwork already captured my attention on my recent stay in Atlanta at their Hotel Palomar.  So I’m looking forward to their latest in New York—the 50th hotel in their portfolio.

There was one more bit of lobby drama that captured my fascination as a kid—the moment my father paid for the two week stay—with a personal check.  He would march me up to the counter, take out his wallet and ready his personal check from Republic National Bank, while announcing in a dramatic flourish to the front desk attendant, “I’m here to settle my account!”

Years later, on my adult visit to the Grand Hotel, I also marched up to the counter the night before my early morning departure and announced, “I’m here to settle my account!”  The clerk eyed me suspiciously.

“We have your credit card on file, sir.”

So much for the dramatic.  Hey, I wonder if Kimpton Hotels would consider taking a check?


Filed under Green Globe Trekker