Observed

Since we’re having this conversation on-screen and I can see behind me, I feel like I’m obligated to select one of the books hovering over my shoulder: The Led Zeppelin Saga, Hammer of the Gods.

The cover, it’s gorgeous, black background, classic Jimmy Page lean, cigarette in mouth; bare-chested Robert Plant with pursed lips. My mother turned me on to Led Zeppelin at a very young age, but it wasn’t until I read that book that I thought I could make a case for John Paul Jones as the most talented musician in the band.

This is so obscure. I love Phish, and the keyboardist Page McConnell has a side band called Vida Blue. Maybe 15 years ago or so, I went with friends to see them play at the 9:30 Club in D.C. 

A Canadian band we had never heard of called The New Deal opened, and they absolutely blew the doors off the place. Their drummer was relentless. They were so good, the rest of the show was a letdown! 

We didn’t even stay for the entire Vida Blue set, we went downstairs to the Satellite Bar in the club basement and listened to the show being piped in as we talked about the opener.

It’s not unknown, exactly, it’s just so ignored. There’s this classic fight between the online travel agencies (OTAs), the Expedias and the booking.coms of the world, and the hotel brands, the Hiltons, Marriotts, and Hyatts. 

Those two parts of the supply chain have been at loggerheads since 9/11, which put the travel industry into a brief but severe collapse. The OTAs pounced, and hotels have hated them ever since, they felt they were taken advantage of during a crisis. 

While this battle’s been going on for decades, Google, Amazon, and other major tech players have been laying the groundwork to get into the travel intermediation game at mega-scale, and there’s nothing the hotel brands can do because they waited 20 years to deal and still really haven’t addressed that threat.

Hotels have been so distracted by the OTAs that the 700-pound gorilla is standing there waiting and laughing. The day you start shifting your travel buying over to Amazon or just telling Echo to book you a room, the hotel brands are in real trouble. 

It’s not that Amazon can run hotels out like they did to Barnes & Noble. Travelers will still need the physical product to go sleep in, but the commoditization of hotel brands will accelerate beyond anything that the OTAs ever threatened.

Google could launch tomorrow if they chose. The model is built they’re just not pressing the gas on it; probably because Google’s biggest customers are OTAs. The two biggest OTAs alone have been spending over $4 billion a year combined to make sure that they are listed at the top of every travel search. Google is naturally hesitant to cut off such a massive cash stream. 

Amazon can play in any business they want, but with travel, the timing just hasn’t been right. However, the margins are too attractive for them not to cannonball-in, Ron Burgundy style. When they do, they will reshape everything from hotel ownership to marketing to guest experience.

Take Alexa, for example. Right now, if you’re Marriott-loyal, you’ll book through their website or mobile app to make sure you get your Bonvoy points, and stick to the options presented within that marriott.com ecosystem. As tabletop assistants, like Alexa, more frequently become the way people shop, they’re going to learn your patterns and return only about two or three options. Instead of the thirty hotels a shopper glances over today, the device may only present what Amazon is paid the most to sell you. 

The biggest brands in travel have the scale and brand loyalty to compete for customers somewhat harmoniously with OTAs, but none will be able to fight the commission structure that Amazon or Google could dictate. Try selling a book today without a presence on Amazon.

If you were expecting me to go to clemency for Pete Rose, I won’t bite. It’s better for baseball, and for Pete, that he stays out of the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose is bigger than baseball, and that goes away if he’s in the Hall.

So, my first act as Commissioner. I’d take the Designated Hitter away from the American League. I believe it’s a better game even when you’ve got a pitcher who bats .150 coming up in the batting order.

During a critical situation, so many people say, “this game would be so much better if there were a real batter.” Not really, baseball is a game of strategy and the DH dumbs it down. The American League fans deserve that kind of excitement, and the National League deserves to not be under pressure to saturate its game. So let’s get rid of it completely.

I’d restore another tradition too, and this can only be spoken by a kid from Cincinnati. It used to be, before Bud Selig ruined baseball, that the first pitch of the season would be thrown out in Cincinnati. The baseball season couldn’t start till that pitch was thrown at the Reds home opener. You’re darn right I’d bring that back.

Southern Utah. It’s probably the most underrated part of this continent. Driving from Zion Canyon, all the way across the southern border over to Moab, few places in the world are that beautiful. Everybody knows about Bryce National Park and everybody knows about Arches. But what you can do for six days in the middle of the high desert, taking your time, is just life-changingly beautiful. 

When you stand along the ridge in Capitol Reef National Park and imagine yourself underwater … because that basin was submerged by several thousand feet of water before geological shifts lifted it out and dried it up … it’s the closest I have ever experienced to being able to imagine yourself standing on the ocean floor. Amazing. 

When Americans think of Mexico, they’re probably thinking Cancún or Cabo, maybe Mexico City. San Miguel de Allende, though, is an ex-pat-friendly, artist community that has been preserved because of its remoteness up in the mountains.

It’s a very dry place. There’s a beautiful town square, and everybody is so hospitable. Mexicans may be the most naturally hospitable people on Earth. The best elote, Mexican corn on a cob, I’ve had in my life, and street tacos that’ll knock your socks off. One of Mexico’s best restaurants is in San Miguel, Moxy is phenomenal, but you should eat on the street the rest of the time.

The unsexiest answer of all time: the Courtyard Chelsea right across from Penn Station.

New York City has some of the best hotels in the world. One of my absolute favorites is The EDITION Clocktower in Madison Square Park, I love that hotel.

Why The Courtyard? I live in DC, so I go by train. If you’ve ever tried to drag a roller bag down a sidewalk in Manhattan, you know you want the shortest possible commute to the train station. Most hotels in that part of town are pretty dumpy.

When that hotel opened around 2014, I was in a job where I was managing Courtyards on the East Coast so I went there all the time. I walked up the stairs at Penn Station, down the street a block, and that was it. Bags dropped, ready for the city. I’ve never stopped choosing that hotel. Even when I worked for Hilton, I would still stay at that hotel.

The top floor has three suites with skylights. How often can you get a skylight in your room in NYC? Other than the Ty Warner Suite of the Four Seasons for $100,000 a night, I can’t think of another one.

How do you not love New Orleans for that answer? It doesn’t matter if you go for the first time or your 85th trip back, you’re gonna have the greatest time. If you don’t have fun in New Orleans, there’s nobody to blame but yourself. 

The city caters to the novice and the professional probably better than anywhere. You will always find amazing restaurant discoveries in unexpected places.

A few years ago, I flew there and back in a day to have an important conversation with a coworker. He picked me up and we went to Parkway Bakery. We sat outside and had sloppy roast beef po-boys, a bag of Zappo’s chips, a drink, and went back to the airport. I think I spent $1,000 traveling that day for a lunch that cost $9 and it was worth every penny.

Where else can you just leave the airport and do that for lunch? New Orleans is the only place where you could have that experience in a hundred different hole-in-the-wall places on and they’re all great. A restaurant that serves mediocre food in New Orleans will be out of business in a week, the bar is just too high there to ever have a bad bite.


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