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Travel news, reviews and intel for high-flyers

The Shape of Things to Come

Experiential Rewards

Hotel loyalty is moving away from rewards in the form of room upgrades and free stays to money-can’t-buy experiences and hyper-personal gifts. Small Luxury Hotels of the World, for example, redesigned its loyalty scheme in September, renaming it Invited and introducing preferential treatment to elite members such as birthday gifts and invitation-only events.

Intercontinental Hotels Group, meanwhile, has joined forces with Opentable and Grubhub to allow guests to earn and redeem points on meals in restaurants. Global Hotel Alliance’s Discovery program offers “local experience” rewards for Platinum and Black members, such as seabob snorkeling in the Maldives or scenic cycle rides around Bali. The scheme also applies to Kempinski hotels. The hotel group says: “Whether it’s a rare elephant ride in the jungle, a private tour of a Geneva watch factory usually closed to the public, a traditional Adumu dance with Maasai warriors in Kenya, or a tour of Malta’s presidential palace and gardens, these experiences present the best of local gastronomy, culture and craftsmanship.”

Facial Recognition

The iPhone X isn’t the only entity using facial recognition as a means of identification and added security. Airports and airlines are increasingly integrating the technology into their biometric boarding and immigration systems to help reduce lines, paperwork and the required staffing levels on checkpoints. While you may be anxious that this undermines your privacy, there is no way to turn the tide, so you may as well accept the benefits of a less stressful journey through the terminal as recompense.

Last summer, Delta Air Lines introduced its first biometric bag-drop stations at Minneapolis-St Paul International airport, requiring a facial scan at the self-service points to verify the passport holder. Dubai airport, in partnership with Emirates, is going further by creating camera-lined facial recognition tunnels that you walk through without pausing to stare at a screen. The first tunnels should be in place at Dubai’s Terminal 3 by the end of summer 2018.

Meanwhile, British Airways is the first airline to use self-service biometric boarding gates on international flights out of the US, starting with Los Angeles International. BA has been using biometric gates at London’s Heathrow Terminal 5 for domestic flights since March 2017. Amsterdam Schiphol airport and KLM are working on a similar initiative, as is JetBlue, which has replaced boarding passes with facial scanning at Boston Logan airport.

British Airways says its new technology, created by Vision-Box, “will create a smoother journey for customers, as they will no longer need to present their passport or boarding pass at the gate – only at check in and security. Instead travelers can simply look into a camera prior to boarding, wait for their biometric data to be verified, and then walk onto the aircraft.”

In the US, Customs and Border Protection is testing its Biometric Exit US in a handful of airports (such as Chicago O’Hare and Las Vegas McCarran), but there are plans to install it at every airport in the country within three years. The endeavor is being pushed forward by President Trump, who wants to use facial recognition to track visa holders as they leave the country (or not).

Unpredictable Mother Nature

Business travelers need to prepare for flight delays and cancellations by having appropriate insurance, up-to-date duty-of-care policies and watertight back-up plans ahead of disruptive weather conditions sweeping the planet. Many experts are putting this down to global warming (the last three years have been the hottest recorded), and 2018 is expected to be just as bad, if not worse.

Last year, Hurricane Harvey caused deadly flooding in Houston, leaving 80 people dead and, along with Irma and Maria, wreaking destruction on many Caribbean islands. Altogether the storms caused upwards of $200 billion of damage. On the West Coast some of California’s worst-ever wildfires led to mass evacuations across the state – the Thomas fire, in December (not normally a month prone to many blazes), proved the largest on record, burning more than 272,000 acres of landscape, while mudslides killed 15 in January. Severe monsoon flooding in Bangladesh took the lives of 1,200 people and affected more than 40 million people – aid agencies said it was one of the worst humanitarian crises the region had seen in years.

Seismic activity is also causing problems. Two earthquakes hit Mexico last autumn, one of which proved the deadliest in 30 years; and a 7.3-magnitude earthquake in Iraq and Iran killed up to 580 people not long after. Scientists predict that due to a periodic slowing of the Earth’s rotation, there will be more quakes in 2018.

In-room Fitness

Hotels know all too well that the gyms they invest in often aren’t used – people can be inherently lazy, yet the desire for better fitness remains. With that in mind, some brands are taking steps to make it as easy as possible for guests to work out during their stays by putting fitness equipment in bedrooms instead. A growing number of Marriott’s Westin Hotels & Resorts in the US, for example, are now offering some rooms with Peloton exercise bikes and online spinning classes streamed live or on-demand to built-in screens.

At the same time, Hilton has been rolling out its Five Feet to Fitness concept to hotels in North America, featuring mini studios with Wattbikes, Gym Rax units with TRX straps, medicine balls from Lyft, Hyperwear Sandbells, yoga mats and meditation chairs, plus a screen for bespoke on-demand exercise classes created by Aktiv Solutions.

“The variety of activity the room enables is motivating,” according to Ryan Crabbe, former senior director of global wellness at Hilton. “One morning a guest can decide to roll out of bed for a quick guided stretch and yoga poses. Then later that evening, they might return from a stressful day and take a brisk bike ride while catching up on a favorite show or the day’s business news.”

Next-gen Airlines

Aimed at Millennials, Air France launched a new low-cost subsidiary airline for hipsters in December, ushering in a new era for trendy aviation created for the younger generation. Richard Branson did a good job of making flying sexy with Virgin Atlantic, but Air France’s Joon is looking to inspire a different kind of ethos, much in the way hotel chains have all launched “lifestyle” brands. Crews are dressed in “basic, chic” uniforms that consist of royal blue cardigans, polo shirts, block-print shift dresses, gilets and retro-styled white trainers. Travelers who download the YouJoon app will be able to stream entertainment on-demand to their devices while in the air. There will also be individual touchscreen monitors on long-haul flights.

On short-haul A320 flights, food and drink (with the exception of one free tea or coffee) has to be paid for, but on long-haul A340 services it’s free. The menu lists items such as Sicilian lemonade, smoothies, craft beer, tapas and organic quinoa salad. Unlike typical budget airlines, intercontinental services also have premium economy and business class cabins with fully flat beds.

Farewell To Jumbos

The unmistakable 747, with its humped upper deck, first took to the skies in 1969 – and almost 50 years later, it’s finally reaching the end of its life. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says that it sees “no significant demand” for the jumbo jet anymore, and has dropped the plane from its 20-year forecast. Instead, it predicts airlines will be choosing Boeing’s more efficient 787s and 777Xs for long-haul flights. In 2017, both Delta and United retired the last of their 747s, meaning no US airline flies the jumbo any longer. There are still around 500 in service globally, but a recent delivery of a 747-8 to Korean Air may prove the last to be built.

In contrast, a new entry to fleets around the world is the smaller, single-aisle 737 MAX. It has already become the fastest-selling plane in Boeing’s history, with more than 4,000 orders from 92 carriers. The aircraft comes with Boeing’s new Sky Interior, “modern sculpted walls and window reveals,” LED lighting and larger overhead bins for luggage. It comes in four variants – the MAX 7, 8 , 9 and 10 – installed with 172 to 230 seats. Last year, Norwegian, Southwest Airlines, Air Canada, Silk Air and Westjet all received their first 737 MAXs. In November, it was announced that Flydubai had placed a monster $27 billion order for 225 of the planes.

This is part of a wider trend for airlines buying smaller aircraft, instead of larger planes with far greater operating costs. Even though fuel is currently cheap, carriers such as Qantas and Air France have canceled orders for the A380 superjumbo, and there are rumors that Emirates is going to ditch its A380 program.

Airbnb Hotels

Given Airbnb’s ambitions to become a one-stop shop for travel – from home rental to experiences and possibly even flights – it makes sense that the company is partnering with property developers to build its own branded accommodation. In Florida, Airbnb is working with Newgard Property Group to open a 300-unit apartment tower for early 2018 (called Niido Powered by Airbnb) in Kissimee, near Orlando.

Tenants will be able to rent apartments on Airbnb for up to 180 days a year, and there will be hotel-style support in the form of cleaning and linen services, keyless entry systems, in-room safes and concierges. According to the Financial Times, Airbnb plans to unveil another five such projects over the next two years. There are also rumors that Airbnb will launch a “Lux” portal aggregating high-end private residences this year, allowing it to compete with One Fine Stay (now part of Accorhotels).

Airport Gyms

Instead of sitting in the airport lounge eating plates full of free food and drinking wine, many of us would feel better at the end of our journey if we’d done a workout instead. Last autumn, Lennart Meri Tallinn airport in Estonia became the first in Europe to install a pop-up gym within its terminal near gate 6 (complete with runway views). Operated by My Fitness, the light, expansive gym has high ceilings, with Technogym weight machines, an elliptical trainer, a rowing machine, exercise bike, treadmill and staircase trainer. The only problem is there are no showers.

Roam Fitness is also taking gyms for jet setters seriously, having opened its first in Baltimore airport last year. The 1,200-square-foot facility has cardio equipment, free weights, medicine balls, TRX suspension straps and space for stretching. Mercifully, there are four private bathrooms with showers. You can also buy healthy snacks and drinks on-site, and even rent Lululemon fitness clothing if you haven’t packed any of your own. Roam Fitness says it plans to open three more US locations this year and, within five years, hopes to have 20 locations including some overseas.

Reactive Rooms

Marriott International has partnered with Samsung and Legrand (a specialist in electrical and digital building infrastructures) to create a prototype Internet of Things (IoT) hotel room, which it hopes to introduce to its properties one day. Marriott believes in a sci-fi future where mirrors talk and your shower recognizes you when you enter. Its IoT Guestroom Lab allows users to ask a virtual assistant for a wake-up call, to start a yoga routine on a full-length mirror, or set the shower to the temperature stored in their customer profile.

The Irvine Marriott in California has been experimenting with a smart shower door, whereby people can draw or write down ideas in the steam on the glass, and then have them beamed to an iPad. A select number of Marriott’s Aloft hotels already have voice-activated rooms.

Affordable Luxury

Good news for budget-conscious business travelers is the continued growth of affordable luxury in both hotels and airlines. For example Dutch chain Citizen M offers just one category of compact room and no in-room dining, swimming pools or gyms. Instead, guests benefit from generous amounts of communal space for working and eating, and a hip canteen open 24 hours. The emphasis is on creating a trendy but homey environment. A night at the new Citizen M La Défense in Paris costs starts at €80 ($98) a night, and the chain plans to expand across North America and Asia over the coming years.

The new Moxy Times Square (from Marriott) is another example of a hotel chain that has chosen to invest in imaginative interior design, lively social spaces and superb dining at unusually low rates (beginning at $124 a night) by eliminating extraneous facilities and levels of service.

Affordable luxury is coming to airlines too. The Lufthansa Group’s budget subsidiary Eurowings has announced it will be installing a business class cabin – with fully flat beds – on board its long-haul wide-body aircraft departing Dusseldorf from the end of April 2018. Oliver Wagner, the airline’s CEO, says: “That’s not a contradiction for Eurowings. We see strong demand for another top product on routes with high business travel, for example from Dusseldorf to New York, Miami and Fort Myers.” And, he adds, “We’ll be entering the Bizclass race with our usual budget-priced tickets.”