The Uber stopped in front of a bright blue colonial building In Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. The sun bouncing off sandy streets, it hit chrome bumpers, washing the low-slung buildings into a water-color set. A boy in a dirty tanktop rode his bike past an old light- blue Volkswagen Bug that had a logo on its door. Diplomat Hotel.
Inside the door to the hotel, there was a dark hallway leading to a courtyard surrounding a square pool, palm trees with white hammocks and a long table. I noticed a bar with 3 bottles of Mezcal, beers and plates of fruit.
Neil, the owner of The Diplomat met me at the far table, unfurling a map as he walked. He was not tall or short, wiry, wearing a linen shirt and wireframe glasses that said engineer before he declared it. He walked me through the map, pointing out off-the beaten path restaurants, Casa Tho, an esoteric shopping experience, the best churro carts and where to dine that night. He asked if I would like a Mezcal- a value add- bottles are left out for sipping, no charge. I said yes.
He told me about Stephen Malkmus and Jeff Tweedy coming by after playing cornhole at their friend’s house. Their friend, an artist, splits time between New York and Merida. We sipped Mezcal and made some loose agreements on our future relationship. It all felt easy and good. That was my very first meeting with a hotel.
I finished designing a honeymoon for a young couple. Starting in Munich, they will drive through Innsbruck to Corvara and Cortina Italy, then on to Trieste, stopping to swim at Trogir, Croatia, Diving off Vis, skinny dipping from a rented boat on the Paklenis. They have been so excited, volleying ideas, pinging me with hikes, climbs, bike routes through the Dolomites and I, in turn, shoot back photos of pebbly beaches in Vis, Croatia, the best wood-fired Pizza joint in Cortina and Gelateria in Sirmione. I give guidance. A soft word, left not right. Think about this…. go here, it suits you.
Rick Rubin does not know how to read music. He cannot play an instrument. He feels things. Laying on a window bench with his feet bare and eyes closed, he listens to a musician play. He breathes into a microphone guiding the singer to try a melody just a bit differently. “It isn’t about the audience,” he says. “The audience only knows where they have been.”
That is how I work. Though a bit hyperbolic and egoistic for sure…I do, without a hint of self-deprecation, feel kindred with Rubin, Tarantino and all artist who provide a serving of what they most want and if it resonates it resonates. I have a bed in my office. I lay on it with my eyes closed. I take baths reading Yolo journal, Skift, Suitcase, Afar, Adventure Journal, Anglers Journal, Surfers Journal. I think a lot. Don Draper went to the movies. I take naps and read. When I awake, I have the solution.
I have Synesthesia. A condition that allows a person to sense more information(for better and worse) than others. For example, my numbers and letters all have colors and some have textures- my 4 is straw. I see patterns developing. I can see elk on far away hillsides that look like boulders to others. When I look at a location or a hotel on the internet, I can tell in two seconds if it is a place I would like to visit. 99%of the time when I arrive to that location, I am correct. Everything looks exactly how I had pictured. I feel things the way Rick Rubin feels things, though with me, it is travel instead of music.
I emailed off the Honeymoon portfolio and dropped into a Host Travel Agency web site. I wanted to research how I could utilize some of their software and, honestly, how I could capture more commission from the larger volume I was producing for big travel companies. I poked around, jumped on their threads, talked on the phone with a sales agent. I was left empty. Every voice was raspy and desperate, smokers....... Floridians. I told one agent, I work with smaller vendors and his response was, “Thats cute, why are you leaving the big bucks on the table you get from Cruises and All- Inclusives?” It felt like my days in the surgical device industry with managers asking why I had not asked the surgeon to use the more expensive device or up-sold the warranty. My head in a vice, wanting badly to say… Fuck off.
How the sausage is made.
This is how it works and why our travel landscape is the way it is. If you book your own hotel, rental car, dining, air and even travel insurance- directly, it is a somewhat clean transaction- well, sort of… Stripe, Square, Paypal etc. take their 4-6% from the vendor and you get the trip that you have put together and that is super cool for a lot of people.
If you use an on-line travel agency like Tripadvisor the commissions, that is to say, what comes off the hotel’s top line revenue, are closer to 15-30 percent. With margins so tight for a smaller independent hotel it is obviously difficult to make it. And that, is why there are so many gigantic mediocre shiny crappy choices and very few very fine choices.
It is this economy of scale that rewards mediocre cheap output via smaller unit prices at larger unit purchases that is the reason we see kohls next to Costcos next to Wallmarts next to Mcdonalds, Burger king, Carls junior, Taco bell etc etc. And Barcelo, Next to Bahia Principe next to Accor next to Sirenes hiding behind their mega arched entry that some douche consultant thought up as “evocative and inviting.”
Please don’t mistake me for anything but a Capitalist. Anyone who says money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t realize that it does purchase plane tickets, gelato and tacos and that IS happiness. I am about making money, though Gordon Gecko was wrong when he said…
”Greed…. Is good.” It is not, and the B school Ayn Rand push of the 80 and 90s did tremendous harm to our collective psyche and our environment.
Conversely, my model is to book directly with a smaller boutique hotel and work with them on a common sense rate- say 5 percent or waiver of resort fee, a bottle of bubbles for my client or some other amenity that does not break them and makes me somewhat whole. I make it up with a fee for service because I provide something that travel-agents cannot provide, my taste, expertise, and experience in this particular niche of travel. If you want to have the experience of a lifetime while mitigating mistakes, great. If you want to go it your own.. great.
I want small, caring, beautiful, distinct, artful. I want to talk to the owner and learn about her journey. I want a small pool with old frangipani and fruit trees and very few rooms and quiet so that I can be still and away from the crowds.
So when people say, I love using a travel agent- they don’t charge! Yes they do. They steer you toward where they make the most commission. They steer you toward the mundane and the easy. They steer you toward buying travel insurance that makes them the most commission. The cost of the American Travel Agency model is massive.
Disneyification and the race to the bottom
I looked around the host agency website and all I saw where cruises, Disney, kitschy tours, All inclusives in Cancun, Punta Cana and Aruba. The reason why? Their inputs are so cheap that their margins are gigantic, and they are able to offer higher percent commissions to travel agents.
Populists will cry elitism. I do not find it red-blooded to embrace mediocrity. It is not about price of experience, it is about value and the delta that is achieved between the gaudy and the authentic.
This is where the author usually says- and this is fine, if that is what you dig… but it is not fine. We are at an impasse. We have 8 billion people on earth with an ever-increasing travel class, coupled with the onslaught of social media grooving influencers with vocal fry who say “amaaaaaaaaazinngggg…. It was ammmmmmmaaaaaazing….. “ "Sooooo a lot of you have been asking me in the comments how to be identical to all of the other people going to the exact same places all the time...."
The sand mining it takes to make the concrete and glass for new buildings is not sustainable. The Ship-building and inputs for giant buffets on cruises, likewise are gluttonous, if not gaudy, at best, tacky and at worst nefarious. The Telegraph reported that China used more sand between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. did in the twentieth century. Developing countries like Cambodia are being depleted of sand and Mangroves all over the world are being destroyed. There is Sargasso everywhere, Coral is white and we are on the brink of the 6th mass extinction. I apologize for wringing hands and gnashing teeth but it is so maddening.
“Cruise Market Watch” showed growth from 5 million passengers in 1990 to 25 million in the first half of 2019. Skift totaled 25% growth in 5 years for All- Inclusives, ending with 8 billion dollars in revenue in the first half of 2019.
Take this demand and match it with 8 billion people on earth, add in social media plastering the same places over and over. It reminds me of the wooden- opened chested sculpture in Tulum. I drove by a line of 200 sweating, open mouthed youngsters staring gallingly at their phones, waiting for their turn to take a selfie that will get 11 likes.
No, I want a small courtyard with a mezcal and the chance to chat with the owner and maybe Stephen Malkmus.
1. Seek out independent vendors, hotels, restaurants.
2. Travel closer to home.
3. Purchase Carbon offsets on Terrapas.(We have made a blanket purchse for the year.)
4. Go where the crowds are not.
5. Good lord don’t cruise or go to an all-inclusive.
6. Book directly or have us book directly.
7. Take a single use stainless water bottle.
8. Understand Global sustainable Council Tourism and how hotels are certified.
9. Don’t fall for greenwashing.