Travel hack gone awry: the conference that got canceled

AUSTIN–South By Southwest starts today, but I’ve been here since Wednesday. That seemed like a smart way to arrange my travel until last Thursday–when the PR Summit conference here vanished from my schedule.

You can’t tell this from the generic “under construction” page at that address, but I was going to participate in a discussion about communications strategies “in the age of Trump and Twitter.” That’s a fascinating topic I hope to address someday. But last Thursday’s e-mail announcing the conference’s postponement after a sponsor’s withdrawal ensures that time won’t be this week.

I have spoken at a lot of conferences over the past 10 years, and this is the first time one has gotten scrubbed like this. My great experience speaking at 2013’s PR Summit in San Francisco led me to expect this one to go just as smoothly–and since I was heading to Austin anyway, moving up my departure by two days and getting a better deal on airfare in the bargain made sense.

Thing is–not that I’d know this first-hand–putting on a conference requires difficult and prolonged work and demands the support of many third parties with their own interests. I should probably be surprised I haven’t had one implode on me before.

The immediate downsides of having the event cancel were realizing I’d spend two more days away from my family without any business rationale, and that I’d need to find someplace else to stay now that the conference-paid hotel room was gone as well.

But the local PR shop TrendKite put together its own small event Wednesday afternoon, at which it was comforting to realize anew that PR pros can find social media just as much of a game of chance as journalists. I stayed the last two nights with a friend from high school and his wife (cooking dinner for them Wednesday allowed an overdue introduction to the kitchen-newbie-friendly UX of a Blue Apron kit). And having last night free let me catch up over dinner with a college-newspaper friend whom I’d last seen in 2003. I can’t complain about those outcomes.

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Five-time MWC results: working harder and maybe faster, and a lot more obsessive about travel

Re-reading the coverage I filed from Mobile World Congress in 2013, I can only think of what a slacker I was back then: one post for Discovery News about the state of smartphones, an extra column for USA Today about much the same topic, and a post for my tech-policy hangout at the time, Disruptive Competition Project, on how weird the U.S. phone market seemed after my overdue introduction to the workings of wireless in the rest of the world.

mwc-17-camera(That last one holds up reasonably well, I think.)

During my fifth trip to MWC, I filed six posts from Barcelona and need to finish a seventh about the hype and reality of 5G wireless. Unlike four years ago, I wrote enough stories from the global phone show on top of my typical weekly output to cover my travel costs, even though the contracts I write on today aren’t as generous as 2013’s.

I’ll admit that I would have liked a little more free time to play tourist beyond the Saturday afternoon I spent traipsing around Park Güell, but I also hate feeling like 700 words must require a day’s work or that I’m somehow above cranking out copy from a tech event. So I wrote as fast as I could but not as fast as I’d like.

I’d like to think that motivation led me to take more notes from the show floor, and I hope the practice sticks in my head on weeks when I’m at home and have free time to tempt me to poke around with a post.

mwc-2017-floorThe more important upside of this exercise was a lesson in the virtues of showing a little entrepreneurial initiative, even when you’re running around like crazy.

For example, one of the stories I sold started with a pitch I made to an editor in between gobbling down lunch Friday and packing for my flight out that evening. That was totally worth setting aside my luggage for a few minutes.

After the jump, more about travel: The other part of my approach to MWC that’s changed since 2013 is how having an elevated elite status on one airline has left me even less capable of booking flights like a normal human being.

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SXSW FYI

South By Southwest has somehow been on my calendar every March since 2012, which should mean I know what I’m doing in Austin. I don’t really–but with friends coming to SXSW for their first time, I’m due to share what I’ve learned over these five years of practice at hanging out with the unelected hipster elite.

sxsw-microphonePacking: SXSW is properly understood as CES in a more walkable city. Bring your most comfortable shoes and socks, take a jacket you can stuff in a bag (it gets warm during March days in central Texas), and ensure your bag/backpack/purse/satchel always includes a power adapter and external battery for your phone.

If you have a travel power strip and extra USB cables, bring them. Helping other people charge their devices is a recognized good deed at SXSW.

I hear that packing a sufficiently ironic t-shirt can’t hurt, but every year I forget to bring anything from my dwindling collection of ’80s concert attire.

Getting around: With Lyft and Uber having fled Austin after it enacted rules that require fingerprinting drivers, getting around CES may be more complicated as you deal with various smaller-scale ride-hailing services. I haven’t tried those alternatives, but I usually stick to walking back and forth–downtown is compact enough.

For travel from and back to the airport, the 100 bus is an underrated option, especially compared to cab lines on SXSW’s opening day of March 10. The Red Line light rail can be helpful for getting to spots on the east side of town, and if you have a car2go membership, that works in Austin too. The city also has a bike share network, but I’ve yet to try that. If only my Capital Bikeshare membership got me a discount on a day pass…

sxsw-6th-streetPanels and venues: At the risk of sounding like a dweeb, SXSW panels deserve your time. They gather smart people who have learned insightful things about the intersection of technology and culture, and you will learn from them if you pay attention. In the bargain, they provide a valuable opportunity to recharge your devices.

Unfortunately, they are also scattered around Austin. The core venues–the Convention Center, he JW Marriott, the Westin, even the Hilton across the street from the convention center–are placed just far enough apart that running into one random acquaintance will lead you to miss the panel you’d put on your schedule in a fit of optimism. If you’d set out to hit a more distant SXSW location like the Hyatt Regency across the river: good luck!

Get used to tearing up those plans in favor of going to whatever you can make in the next 10 minutes. Besides, randomly running into people is one of the best things about SXSW.

Don’t overlook the compact trade-show floor in the convention center. Last year, that led me to headphones 3D-printed to fit only my ear canals (unable to sell that review hardware to anybody else, I donated its sale value to the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica) and a nonprofit campaign collecting USB flash drives on which to smuggle non-totalitarian information into North Korea.

Eating and drinking: The amount of corporate-subsidized food and beverages available during SXSW is ridiculous. I’ve spent the last five years waiting for all of these marketing managers and brand ambassadors to be held accountable for the expenses they run up, but no such thing has happened. So it’s quite possible to spend all five days of SXSW’s Interactive festival without paying for lunch, dinner or drinks.

Breakfast is another thing. So is the late-night snack that may become necessary after attending a SXSW event with more booze than chow. Either way, you’re in one of America’s food-truck capitals: Fire up your eats-finding app of choice, be prepared to walk a few blocks, and you should be fine.

I miss skiing

This has been an oddball winter in Washington, on account of the nearly complete absence of snow. But it has been too typical in another respect: Once again, I’m doing a horrible job of propping up the skiing industry.

View looking uphill from Ski Liberty's chairliftBack in the pre-parenthood era, I had the opposite problem. Between day trips to the handful of places sufficiently nearby (one of D.C.’s less-obvious virtues is having the closest hill, Ski Liberty, less than an hour and a half away), long weekends in West Virginia and at least one trip a year to Colorado, Utah or some other faraway place with Real Mountains, I was spending serious money. Even without having to rent equipment.

Having a baby put a stop to most of that. Instead of expecting to rack up 10 ski days a year, I was lucky to get in one or two–and none out of town.

In prior winters, I could at least count on the occasional blizzard giving me a chance to cross-country ski around the neighborhood. This year? Forget it.

Meanwhile, my ability to give myself an occasional day off to make that drive to one of the local hills has atrophied. It turns out that while freelancing from one’s home does let you dodge your responsibilities long enough to stage an efficient Costco run on a weekday morning, blowing off work for an entire day is no easier than in any other full-time job.

So it’s now been almost two years since my boots, skis and poles got any use. And it’s been almost a year since I last grabbed the cross-country skis for a tour of the neighborhood.

This is lame, and I’m not happy about it–especially not after reading this fine overview of nearby skiing options from my fellow Nats fan/victim William Yurasko. But as I type this, it’s 50 degrees outside with a high of 63 forecast tomorrow, and besides we already have a bunch of things on our schedule. Maybe next weekend?

Things I have learned from 20 years of CES

January 1998 brought something new to my schedule: a flight to Vegas (Southwest from BWI through Midway) and four days at the Consumer Electronics Show.

I’m pretty sure that at the time, I didn’t think this event would occupy my January schedule for the next two decades. But it has, and now that I have 20 CESes in the books I’ve learned a few things about the show.

ces-timeline• The timing is dreadful. Tearing yourself away from your family only days after the warmth of the holidays sucks—and having to deal with CES prep for the weeks beforehand doesn’t exactly put me in the Christmas spirit. If I could build a time machine, I would be tempted to let somebody else kill Hitler (on the theory that if I could construct such a device, so could many other people) and instead go back to 1973 to lobby the founding fathers of CES to hold the damn thing in early February.

• At the same time, the show often represents the first time I will have seen journalist and analyst friends in months. Catching up with these tech-nerd pals makes up for some of the family angst. Unfortunately, I’ve been doing this for long enough that some of these people have filed their last report; I had to cover this year’s show without the insight of Envisioneering’s Richard Doherty.

• The deliberate inefficiency of Vegas (casino-floor layouts are America’s answer to Tokyo’s inscrutable system of street addresses) is infuriating and has only gotten worse as CES attendance has zoomed past 175,000. I struggle to think of a major American event held in a place less capable of moving that many people around, in part because of its own choices: Not having the monorail stop at the Sands represents one of the worst unforced errors in the history of American transit planning.

ces-south-hall• Not getting a flu shot well before going to CES is one of the worst unforced errors in the history of business travel. I found out the hard way in 2009, when I spent five days after CES staggering around my house in a diseased haze–including the day when President-elect Obama toured the Post’s newsroom.

• Year after year, I never work harder than I do at CES. It’s not like I’m a foreign correspondent getting shot at… but when people who have never been to CES say they wish they could go, I struggle to respond with any graciousness.

• People will talk about the obsolescence of shows like CES, but most tech companies can’t pull an Apple and summon reporters to their own events. Having so many of these firms hawking their wares in one place helps me do my job of making sense of the tech industry–and the chance meetings that happen have connected me to good sources and new clients. As annoying as CES gets, it remains one of my more important journalistic and business-development ventures. It looks like I’m stuck with it for a while longer.

• After being from home for a few days and catching up other people’s CES coverage, I have realized once again how many things I missed–an event or a dinner I should have attended, a corner of the floor I overlooked, a vendor I should have met, a demo I should have checked out–despite spending five painfully long days immersed in the show. Whatever else 20 years of covering CES has taught, it hasn’t allowed me to not feel swamped before, during and after this thing.

Updated 1/11/2017 with some concluding thoughts.

2016 in review: a year of travel

This has been a trash bag of a year in so many ways, but on a personal level it could have been worse. As in, for a few weeks in the late winter I thought the overwhelming source of my income would vanish along with most of the Yahoo Tech operation.

Instead, Yahoo Finance picked me up before I’d gotten too far in exploring other possibilities. But the publicity over Yahoo’s content cutbacks wound up helping an overdue diversification of my income anyway–an editor at Consumer Reports e-mailed to ask if the news meant I’d be interested in writing for them. That led to a good series of stories, one not yet published.

2016-calendarI got another lucky break when a press-room meeting at the cable industry’s sparsely-attended INTX show yielded a string of assignments for the FierceTelecom group of sites.

These and other new clients still leave most of my income coming from a single company, but the totals aren’t as skewed as they were last year.

2016 did, however, see me do much better at finagling opportunities to speak on panels that got my travel expenses covered in the bargain. My mileage totals kept climbing as conferences and other tech events took me to places I’d hadn’t seen in 18 years (Hong Kong), 25 years (Paris), 43 years (Lisbon), or ever before (Israel), as well as my now-regular trips to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress and Berlin for IFA.

Domestically, New York was once again my most frequent travel destination, followed by Boston (now that both my brother and my mom live around there, I’m kind of obliged to find interesting tech events around the Hub). I also made my way to Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and the Bay Area. Having SFO appear as a work destination only once seems like a grave dereliction of duty; I’ll try to do better.

(Read on after the jump to see all of my air travel plotted on a map of the world.)

My single favorite trip of the year: Viva Technology Paris, which brought me back to France for a second time this summer and showed that I could moderate four panels in a day. The trip also allowed enough downtime for me to take a train to the suburb of Louveciennes, knock on the door of the house my family rented a quarter-century ago, and discover that the family we’d rented the place from still lived there and was happy to let me look around.

The most challenging trip of 2016 would have to be Web Summit. Doing three panels on four hours of nightmare-level sleep is not an experience I need to repeat.

On that note, I can only hope that 2017 will bring less bad news than 2016. But I don’t know how it will turn out, only that I have work to do and good fortune to repay somehow.

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Mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe

This time of year means falling behind on gift shopping and getting overrun by CES pitches, but it also brings my annual excuse to make my mom’s Christmas-cookies recipe. It’s pretty great and not that much work, though the dough does call for an overnight stay in the fridge. Share and enjoy!

Christmas cookies (an old recipe)

Makes a few dozen cookies, depending on cutter size

  • christmas-cookies-before4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl, then set aside. In a stand mixer’s bowl (or a large, regular bowl; you can combine everything by hand with more effort and sufficiently soft butter), mix butter, sugar and egg, then add sour cream and vanilla before adding the flour mixture. Form into a ball, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

christmas-cookies-coolingThe next day, cut the ball of cookie dough in half. Preheat oven to 375° and lightly grease cookie sheets with butter or cover them with parchment paper. Cover a clean kitchen surface with flour and roll each half of the dough flat to about 1/4 in. thick. Cut with cookie cutters, place on cookie sheets and decorate with colored sugar (I stick with red and green because Christmas, but use what you like). Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned.

About those cookie cutters: You want a mixture of small, bite-size cookies in generic shapes and larger, statement cookies for when you absolutely, positively need 200-plus calories of cookie in one serving.

You also want some creative shapes. Stars, basic geometric shapes, trees, and gingerbread men and women all work. But as the D.C.-outline cookies in these photos should attest, I’ve grown fond of state-shaped cookie cutters like those you can buy in the District at Hill’s Kitchen, across the street from the Eastern Market Metro stop and just off the 8th Street SE row of shops in Capitol Hill.