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.

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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Why yes, I did get your CES pitch. Again.

As I started working on this post, my phone buzzed and its screen lit up with a predictable subject line: “Are you going to CES?”

Of course it did. And of course I am. This January will mark my 20th consecutive trip to CES, the gadget gathering formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show–which itself will mark its 50th anniversary. So this December features not just my usual late and disorganized attempts to shop for gifts, but the annual wave of requests to book meetings at CES.

And just like last year, I have yet to address more than a small fraction of that correspondence. To save tech-PR types some time, here are my answers to the most frequent questions about my schedule in the first week of January. To save myself time, I copied much of this from last year’s post.

GoPro clusterAre you still going to CES?

Since I’m apparently serving a life sentence at this show, that would be a yes. I’ll be there from Tuesday morning through Saturday night.

Will we see you at our press conference?

Your odds are actually better this year, since my flight should land at LAS before 11 a.m. on Tuesday. That leaves me a lot more time for the events before the show officially opens Thursday. But that doesn’t change the basic problem of big-ticket press conferences at CES: endless lines to get in. Not be all “do you know who I am?!,” but if you can put me on whatever list frees me from spending an hour queued up in a hallway, it will help your company’s cause.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. I should have answered all of these pitches by now; sorry for the delay.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Thursday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Friday will find me in the South Hall of the LVCC (it’s become drone central) and then probably in the Sands, where it looks like I’ll be moderating a panel on cybersecurity… which will actually be the second panel on cybersecurity I’ll do that day, because CES.
  • Saturday’s my day to cover everything else before what I’m sure will be a delightful 3.5-hour red-eye flight to O’Hare and then home to National Airport.

Can we set up a meeting at [Pepcom/ShowStoppers]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom (Pepcom is in the Mirage, ShowStoppers at the Wynn), rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Strip trafficCan you come to our reception/happy hour/dinner/party? 

Pepcom and ShowStoppers have me occupied most of Wednesday and Thursday night, but if you have an event before or after them in someplace nearby, I’m more likely to show up. If your event has a couch I can fall asleep on, that might help too. If it will be in a place with no convenient way to charge my devices, that will not help.

Okay, jerk, we get that you’re busy. Are there any times or places that won’t cause you to whine about your trying circumstances?

So glad you asked! Considering how annoying it is to get around Vegas during CES, giving journalists a lift in exchange for a quick product pitch can be pretty smart–I’m surprised I’ve only gotten one offer along those lines. Breakfast is also a good time to try to get a reporter’s attention at CES, because what they do to bagels in CES press rooms should be a crime. And remember that I’m around through Saturday–my schedule should open up after the insanity of Thursday.

Any interest in the e-mail I sent yesterday?

If there is, I promise I will write back… in the next week or so… probably.

A request for travel-app developers: automatic screen brightness

This weekend has many of you on planes and trains, which means many of you have been  fussing with smartphone apps to get a ticket’s QR code to scan properly. Thanksgiving-weekend travel pain may be unavoidable, but code-scanning snafus should be a solvable problem.

national-airport-runway-1They remain unsolved in practice because travel-app developers can’t seem to grasp the idea of brightening the phone’s screen automatically when displaying a boarding pass. Instead, these apps keep leaving that work to you.

That’s definitely the case with the Android travel apps I use most often, United Airlines and Amtrak. With UA, I can sometimes get away with leaving the screen on its usual brightness–but not if I want to have the code scan properly at both the TSA checkpoint and the gate. With Amtrak, even maxing out the brightness–something the conductors always remind passengers to do–doesn’t ensure the ticket will scan on the first time.

(I’m kicking myself for not calling out this shortfall in Amtrak’s app when I reviewed it in 2012.)

If I had an iPhone, I could bring up United boarding passes and Amtrak tickets in the Wallet app, which does brighten the screen automatically. But I don’t own an iPhone, and neither does a huge fraction of the traveling public.

From what I can tell, other airline apps are no smarter about this. American Airlines’ app doesn’t appear to adjust screen brightness (although that company should probably first fix the issue that results in a boarding pass becoming invalid if you don’t bring it up at least 30 minutes before boarding) and Delta’s doesn’t seem to either.

Paper is wasteful, but at least I know my ticket code will work every time. When I go to a Nationals game, it’s my only option–the barcode scanners at the turnstiles have yet to accept a ticket code in an e-mailed ticket, no matter how bright the screen on my phone gets. (My wife’s iPhone 6 doesn’t have that hangup, because reasons.)

Meanwhile, Eventbrite’s app has automatically maxed out screen brightness when I bring up an event’s ticket since the first day I opened it. It’s too bad that I’m almost never asked to show a ticket code on my phone when I show up at an event booked through that service. Perhaps it would help if somebody set up an event for travel-app developers and required Eventbrite mobile tickets?