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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Starwood and AT&T #FAIL And Bless Me With $180.76 Of Phone Charges

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Put this in the “every business traveller thinks this on a regular basis” rant category. Sure – I’m whining, but I imagine I’ll feel better after I get done. I doubt it has any impact on the universe, but hopefully it’ll be a story that rings true to some of you out there who travel as much as I do. And to my friends at Starwood and AT&T, you made my day yesterday, which was already intense, a lot harder than it needed to be.

I just woke up, made some coffee, turned on my computer, and noticed that my hotel bill was shoved under my door. Last night before I went to bed I tweeted “Dear AT&T and Westin Hotel Wifi: I give up. Good night.” I rarely look at my hotel bills but this time I was curious so I grabbed it. $323.10 for the room, $32.32 for State and County Tax, $9.95 for Internet Service, and $180.76 for 10 telephone calls.

Remember that I said I rarely look at my hotel bill. I travel constantly and I’m what I’d describe as a high end utilitarian traveler. When I travel alone I’m not terribly picky about the hotels I stay at, generally prefer modern to classic, just want a dark, clean room that I can make cold at night, and want to be left alone. I try to be super polite to the hotel staff while simultaneously very low maintenance.

I used to be annoyed that I’d pay $500 or more for a room and get hit with a $14.95 bill for Internet access. I stopped being annoyed by that a while ago and just view it as part of the cost of the room. I don’t watch television so my time in the room is spent working on my computer, talking on my cell phone (or my computer via Skype or Google Chat), sleeping, or being in the bathroom. That’s it. Oh – and I appreciate the free coffee service in the room since I get up at 5am and there’s rarely a coffee option anywhere until 5:30am.

Yesterday at about 2pm I arrived at the Westin Arlington Gateway. I’ve got a set of meetings tomorrow at the National Science Foundation so I’m staying down the block. My amazing assistant Kelly had scheduled a dozen phone calls between 2pm and dinner so I figured I’d just sit in my room and grind away on calls and email. A few of my calls where Skype calls and my phone number is a Google Voice number so I’d just sit in front of my computer and work in between the calls.

When I checked in at 2pm, the room they had assigned me to wasn’t ready. The guy checking me in was super nice, asked me a bunch of questions (do you want a high floor or a low floor, near the elevator or away from the elevator) to which I answered “I don’t care – whatever room you have will be fine, and found me a room. He informed me that my Starwood preferred number was on file (whatever that means) and was very  polite.

I plopped down in my room, took out my laptop, went through the “connect to the Internet” process which appeared to cost $9.95 for the day, and got to work.

After 10 minutes I knew I was screwed. The Internet performance was painfully slow. Since I had back to back calls, I didn’t have a window to call “tech support” and have them take a look so I put up with it for a little while. I figured I’d use my iPhone as a hotspot as the backup and switched over to it. That was even worse. I tried to make a phone call with my iPhone instead of Google Voice. It took three tries for it to go through and then it dropped after 60 seconds.

I was officially in RidiculousTelecommunicationStan. I struggled through the first few calls (anyone on the other end, especially the poor souls on Skype, could probably sense my frustration and theirs was probably higher) before giving up and switching to the landline in my room. Yes – a landline. I had to think for a moment whether to dial 9 first or 8 first (remember that I’m in a hotel), got it right, and simply made all the calls from that phone. Internet performance was still miserable, but by using Sparrow I managed to work “semi-offline”  and the emails went through what seemed to be simulating a 2400 baud modem.

Eventually I had 15 minutes between calls so I pressed the “Service Express” button on the phone to ask for Internet tech support. The nice person took down my info and said someone would call me back. They did 15 minutes later which overlapped with my next call. I eventually called them back just as I finished up but before I left for dinner. We did all the standard troubleshooting things which indicated that the Internet was slow and after an escalation, resulted in someone “resetting a router” remotely. I went to dinner, was about 15 minutes late, but was optimistic that when I got home I’d be able to jam through another hour or so of email.

No such luck. After calling Amy on the land line and saying goodnight, I struggled through 15 minutes of email before deciding to just screw it and go to bed. I tweeted out my frustration and quickly got a response from @StarwoodBuzz that said “Sorry about that. If you can DM us your stay details in full, we can do our best to help. We’ve followed you.” Nice, but I was done for the night, closed my laptop, and will DM them this blog post and see what happens.

And then I woke up this morning, started a cup of coffee, and noticed by $180.76 bill for 10 phone calls. Total stupidity on the part of Starwood where I’m apparently a “not very preferred guest.” It’s been a long time since I resorted to using the landline in my hotel room and it didn’t even occur to me that they’d rip me off like this. I remember staying in a Marriott near an airport recently and the cost for Internet and unlimited long distance phone calls was $9.95, so I’m doubly perplexed. And I don’t see any of those little plastic signs saying “if you use this phone to make a call we are going to charge you $2 per minute” (which is what it appears they were charging based on a few of the calls.)

I can’t remember the last time I made a fuss when I checked out over a hotel bill. I’m sure I eat some extra charges her and there, but whatever. This morning, when I head downstairs, I’ll ask to have all the phone calls taken off my bill. We will see what happens.

In the mean time, I’m going to keep reminding myself that this is 2012, not 1996, where we are just discovering the expensive magic of Internet in hotel rooms. I look forward to 2024 when I no longer have a landline in my room and the Internet works flawlessly for the $9.95 I pay a day to use it. Or maybe AT&T will work in the middle of Arlington, Virginia. Or maybe pigs will fly.

Update: The manager at the Starwood Arlington left a message for me that he had reversed all of the charges. So he did the right thing and I appreciate that. An AT&T customer service person also called and assured me he would talk to the hotel and explore if there is a dead spot in the area. I’m now on Acela to NY where their Wifi doesn’t work for shit but AT&T is tethering ok today. Now, if I could only get the soccer mom two rows up to stop telling stories about her 7th grade son’s soccer team I’d maybe be in a less grumpy place.

Virgin America Nails Connected Travel

Comments (26)

I travel a lot. I’m not a particularly high maintenance traveller as I can sleep from wheels up to wheels down on most flights. When I fly west to east I usually fly at night; east to west I usually fly early in the morning (much to the chagrin of my partners who don’t enjoy getting up at 4:15am to go to the airport quite as much as I do.)

I’m running a marathon on Sunday in Newport, Rhode Island and decided I didn’t want to take a redeye from San Francisco to Boston three days before the marathon. As a result, I’m flying “all day” – leaving SFO at 9am and getting in to Boston around 6pm.

I often fly Virgin America from SFO or LAX to BOS or NY. It’s unambiguously the most comfortable cross country flight and I always feel a little hipper when I’m chilling out in a plane in white seats with purple mood lights. But that’s just the feel good bonus. Here’s how this morning is playing out.

I show up at Virgin and notice that they have a Chromebook kiosk. Neat – there’s a bunch of computers that are connected that anyone can use while waiting for the flight. Then I realize they are giving away free Chromebooks to use on the flight. You only get to use them during the flight, but they are free and include a free WiFi connection. Double neat. Then I sit down, open up my MacBook, and immediately see my Skype WiFi app pop up and tell me I can connect to WiFi for $0.10 / minute. Since I don’t have a Boingo subscription, and there’s not any other obvious free WiFi right here, I just click yes. Oh – and there’s a nice desk area and power.

I have a five hour flight where I expect to get a solid four hours or so of online time. A decade ago, even though everyone was talking about “wireless networking on airplanes”, it didn’t really work. Today, I’m online without much effort for as much time as I want.

Virgin makes this experience seamless. When I think about my United trips, I just cringe. No WiFi on the plane, generally crummy gate setups with no power, and a very predictable “sorry – we have a maintenance problem that we are looking into.” It’s actually kind of enjoyable to be spending the day on Virgin America flying across the country.

That Was The Best Tuna I’ve Ever Had

Comments (19)

I had a really fun night in Montreal at the opening dinner for the C100 Conference that I’m speaking at tomorrow. The dinner was put on by Accelerate MTL and included some friends as well as a bunch of new people I met tonight.

Dinner was really well done. I sat next to Howard Lindzon who teased and entertained me all night long. Dinner was a pre-set menu so I ordered the non-meat choices and didn’t think twice about it.

I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 19. I eat fish, so I guess I’m a fishetarian or pescatarian or whatever you want to call me, but no beef, chicken, or pork. Once a year I end up accidentally eating some meat (usually on nachos, soup, or something Italian) and I always realize it around 3 am.

The first course was yellowfin sashmi, which was excellent. The second course was some kind of red tuna like thing which I dug into without a second thought. It was easily the best tuna I’ve ever had. Snarf – and gone. I then made fun of my tablemates who were eating a beet salad (which also looked really good.)

Brad: “You guys made the wrong choice – this tuna tartare was awesome.”

Howard: “That’s not tuna, that’s steak.”

Brad: “Howard – you know I’m a vegetarian – quit giving me shit.”

Howard: “No seriously, look at the menu, you just ate a plate full of stake tartare.”

I looked. In fact, they’d served me “Tartare de boeuf epice, truffe, parmesan, citron.” Yes – it was the best tuna I’ve ever had because it was in fact steak tartare. And it was awesome.

Much mockery of me ensued. It’s not quite 3 am, but my stomach is doing the once a year “you just ate meat” rumble.

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