Sunday, 30 September 2012

Vietnam: Hue, the world of the ancient Kings, part 2

Another early start and on our bikes at 8am for the tombs of the kings, the sun burned and a significant contrast to the gloom of the North and Hy Long bay. The rain the night before has cleared the clammy air.

We enter the countryside of Hue to explore the tombs of the kings of the 19th Century. These huge infrastructures spread across 15 - 20acres of land was a complex maze of temples pavilions and tombs built around stunning lakes and surrounded by forests. Here the king was laid to rest, in secret tombs, for his soul to wonder in the afterlife. These took decades to construct and the architectural design is phenomenal, detailed and put me in awe.

While we had little time to explore, it was enough to appreciate the wealth of this country just 150 years ago. Before the French took control, the Americans invaded and communism took its grip.

The afternoon I spent shopping in Hue before enjoying the finer cuisine.

Day 7: AM Exploring around Hué by bicycle. PM Perfume River optional.

This morning we will enjoy the peaceful leafy backstreets of this charming city, cycling out to explore the countryside around Hué. We begin with a visit to the Ho Quyen amphitheatre, where the emperor presided over duels between tigers and elephants. Continuing on to the 19th century Nguyen Tomb of Tu Duc, we will enjoy the beautiful complex of ornate temples, pavilions and tombs built beside a picturesque lake. After a visit to the eunuch tombs at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, a gentle ascent of Vong Canh Hill rewards us with spectacular views. From the pine forest atop the hill we can look over the Perfume River and the surrounding countryside and tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. We finish our morning cycling further out to the vast 19th century tomb of Minh Mang, possibly the finest of all the imperial tombs. Returning to Hué by bus around lunch time, the rest of the day is then free. There is the option to take a half day excursion along the Perfume River, visiting the iconic Thien Mu Pagoda, home to the oldest monastery in the city, whose 21m high tower has become something of a symbol for Hué. Dedicated to the Manushi-Buddha, the existing temple was constructed in the middle years of the 19th century, under the auspices of the Emperor Thieu Tri, and within its confines you can find a number of superb Buddhist statues, as well as an enormous cast bell that weighs in at over 2000 kg and is reputed to be audible over 10 km away.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Vietnam: Hue, the world of the ancient Kings, part 1

The train pulled into Hue just before 10am, a little earlier than expected. It was a mad rush to pull my gear together as we bundled off the carriage onto a packed platform of like-minded travellers being herded to the exit. We were certainly moving South - the sky was now bare blue, the sun a ferocious burn - temperature up at least 5 degrees.

Brunch was served in Mandarin Restaurant - which immediately transported to my dream as a coffee shop owner - this was ultra cool and had a theme to die-for; travel portraits lined the room, guide books and travel journals scattered across the tables and a menu depicting most national brunch dishes.

By Midday I was walking around the city. At 2pm we were on our first cycle excursion into the countryside for a farming museum with a rather charming woman history guide, and a rather pathetic historical UNESCO momument at Thanh Toan - in the shape of a bridge built in....1993!

Onwards and the skies darkened, here I could see the clouds forming for a torrential downpour, I was expecting my first ever rainfall that would squeeze every ounce of water from the sky here in Asia. As we cycled along I hoped to reach the hotel in time, when all of the sudden we took a sharp right, then a left and we had passed our hotel. We weren't going back, I had a bag full of electronics, my phone, camera, video camera and here I could now be expecting it to get drenched. Instead we were heading for Citadel which was built by the Nguyen dynasty (Vietnam’s ruling emperors from the early 1800s to 1945), the Citadel still dominates the left bank of the Perfumed River.

On approaching the Entrance it was an incredible sight, looking down on us from above, this gigantic structure told the stories of old and the wealth of the kingdom. On walking through the imposing entrance suddenly the excitement depleted, replaced by immense sadness, sorrow, frustration and annoyance. We were faced with ruins, not ruins of old, but recent. As recent as 40 years, 1968 in fact, the Tet Offence, the American-Vietnam war. The Americans had bombed the lot, what stood was reconstructions, this proved the resiliance of the Vietnamese. They were not going to be denied their history, instead celebrate it, even though the pain of rebuilding. My respect for the Vietnamese was growing by the hour, not only are they welcoming, friendly, courteous, but they are courageous and humble.

I left wondering what more was in store for me...I was worried about the sights I had left to witness.

This evening we made our way for a group meal, this tradition handed down by the Vietnamese kings. Originally 50 chefs, 50 musicians and 50 courses - instead we only need to stomach 12 courses and a small group of student musicians who sang and player traditional Vietnamese music for us. Believe it or not I played King, as one of the two youngest of the group I doned the fetching gold robe and head piece, slightly hot and uncomfortable but thoroughly fun and enjoyable.

Following which I headed to the centre of the fun part of Hue for a couple of drinks at DM2 bar for a couple of Daiquiris.

Day 6: Arrive Hué. PM biking tour of Hué.

Arriving in Hué this morning we transfer to the hotel and check in, after checking and adjusting our bikes the rest of the morning is free to relax and enjoy at your leisure. Once the capital of Vietnam and an inspiration for poets and artists alike for centuries, Hué is divided by the waters of the Perfume River, which separate the city’s 19th century citadel from the suburbs that radiate from the eastern shore. Even today, its easy air of leisurely ambience makes it one of the most engaging cities in the country to explore and, after lunch, we will cycle our bikes on a tour of the imposing Citadel. Built by the Nguyen dynasty (Vietnam’s ruling emperors from the early 1800s to 1945), the Citadel still dominates the left bank of the Perfumed River. Its formal moats and impressive ramparts were constructed to be an exact copy of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and whilst much of the inner city suffered badly during the heavy bombardments of the Tet Offensive in 1968, the huge outer walls and the West Wing remain an eloquent reminder of the palace’s former glory. Later today we will cycle out to the lovely tile-roofed bridge at Thanh Toan. Built over two centuries ago, the arched wooden bridge spans a canal that runs through the village and has long been an iconic and cultural landmark in the area. Late in the afternoon the old folk gather on the bridge to talk and reminisce. After enjoying the tranquil atmosphere around the bridge we will cycle back to our hotel.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Upselling provides profit, guest satisfaction

Upselling provides profit, guest satisfaction

Upselling is something we are all exposed to from time to time. And whether you sell meals, bedrooms or widgets, it's a technique that can help your bottom line. When done well, upselling can give your customers a better experience.
Wikipedia describes upselling as “a sales technique whereby a salesperson induces the customer to purchase more expensive items, upgrades, or other add-ons in an attempt to make a more profitable sale.” I’m not sure I like this description. It implies that upselling is one-sided in favor of the business, with little benefit to the customer at all.
Although upselling usually involves marketing more profitable services or products, it also can simply expose customers to other options they might not have considered. Upselling implies selling something that is more profitable or otherwise preferable for the seller instead of the original sale. But is it just about increasing the customer spend, or is it also about giving the customer a better experience overall—offering them something they forgot to order or never even thought of?

Friday, 21 September 2012

Northern Ireland – Selling hotel rooms

At last week’s Selling Rooms event with the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation, hotels were very interested in learning how they could control their own inventory. Most of the attendees acknowledged that through OTAs they were losing control over pricing and distribution as they fought to manage the cost of selling through third parties.

While many are trying to sell direct, it beggars the question - how much inventory is allocated to the direct channel and how much to third party, when in fact all channels should have access to the same availability. In many cases there can be as much as 24% profit difference selling direct than across OTAs.

Interestingly, hotels struggled to manage their budgets effectively as some of the revenue management or OTA costs derived from the Marketing budget and others from the Reservations. Why should the direct selling channel come from Marketing, while OTAs are paid by Reservations? Marketing will always achieve a higher profit margin and is therefore unrepresentative of the financials of e-sales.

Many consumers have a hard time booking across hotel websites, unfortunately the journey can be clunky without a clear and easy-to-use booking engines. Hotels need to invest in booking engine applications they can easily install in their website that is similar to the OTAs, this will optimize the booking journey for conversions and mobile bookings.

It was also noted the value of Voice bookings, training the reservations, call centre and front of house team to offer packages based on internet rates, and upgrade if necessary to avoid losing the booking to a third party website, which will const them dearly in commission fees.

Northern Ireland has experienced a very strong year, with most guests being domestic tourism. The national tourism office will be launching a new website at the end of the year that will incorporate direct booking initiatives from the main OTA providers, giving hotels in the region an additional option for exposure and visibility.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A Trip to Belfast: Artistic Graffiti, Gay bar gone right

A very brief spell in Belfast brought me to a part of the UK I thought I would not see until old age, but makes me now want to return very soon. Arriving by taxi from Belfast International Airport the sun shone on the vibrant green hills of the surrounding countryside. The central city the location of numerous riots was peaceful, clean and inviting.

I stumbled across the bar and restaurant Made in Belfast that was adorned by rainbow flags and I was impressed, I must dine here the next time I am in the city. I was also given an exclusive tour of The Merchant hotel, restaurant and bars - this former Ulster Bank headquarters is decadent and will fulfill any romantic gestures you intend - plus it has a multi-award winning cocktail bar with the Guinness Book of Records for the most expensive cocktail.

Belfast - a city to return to.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Vietnam – Cycling the back roads & villages of Ninh Binh – the waterway

The day started with a jolt – other than waking at 5am due to dehydration – my alarm kicked into gear for the first time this trip, stirring me to an unwanted consciousness. The hard bed provided my fellow travelers and myself with a deceivingly great sleep.

A two-egg omelet and three plates of food filled my breakfast stomach before we hopped on our bikes for the countryside and local farms of Ninh Binh.

The sky remained grey with fog and light cloud – as the day matured the sun strengthened and blue skies attempted to force their way through.

We visited the ancient capital of Vietnam – it survived for some of a century in around 900-1000BC before moving on. The Vietnam War had pretty much destroyed any heritage of the country yet we visited two temples – including that of a king with a thing for playboys.
We navigated small road and dirt pathways between limestone hills and vivid green rice paddy fields. In fact it was the Vietnam we see in the storybooks, travel guides and TV documentaries. I suddenly felt swept up by the country.

Lunch was hosted by a local family – traditional Vietnamese in their former wooden shack built in 1963; so it survived the war!

Mid-afternoon we took a trip across the river; a woman rowed us for two hours through the slow moving river frames by dykes and ornamental limestone hills. Here peace, relaxation and a true slow-pace of life revealed itself.

Evening came, 9.30pm and I boarded my first sleeper train. The 1920’s diesel engine rolled in some minutes late. It was due to pause in Ninh Binh for little more than three minutes – the crew of nine ran for carriage 9 bumbling up the stairs before squeezing into tight dormitories. It was a dream come true.

I felt like Indiana Jones – just in the wrong decade.

We ordered our beds and supplies for the 13-hour journey to Hue and prepared for sleep. I, in my silk sleeping bag from Hanoi.
Cycling the back roads to Hoa Lu this morning, we visit the country’s ancient capital. Once the political and cultural centre of Dai Co Viet (Vietnam), the city ruled over the region’s first centralised feudal state. Whilst many of its ancient monuments are long gone, we will get a chance this morning to visit the temple of King Dinh Tien Hoang, the man who unified the country and founded Vietnam’s first feudal dynasty. From here we cycle along narrow concrete paths through picturesque local communities on to the 12th century Nguyen Saint Temple. After a break at the temple we head through rural countryside towards the spectacular limestone karst formations of Van Long, and finally on to the nearby village of Vuon Thi, where we enjoy a delicious traditional lunch. There may be an opportunity to try some traditional farming and fishing instruments in the yard. After lunch we cycle the short distance to the nearby dock for a tranquil sampan journey around the stunning caves and Karst scenery of the Van long Reservoir. Returning to Ninh Binh later this afternoon by bus, there will be some free time in the city and to freshen up in our hotel dayroom before we board the Reunification Express for the overnight journey to Hué.