As soon as I decided to take a last-minute trip to this year’s CES, where 160,000 consumer electronics manufacturers, reporters, and fans descend upon Las Vegas, I had a hunch that I’d have trouble finding a hotel room. After spending five days scouring Hotels.com, Priceline, Hotwire, and all of the other usual suspects, I had zero luck finding a hotel in my “sweet spot” range of 4- or 5-stars, on or near the strip, and less than $250 per night. (Combining the phrase “zero luck” with a trip to Vegas is bad, I’m guessing.)
Each day leading up to the trip, I also checked out Hotel Tonight, searching for hotels in Vegas, but also triangulating my expectations by checking Honolulu and San Francisco, cities where I had a good feeling for the quality and pricing of many hotels.
If you’re not familiar, Hotel Tonight (HT) offers deals for, you guessed it, hotels with a check-in availability of tonight. If I remember correctly, HT began on the premise of giving hotels one final outlet for unused rooms. Or, if you were in need of a last-minute room, or if you liked traveling by the seat of your pants, then HT offered the potential for an amazing deal.
In the days leading up to CES, the deals on HT looked pretty sweet. Rooms at the Hard Rock were in the $60/nt range, and higher-end hotels, like THEHotel, Vdira, and Aria, were under $200. Some of HT’s deals were only for a single night, while others allowed up to four nights. And, some offered multiple nights with varying prices each night.
Being in need of four nights during one of the biggest events in Vegas, and knowing that many hotels were either totally sold out or charging top-end rates, I decided to roll the dice and give HT a chance. What’s the worst that could happen? Given that Vegas has somewhere around 150,000 hotel rooms, I figured that, if I didn’t have any luck with HT, I’d be able to get something off, off Strip for a reasonable price, even on the same day.
One thing caused me some worry, however: HT deals go live at noon local time, and I’d be in the air until a bit after 2:45 PM Vegas time. Not good, especially if anyone else was considering the same plan. Also, I’m assuming that most hotels only offered up a limited number of rooms at HT’s discount price, so the “good” deals would be snapped up before I had access.
On the day before my departure, Vegas deals on HT didn’t look so great. Prices were higher and options were slim. I considered a few online deals from other travel sites, like the Luxor for $170/nt, but the sense of adventure (yeah, this is adventure for me) pushed me to take the risk and see what happens.
Scrolling further, there were a few off-Strip deals for $47 to $120, and then the “Bonus Luxe Hotel” of Encore at Wynn for only $699, which was $100 cheaper than I’d been seeing it online the previous week (but still about 3x my price ceiling).
HT also listed Palms Place as a “Luxe Impulse Deal” (whatever that is) at only $95 for one night, or $167/nt for two nights. It was off-Strip, but after seeing the word “luxe,” and knowing that it was near a restaurant I wanted to try, I dug deeper. It had a 95% “thumbs up” rating and Wifi was free – something for which the cheaper hotels charged up to and additional $25/night. Although every hotel seemed to charge a $20-30 “resort fee,” which sometimes included WiFi.
Checking the Competition
As a quick check, I looked at the rate for Palms Place on Kayak, Trip Advisor, and Priceline. I should note that Priceline directly competes with HT by offering “Tonight-Only Deals,” but like HT, the deals are only available via their smartphone app. No other service appears to offer a similar tonight-only deal. And, unlike HT, which offers multiple hotels, Priceline appears to offer only a single “tonight-only” deal.
Priceline’s tonight-only deal was for the Hard Rock Hotel at $132/nt, a property that, surprisingly, wasn’t listed on HT, either because they already sold their HT allotment for the day (remember that I was a few hours past the noon listing time), or they didn’t list that day. The price seemed to be an OK deal, but not even close to what I’d been seeing on HT for Hard Rock prior to my trip. (It’s also interesting to note on the screenshot to the right that Priceline clearly offers the Hard Rock at $161 as their non-deal price. But, if you look at the “tonight-only” listing, they show the non-deal price as $162. Sure, it’s only a buck difference, but percentage it let’s them slightly inflate their perceived savings by 0.5%. Ironic considering Priceline “blasted” HT over inflated savings claims…)
For Palms Place specifically, the cost was $167/nt on HT (for 2 nights). Trip Advisor’s app, which lists prices from several services, showed an astronomical $504/nt (for 2 nights). And Kayak, which is usually my go-to travel planning service, along with Hipmonk, listed Palms Place at $403/nt. HT was going to save me over $230/nt! Even if you don’t use HT, it’s surprising how widely the prices ranged for the same hotel across different websites. Regardless of how far out you’re planning, it obviously pays to shop around.
Doubling-down on Hotel Tonight
Since the Palms Place per-night average doubled to $198/nt if I stayed 3 nights, I decided to take this little experiment further and double-down on HT. So I grabbed Palms Place for two nights at $167/nt average, then used HT again midweek to see if I could upgrade to something nicer, cheaper, or on the strip.
As an aside, Palms Place was pretty nice, and definitely worth the price. It’s a residence property, with only some rooms offered as hotel rooms, and seemed virtually empty. I hardly ever saw anyone else, and even the adjoining Palms hotel and casino seemed deserted. And, the on-site N9NE Steakhouse was amazing! The only downside was the $12 taxi ride to and from the strip, since there’s nothing worthwhile within walking distance of the Palms properties.
By mid-week, I was ready to try something new and had been checking HT frequently to see which way prices were trending. Every service showed very high prices on Wednesday and Thursday nights, since that was smack in the middle of CES. But, I was hoping that there would be some last-minute cancellations or adjustments that would open up some deals on HT.
The Hard Rock Hotel seems to be a frequent HT property, and I’d heard a lot about it and was curious to try it. At noon on Wednesday, HT showed the Hard Rock at $90/nt, so my gamble paid off!
HT lists the Hard Rock as “hip,” and it is pretty neat to see all of the rock memorabila around the hotel. The place seemed a bit more crowded than the Palms, but was relatively quiet–except for the loud plumbing (I could hear every flush and shower from adjoining rooms) and the fact that it’s located on the airport’s flight path. I’m definitely older than the Hard Rock’s target demographic, so am probably a bit more critical than their typical guest, but they could stand to slap some paint on the walls and hit the carpeting with a vacuum more frequently.
Upon checking out of a HT-booked hotel, the app asks you for a thumbs up or down rating. Given the state of the hotel vs. my expectations, I gave it a thumbs down. However, at $90/nt, it was definitely a good deal…I just wouldn’t stay there again.
A Tiny Glitch
There’s always something, right?
At Palms Place, HT charged me the advertised room rate, plus taxes. When I checked out of the hotel, Palms Place only charged me the resort fee. At the Hard Rock, however, I was not only billed for a higher room rate at checkout, but the hotel listed my HT credit as only $116 instead of the actual $202. I didn’t bicker with the hotel staff, since they didn’t know anything, and HT asks users to call them before calling the hotel.
Now, not to get off on a tangent, but these are the types of occasions when customer-focused culture really comes into play. For example, when I’ve had issues with my Google Nexus One phone or Nexus 7 tablet, the customer service reps at Google were nice, knowledgeable and believed me when I said, “Yeah, I’ve already rebooted it and cleared the cache.” The Google reps then take the quick and customer-centric route of saying, “Just send it back and we’ll send you a new one.”
On the contrary, when I’ve had to deal with customer service at AT&T or Time-Warner, it’s been they typical slow, backwards, company-centric nightmare that we’ve all come to expect from most corporations.
With HT, I called their support line on a Saturday and was greeted by a friendly rep who took my info, said that she would take care of the issue, and promised to call me back when it was resolved. Even more, the rep asked me about my “thumbs down” rating on Hard Rock and mentioned that they try to always follow up on poor ratings, either via phone or email. That’s pretty good service, and makes me think that HT has really integrated customer service into their organizations as part of their culture. They don’t seem to be outsourced reps or just blindly following a script; they are knowledgeable efficient, and seem genuinely concerned about the customer’s happiness. How refreshing!
As promised, an HT rep called me a few days later, said that everything was squared away, and that I’d be seeing adjustments on my credit card statement within a few days. Done.
So what do I think of Hotel Tonight? In a word, it’s awesome! I got two fantastic deals, saving probably $600 or more over four nights (or, getting much nicer hotels for the price).
Given this experience, I’ll definitely use Hotel Tonight again and again, but I’ll be sure to set my expectations by doing some HT recon before I travel. If you’re thinking of trying Hotel Tonight, here’s what I’d recommend:
- For the city to which you’re traveling, check Hotel Tonight right now, and check it daily for a few days. Get a good look at the hotels they work with, see if several appear again and again, and see if you’re comfortable staying at most of those that are frequently listed.
- Check several other services to gauge the book-ahead prices. Start narrowing down your list of potential hotels to three or four listed on HT, and keep comparing prices.
- On the day of your stay, get on HT right at noon (destination time) and book quickly. Be prepared to take your second or third choice. And, check Priceline’s “Tonight-only deal,” just to be sure you’re getting the best deal.
- Upon checkout, make sure you aren’t charged for the room or the taxes, but only the extras.
After nearly two years with my beloved HTC Nexus One phone (great name, eh?), I just upgraded to the new Samsung Galaxy S II 4G. But, since three of the four US carriers have a Samsung Galaxy S II 4G phone, mine is the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G for AT&T. Please don’t confuse my phone with the Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch (yes, with the comma), which is Sprint’s version, or the plain vanilla-sounding Samsung Galaxy S II, available at T-Mobile.
My phone, as its name implies, is a 4G version, same as the Sprint model. T-Mobile’s model doesn’t have 4G in its name, despite it also being a fully 4G phone. T-Mobile has other phones with 4G in the name, but not sure why they chose to skip it for the Galaxy S II.
Oh, and even though only Sprint calls out the fact that their phone is a “Touch” (indicating a touch screen, I suppose), all of these Galaxy S II phones have a touch screen. Of course. Not sure why they didn’t all call that out, other than the fact that it’s pretty obvious to everyone these days that a “smartphone” is also a touch-screen phone.
Let me be clear that none of these phones are to be confused with AT&T’s Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket Android Smartphone. Yes, that’s its full name: Samsung Galaxy S II Skyrocket Android Smartphone.
Let’s review that last point: the phone utilizing slower, older 4G tech has “4G” in the name, but the phone utilizing the newer, faster LTE 4G tech does not have 4G in its name. Nor does it have LTE in its name. It does have “Skyrocket,” which, I guess, a focus group equated with super-fast mobile data speeds, so no need to be redundant. I’d love to know the reasoning behind that decision. Maybe all of AT&T’s LTE phones will be branded as Skyrockets?
Confused yet? You should be, although Samsung has made some confusing product naming decisions recently. In this case, however, I’m guessing that the carriers had more to do with it than Samsung.
(I had someone ask me the other day, “What’s the difference between an Android and a Droid?” I won’t even get in to the marketing behind that perplexing branding, or the fact that Verizon is marketing Droids as some sort of tech robot device…)
Apple is King, Right?
Not all tech companies have sucky product names. Apple, the master of marketing, has pretty straight-forward product names. The iPhone. The iPhone 3G. The iPhone 3GS. The iPhone 4. And the new iPhone 4S. Simple. Same with their MacBook and MacBook Pro, and iPad and iPad 2. Not entirely consistent, but easy to follow. Although, when you get into their iPods, their naming becomes so simple that it’s confusing: every iPod is named simply “iPod <model>”, like iPod Touch or iPod Nano. But Apple changes the format or design or features every year, which sometimes renders past iPods incompatible with software updates or accessories or, more often, cases. Apple then resorts to the product’s generation, like, “Fits first and second generation iPod Shuffles.” Or, Apple forces accessory makers to resort to this type of crystal clear description: Fits 13-inch MacBook (aluminum unibody/black keyboard) & MacBook Pro 13-inch (incorporated SD Card Slot Version).
How do you know which generation iPod you have? And how does the average person know if their MacBook has a unibody?
HP Puts in Minimal Effort
In the past, I’ve marveled at HP’s confusing, long, cryptic product names. They’ve started to get better, but they still have a ways to go. Simply navigating to HP’s laptop products page you’ll see their Pavilion line in this order, sorted by price: dm1z, g6z, g6s, g4t, dv4t, g6x, g7t, dm4t, dv6t, dv6z, dm4x, dv7t, and dv6t (“select edition” and “quad edition”).
What the hell do those names mean? What’s the difference between the initial letters of d or g? Why are g’s mixed with dm’s and dv’s? And how do they expect the typical consumer to ever know what those names mean or which product they should purchase?
Let’s not even get into their printers…HP Photosmart Plus e-All-in-One Printer – B210a…
Sure, they have a massive product portfolio, but there’s no way for consumers to make heads or tails of their naming conventions.
Ask a Mac owner what laptop they have and they’ll say, “MacBook Air” or maybe even “13-inch MacBook Air” to be specific. But ask an HP laptop owner and I’m sure you’ll get, “Um, an HP.” Heck, I personally own an HP laptop and know that it’s some dv something or other, but have no clue of the full, proper name, or why it’s even named that way—and I’m a geek!
Sure, there are a lot of available options, lightning-fast innovations, and frequent upgrades to tech products, but there needs to be more creativity and innovation on the naming side. Software companies have always made it easy with sequential version numbering or, more recently, annual releases tied to the year or season. Microsoft, who can’t seem to make up their minds, flip-flopped when they moved from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 then Windows 98, but then switched again to Windows XP, then Vista, and now Windows 7 and the upcoming Windows 8, but I digress…
What’s the solution? Give some marketing people access to these product naming decision meetings to provide a consumer’s point of view, rather than just the engineers’ point of view. I’m sure that there’s some very specific translation for all of these product names, but the average consumer will never spend the time to understand. Instead, they’ll just remain confused.
* The best line from PC Mag’s article on AT&T’s perversion of the term “4G” – “The International Telecommunications Union started out by defining 4G as a set of technologies that no U.S. carrier will have for several years. But as carriers defined 4G down, the ITU basically gave up.”
I’ve had my beloved HTC Nexus One for about 18 months now. When it comes to tech hardware, for me, that’s about 12 months longer than usual. In fact, I was just reading about the new Kindle Fire and, as my gadget lust consumed me, I started to wonder if I have some sort of personality trait similar to drug addiction. I have a Windows 7 laptop, an Ubuntu laptop, two Android phones, an iPhone 3G, an iPod Touch, an iPod Mini, a Google Cr-48 chromebook, and an HP TouchPad – not to mention the wife’s Kindle and iPad – and I still want the Kindle Fire! What’s up with that?
But I digress…
Back to the Nexus One. Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten incredibly excited at every OS release, updating to Android 2.2 via OTA just to see how that worked, then manually updating to stock 2.3 to get the new UI. With each successive OS release, it’s the little things – whether with Android or iOS or Ubuntu or Windows – that get my curiosity going. More than the speed or power increases, I’m interested in the “look” and the new functionality. What’s going to change the look? Is the font different? How are the icons designed? What are the sounds? Can I change the color of the blinking trackball light to correspond to different types of alerts? How cool is that animation that flashes the display to sleep like an old TV set?
Yes, I am a geek.
However, since Gingerbread/2.3 dropped in December, 2010, and other than some minor releases, it’s been a long dry spell for Android (phone) updates. What’s a geek to do? Sure, I’ve installed apps and themes that give me the look of HTC’s Sense, but that’s just in a few areas – like the awesomely cool flip-style digital clock and killer weather animations (oh yeah, the raindrops and windshield wipers are my fav, for sure!). And, I changed my wallpaper pretty much weekly, going from Android’s cool “live wallpaper” to some of my own photos of local scenes to this awesome statue when I was on a bokeh kick. But those tweaks only satisfied me for so long.
I’ve always considered unlocking my phone, but never really wanted to devote the time to figure it out. The main driver was to try CyanogenMod, which is essentially a custom version of Android developed purely out of joy by a ‘Burgh dude, Cyanogen, and his community of developers. But I was always afraid of breaking something, bricking my phone, losing all of my data, or somehow making a mistake. Then, in a fit of boredom about a month ago, I took the plunge and, after about 20 minutes, had an unlocked Nexus One! It was an incredibly simple process and I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner.
With the phone unlocked, I now had the opportunity to “flash a custom ROM” onto the phone. CyanogenMod was the obvious choice, but I had been reading more and more about a Chinese company, Xiaomi, and their custom Android ROM, Miui. CyanogenMod looks very similar to stock Android and the team puts most of their effort into features and power, but Miui has taken a different approach and reskinned the entire UI. There’s very little in common with Android or even Sense. Sure, it’s the same 4×4 icon layout with a top notification bar and bottom button tray (same as every smartphone), but the “look” is entirely unique. All of the system-type apps, like the music player and text messaging, are new. Even better, Miui has fantastic support for themes, and better yet, you can cherry pick only the parts of themes that you like to create your own, totally custom theme. How cool is that?
If the unlocking process was easy, the installation of Miui was just as painless. It took a few minutes and a couple of restarts and that was it. In my hands I held what was essentially an entirely new phone! Awesome! Of course, the downside was that, in my hands, I held an entirely new phone. I had to re-install all of my apps and reconnect with all of my social media services, but the process was pretty simple. In just 90 minutes or so, I was downright giddy! Over the next few days, I’m sure the wife became sick of watching me constantly play with my phone and, every few minutes, blurt out something like, “Oh cool! You gotta check this out!” She’s a good sport.
Some of the best improvements over stock Android are the capabilities of the Nexus One that Miui engages but that Android inexplicably ignores. It’s confusing especially since the “Nexus” phones are supposed to showcase all that Android can do. The FM radio is one example; it’s not accessible via Android at all. Multitouch is another. Why Google wouldn’t enable these features is beyond me, unless it has something to do with IP and lawsuits?
I’ll make it simple: Miui is awesome! I could go on for days on some of the best features, but here are a few of the key things that make it better than Android (and I won’t even compare it to iOS, which barely allows any user customizations at this level). It’s incredible to think of the amount of development that went into Miui, and that it’s FREE!
- Unlock Screen: Miui allows you to unlock directly into the dialer or messaging. The developers looked at the typically static unlock screen and asked themselves, “Why do people usually open their phones?” Obviously, it’s when they get an alert or they want to make a call. The unlock screen has three icons, a phone, lock, and message balloon. If you swipe on the phone icon, the phone unlocks into the dialer. It gets better by putting a number indicator to tell you how many unread texts or missed calls you have. Even better, if you press and hold on the message icon, it pops up the last few unread messages with no need to even unlock your phone! That’s amazingly helpful! If you’re listening to music, the unlock screen adds fwd/back and play/pause buttons so that you can quickly manage music without diving into your phone. This is invaluable when I’m running and listening to music on my phone.
- Camera: Miui speeds up the camera app’s opening so that you can take photos almost instantly. Then, they add dozens of new settings that Android ignores, like burst mode, effects, anti-shake, metering modes, and many more. You can even focus on specific areas of the image just by tapping that area. It also adds 720p video recording, for your high-def, memory-eating delight.
- Toggles: Stock Android offers a neat widget to toggle wifi, gps, sync, and brightness. Miui, again, goes much farther by putting 12 toggles into the swipe-down notification menu, making it accessible from any screen (unlike a widget, which lives on an individual screen). The “reboot” is an interesting toggle, and they even give you options for the type of reboot you wish to perform. Geeky, and I’ve never had to reboot my phone, but neat nonetheless.
- Guest Mode: An awesome feature that hides calls and texts and prevents apps from being deleted. Sure, it’s useful if you’re going to let someone else use your phone, but it’s killer for parents who want to let their kids play with their phones.
- Themes: I mentioned them earlier, but Miui themes are incredibly comprehensive and powerful, changing everything from fonts and sounds to icons and icon shapes, the look of the messaging interface, and the number of apps in the app tray. It’s incredible how they’ve implemented this to the point of essentially allowing anyone to create a theme and almost call it their own ROM. It’s that powerful.
- Torch: The Torch has to be the coolest app on Miui. I’m not sure if something similar is available elsewhere or in a downloadable app, but it’s brilliant! What does it do? From the lock screen, if you hold down the home key, your camera flash illuminates as a flashlight! It’s awesome for walking up dark stairs, finding your keys (or the keyhole), or not tripping and killing yourself in the dark.
- Additional Fluff: Pinching on any screen pops up a thumbnail of all screens, allowing you to quickly navigate to the desired screen or add new screens. App folders can create collections of apps within one button (yes, iOS has had this feature for a while…). There are eight screen transition options (when you’re swiping between screens), from 3D cube to rotate to page. You can add apps on up to 11 (maybe more?) screens, while Android limits it to 5. FTP, which allows you to copy files to/from your phone over wifi. The dialer shows a keypad plus the past four calls to quickly dial a recent caller. The battery icon can be made to show the exact percentage remaining, not just a simple, partially-empty icon. You can control, app by app, which can transfer data over wireless, wifi, or both, letting you specify, for example, that email can sync on wifi and wireless, but Netflix can only use wifi to save yourself from using all of your monthly data.
I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but I think you get the drift. If you have an Android phone and want more control and a fresh UI, definitely give Miui a look. You’ll unlock your phone’s full potential and give yourself the chance to truly customize every aspect of your phone and make it your own. Honestly, it’s saved me a few hundred bucks from upgrading to an entirely new device. Sure, I’d love to have a bigger screen, and the N1′s “champagne” color is really cramping my style, but even in today’s lightning fast mobile phone world, my 18-month-old device is holding its own!
Get on it! I waited way too long, and now I’m looking forward to the day that I get tired of Miui (a few months, probably) and can give CyanogenMod a try. I’m sure the wife is excited for that as well…
A few months ago I wrote a post about Google’s lack of mass-marketing prowess. Just the look and feel of most of their products has that “built by engineers, for engineers” vibe. Android is a great example, even with the advances in Honeycomb. Same with Gmail, Google Analytics, Google Docs, and on and on. Now don’t get me wrong: I love Google products. I’m an Android nut and I’ve totally given my digital life over to Google’s cloud services. I live in Chrome across multiple devices and I love it (for the most part). But even the new Chromebooks, which I think are killer products (I love my Cr-48), are getting trashed by both mainstream and techie reviewers (I’ll skip the rant on their obvious Apple bias…). I do have an engineering background, which maybe aligns my thought process and helps me “get it” with respect to their usability. Sadly, however, nearly all of their products don’t pass the parent test: Would my mother be able to use this?
And that’s all just related to using their products. The marketing for their products and brand has been virtually non-existent. While commercials and advertisements may be what you think of when I say “marketing,” I’m also talking about their product marketing: colors, logos, designs, instructions, user guides, help pages, usability, screen flow and layout, etc.
But things seem to be taking a turn for the better. The Cr-48 came in a neat package, with a clever design, but it still wasn’t mainstream. Now, a few months later, Google seems to be jumping on the consumer marketing bandwagon. Maybe it’s the frequent slamming of the usability of their products, or maybe it’s their attempt at competing directly against Apple. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad that they’ve finally hired some humans, at least in their marketing department.
Google’s new Music Beta product is a great example. (Although they need to stop beating the “beta” label, which I’d bet that 80% or more of consumers outside of the Bay Area have no clue as to what that means.) Here’s the icon for Google’s old Android music app: a simple, bland speaker. I know that it’s a speaker. Most people would get that it’s a speaker. Some may think that it’s a wheel, but it’s probably obvious that it’s a speaker, right?
Below is Google’s new music app icon and the imagery from the product’s landing page.
Look at the colors! Look at the clear meaning of the icon – headphones! Look at the background! Wow, now there’s some consumer marketing by someone who knows consumer marketing. Finally!
Another great example is Google’s ad for the “It Gets Better” Project. Just their simple participation in such a wonderful and progressive movement is fantastic. Honestly, I challenge anyone to watch the Google Chrome ad for this project and not come away moved by it’s message and the deeply personal stories and emotions conveyed by the people in the video.
As a geek and gadget nut, I’m looking forward to my next Android phone and maybe even a Honeycomb tablet. But, as a marketer, I’m glad that Google is finally getting their act together and focusing on the average consumer, not just the tech, geek, engineer. To compete against Apple’s amazing products and incredible marketing machine will take more than Google Labs and highly-innovative but complex features. I just hope that these few examples are the beginning of a new page for Google, not just random one-offs.
In the meantime, Google, how about creating a “movie beta” and allowing me to purchase and download movies to my phone? Apple’s been doing that for years…