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Zombies at Theme Parks and Ecofriendly Trailers: The View from AFAR

Plus: Not so fast on Starwood buy, a closer look at robot hotels

Hotel news (especially Marriott-related news) dominated travel headlines this week. But there were other notable developments too—and we’re not just talking about fewer restrictions on travel to Cuba or the affordability of a Canadian vacation. As always, if you have any questions or comments about anything you read here, please Tweet them to @AFARmedia. And please share the column with friends!

All Marriott, all the time

We might as well call this past week Marriott International Week. First, the company’s bid to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts was disrupted when a Chinese investment group made an unsolicited offer of its own—an offer that was much more appealing than Marriott’s. As reported by USA Today, the new offer, from a cadre of investors led by the Anbang Insurance Group, was for $12.6 billion in cash and stock, while Marriot’s offer was valued at $10.8 billion (also in cash and stock). However, just because the new offer is higher doesn’t necessarily mean it will win; one expert quoted in the USA Today piece noted that Marriott has vast experience running a hospitality company, and that this expertise may prove to have significant value as well. (To be fair, Anbang is gaining experience too; it bought New York’s Waldorf-Astoria from Hilton Worldwide in October 2014 for $1.95 billion, and is expected to buy the Strategic Hotels & Resorts portfolio of 16 luxury hotels from Blackstone for about $6.5 billion.) Shareholders for Starwood and Marriott are set to vote on the transaction March 28. It’s worth noting that if Starwood pulls out of the deal, it will owe Marriott $400 million in termination fees.

Marriott also grabbed headlines earlier in the week when it announced Marriott Rewards Member Rates—low prices for frequent travelers who book with hotels directly instead of using an online travel agency (OTA). The exclusive room rates, set to launch next month, will be available to Marriott Rewards members who book through a direct channel, including Marriott.com, the company's app, its call centers, and approved corporate travel professionals. The new program also gives customers who book direct other perks such as free Wi-Fi. Of course, this is not the first big hotel chains ready to battle OTAs on pricing; earlier this year, Hilton Worldwide rolled out their campaign “Stop Clicking Around” campaign to encourage direct booking as well. Understandably, travel agents are not exactly fans of these endeavors. But whatever happens with the direct booking push, at least the efforts are likely to give customers more pricing options, which can’t be a bad thing.

New accommodations in Arizona and Mexico

This week brought two other significant bits of hotel news. The first actually has to do with glamping: The Under Canvas brand announced that it will open a resort near Grand Canyon National Park by late June. The property, which will open with 40 tents (and grow to 65 next year), sits on Route 66 at the base of picturesque Bill Williams Mountain, in 56 acres of one of the largest Ponderosa Pine forests in the world. Accommodations will be offered in three tent categories with amenities such as wood burning stoves, luxurious linens, and Adirondack chairs for lounging beneath the stars. Deluxe tents include en-suite bathrooms complete with eco-friendly toiletries, a hot shower, sink, and flushing toilet. Suites have the added luxury of cast-iron roll-top bathtubs. The resort is Under Canvas’ fourth; the company also has glamping camps just outside of Arches, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks. Rates from $175-$425, depending on the season.

The second piece of news is that the Riviera Maya’s first over-water bungalows are now open for booking. The bungalows (which are expected to open this fall) are part of the all-inclusive, adults-only El Dorado Maroma, A Beachfront Resort, by Karisma. Called palafitos, the new spaces boast private infinity pools, glass bottom floors, and direct ladder access to the ocean. Bungalow guests will also have access to 24-hour room service, exclusive beach beds, customized beach picnics, and full butler service. There are 30 bungalows in all. Prices start at $665 per person per night.

Walking Dead attraction coming to Universal Studios Hollywood

Fans of “The Walking Dead” will want to take a big bite out of the next big news from Universal Studios Hollywood. An attraction based on the show will open this summer with zombies, characters, and locations seen on the popular drama. According to an article on TravelPulse.com, Director Greg Nicotero and others from the show will be involved in creating the experience, which will incorporate special effects, animatronics, and live performers. Sadly, Universal Studios’ announcement did not include spoilers about what happens in the show’s season finale next month.


United takes off with biofuel

A jet traveling from Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco International Airport this week ushered in a new era for United Airlines: The era of blended biofuel. Granted, the jet will only use the fuel for the next two weeks. And sure, the fuel was a blend of 30 percent biofuel and 70 percent petroleum. But the biofuel was made from a combination of natural oils and agricultural waste, and the blend cuts carbon emissions by more than 60 percent compared to with traditional jet fuel. Plus, this particular jet flies from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back four or five times daily. Moreover, while other airlines have experimented with fuel made from natural oils and agricultural waste, United became the first airline to commit to using biofuel in the future. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, United has agreed to buy up to as much as 15 million gallons of sustainable biofuel over the next three years from AltAir Paramount’s refinery in Paramount, California.

Airbnb to let neighbors report on bad hosts

There have been a few instances over the years when rude hosts and partying guests have given Airbnb a bad name. Now—finally, some would say—the company is fighting back. According to a report published this week on Bloomberg News, Airbnb will enable neighbors to provide comments about nearby hosts. The virtual forum will debut in a handful of markets in Japan and then will eventually be rolled out worldwide. But details about the new program were fuzzy. Based upon information in various reports (including this one, from Tnooz.com), it seems the company’s customer service staff will look for patterns in the complaints and take action as needed. While it’s not clear if the comments would be anonymous or what sorts of “actions” Airbnb would take against offending hosts, the new approach is an undeniably strong response to individuals and communities who complain that Airbnb properties attract disrespectful guests. Stay tuned.

Spotlight: Homegrown Trailers

For road-trippers who tow trailers, the right product can make or break an adventure, and a startup company from the Seattle area believes it has created the best trailer on the market today. Homegrown Trailers, burst onto the scene late last year with a trailer unlike any other. The 94-square-foot wood-paneled trailers are solar-powered, made from renewable materials and non-toxic chemicals. The trailers, which can sleep up to four adults, also boast clean composting toilets. “You can have one of these and be entirely off the grid,” says co-founder Eric Gertsman, noting that the standard unit can operate for a long weekend on one decent solar charge. At 2,000 pounds, the trailers are also super-light, so just about any vehicle, including low-MPG vehicles, can tow one. Right now the trailers sell for about $28,000 apiece, but the company also is renting them in the Seattle area for $199/night. Up to 10 rental units will be available by Memorial Day.

Good reads

So many tequilas, so little time. Thankfully, author (and friend) Jill Robinson did the hard work of touring Jalisco, Mexico and reviewing some for the rest of us. Robinson’s service-oriented piece appeared in a recent edition of Rhapsody magazine and highlights the differences between lowland tequilas and highland tequilas. Each review has quotes and tasting notes from distillers. The takeaway: Tequilas reflect terroir, much like wines.

Over the years many international experts have decried the long-term impacts of voluntourism, but few have presented an argument as compelling as Michelle Lynn Stayton did earlier this month. While her essay, published on The Almost Doctor’s Channel, isn’t travel writing, it’s a fresh perspective on how traveling to volunteer for an organization for a short while can wreak havoc on locals. And the essay doesn’t just offer a critique; Stayton also provides constructive suggestions for how you can make these kinds of trips more worthwhile.

When Japan’s Henn-na Hotel opened in the 2015 as the world’s first hotel staffed by robots, it got plenty of press coverage. But Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s perspective on the place in a recent feature for Wired is coverage of another color. Lewis-Kraus chronicles his experiences at the hotel in alarming (and, at times, hilarious) detail. If you don’t LOL at his recollection of the human-scale velociraptor robot behind the check-in desk, you may not be human yourself.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications includingTIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association, and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.