Monthly Archives: July 2011

There's More To San Francisco Than Financial Institutions & Cable Cars

The Palace Hotel San Francisco

People travel to San Francisco from all over the world for various reasons and one that most likely doesn’t make the top 10 is for its architectural beauty.

John King with the San Francisco Chronicle shares some jewels that deserve your attention.

Ferry Building, 1898 with extensive 2003 renovations, A. Page Brown. This one’s a favorite, and not just for the glorified food court on the ground floor. “Of course, the Ferry Building was very important to me as a child,” Doris Madden recalls. “We used to drive our car on the ferryboat and go to the East Bay for a picnic every year during the summer.”

Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1973, John Portman, 5 Embarcadero Center. Full disclosure: I’m not big on this atrium-centered showcase that saw its glory days a generation ago. But its admirers include Tanu Sankalia, chair of the University of San Francisco’s department of art and architecture. “The Hyatt is about spatial experience that is memorable and unique,” she writes, singling out such details as “its continuous, cascading balconies” and “the slot-like skylight that washes the pre-cast concrete surfaces.”

Palace Hotel, 1909, Trowbridge & Trowbridge, 2 Montgomery St. And now for something completely different, hotel-lobby-wise: this dowager’s Garden Court with its marble columns and stained-glass dome. Mark Katzenberger calls it “glorious but not gaudy … no place in San Francisco (better) expresses the grace of our gilded past.”

JPMorgan Chase Building, Pelli Clarke Pelli, 2002, 560 Mission St. It’s hard in words to convey the attention to details that sets apart this “retro green office tower,” in the words of Charles Belov. In person, you understand.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1994, Mario Botta, 151 Third St. Museum officials didn’t call Botta when they sought architects to design an equally large addition, but the Swiss modernist’s “little gem” has fans such as Susan Schneider: “The interior horizontal finishes convey solidity and even perhaps tradition, while the peekaboo staircase with its dark-to-light aspect leading to the cylindrical steps from the fourth to fifth floor is nothing but fun.”

Xanadu Gallery, 1949, Frank Lloyd Wright, 140 Maiden Lane. This one received as much love as the Ferry Building, especially from architecture buffs who love how its circular interior ramp was a test run for the Guggenheim Museum, which opened a decade later in New York.

Sing Chong Building, 1908, T. Patterson Ross and A.W. Burgen, 601 Grant Ave. There’s a reason for the colorful, overtly “Oriental” tone of this and other older Chinatown buildings, points out Drew Bourn: They were commissioned after the 1906 earthquake by Chinese merchants and landowners who grasped that making their neighborhood a tourist attraction would keep it from being shipped to the south edge of town – the proposal of some city leaders at the time.

Grace Cathedral, various architects, 1964, 1100 California St. “By simply going inside the cathedral, I immediately am at peace with the world,” writes Ann Dolyniuk. Afterward, “I take my friends outside and gape at the Nob Hill hotels and enjoy the passing cable cars. … What could be a better site to bring visitors to?”

City Hall, 1915, Arthur Brown, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, A favorite of Michael Zonta, who notes “at one time we really thought this place was something special.” Haven’t we always? And the interior is as impressive as the 308-foot-tall dome.

The Armory, 1909, Woollett & Woollett, 1800 Mission St. The formidable clinker-brick walls – the better to keep out rioting mobs – alone are worth a visit. But consider the social angle: After this massive structure sat empty for 30 years, impervious to all development schemes, it was bought by … an Internet pornography company that set up shop in 2008. Or as Zonta puts it, “bulwark of democracy restored by Kink. com.” How Ess Eff is that?

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.

When It Comes To Collecting Taxes From Travelers, Not All Places Are Created Equal

When it comes to collecting taxes from travelers, not all places are created equal. At least that’s what a new study of the top 50 U.S. travel destinations reveals.

Top 10 U.S. destinations where travelers incur the lowest and highest total taxes in central city locations: 


1. Fort Lauderdale, FL

2.  Fort Myers, FL

3. West Palm Beach, FL

4. Detroit, MI

5. Portland, OR

6. Orange County, CA

7. San Diego, CA

8. Hartford, CT

9. Ontario, CA

10. Sacramento, CA


1. Chicago, IL

2. New York, NY

3. Seattle, WA

4. Boston, MA

5. Kansas City, MO

6. Minneapolis, MN

7. Cleveland, OH

8. Nashville, TN

9. Indianapolis, IN

10. Phoenix, AZ

Top five U.S. destinatons with the lowest and highest travel-related taxes in central city locations:


1. Orange County, CA

2. San Diego, CA

3. San Jose, CA

4. Burbank, CA

5. Ontario, CA


1. Portland, OR

2. Boston, MA

3. Minneapolis, MN

4. New York, NY

5. Chicago, IL

The full report is available to GBTA members at no cost; non-members can purchase it for $499 by contacting the GBTA

Groupon Deals Not As Big Of A Deal As Advertised

Are Groupon Getaway deals something you won’t find anywhere or are they just not that big of a deal at all?

USA Today conducted some comparison shopping of Groupon’s deals and found it wasn’t difficult to find similar levels of savings at other travel sources. Some hotels that were featured on Groupon last week were featuring similar discounts on their own websites.

For example, Groupon claims its $89 voucher for a weeknight stay at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, a deal introduced on the launch day, is 55% cheaper than you’d get elsewhere. But the Palms was also selling an $89 promotion on its own website.

Last week, Groupon was also selling a $298 voucher that includes a night at The Standard hotel in Miami Beach and $150 in spa credit. The hotel’s website offered the same room and $35 in spa credit for $239 last week. Comparatively, Groupon’s offer is cheaper, but it’s not close to the 50% discount that it claims.

Cons: Deals often aren’t as deeply discounted as advertised. Customers must call hotels to reserve room.

Takeaway: Another option for customers. Shop around.

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.

OTAs Get Spanked In San Antonio Court Ruling

As reported on, Online Travel Agencies lost a major case in San Antonio, Texas that one hotel distribution consultant says the ruling will set a precedent in how municipalities collect tax on hotel rooms sold through online merchant models. – The heavy-hitting OTAs lost a class-action lawsuit by 173 cities in Texas as defendants in The City of San Antonio v., which was initially filed in May 2006 and is one of the longest-running cases against OTAs. The ruling on 1 July declared OTAs must collect taxes on the full retail rate they charge consumers as opposed to the wholesale rate they get from hotels, including margins and service fees.

“Because the (OTAs) are not occupants, they never have the right to occupancy, and the wholesale rate they pay for the right to sell a hotel room is not consideration paid for the right to occupancy, there is absolutely no reason for hotel occupancy taxes to be imposed on wholesale rates paid by the (OTA) to the hotel,” the judge’s ruling states.

“With New York changing its law, and that change being held up by the New York state Supreme Court, and now 173 cities in Texas, those are two really, really strong cases of precedence,” said Robert Cole, founder of RockCheetah and former director of hotel distribution with The Sabre Group. “It’s going to be a downhill run, and it’s going to get a lot easier to prevail in these things.”
Along with his ruling, United States District Judge Orlando Garcia in Texas issued 300 factual findings, many of which describe testimony and depositions and bring to light how popular OTAs created and evolved their negotiation processes and tax calculations.(Read the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.) Four days later, the OTAs responded by filing an advisory motion asking the testimony remain confidential.

Cole said he thinks that request is somewhat “disingenuous.”

“The OTAs are in the middle of hundreds of these litigations. They just want to make it more difficult to get a hold of this stuff,” he said. “It’s just fundamental math. It does have some embarrassing stuff—it does say they used to calculate tax this way and now they do it another way—but that’s just math. I just don’t think they want it out there.”

The issue
In the case of collecting taxes on merchant-model sales, the issue at hand really is between OTAs and municipalities. Hotel owners and brands initially stayed out of it, but then two things happened:

1) Hotels and OTAs began agreeing upon rate parity in their negotiated contracts because neither wanted the other undercutting their lowest price. Hotels want that price to be on a tax-inclusive basis. But there really is no way for OTAs to calculate the total amount of a hotel room without using the local municipality’s tax rate and collecting tax on the retail rate, Cole said.

2) Hoteliers began realizing that as municipalities face shrinking revenues, they will look for ways to substitute for lost tax revenue. Travel and tourism are easy targets—even considered “low-hanging fruit,” Cole said. So hoteliers began collectively lobbying against the OTAs to show cities that when they do the math “it looks like they are getting cheated out of something they are owed,” Cole said.

Going forward
In the Texas case alone, OTAs will be forced to pay back taxes to the municipalities as well as tax on the retail rates moving forward. The ruling estimates a total of more than US$20 million will be paid to Texas cities by the collection of agencies named in the suit. Together with New York, and depending on how the remaining lawsuits play out, OTAs will have significantly larger overheads.

Cole estimates OTAs in the near future will begin evolving their business plans to tweak the merchant model or move away from it all together.

“If you look at airline bookings, the OTAs do a lot of air transactions that they don’t get paid on. They have to do a lot of work—ticketing and scheduling changes. That’s ugly stuff, and they don’t get paid for that. What they do get paid is segment fees from the (global distribution systems), so they want to keep that GDS partnership in place,” he said.

Looking at the margins OTAs make on selling hotel rooms, there is a high degree of profit for a relatively lower level of effort, Cole said. But, even though margins are high, no company wants their existing profits squeezed.

“Hotels fund a huge part of their profit, so they’re not going to stop selling hotels,” Cole said. “Some may go to a more commissionable model where it’s a little bit cleaner, but generally they don’t get major discounts on those. They’ll tweak their business models.

“The way this all got painted out doesn’t bode particularly well for OTAs as a profitability perspective,” he continued. “Almost any way you paint it, it’s a squeeze on the OTA profit model.”

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.

The Best Beach Bars In America

Old Tony's Beach Bar - Redondo Beach, CA

(Travel + Leisure) — The sun twinkles on the turquoise water off palm-fringed Waikiki Beach, the air heady with the scent of coconut suntan lotion. “Aloha,” grins the waiter at Duke’s Barefoot Bar as he sets down a Tropical Itch, a rum drink with a foot-long bamboo back scratcher sticking out.

That scratcher is yours to keep, but the strongest itch you’ll feel is the desire to linger on the bar’s open-air patio above the white sand. Some 50 million people will be heading to American beaches this summer. And it’s never far to a bar.

“The beach bar is a perfect summer respite,” says Jamie LaMarco, bartender at Cape Cod’s Beachcomber, which has a roofed deck open to the beach and a 45-foot bar. “You never have to change your clothes, and you don’t have to pack lunch or a cooler.”

Such an easygoing vibe is typical-even at upscale beach bars. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, for instance, trade business casual for swimsuits when hanging at the resort’s Sand Bar-no shirt, no shoes, no problem.

It’s your vacation, after all, and the point is to mellow out. So scratch your itch this summer at one of America’s best beach bars.

Old Tony’s Bar, Redondo Beach Pier, California

The Scene: This octagonal all-glass landmark on top of Old Tony’s Bar attracts South Bay beach bums who come for the spectacular sunsets, crashing surf, and 360-degree views of the coast. A spiral staircase leading up to the Crow’s Nest, as it’s known, is lined with shots of celebrities who’ve joined the regulars for nightly live entertainment.

Signature Drink: The Fire Chief, a grenadine Mai Tai with a kick from three different rums including a 151-proof floater, served in a take-home collectible cocktail glass imprinted with Old Tony’s logo, $7.75.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, south of San Francisco

The Scene: A surfer’s haven that’s conveniently adjacent to Mavericks break, famous for some of the world’s toughest big-wave surfing. Handcrafted Mavericks Amber Ale and Mavericks Budgetary Alement are piped directly to the bar from the Half Moon Bay Brewery next door. Grab a patio seat near the blazing fire pits in time to watch the sun set. Weekends are for live rock ‘n’ roll and blues while “Brews & Views,” a heated political discussion, takes place monthly.

Signature Drink: Mavericks Amber Ale, as full-bodied and robust as the legendary wave for which it was named, $6.75 for a 22 oz bottle.

Barefoot Bar, Duke’s, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii

The Scene: The dress code at this Waikiki hot spot takes its cue from the name: bare feet with bikini or surf shorts. Beach loungers drop in for the Jawaiian music, a mixture of classical Hawaiian mixed with groovin’ reggae. Named after Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, father of international surfing, the bar displays paraphernalia such as his original redwood board. Sip a Tropical Itch, Lava Flow, or draft beer served at a chilly 28 degrees while taking in drop-dead views of Diamond Head and Oahu’s leeward coast.

Signature Drink: Tropical Itch, with passion fruit juice, vodka, rum, and orange Curaçao, served with a local bamboo back scratcher (yours to take home), $7.75.

Sand Bar, Naples, Florida

The Scene: You might not expect the funky two-year-old Sand Bar to be part of the opulent Ritz-Carlton Resort. The vibe here is casual and cool. Guests saunter up from the beach to sit on a bamboo barstool beneath a tiki roof. Nurse your drink and, with any luck, a school of dolphins will swim by before long. Nature-themed info boards educate guests about other area wildlife like the loggerhead turtles that nest on the beach and the fauna in the resort’s mangroves.

Signature Drink: The Naples Sunset, a blend of rum, peach schnapps, and tropical juices, $12.95.

Marshside Mama’s, Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

The Scene: “Our bar is like Canterbury Tales; there’s a little bit of everything,” says bartender Tyler Gerow of the honky-tonk Marshside Mama’s. Owner Beth Shipman cooks up mouthwatering gumbo, shrimp, and grits, and there’s always the freshest fish because fishermen pull up to the dock to drop off the catch of the day. Even though it’s only a 45-minute ferry ride from Hilton Head, the ferry doesn’t always run, so the crowd is mostly local boaters. They rock out to live bands on weekends and follow the lead of owner Beth, who’s known to yell out, “No whining, just dance.”

Signature Drink: Marshside Mama’s Rum Fruity: four different types of rum mixed with fruit juices, $8.

Tamboo Tavern, Rincon, Puerto Rico

The Scene: Simply one of the most romantic, sultry beach bars imaginable. Owner Javier Quinones and his wife had their first date here in 1990. They now serve everyone from wedding guests in formal attire to sunburned yuppies in bathing suits. Sit on the beachfront deck with a drink and watch for whales, play footsie in the sand with your loved one, and welcome the evening with hot Latin rhythms.

Signature Drink: Mojito: Bacardi rum with simple syrup, soda water, lime, $7.

The Wayfarer, Cannon Beach, Oregon

The Scene: Restored original portholes and light fixtures and a more rustic look are the result of a recent $300,000 tune-up of this charming spot on the Northern Oregon Coast. From the glass-enclosed lounge or the outside summer deck a few feet above the beach, you can hear the crashing surf and gape at Haystack Rock, a 235-foot-tall iconic basalt monolith. The restaurant itself is a special occasion kind of place serving some of the Pacific Northwest’s freshest seafood, but the atmosphere is unfussy.

Signature Drink: The Tolovana Fizz (named after the nearby park): house-infused strawberry vodka, Triple Sec, and a splash of strawberry purée topped with champagne, $8.50.

The Rusty Nail, Cape May, New Jersey

The Scene: This iconic surfer bar on the grounds of the Beach Shack was first hot in the ’70s, when lifeguards from the nearby station came nightly for an ice-cold beer in a frozen mug. When a road separated it from the beach, the owner dumped 10,000 pounds of sand next to an outside breakfast nook and turned it into a tiki bar with its own beach of sorts. Happy-hour crowds spill outside for the sunset, fire pit, live music, and the coldest beer in Cape May.

Signature Drink: The Hammer: coconut rum and spiced rum, passion fruit, and fresh-squeezed lemons, limes, and oranges served in a keepsake hollowed-out coconut with the Rusty Nail Logo, $14.

Tom’s Burned Down Café, Madeline Island, Lake Superior, Wisconsin

The Scene: An old tavern burned down in 1992 and was totally destroyed so that only the decks remained. That didn’t bother owner Tom Nelson, who thought, “Do not rebuild it, and they will come.” Nelson pulled in a 40-foot trailer to the decks and began serving beer from the back of the truck. Since then, he’s built more decks and a bar and added a tarp roof and knickknacks. It’s a quirky place that could keep your attention for hours between the bartenders’ stories and the view of kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders on the lake. There’s even a chance of glimpsing the northern lights.

Signature Drink: Island Rum Punch: three kinds of rum with pineapple, cranberries, orange juice, and lemonade, topped with a cherry and lime, $8.

The Beachcomber, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

The Scene: For the last 50 years, hippies, rockers, and New Agers have flocked to this Cape Cod hangout, originally built in 1897 as the Cahoon Hollow U.S. Life Saving Station. It’s right on the dunes with a roofed deck open to the beach and a 45-foot bar. The Beachcomber is a family-friendly restaurant until 9 p.m., when it morphs into a club with live entertainment, anything from surf-rock to reggae to jazz.

Signature Drink: The Goombay Smash, spiced and coconut rum with pineapple and orange juice, $7.

Beach Tree Bar, Big Island, Hawaii

The Scene: Come as you are to this aloha-friendly bar, part of the Four Seasons Resort, but much more rustic. Wiggle your toes in the sand, sip a drink, and embrace the bar’s motto: don’t worry, be happy. You’ll want your camera at the ready to capture the sun as it sets behind the iconic beach tree for which the bar is named. Try one of the equally colorful cocktails or a glass from its selection of more than 60 wines.

Signature Drink: Tom’s Pink Shirt, a combination of Tanqueray Rangpur, orchid guava liqueur, strawberries, lime juice, agave nectar, and Sprite, $16.

Tom Costello is the CEO, Partner & Co-Founder of Groups International, a company that provides marketing, consultative services, and technology solutions to the group and leisure travel markets.  Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook or contact him by email.