Brandt Krueger

Freelance Technical Meeting and Event Production, Education, Speaking, and Consulting. Geek Dad, Husband

Consultant, Meeting and Event Technology
Owner, Event Technology Consulting
Instructor, Event Leadership Institute
Cohost, #EventIcons - Where the icons of the event industry meet

(More than) 5 Things AV People Wish Planners Knew

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Winter 2018. Expanded and updated July, 2019)

I’ve been doing this meeting and event production thing for quite some time now, but somehow it’s still surprising how often you hear the same old questions, over and over again. In the spirit of clearing up some of the most common questions about AV and event technology, I decided to reach out to my AV friends all over the world and asked them to tell me the one thing they wish meeting and event planners knew. The answers were as varied as the people themselves (and some returned full-fledged rants that contained way more than one thing), but a few trends definitely emerged.

So without further ado, here are some of the most difficult questions and comments we hear from planners, and the honest responses on behalf of me and my fellow AV folks!

 “This seems like more than I asked for. How do I know I’m only getting the equipment I need?”

This is by far one of the biggest concerns planners express, and it stems from people being worried they’re being “cheated” somehow- that the AV firm is “padding the bid” with unnecessary equipment. Well, guess what? They might be, but not for the nefarious reasons most people think. While there are bad actors in any industry, the vast majority of times a company adds gear to a bid, it’s not because they’re trying to cheat you. Instead, they’re covering their butts. And yours.

Many planners freely admit that things change at the last minute, and frequently that can mean adding equipment. An in-house AV company might have the ability to just go in back and grab some more gear if they happen to have it in stock, in which case it’s going to get added to your bill anyway. If they don’t have it in stock, they and any 3rd party company are going to have to get it from somewhere else. That could be on the other side of town, or in a completely different state, and if it’s a last minute thing you’re going to be paying a premium.

A better play is to just plan for the unexpected. Make sure you have a few extra microphones on hand for that panel that just popped up, or an audio mixer capable of taking a few more inputs for when you remember at five minutes to doors, “Oh! We should have some dinner music. And can you play something energetic during the awards?” Yep, we sure can. 

This actually happens on a lot of events, and believe it or not most of the time you don’t get charged for it. The number of times I’ve seen AV and production companies throw extra gear on the truck “just in case”, even though it wasn’t on the bill, can’t be counted, and most of the time the client didn’t ever know it. 

“It doesn’t take up any more room on the truck. And you own it, so what’s the difference?” 

This one’s a little more rare in my experience, but it came up in a couple different forms with my AV contacts, so it seemed worthy of making the list. I think it stems again from planners being worried they’re being “taken”, but unfortunately it comes off as being cheap or having a fundamental misunderstanding of how renting equipment works. The idea is this: if the vendor owns both a 3-year-old projector and a brand-new one that’s twice as bright, of course you’re going to want the newer, brighter projector. Who wouldn’t? But here’s the deal: the newer projectors probably haven’t made their money back yet, while the older ones have been rented out enough not only to cover their original cost, but to start generating profit. As a result, they can be discounted if necessary. If you want the latest and greatest, however, you’re going to have to pay more for it. Expecting otherwise is to expect AV companies to work for free, or worse, at a loss.

“I’m willing to work as late as it takes, and *I* don’t get paid overtime.”
AKA “Geeze, these overtime rules seem harsh!”

This one doesn’t get said out loud as often as some of the others, but usually manifests itself in the form of eyerolls and under-the-breath grumblings, some of which I’ve been guilty of myself. Labor can be expensive, and it can get really expensive if you go into overtime with your crew. It can get really, really expensive if you violate what’s called “turnaround time” which guarantees a crew a certain amount of time off before they have to come back and work again. Violate turnaround time, and the entire next day turns into overtime. OUCH!

For a lot of planners, once the event is over they’re able to take some downtime to recoup, relax, and recharge before they start thinking about their next event. Many independent and even full-time or corporate planners do not immediately go on-site to the next event, and have time to catch their breath. I know so many planners that will take a full week off after their big annual events. For those in AV, it’s just on to the next one. And the next one. And the next one.

It may be your company’s Super Bowl, but for Johnny the Camera Guy, it’s Tuesday.

The average AV “day rate” usually covers a 10 hour day, already 2 hours more than a typical work day (though this is starting to change, and we’re seeing more and more 8 hour days). Overtime rules exist in many professions because the human body isn’t capable of working 16-18+ hour days every day without breaking down over time, and overtime is a way of discouraging over-working crews day in and day out. It also makes sure they’re compensated when they do work long hours. Turnaround time ensures at least a few hours of sleep and a chance to recharge a bit before showing up again in the morning. 

“I can buy it for that!”

Yep, you can. But then it’s all on you. 

When you contract an AV or production company, it’s all on them. They purchase the equipment, they have road crates built to protect it on the truck, they make sure it’s clean and functioning before it goes out, they make sure it gets to the event safely via truck or shipping, they set it up, they pack it up after the event, they inspect it again when it gets back to the warehouse and if it’s damaged they repair it, they clean it, and then they store it until it’s time to take it out again.

If you buy it, you’re responsible for all of that. You have to weigh the value of your time against what you’d be paying professionals to handle for you. In the end, it might make sense for you and your organization. The biggest one people forget is the storage. Sure, you could buy all the projectors for your breakout sessions yourself, but where are you going to keep the 30 projectors afterward? The broom closet? That empty cube down the hall?

“Bring us in earlier, please!” 

Ok, this one is flipped- something I hear AV folks say all the time. It still falls into the “things we wish you knew” category, though.

AV people can be an enormous resource for you, and not just when it comes to technology! We can help with the creative side, helping you design your event to maximize your AV spend, and guiding you into (or away from) themes and ideas that might impact your budget. Maybe you don’t need that Miss Saigon helecopter closing, and besides, it wouldn’t work in that venue.

And speaking of venue, we can help with contract negotiation! Be sure to run your venue contracts by your AV or production company before you’ve signed them. We’ve seen every trick in the book, and can help you head off problems before they start. More and more venues are imposing stiff penalties for using 3rd party AV companies, or charging through-the-roof fees for WiFi. Even if you haven’t settled on which AV or production company you’re using, most every AV person I know would be happy to be a second pair of eyes on your contract, even if they’re just “in the running” for the job, so don’t be afraid to use us as a resource from the earliest moments in the planning process!

BONUS!!

The following items were “cut for time” on the original article. Enjoy a few more things AV people wish planners knew!

“But those guys can do it with fewer techs…”

Different companies have different best practices. They also have access to different people and skill levels, and you can’t possibly know what staffing circumstances might exist. One company may have a group of well-rounded “Jack of all Trades” techs, while another may choose to employ specialists in each field of audio, video, and lighting. If a company A says it will take 4 people and cost $10,000, and company B says it will take 3 people and still cost $10,000, do please do not ask company A to try and do it with 3 techs in an attempt to save money.

“Can I get that by tomorrow?”

I’m sorry you need it tomorrow- if you want it to be accurate, it’s going to take time. Hurried quotes are more likely to be overbid, include unnecessary equipment, or leave out equipment you need. It’s simply human nature. If you want a more accurate quote, you need to slow down. Send your AV company the RFP, and then make sure you hop on a call with them to go through it line by line. Then, once they’ve sent you the bid, go through it line by line to make sure you have everything you need. A little patience early on can save you thousands in last-minute additions.

“Can I buy you lunch?”

Yes. Yes, you can. Buying the crew lunch has so many benefits, it’s hard to believe not everyone does it. On most events, tacking on a few more of the meals you’re serving the attendees wouldn’t even show up as a rounding error on the budget. Even if it does and you’re counting every penny, it’s still a good idea.

First and foremost, it keeps the crew together and makes them feel more a part of the event. If they all go their separate ways at the food court, it’s just not the same as all sitting around the same table. And even though the point of a break is to forget the show for a minute, you’d be surprised how many solutions to problems get figured out over a flat-meat sandwich backstage.

Providing crew meals, coffee stations, beverages and snacks show you care about them, and when a crew feels like you care about them, they’re much more likely to care about you.

"Do we really need rehearsal?”

Yes. Yes, you do. The more smoothly casual it looks, the more likely they rehearsed the ever-living crap out of it. Everyone wants to deliver a Steve Jobs keynote, but what so many don’t realize is that Jobs required a full week of rehearsals in advance of Apple events. Every move was meticulously choreographed. It’s no coincidence that after Jobs was gone, most people agree that Apple keynotes lost their luster. That just the man…

BONUS BONUS!

Here’s a “Whiteboard Wednesday” I did on this topic for Endless Events…

Pro Tips for Saving Money on your AV Bill

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Fall 2018. Updated February, 2019)

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If there’s one universal truth for all events, it’s that there’s no such thing as an unlimited budget. Even world-class sporting events and megalithic awards shows have their limits. Every planner, at one point or another, is faced with the limits of their own budget and is forced to find a way to save a few dollars.

There’s plenty of big-ticket items on events: the venue, catering, transportation. Most of those costs are easily understood and can be adjusted based on the level of quality and service desired. If you want to save money on the evening dinner, you may need to change the menu or choose a lower cut of meat for your guests. If you want to save money on transportation, your folks are flyin’ coach!

When it comes to AV, however, far too many planners still just accept “the price is the price” on a bid full of equipment they don’t understand or collapse under pressure from the venue to “just use the in-house”, stacking on fees and charges as disincentives to bringing in your own AV company. There’s plenty of good reasons to use an in-house AV company, but let’s be honest- price isn’t usually one of them.

Let’s take a deeper look into that and a few other ways to save money on your AV bill!

Back to School: Learn More About AV

This one’s probably the more difficult, so let’s tackle it first. I’ve heard so many planners and other event folks say, “Oh, I’m just not techie, I could never learn that stuff.” But here’s the thing… You’ve probably never heard someone saying, “Oh, I’m not French, so I could never learn French.” AV is just a language, and if you just spend a little time learning the lingo, you’re able to enter into a more informed conversation with your AV providers.

If you’re still in school, make sure you find out if they offer an AV 101 class. More and more schools are providing these as part of their hospitality programs, thank goodness! If you’re out of school, take advantage of industry conferences and associations that provide education sessions. Keep an eye out for AV and other tech-related classes. Full disclosure: I teach an online technical meeting production course for planners, but that’s not why I include this point. Education really is one of the best ways to save money on your AV.

Why? Because most of the time when AV providers “bulk up” their order, it’s not because they want to cheat you, it’s because they want to cover their, umm… bases. The more you sound like you know what you’re talking about, the more likely they are to take you at your word that what you want is what you need. That helps make sure you only get the equipment you need, and nothing more thrown in, “just in case”. Your quotes are going to be more accurate, so you’ll truly be only paying for what you need.

House Party: In-house AV vs. 3rd Party

Most experience planners have at least a couple of horror stories when it comes to using in-house AV companies. I always try to remind folks that crew vary wildly from property to property and city to city just like any AV company, so it’s important to take these stories with a grain of salt. There is something that’s true more often than not, however, and that’s in-house AV companies tend to be more expensive. Why? Well, lots of reasons dealing with economics, real-estate, and market differences, but the easy one to understand is this: they’re convenient.

Much like the $8.00 can of soda in the hotel lobby store, you’re paying for convenience. The equipment is all on site in case you need something last minute, and at the end of the show, it all goes on the master bill. No muss, no fuss.

Unfortunately, many venues will discourage you from shopping around and trying to get a lower price. Many will have penalties in their contracts if you choose to bring in a 3rd party company or will revoke certain concessions like free wifi. But don’t let that stop you! No matter what, I always recommend people getting at least one 3rd party bid. They’re almost always less expensive, sometimes even with the penalties and discounts. I once saw a client save almost $10,000 by bringing in a 3rd party AV company, and that included paying the hotel a penalty!

Negotiate, Negotiate, Negotiate

Some people prefer to use the in-house because it’s so convenient, and that’s OK. But you should still get at least one bid from a third party. Why? Leverage. The biggest thing that getting educated and getting additional bids enables you to do is negotiate. An in-house company will more often than not come down in price if they know you’re seriously shopping around. Be tactful, be polite, but don’t be afraid- you don’t have to go all Godfather on them. You’d be surprised how often, “Look, guys. I want to use you, but this other crew is willing to do it for $10k less. Can you at least meet me halfway?” will work!

And if you’re worried about the quality of your crew, one final tip: don’t be afraid to ask for references. We do it all the time with 3rd party AV companies, so why not do it with the in-house? Ask the venue to be put in touch with the most recent clients to use the in-house AV. It shouldn’t be an issue, and it might even be a red flag if they’re unwilling to do so. That might give you more leverage if you’d rather use a 3rd party, as no respectable venue should force you to use a vendor that was getting bad reviews.

What are your favorite tips for saving money on your AV bill?

Are Chatbots Really the Next Big Thing in Events?

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Summer 2018. Updated January, 2019)

If you were following the Silicon Valley tech blogs, you would have guessed that by now we’d be living in a world filled with chatbots. But as the years came and went, they just didn’t quite seem to catch on in the way that many pundits were expecting, and headlines such as “The 200 Billion Dollar Chatbot Disruption” also came, and ultimately, went.

The meeting and events industry, on the other hand, seems to have a continued interest in chatbots, with more and more articles being written on the subject, and high-profile events providing the service to their attendees. Could it be that an industry that’s all about connecting people might actually be one of the best suited for the next wave of digital disruption?

So what the heck are they?

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we say “chatbot”. One of the easiest ways to think about chatbots is as a form of digital assistant, like Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa. While these assistants can do quite a bit more than your average chatbot (including home automation control, shopping, games, and more), one of the most common uses is to simply answer our everyday questions. “Hey Google, what’s the weather today?” is a question I hear almost daily in my household as the people get ready in the morning, deciding what to wear. “What’s the drive time to Pizza Luce?”, “How tall is Mount Rushmore?”, and “How do you spell Dubrovnik?” were other questions I’ve heard in just the last week. Where these assistants shine is their ability to hear us ask questions in our normal tone, using our normal language, and (hopefully) give us the right answer.

This ability is called “natural language processing” and is a very narrow subset of (buzzword alert!) Artificial Intelligence. It’s what allow us to interact with our digital assistants in a much more “natural” and conversational manner, and what allows them to interpret what information we’re actually looking for and respond with it. Chatbots use the same technology to interact with us, but instead of talking to our event chatbot, we’re interacting with it using text. This could be through an app like Facebook Messenger or Telegram, through a chat box on a web page, embedded within an event mobile app, or even just texting to a specific number set up for the event.

Ugh, who wants to talk to a robot?

Apparently, millions of people. Over the course of 2017 the number of people using voice-activated assistants grew 128.9% to over 35 Million people in the United States alone, according to a report by Juniper Research. The same report estimates that by 2022, over half of US households will have a voice-enabled smart speaker in them. When it comes specifically to chatbots, another report found that 60% of millennials have used them at some point. Of those that tried them, over 70% reported they had a positive experience, and of those that hadn’t tried them, over half said they’d be interested in trying them.

I think a lot of the resistance to digital assistants and chatbots comes from the horrible customer service experience most of us have had with “phone trees”, another form of automation that was supposed to make our lives easier. Who hasn’t wanted to push their phone through a wall at the 9 different options being presented to you, with none of them being the reason you’re actually calling? Usually that frustration stems from the fact that you just want a simple question answered, and you want it answered quickly. That, folks, is where chatbots shine.

Actually Making Life Easier

That’s really what it boils down to: people just want their question answered in the fastest, easiest way possible, and if that means texting with a chatbot, well… then… great. If they want to know where the reception is that evening, they don’t want to open the event app, wait for it to update, click into the agenda, then into the reception entry, and finally get their answer. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to type in:

“Where is the reception tonight?” 

And get the answer:
“The reception is in the Crowne Ballroom, on the 23rd floor. Just follow the signs in the lobby to the west elevators. Don’t forget, it’s a Hawaiian theme, so be sure to wear your best floral print and flip flops!”

Notice how there’s even more information there than was actually requested, potentially saving time having to ask follow-up questions? The bot might even attach a map to the event in the next message, just in case. How convenient is that? Plus, let’s be honest. No matter how many emails you sent out providing that information, you know a significant percentage will have forgotten the information, or even worse, never read them in the first place!

But what if it doesn’t know the answer?

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While most people see this as a negative, it’s actually one of the more powerful benefits of chatbots. If it doesn’t know the answer, most chatbots will kick the question up to a real, live person for the answer. Why is that a benefit? Because it can help you identify the questions you didn’t anticipate. After all, a chatbot is only as good as the information it’s given, and can only answer the questions to which you’ve given it the answers. If more and more people start asking a question it wasn’t pre-programmed with, you can simply add the answer to the bot’s program on the fly.

It can also help you react to unforeseen issues with your event in real time. If attendees are asking your chatbot, “How do I get to the ballroom from the hotel?” you may have a signage or staffing issue. If quite a few are asking “Where are the Mothers’ Rooms?” and you don’t have any, you can react quickly and get some arranged- an actual example from an event that utilized chatbots.

The Future Bots

Natural language processing technology is only getting better, and event bots have a bright future. Already, providers are able to get a bot up and running in less than 20 minutes by having the planner fill out an online survey. As AI and machine learning get applied, you’ll be able to offer up your current website and printed materials to be analyzed by the service, and then auto-generating the most likely questions and answers based on that information.

The “event app” went from “Why do I need that?” to almost every major event having one in less than five years, and event chatbots could well be on the same trajectory. So what do you think? Have you tried a chatbot at your event? How did it go? If you haven’t, what’s the likelihood you’ll try a chatbot in one of your events this year?

Incorporating Immersive Technology in Live Events

(This article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Spring 2017)

Augmented reality and virtual reality have been on the event technology buzzword list for a while now, with one or both making a lot of people’s “Hot Technology to Watch” lists as far back as 2015. The subject has always been a little twitchy for event people because a lot of what we do is about in-person experiences. We’re people-people, so the idea of a hundred attendees in a room strapping some device to the top of their heads is going to give a lot of us a severe case of spine shivers. Nonetheless, after years of talking about VR and AR, practical uses are starting to make their way into the meeting and events industry.

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Let’s take a moment to get our definitions straight because a lot of people have started to use the term virtual reality a little loosely. Augmented reality is the process of layering something over reality. An example would be the much-maligned Google Glass, in which the user could still see the world, but had text information in the corner of their vision. Whether it’s your smartphone, smart glasses, or full-on cyborgesque headgear, the user can still see and hear the world around them. Whatever information or image that’s being presented to them is being layered over the real world. It is literally reality, augmented.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, is meant to be an immersive experience. It transports us out of the real world - and into a virtual one. These are the headsets that have come on strong in the last year, including offerings from Google, Oculus Rift (which is owned by Facebook), Sony, LG, and other major manufacturers, and are quickly being followed by a host of knock-off, no-name brands. In addition to fully virtual worlds being presented to the wearer of a VR headset, an important subcategory has emerged: immersive video. While not technically virtual reality, filmmakers, documentarians, and extreme sports enthusiasts have begun creating amazingly compelling 360° video, putting the viewer in the middle of the action. The viewer can turn their head and body in any direction to view what’s going on in the scene, but cannot interact with it in any meaningful way.

Much has already been written about the uses of virtual reality as a marketing tool, either by venues or destinations. Immersive video and VR are perfect as in-booth experiences, or even giveaways as low-end VR devices can be as inexpensive as $10 in bulk and can give the viewer a dramatic and powerful view of your product or hotel. But how can event organizers start to take advantage of these emerging technologies, and overcome the healthy skepticism of what is inherently a solitary experience?

While VR headsets intentionally drop the viewer into their own personal world, don’t discount the group experience. Audi and Samsung have worked together to create group virtual reality experiences for their events. Upon arriving, guests were guided to a room of almost 100 Gear VR headsets and seated on space-age spinning chairs. From there they watched, simultaneously, a virtual presentation of amazing graphics and sound, including being seated in their new model vehicle while it rolled through a virtual thrill ride of twists and turns.

Meanwhile, back in “reality”, the room was pumped with smoke and one of the walls was removed. At the conclusion of the virtual presentation, the guests removed their goggles to reveal the actual vehicle to be inspected in person. The photos and videos are incredible, with people laughing, holding hands, and spinning in their chairs. The guests appear to have an amazing time... together.

This kind of scale is probably out of the budget for a lot of events, but it does show that creative event designers are finding ways to turn VR into a group experience. For the short term, most events might need to content themselves with some kind of station with two or three headsets where guests can have a little fun going into a virtual world or playing a game, but as costs come down and technology gets faster, it’s easy to envision group VR presentations becoming more cost-effective.

Things get even more interesting on the augmented reality side. Because these devices are layering information over reality, the experience doesn’t take you out of reality. We will again see the most obvious possibilities for venues, including being able to stand in the middle of an empty ballroom, put on a pair of AR goggles and have important information overlaid on to what the viewer sees. This could include various room setups, decor options, room features, and more - all rendered three-dimensionally and moving as the viewer walks through the environment. The goggles could highlight even more technical items such as ceiling heights, power drops, and rigging points.

Another application is to combine AR technology with other hot-topic technologies. Beacon technology allows for precise device location where GPS might not be available. Now, combine that with information contained within the typical event mobile app. Imagine being an attendee at a busy trade show. While visiting a booth, you receive a notification in your AR-enabled glasses, letting you know it’s time for your appointment at another stand. Your path to your next appointment is highlighted, and (just like Google Maps) it shows you the fastest route.

This technology is coming faster than you might think, with several companies working actively on augmented reality goggles and headsets, and while a little behind their virtual reality cousins, commercial versions should be available soon from the likes of Microsoft and Google. In the meantime, compelling AR experiences can still be achieved using tablets and smartphones, and these will likely continue to be popular and less expensive options for the near future.

The 2018 Trends in Event Technology According to Basically Everyone

I read a lot of trends posts when it comes to the event industry. A lot of trends posts. As a result, I've always tried to stand out a little bit by doing something unusual. In the past, I've done anti-trends posts, including the "Top 5 things you won't have to think about this year", among others.

This year I decided to try something a little different. As I came across the various "Here's What You HAVE to Know About Event Technology in 2018!" posts, I cataloged them and pasted them into a text document. After I felt I had the majority of them, I ran it all through a word cloud generator, and whammo! The trends post of all the trends posts.

Here's where we landed:

"Experiential" sure seemed to be quite the buzzword in 2017, so no big shock that the number one word or phrase was "Experience", and was used almost 200 times across all articles. "Artificial Intelligence" and "Data" were right up there though, with "Marketing" being a bit of a surprise. In retrospect, though, it shouldn't have been, as "Event Marketing" has been on the tips of a lot of big brand's tongues these days.

I was a little surprised to see that "Augmented Reality" and "Virtual Reality" were lower in the list than I would have thought, just because they seemed to be mentioned in almost every article I read, but maybe the words just weren't used as frequently. "Chatbots" also seemed kind of low, given the buzz they seem to be generating.

Methodology: Before you ask, yes- I combined "AI" with Artificial Intelligence, "VR" with Virtual Reality, and "AR" with "Augmented Reality". When something looked like a partial phrase, I went back to my master text file and searched for the possible variations and did my best to combine them. I eliminated all words with less than 25 instances, as well as common words such as "if", "and", "the", etc. I also pulled a lot of super-obvious industry words like "attendee".

That's about it! Does it fit with your reading of all the 2018 trends articles? Any surprises?

How to Fix a Loose Charging Port on a Nexus 6 (and probably a lot of phones)

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I love my Nexus 6, but since day one the charging port has always felt like most USB cables didn't go all the way in. As it approached the 2 year old mark, this condition had gotten steadily worse to the point that any and all cables would simply fall out given a stiff breeze.

I searched and searched online, but as often happens if you don't create the exact right set of search terms, I came up pretty empty. A lot of articles blamed "non-OEM" cables, others said they sent theirs back to Google for a replacement.

Even though it was way out of warranty, I did contact Google. They had no answers, suggesting I contact Motorola for hardware support. I was disappointed, but it triggered an idea- I started searching for articles about loose connections on Motorola phones, and not specifically the Nexus 6. Now things started coming up, and with a little digging I found this post on XDA Developers: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=1856180

In it, user telmosousa describes how using a toothpick, you can clean out the port on your phone. The toothpicks I had were even still too large, so I literally had to whittle one down to get into the port and... sure enough, a disgusting amount of lint and other crud scraped right out. My charging port is back to its like-new "not quite looking all the way plugged in but nonetheless fully functional" condition!

Whenever I find a "how to" that took me forever to find, I do try and post it here for others!

Hope this helps some people out!

The Road-Life Balance: Tips for the Traveling Pro​

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One of the best pieces of advice that’s ever been given to me is this:

“There is no work/life balance. There is only Life.”

In other words, life is not some giant scale or ledger whose accounts must be balanced. Instead, it’s a series of priorities. Sometimes those priorities may be family and friends, other times it may be your career. It all depends on what the priority is at that moment in your life. It’s a convenient (and in my opinion significantly less stressful) way of dealing with your personal and professional world, rather than constantly trying to find some kind of balance between the two.

I’ve come to realize, however, that there was some imbalance in my life. It wasn’t a work/life imbalance, but rather a road/life imbalance. Travel has always been a part of my job working in the meetings and events industry for the last 20 years, but these days I’m on the road at least once or twice a month. It’s not that uncommon in our industry, especially for those of us that do corporate or association meetings and events. That being said, there are plenty of road warriors across all disciplines that reach Platinum flight status by June.

And I hear the same things from almost all of them:

“Ugh, I always come away from these trips 10 pounds heavier.”

I know that’s the case for me. I’ve been tracking my weight almost daily over the last year and you can see a noticeable uptick whenever I went on the road. The longer I was on the road, the more weight I gained.

It’s more than just weight, though. I’d be exhausted, cranky, and basically useless for a period of time after I got back from a trip. The longer the trip, the longer the recovery.

The reasons for all of this are probably obvious to you, as they are to me. When we’re on the road, we act like different people than we do at home. We eat more, and we justify it because we’ve walked 35,000 steps around a convention center (or airports, or city center) all day. We drink more alcohol because of the “work hard, play hard” mentality that so many companies have. We get up stupid early and we go to bed stupid late to accommodate full schedules. Fitness center for a run? Bah! When am I going to get the chance when I’ve already got a 6am call scheduled?

Basically, with the exception of the actual work we do, we act a lot like we do when we’re on vacation. Eat lots, drink lots, sleep little, exercise little. The difference is, most people don’t go on vacation once or twice a month, and if they did, they’d probably gain weight too.

I became determined to find a solution. Some way to bring Road Me and Home Me in to closer alignment. Here’s a little of what I’ve found so far…

The Quest for Continuity

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Even before the weight tracking, I’d actually been playing around with the idea of road/life balance for years. It occurred to me one day while I was starting my day at home, that I had completely different morning routines when I was on the road versus when I was at home. How many times I’d hit snooze, when I’d get my first cup of coffee - even when, and how often, I’d brush my teeth! And so began the Quest for Continuity, my attempt to start being the same person, no matter where I was in the world.

It began, as I said, with my morning and evening routines. I started buying duplicates of all my toiletries, so that I didn’t actually have to remember to pack them. Everything is the same- same shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush- all of it, packed into TSA approved 3 oz containers so I can carry them on. Just doing that made me start to feel more at home on the road.

There were also things that I did on the road that I started to bring home: I realized that I was brushing my teeth more often on the road, and decided I liked my “road toothbrush” better than the one I had at home, so I bought another one. I realized on the road I’d have my first cup of hotel-room coffee before I hopped in the shower, and started doing the same at home.

Results: Because I use my own soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, I feel more refreshed and clean throughout the day. I also, err… smell more like myself, rather than some Orange Lily Ginger-Infused Jasmine bath bar with a vaguely European-sounding name that the hotel contracted to supply as its guest soap. By keeping it in my carry-on, I can wash up quickly on long-haul flights, arriving at home feeling slightly less road-funky. By changing when I drank that first cup of coffee, I emerge from the shower more awake than I used to. Super-glad we have that Keurig to get it going quickly!

Sleep

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I don’t trust hotel clock radios, and only use them as emergency backups. Usually I use my phone as an alarm, and have been using the same alarm app for years. For really early mornings, I’ll set a wakeup call as a backup. As part of looking at my morning routine, I realized I was hitting snooze a lot more on the clock radio at home than I was on the road. I started using my phone instead of the clock radio, using the same app I used on the road. I’ve set it with a hard limit of 2 snoozes, and it makes me do math problems before it will shut off. I hate it often, but it always gets me up.

I also make sure to pack the same kind of clothes I wear to bed at home when I’m on the road. It’s easy to say you’ll just sleep in whatever, but remember we’re going for continuity here. If you sleep in PJs, pack PJs. T-shirt and shorts? Pack ‘em.

And finally, check that thermostat. I usually sleep with the temp around 68, and I open the windows whenever it’s practical to do so. I hate that recycled hotel AC, and I avoid it as much as I can.

Results: The amount of time I have to allow myself to get ready in the morning is significantly reduced, because I know I can’t snooze more than 12 minutes. Often on the road I’ll start the coffee maker between the first and second snooze so it’s ready when I get up. I find I sleep more comfortably in my own cozy bed clothes and with the room at the right temperature, and this seems to help me get over that “can’t sleep well on the first night” that happens to a lot of us. By getting more sleep on the road, I find I’m not as wiped out when I get home, shortening the recovery time.

Food

Obviously this is a big one. Although it’s almost impossible to eat like I do at home when I’m on the road, I’ve been focusing on trying to do it as much as possible. Take breakfast for example: On the road I found myself eating giant breakfasts of eggs, toast, bacon, hashbrowns- whatever was being served for free or at the buffet. Most of us do not eat that way every day at home.

My standard fare is a very light breakfast and about 4 or 5 (small- not Venti) cups of coffee before noon, which is about 500 calories less than a typical hotel breakfast. I’ve started bringing a small insulated cooler about the size of a lunch bag in my backpack, filled with turkey snack sticks and string cheese. I find a couple of these plus a cup of coffee is usually enough to get me going in the morning, and if I get snacky, I can always grab another one as needed for a little burst of protein and fat. They’re fast and easy, and you can eat them on the run. If you’re vegetarian, dried nuts and fruit would probably make a nice substitute, and doesn’t require a cooler sack. By snacking throughout the morning, I find I’m not as starving by noon which helps with the next pitfall, lunch.

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Especially when we’re working hard, our lunches tend to be fast food, flat meat on giant buns, or more hotel banquet food. Not much we can do about that, but I’ve found that by snacking in the morning, I’m not ravenous by the time it’s lunch, which at least keeps me from wolfing down a ton of bad food. We also often justify this with “Who knows when I’m going to get around to dinner?” This is also avoided by keeping a supply of snacks in your bag, so you don’t feel obligated to eat until you’re stuffed.

Dinner? So far I’ve just been leaving that be. I’ve tried to make a little bit smarter choices, but when you’re all going out for the Best Pizza in New York, I’m not going to say no. Plus in my line of work, dinner is frequently the only time you get to experience a little life “outside the ballroom”.

Results: The last two trips I’ve been on I have maintained my weight, give or take a couple pounds- at least within the ranges of normal fluctuation. I’ve also felt like I had more energy in the mornings, not as obligated to over-eat on lunches, and even been popular with team members and clients for sharing my snacks! I felt less guilty about having a larger meal at dinner, and get to enjoy the nightlife a little more.

Exercise

Since I’ve been shooting for continuity, I’ve been trying to find an exercise regime that works both at home and on the road. I enjoy walking/running on the treadmill, but frequently don’t have time to take an hour a day on the road to do so. Plus, I’m not much of a morning person, so I’m not getting up at 4am to work out before a 6am crew call.

My search has focused on exercises that can be done in short durations. There’s been a lot of research that shows that short workouts of high intensity can be just as beneficial as longer workouts, so that helps with not having to get up as early. I’ve also been looking at workouts that can be done inside a hotel room, so I can save even more time by not having to trek down to the hotel fitness center. There’s occasionally time on a job where the morning is booked, but I might have an hour to spare in the afternoon. Not enough time to get to the room, change, head to the fitness center, run, get back, shower, change and get back to the ballroom, but if there were something shorter… maybe…

I’ve settled on trying two sets of workouts, both very similar:

Five exercises you can do in your hotel room in 15 minutes - USA Today
http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/roadwarriorvoices/2015/02/23/get-a-full-workout-in-your-hotel-room-with-these-bodyweight-exercises/83837354

and,

The Scientific Seven Minute Workout - New York Times
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/

Be warned, the 7 minute workout will have you huffing and puffing if you’re in the least bit out of shape, and it does require a sturdy chair for a partner. It’s a timed workout of 30 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of cool down, then into the next exercise, and it absolutely kicked my buttinski the first few times I’ve done it. I like it though, because it’s time-based, instead based of the number of reps. As I get in better shape, I’ll naturally be able to do more reps of each exercise. For now, I just try as hard as I can to fill the allotted time with as many reps as I can. They’ve even built a nice web app for mobile phones, accessible from the link above, which sets the timers for you and has audio prompts for each period. Once you’ve mastered the basics, they even have an advanced version.

Results: Jury is still out on this one, but I’m definitely getting into better shape. I think exercise and the above changes in diet are definitely contributing to my not gaining weight on the road. The last couple of road trips have involved heavy socializing, though, so my alcohol intake has been a bit higher than on normal work trips. Which brings me to…

Alcohol

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I hate to add this one, but I have to. Fact: I drink a lot more when I’m on the road. It definitely seems like a great deal of the people in my industry have that “Work hard/Play hard” mentality, so there’s always someone who’s up for a nightcap no matter how long the day’s activities are.

But, as a guy in my 40s, I’ve had to come to the horrible realization that many men in their 40s come to: drinking makes me gain weight. As a result, on the home front, I’ve almost entirely stopped drinking any alcoholic beverages during the week, and then try to moderate my intake on the weekends. I can still whoop it up when I need to, but week to week, my consumption is way down. This, combined with more regular exercise and healthier eating, has been the biggest contributing factor for my actually losing weight at home.

On the road, however, this has proven incredibly difficult to bring into alignment, mainly due to the pressures of “let’s go out for one” after a long day/night. Or the bottle (or bottles) of wine delivered by the hotel to the show office. Or the nicely chilled Heineken waiting in the mini-bar after a long, sweaty day of setting up an event. Man, it’s hard to resist.

Many people will also drink to help them sleep, especially on that first night in a hotel. Counterintuitively, there’s been plenty of studies that drinking can actually disrupt your sleep patterns, making you get less quality sleep, and (again as a guy in his 40s) getting up frequently through the night to go to the bathroom.

Results: TBD. Much like dinners, I’m trying to make slightly better decisions, maybe swap out a couple of drinks for a water or two, but for the most part I’ve been allowing myself some leeway. If adding in exercise and my other techniques aren’t getting the job done, though, I’m going to have to start watching the booze intake on the road, too.

Conclusions

Finding a balance between your road life and your home life may be as simple as trying to find as much continuity as possible between the two. Be sure to look in all directions for ways to improve both versions of your life. Can’t find the time to FaceTime the kids? Why not record them a video when you do have a break, and have whoever’s at home with them show it to them at bedtime? Having trouble finding time to exercise? Find a shorter workout! What things do you differently that might be causing you problems on the road? What could you do better at home? The more continuity you have, the less traveling feels like something out of the ordinary, and the more it just feels like… life.

The One Question Survey: What Would It Be for Your Event?

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If you could boil down your post-event survey down to one question, what would it be?

 

Recently I needed to call customer service for Delta Airlines regarding a possible change to my itinerary. Normally I’d use the web interface or mobile app for these types of things, but in this case apparently what I was trying to do somehow violated Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, so digital methods were just not cooperating. I was forced to *GASP* use the telephone and talk to a real, live person.

The service representative was extremely pleasant, worked through several multi-city flight scenarios, trying each in turn to see how much they cost, including change fees, routing through various hubs, and other tricks of the trade. She was patient and creative as we tried out each possibility in the system. Wow, what a rare and wonderful customer service experience!

As she concluded the call, an automated voice asked me if I wanted to participate in a one question survey. I’m not normally good for completing ratings or surveys unless they’re only a couple of questions, and have abandoned more than my fair share of surveys once they’ve gone past the first page. But one question? I could handle that. Especially since my experience had been so great. I wanted to make sure my service rep was rewarded, and I was intrigued- what kind of information could you glean about my 20 minute call from one question?

The question was simple, brilliant, and not at all what I expected. It went something like this: “When thinking of the representative that just helped you, how likely would you be to hire them as a customer service representative?” I was presented with a 1-5 scale, I punched in the highest score, and that was it. Thank you, and goodbye.

Obviously, I was impressed with the power of that one question. Impressed enough to immediately jot it down as something I’d have to write about later. It got me thinking about the post-event surveys we deal with on a regular basis. As I mentioned a moment ago, I don’t have much tolerance for lengthy surveys, especially those where every response is marked “Required Field.” Unfortunately, far too often we see exactly that kind of survey as a follow up to our events.

How many people started your post-event survey, then abandoned it once they realized what they were getting into? How much of a representative sample are you really getting when only 5% of your attendees fill out your survey completely? There seems to be a hesitancy on the part of survey creators to have too few questions, as if important insights can’t be gleaned from a short survey, and that only pages and pages of required fields can get you the information you need.

But… what if… all you needed was just one question?

“Would you attend this event next year?” seems too simple, and doesn’t tell you much about anything. “Would you recommend this event to a friend?” Maybe, a little closer. But what about something like this: “If you were spend your own money, and not your organization’s, would you attend this event next year?” Getting closer. There are definitely events that I would only attend if the costs were being covered by someone else. There are others that I likely would pay my own money to attend.

So what would your event’s one question survey be? Leave a comment and let me know!

Can Coffee Save American Politics?

The other week I had the opportunity to sit down with a few of the "old guard" in Richfield politics. Some have even referred to a couple of them as "The Founders", and while that's not technically accurate, it's an honorific title they probably deserve. They've been active in Richfield politics for decades, and I truly enjoyed hearing stories of my adopted hometown's adolescence. In my middle age I've come to love studying history, and was eager to soak up just a fraction of what they'd learned over the years.

I had a blast, and the couple of hours flew by. Sipping coffee and eating cinnamon buns, we chatted away, and I sincerely hope I get the chance to do so again soon.

Afterward it left me longing for more than cinnabuns, though- it left me longing for the days when members of opposite parties could actually socialize together. You see, this group and I, we are from different political parties (*GASP*). This was a fact that I wanted to get onto the table right away, so that there was no mistaking my intentions to just sit and chat were sincere, and other than some light and good-natured ribbing, went largely undiscussed.

Throughout the conversation I was constantly reminded how, in the not too distant past, the political discourse was more civil. Don't get me wrong, American politics have always been volatile, with our nation born in riots and even fistfights on the floors of our fledgling country's government houses. There's always been conflict and diametrically opposed ideals, but...

Legislators knew each others' children. They would have lunch together in the cafeteria. Lobbyists would invite people from both parties to the same event. They would go out for a drink after sessions, and maybe even have dinner together.  Above all, however, the best politicians have always known how to work past their differences to get things done. Compromise has become a dirty work on the extremes of both parties, but without compromise our system of government simply doesn't work. The "all or nothing" mentality has sadly become a pervasive part of our political mindset.

I can't help but feel that if we just went out for coffee a little bit more with each other, we'd start to see each other as people again, rather than "the other", or worse, "the enemy". It's hard to hate when you're eating a cinnamon bun...

Achievement Unlocked - Made it on TWiT

Well, there's one to check off the bucket list. Last week I had the opportunity to be on the TWiT (This Week in Tech) network as part of the "Call for Help" section of their show The New ScreenSavers.

Left: Fr. Robert Ballecer, SJ  Right: Leo Laporte  Center: A strangely orange and typically shiny me

The show was prerecorded in advance of the US Thanksgiving holiday and released on November 28th, 2015. On this episode, host Leo Laporte was joined by Father Robert Ballecer, SJ, a specialist in enterprise technology, and a Jesuit priest. How's that for a combo for ya?

I originally reached out to the network during my recent unsuccessful bid to get elected to the Richfield School Board, hoping to get their insights on technology in our schools. While I had a strong suspicion they'd be in favor of Chromebooks over iPads or Windows laptops, I was curious to get their take, as well as their thoughts on lower income families who might not have access to the Internet at home.

Why it was a big bleeping deal for me...

Being on the show was a complete fanboy experience for me, and I was incredibly nervous. You see, there's a direct connection between my discovering The Screen Savers (hosted by Leo Laporte, and featuring the original "Call for Help" segment) on the short-lived cable television network TechTV circa 2002, and my life today. At the time, the programming was just interesting to me- geeks talking about geek stuff, a little bit of hacking, and a lot of basic computer repair. Stuff that's proven extremely valuable to me in my life as a technology guy ever since. Not long after I discovered the network, it began to disintegrate. There just wasn't enough mainstream demand for such focused, geeky content.

Fast forward about 5 years or so: I'm married and have a beautiful daughter. One day while surfing the net I discover that Leo's been making a new show called This Week in Tech- but it wasn't on TV, it was something called a "podcast", and you could download it and listen (or watch it) through iTunes. My world opened up in a way I wouldn't have thought possible

Being a new parent, there wasn't a lot of time to sit around watching TV, much less reading a book. Through podcasting, I could keep up on all the technology news I could handle, all the while bouncing a baby, mowing the lawn, shoveling the walk, doing the dishes... Through the podcast world I learned of Audible, and started listening to audiobooks. I don't think I'd read more than a couple books for leisure in the previous 10 years, now I was devouring them at a rate of one a month. We had another daughter, and I began blogging about my experiences as a GeekDad. Some of the articles still survive at the very beginning of this blog.

Listening to podcasts, I discovered Twitter. Within weeks of being on Twitter I started to meet event industry folks that remain my friends to this day. I started going to conferences and meetups, and eventually started speaking publicly. From there I began recording classes at the Event Leadership Institute, which in turn led me to doing more public speaking at conferences, as well as my all day intensive classes on technical production. I met even more meeting and event people, and the next thing I knew I was a co-hosting a podcast myself. Lindsey Rosenthal, Tahira Endean, and I produced a year of weekly industry podcasts called The Event Alley Show. When that came to a halt, I was approached by BizBash to host a new podcast, GatherGeeks.

I've often said that my biggest professional regret was not getting involved in the industry earlier. Basically I lived in my own little company bubble for 15 years. When I started to get out and meet all the fantastic meeting and event people from all over the world, my universe began to change. I went from liking what I do, to loving what I do, and I started my own company.

And if I hadn't stumbled upon Leo Laporte, The Screen Savers, and TWiT, none of that would have happened.


Links:

The New Screen Savers Episode 30

GatherGeeks- A Podcast by BizBash

The Event Alley Show

Thank you!

I want to extend my sincere congratulations to John Ashmead, Crystal Brakke, and Paula Cole on winning their seats on the Richfield School Board! I'd also like to thank the other candidates for throwing their respective hats in the ring. Rori, Lisa, Erin, Brad, and Cyndy - it's been a pleasure getting to know you over the last couple months, and thank you for your passion and vision of what can be. 

I'd like to thank everyone that voted for me, supported me, and donated to my campaign, and I encourage you all to stay in touch. Stay active! Continue to ask the hard questions you've been asking for the last few weeks, engage with the current and newly elected board, and continue to challenge us all to do better- for all of Richfield's kids. I know I intend to.

Thank you!

Thanks to the Richfield Latino Family Association for Education!

Many thanks for the invitation to stop by the Richfield Latino Family Association meeting the other day! I enjoyed meeting all of you, and it makes me very happy to see such concerned and engaged parents.

It doesn't matter what our backgrounds are, we all want the same things: we want our children to graduate, we want our children to go to college, we want our children to get decent jobs, and we want our children grow up to be good people.

Figuring out how to do that in our diverse community is our greatest challenge, and our greatest opportunity.

Now Accepting Donations!

A lot of wonderful people have already contributed to my campaign by donating their time, services, and yes, the occasional check. But with the cost of yard signs, flyers - even coffee and donuts for meetups, literally every dollar helps me get the word out to the residents of Richfield. If you can spare even a dollar, it will be a valued contribution to my campaign!

To find out more, and join those who've already contribured, click here: www.brandtkrueger.com/donate

What a great Penn Fest!

Other than a few drips here and there, the weather held out and we had another great Penn Fest! This event seems to get bigger and better every year, and it's definitely one of the highlights of our Fall.

It was really great to get a chance to get out and meet so many Richfield residents! I was particularly happy to hear that so many of you were well aware of the two school referendums on the ballot this year, and how important it's going to be for us to vote yes on both.

It was also a great opportunity for me to hear your concerns, and a few of you gave me some things I'm definitely going to have to look into.  As I've told many of you, we've been generally happy with our girls' education so far, but as I heard from some of you yesterday, there are still many challenges yet to overcome.

I continue to be humbled by the support I've been receiving, and would be honored to represent you on the Richfield School Board!

Why I'm Running for Richfield School Board

It's funny how it happens...

You're just going through your life, living it the best way you know how, and then *WHAM* the next thing you know you have a wife, a house, a beagle that's the loudest thing you've ever heard, and... two beautiful daughters. You look out the window at those girls running around, and you would give anything, anything, to make sure they grew up to be happy. And not just happy, but good people. You want to make sure they'll succeed in whatever they want to be. Of course, being 8 and 6, that changes almost daily: "Daddy! I want to be a veterinarian!" "Daddy! I want to be a dentist!" "Daddy! I want to be Lady-President!"

"That's just President, sweetheart."
"Then I want to be President!"
"Well, study hard, do well in school, be a good person, and you might be able to do just that. You've got my vote."

We chose to live in Richfield. We bought our home from the original owners. We decided to raise a family here, and we've joked that if we hit the lottery, we'd bulldoze the house and rebuild it, right where we are.

1st Day of School, 2015

1st Day of School, 2015

So we're not going anywhere, anytime soon.

Which means I'm running for them. 

I'm running because I want to make sure they're getting a quality education from start to finish.

I'm running because I have a strong background in technology and computers, and I know how important these tools are going to be moving forward.

I'm running because I believe we're going in the right direction, and I don't want someone's personal or political agenda interfering with long-term strategy.

But, I think the biggest reason I'm running is because I'm tired of the inevitable question that comes after someone learns 1) I live in Richfield, and 2) I have children in the school system: "So... have you considered trying to get them into Edina schools?"

No. No, I haven't.

 

 

If you'd like to support me in my campaign for Richfield School Board, please click here.

Google Chrome Update Could Boost Web-Based Event Apps

 

Native meeting and event app providers may have to start updating their marketing materials.

Native apps (the kind you download from the Apple App Store or Google Play) have always touted among their list of benefits their ability to send push notifications, access the camera, and the ease of adding the app to the home screen of a device.  Web-enabled apps, sometimes called web-only apps, exist only in a device’s Internet browser, and therefore have been unable to access the camera or send push notifications.  They also can be somewhat confusing as to how to add a shortcut icon to the home screen.  

Google is starting to change all that.

With a recent update to Chrome for Android, Google is now allowing web partners to push notifications to users, even when Chrome isn’t actively open. The early adopters include Beyond the Rack, eBay, FanSided, Pinterest, Product Hunt, VICE News, and believe it or not, Facebook.  That last one interests me the most, as I’ve detested Facebook’s native app for Android for some time. The ability to get basic notifications, though, might actually get me to check in more than every couple of weeks.

The request for notification access is pretty straightforward, and once you’ve granted a site access, you can revoke it at any time through the app’s settings.  Also, “Block” means “go away forever, and don’t ask me again,” so you won’t have to worry about a site asking every time you visit.

To make the websites you access regularly easy to get to, they've also baked in the ability to have an “Add to Homescreen” button on mobile sites to easily add an icon to the user’s home screen with just one click.  This will allow mobile event app developers to get their apps easily and seamlessly onto the coveted front page of users phones and devices.

Source: Google

Source: Google

And finally, the “holy grail” of mobile app development: access to the camera. With just a few simple lines of code, developers can ask for, and be granted, access to a device camera, allowing web-enabled apps to grab snapshots for use in social media, photo feeds, or other event purposes.

Clearly Google is trying to reduce number of differences between mobile web sites and native apps, and in a post released on the Google Chromium Blog, they attempted tell us why:

“Unfortunately, once users discover [a mobile web] experience they love, it is hard for them to build a meaningful relationship since websites lack the engaging capabilities developers have come to expect from mobile such as push notifications and home screen icons. As a result, developers have needed to decide between the engagement potential of a native app and the reach potential of a mobile website.”

And that’s the same decision that event organizers have had to make as well- deciding between the engagement opportunities that come from using native apps with full access to push notifications and the phone’s hardware (camera, microphone, etc.) or the easy to change/update on the fly benefits of mobile web development, not the least of which is not having to get approved, or rejected, by the Almighty Apple in a reasonable amount of time.

The update, which has already begun to roll out, is currently only available for Android.  Knowing how locked down Apple is, I fear that it may stay that way for the short term.  Nonetheless, this is a big step in achieving parity between native and web-enabled meeting and event applications, one that Google is willing to support and promote with all it’s Googley might.

More Info:
http://blog.chromium.org/2015/04/reaching-and-re-engaging-users-on.html
http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/04/google-wants-to-power-up-the-web-with-push-notifications-and-home-icons/
Thanks to Eric Bidelman for calling camera access the Holy Grail in his blog post:
http://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/getusermedia/intro/
 

Serious Vulnerability Discovered in Popular Hotel/Venue WiFi Router

It doesn't have a sexy name like HeartBleed, RowHammer, or even POODLE, but security company Cylance announced last week that it had discovered an incredibly serious vulnerability in the ANTLabs InnGate Internet gateway device. If you’re a frequent traveler, as many event professionals are, chances are you’ve been connected to one of these devices. They’re popular with hotels, convention centers, and other places where temporary internet access is offered, chiefly because they offer the ability to tie the billing for that access to a specific room number or account. Some of the other features of the device includes express checkout and viewing of guest folio charges.

Photo: ANTLabs

Photo: ANTLabs

The vulnerability, which offers a “complete compromise of the vulnerable system” is apparently trivial to exploit, allowing relatively unsophisticated attackers to gather any and all plain text communication sent through the device, including unencrypted websites (no locky-lock on the web address, no https), and virtually all email sent through email applications such as Outlook. More advanced attackers would have “seemingly no limit to what they could do” including potentially intercepting even HTTPS encrypted web pages (like banks or Gmail), stealing usernames and passwords, adding malware to software downloads, or much, much worse.

Put simply, when we’re connected to a hotel or venue WiFi, literally every bit of information we send and receive is going through their infrastructure. What happens when that infrastructure can be compromised at it’s very basic levels? Anything an attacker wants.

More than just sniffing your Internet

This particular exploit isn’t just limited to hotel guests Internet browsing, however. One of the selling points of the InnGate is that it can connect to a location’s PMS (Property Management System). A PMS can contain a tremendous amount of data including guest bookings and information, on-property sales, sales and marketing information- even HR and payroll, depending on the system. What’s even scarier, is that a PMS can in turn connect to other systems, such as “central reservation systems and revenue or yield management systems, front office, back office, point of sale, door-locking, housekeeping optimization, pay-TV, energy management, payment card authorization and channel management systems.” (Source:Wikipedia) Likewise, according to Cylance, if that PMS controls multiple locations, the attackers “could potentially leverage that access to infect the other branches of an organization.”

Scared the bejeebers out of you? It probably should. This one was pretty bad. Over 270 instances of this particular device were publicly accessible, and exploitable, via the Internet. The hotels and venues involved ran the gamut, and were not restricted to any brand, star rating, or price, and were spread out all over the world. They also ranged from “places we’ve never heard of to places that cost more per night than most apartments cost to rent for a month”, according to Cylance.

One can’t read about this exploit and not think back to a few months ago when Kaspersky revealed that high-end business travelers had been targeted for years by a group that it dubbed DarkHotel. There was plenty of evidence that the group had state-level tools at their disposal, but this new exploit has some wondering if perhaps it’s been much easier to target and attack hotel guests than anyone previously thought.

The good news is that ANTLabs immediately leapt into action as soon as the vulnerability was reported to them, getting a patch ready and releasing it in just over a month. Cylance noted that it’s “not often that vulnerability reporting goes smoothly and ultimately resulted in a timely patch from the vendor.” Cylance is also working to notify the hotels and venues that it identified as being vulnerable.

So what do we do?

I’ve been telling people for some time now that the vast majority of hotel WiFi networks are not secured properly, referring to the fact that the network itself doesn’t have a password. Sadly, I had no idea that this level of attack was even possible. When you can infiltrate a gateway device this deeply, it’s pretty scary. There are a few things we can all do to help make the bad guy’s jobs more difficult, though:

Hotels and Venues:

  • Make sure your network devices are checked regularly to see if there are any updates available, and if you use ANTLabs InnGates, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GO MAKE SURE THEY GET UPDATED RIGHT FLIPPING NOW.
  • Secure your WiFi routers with a password. Yes it wouldn’t have helped in this case, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. And you should.
  • Of course, you could also make WiFI free, in which case a lot of this integration with PMSs would no longer be necessary, and things would be, more or less, just as secure as our personal and business WiFi routers. Or at least less of a target. Just sayin'.

Individual guests:

  • Don’t do anything on public/hotel/venue WiFi that you wouldn’t want the ENTIRE WORLD to know. While HTTPS connections to banks, Gmail, and other encrypted sites should be safe, this exploit shows that might not necessarily be the case. While we all have to use these networks from time to time, try to restrict your traffic to as few sites as possible, and to avoid anything relating to financial data, company secrets, or other, er… sites… that you might not… er… want folks to find out you visit.
  • If at all possible, when on these networks, use a VPN. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, and it acts like a secure, encrypted tunnel for your Internet access. The reason this type of vulnerability works is because it’s intercepting your traffic right there in the hotel as you surf around the net. With a VPN, your data goes through the encrypted data tunnel to your office, or other location, before it goes out onto the Internet- so all the venue WiFi sees is noise.

Stay safe out there people…

References:
Cylance - http://blog.cylance.com/spear-team-cve-2015-0932
DarkHotel - http://www.wired.com/2014/11/darkhotel-malware/
WikiPedia PMS - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Property_management_system
ANTLabs InnGate - http://www.antlabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=69&Itemid=88
ANTLabs InnGate Patch - http://www.antlabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:rsync-remote-file-system-access-vulnerability-cve-2015-0932&catid=54:advisories&Itemid=133

Special thanks to Steve Gibson for reporting on this on his Security Now netcast:
http://twit.tv/show/security-now/501

The FCC Response to Marriott's Request to Block WiFi Hotspots

On January 27th, 2014, the Chief of the Enforcement Bureau for the FCC, Travis LeBlanc, issued a strongly worded statement in response to Marriott's petition to be allowed to block WiFi hotspots at the properties it manages.  While Marriott itself has issued a statement saying that they would no longer do so, the FCC has received several reports of other venues and hotels where it appeared personal WiFi hotspots were being blocked.

The post on the FCC website was titled "WARNING- WiFi Blocking is Prohibited" and didn't leave a lot of wiggle room.  For anybody.

The statement uses much of the same language as the judgement against Marriott, but makes explicit that WiFi blocking will not be tolerated by the bureau.  Some key excerpts:

"The Enforcement Bureau has seen a disturbing trend in which hotels and other commercial establishments block wireless consumers from using their own personal Wi-Fi hot spots on the commercial establishment’s premises. As a result, the Bureau is protecting consumers by aggressively investigating and acting against such unlawful intentional interference."

"What is Prohibited?  No hotel, convention center, or other commercial establishment or the 
network operator providing services at such establishments may intentionally block or disrupt 
personal Wi-Fi hot spots on such premises, including as part of an effort to force consumers to purchase access to the property owner’s Wi-Fi network.  Such action is illegal and violations 
could lead to the assessment of substantial monetary penalties."

The tone and intention of the statement is pretty clear- hotels and other businesses operating WiFi hotspot blocking systems?  Knock it off or you will be fined.

For the full backstory and analysis of the Marriott WiFi Blocking Kerfuffle so far, have a look at my previous article.

The Marriott WiFi Kerfuffle: A Deep Dive

Marriott International has been in the news a lot in the last few months, specifically in regards to whether or not it has the right to block personal Wi-Fi devices on its properties.  Many think the matter has been resolved, with Marriott “caving in” to consumer backlash and criticism from the likes of Microsoft and Google.  But this story is far from over if you go a little deeper, and isn’t nearly as cut and dry as some sensationalist headlines and Tweets may have led you to believe.

Read More

Alex Lindsay's Manhattan Transfer Recipe

On December 31st, 2014 the TWiT (This Week in Tech) online video network celebrated New Year's Eve with a live "24 hours of 2015" marathon.  The marathon sought to ring in the new year across the globe's 27 time zones (yes, there's more than 24), and to raise money for UNICEF, the United Nation's Children's Fund.  The marathon raised over $70,000 for the charity!

Lots of shenanigans happened over the 24 hour period, but one section that caught my eye was the "Mixology" section put on by computer graphics and video production pioneer Alex Lindsay.

Alex showed us a couple of cocktails during the segment, including a modified Manhattan Transfer (which is an already modified Manhattan), as well as a liquid nitrogen cooled Daiquiri recipe.  I don't have ready access to liquid nitrogen, so I'll probably be trying the Manhattan Transfer first.  Unfortunately, the segment goes by pretty fast, so it was difficult to understand what some of the ingredients were- but with a little Google searching and pausing to analyze the video, I was able to cobble together the recipe!

Ingredients:
Averna (Italian Liqueur)
Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
Antica Formula sweet vermouth
Peychaud's orange bitters
Ice for chillin'

Put ice in a pint glass, about 2/3 to 3/4 full.  Add 2 parts rye whiskey.  Add 1 part Averna.  Add 1/2 part sweet vermouth.  Add a "couple dashes" of the bitters.  Stir or shake approximately 20 seconds.  Serve in a martini glass.

Enjoy!  And let me know what you think of it in the comments.  If you enjoy the recipe, why not donate a little to UNICEF as well?  The campaign is still open at http://unicefusa.com/twit