December 9th, 2012


Travel Catch-up Part 1: Star Mega Do 4

The first of the trips I needed to write up was the frequent flyer party known as Star Mega Do 4. There are pictures on my flickr site.

The MegaDo website defines a MegaDo as "A once-in-a-lifetime field trip for the world's ULTIMATE travel junkies." I'd quibble with the "one-in-a-lifetime" part since this was the fifth one, but the rest of the description is pretty accurate. This one was involved Star Alliance and, for those of us whose vacation time and budget didn't make it worthwhile flying from Los Angeles to Frankfurt to Zurich for under a day, that really meant United. I should note briefly that these things sell out quickly and I was glad I was sitting at my computer when the tickets went on sale.

Anyway, things started in San Francisco on Tuesday night. First, I had to get to SFO and that trip involved a typical United annoyance. Namely, a change in equipment took away my exit row aisle seat and stuck me in a middle. At least it was Economy Plus, but it's still annoying. On arrival, I took a shuttle over to the Hyatt, dropped my bag in my room, and headed down to the opening reception. Hyatt was one of the event sponsors and they definitely went all out on the food. There were stations representing various Bay Area neighborhoods, with pretty much everything you might imagine. I focused on the dim sum and sushi, which were excellent.

They also did a very good job with breakfast on Wednesday morning. There was a bountiful buffet with almost anything one might want, at least as far as standard American breakfast goods go. That means there was no noodle soup and no nutella. Which would, by the way, be a pretty awful pairing, so perhaps it is just as well.

But as much as there was food (and drink) on the ground (and in the United Club at SFO), we were there for the flight. The plan had been to get us to a gate with a 767 parked and then make a gate change announcement to spring the surprise of a 787 Dreamliner on us. But the frequent flyer crowd can figure these things out, so the deception would have been pointless. Boarding was slowed slightly as we paused for photos, but soon enough we were ensconced in our shiny new plane. You can tell that United does pay some attention to their frequent flyers by their willingness to let this group charter a plane that's been flying just a few weeks.

The most notable thing in the back of the bus is the large windows. Even from an aisle seat in the middle section of the widebody, I could see out the windows to some extent. The short hops were not sufficient to tell if the higher humidity and cabin pressurization really make any difference.

Our major official activity on board was "Mileopoly." Everyone got a card and had to find the person with the matching card to claim the prize. (Both people got the prize, by the way. I got a United Club pass. This is actually useful. One of the people in my row won one of the grand prizes, an ipad mini. The most common prize was for free or discounted Go-Go onboard wifi.) I should also mention that everyone got little Rimowa amenity kits, which included a card providing a charitable donation to a charity of your choice, a Livestrong bracelet, and a few fruit snacks.

We arrived at IAH and had a barbecue in the hangar. I should note that there was a bit of a cowboy theme to the whole event. There had been a claim of a special prize drawing for those wearing cowboy hats. That's why I'm dressed the way I am in the picture, though my hat was not one of the ones made specifically for the Mega Do. (I bought it in Australia a number of years ago and it has been hard worn. The sweat stains are largely from overlanding in Africa.) I didn't need much dinner at that point, but there can never ben too much talk about frequent flyer miles and such.

What I really didn't need was the hour long bus ride to downtown Houston for more of a nap than a full night's sleep. I'm sure the downtown Hyatt is lovely, but all I cared about was that it had a bed.

We needed to leave at 5 a.m. and the Hyatt did provide a notably good bagged breakfast. They had fruit cups, deliciously juicy pears, yogurt, and various breads and pastries ready for us to eat on the bus back to the airport. There was more napping on the flight from IAH to ORD, where we divided up into groups for various United tours. I should note that we were joined for the rest of the events by about 100 other people United had invited. I have mixed feelings about that, since I felt it detracted a bit from the specialness of having paid for the MegaDo.

Some people went to headquarters, some to a catering and on-board services tour. I got the airport ops tour and my group started out with the hangar. We were inside first, looking at various equipment, much of which had price tags attached. I am sure most people were impressed by the numbers, but by satellite standards, airplane parts are cheap. Then we went outside, where we got to play with various pieces of heavy equipment, e.g. driving baggage loaders and spraying water from deicers. Back inside the hangar, we had a plane pull (essentially a tug-of-war against a 757), ate lunch, and got to watch a slide deployment. The latter was a pretty pricey thing for United to do for us, so was further evidence they wanted to give us a good time.

Back at the terminal, we divided into groups of three. My group went out on the ramp to help push back a 747. Essentially, I just shadowed one of the two wing walkers. As big as the plane feels when you're on board, it feels even bigger when you're standing out there seeing it off. Back inside, we toured the baggage facility, then went over to a gate. As the flight at the gate was already mostly boarded, all we really got to do was tag a couple of gate-checked bags, though we did watch a person being rebooked to another flight. I heard some people got to do things like make boarding announcements, which would have been cooler.

Next came a chance at jet bridge driving. I concluded that I'm not any better at it than I was in my previous attempt (at PDX in January). Finally, we had a brief tower visit, before boarding the buses to the Hyatt Schaumburg. That proved to be the most disappointing hotel of the trip. It was inconveniently located and, frankly, shabby, with notably poor soundproofing. As I mentioned on Facebook, it reminded me of why I am mostly a Marriott person. (I understand the logistics that had us there - a combination of availability and pricing. But grumbling is therapeutic.)

After a brief rest, there was a very lengthy bus ride (nearly two hours in traffic) to downtown Chicago for another over the top Hyatt reception. Again, there was a wide range of food, as well as an open bar. Several United executives were there to solicit our opinions. But, frankly, I was too tired to really appreciate things as much as I might have. The bus ride back to Schaumburg was a little faster and all I wanted to do at that point was sleep. Just as I was about drifting off, the phone rang, with the news that our bus in the morning would be an hour earlier than we'd been told earlier. I suppose it was good to know, but the late hour of the call still made me grumpy.

The breakfast at Schaumburg was about the same standard as the rest of the hotel, i.e. not very impressive. There was another long bus ride back downtown, where we went to focus groups at United's headquarters in the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). The one on Mileage Plus was disappointing, as the executives leading it seemed evasive. The IT session was, by contrast, excellent, and I came away with the impression that those executives sincerely wanted to get our ideas and feedback.

Finally, we went up to the Willis Tower Skydeck, with its excellent views over Chicago. Jeff Smisek, United's CEO, proved to have a good sense of humor and an understanding of the concerns his airlines frequent flyers have. I don't agree with everything he said - for one thing, I am a decaf drinker - but I appreciated his willingness to meet with us. There was a light lunch (sandwiches and cookies) before the schlep back to Schaumburg.

I had time for a nap before the (optional) evening party, which was extremely cowboy themed, with a country western band and line dancing. There was reasonably good food, too, and (as always) plentiful drink. There was also the drawing of raffle tickets. I'd bought a small number of tickets, but I didn't win anything. If I recall correctly, the charity fundraising came to about $100K. (There had also been silent auctions, including one for sports memorabilia, but I was outbid for a Red Sox logo signed by a number of players, including Bill "Spaceman" Lee. I assume the charity total included those silent auctions, as well as live auctions for things like a United red carpet.)

In the morning, I took a cab back to ORD and had a nice routine flight home, devoid of tornados, weather delays, and/or equipment swaps. I even had time for a nap before driving to McLean for Tellabration. But I already did the storytelling catch-up.


Before getting to the topic du jour, I realized I forgot to mention one thing in yesterday's write-up of the Star Mega Do. Namely, United offered an interesting challenge to participants, with 10,000 bonus miles for any of us who fly to or connect through 20 unique destinations in the first three months of 2013. At a practical level, that isn't really a huge bonus, but it is exactly the sort of obsessive counting type of challenge that appeals to me. So expect some early year mileage running.

Anyway, I spent much of yesterday running errands (e.g. getting my car serviced and picking up books from a friend's house), as well as trying to get caught up on housework. This morning was occupied with laundry and the newspaper. But, in the afternoon, I went to Signature Theatre to see Dreamgirls.

The show, which is very loosely based on the story of The Supremes, is one that is highly dependent on the performances. Nova Payton was stunning as Effie White, the belter who is forced out of the group, the Dreams, as the singers (and their songwriter, who happens to be Effie's brother) are manipulated by their manager, Curtis Taylor. Curtis was ably played by Sydney James Harcourt, who came across as suave and cool and somehow likeable despite being such a snake. The other notable performance was by Cedric Neal as Jimmy "Thunder" Early, another singer whose career has its ups and down's at the hands of Taylor's ambition. Throw in a lively Motown influenced score (albeit, with somewhat weak lyrics) and an amazing number of costume changes and it made for a very enjoyable afternoon.

I should also note that I think Payton is destined for bigger stages. This is the fourth production at Signature I have seen her in and I continue to be more and more impressed.

After the show, I drove home in time for the annual holiday party at my condo complex. They always do a good job with the refreshments and this year was no exception. To answer the burning question I am sure you are all dying to know, my Scottish neighbor opted for jeans this year, instead of his kilt. Oh, well, at least I had Sydney James Harcourt as eye candy in the afternoon.