Saturday, December 22, 2012

Travel Help

So many of you know I enjoy travel.  Allyson and I have been to Budapest and Lima in the past year and a half, and we're going to Munich in February in Business Class, because you really can't beat 110,000 miles for lie flat across the pond.  Also see: Beer and Schnitzel.

My folks needed some assistance rebooking some flights they had cancelled several times, so I took care of that and even got them decent seats.  Its a United codeshare, so I needed to explain that.  See here for an interesting post that a guy named Brett wrote about the subject. Speaking of Brett, he operates a service called Cranky Concierge, which provides flight monitoring for people so they can rest easy knowing that their connections are being watched and the concierges will even call the airlines and rebook if you're cancelled.  I started working for him a month or so ago and now I'm watching flights for others.  If you're interested in stocking stuffers, you can buy credits to be used for monitoring or booking assistance.

But as I was helping my folks book their tickets, I was thinking about how I enjoyed it.  So in addition to the other 14 jobs I have, I thought I would start doing some booking and planning assistance.  And as I'm unemployed, I'd take donations.  Nothing crazy. Like a 6-pack if I helped you.  Some of these award booking services charge $150 or more for this, which can be worth it because it can take awhile to look through all the various places for the different airlines.  Clearly if you're booking your honeymoon trip or have questions, I wouldn't charge anything.  It can just be my gift.  (Note how I start this, after all my friends are married.  I'm no dummy.)

So if people have questions or need help choosing a credit card or a miles program, feel free to ask a question in the comments or call/email me.  I would say that you should sign up for AwardWallet, but in the past year AA, United and Delta have stopped allowing information to be shared, because they're idiots and don't understand technology.  Sign up anyway if you haven't.

If you need inspiration for miles collecting, check out this report by Ben on Emirates F on their Airbus 380.  The plane has two showers with heated floors.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Open Letter to Vassar 2: Electric Boogaloo

So my previous post about my issues with Vassar's engagement with alumni was well received by alums and friends and others.  It apparently raised eyebrows at the Vassar Alumni and Development Office.  About a day after the post, I received a call from Susan with their office to see if we could have a talk.

I had known Susan and she had been present at the planting of Erin's tree and I would usually try and meet her for coffee whenever she was in Boston or DC to meet with more lucrative donors. So I was happy to talk to her because we know each other, and it wasn't just some random person who called to appease me.

So some things I've learned from VC:

  • There are apparently already outlets for alumni who help Vassar with financial assistance: There's even a committee for Alumni House.  However, it's pretty non-transparent.  Also it appears you have to be an AAVC Trustee or something be on these committees, which is not what I was looking for.  So while it's great that some alums are helping, it's not enough.  
  • The school understands the issues with Alumni Interviews:  This shouldn't come as a surprise, but many folks who participate as alumni interviewers are often frustrated about a lack of feedback from the college or the fact that the interviews are informational and therefore don't seem like a good use of a busy alum's time, if they're not going to matter that much.  
  • Vassar says that alumni want to be engaged in all different ways:  This is true.  However, you can't use this as in "We can't be everything to everyone, so we'll just not do much." I explained that they need to do something, especially if the breakdown is as follows: 
    • 50% want to be left alone
    • 30% are content with that awesome book of trees
    • 20% want more active engagement.  
           They need to engage that last group.  Also, they need to recognize that this last group is going to         grow and continue to grow, and be loud about it.

  • Vassar sort of gets it, but they're nervous: Some at the college see this change happening.  They know that their donor base is becoming more diversified and therefore less eager to drop a check in the mail for thousands of dollars without explanation.  However, they're understandably nervous about moving to a new model, when the old model made them so much money.  I mean, if you sent out envelopes and got them back filled with cash, would you change?  
So Susan and I agreed to reconvene in January.  She wanted to talk to some people in the department about this and how it could be done.  That's cool.  And she also said that people in the office were taken aback and slightly hurt by my last post.  For that I'm sorry.  Understand that my words came from a place of love and passion and not anger.  I think the fact that I even am talking about this shows that I care.  

So I'll keep people updated.  But know this, I'm not letting this go.  This is the future of giving.  And Vassar should get out in front of this and not have to play catch up.  This isn't rocket science.  I was a cop.  I once had to watch a training video telling me to open the gas cap before fueling my car.  If I can figure this out, then clearly Vassar College can too.  

If you're with me, lets make some noise. 

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Open Letter to Vassar College

Dear Vassar, 

I graduated from your fine institution 14 years ago and to this day, some of the best friends in my life and greatest memories have come from those four years.  As a student, "in the bubble", I felt a strong connection to you.  As an alum, that connection has faded, as our relationship has become a financial one.  When my good friend Erin Schlather died unexpectedly and we worked with you to plant a tree in her name, that tree was removed for renovation of Swift Hall with no notice given to any of us.  

My good friend Montu recently wrote an email to the Dean of the College asking if we could be of any help to the college.  He is a hotelier and could offer some technical assistance for the college owned and operated Alumnae House.  I have worked on emergency planning and operations for most of my life and would be happy to review any plans or help create new ones.  Free.  As in, I can't give you $250, but my bill rate used to be $135 an hour, so I'm betting I can give you much more in sweat equity.  

This is the reply we got:

Dear Montu,

Thank you for your email.  I work with your class on class fundraising efforts and wanted to respond to your question directly.  

Unfortunately at the present time it is not part of the College's overall fundraising program to accept goods or services as in kind donations (currently we can only accept gifts of art as gifts in kind).  We do receive offers of services and requests quite frequently, so this is certainly on our radar.  I will keep your contact information and will be sure to update you if there are any changes or updates to the policy.

Again, thanks so much for the feedback.  Please don't hesitate to contact me with any other questions.


XXXXX (Development Person)

Alright VC, can we talk? Listen, as the 2008 elections have shown, the old white ladies that give you 8 Steinways in their will or priceless paintings are sadly passing away.  The fact that you know there are alums who want to help you and yet you still have nothing in place is pathetic.  Listen, I get it.  You want money.  Cold, hard and (most importantly) unrestricted cash.  Your nightmare is losing control of your money by people basically picking what kind of tree they want there or the colors of the dorm walls.  Trust me, I get it.  But, you're missing out on a whole generation.  Your fundraising still consists of the following model. 
  1. Mail out glossy catalog with pictures of trees and names of donors, with donation envelope enclosed
  2. Receive and deposit checks.  
  3. Repeat. 
Listen, that's awesome.  And simple.  And I understand why you don't want to give that up.  You want to ride that gravy train, until you hit a lump and derail.  But people give money because they feel connected.  And a glossy book and open bar on 2 Buck Chuck every five years does not a relationship make.  I feel used.  

You have incredibly talented alumni and you could involve them in lots of different ways.  I know a guy who looks like a killer in Brooklyn but has some dulcet pipes who could record your phone tree for you.  Montu could easily make you more money at Alumni House.  And I can make sure that when a dorm needs to be evacuated the school doesn't tell 250 students to "go find some friends." This really happened.  The Great Jewett Flood of 1997. I understand that there could be liability involved with volunteer work, but we're adults and went to a pretty decent college, so I'm sure we could figure it all out. 

Your alumni are changing and they're growing in a philanthropic world of Kickstarter and Donors Choose and Kiva (technically not a charity), and they're going to want a different relationship with you.  And you will need to offer that.  So why not get ahead of the curve?  Why not try something daring and new?  Why do you innovate in the sciences to bring in new students, but are behind the times in keeping them plugged in.  

Final Story: I attended a college fair in Brookline, MA as an alumni volunteer several years ago, and got paired up with Caitlin and JA, two charming and brilliant women who graduated 5 years after me.  And just talking to them, not even about college, made me again realize how special Vassar was and is.  And it made me donate more to the school because I felt that connection, even third party through these other women.  Help me help you make that connection.  

You are better than this.  Be better than this.   


Graham Campbell '99

P.S. Feel free to call me.  You have my number as you call me all the time to ask for money.  

P.P.S I wanted to say that I don't think Vassar is any worse at this than other colleges.  I think the relationship between alum and alma mater is flawed as the general rule where this type of fundraising happens. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Mileage Run

So I'm currently on my second mileage run and people think I'm crazy and so I wanted to take a little space to explain what the hell I'm doing and why.  First, here's what my flight path looks like for the past 48 hours.

This deep vein thrombosis party is netting me 11,534 US Airways miles.  Currently, US has a promo where if you use their credit card, they will double the PQM.  So that will be 23,058 miles.  Let me back up a bit and explain some basics.

So a mile is not a mile.  There are actually two different kinds of miles for airline purposes.  My friend Scott has a good rundown on this on his blog, but in short. An RDM, or redeemable mile. is a mile you get from flying, or from renting a car, or from using your airline credit card.  Almost all miles are RDMs.  They can be redeemed for travel or other stuff including TVs or other crap.  They are most valuable for flights in premium cabins. These miles stay in your account and often you need activity in a year to keep them.  Bear in mind that activity can be something like ordering a magazine with miles or checking in on FourSquare for 50 miles somewhere.  The easiest way is to use the airline's shopping portal.  US's is located here.  Buy anything, preferably cheap and then keep your miles safe for another year.

The other kind of mile is a Preferred Qualifying Mile (PQM) or Elite Qualifying Mile (EQM).  The clock for collecting these miles begin on Jan 1st and end on December 31st.  These miles must be flown.  Otherwise known as Butt In Seat (BIS) miles and these get you elite status.  What is elite status?  Well, let's look at what I got today from my elite status:

  • I got to use Pre-Check at DCA, which lets you keep your shoes and belt on, your liquids and your computer in your bag, and you only have to go through an old school metal detector.  It was like flying in 1985.  Free with my Gold Status on US.  
  • I got to choose 10F as my seat.  Not only is it an exit row, but it doesn't have a seat in front of it.  So I've got tons of legroom.  
  • I'm upgraded to first on my next flight, which means extra room, free booze, and more. 
  • I get to board the plane in the first group, which means plenty of space for my bag, which isn't a big deal today because I only have a backpack.  
Here's a chart from American to show what their benefits are.  The levels usually start at 25,000 flown miles in a year, and most top out at 100,000 EQM/PQMs for the top.  There are levels above that, but the numbers are small.  
Elite Status matters a lot, to me.  The ability to preselect the exit row alone is amazing.  On United, they have Economy Plus, which has rows of extra legroom, and people love that.  So I will make Platinum on US this year between my flights already and one more upcoming.  That puts me further up the list on upgrades and other benefits.  I'm contemplating buying up to Chairman's Preferred, which is the top level.  Seems nuts, but they give you vouchers that allow you to upgrade your coach seat to business when flying international, and so they are worth thousands of dollars.  

Again, I'll never pay for International Business or First, but I will choose to fly them as much as I can.  Matter of fact, the lady and I are going to Munich in February in seats that look like this.

And all it took was 50,000 miles per ticket.  Think about that next time you redeem a flight to LA for 35,000 miles in coach with a seat that doesn't become a bed.  If anyone has any questions about starting out in the miles game, either hit the comments or email me.