MONEY Leisure

Shark Week Turns into a Feeding Frenzy for Consumer Eyeballs—and Cash

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No "Shark Week" party is complete without a dozen of these cupcakes ($34.95 via Discover Channel store). courtesy of Georgetown Cupcakes

When there are shark-themed donuts and cupcakes for sale, it becomes clear that the marketing of "Shark Week" and sharks in general has, well, jumped the shark.

The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” kicks off on Sunday, August 10, bringing the frenzy of interest in the fascinating creatures of the deep to all new heights. The annual event is a ratings bonanza, and a hot topic on social media, complete with its own prerequisite hashtag #sharkweek.

While there’s nothing stopping “Shark Week” from being fun, entertaining, and informative all at once, some experts in the field—of scientific research, not entertainment or marketing—feel like the circus surrounding sharks is overkill, perhaps even exploitive. “I’m kind of disappointed, and I think most researchers are, too,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told USA Today. “It obviously is a big draw, but I’m afraid that the programs have gone more to entertainment and less to documentary over the years. It’s kind of a shame, because they have the opportunity to teach good stuff in what’s going on with science.”

The Discovery Channel is hardly the only party that’s guilty of playing to the lowest common denominator by focusing on “blood and gore or animals performing tricks,” as Burgess put it. And it’s hardly the only player out there trying to hook consumers’ attention (and dollars) by way of the shark.

Sharks—or more precisely, the fear of sharks—have a long history of helping to sell stuff. Movie tickets, for instance. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” not only kicked off the summer blockbuster as a phenomenon, but is also widely considered the biggest and best summer blockbuster film of all time. A series of sequels and other shark movies followed, as did the ever-expanding, factually questionable “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. In the so-called “Summer of the Shark,” in 2001 (mere weeks before 9/11, it’s often noted, when very different fears took over the American consciousness), unwarranted hype over shark attacks was used to sell magazines and keep viewers glued to 24/7 news channels, awaiting word of the next deadly aquatic encounter.

We’re still fascinated by sharks, and sharks are still being used to lure us into shops and TV shows and movies that we should probably know better than to watch. Lately, in an age dominated by memes and ironic-air-quotes “entertainment,” the cold-blooded mankiller of the deep has been replaced by an equally fictitious creature—the shark as adorable mascot.

This summer, “Shark Week” has been joined by the straight-to-cable arrival of the gag “movie” “Sharknado 2.” But given how much over-the-top goofball hype goes into “Shark Week” itself—Rob Lowe waterskiing atop two great whites anyone?—the Discovery Channel event seems to be its own best parody.

The merchandising of sharks and “Shark Week” has been, in a word, shark-tastic (the title of a book sold on the Discovery Channel, naturally). Among the roughly 150 items listed on the site as appropriate purchases for “Shark Week” celebration are shark kites, a Shark Week smartphone case, Shark Week bottle openers and coozies, “clever” shark T-shirts that say “Bite Me” and “I’m Hammered,” and Shark Week cupcakes that show Rob Lowe atop his pal sharks again.

Elsewhere in the ocean of summertime shark products, Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a Shark Bite Donut (the frosting resembles a life preserver), and Cold Stone Creamery has shark-themed cupcakes and ice cream sundaes, complete with colorful gummy sharks. Limited-edition “Shark Week”-inspired soap is available at one New York City boutique, while a “Shark Week” search at etsy turns up more than 1,300 hand puppets, pencil holders, custom-designed panties, pieces of jewelry, and other crafts. A whole other list of goods has been devoted to the frenzy around “Sharknado,” including a new perfume called “Shark by Tara,” created by one of the movie’s stars, Tara Reid.

The normally sober tacticians at Consumer Reports even got in on the action, using the Sharknado sequel as an excuse to run a review of chainsaws—the perfect weapon in the battle against sharks falling out of the sky.

Then there’s shark tourism. It might seem odd that any beach community would actively want to associate itself with sharks. Yet the effort to brand Chatham, Mass., the town on the elbow of Cape Cod—near plenty of seals and therefore sharks too—as something along the lines of the Shark Capital of America has been several years in the making. Starting in 2009, news spread that biologists were tagging great white sharks off the coast. Sure, it freaked some swimmers and boaters out, but it also drew the masses to the coast, bearing binoculars with the hope of spotting one of the beasts.

“The great white shark is sexy,” Lisa Franz, Chatham’s chamber of commerce chief, explained to the Boston Globe last summer. “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” she said. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”

Fast-forward a year, and the shark schlock business is booming. “Truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,’’ one Chatham tourist shop owner offering “T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories” featuring great whites for $10 to $45 told the Associated Press in June.

People seem to love the shark meme so much that local restaurants and shopkeepers understandably have a new fear: They’re scared about what would happen to business if the sharks suddenly went away.

MONEY Tech

5 Outrageous Ways People Try to Game Online Reviews

Crowd of Pinnochios
iStock

The inn that threatened $500 fines to guests writing negative reviews is hardly the only example of an attempt to manipulate the user-review system.

How much do user reviews and ratings matter to businesses? Consider this: According to one study, millennials trust online opinions even more than the input of people they know. In other words, online reviews matter A LOT. The consensus thinking is that a restaurant with a slew of nearly unanimous five-star ratings is a can’t-miss, while only a fool would book a hotel with just a dozen reviews, 10 of them two stars or less.

Because these comments can make or break a business, it’s understandable that attempts to game the system and boost one’s ratings are widespread. With Yelp celebrating its 10th anniversary this week and instances of review manipulation still going viral, now seems like a fine time to recap the many ways that businesses, their customers, and even the review sites themselves have compromised the integrity of online reviews.

Threatening to Fine Negative Reviewers
The revelation that an upstate New York inn would charge you $500 if it hosted your event and any of your guests posted an negative online review went viral this week. “If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review,” states the policy of the hotel, the Union Street Guesthouse in Hudson, N.Y. The move—and corresponding bad publicity—hasn’t exactly helped the establishment’s online ratings. At last check, the guesthouse had 1.5 stars on Yelp, with many reviews (and one-star ratings) posted after word spread about the $500 fine.

It’s the latest example of businesses threatening guests or customers who dare to bash them in reviews. There is quite a long history of businesses suing individuals who have posted negative reviews on the web, and while such suits usually end up decided in favor of the reviewer, the threat of a lawsuit—or just some nasty emails—can have a chilling effect on how freely reviewers voice their opinions. Especially if they’re negative.

A Consumer Reports study on online ratings services, meanwhile, criticized Google+ Local because businesses could reach out to customers and convince them to swap out a negative review for a positive one, after some cajoling and perhaps, offering a refund or making other amends. “This can skew the ratings positively,” the story explained, “because assuaged customers can always delete their previously negative reviews.”

Campaigning for Rave Reviews
Last week, Businessweek took note of a curious ranking in central Florida. This area, of course, is where Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and several other premier tourist attractions are located. And yet, according to TripAdvisor reviewers, the most popular tourism attraction not only in Orlando but for all of Florida is the Stetson Mansion, an obscure 10,000-square-foot 19th century home once owned by the man credited with inventing the cowboy hat.

As you might expect, when guests have a nice time visiting the mansion, they’re asked to offer their thoughts (and a five-star rating, hopefully) at TripAdvisor—which became a phenomenon as a hotel review site but has dramatically increased attraction reviews in recent years. No one has been suspected of fraudulently penning reviews of the Stetson Mansion, but it says something that Yelp discourages businesses from soliciting reviews in the manner of the mansion, due to the feeling that actively asking customers to post their opinions taints the process. (It’s not like restaurants or businesses would be asking unhappy customers to write reviews, now would they?) There are also bizarre instances of hotels having so many reviews that researchers assume the management has been attempting to game the system. How? Among other things, they ask favorite guests to flood the site with five-star reviews, with the hopes that they drown out the comparatively small number of negative reviews.

Writing Blatantly Fake Reviews
For a while, the fake review business operated pretty much out in the open, with entrepreneurial, ethically questionable individuals offering their opinions (and five-star ratings) to any business that forked over a few bucks. Just last summer, Edmunds.com, the car-research site, sued a company that spammed its user review section with fraudulent reviews of car dealerships.

Hotel staffers have been busted writing reviews that praise their establishment and criticize the competition, and Yelp once unearthed a conspiracy of local businesses that agreed to post positive reviews of each other to collectively boost their ratings. A cat-and-mouse game has developed, in which fake reviewer accounts are banned from the sites, prompting them to create new accounts, attempt to post at other sites, and otherwise continue to manipulate ratings. It’s enough for some consumer groups to give review sites awful reviews themselves.

Blackmailing on the Behalf of Reviewers
It’s not just the businesses that are trying to work the user review system. Reviewers themselves have been known to act in a way that’ll make you question the validity of any opinions you read online. “Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol,” David Chang, the celebrity chef in charge of Momofuku explained recently to FiveThirtyEight. “They sit down and say, ‘If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.’ We’re like, what the f***?” (For that matter, Chang had little good to say about the quality and trustworthiness of legitimate Yelp reviews: “I’m just going to come out and say: Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are.”)

The (UK) Telegraph reported earlier this year that there has been a huge rise in restaurant, B&B, and hotel owners being blackmailed by customers. Essentially, they’ve been threatening that if they don’t receive free food or wine, or perhaps a discount on their room rate, they’ll bash the establishment in a TripAdvisor review. This week, Consumerist.com wrote that Yelp should reconsider its “Elite Yelper” program—in which frequent raters are given free swag and other perks—because quantity of reviews does not equate to quality, and because it opens up the door to businesses trying to bribe the elites in order to secure better reviews.

In early 2013, one company even created a frequent reviewer $100 membership program, complete with a card the user could flash when asking for a table at a restaurant or checking into a hotel. The idea was that showing such a card—dubbed “the douche card” by one pithy online commenter—would give you premium service. But what it really did was serve as a subtle threat to the business: Give me the best, or I will give you a horrible online review.

Giving Preferential Treatment to Advertisers
Over the years, the most common complaint about Yelp by businesses is that it basically forces them into advertising on the site. Doing so helps push the business up to the top of review pages, and failure to pay up allegedly means that sometimes a business’s positive reviews are harder for Yelp users to see. Yelp has always disputed this characterization, but this past spring, the FTC announced that thousands of businesses have filed complaints against Yelp for its passive-aggressive advertising sales push.

MONEY Travel

Drink More Than 137 Beers, and a New Cruise Deal Is Totally Worth It

Draft beer glasses on rail of ship
iStock

Norwegian Cruise Lines just introduced an all-inclusive amenities package bound to get the attention of travelerswho love to eat and drink—and are tired of getting nickel-and-dimed.

Starting on August 4, Norwegian Cruise Line is offering a limited-time All-Inclusive package option for cruisers, in which one fee covers many of the extras not included in the basic cost of a cabin. The two biggies that are included are the Ultimate Beverage Package and the Ultimate Dining Package. They cover, respectively, nearly everything a passenger will drink and entrance to the ship’s specialty restaurants that normally cost extra. Also included are a host of other things passengers would otherwise have to pony up for: 20 photos taken by the on-board photography service, 250 minutes of Internet time, one bottle of wine, chocolate-covered strawberries, one bingo session, bottles of water throughout the cruise, a $100 or $200 credit for shore excursions, and gratuities for staffers.

How much does the package cost? The price depends on how long you’re cruising, but a seven-nighter is $899 per person, on top of the price of your stateroom. The option is being offered on a test basis now through August 29, for cruises lasting three to 14 days to nearly all destinations (not available on Pride of America sailings in Hawaii). If it proves to be a hit, we can expect the option to become permanent, and for it to inspire imitators from the competition.

The big question for cruise passengers is this: Is it worth it? Norwegian states that the package represents about $2,400 worth of value. (That’s per cabin, so for two people.) Travel Weekly, a publication aimed at travel agents, did its own math and concluded that a passenger paying a la carte for all of the included options would fork over $1,468 during the course of a seven-night cruise. In other words, you’d save $449 by going with the All-Inclusive package.

That’s quite a savings. But the customer only comes out on top if he or she actually wants the lion’s share of what’s included in the package. With the exception of gratuities—which are more or less mandatory—everything that’s included is totally optional. Essentially, you’re paying for bingo, bottled water, Internet time, photos, booze, and the rest even if you don’t partake of them. Travel Weekly pointed out that the commemorative photos included in the package, for instance, would run a fairly absurd $274. So if you wouldn’t pay for that in a million years, the deal might not be for you.

Let’s be honest: This package is going to appeal most to passengers who want to eat and drink to their heart’s content and not have to think about how much each and every beverage or meal is costing them. Some back-of-the-napkin math must be done, to see at what point the package makes sense for the individual.

That $899, for instance, would cover about 151 draft beers at $5.95 apiece, or 100 glasses of wine at $9 per. Subtract gratuities to the tune of $12 per day, or $84 for a seven-night cruise, and $815 is left—making the over-under 137 beers. Drink more than that, and you come out ahead. (You’ll also come away with one honey of a hangover, of course.) Add in seven meals at specialty restaurants at an average premium of $20 apiece, plus $29 for a bottle of wine, plus $100 for Internet time, and the math increasingly points in the package’s favor.

If nothing else, the offer should make it abundantly clear that the amount paid by cruise passengers above and beyond the cost of a cabin is often quite hefty. The big-ship cruise is billed as the ultimate no-hassle vacation. You pay for your room, and then you never have to touch your wallet while cruising. On virtually every mainstream cruise line, however, that’s not how things work. Regardless of whether or not you handle cash or swipe your credit card throughout the cruise, you are most definitely paying up for anything beyond the basics—alcoholic beverages, excursions, fancy coffees, restaurants that are nicer than the buffet, even soda. The expected gratuities are typically added automatically onto a customer’s bill.

Take a look at Norwegian’s specials and promotions and you’ll see several one-week cruises starting at well under $899, some for as little as $429. Those prices don’t include taxes and port charges—and they don’t include the extras mentioned above.

Does it make more sense to pay for it all upfront, via Norwegian’s new flat-price all-inclusive package? That depends a lot on whether you like the idea of handling nearly all of your vacation’s expenses in one fell swoop, rather than having every little purchase add up during the course of a cruise in nickel-and-dime fashion. It also depends a lot on how thirsty you typically are on vacation.

MONEY

This Summer, Sharks Want to Take a Bite Out of Your Wallet

This summer, there is no escaping from sharks: shark TV shows, movies, merchandise, and even shark tourism have chomped down on America's collective imagination and are thrashing us all about.

Sharks—or more precisely, the fear of sharks—have a long history of helping to sell stuff. Movie tickets, for instance. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” not only kicked off the summer blockbuster as a phenomenon, but is also widely considered the biggest and best summer blockbuster film of all time. A series of sequels and other shark movies followed, as did the ever-expanding, factually questionable “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. In the so-called “Summer of the Shark,” in 2001 (mere weeks before 9/11, it’s often noted, when very different fears took over the American consciousness), unwarranted hype over shark attacks was used to sell magazines and keep viewers glued to 24/7 news channels, awaiting word of the next deadly aquatic encounter.

We’re still fascinated by sharks, and sharks are still being used to grab our attention and perhaps a few of our dollars. Lately, though, in an age dominated by memes and ironic-air-quotes “entertainment,” the cold-blooded mankiller of the deep has been replaced by an equally fictitious creature—the shark as adorable mascot.

This summer, “Shark Week” has been joined by the straight-to-cable arrival of the gag “movie” “Sharknado 2.” But given how much over-the-top goofball hype goes into “Shark Week” itself—Rob Lowe waterskiing atop two great whites anyone?—the Discovery Channel event seems to be its own best parody.

This summer, the merchandising of sharks and “Shark Week” has been, in a word, shark-tastic (the title of a book sold on the Discovery Channel, naturally). Among the roughly 150 items listed on the site as appropriate purchases for “Shark Week” celebration are shark kites, a Shark Week smartphone case, Shark Week bottle openers and coozies, “clever” shark T-shirts that say “Bite Me” and “I’m Hammered,” and Shark Week cupcakes that show Rob Lowe atop his pal sharks again.

Elsewhere in the ocean of summertime shark products, Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a Shark Bite Donut (the frosting resembles a life preserver) starting next week, and Cold Stone Creamery has shark-themed cupcakes and ice cream sundaes, complete with colorful gummy sharks. Limited-edition “Shark Week”-inspired soap is available at one New York City boutique, while a “Shark Week” search at etsy turns up more than 1,300 hand puppets, pencil holders, custom-designed panties, pieces of jewelry, and other crafts. A whole other list of goods have been devoted to the frenzy around “Sharknado,” including a new perfume called “Shark by Tara,” created by one of the movie’s stars, Tara Reid.

The normally sober tacticians at Consumer Reports even got in on the action, using the Sharknado sequel as an excuse to run a review of chainsaws—the perfect weapon in the battle against sharks falling out of the sky.

Then there’s shark tourism. It might seem odd that any beach community would actively want to associate itself with sharks. Yet the effort to brand Chatham, Mass., the town on the elbow of Cape Cod—near plenty of seals and therefore sharks too—as something along the lines of the Shark Capital of America has been several years in the making. Starting in 2009, news spread that biologists were tagging great white sharks off the coast. Sure, it freaked some swimmers and boaters out, but it also drew the masses to the coast, bearing binoculars with the hope of spotting one of the beasts.

“The great white shark is sexy,” Lisa Franz, Chatham’s chamber of commerce chief, explained to the Boston Globe last summer. “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” she said. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”

Fast-forward a year, and the shark schlock business is booming. “Truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,’’ one Chatham tourist shop owner offering “T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories” featuring great whites for $10 to $45 told the Associated Press in June.

People seem to love the shark meme so much that local restaurants and shopkeepers understandably have a new fear: They’re scared about what would happen to business if the sharks suddenly went away.

MONEY Food & Drink

5 Beer Trends You’ll Be Seeing This Summer

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Joshua Rainey / Alamy

Your know-it-all beer geek friends may be a little annoying. But man, do they have great tips on what you should drink!

Here are some trends and hot topics being discussed in craft beer circles this summer. Read up if you’re interested in beer—or so you can pretend you know what your beer-nerd buddies are talking about.

The Craft Beer Motel
Sure, beer enthusiasts look, sniff, and savor their beloved brews. But sometimes that’s just not enough. For the beer lover who wants to take the relationship to the next level—sleeping together—Delaware’s Dogfish Head, regularly ranked among America’s best craft brewers, opened the Dogfish Inn in July. The lodge’s 16 rooms are described as being “filled with thoughtful, beer-centric amenities and design elements,” including beer-scented soap and shampoo, with rates starting in the mid-$200s. It’s located near the Dogfish brewpub, not far from the popular summer tourist area of Rehoboth Beach, but something tells us a lot of guests will never see the beach.

Beer Camp
Sierra Nevada, the second-biggest craft brewer in America (after Boston Beer Co./Samuel Adams), collaborated with a dozen smaller brewers to collectively produce Beer Camp. Yes, such a place exists: Since 2008, Sierra Nevada has hosted brewers, beer writers, and other industry folks to Northern California for an intensive two-day retreat known as Beer Camp. But this year, beer lovers around the country get to attend Beer Camp (sorta) with the purchase of a Beer Camp 12-pack, featuring a dozen beers created by Sierra Nevada and partner craft brewers around the country.

The collaborators include North Carolina’s Asheville Brewers Alliance, Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company, and Wisconsin’s New Glarus. Not only are the collaboration brews themselves special, these are brands that may not be available normally in your neck of the woods. Thanks to Beer Camp, you can get a taste without traveling across the country.

We’ve Got Monks Who Brew, Too
Authentic Trappist beers, which are brewed by monks at Trappist monasteries, are regularly ranked among the world’s best. There are only 11 breweries in the world allowed to have the Trappist label, the best known of which is probably Belgium’s award-winning Chimay, sold in fancy corked bottles. As of June 2014, the U.S. has its own monk-brewed Trappist beer, thanks to the launch of the Spencer Trappist Ale brewery, hosted by St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. The arrival of the monks’ internationally renowned beer label in the U.S. has drawn the attention of everyone from NPR to the Boston Globe, and “Good Morning America” to UK publications like Independent. And, of course, it’s gotten the attention of beer lovers.

Sour Beers
The Brewers Association, Thrillist, New York Post, tons of foodie restaurants, and the Serious Eats blog are among the many sources to proclaim sour beer as the style “beer geeks are buzzing over” this summer. This is despite the fact that the latter described a first smell of sour beer as “horse butt dabbed with vinegar and blue cheese.”

Despite the sharp, funky smell, sour brews, which have a tart, make-your-mouth-pucker, all-in-all sour taste, are supposedly the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer day. They’re not at all heavy or rich, like brews more suited for winter, yet sour beers may be a little extreme for the average Miller Lite drinker. That may be part of the reason why they’re so hot among craft beer aficionados.

The Sad (But Righteous) Decline of Light Beer
Any beer nerd worth his salt wouldn’t bother talking about a pathetic pale American “beer” like Coors Light or Bud Light Platinum. That is, unless the talk was about how poorly these mass-produced brews have been faring in the marketplace, thanks at least partly because consumers are opening their eyes to joys and superior taste of local craft beers.

Earlier this year, Pete Coors, the chairman at Molson Coors, lamented to the Denver Post about bars removing the taps of mass-market brews like Bud and Coors Light and bringing in craft beers on draught to take their place. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers,” Coors said. “They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles.”

Light beer sales have been declining for years, as has the market share for big beer brands in general, but lately the drop must put the world’s biggest brewers in an especially bitter mood. Businessweek recently cited data indicating that light beer sales fell 3.5% last year, including a 19% dip for Bud Light Platinum, and that domestic light brew sales will hit a 10-year low in 2015. And in beer-crazed places such as Oregon, more than half of the draft beer served is now craft product that’s brewed in the state.

MONEY Tourism

WATCH: You Can Gamble Almost Anywhere, So Atlantic City Casinos Fold

As more states allow gambling, former gaming destinations like Atlantic City are struggling to attract tourists.

MONEY deals

3 Tricks to Live Like You’re Rich Without Paying for It

JetSuite
JetSuite Jessica Ambats

Private jets, swanky restaurants, and top-notch hotels can all be had without paying anywhere close to top dollar.

Okay, so you can’t afford flights on private jets and five-star hotel stays. Don’t sweat it. Few people can.

But don’t let the usually astronomical prices of “the good life” hold you back. If you want a taste of how the other half lives—and shops and travels and eats—a few smart strategies and good timing can bring the price tag down to a level within almost anyone’s budget. Here’s how to go about it.

Fly on a Private Jet … for a Coach-Class Fare

JetSuite, a unique flight aggregation service, sells seats on private jets that are about to depart for places like Martha’s Vineyard and the Bahamas. For travelers who can book at the last minute—with a few friends, usually—it’s an opportunity to skip security lines and travel like a CEO, at a price on par with coach. Recent deals, which had to be booked on the day of travel or at most one day ahead, include a one-way flight from North Kingstown, RI, to Vineyard Harbor (Martha’s Vineyard) for up to six people, and Oakland to San Jose, Calif., for up to four people, for $536.

MarketWatch pointed out that JetSuite is one of several services offering discounted private jet bookings. Others include Surf Air and Flight Air Taxi. In most cases, to get the best deal you’ll have to be extremely flexible with your schedule, and be ready to head to a private runway with a few buddies at the drop of a hat. That’s a small price to pay for snagging a cheap flight that otherwise would cost thousands.

Eat in a Swanky Restaurant … for Half Price

Even the finest restaurants have trouble attracting a crowd at the early bird special time of 5 or 5:30 p.m. To fill tables during these slow periods, restaurants have been turning to discounting services such as Groupon Reserve, which typically give diners 20% or 30% off for reserving a table before the peak dinner rush, or they simply offer their own early-dinner deals.

Recent Groupon Reserve deals with a 5 p.m. reservation time included 30% off at Italiannissimo in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Bissap Baobob in San Francisco, or Mela in Boston. Unlike the usual Groupon deal, with Groupon Reserve there’s no prepayment required, and no need to hand the server a printout or flash a smartphone screen. The discount is automatically factored into your reservation, and yes, it’s applied to the table’s entire bill—booze included.

This summer, the Wall Street Journal also called attention to high-end restaurants that have dipped into the realm of “early bird” deals without making them seem like only something your grandparents in Scottsdale would go for—and without bothering with any coupon site or online service. For example, Recette, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, has a Summer Supper special from 5:30 to 7 p.m. only featuring four courses for $40. Normally, the restaurant’s multi-course tasting menus start at $78.

Enjoy a First-Rate Hotel … for $25

Rooms at the Savoy Hotel in Miami Beach generally start at around $250 during the off season. But a summer special is being offered to guests for just $25. The catch? The deal doesn’t include a hotel room. It’s a promotion aimed at travelers—and locals in particular—who want a taste of high-end hotel amenities at a cheap price, and who are already set with accommodations. The $25 grants a guest access to the Savoy’s plush pool area, fitness center, and beachfront, with all the pool recliners, towels, and free wi-fi you want.

The Savoy’s day pass deal is one of several in South Florida highlighted recently by the Miami Herald. The “day-cation” promotions sometimes come with perks like spa treatments and lunch, though when those extras are included the package tends to cost a lot more than $25. On the flip side, daily deals for, well, day-only deals at hotels from sites like Travelzoo and Groupon sometimes mean that guests can take advantage of non-room hotel and resort amenities for even less than $25 per person.

Many high-end Caribbean resorts also welcome visitors to partake of their amenities even if they haven’t booked a room. Understandably, such resort day passes are often marketed to cruise passengers, who obviously have no need for overnight accommodations but who might enjoy kicking back at the pool, swimming on the private beach, and taking advantage of the resort’s buffet while the ship is in port. The cruise experts at CruiseCritic rounded up a long list of Caribbean resorts offering day passes, which cost as little as $12 per person.

MONEY Travel

Marriott’s CEO Just Made a Pretty Good Sales Pitch for … Airbnb?

Apartment in Barcelona, Spain offered through airbnb.
Apartment in Barcelona, Spain offered through airbnb. courtesy of airbnb

Take it from the CEO of one of the world's largest hotel companies: If you want to sample an authentic neighborhood when traveling, go with an airbnb rental, not a hotel.

The hotel industry has an uneasy relationship with the peer-to-peer lodging rental giant airbnb. Lawmakers and hotel industry lobbyists have attacked the airbnb model, accusing hosts of operating illegal hotels that don’t meet safety code regulations, and that more often than not aren’t paying taxes like they should. Data cited recently by The Economist indicates that in cities where airbnb has established a significant presence, the revenues at budget hotels decreased by 5% over a two-year period ending in December 2013. And the amount of business taken away from low-end hotels by airbnb could increase to an estimated 10% by 2016.

At the same time, people in the hotel business—particularly the midlevel and higher-end hotel business—tend to be pretty dismissive of airbnb. If folks in this world talk about airbnb and sharing economy businesses at all, it’s generally to argue that these upstarts or “disruptors” are not legitimate threats to established hotel industry players.

That’s pretty much what Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson first had to say about airbnb during an appearance on CBS This Morning this week. When asked about airbnb, Sorenson dismissively described the service as an “interesting experiment” that was “fun to watch.” It’s like what Starbucks would say of a kid who opens up a lemonade stand in front of one of its cafes: cute, but nothing whatsoever to worry about. What Sorenson said airbnb certainly was not was a genuine competitor to Marriott. By extension, he’s saying it’s not a threat to the rest of the big hotel brands out there either.

As the conversation continued, however, Sorenson wound up pointing out several of airbnb’s unique, attractive attributes—features that a regular hotel can’t compete with. “They do some things that we can’t do,” Sorenson said of airbnb. While tourist hotels tend to be found strictly in tourist areas, an airbnb rental is located, by definition, in a neighborhood where real people live. An airbnb rental is a way of trying a neighborhood on for size, without making the commitment of actually renting or buying. Referring to Manhattan, Sorenson said the thinking is, “I want to live in the East Village for a while, or I want to live in the Upper East Side for a while, and see what it feels like.”

The attraction of an airbnb rental isn’t limited to people curious about living in a given city, Sorenson said. Plenty of travelers visiting cities strictly as tourists want a taste of the authentic neighborhood life as well. “Some people love it, not just millennials but boomers” as well, said Sorenson. The mentality is: “I want to experience a neighborhood, even if I’m on vacation.”

There, in a nutshell, is one of the great arguments for skipping a hotel in favor of renting a room, apartment, or entire house from a random stranger. The other big argument, of course, is cost. An airbnb rental will almost always cost significantly less than a hotel offering around the same space for a visitor. A Priceonomics.com study published last summer showed that compared to hotels, on average, you’d save 21% by renting an entire apartment on airbnb, and 50% by renting just a room from an airbnb host.

Despite Sorenson’s comments, we probably don’t have to worry about him secretly being on airbnb’s payroll. After praising some aspects of its “interesting” model, he made it clear that sharing lodging with a stranger “is not everybody’s cup of tea,” and that many travelers “don’t want the creepiness of not knowing who my host will be.”

He also gave a plug to Marriott’s new hotel brand, Moxy, which the company designed with IKEA for millennial travelers. “We want to make sure that we have brands with increasing levels of affordability,” said Sorenson. “One of our newest brands, for instance, is Moxy, a brand we’ll open in Milan for the first time this year. It’s a reinvention of the economy lodge segment.”

The Moxy concept is aimed at young connected travelers who want a social atmosphere. Interestingly, that also happens to be a pretty good description of the typical airbnb traveler. And “a reinvention of the economy lodge segment”? That’s a phrase that sounds like it could have been pulled directly from the airbnb website.

MONEY Tourism

Diagon Alley vs. Legal Pot: How Their Big Opening Days Match Up

A dragon breathes fire above The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley during a media preview
A dragon breathes fire above The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley during a media preview at the Universal Orlando. David Manning—Reuters

A new theme park area in Orlando and marijuana stores in Washington state both opened for business for the first time on Tuesday.

And that, perhaps surprisingly, is not the only thing they have in common. Here’s how the two opening days match up:

BACK STORY
Diagon Alley: Followup to very successful launch of Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park
WA Pot Shops: Followup to very successful launch of recreational marijuana sales in Colorado

IMPRESSIVE STATISTICS
Diagon Alley: Universal Studios says Diagon Alley will double the size of its Wizarding World theme park area
WA Pot Shops: Washington says it will collect $190 million in pot-related taxes and fees over the next four years

OPENING DAY WAIT TIME
Diagon Alley: Up to 300 minutes (a.k.a. five hours) for visitors to get inside the park on Tuesday
WA Pot Shops: Up to one day—at least a couple people waited in line overnight outside pot shops anticipating a Tuesday opening

RANGE OF PRICES
Diagon Alley: $96 to $136 per adult
WA Pot Shops: $12 to $25 per gram

CORE DEMOGRAPHIC
Diagon Alley: Anti-authoritarian fans of magic and fantasy
WA Pot Shops: Pretty much the same

PERSON YOU MOST WANT TO AVOID
Diagon Alley: Know-it-all spewing theories about stuff like the pros and cons of Half-Blood Prince vs. Order of the Phoenix
WA Pot Shops: Know-it-all spewing theories about stuff like the pros and cons of Cannalope Haze vs. Jamaican Lion

THING THAT WILL FREAK YOU OUT
Diagon Alley: Creepy animatronic goblins staring at you on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride
WA Pot Shops: Creepy alive goblin-like customers staring at you—or at something—in front of the pot counter

RESTRICTIONS
Diagon Alley: Minimum height of 4 feet to ride Gringotts alone
WA Pot Shops: Minimum age of 21 to purchase marijuana

WARNINGS
Diagon Alley: Many rides not recommended for women who are pregnant and people prone to nausea
WA Pot Shops: Pretty much the same

MOST MEMORABLE THRILL
Diagon Alley: Trip on the Hogwarts Express
WA Pot Shops: Trip on edible marijuana snacks like those “enjoyed” by Maureen Dowd

WHAT’S SMOKING
Diagon Alley: Fire-breathing dragon atop the Gringotts ride
WA Pot Shops: Pretty much everybody

MONEY Tourism

World’s Tallest Observation Wheel Prices Come Down to Earth

The High Roller at the Linq
The High Roller at the Linq, a dining and shopping district at the center of the Las Vegas. Yaacov Dagan—Alamy

The High Roller, a new attraction in Las Vegas that gives tourists a view of Sin City 550 feet up in the air, is already being discounted to try to boost ticket sales.

The High Roller opened this past spring as the focal point of the LINQ, an open-air shopping and dining district. The Ferris wheel-like attraction—an observation wheel that holds 40 passengers in each of 28 pods, modeled on the London Eye—launched to much fanfare in April. It is not a thrill ride per se, moving at only one foot per second and requiring a half-hour to complete a full circle, but the idea is that the views from 55 stories will prove thrilling. One man reportedly waited six hours to be among the first passengers to board a High Roller pod on opening day to the public.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and the idea of such a wait is especially laughable. From the beginning, many complained that the price of a High Roller ride was just too expensive. A basic daytime ticket originally cost $24.95, and a ride after 6 p.m. runs $10 more. (By comparison, a ride to take in the view at the 869-foot-high Stratosphere observation deck, usually costs $18 for adults, $12 for hotel guests, locals, and seniors, and $10 for kids ages 4 to 12.) The Las Vegas Sun reported that many High Roller ticketing options have quietly gotten cheaper, however, apparently to juice sales during the slow summer season.

The daytime adult ticket was dropped to $19.95 at least through Labor Day, and youth rates for kids ages 13 to 18 were reduced permanently to $14.95 during the day and $24.95 at night. (Kids 12 and under are free with a paying adult.) Family packs have also been introduced, with two adults and two youth tickets selling for $50 during the day and $80 at night.

The new pricing structure is hardly the only way Caesars is trying to fill empty High Roller pods. An ongoing Tuesday special cuts prices in half for locals (anyone with Nevada ID), and locals get $5 off on rides every other day. A Groupon for a $65 VIP High Roller package for two (valued at $109.90), with two rides, two souvenir photos, and two drinks, was introduced in mid-June and still hasn’t sold out. (It probably hasn’t helped sales that a water main burst in mid-June, flooding the LINQ pedestrian areas directly below the High Roller.)

Sure, everything goes on sale eventually in Las Vegas, where wheeling and dealing are ingrained in the culture. But it’s not a good sign for the future success of the High Roller that it appears to be forced to resort to deals and discounts within a few scant months of being the hot new thing on the Strip.

Meanwhile, plans for a second Sin City observation wheel, the 500-foot-high SkyVue, across the street from the airport and Mandalay Bay, seem to have been put on hold. While ground was broken for the SkyVue three years ago, last month the Las Vegas Sun put the crane and scaffolding on the site—the only physical progress on display—into the category of “eyesores to tourists and commuters” in the city.

Oh, and even as one High Roller competitor seems to have faded away in Las Vegas, forthcoming rides in other locations are poised to steal its thunder as the World’s Largest Observation Wheel. A 625-foot-high Ferris wheel-like attraction is in the works for New York City’s Staten Island, offering views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Not to be outdone, a 689-foot-high Dubai Eye observation wheel is planned as the centerpiece of manmade island in Dubai with a five-star hotel and a cluster of tourist and shopping facilities.

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