Sunday, April 18, 2010
My staggering realization: The world could be coming to an end this very instant and I wouldn’t even know it. While enjoying my now-daily breakfast of double scrambled egg whites, three hard-boiled eggs and two broiled tomatoes, it’s possible that the whole Eastern seaboard could simply drop into the ocean, leaving the United States looking something like a cross between Hitchcock’s silhouette and a Cheeto.
It isn’t until the second full week at sea that you realize living on a looped stream of CNN, cliche gay-themed movies and condensed New York Times news sheets have the ability to not only alter reality, but keep you about as well informed as a Gitmo detainee... Add in some carb overloading from the typical Asian diet and you’ve got a recipe for informational disaster. Quickly you begin to understand how celebrities lose touch with reality when everything around them is cannibalized for their own protection- There’s a fine line between a functional member of society and caged import panda at the National Zoo.
For those who haven’t been keeping up with me through Twitter or the photoblog, I’ve spent the last two weeks sailing through Southeast Asia (Hong Kong-Vietnam-Thailand-Singapore) with Atlantis Cruises. While I’ve taken a lot of time on cruise ships in the past, it’s rare for me to do something ‘gay’ specialized like this particular trip . Outside of a couple of other RSVP Cruises, this is my first Atlantis trip... And it’s been interesting. Not exactly what I expected from what friends have told me, but depending on your expectation, it’s a fun way to spend 10 days on the sea.
Let me sat that if you haven’t had the chance to explore a city like Hong Kong, it’s really one of those ‘must see before you croak’ cities- that is, if you can stomach the 15-hour flight. It’s got the glitz and mass consumerism of Las Vegas, the well-kept public green spaces of the deep South and the unwavering hospitality of the Midwest. Hong Kong really offers something for everyone, even still being one of the most expensive cities in the world. Two of my favorites things to do if you’re looking to just kill time are finding private karaoke pods (where you can rock-out in private with a killer sound-system and special effect lighting) and CD recording booths, where for a price, you can re-record your favorite songs, have them properly (and quickly) mixed and buy discs to torture your friends with. You might not have the vocal range of Mariah Carey, but thanks to Autotune, you do now.
If you’re a fan of Pho (noodle soup) like I am, you can always eat on the cheap, opting for just about any kind of meat/noodle combination. Dim sum is also an inexpensive way to fill up. I really think the best part of Asia is getting to experience actual cuisine versus the crap most Americans have come to accept as ‘authentic.’ Sure, some of it looks like Nicole Kidman’s surgical castoff, but give it a shot: It’s pretty damned good. Also, what’s most interesting about eating in Asia is that street food is usually the best way to judge what locals eat and consider the best of the region. In Bangkok, it’s not only safe to eat on the street, but actually better than most of the local-cuisine sit down restaurants: Sure, you might be getting ‘baby tiger’ (ie, dog), but at least you know you’re getting the most fresh dog available. From pound-to-plate in one day flat... Just ignore any collar you might get in the curry.
Hey, don’t judge me... After eating cat tacos in Mexico City, poisonous blow fish in Tokyo and what I assumed was horse in Paris, I find that variety is definitely the spice of life. I’m basically the Dick Cheney of cuisine: I condone all forms of kitchen-based torture as long as I don’t actually have to do any of the dirty work. Bon appetite!
Spending two weeks on a small ship (600 pax) full of gay men can sometimes compare to Chinese water torture, feeling that constant homosexual drip of bass line from songs that haven’t been popular since 1995. Thankfully keeping some sense of sanity has been pretty simple, as long as I know I’ve got another book to read or something to keep me busy that doesn’t involve drag queens, dance music or yet another Tea dance. What the hell is a 'Tea Dance' anyway? It sounds like a dance party for gay British men.
Some thoughts for the Atlantis folks (who, yes, are reading) to ponder for future cruises:
* The cardinal rule of business- other than ABC (always be closing)- is never cater to a dying audience. What might have worked for Atlantis customers when they first started cruising in the early '90s will not work now, especially considering the more sophisticated tastes of today’s younger gay consumer and their ability to spend money. You simply cannot offer one ultra-campy activity after another and expect to attract a younger, next-generation customer. It’s not going to happen.
* Along the camp line, today’s gay consumer expects solid entertainment for their dollar that doesn’t hark back to the days of Stonewall, Abbey Lane drag and yet another afternoon Tea Dance with some no-name DJ that no one really cares about anyway. News Flash: The circuit scene is dead, as is name-recognition for guys who mix the stuff. Circuit parties are now squarely in the category of drugged-out, dragged-through and just plain passe. The only thing that makes The White Party white anymore is the abundance of cocaine and ketamine filtering through the crowd. Today’s generation of gay men seem to want to rise above this community stereotype of drugs, dancing and parties.
* Offer a little something for everyone: You don’t have to cut out the late-night dance parties and drag entertainment like Miss Richfield 1981, but you do need to offer more for folks who don’t want to bake all day on the pool deck and get hammered all night. Suggestions include sociopolitical panel discussions, guest speakers, targeted trivia games, reality show-like competitions, karaoke, tech/gadget talks, cuisine classes. There’s so much out there that’s not being explored. It can’t be an issue of cost, as most of these suggestions involve little overhead, so it seems to me that Atlantis has simply become complacent. That’s bad: Always be moving forward.
* What will cost them is attracting more attractive entertainment options. On this cruise itinerary, I’ve seen two separate drag acts, one gay comedian, a no-name gay ‘Broadway’ cabaret-style singer and numerous bad piano bar pianists that were far too campy/lazy to bother name-checking. It was just a sad offering that never attracted a full house at any event and only seemed to appeal to older gay men who don’t know they’re listening to Cole Porter and Gershwin songs being mercilessly butchered over a public address system. I don’t expect Atlantis to be able to attract talent along the lines of Lady Gaga or even B-listers like Adam Lambert (although, give his ‘career’ another 6 months and we’ll see), but if Rosie O’Donnell can make a few calls to get Liza Minnelli, Lilias White or Billy Porter to perform on her ship, then it seems that someone working the entertainment department at Atlantis is dropping the ball. Instead of more drag, why not replace with illusion acts that actually do vocal impersonation as well as the visual. I can name a dozen performers out there today who not only look like Cher, Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Britney Spears and others, but also sound and move like them as well. To me, that kind of talent is much more impressive than schlepping yet another tired drag act that’s more at home in a gay bar from 1981 than a very different year 2010. Instead of getting some Broadway chorus boy who’s not working and has the stage presence of toothpaste, why not pick up the phone and see what true professionals are doing- Sutton Foster is not currently doing a show and neither is Linda Eder: Those are two incredibly talented vocalists who could easily fill a room for Atlantis.
Overall, it’s obvious that Atlantis tries to go above and beyond to keep their cruisers happy: That’s no easy task when you’re dealing with a packed ship full of gay guys. We can be picky, apprehensive, closed-minded and elitist. We want the best, but aren’t always willing to pay for it (human nature, I suppose). All a company like Atlantis can do is hope to appeal to a wide demographic without alienating current and future clients. It’s obvious by their upcoming cruises that Atlantis continues to go for for broad appeal (massive ships mixed with more specialized tall ships and yacht-like smaller vessels) with their 2011 line-up. Perhaps another sailing with them is in order when they charter the largest ship in the world, The Allure of the Seas, for a Caribbean sailing next year. We’ll see. *wink*
Watching Clooney in this year’s ‘Up In The Air’ on my way from Singapore to Tokyo, I found it funny how ‘inside’ some frequent fliers claimed the film was. It’s not that it wasn’t somewhat realistic when it came to the TSA, profiling fellow travelers to quick-step your airport experience and a general infomercial for one of the greatest airlines flying (American), but overall, it felt a little, well, contrived.
I fly 350,000+ a year- That’s a whole lot more than Clooney’s ‘Ryan Bingham’ character. The 10 million mile mark that Bingham has as his goal is also somewhat murky, as he’s not just earning those as BIS (Butt-in-Seat), but through credit card co-branding, honors programs and, likely SkyMall purchases. Those not only don’t count as elite miles, but they simply aren’t road-warrior miles to folks like me who do all 350,000+ miles a year in actual aircraft. It’s a nice thought that 10 million total miles would get someone lifetime executive platinum status with American, but I don’t think they’d let someone in that easily. It seems far too easy to reach that point today with 200% mileage bonuses, dining rewards, shopping miles and other ways to get around actually having to FLY to elite status.
Elite, but laid-back
Overall, that’s my biggest gripe with the new breed of elite traveler: Most of them simply apply into the program through a credit card, getting the perks without any of the real work (or appreciation for the time spent). In the beginning of traveling quite a bit, I had spent years as top-tier with Continental (at the time, a platinum with ‘*’ status) and had a total of about 3 million miles with them. I eventually moved to American after being enticed by their higher levels of status, international upgrades and newer business-class seating. My total mileage with AA is now somewhere around 5 million miles, which should keep me at platinum status for the rest of my life.
For my next trick, I’m hoping that AA will offer a lifetime Admirals Club membership, as it’s what I ended up doing with Continental’s Presidents Club and it’s been quite worth the money spent.
... And speaking of airlines, taking this trip to Asia gave me the opportunity to experience truly great flights with both Cathay Pacific and JAL. Main talking points: Perfectly comfortable seating, a crew who goes above and beyond and AVOD that’s advanced, well-maintained and actually entertaining. Why is it so tough for American-based airlines to see this and adapt? In business, if you’re not moving forward, you’re dying. While it’s now a fact of life that airlines are going to nickle & dime you to death, the very least they can do is continue it with a smile on their face. Anyone who’s flown Delta/Northwest since their merger knows the value of an honest smile considering most of their employees wear a disgruntled frown... And I don’t blame them. Overall, it’s just a bad recipe for business: Take one cup failing airline, combine it with a dash of an even worse airline, let simmer for 45 minutes with DOT approval and you’ve still got one gigantically shitty way to travel. Nothing’s getting better through these mergers and all we’re really getting are monopolistic business practices, less ways to redeem frequent flier mileage and 'codeshare’ flights between two airlines that can’t actually communicate with each other.
We watch while US airlines plead poverty, lose millions- sometimes billions- and play the bankruptcy game: It’s a broken system that’s been broken long before government regulation began. The airlines allowed commercial travel to become, well, a little too commercial and now they’re paying dearly for it: Making it possible for a family of 5 to travel to Disneyworld for under $200/person may have played well with the public, but it was a loss leader that airlines just couldn’t recover from. In the meantime, the general public grew used to cheap coast-to-coast flights, not realizing that flying should likely be a privilege and not a right. What was a big deal in the ‘60s and ‘70s was now relegated to just another form of mass transit.
Right now, I’m already back on the road, turned around to Sydney, Australia for a four day gig and back in the States for a day before going to Key West for some 7-day downtime. It’s been nearly a 80k mile month for travel and, while loads of fun, I’m dragging ass a little. I’m looking forward to getting my body clock back into normalcy in Key West with a little gym, a little Bikram yoga and a lot of bumming around. Look for a new edition of Eye Candy next on the 15mm agenda and, most importantly, a total redesign of both BenjaminNicholas.com and 15MinutesMore.com in the next month. I’ve been working with my web designer on some new things and I think much like the original BN.com changed the way people look at escort websites, this new design will really bring something new to the table. I’m excited about it (and hope y’all are too). Lots of fun BN-centric stuff in the pipeline and coming soon.
Love the comments on my Twitter and Photoblog sites. Keep them coming guys. Always appreciate knowing I’ve got readers out there, especially the ones who talk-back now and then. For those who haven't checked in on my Google Photo Gallery in awhile, I did a massive update to all folders with travel pics and general nonsense that I snap on my blackberry day-to-day. Enjoy.