Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Small U.S. Farms Find Profit in Tourism

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

 

SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — For all the talk about sustainable agriculture, most small farms are not self-sustaining in a very basic sense: they can’t make ends meet financially without relying on income from jobs off the farm.

But increasingly farmers are eking more money out of the land in ways beyond the traditional route of planting crops and raising livestock. Some have opened bed-and-breakfasts, often known as farm stays, that draw guests eager to get a taste of rural living. Others operate corn mazes — now jazzed up with modern fillips like maps on cellphones — that often turn into seasonal amusements, with rope courses and zip lines. Ranchers open their land to hunters or bring in guests to ride horses, dude ranch style.

Known as agritourism, such activities are becoming an important economic boost for many farmers.

Early each morning, Jim Maguire milks the sheep and goats and feeds the pigs on his small dairy farm here before heading off to his day job as a public defender in San Luis Obispo County. His wife, Christine, makes cheese and tends the animals.

But in recent years, Ms. Maguire has added some new chores: changing linens and serving food to the guests who stay at Rinconada Dairy’s two bed-and-breakfast units, one in a private wing of the farmhouse and the other in a remodeled corner of a barn. Money from the paying guests is now enough to pay for the animals’ feed, one of the farm’s biggest expenditures.

“The whole idea is to get the farm in a productive state so that it carries itself, so that it pays its own way,” Mr. Maguire said early on a recent morning as he watched sheep file onto the raised stainless steel platform of an automatic milking machine. “The farm stay is an important economic portion of that.”

The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that this year the average farm household will get only about 13 percent of its income from farm sources. Agritourism is appealing because it increases the family’s income from the farm, potentially reducing the need for off-farm jobs.

The U.S.D.A.’s census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years, estimated that 23,000 farms offered agritourism activities in 2007, bringing in an average of $24,300 each in additional income. The number of farms taking part fell from the previous census, in 2002, but at that time the average agritourism income per farm was just $7,200.

California, the nation’s largest farm state, was among the leaders in agritourism, according to the census, with nearly 700 farms averaging more than $50,000 in agritourism income.

The agritourism movement is fueled by city dwellers who want to understand where their food comes from or who feel an urge to embrace the country life.

Scottie Jones, who raises sheep and runs a farm stay in Alsea, Ore., received $42,000 in U.S.D.A. grants to start a Web site, Farm Stay U.S., which maintains a listing of farm stays around the country. The site began last June and now includes more than 900 farms and ranches, with about 20 listings added each month.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms acts as an online clearinghouse for people who want to trade labor for lodging on a farm, with stays ranging from days to months. Ryan Goldsmith, who manages the group’s branch in the United States, said that interest had grown strongly. Currently more than 11,600 people are registered as members of the American branch, with access to a database of about 1,300 farms, in all 50 states.

Even the corn maze, a staple of rural tourism for decades, is becoming more popular.

Brett Herbst, the owner of The Maize, a Utah company that designs and creates corn mazes, estimated there were more than 1,000 mazes around the country each year, from simple versions to complex behemoths that include games for visitors, with clues delivered by text message. His company expects to build about 220 mazes in the United States this year, about 20 more than last year. Ten years ago he created about 130 mazes.

“It’s virtually impossible to make a living just off traditional farming on a small farm,” said Mr. Herbst. “This really provides an opportunity to keep the land, keep a family farm existent, even amongst urbanization, and allows someone to depend less on an outside job for their income.”

Still, there are hurdles. For example, many farmers complained about insurance costs, which rise with the number of farm visitors.

For years, Christine Cole has charged for tours of her farm, in Sebastopol, Calif., where she keeps horses, raises vegetables and chickens and has three farm stay units.

At the end of April, her insurance carrier dropped her, although she said she had made no major claims. She began looking for new insurance, she said, but was repeatedly turned down. She said insurers seemed unwilling to cover the broad range of activities on her farm. Finally, she found a policy that cost her almost $9,000 a year, about triple the cost of her previous coverage.

“That is more than 10 percent of my income,” Ms. Cole said. “I broke down and cried.”

Some states have acted to make it easier for farmers. Next month, a new law will go into effect in Indiana to limit the liability of farmers when someone is injured on their property while participating in agritourism activities.

Although many farmers said they enjoyed the city-country interaction at the heart of agritourism, it takes a particular type to pull it off.

“If you’re not a people person, forget it,” said Vince Gizdich, who runs Gizdich Ranch, in Watsonville, which includes a “Pik-Yor-Self” operation with berries and apples. The ranch also has a farm stand and a pie shop. As Mr. Gizdich talked with a reporter on a recent afternoon, he was interrupted repeatedly by people popping into the shop or customers calling to ask when his boysenberries and olallieberries would be ripe.

Bonnie Swank, of Hollister, Calif., runs a corn maze and haunted house each fall on land that grows vegetables the rest of the year. At a recent agritourism workshop for farmers sponsored by the university extension service, she explained the extensive planning that goes into the annual six-week extravaganza, which can draw up to 30,000 people and brings in about a quarter of the farm’s annual revenue.

“People look at what we’re doing and they say, ‘We could do that and make a lot of money,’” she said. “It’s not that easy.”

Kim A. Rogers understands the hard work. For seven years, she and her husband ran a farm and orchard in Templeton, Calif., along with a busy bed and breakfast.

Finally she had an epiphany: farming was exhausting work and the bed-and-breakfast was providing an increasing portion of their income. So last year she and her husband pulled up their 700 fruit trees and became full-time innkeepers, with a cottage and a bungalow that rent for $150 to $285 a night.

They still have a few sheep, hens and a large vegetable garden — enough to maintain the farm feel.

“A lot of people just want that rural farm experience,” she said.

City Crackdown on Hotels Affects Quaint Bed and Breakfasts Too

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

New York Times

The Eden House hotel in Washington Heights advertised free Wi-Fi and good subway access at bargain prices. The Loftstel in Brooklyn offered dorm-style beds for $25 a night, and three-bedrooms for just $195. In a city where a hotel room often costs a week’s pay, they seemed attractive options.

But there was one big problem: these arrangements, city officials said, were illegal.

Armed with a new state law, the city has spent the past year cracking down on the growing industry of short-term rentals; since the law took effect last May, nearly 1,900 notices of violation have been issued at hundreds of residential buildings.

“The issue of illegal hotels is one that’s been a mounting problem in the city over the last several years,” said John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser to the mayor, pointing to a tenfold increase in complaints about them since 2006, to about 1,000 last year.

The new law made it illegal to rent out apartments in residential buildings for under 30 days. Owners of an apartment or a town house may still rent out one or two rooms, provided that they live in the home and everyone has access to common areas like the kitchen. Illegal hotels found by the city included small rental buildings, condos and town houses, and many of them were hiding in plain sight.

The Loftstel, a town house on Greene Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, advertised on Web sites, including a New York University site that offers suggestions for short-term housing. (N.Y.U. does not endorse the locations.)

Students and tourists came to the Loftstel from all over the world, said Tommy Walton, 56, who lives a few doors down. They threw “crazy parties,” he said, adding that he was once invited in by a guest and found a refrigerator packed with beer and vodka, but not a scrap of food.

During an inspection last year, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement found 44 guests in the house, inadequate smoke alarms and other unsafe conditions, problems the city says are common when residences are used for short-term lodging.

The building now stands vacant. The man behind the business, Jeff Pan, said he had “made a clean break from it.”

Joseph F. Porto, owner of Eden House, on West 173rd Street, said that his hotel had served people who could not otherwise afford to stay in the city.

Those who campaign for affordable housing, and city and state officials, said the law was a response to a flood of complaints from New Yorkers who saw their single-room-occupancy buildings converted to youth hostels, watched as their landlords ousted long-term tenants to accommodate overnight guests, or found their condominium buildings suddenly filled with strangers.

State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, said the rise of Internet listing and reservation sites had “absolutely multiplied” the problem.

But the crackdown has also affected a quieter section of the hospitality industry, established bed-and-breakfasts.

“We absolutely sympathize with the city; nothing is more important to us than the safety of tourists and visitors,” said Vinessa Milando, owner of the Ivy Terrace Bed and Breakfast on East 58th Street in Manhattan. “But we believe we were unintended targets.”

Ms. Milando’s establishment, which has been in business for 14 years, offers six rooms with hardwood floors and brightly colored walls..

Last summer, city inspectors came by. She received notices of violations stating that the building had an incorrect certificate of occupancy and inadequate fire safety measures for rooms to be rented on a short-term basis. She was fined nearly $10,000, and a judge ruled in the city’s favor.

Now, Ms. Milando heads a small trade association of bed-and-breakfast proprietors called StayNYC, which is lobbying for regulations that would allow them to offer short-term rentals.

On Friday, at a hearing about effects of the state law, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly’s Housing Committee, said the intent was to stop building owners from profiting at the expense of safety and of others in the community. But he added that he would review whether the law could be relaxed for owners of smaller properties “that got caught up” in the enforcement.

Some small proprietors said they were trying to stay afloat by looking for longer-term guests, who need a room for at least 30 days — one woman who went that route estimated her business was off by 80 percent — but many were just trying to keep their heads down.

“Inspect us for safety; tax us; we welcome it — just don’t shut us down,” said the owner of a town house who offers short-term rentals in three apartments in the building, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting inspectors’ attention. He said he had gone into debt renovating the town house, in which he lives, to accommodate guests, and so could not afford to stop renting the units.

“The industry isn’t going to go away,” he continued. “It’s just going to go further and further underground.”

Check out the Ivy Terrace on TheInnkeeper.com here! keep their heads down.

“Inspect us for safety; tax us; we welcome it — just don’t shut us down,” said the owner of a town house who offers short-term rentals in three apartments in the building, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid attracting inspectors’ attention. He said he had gone into debt renovating the town house, in which he lives, to accommodate guests, and so could not afford to stop renting the units.

“The industry isn’t going to go away,” he continued. “It’s just going to go further and further underground.”

 

Check out the Ivy Terrace on TheInnkeeper.com here!

 

Pinterest and your business

July 18th, 2012 by Mariah

 

One social site has captured the attention of the masses recently… and it is not called Facebook or Twitter. Sure, the number of users is clearly not as high as what you’d find on those two behemoths, but Pinterest is gaining traction, especially with the female demographic.

What’s the fascination? For Amy Larson, a special education teacher who uses the site for about two hours per day, the whole purpose is in finding interesting design ideas. She pins pictures to her Pinterest board, where she has a few dozen followers, as a reminder about what is cool and stylish. And, by the way, she does not use Facebook much at all, which is more about forming social connections.

“I love Pinterest because it’s like getting a whole bunch of magazines without adding clutter in my house and without the cost,” she says. “There are so many great ideas and recipes, and it’s all organized on the computer so I can access my favorites at anytime.”

Pinterest had an estimated 3.3 million unique visitors in the month of October. While there’s no mechanism for potential customers to buy your products directly from the site, consider the marketing potential: Popular images (with links back to the original source) can get repinned on hundreds of other users’ boards.

Here are nine proven ways to attract the attention of people like Amy, improve your click-throughs, and spread the word about a new product:

 

1. Spend the time

Like any social network, and maybe even more with this demographic, Pinterest.com requires an investment in time. Jason White, who owns Quality Woven Labels, says one key is to build relationships with those who are known for quality “pins” at the site. He says, once these movers and shakers get to know you and your business, they will be more likely to post about your product. White says to focus on the users who get the most likes and repins.

“All of these repins and likes share a common interest, making it easier to take the conversation to Twitter or Facebook to nurture the relationship,” he says. “Like everything else, be real and show your true self. Authenticity is hugely important.”

 

2. Keep it simple

The main appeal of Pinterest is that the site is exceptionally easy to use. Everyone has a “board” where they pin images that are all the same size. Hana Abaza, the co-founder and CEO of Wedding Republic, says it’s best to mimic Pinterest’s uncluttered aesthetic, so she creates boards that are clean and elegant looking. Each pinned photo includes one link back to her site (you click once to see the pin page, and again to see the source site). Abaza says Pinterest dramatically boosted page views. Through her social media efforts she saw a 75 percent increase in traffic, with Pinterest generating most of that.

 

3. Connect your physical presence with your online presence

It’s important to connect the dots between a physical location and your Pinterest page. Becca Bijoch does public relations for the Minneapolis store Creative Kidstuff. Often the physical store will feature online ads and Pinterest promotions. Soon the company website will feature Pinterest buttons. So far, the campaign has yielded about 150 extra page views directly from Pinterest and two direct sales. Not astounding, but that’s only after using the site for about 30 days.

 

4. Make sure your business is a match

This tip might seem obvious, but Pinterest caters to those looking for recipes, room décor, and do-it-yourself crafts. If your company sells power sanders, you might not be a good fit. Quality Woven Labels, which makes tags for custom clothing, has been able to use Pinterest to connect with the perfect demographic: independent fashion designers.

 

5. Use other social nets to feed Pinterest

The new kid on the block may be getting all of the hype, but existing social networks have one advantage: a vast number of users. Justin Palmer, the online awareness director at Sevenly, a custom T-Shirt shop, says to get the most number of eyeballs his company uses Tumblr and Facebook to point people to Pinterest.

 

6. Launch a daily pin theme

Sevenly has created a daily pin to promote its brand. The idea is to come up with a catchy slogan that is tied to the organization’s charity work and memorable enough so that the images get re-pinned. The daily themed pins usually lead to repeat visitors. Sevenly also posts a weekly custom-designed t-shirt, which is often re-pinned by other Pinterest users. Bonus: They come back often looking for the new one.

 

7. Promote more than products

The temptation for any business is to post pins only for products you sell. Giselle Gonzalez is a promoter for Cakestyle, a company that makes wardrobe suggestions for women, and says one key is to post interesting news tidbits, tips, and products from other companies. She says Pinterest users are savvy in spotting a board that is too self-serving and only posts product photos.

 

8. Follow the big hitters

One of the best ways to raise awareness about your company is to start following the big names on Pinterest. This is the proven method on Twitter: When you follow popular figures, and they follow you back, other Twitter users get the message and follow the leader. Sevenly’s Palmer says it’s important to find out who is “pinning” your products and to follow them to see if they follow you back. Most do, he says.

 

9. Selective curating

Pinterest caters to those who love to “curate” or weed out the good from the bad. Presenza, a custom clothing designer, finds unique products beyond their own offering and pins them. The company also uses key phrases on their board like “made in the USA” and “defining confidence” to help define the brand.

 

Check out TheInnkeeper.com on Pinterest here!

Airline squeeze: Its not you, its the seat

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

Boeing 737-823 aircraft picture

(CNN) — If you’re on a flight — especially a long one — a coach class seat can be a chair of torture. It doesn’t take much these days to ruin a perfectly good airplane ride, CNN.com readers have made clear. It’s a real buzzkill to try to walk down the aisle “with a bag on your shoulder, hitting everyone as you pass by,” suggests user “Cajuncatdude.” Commenter “Rosemeow” writes, “It’s bad enough that about a quarter of the time, I have an obese person sitting next to me (sometimes on both sides) who doesn’t fit into their own seat, crushing me.” And “MrsColumbo” complains about “people who don’t even try to stand up without grabbing on to the seat in front and pulling themselves up. What is with that?”

For something as seemingly simple as stuffing rear ends between two armrests inside a flying metal tube, it kind of feels like there’s some anger up there.

See some of the comments here

And things could get even more heated. Changes are happening now, as major U.S. carriers look for new ways to pump up profits by either adding to or reducing the number of coach seats, increasing legroom or cutting the distance between rows.

You might call it a game of aeronautical chairs that will directly affect passenger comfort, convenience and cost.

Two experts with inside knowledge of the airline seat industry– a vice president at a seat manufacturer and a nationally recognized expert in the study of body measurements — recently talked frankly about some of the reasons behind the anger and discomfort.

Are the seats getting smaller? Closer together? Are passengers getting bigger? Are we getting angrier?

Well, no. Yes. Yes. And it’s unclear.

Americans are getting bigger, says Kathleen Robinette, who’s studied human body measurements for the U.S. Air Force for three decades.

But in general, the problem’s “not you — it’s the seat,” she says with a chuckle.

Since Robinette’s first airline seat study for NASA and the FAA in 1978, she has a different perspective when she boards an airliner. “I always see all kinds of arms hanging out into the aisles. That means the seats are too narrow, and there’s nowhere for the shoulders and arms to go except into the aisle because there’s not enough room in the seat.”

When “you keep getting your arm whacked by the cart as it comes down the aisle,” don’t feel guilty, she says. It happens to everybody. “And it’s because of the seats.”

And what about passengers grabbing the seat in front of them to pull themselves out of their own seats? Is that really a thing?

“It can be quite annoying,” laughs Jeff Luedeke, a vice president at airline seat manufacturer TIMCO Aerosystems, maker of seats aboard Allegiant, Japan Airlines, RwandAir, and Spirit Airlines. Seat grabbing creates a challenge for designers, said Luedeke, who flies about a quarter-million miles yearly. “If the rows weren’t so close together that would probably prevent people from grabbing the back of the seat.”

In 1962, the U.S. government measured the width of the American backside in the seated position. It averaged 14 inches for men and 14.4 inches for women. Forty years later, an Air Force study directed by Robinette showed male and female butts had blown up on average to more than 15 inches.

“The seat is a revenue generator,” Luedeke says. “Normally if you look at a 737 or A320 there are three seats on each side. If you wanted maximum comfort you could do two on each side — and make the seats a lot wider. But with the reduced head count the operational costs don’t work out.”

But the American rear end isn’t really the important statistic here, Robinette says.

Nor are the male hips, which the industry mistakenly used to determine seat width sometime around the 1960s, she says.

“It’s the wrong dimension. The widest part of your body is your shoulders and arms. And that’s much, much bigger than your hips. Several inches wider.” Furthermore, she says, women actually have larger hip width on average than men.

The industry used the male hip as a seat measuring stick “thinking that it would accommodate the women too, but in fact they don’t accommodate the larger women.”

The result: Airline seats are approximately 5 inches too narrow, she says. And that’s for passengers in the 1960s, let alone the supersized U.S. travelers of today.

Overhead on CNN.com: Angry fliers get what they deserve

Current standard coach seat widths range from 17 to 19 inches between the armrests, says Luedeke, and that little piece of real estate is known in the industry as “living space.”

The term seems appropriate for some non-stop transoceanic flights that will have you inhabiting your “living space” for up to 18 hours.

“I look at it like, I’ve leased this space for the next three hours — or however long the flight is,” Luedeke says. At a recent industry convention in Hamburg, Germany, TIMCO asked volunteers to test seats. The testers didn’t know it, but some seats had cushions and some did not. Many of the testers laughed when they found out later that their seats had no cushions. Even funnier: Some passengers said the seats without cushions were more comfortable.

“One of the most important things about a comfortable seat is the ability to move in it,” Robinette says. “You have to be able to readjust your posture every so often for it to stay comfortable.” Otherwise, she warns, passengers put themselves at risk of deep vein thrombosis, a serious health condition affecting people prone to blood clots. Sitting in place for long periods can lead to clotting in veins. Clots can break loose, travel through the bloodstream and lodge in the lungs, blocking blood flow.

Although America’s butts are bulging, it doesn’t appear that economy class seats are following suit.

“Our seating surfaces are contemporarily appropriate,” says a spokesman for Southwest Airlines. The airline is in the process of reconfiguring seating on its entire fleet. But it’s not changing the width.

Seat rows aboard Southwest Boeing 737-700s are moving closer together. In airline-seat speak the operative word is “pitch.”

Pitch is defined as the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat behind. A typical seat pitch in coach measures from 31 to 35 inches, Luedeke says.

Southwest’s new pitch configuration moves its rows about an inch closer together, from 32 to 31 inches, according to the airline. In addition, economy seats will move only two inches during recline instead of three, the airline says. Amazingly, because of the new seat design, the airline says coach passengers will be blessed with an extra inch of legroom. Will fliers notice the difference? Let us know.

Bottom line: Southwest’s new economy class seats will allow for six additional coach seats per plane. Bonus: The new seats weigh less, which will save about $10 million in yearly fuel costs. It’s an “environmental win and a revenue positive move on the extra seats,” says the airline.

In general, coach seats haven’t narrowed over the years, Luedeke says. “I believe it’s more of a perception caused by seat pitches getting tighter.”

So now — if rows are moving closer together — we’re playing footsie with legroom.

That’s important. Thirty percent of Americans who answered a recent poll by TripAdvisor said comfortable seating is the biggest improvement airlines could make. And 41% said airlines adding more legroom would be the biggest improvement.

Over the past few years carriers have been moving toward a standard of charging more for seats with extra legroom.

These include seats in the forward coach cabins and emergency aisles that used to cost the same as other economy class seats. Also, some airlines have reconfigured seats to add a bit more legroom in certain aisles, for a price.

United Airlines started selling its “Economy Plus” extra-legroom seats for premium prices a few years ago, and now it’s expanding the program. To make space for the extra 5 inches of legroom, United is removing three to six seats, depending on the aircraft. Legroom for United regular coach seats will remain the same, with a pitch of 31 inches.

The special seating lures “higher revenue and more frequent customers,” says a United spokesman. Some customers want more space, he says, but “there are other customers who value getting the cheapest price, and for them … the seating is not their highest priority.”

Delta followed with a similar program last year, and American Airlines in March. American said it’s in the process of removing at least four to nine coach seats per aircraft to create the extra legroom. Price: from $8 to $108 — depending on the flight. They call it their Main Cabin Extra program.

In the TripAdvisor survey, 71% said they weren’t willing to pay for extra legroom on domestic flights under four hours.

“Some view the ability to select a seat as an additional fee,” says Bryan Saltzberg of SeatGuru.com. “Some view the ability to actually secure more legroom as actually a benefit — and they’re willing to pay for that benefit. It depends on who you’re talking to and the carrier.”

By the way, here are three magic words in the airline seat business: articulating seat pan.

The articulating seat pan is what allows airlines to move seat rows closer together without losing legroom.

In a traditional reclining airline seat, only the seat back moves. But with an articulating seat pan, as the back moves to the rear, the seat pan moves forward. “The back of the seat isn’t moving as far as it traditionally did, but the feeling you get is that it moves further,” Luedeke says. Because the seat doesn’t need as much room to recline, it saves space for more seats. Also, the back of the seat is thinner, saving even more space.

It looks like coach seats won’t be getting any bigger any time soon. That’s largely because consumers don’t demand bigger seats, Robinette says. Consumers demand low fares, so that’s what airlines offer, she says. Consumers who demand better seats fly first class.

“The manufacturers are perfectly willing to make the wider seats,” Robinette says. “They understand the issues. But their customers are the airlines. And they’re giving the airlines what they ask for. The airlines are also giving their customers — the passengers — what they want. So the consumer needs to be smarter. The consumer is the one who needs to drive the width of the seats.”

What do you think? It’s a tricky balancing act between affordable fares and comfortable seating. Are airlines offering economy class passengers what they want? Let us know what you think in the comment area below.

Planning a trip to Disney? Better start saving now

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

Theme park admission prices tend to go up for the summer season when kids are out of school, but if the price hikes we’ve seen recently become the norm, more and more parents may end up having a conversation that goes something like: “Sorry kids. It’s either college or a trip to Disney World.”

A jump in theme park prices is expected during popular seasons, and parents usually just have to grit their teeth and pay the few extra dollars to keep the kids smiling. But recent price increases may force a lot of American families to put off this year’s — or next year’s — vacation.

Ouch!

Walt Disney World in Orlando raised the price of its one-day, single-park ticket to $89 — a 4.7% jump from the old price of $85. That price is for ages 10 and older and doesn’t include taxes. Just a few weeks ago, Disneyland in California announced price hikes of up to 30% on various tickets and season passes. A one-day pass now costs $87, up almost 10% from its previous price of $80.

The problem is, this isn’t just one price hike you can try to maneuver around. What’s going to hit families so hard is the fact that almost all of the tickets offered by these theme parks have gone up in price. Disney’s “Park Hopper” ticket option jumped to $57, up 3.6% from $55. That ticket allows you to go to more than one of Disney’s theme parks on the same day. And to round it all out, Disney’s premium annual pass, which includes access to Disney World’s four theme parks and the resort’s water parks, rose 7.7% to $699. For Florida residents, that ticket now costs $425, compared to the previous price of $389.

Maybe you were hoping to save a few bucks on your youngest ones? If they aren’t wearing a diaper, then you can count on their tickets costing as much as yours. The cost for all premium and seasonal passes is now the same for children and adults ages 3 and up, so those tickets for kids between the ages of 3 and 9 are no longer discounted.

And just in case it crossed your mind, ditching Disney for the other major theme parks won’t do you any good, either. Just a week ago, Universal Studios in Orlando raised its one-day, single-park price to $88, a jump of 3.5%. The park also raised the price of a four-day ticket to $256, a five-day ticket to $268 and a seven-day pass to $288.

What it all means for you

So let’s take a look at what these numbers really mean for the average American family of four. First of all, it’s cheaper to buy multiple-day passes, so let’s look at the cost for a family buying four-day passes:

For two adults, a 10-year-old and a six-year-old to spend one whole day at each of Disney’s four major theme parks, it would cost close to $1,000. OUCH! That’s about $60 a day for the six-year-old and $64 a day for the 10-year-old and both parents. The price per day goes down as you add more days to the ticket, so instead of buying four single-day passes, it would be cheaper to buy four-day passes. And don’t forget, those prices do not include taxes.

So before you even begin to factor in travel, food and accommodations, families should budget at least $1,000 just to enter the parks at Disney World. And for struggling American families, a trip to Disney has become something can involve months or even years of saving.

How to save

If you want to take your family to Disney World and the budget is tight, the best way to save is on everything besides the park tickets. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard is a big fan of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The latest 2012 edition includes information on updated hotel, attraction and restaurant ratings; new park expansions; latest prices and policies of the Disney Dining Plan; 30 best hotel deals for 2012; and information on car rental agencies and the best discounts throughout the year.

Booking accommodations through discount sites like Hotwire and Priceline can save Disney visitors a bundle. Staying at the Disney resort can end up costing you a fortune, but by booking early through one of these sites, you’ll be able to choose the type of hotel and price range that won’t break the bank.

Another way to save on accommodations is by booking through VRBO , Vacation Rentals by Owner. The site allows homeowners to rent out their vacation home directly to renters. This is a great way for families to save by renting a condo or house for the week, instead of paying for multiple hotel rooms, especially when prices are up.

And when it comes to the time of year you should go, fall is the best time for Florida vacations, if you want to get the lowest prices. So if you can skip the popular summer season, wherever you decide to stay may cost at least a little bit less.

One thing a lot of Disney visitors don’t think about is rain! Head to the dollar store and pick up some ponchos before the trip so you don’t end up buying overpriced ones at the park for $10 each. When it comes to saving at these parks, every little bit counts, because it adds up quickly.

Last, and certainly not least, the cost of food can be outrageous at theme parks, so Clark suggests eating two meals a day outside of the park. That way you can pick and choose where you eat and how much money you spend on each meal. The Unofficial Guide does have pricing information for restaurants at the Disney parks, so you can also check that out in advance.

Theme park admission prices tend to go up for the summer season when kids are out of school, but if the price hikes we’ve seen recently become the norm, more and more parents may end up having a conversation that goes something like: “Sorry kids. It’s either college or a trip to Disney World.”

A jump in theme park prices is expected during popular seasons, and parents usually just have to grit their teeth and pay the few extra dollars to keep the kids smiling. But recent price increases may force a lot of American families to put off this year’s — or next year’s — vacation.

Ouch!

Walt Disney World in Orlando raised the price of its one-day, single-park ticket to $89 — a 4.7% jump from the old price of $85. That price is for ages 10 and older and doesn’t include taxes. Just a few weeks ago, Disneyland in California announced price hikes of up to 30% on various tickets and season passes. A one-day pass now costs $87, up almost 10% from its previous price of $80.

The problem is, this isn’t just one price hike you can try to maneuver around. What’s going to hit families so hard is the fact that almost all of the tickets offered by these theme parks have gone up in price. Disney’s “Park Hopper” ticket option jumped to $57, up 3.6% from $55. That ticket allows you to go to more than one of Disney’s theme parks on the same day. And to round it all out, Disney’s premium annual pass, which includes access to Disney World’s four theme parks and the resort’s water parks, rose 7.7% to $699. For Florida residents, that ticket now costs $425, compared to the previous price of $389.

Maybe you were hoping to save a few bucks on your youngest ones? If they aren’t wearing a diaper, then you can count on their tickets costing as much as yours. The cost for all premium and seasonal passes is now the same for children and adults ages 3 and up, so those tickets for kids between the ages of 3 and 9 are no longer discounted.

And just in case it crossed your mind, ditching Disney for the other major theme parks won’t do you any good, either. Just a week ago, Universal Studios in Orlando raised its one-day, single-park price to $88, a jump of 3.5%. The park also raised the price of a four-day ticket to $256, a five-day ticket to $268 and a seven-day pass to $288.

What it all means for you

So let’s take a look at what these numbers really mean for the average American family of four. First of all, it’s cheaper to buy multiple-day passes, so let’s look at the cost for a family buying four-day passes:

For two adults, a 10-year-old and a six-year-old to spend one whole day at each of Disney’s four major theme parks, it would cost close to $1,000. OUCH! That’s about $60 a day for the six-year-old and $64 a day for the 10-year-old and both parents. The price per day goes down as you add more days to the ticket, so instead of buying four single-day passes, it would be cheaper to buy four-day passes. And don’t forget, those prices do not include taxes.

So before you even begin to factor in travel, food and accommodations, families should budget at least $1,000 just to enter the parks at Disney World. And for struggling American families, a trip to Disney has become something can involve months or even years of saving.

How to save

If you want to take your family to Disney World and the budget is tight, the best way to save is on everything besides the park tickets. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard is a big fan of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The latest 2012 edition includes information on updated hotel, attraction and restaurant ratings; new park expansions; latest prices and policies of the Disney Dining Plan; 30 best hotel deals for 2012; and information on car rental agencies and the best discounts throughout the year.

Booking accommodations through discount sites like Hotwire and Priceline can save Disney visitors a bundle. Staying at the Disney resort can end up costing you a fortune, but by booking early through one of these sites, you’ll be able to choose the type of hotel and price range that won’t break the bank.

Another way to save on accommodations is by booking through VRBO , Vacation Rentals by Owner. The site allows homeowners to rent out their vacation home directly to renters. This is a great way for families to save by renting a condo or house for the week, instead of paying for multiple hotel rooms, especially when prices are up.

And when it comes to the time of year you should go, fall is the best time for Florida vacations, if you want to get the lowest prices. So if you can skip the popular summer season, wherever you decide to stay may cost at least a little bit less.

One thing a lot of Disney visitors don’t think about is rain! Head to the dollar store and pick up some ponchos before the trip so you don’t end up buying overpriced ones at the park for $10 each. When it comes to saving at these parks, every little bit counts, because it adds up quickly.

Last, and certainly not least, the cost of food can be outrageous at theme parks, so Clark suggests eating two meals a day outside of the park. That way you can pick and choose where you eat and how much money you spend on each meal. The Unofficial Guide does have pricing information for restaurants at the Disney parks, so you can also check that out in advance.

Make or Break? Travel tests your love life

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) — When Tom Wilmes and Ashley Dye started planning a scuba diving trip right after they started dating, they ignored the raised eyebrows and questioning family members.

“Ashley and I took a way-too-early and probably inappropriately romantic trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands after dating just a few months,” said Wilmes, an editor at American Cowboy magazine who had been friends with environmental attorney Dye for years before they started dating. “More than a few people asked if we were on our honeymoon.”

“It could have been awkwardly disastrous, but instead, we fell in love over mudslides in the moonlight every night on a deserted beach. I told her I loved her for the first time, and now we’re married five years with a beautiful son and another on the way in two months!”

Having been on less successful trips with previous girlfriends, Wilmes knew that it mattered that they enjoyed traveling together.

They scuba dived in the morning, played on the beach in the afternoon and had drinks on the deserted beach at night. “We just really meshed,” he said. “We’re both real low key, and we’re not going to get bent out of shape if things don’t go exactly to plan. We’re compatible in that way.”

It’s the make or break travel experience.

Whether it’s your first trip together or the highly anticipated, much-romanticized honeymoon, travel ramps up the pressure and can tell you what you need to know about another person and how (or if) you’ll have fun and solve problems together. One high-stress trip can result in a relationship flameout or the discovery of true love.

“Your first trip will not only reveal your compatibility as a dating couple, but ultimately how you will relate as a married couple,” said Allison Pescosolido, co-founder of counseling service Divorce Detox in Santa Monica, California. “Traveling can be seen as a mini-test to see how your relationship works when you are together 24-7 and dealing with unpredictable circumstances.”‘

Lack of shared interests or willingness to explore each other’s interests can surface early, and it matters, said Pescosolido.

When traveling early in the relationship, she suggests a few key questions to ask yourself: Does your partner want to do the same things you do or trade off your choices with his choices? Does she roll with unexpected delays or does she complain when your plans go awry? Does he treat hotel and restaurant staff with respect or does he have temper tantrums? Does he spend more time saving money than having fun?

People who crumble under the pressure of a vacation may exhibit that same behavior at home.

Allow yourself to grow

If that first trip to St. John hadn’t gone well, the Wilmeses could have simply parted ways. That wouldn’t have been as easy for Pamela Skjolsvik of Bedford, Texas. She had already married the guy.

Skjolsvik met her future husband while bartending in San Francisco, and they started dating and married nearly two years after they met. They had taken short trips around the Bay Area before getting married, but they had never taken long trips.

When her fiance proposed that their honeymoon be a three-week road trip in his cargo van, she said yes to not spoil his vision of her “so soon in our marriage.” Truthfully, she dreaded driving in a van without air-conditioning, bathrooms or a hair dryer for her frizzy hair and feared bugs — and possibly serial killers — attacking their van.

The turning point came a few days into the trip, when they found a campground at Carlsbad Caverns, a National Park in New Mexico with many bats. “I just realized as I watched the bats, ‘this is fun,’ ” she said. “I wasn’t worrying about what I looked like, in the moment. After that, it was a lot more fun. I work myself up so much.”

She also got to see her husband in a new light and allowed herself to get even closer to him.

“He was capable of doing things I didn’t know anything about, like building a fire,” she said. “Here’s a guy who knows how to get places and knows how to adapt to his surroundings,” she says. “I really did get to know him and appreciate him as a person. It was probably a turning point for me.”

That’s a significant benefit of traveling together. “Traveling can be a lot of fun because you get to spend a lot more time with your partner,” said Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and co-author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love.”

“Take it as an opportunity to learn how to really be there for one another. That’s what a good relationship is all about, the give and take. And it’s an opportunity to get closer.”

People can change

In retrospect, technical editor Paulette Baker says she should have walked out after her honeymoon. Baker, who grew up hiking in the woods near her home in Connecticut and had developed a passion for photography, thought her future husband shared her interests.

Before she married, Baker had started traveling solo because a former boyfriend preferred going to New York and Newport and staying in elegant hotels. She broke up with him and married her husband in part because she thought he also liked hiking and photography.

“If I’ve caught bloom season right, it might take me twice as long to complete a trail as the time suggested in guidebooks,” said Baker, now living in East Lyme, Connecticut.

Sometimes it takes a while for negative traits to emerge. Her husband’s lack of interest in her interests became apparent right before the wedding, she said.

“He informed me that I was to take no more than five rolls of film on our honeymoon so that I wouldn’t spend more time with my camera than with him,” she said. “To him a hike was something to be accomplished rather than experienced. He would sigh and fidget if I spent too much time, in his opinion, taking pictures.”

And sometimes it’s about compatibility. Baker didn’t mind having different interests or traveling alone. But her husband didn’t share her interests, didn’t want to trade off exploring their different interests and wasn’t comfortable with her pursuing them by herself. The couple divorced after nine years of marriage and were separated for the last three.

Not wanting to try your interests is definitely a red flag, according to Pescosolido.

“This could be a sign of self-centeredness or unwillingness to do things that aren’t familiar,” she said. “Unless you love routine, this could lead you to ending up with a rigid or boring partner.”

Using travel to find oneself

Heather enjoyed camping and exploring the United States with her husband and two dogs when they first got together, more than 22 years ago.

But as they got older, Heather (an English professor who didn’t want her last name used to protect her family’s privacy) realized that difficult and long flights to Asia were worth it so she could explore the places she wanted to explore. Her husband, from whom she is now separated, preferred shorter trips closer to their home in Denver.

So they traveled apart. “At the end of our marriage, we used solo travel to escape each other and the pain our relationship caused us,” Heather wrote from Bali, where she now lives.

“Whichever one of us was away, we were happier than we were together. I think he was happier when I was away and he had the comforts of home all to himself. For me, I preferred to be away from home alone; the comforts of home aren’t that important to me.”

While happy couples can travel separately, they have to work on their relationship in other ways.

That’s not what happened with Heather and her husband.

“We used our time apart to grow as individuals, which definitely did not help us grow as a couple. But it was a necessary progression we had needed to make for a long time.”

The no-pressure travel experience

And then there’s the travel experience that turns your life upside down.

The night train from Florence to Vienna was packed, and Mariana Lamaison of Argentina and her friend were lucky to find a compartment occupied by just one young American man, Zachary Sears.

“As we began to talk, we realized we had planned the same trip: Vienna, Prague, Berlin,” said Lamaison, who had recently graduated from college. So the three young people decided to travel together during that summer of 1997.

“We could tell right away that we were interested in the same things,” she said. “We wanted to see classic art and history. The first night we went to a Mozart concert in Vienna, a traditional concert where everyone in the orchestra dressed classically.”

They became fast friends. When they parted a week later, Lamaison and Sears missed each other and wrote letters for three years. When they both got e-mail addresses, they quickly realized they wanted more. Lamaison flew to the United States, ostensibly to study English. The couple married in 2001 and now live outside Philadelphia with their three children.

That first trip showed Lamaison (now Sears) who her new friend (and future husband) is today. It wasn’t just that they liked the same things. Crossing borders and going through customs, clearing security and changing money, Lamaison saw the man she would later marry: calm, respectful and organized.

“I just liked the way he handled himself,” she said. “You can see the values of a person in those situations.”

Tom and Ashley Wilmes took a romantic trip soon after they started dating. The risk worked out for them -- they married in 2006.

Traffic congestion is down nationwide, but at a cost

May 24th, 2012 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) – If you commute using one of the 10 most clogged highways in the United States, you could ride a bicycle to work faster than you could drive, according to a new study that evaluates the countless hours drivers waste in gridlock on roadways each year.

By using GPS-equipped vehicles to record commuting experiences on the nation’s roads, analysts studied traffic from a database containing approximately 100 million vehicles including taxis, airport shuttles, service delivery vans, long haul trucks and passenger cars in 2011.

A 13-mile stretch of the San Diego Freeway outside Los Angeles ranked as the most traffic-choked freeway in the nation. But drivers in Honolulu spent the most time in traffic, averaging 58 hours a year stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

Researchers found urban areas are actually seeing traffic congestion decrease at a significant rate nationwide for the first time since 2008. Seventy of the country’s Top 100 most populated cities showed a drop in traffic congestion last year.

The study was commissioned by INRIX, a software company based in Kirkland, Washington, that provides traffic- and driver-related mobile apps and online services.

Among the study’s findings:

– Overall, there was a 30% drop in traffic congestion nationwide, but it came with a cost. Due in part to weak employment conditions and higher fuel prices, there are fewer drivers heading to the office, and those who do drive are driving less, the study found.

– Last year, only 890,000 of the 2.6 million new jobs were in urban areas, according to the research.

– In cities such as Tampa, Houston and Austin, Texas, research showed improved jobless numbers led to busier roadways.

– Eight of the 10 worst stretches of road for average travel time and delays were in New York or Los Angeles.

– On average, Americans spend around 40 hours per year behind the wheel in commuter bottlenecks.

– Both the best and worst weekday times to be on the road occur on Fridays. Between 6 and 7 in the morning is the best commute time; 5-6 p.m. is the pits.

– The worst morning commute is on Tuesday.

So when’s the best time to be on the road? The research says Monday.

“People tend to take a little more time getting to the office” on Mondays, said INRIX communications chief Jim Bak. “Also, when people take a long three-day weekend, it’s often on Monday,”

The 10 cities with the worst commutes, including hours spent in gridlocked traffic and worst 15-minute traffic intervals, were:

– Honolulu: 58 hours; 5:15-5:30 p.m. Tuesday.

– Los Angeles: 56 hours; 5:45-6 p.m. Thursday.

– San Francisco: 48 hours; 5:45-6 p.m. Thursday.

– New York: 57 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Friday.

– Bridgeport, Connecticut: 42 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Friday.

– Washington: 45 hours; 5:45-6 p.m. Thursday.

– Seattle: 33 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Thursday.

– Austin, Texas: 30 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Thursday.

– Boston: 35 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Thursday.

– Chicago: 36 hours; 5:30-5:45 p.m. Thursday.

 

Top 10 worst stretches of highway in the nation in 2011 for daily commutes were:

1. Los Angeles: A 13-mile stretch of San Diego Freeway/I-405 North from I-105/Imperial Highway Interchange through the Getty Center Drive Exit, which takes 33 minutes on average with 20 minutes of delay.

2. New York: A 16-mile stretch of the Long Island Expressway/I-495 East from the Maurice Avenue Exit to Minneola Avenue/Willis Avenue Exit — 39 minutes; 22 minutes of delay.

3. Los Angeles: A 15-mile stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway/I-10 East from CA-1/Lincoln Boulevard Exit to Alameda Street –35 minutes; 20 minutes of delay.

4. New York: An 3-mile stretch of I-678 North (Van Wyck Expressway) from Belt Parkway to Main Street — 13 minutes; 10 minutes of delay.

5. Los Angeles: A 17.5-mile stretch of I-5 South (Santa Ana/Golden State freeways) from E. Caesar Chavez Avenue to Valley View Avenue exits — 40 minutes; 22 minutes of delay.

6. New York: A 10-mile stretch of I-278 West (Brooklyn Queens/Gowanus Expressway) from NY-25A/Northern Boulevard to the NY-27/Prospect Expressway exits — 31 minutes on average, with 18 minutes of delay.

7. Los Angeles: An 8-mile stretch of I-405 South (San Diego Freeway) from Nordhoff Street to Mulholland Drive — 22 minutes; with 14 minutes of delay.

8. New York: A 6-mile stretch of Van Wyck Expressway from Horace Harding Expressway to Linden Boulevard — 20 minutes; 13 minutes of delay.

9. Pittsburgh: A 3-mile stretch of Penn Lincoln Parkway/I-376 East from Lydia Street to the US-19 TK RT/PA-51 Exit — 13 minutes; nine minutes of delay in the morning peak period.

10. San Francisco: An 11-mile stretch of the California Delta Highway from Bailey Road to Somersville Road –16 minutes; 11 minutes of delay.

How to market your small business

May 24th, 2012 by Mariah

If you’ve ever asked yourself the question above, then this small business roundup is for you. You’ve got a great product or service in place, but how do you get customers to learn more about it and about you and your company? Marketing may not be as hard as you think and there are plenty of tools and a lot of advice to help you along the way.

Social Media

Survey says: Small business finally using social media. A recent study shows a significant shift in the use of social media as a marketing tool for small business. Check out some of the interesting numbers as small business seems to be finally adapting to the social Web in a big way. MarketWatch

Facebook remains the platform of choice. Small businesses still swear by Facebook as their main social media marketing outlet saying it is still more effective than all other alternatives. You can check out a graph showing the breakdown of social media channels as well. eMarketer

More Data

Series of surveys show increased acceptance/effectiveness of social media. Paul Gillin has this roundup of surveys all showing that the time has come for social media marketing in general. Though the Constant Contact survey is the one most sited in connection with SMBs, there is some other data here to confirm the trend. Business2Community

Check out the full Constant Contact survey here. Check out the rest of the data in this survey released in time for this past Small Business Saturday. The Fall 2011 Attitudes and Outlooks Survey has plenty of insight of interest to your small business. Constant Contact

Email

Check out the infographic below and follow our link for a version you can share. VisibleGains

Is email really dead? Though it may be the last tool you think about in your marketing tool box, e-mail should not be counted out.

Is Email Dead? [Infographic]

courtesy of Visible Gains

Book Shelf

Google + for Dummies. Susan Payton takes us on a guided tour of the newest social media frontier with a review of this new guide to Google +. If you’ve been slow to get started, join the club, but understand the value for your business. Small Business Trends

Mobile

SMBs prepare to invest in mobile. Though a survey may show small business still lags behind in the use of mobile marketing, other data points to the fact that mobile marketing may soon be on the increase among small businesses. ZDNet

Why mobile could be key to last minute sales. Not only can mobile marketing provide a compliment to your social media campaign, it can also provide important boosts where needed to generate sales on Holidays and at other special times.Venture Beat

Advice

Tips when designing your marketing plan. When coming up with a marketing plan for your small business in the new year, don’t forget these five important points. Your marketing plan should be the key to bringing in more clients and customers. Be sure you get your it right. SFGate

Other Tools

Project Rev 2012 offers marketing advice/tools. A new project focuses on delivering marketing advice and tools to 10 specially selected small business owners and entrepreneurs in an effort to help them find more customers.Business Wire

 

Google + for Dummies

May 24th, 2012 by Mariah

I’ve been a little slow to jump on the Google + bandwagon. But I was slow to get on Twitter too, so I’m determined not to be left behind (again). And so in an effort to be smarter about this latest social media tool, I recently snapped up a free autographed of the book Google + for Dummies by Jesse Stay (@Jesse on Twitter), while at BlogWorld.

The book is an introduction to the Google + platform. It can help you decide if Google + is something you want to invest time in.

The book is a beginner’s guide to creating a Google Plus account, adding people to Circles, and using more advanced features, like Hangouts (video chat), mobile apps for Google + and photos. It doesn’t, unfortunately, coverGoogle + Business Pages, but to be fair, they hadn’t launched when Stay released the book. Maybe he’ll write another one!

Like all the Dummies series, this book breaks down the steps so you can follow along, and gives key illustrations throughout the text. I really enjoyed Stay’s tips, which gave me a little more insight into how to use Google + effectively.

For example, I didn’t know that you could view your profile the way others see it by going to your profile page and clicking “View Profile As.” You can even select which Circle of friends or followers you’d like to view your profile as (since you can control who sees what on your profile, and you might only display certain information to your closest Circles).

And I’d all but forgotten about Sparks! I heard about them when I first signed up, but hadn’t really played with them. It’s actually not obvious: You have to search for a topic in the search bar, then select “Sparks” to see a stream of articles including that keyword. You can save the search so that at any time, you can click on the left toolbar and see what the latest articles on that topic are. However, Sparks aren’t, says Stay, available on any of G+’s mobile apps.

How to Read Google + for Dummies

If you’ve already created an account on Google +, skip ahead to the chapters you know less about. If you’re like me, you can dogear what interests you, or stop in the middle of reading it and go online to apply it! Stay covers privacy, what to post, Sparks and backing up your G+ data, so there’s something for everyone (not just beginners).

Privacy is a big part of Google +, and succeeds where Facebook fails. You can create lists in Facebook to stream your posts toward different groups, but the feature isn’t very user-friendly. Stay says:

“It’s up to you to decide which way you want to consume content. Google+ is likely to add even more filtering options in the future, so you may also have other options at some point. Regardless, using the Circles list makes reading your stream of such a diverse group of people much easier.”

It never occurred to me that I might want to back up my Google+ data (as well as everything in my Google account), but it is possible. You can save every article that you have +1d, your Google Buzz posts (remember that?), all your Google contacts and circles, your photos (including from Picasa), and your profile and stream data. In the event that you ever delete your Google account, you can store all of this on your hard drive by going to Account Settings and then Data Liberation. Good to know!

Who Should Read This Book

Stay doesn’t try too hard to convince you to use Google + (I guess if you bought the book, the idea is that you want to use it), but I’d say if you’re on the fence about it, this book will give you an indicator of how you can use it so you don’t have to spend time reading on the site to figure it out for yourself.

My two cents on Google + : because Google is the largest search engine in the world, and because Google currently appears to give priority to search results from G+ (something people find a bit unfair), you’d be a dummy not to have at least a basic presence on the site.

Plus, all the cool kids are there, so give in to peer pressure and get on there! And get Google+ for Dummies as a guide to help you.

 

Pinterest Small Business Guide

May 24th, 2012 by Mariah

Now hailing 11.7 million unique visitors a month, Pinterest has become the fastest standalone site to pass the 10 million visitor mark since, well, ever. But even more impressive than that are what those 11.7 million visitors are doing once they land on Pinterest — they’re staying and they’re engaging. Reports say that the average Pinterest user spends 89 minutes interacting, sharing, and posting on the site. And that could be your content they’re interacting with, but only if you’re taking the steps to leverage Pinterest.

If you’ve heard the buzz surrounding Pinterest but weren’t quite sure how to jump in and take advantage of it, keep reading. Below are some handy starter tips that every small business owner can use to build an audience via Pinterest.

Getting Started

If you don’t currently have a Pinterest login, you’ll have to request one as the site is still invite-only. Luck for you, it shouldn’t take more than a few days for Pinterest to send you an invitation to join. Once you get it, you’ll be asked to log in with either your Facebook or Twitter account. Don’t worry too much about which to choose as you’ll have the option later to switch it or to have your account tied to both.

With your account created, go into your Settings and take some time to fill out your profile. You’ll want to set your email settings, fill out your About section, include a Web site and then decide how you want Pinterest to interact with your other social media accounts.

Do you want all of your pins to sync to Facebook? Do you want to link your Twitter account? Depending on how you plan to use the site, this will change. If you’re not sure yet how you want your pins displayed, don’t worry too much. You can always come back and edit these settings.

Create Unique, Interesting Boards

Life on Pinterest starts here. When you start creating boards, focus on putting together boards that show off the lifestyle and beliefs behind your brands, notyour actual products or services. The key to mastering Pinterest is to realize that it’s less about promoting your products and more about promoting how you do what you do and how you see yourself in your market. That means creating boards to show off your company beliefs and culture, not your inventory.

For example, maybe you’re a local catering company. If so, you may want to have boards related to:

  • Healthy Eating
  • Buying Organic
  • Going Local
  • Green Living
  • Family Picnics
  • Dinner Recipes
  • Holiday Recipes
  • Food Mentors

These types of boards are related to what you do in your day-to-day business, but they also go a step further to show people what you believe and what you represent. That’s what users are looking for.

Do your best to come up with creative and compelling board names, as these will get shared when people pin your content. Similar to titling your blog posts – putting something eye-catching in there will help your content spread faster.

Assessing Your Pin-able Assets

This is where many business owners start to freak out. Don’t! It’s easy to think that if you’re not in the business of pretty or quirky pictures that Pinterest can’t work for your brand. But it absolutely can! Every site has visual assets that they can take advantage of. Sometimes you just have to think outside the box. For you, pinable content may come in the form of:

  • Infographics or other data visualizations
  • Video stills that link off to media where you appear
  • Covers of books or eBooks you’ve written
  • Eye-catching visuals for blog posts
  • Images of customers using your products
  • Images of how your product could be used

Take a look through your site to identify assets you already own. Once you do that, think forward to brainstorm new ways to incorporate visuals into your Web site. For example, you’ll want to make sure that you’re using images in every blog post or newsletter article you’re creating so that you (and your readers) will have something to pin. Maybe you’ll want to build more data visualization into your content strategy or focus on creating things that lend themselves to visuals. Build the assets you’ll need later.

Get Your Team Involved

One of the fun features Pinterest offers is that you can add contributors to any of your boards to help keep them updated and engaging. As a small business owner there are a lot of neat ways to take advantage of this. You can:

  • Add employees as contributors to boards about company culture
  • Add frequent blog commenters/community members to boards related to content/ industry finds
  • Add your executive team as contributors to charitable pursuits.

The more people you get involved, the more life you’ll add to your Pinterest account and the more others will want to follow what you’re doing. To add board contributors, go to the board you want to add a contributor to and click Edit. On the board’s settings menu, select “Me + Contributors.” You must follow at least one board belonging to a user in order to add him/her as a contributor. Once you’re there, start typing his/her username into the text field. Once potential matches begin to load, click Add when you see the person you want to add as a contributor. Then save your settings.

Build Followers

The best way to build new followers is to become an engaged Pinterest user. That means following other users, pinning content, repining content others share, etc. Each time you follow someone or engage with their update on Pinterest, by default, they’ll receive a notification email letting them know. This is a good way to build up your followers because, if you have good content, they’ll check you out once they see the email and follow you back. It’s also a good way to show others that you’re interested in the community and what other people are sharing.

If you’re looking for potential people to follow OR simply looking to understand what type of content you should be following, try going tohttp://pinterest.com/source/yoursitehere. This will show you what content on your domain has already been pinned and whose pinning it. You can also do the same for competitor URLs to see who is pinning and sharing their content.

Promoting Your Account

Once your account is set up, you want to do your due diligence and promote it so that your audience knows it exists. This may include adding a Pin It! buttonto your blog posts so content can be easily shared, syncing your Pinterest account to Twitter and Facebook, encouraging people to subscribe to your Pinterest RSS feed, mentioning your account in company promotions/emails, etc. The more ways you can make Pintest part of your marketing efforts, the bigger the account will grow and the easier it will be to make content spread.

The above tips are designed to help any small business get involved with Pinterest. How are you using the site to market your business? Any lessons you want to share?

The WIFI Airline Dilemma

March 28th, 2012 by Mariah

Washington (CNN) – As competition expands among airlines to offer passengers the latest in-flight entertainment options, intercontinental routes have been slow to add Internet service.

Because in-flight Internet relies on transmitting signals to the ground, intercontinental flights have yet to find a reliably cost-effective means of providing passengers with Wi-Fi service while over water. The main drawbacks are cost and the added weight of the equipment needed for satellite transmission.

Several airlines have plans to roll out transcontinental Internet service this year.

This month, Qantas is partnering with a company called OnAir to test satellite-based Internet service aboard flights from Australia to Los Angeles.

Japan’s JAL intends to roll out Internet service to passengers flying from Japan to Europe and North America this summer. United Airlines is reportedly exploring Internet service on international flights. Emirates Airlines says it plans to test satellite based internet service on its A380 double-deck, wide-body jets.

Meanwhile, nearly all U.S. airlines have announced plans to install Internet service and added amenities on domestic aircraft in recent years.

In-flight Internet service provider GoGo announced Wednesday that it has reached a deal to expand service aboard US Airways fleet of Airbus A319, A320 and Embraer 190 aircrafts.

Delta Airlines recently announced it was partnering with Amazon to provide passengers with free access to shop the online retail giant’s website onboard all of Delta and Delta Connection flights with in-flight Wi-Fi service.

Hunger Games Inspired Travel

March 28th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) — The young stars of “The Hunger Games” may remember the blockbuster movie as the one that propelled their careers to the next level. But the biggest breakout star of the “The Hunger Games” may well turn out to be the state of North Carolina.

 

With $152.5 million opening weekend at the box office, the movie based on the New York Times bestseller by Suzanne Collins had the third best opening weekend of all time (and the best ever opening for a non-sequel), according to Hollywood.com. And its frenzied fans are already showing up at movie locations around the state to see where scenes were shot.

 

“People are obsessed with ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” says Marnee Revri, a Raleigh-based travel agent affiliated with Frosch Entertainment, who booked travel for the movie’s cast and crew and blogged about it. “I think there will be a bigger interest in people coming to visit, the same as the ‘Twilight’ movies. Kids are going to want to (see) where it was filmed.”

 

Many scenes were filmed in the woods of DuPont State Forest, a 10,400-acre wilderness where waterfalls, lakes and fishing streams made ideal settings for the movie’s outdoor scenes. Fans are likely to follow forest trails in search of character Katniss Everdeen’s pond, the bottom of Triple Falls waterfall and the remnants of the fireball sequence. A hike to Hooker Falls, Triple Falls and High Falls is part of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy’s eight-hike challenge. Rated “easy,” the 2.6-mile waterfall hike has an elevation gain of 160 feet. (Triple Falls also stars in Michael Mann’s movie “The Last of the Mohicans.”)

 

It’s true that the abandoned Henry River Mill Village, about 70 miles from Asheville in the small town of Hildebran, was home to the film’s “District 12″ Mellark family bakery and the Everdeens’ shanty. But it’s private property — so just look as you’re driving by — and respect any “No Trespassing” signs.

 

Parents of tweens and teens on this movie tour, take note. The movie’s stars spent their after-work hours in Asheville, a town you’ll enjoy independent of your child’s movie obsession. With its funky architecture, independent spirit and thriving restaurant and brewing scene, artsy Asheville didn’t need a movie to confirm its tourist appeal.

 

Actors reportedly dined at the Laughing Seed Café, Lexington Avenue Brewery, Wasabi and the Southern Kitchen and Bar. They also stopped by Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, the local independent bookseller.

 

Cast member Woody Harrelson enjoyed the 46-foot rock-climbing wall at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which served as the capitol in the film. (The center will host the U.S. Olympic Trials for canoe slalom April 12-14.) Harrelson also enjoyed playing chess with locals at Amélie’s French bakery in Charlotte.

 

You could still be inspired to learn some post-apocalyptic survival skills. If you’re in decent physical shape, learn to survive in the wilderness by taking courses at Nantahala Outdoor Center. Summer programs at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown include courses on cooking over an open fire, cooking with wild edibles, beekeeping and woodworking.

 

If you prefer the work of Patrick Swayze, Kevin Costner or Daniel Day Lewis, you’re in luck. “Dirty Dancing,” “Bull Durham” and “The Last of the Mohicans” were all shot in North Carolina. While your younger family members obsess on “The Hunger Games,” you can celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Dirty Dancing” this year with the 3rd annual Dirty Dancing Festival at Lake Lure (August 17-19).

 

Fans of the “Ironman” series can expect the third installment of the movie, which is in pre-production in Wilmington, to draw attention to that location. And with North Carolina’s tax incentives for productions filmed in the state, expect more movie and television shows to bring their projects there.

 

Don’t want to plan your entire trip yourself? The North Carolina Division of Tourism has made it easy for movie fans to make their “Hunger Games” plans. The office has a four-day itinerary and a list of 12 places to experience the movie.

Luxury cruise liner involved in collision off Vietnam

March 28th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) — A luxury cruise ship collided in deep fog with a container ship off Vietnam, punching a hole in the container ship and knocking passengers off their feet, a passenger told CNN Monday.

“The foghorn at the back of the ship had been going off consistently, throughout the morning,” passenger Andrew Lock said Monday from Hong Kong about the incident, which occurred Friday morning when the Silver Shadow was about five miles from the coast.

 

“But there was a certain point in time when the foghorn at the front of the ship suddenly sounded. And it was much much louder. And it caused us to look up. And in fact we looked up straight out of the window. And through the fog, to our horror, we saw this Vietnamese container ship appear, sideways on. And it was as if our ship was perfectly lined up to hit it in the side.

 

“So, it was a horrifying moment. And in less than about five seconds after the ship appeared. We did in fact collide right in the side of it.”

Lock said he and his wife had braced themselves for the impact and stayed upright. That was more than could be said of the other vessel.

 

“The Vietnamese ship rolled over — at a 90-degree angle. In fact, we thought it was going to capsize. It then righted itself. And with the forward momentum of our ship, it pushed the Vietnamese ship around, so that it actually came down the side, the length of our ship, scraping along the side as it went. And from that viewpoint, we could see just how much damage had been done to THAT ship, and it was substantial.”

 

He said he wasn’t aware of any injuries aboard the luxury vessel, which had a hole dug in its bow, but said the other vessel was badly damaged.

 

“We struck the other ship in several places that we could see — we struck it at the bridge, where they would operate from. We literally crushed the ship inwards. And we also struck the sides of the ship, causing a tear along the side, a vertical tear, quite substantial. And as we passed by the other ship, I personally saw several of their crew members just lying on the deck.”

 

After the impact, he said, passengers gathered a few of their possessions and headed to the muster stations. “The crew was calm, but the passengers — some were scared, or even frantic,” Lock said.

But after about 10 minutes, the captain announced that there was no imminent danger, he said.

 

The ship went on to anchor in Ha Long Bay, as had been planned.

“The next day, we went to a nearby port and once we were off the ship we could see how extensive the damage was,” Lock said.

In a statement, Silversea Cruises said the Silver Shadow “was involved in a minor incident on March 16, 2012, at around 4:20 GMT as it was approaching the pilot station in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. There was contact between Silver Shadow and a local commercial vessel. Silver Shadow incurred limited minor dents and guests’ safety was never compromised. The ship was fully operational and continued on its course to Ha Long Bay, where all shore tours operated normally.”

Lock disputed the cruise line’s characterization of the incident. “It was a major collision,” he said.

 

Silversea said it will carry out a full investigation into the incident.

 

The 28,258-ton Silver Shadow was built in 2000. It was refurbished last year and is registered in the Bahamas. It carries a maximum of 382 passengers and a crew of 302. It is scheduled to depart March 28 on a seven-day voyage starting and ending in Singapore, according to Silversea’s website. Best available fare is listed as $3,599.

 

Silversea is based in Monaco and has offices in the United States, Britain, Australia and Singapore.

JetBlue Pilot Suspended

March 28th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) — The JetBlue pilot whose behavior prompted an emergency landing Tuesday has been suspended pending further investigation, the company told CNN on Wednesday.

 

Clayton Osbon was captain of Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas, which landed in Amarillo, Texas, after crew and passengers subdued him.

 

He has been taken off active duty and is still being paid, JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young added.

 

He has worked for the company for 12 years, she said.

CEO Dave Barger said he has known Osbon for “a long time” and that he has always been a “consummate professional.”

 

On NBC’s “Today” show, Barger was asked about Osbon’s reported erratic behavior, which allegedly involved him screaming and trying to get back into the cockpit after his co-pilot locked him out.

 

“What happened at altitude is we had a medical situation,” he said. But, he added, “it became a security situation.”

 

Without using Osbon’s name, Barger said the captain was receiving medical care under the custody of the FBI.

 

Asked about his condition, JetBlue tweeted that it will not share details out of respect for his privacy.

 

No federal charges have been filed so far, said Kathy Colvin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Texas.

 

“We’re still investigating,” said Lydia Maese, an FBI spokeswoman. “We coordinated with the FAA, TSA, Amarillo Police Department and the airport police.”

 

Osbon has not made a public statement, and no attorney has made one on his behalf.

 

The Twitter page for a Clayton F. Osbon describes him as “JetBlue Flight Standards Captain” for the Airbus320, as well as a leadership coach. Tuesday’s Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas was on an Airbus 320.

 

The Twitter page shows no tweets since January.

 

Both the Twitter and LinkedIn pages in Osbon’s name also describe him as a director of Body By Vi. The LinkedIn page says the company helps “people to a better life” through health and financial prosperity.

 

A Facebook page for a Clayton Osbon says he is married and lives in Savannah, Georgia.

 

The blog Writer Killing Darlings carries a profile of Osbon, which it says was published last year in the magazine Richmond Hill Reflections.

 

“Clayton lives with his wife of six years, Connye, and enough animals to make a lint-brush essential,” the story says.

 

In addition to his love of flying, Osbon “wants to be a motivational speaker down the road,” the story says.

 

“It starts with a greater enhanced knowledge of one’s being… you know, I’d like to think the world is more than just getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, going to work, coming home, kissing your wife good-night and going to bed,” it quotes him as saying.

 

A search of public records showed no criminal history for Osbon. It turned up a traffic violation in 2005 which involved no fine.

 

JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Croyle said she is not aware of any fallout in bookings or any cancellations as a result of the incident.

 

When asked about passengers jumping in to help, Croyle said, “I know that our flight crews are trained for different levels of incidents in that regard. In this instance we do believe they acted within guidelines.

 

They are trained to ask for passenger help if needed.”

Barger told NBC, “We always take a look at procedures” involving

screening for pilots, but said the company has confidence in the

 

JetBlue and industry-wide procedures in place.

He repeatedly praised the JetBlue crew and passengers for their response and the “consummate training” the crew showed when “called into action” during what was a “tough event, to say the least.”

 

The co-pilot, concerned by his colleague’s “erratic” behavior, locked the door behind the captain when he left the cockpit during the flight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

 

Passengers described to CNN what happened next.

 

“The pilot ran to the cockpit door, began banging on it and said something to the effect of, ‘We’ve gotta pull the throttle back. We’ve gotta get this plane down,’” said Laurie Dhue.

 

“At that point, the two flight attendants tried to subdue him, and then seemingly out of nowhere, about six or seven large guys stormed to the front of the plane and wrestled the captain of the plane down to the ground and had him subdued in a matter of moments. It was really like something out of a movie,” she said.

 

Amateur video of the incident showed a commotion as several men were moving in the aisle. A voice, purportedly that of the pilot, can be heard.

 

“Oh my God. I’m so distraught!” he shouts. The voice mentions Israel and Iraq.

 

In another video, passengers appeared to be standing over something, or someone, presumably the subdued pilot.

 

Paul Babakitis, another passenger and a retired New York police officer, said he was one of the men who helped wrestle the captain to the ground.

 

“I felt if he got in the cockpit, he was going to try to take that plane down, and not for a safe landing,” he said.

 

Law enforcement met the aircraft, cuffed the pilot and took him off the plane, Babakitis said. Video showed someone being carried off the plane in a sort of chair.

 

“I’m not foreign to situations like this, but I don’t expect them at 30,000 feet,” he said.

 

Babakitis and some other passengers reported hearing the captain say the word “bomb” at one point. However, passenger Jason Levin said he did not hear him say that.

 

Levin was sitting in the front row of the plane, full of people on their way to a security conference, when the pilot came out of the cockpit.

 

“It just seemed like something triggered him to go off the wall. He would be calm one minute and then just all of sudden turn,” he said. “If it was going to happen, it happened at the right time and the right

place.”

 

Passenger Tony Antolino hailed the co-pilot as a hero.

 

“The co-pilot of the flight, he really — I think — is the hero here because he had the sense to recognize that something was going horribly wrong, and he was able to persuade the pilot out of the cockpit,” he told CNN.

 

The flight left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport at 7:28 a.m.

 

“At roughly 10 a.m. CT/11 a.m. ET, the pilot in command elected to divert to Amarillo, Texas, for a medical situation involving the captain. Another captain, traveling off duty, entered the flight deck prior to landing at Amarillo and took over the duties of the ill crew member once on the ground,” JetBlue said.

 

The crew member was taken off the plane and transported to a medical facility, it added.

 

Everything considered, passenger Antolino said he felt thankful. “This could have had a horrific outcome.”

How safe is the cargo on passenger flights?

February 16th, 2012 by Mariah

Editor’s note: This report is based on a one-year investigation by CNN into air cargo security in light of a thwarted plot by al Qaeda in October 2010 to blow up cargo jets over the United States. CNN’s Nic Robertson’s report “Deadly Cargo” airs on CNN Presents, Saturday and Sunday February 18, 19 at 8 p.m. ET.

 

London (CNN) — The call came into the London Metropolitan Police bomb squad in the early hours of the morning. Isolated at the East Midlands airport in central England was a UPS package dispatched from Yemen, containing a laser printer that Saudi intelligence believed had been converted into a bomb.

 

Before dawn a bomb squad arrived on the scene. The plane had been cleared and left at 4:20 am, without the package identified by its waybill number as the laser printer. Officers inspected the printer and lifted out the ink cartridge but found no explosive device. According to security sources, they also brought in specially trained dogs and passed the printer through an X-ray scanner, but those, too, failed to locate any explosives.

 

The security cordon around the area where the laser printer had been isolated was lifted. But Saudi counter-terrorism officials implored British authorities to re-examine the printer. When they did, they found 400 grams of the high-explosive PETN inside the ink cartridge.

 

The bomb had been timed to explode hours earlier. But the bomb squad had inadvertently defused the device earlier when they had lifted the printer cartridge out of the printer, disconnecting the explosives from the timer.

 

A similar drama had been playing out at an airport in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where another printer bomb had been located that same day. These were some of the most sophisticated explosive devices ever seen from al Qaeda.

 

These discoveries on October 29, 2010, sent shock waves through Western capitals. Not only had these bombs gone through screenings at several airports without being detected, they also had traveled on passenger jets during the first legs of their journeys.

 

And most disturbing of all: For many hours, the explosives went undetected by bomb experts in two countries, despite being right in front of them.

 

A few weeks after the incident, U.S. Senator Susan Collins asked Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole whether the bombs would have been detected by the country’s current security

system.

 

“In my professional opinion, no,” Pistole replied.

 

The group that claimed responsibility for the plot — the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — appeared to have found the Achilles heel of international aviation.

 

While much airport security is concentrated on screening passengers and their checked bags, about half the hold on a typical passenger flight is filled with cargo. In fact, over a third of cargo by volume that entered the United States in 2010 was shipped on passenger jets, according to the Department of Transportation. That is 3.7 billion tons.

 

Another 7.2 billion tons of air cargo came in on all-cargo aircraft, according to the DOT.

 

And the screening requirements for such cargo are not as strict as they are for passengers and their checked bags.

 

If it took authorities in Britain and Dubai hours to identify a bomb that was right in front of them, what are the chances of finding such devices amid the millions of tons of air cargo flying into the United States each day?

 

 

U.S. authorities were already aware of the potential for terrorists to take advantage of lax cargo security. A law that required screening for all cargo on domestic and inbound international passenger flights had taken effect two months before the printer bomb scare.

 

While the Transportation Security Administration was able to ensure the screening of all domestic cargo, it fell short when it came to screening all inbound international cargo, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

 

So the TSA announced that the 100% requirement would be brought into effect for inbound flights by January 2012. Now, the TSA has indefinitely deferred this goal in favor of a risk-based approach, according to Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey.

 

Following the 2010 bomb plot, the United States and its international partners took a number of steps to bolster air cargo security. They banned cargo shipments assessed as too high a risk that originated from or transited through Yemen and Somalia. U.S. authorities implemented enhanced screening for passenger jet cargo assessed as having an elevated risk and tightened procedures for incoming mail.

 

Those requirements have not been made public. The Department of Homeland Security brought in enhanced screening for U.S.-bound shipments on all-cargo aircraft.

 

While industry insiders say progress has been made, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill express concern about any approach that doesn’t involve the screening of all cargo.

 

“The low-risk cargo does not receive anywhere near the level of security as the high-risk cargo,” said Markey, who co-authored legislation mandating screening on passenger jets by August 2010.

 

“There is no such thing as low-risk cargo because, in the hands of al Qaeda, that cargo becomes high risk.”

 

But some of those on the frontlines of air cargo security point out that the risk-based approach stems from on-the-ground realities.

 

“Identifying high-risk cargo wherever it is in the supply chain and singling it out for physical screening is the better approach to securing cargo on an international scale,” said David Brooks, the head of American Airlines air cargo.

 

And the industry says TSA mandates are not easy to enforce when they involve other countries that may face logistical challenges in conforming to U.S. inspection standards. Economic factors also played a role in the U.S government’s delay in imposing 100% inbound screening.

 

It was a quandary that al Qaeda exploited. “(Our goal was to) force upon the West two choices: You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world or you do nothing and we keep trying again,” al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula announced after the package bomb plot.

 

 

Even if 100% of all plane cargo is screened, it’s no panacea for keeping bombs off airplanes.

 

Single-view X-ray machines — the technology still used at a significant number of air cargo warehouses around the world — lack the resolution to thoroughly vet the contents of shipments, according to industry insiders. The machines find it difficult to distinguish PETN from similar powdered substances, explosive detection experts told CNN.

 

It was a weakness that al Qaeda exploited in the printer bomb plot by filling the ink cartridges with PETN.

 

“The toner cartridge contains the toner which is carbon based and that is an organic material. The carbon’s molecular structure is close to that of PETN,” AQAP boasted after the attempted attack.

 

Under TSA guidelines, cargo screening can involve a variety of methods including physical inspection, dogs, a variety of single-view or multiview X-ray machines, and “explosive trace detection” — which involves running a hand-held device over the surface or insides of a package, which “sniffs” the air for minute quantities of explosive.

 

Dogs also are used to sniff for bombs, but for years, TSA officials have had reservations about relying on canine teams to screen for explosives. According to explosive detection experts, PETN in particular is difficult for sniffer dogs to detect, because very little of it disperses into the air.

 

Physical inspection of every package is impractical given the volume of cargo and the ease with which PETN can be hidden.

In order to keep one step ahead of the terrorists, airlines and air cargo handlers are investing millions of dollars in the latest generation of advanced X-ray machines and explosive trace detection.

 

“PETN can be found quite easily in very small amounts using trace detection equipment and in bulk form by (advanced) X-ray machines,” said Kevin Riordan, technical director at Smiths Detection, a British company that is one of the leading producers of explosive detection equipment.

 

If the British bomb squad at East Midlands airport had such equipment, they would have been able to see the PETN inside the printer cartridge, according to another UK detection expert.

 

But Riordan conceded that even if authorities had the latest equipment, al Qaeda could take steps to make detection more difficult.

 

“We’d have to say there is always a way through,” he told CNN. “The risk is never removed totally.”

 

Air cargo industry insiders say that combining several layers of screening is the best protection against future al Qaeda bomb plots.

 

And all those interviewed by CNN stressed the critical role of intelligence.

 

“There is no 100%, foolproof system for all cargo,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN, “but what we can do and are doing is maximizing our ability to prevent such a plot from succeeding.

 

That included “good intel, good information sharing.”

 

 

The new generation of multiview X-ray machines and explosive detection equipment is now routinely used to scan all checked and hand luggage at airports in the United States and Europe, according to explosive detection experts, but not yet all air cargo.

 

Parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia are lagging behind in deploying this technology at air cargo departure points, according to air cargo industry insiders. U.S. officials say they’ve put a high priority on new global standards to plug the technology gap.

 

“The global supply chain presents some challenges because the weakest link in that global supply chain can adversely affect the security throughout that supply chain,” said TSA administrator Pistole.

 

Scanning air cargo presents unique challenges because a high proportion of it has been consolidated into large pallets by the time it arrives at airports and is ready to be loaded onto planes. TSA has yet to license any technology that can reliably detect explosives within pallets.

 

In the United States this had led to more than half of cargo screening being conducted at off-airport sites, according to Brandon Fried, executive director of the Air Forwarders Association. The shift towards screening of smaller configurations of cargo at these sites before palletization helped U.S. authorities meet the 100% screening mandate for domestic cargo.

 

But other parts of the world are lagging behind in adopting such initiatives.

 

Homeland security experts say the private sector must step up to the plate if air cargo is to be secured.

 

“The U.S. has policies on how much cargo needs to be screened inbound. We can control that to some degree, but we are very much reliant on our partners,” said Robert Liskouski, a former director of infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security.

 

U.S. flag carriers say they have taken steps to bolster cargo security since the package bomb plot. In April 2011, TSA air cargo security chief Doug Brittin told the International Air Cargo Association that airlines were screening 80% of inbound air cargo and some U.S. flag carriers as much as 95%.

 

After missing the August 2010 deadline, the United States has yet to set a new timeline to implement the 100% screening mandate for inbound cargo flights, according to a letter from TSA’s Pistole to U.S. legislators in December 2011. But he said he expects to meet that goal no later than 2013.

 

Industry insiders hope a voluntary pilot program called Air Cargo Advance Screening, in which airlines send manifest data to U.S.

 

Customs and Border Protection several hours before departure, will further bolster inbound screening. But U.S. authorities say challenges lie ahead in bringing the program fully on stream.

 

Despite last year’s elimination of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the threat from the terrorist group still remains a major concern. Recent months have seen AQAP, the group responsible for the 2010 printer bomb plot, take advantage of political turmoil in Yemen to expand its operations. Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism service believes this will bolster the group’s ability to target the United States. And it believes Ibrahim al Asiri, the group’s master bomb-maker, has trained several apprentices in how to make sophisticated PETN-based bombs.

Markey says that time is not on the United States’ side.

 

“Every day that goes by is another day that al Qaeda might exploit that opening — and once again successfully terrorize our country,” he told CNN.