It’s Not Just Airbnb — HomeAway Starts Adding Hotels Too
Airbnb announced boldly a few months ago that it was making a concerted push to add bed-and-breakfasts and boutique hotels to its platform as it called out Expedia and Booking.com for their allegedly excessive commissions.
But Airbnb isn’t the only alternative lodging brand expanding its hotel ranks — HomeAway and sister vacation rental brands such as VRBO are doing it, too, but with a twist. HomeAway is adding hotels from parent company Expedia Group.
It’s been fairly well-publicized that Expedia’s core online travel agency brands, albeit with an emphasis on Expedia.com, have been adding HomeAway’s vacation rental listings and mixing them in with its hotel listings. In fact, Expedia added 25,000 vacation rentals from HomeAway in the first quarter, and the total Expedia gets from HomeAway now stands at around 150,000.
But HomeAway spokesman Jordan Hoefar said Tuesday that the inventory sharing between HomeAway and Expedia goes in the other direction too. HomeAway is adding hotel suites and home-like lodging from Expedia under the theory that expanding the number and types of properties improves conversions of lookers to bookers on HomeAway’s sites.
So HomeAway’s VRBO site Tuesday was offering stays at Sonesta ES Suites Chicago-Lombard in Highland Hills, Illinois, and The Historic Powhatan Resort by Diamond Resorts in Williamsburg, Virginia — both of which came through HomeAway’s relationship with the Expedia Affiliate Network.
It’s interesting to note that to book a one-bedroom suite for a January 7-11, 2019 stay at The Historic Powhatan Resort in Williamsburg, VRBO was charging consumers $283.28 versus $276.36 on Expedia.com.
Hoefer said HomeAway was mostly looking to fill gaps by adding hotels from Expedia in markets where HomeAway doesn’t have a lot of offerings, such as in some urban locations. That’s where Airbnb is particularly strong, and HomeAway is weak. He added that HomeAway can add any hotels from sites that have Expedia Affiliate Network agreements.
While Airbnb in some cases is going directly after hotels or adding them through agreements with lodging associations, and is touting that it is charging commissions of only 3 to 5 percent, HomeAway is tapping into a completely different business model. The Expedia Affiliate Network might pay a partner site a 5 percent commission for prepaid hotel booking and a lower rate when the customer pays at the hotel.
Expedia CEO Gung-Ho About Alternative Lodging
Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Lodging, Gaming, Restaurant & Leisure Conference in New York City Tuesday, Expedia Group CEO Mark Okerstrom expressed his optimism about alternative accommodations and its HomeAway business, in particular. HomeAway now offers 1.6 million inventory listings, and at the end of the first quarter the brand for the first time notched $10 billion in gross bookings for a trailing 12-month period.
Okerstrom said alternative lodging is growing faster than the hotel business and quicker than the travel industry overall. While HomeAway has been focused on transitioning from a subscription to a transaction-based business, and making its listings online bookable, its next phase will be expanding into urban markets, he said.
Okerstrom added that the push into cities, however, won’t happen for another two to three years.
He said monetization from HomeAway bookings is up to around 10 percent on average, including commissions and consumer booking fees, and there is plenty of opportunity for the company to increase those rates, although that is not the current focus.
“Now, we have certainly not been focused on extracting every last penny out of this, and I suspect we probably won’t for a long period of time,” Okerstrom said. “We’ve been very focused on building incredible experiences for customers as they become loyal to the product —— to the platform, incredible experiences for owners and property managers so that they can really value the platform.”
The Strength of Brands
In other news, Okerstrom, talked about Google becoming a more expensive marketing channel for Expedia, and he argued that some other third-party channels are seeming becoming less valuable from a marketing standpoint.
“So Google, if they shrink the free traffic and replace it with paid is, in fact, getting to be a more expensive channel in totality,” Okerstrom said. “Now if you take a look at the paid channels in isolation, as we become more sophisticated in bidding as our product has gotten better, we’ve been able to drive very strong business through Google, and they’ve been a great partner. On the other side, of course, the free traffic is shrinking, and that hurts, but this has been going on for years, but things are getting more expensive.”
Okerstrom said metasearch channels such as TripAdvisor, Booking Holdings’ Kayak, and Expedia’s Trivago have very competitive auctions, with Expedia and Booking.com bidding against one another.
He said, though, that when Booking.com decided last year to pull back on its marketing spend in Expedia’s Trivago to emphasize the Booking.com brand, TV advertising and direct bookings, Expedia, too learned something from that development.
“And the interesting thing I think we found is as Booking started pulling back, it’s got knock-on consequences across the whole ecosystem,” Okerstrom said. “And I think what we’re finding is that the strength of brands, maybe surprise, surprise, but the strength of brands in the travel industry, yes, even in the Internet, is important. And businesses coming to Expedia, Hotels.com and, yes, some of our competitor brands, as well and, in many cases, they’re coming to us through more direct channels than they have in the past.”
In fact, Okerstrom, Expedia now attracts some two-thirds of its bookings directly.
“And I think we’re finding that maybe some of these channels were less — are less — incremental than we thought they were originally,” he said.
In other words, although Expedia has long said that its typical customers are price-conscious and brand agnostic, maybe some of its TV advertising and other brand marketing have more appeal than it previously expected.
Photo Credit: Pictured is a suite at the Sonesta ES Suites Chicago – Lombard in Highland Hills, Illinois. Vacation rental site HomeAway is now listing this hotel through HomeAway’s relationship with the Expedia Affiliate Network. Sonesta ES Suites Chicago – Lombard
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June 6, 2018 at 06:37AM
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Join us for over 20 in-depth discussions on the retailing, merchandising, and distribution of travel through the lens of technology strategies and disruptions. We’re excited to define the future of travel tech during this immersive day of programming.
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June 6, 2018 at 05:48AM
What Bathroom Amenities Can Tell Us About Luxury Hotels
The Skift New Luxury newsletter is our weekly newsletter focused on the business of selling luxury travel, the people and companies creating and selling experiences, emerging trends, and the changing consumer habits around the sector.
It’s the little things that matter most, especially to those spending $300 or more a night. That’s why hotels spend so much time sweating over details such as what they put in their bathrooms.
Some brands want soaps and shampoos from the country where they’re based, while others just want the most luxurious names out there. And it matters. According to a study for AccorHotels’ Sofitel brand, around a third of its guests know the current brands associated with its line of bathroom amenities.
That’s a pretty high level of awareness and it shows just why Accor and other companies are happy to spend so much time and money stocking their bathroom counters.
— Patrick Whyte, Europe Editor
5 Looks at Luxury
Why Luxury Hotels Spend So Much Time Choosing Bathroom Amenities: The general manager of Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris once told us that “the bathroom says everything about a hotel.” We agree. Focusing on the bathroom amenities — the soaps, lotions, and potions — provides a valuable insight into the brand story.
The Rise of Luxury Wellness Tourism in Africa: An expanding definition of wellness experiences that includes self-actualization and adventure as much as farm-fresh meals and sophisticated spa treatments is positioning African destinations and operators to become the next leaders in the luxury wellness travel market.
Luxury Hotels Follow Developers to Manhattan’s Far West Side: Right now Hudson Yards — a once industrial, grimy side of New York — is mostly a ghost town. But the High Line gave the area a major boost, and hotels and restaurants are building up around that ecosystem.
ForwardX Raises $10 Million for Self-Pushing Luggage: Can a company promising a suitcase that follows you around like a dog succeed where other smart luggage providers have failed?
Singapore Air Firms Up Plans for Revived, Ultra-Long New York Route: As fuel efficiency continues to improve and the next generation of long-range aircraft comes online, we should expect more of these ultra-long-haul routes to spring up.
Photo Credit: The Sofitel Singapore City Centre, Singapore. The AccorHotels brand is in the middle of updating its bathroom amenities. Masano Kawana / AccorHotels
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June 6, 2018 at 05:34AM
Thailand-Based Hotel and Restaurant Giant Minor to Take Over NH Hotels
So much for Barcelo’s hopes of finally acquiring a piece of Spanish hotel group NH Hotels.
Chinese conglomerate HNA Group on Tuesday confirmed it would sell its remaining 26.5 percent stake in NH Hotels for a total of $729 million to Thai Minor International, the parent company of Minor Hotels, whose brands include Anantara, Avani, and Tivoli.
With this deal, Minor is now the biggest shareholder of NH Hotels with a more than 30 percent stakeand, under Spanish laws, that means Minor has initiated a full takeover of the company.
Minor has offered $7.50 per share (€6.4 euros) per share for an initial 17.64 percent of HNA’s shares, totaling $493.9 million dollars (€421.4 million), subject to transaction-related agreements and set to close on June 15.
If this first transaction is successfully completed, Minor will then be able to buy HNA’s remaining 8.83 percent of its shares in NH for a price of $7.15 (€6.1) per share for a total of approximately $235.4 million (€200.9, granted the deal receives approval from antitrust authorities and from Minor’s shareholders. The second part of the deal is expected to close in mid-September.
Based on NH Hotels’ current stock price, which closed at $7.68 (€6.55) per share on June 5, HNA’s stake in the company is valued at $758.2 million (€647 million) — suggesting that Minor is making quite the deal on this acquisition. HNA has been on a selling spree as of late, attempting to cut its debts through the sales of its real estate and hospitality investments, including its shares in Hilton.
Minor announced last month it would purchase an 8.6 percent stake in NH Hotels from Oceanwood Capital for $225 million, which has now grown to approximately an 11 percent stake.
The addition of HNA’s stake brings Minor’s total ownership in NH to approximately 38 percent, according to filings with Spain’s Comision Nacional del Mercado de Valores. In total, Minor will have invested $954 million into its shares of NH Hotels.
Just on Monday, rumors swirled that fellow Spanish hotelier Grupo Barcelo was still interested in purchasing HNA’s stake in NH Hotels. The company’s offer to merge with NH was rejected earlier this year. Other potential buyers included private equity players Elliott Management Corp. and Apollo Global Management, Bloomberg reported in late May.
What Minor Can Do With NH
Having a majority stake in NH will certainly be an advantage for Minor as it continues to grow its brands worldwide. NH has 382 hotels representing 59,350 rooms throughout Europe, the Americas, and Africa.
Minor International is a major global hospitality player. In addition to owning, operating, and investing in 160 hotels under a variety of brands, also owns one of Asia’s largest restaurant companies and is one of the largest distributors of lifestyle and retail brands in Thailand, including Gap, Brooks Brother, Esprit, Charles & Keith, and more.
Most recently, Minor has been keen to invest particularly in European businesses and brands. In 2016, it bought Portuguese hotel brand Tivoli Hotels and Resorts and has since invested heavily in opening hotels in Portugal. In December, it purchased a majority stake in U.K.-based restaurant company Corbin & King.
Adding NH Hotels’ nearly 400 hotels to Minor’s portfolio will certainly boost Minor’s hotels business, and the complementary nature of Minor’s investments in the restaurant, lifestyle, and retail spaces makes it a formidable global competitor on par with the likes of other brands, AccorHotels included.
Photo Credit: Thailand’s Minor Hotels will soon be the biggest shareholder in Spain’s NH Hotels. Bloomberg
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June 6, 2018 at 01:19AM
So…Who Will Pay Kim Jong-Un’s Hotel Bill?
Travel plans for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un are almost all ironed out. The date is set (June 12). The country has been selected (Singapore). And we even know how the two leaders will fly to the historic meeting.
Virtually the only planning detail that remains to be locked in for first-ever summit between a US president and a North Korean leader is a bit of an uncomfortable one: Who will pay for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s hotel bill?
Though proud and extremely rigid with diplomatic protocol, North Korea is more than a little cash poor. So much so that the hermit nation, under heavy economic sanctions, will need another entity to cover its room and board costs in Singapore.
“Historically, North Korean diplomats have relied on (the) largesse of partners when they travel, in stark contrast to the official policy of maintaining independence,” Scott Snyder, a Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told TPG in an email.
Kim, who did not travel internationally during his first five years in power, made his first international trip earlier this year — which was likely funded by third-party resources. “Kim took his own plane to Dalian [China] last month for the first time,” Snyder said, noting that both Kim’s father and grandfather who ruled before him had a strict train-only international travel policy. “It is likely that hotel costs for both of Kim’s initial forays to China (Beijing and Dalian) were picked up by Beijing.”
Though they have cash issues, the North Korean officials’ tastes aren’t cheap. For the summit, Kim Jong-Un would reportedly prefer to stay at The Fullerton hotel, which according to its website is a 400-room “grand neoclassical landmark built in 1928” on the banks of the Singapore River and charges more than $6,000 per night for one presidential suite.
Two people familiar with the summit logistics told The Washington Post that the US is open to covering the costs of the Pyongyang delegation’s stay, but there is potential for the North Koreans to find that insulting. So US diplomats are reportedly considering whether to ask Singapore to pony up for the bill.
According to the Post’s two sources, Singapore officials were informed that the US could be asking them to cover the cost of the North Koreans’ hotel stay in the island city-state. It seems that Singapore officials are open to that possibility.
“It is a cost that we’re willing to bear to play a small part in this historic meeting,” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters on Saturday.
The US State Department told the Post that it would not be footing the bill for Kim Jong-Un’s hotel, nor was the White House “asking others to do so.” TPG reached out to the State Department for more information, but we were referred to the White House, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
Pyongyang, who has relied on this type of behind-the-scenes travel assistance dating back to the Cold War when it received such financial aid from Moscow and Beijing, according to Snyder, has also made more recent lavish travel demands.
For the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, the North Korean delegation was able to negotiate $2.6 million for its travel and lodging costs from South Korea. Additionally, North Korea’s 22 participating athletes had their travel expenses covered by the International Olympic Committee.
According to Snyder, the summit’s hotel bill conundrum could have a large impact on tinting the overall negotiations.
“If you don’t pay your own way to the talks, it drastically reduces the chance that you will feel an obligation to reciprocate other concessions made by adversaries in negotiations,” he notes.
Featured image by Inter Korean Press Corp/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
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June 6, 2018 at 01:00AM
Embraer Really Likes Animal Liveries on Its E190-E2 Jets
Two months after Embraer’s first E190E2 went into service with Widerøe, the aircraft manufacturer appears to be rolling out a new special livery on the airplane that’s been dubbed the ‘Profit Hunter’.
An Embraer communications employee tweeted a picture of the new paint job for the aircraft, which displays what appears to be a great white shark on the nose.
— Kalie Marsch (@kaliemarsch) June 4, 2018
The E190-E2 is one of the newest passenger jets in the world and was officially launched at the Paris Air Show five years ago. The single-aisle aircraft will be used for shorter hauls as a regional jet for most airlines because it has a range of 3,200 miles. Embraer even claims the E2 is more fuel efficient than the Boeing 737 MAX family and Airbus A320neo family.
This isn’t the first time an animal has been emblazoned on the aircraft — a tiger was first painted on the the jet when it debuted in February.
The larger version of the E190, the E195, was decorated with an Eagle that stares you down.
If animal themed-liveries are you thing, ANA plans on flying an A380 decked out with a massive sea turtle, named the Flying Honu. Alaska Airlines operates its “Salmon Thirty Salmon,” a 737-800 with a livery that’s an ode to the state of Alaska’s famous export.
— JetPhotos (@JetPhotos) July 26, 2017
If you want to see the shark-themed E190-E2, the aircraft will be on display at the Farnborough Airshow in England in July.
Featured image courtesy of Kalie Marsch / Twitter.
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June 6, 2018 at 12:01AM
Witnessing the Obama Presidency, from Start to Finish
Barack Obama was a writer before he became a politician, and he saw his Presidency as a struggle over narrative. “We’re telling a story about who we are,” he instructed his aide Ben Rhodes early in the first year of his first term. He said it again in his last months in office, on a trip to Asia—“I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”—adding that the book he happened to be reading argued for storytelling as the trait that distinguishes us from other primates. Obama’s audience was both the American public and the rest of the world. His characteristic rhetorical mode was to describe and understand both sides of a divide—black and white, liberal and conservative, Muslim and non-Muslim—before synthesizing them into a unifying story that seemed to originate in and affirm his own.
At the heart of Obama’s narrative was a belief that progress, in the larger scheme of things, was inevitable, and this belief underscored his position on every issue from marriage equality to climate change. His idea of progress was neither the rigid millennial faith of Woodrow Wilson nor Bush’s shallow God-blessed optimism. It was human-scale and incremental. Temperamentally the opposite of zealous, he always acknowledged our human imperfection—his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a Niebuhrian meditation on the tragic necessity of force in affairs of state. But, whatever the setbacks of the moment, he had faith that the future belonged to his expansive vision and not to the narrow, backward-pointing lens of his opponents.
This progressive story emerged in Obama’s account of his own life, in his policies, and in his speeches. Many of them were written by Rhodes, who joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine; rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life. Today, Rhodes still works alongside Obama.
The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President. He came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think tank. He became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue. Rhodes’s advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking. His decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.
In “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” (Random House), Rhodes shows no trace of the disillusionment that gave George Stephanopoulos’s tale of Bill Clinton its bitter, gossipy flavor, or of the light irony that came to inflect Peggy Noonan’s adoration of Ronald Reagan. More than any other White House memoirist, Rhodes is a creature of the man he served. When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., went to work as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy, in 1961, he was a middle-aged Harvard professor, the author of eight books, and a Democratic Party intellectual. Schlesinger was a worshipful convert with serious blind spots about Kennedy, but he did warn the new President not to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs, persistently enough that Robert Kennedy told him to back off. It’s impossible to imagine Rhodes giving Obama that kind of advice, or writing a book like “A Thousand Days,” which isn’t so much a White House memoir as a history of the New Frontier.
What Rhodes lacks in critical distance he gains in unobtrusive proximity. He spent thousands of hours with Obama in the Oval Office, on board Air Force One, and inside “the Beast,” the bulletproof Presidential limousine. “My role in these conversations, and perhaps within his presidency,” Rhodes writes, “was to respond to what he said, to talk and fill quiet space—to test out the logic of his own ideas, or to offer a distraction.” Although Rhodes took on important projects like normalizing relations with Cuba and building support for the Iran nuclear deal, his essential role was to be the President’s mirror and echo. When Obama mused that Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem, Rhodes added, “They should play it before every game.” Obama seems to have wanted his right-hand man to be smart, loyal, and unlikely to offer a serious challenge. Reserved and watchful himself, Rhodes provided just the level of low-key, efficient companionship that his boss needed. It’s not surprising that the aide whose company Obama tolerated best was another writer.
This is the closest view of Obama we’re likely to get until he publishes his own memoir. Rhodes’s Obama is curious, self-contained, irritable, and witty, and Rhodes—sixteen years younger and six inches shorter—is his straight man. On a Presidential trip to Latin America in 2011, at the start of the NATO air campaign in Libya, Rhodes found himself cast as spokesman for a country at war. The stress—he’s appealingly candid about the anxiety and self-doubt, as well as the arrogance, that went with his job—caused him to lose track of his razor. Obama noticed. “What, you can’t even bother to shave?” the President chided him. “Pull yourself together. We have to be professional here.” Rhodes wanted to plead that he was overtasked and underslept, but instead he used the rebuke to understand Obama better: “I realized that these little flashes were how he relieved some of the stress that he had to be feeling, and that being composed and professional—doing the job—was how he managed to take everything in stride. I hadn’t just failed to shave; I’d deviated from his ethos of unflappability.”
With a fine writer’s sense, Rhodes includes, along with the important speeches and decisions of state, a quiet moment in which Obama, standing on a beach in Hawaii, points to a hill and says, “My mom used to come here every day and sit there looking out at the bay when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons why I have a certain calm.” This ability to stand back from the passing frenzy and survey it at a distance was an intellectual strength and a political liability. More than any modern President, Obama had a keen sense of the limits of American power—and of his own. But it’s hard to build a narrative around actions not taken, disasters possibly averted, hard realities accommodated. The story of what didn’t happen isn’t an easy one to tell.
What Rhodes conveys forcefully is the disdain that he and Obama shared for the reflexive hawkishness of the foreign-policy flock, the clichés of the establishment media, the usual Washington games. Even in the White House, they saw themselves as perpetual outsiders. This aversion to normal politics gave Obama’s story its cleanness and inspiration, while leaving the progress he achieved fragile and vulnerable to rougher practitioners with fewer qualms about the business they were all in.
There were two moments during their ten years together when a gap opened up between the President and his aide. The first came at the start of Obama’s second term, when the promises of the Arab Spring were unravelling. The second came with the election of a successor who pledged to dismantle everything Obama had stood for. In each case, Obama was forced into a reconsideration of his idea of progress, and Rhodes, a step or two behind, had to catch up. The drama of “The World as It Is” lies between these points.
After Rhodes, a New Yorker, witnessed the 9/11 attacks, he considered joining the Army but instead went to Washington to become a speechwriter at the Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank. He supported the Iraq War in order to be taken seriously by the older people around him—he was just twenty-five—but his staff work for the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, which issued a damning report on the war, in 2006, made him suspicious of the foreign-policy establishment. “The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not,” he writes. “I wanted a hero—someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it.” Professional connections led him to the nascent Obama campaign. Rhodes showed that he could write under pressure and think against the conventional grain. He had found his hero.
Rhodes was a liberal idealist. He turned against the Iraq War, but not against American intervention to prevent mass atrocities around the world. He was strongly influenced by Samantha Power’s book on genocide in the twentieth century, “ ‘A Problem from Hell.’ ” Power was an adviser in Obama’s Senate office, and she and Rhodes became comrades in the Obama cause, with “a sense of destiny” about their work on the campaign and their place in “a movement that would remake the world order.” Rhodes saw Obama as a symbol of aspiration for billions of people, including Muslims who had become alienated from the United States in the years since 9/11. He believed that the identity of the new President could transform America’s relation to the rest of the world.
Rhodes drafted a speech for Obama to give in Cairo in June of 2009, outlining the difficulties with the Muslim world and promising a new start. “It expressed what Obama believed and where he wanted to go, the world that should be,” Rhodes writes. Eighteen months later, the Arab Spring began. Rhodes quotes a Palestinian-born woman telling him that Obama was its inspiration: “The young people saw him, a black man as president of America, someone who looked like them. And they thought, why not me?” A more seasoned adviser might have been skeptical, but Rhodes lets this dubious claim stand. His firsthand experience of the rest of the world came from the huge crowds that he saw through bulletproof glass lining the route of Obama’s motorcade in Lima and in Hiroshima, from the young people who posed earnest questions at town-hall meetings in Ramallah and Mumbai. He took them as evidence of the tide of progress.
Rhodes and Power were among the White House aides who wanted the United States to stand with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Obama encouraged Rhodes to speak up more in meetings: “Don’t hold back just because it’s the principals. You know where I’m coming from. And we’re younger.” After Egypt came the American-led military intervention in Libya—prompted by Muammar Gaddafi’s threats to rebel-held Benghazi—which ended up toppling the dictator. The spring of 2011 was the high-water mark of Obama’s foreign policy: Osama bin Laden dead, American troops withdrawn from Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in full flower. “Barack Obama’s story was gaining a certain momentum,” Rhodes writes. “But something was missing—the supporting characters, in Congress and around the world.”
“The supporting characters”—Mitch McConnell, Vladimir Putin, Egyptian generals, Libyan warlords, reactionary forces that had no stake in Obama’s success—were in fact forces of opposition, and they weren’t just missing; they were gathering strength. You get the sense that Rhodes, and perhaps Obama, too, wasn’t ready for them. Relentless Republican obstruction didn’t fit with Obama’s tale of there being no red or blue America; rising chaos and nationalism were out of tune with his hymn of walls falling. In Libya, civil war killed thousands of people and left much of the country ungoverned and vulnerable to terrorists, and the U.S., as usual, had no plan or desire to deal with the aftermath of intervention. But Rhodes took the criticism that followed as a sign of the absurdity of American politics: “I couldn’t reconcile how much doing the right thing didn’t seem to matter. . . . I thought it was right to save thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi, but we were now being second-guessed.”
The failure of the supporting cast to join the march of progress came as a kind of irrational affront: how could they be so impervious to the appeal of Obama’s example and words? “One of Barack Obama’s greatest frustrations during his time in the White House was his inability to use rhetoric and reason to better tell the story of his presidency,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director, tells us in another new White House memoir, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump” (Twelve). Rhodes stuck to the ideals of the Arab Spring, but Obama was leaving him behind. “Our priority has to be stability and supporting the scaf (Egyptian Military Council),” he snapped at Rhodes in one meeting. “Even if we get criticized. I’m not interested in the crowd in Tahrir Square and Nick Kristof.” This sounded like cold realpolitik, and it came as a shock to Rhodes: “For the first time, I felt out of step with my boss.”
It got worse with the Syrian civil war. Rhodes again supported American military intervention, but without much faith, and Obama half-listened to Rhodes’s half-hearted arguments. “It was wrenching to read about the brutality of Assad every morning, to see images of family homes reduced to rubble,” he writes. “I felt we had to do something in Syria.” In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, and the White House debated whether to punish the regime for crossing Obama’s stated “red line.” The President decided to leave the decision to Congress, which meant no military action. “It will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism,” he told his advisers. “Everyone will see they have no votes.” Obama regarded this decision as a clever tactical win, as if exposing Republican hypocrisy mattered more than trying to prevent another gas attack in Syria. He was willing to follow the logic of inaction as far as it led. “Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” he told Rhodes during the Syria crisis. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.” For Obama idealists, this stance was apostasy. “ ‘A Problem from Hell’ ” turned out to be one of the least relevant foreign-policy books for the Obama White House.
Rhodes had to choose between sticking with the principles that originally drew him to Obama and continuing to identify with his hero. He went with the latter. When Egyptian generals overthrew the elected Islamist government, and the Administration refused to call it a coup, Rhodes made one last pitch for Arab democracy, but “as with intervention in Syria, my heart wasn’t entirely in it anymore.” It’s hard to blame him. There was no obvious policy that could have reversed the Egyptian coup or, short of a full-scale military invasion, forced the departure of Assad. Worse to try and likely leave a bigger mess, Obama concluded, than not to try at all. Other voices—Secretary of State John Kerry; the national-security adviser, Susan Rice—argued for more American activism, but Obama was unmoved. Without congressional or allied support, without a clear answer to the question “And what happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran, and Assad rebuild them?,” he dropped “Never again” for a more skeptical motto: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Rhodes adopted the more minimalist words and ideas, though never with the same equanimity as his boss. “It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was.”
“The World as It Is” charts the education of Ben Rhodes through his White House years from liberal idealism to a chastened appreciation of how American power can be more wisely harnessed to limited ends—hence the title. With Obama’s encouragement, Rhodes spent the last years of the Presidency trying to realize his original ideals through diplomacy. He took the lead in talks with Cuba that achieved normalized relations after more than half a century of Cold War hostility. He helped prevent Congress from sinking the Iran nuclear deal. He involved himself in humanitarian issues in Southeast Asia. He became more emphatic in his contempt for the Washington establishment (although I’m not sure what makes you a member if not eight years in the White House), and he became a high-profile target of the conspiratorial right wing. Rhodes concludes his book with the thought that “billions of people around the globe had come to know Barack Obama, had heard his words, had watched his speeches, and, in some unknowable but irreducible way, had come to see the world as a place that could—in some incremental way—change. The arc of history.”
That’s more qualified than the sense of high destiny with which Rhodes set out, but it’s still a story of progress, of the philosophy that he ascribes to both the chef Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama: “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.” Yet Rhodes was still fighting the last war against the tired Washington establishment, the reflexive hawks, the carping ignoramuses in the media. Meanwhile, in places as far-flung as Turkey, India, the Czech Republic, Moscow, and Washington, the strongest political forces were running dead against the idea of sitting down together over a meal and figuring things out.
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.
Obama doesn’t seem to have known what to make of Vladimir Putin: “He neither liked nor loathed Putin, nor did he subscribe to the view that Putin was all that tough.” This dusting-off-the-shoulder attitude underestimated the Russian leader’s ambition to manipulate the resentments and hatreds of democratic citizens. Obama told Rhodes that he knew all about the Putins of the world—from the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Republican extremists who had been trying from the start to delegitimize his Presidency. “Obama was more sanguine about the forces at play in the world not because he was late in recognizing them,” Rhodes writes, “but because he’d seen them earlier.” Obama had come to think that he could work around Putin and McConnell and Fox News, by picking his shots, setting the right example, avoiding stupid shit, and bringing change in increments.
In fact, he was too sanguine, perhaps because he was overconfident in his own transformative power, perhaps because he wasn’t alert to the brittleness of his achievement. Progressives find it hard to imagine that there are others who in good faith don’t want the better world they’re offering and will fiercely resist it. Obama was always better at explaining the meaning of democracy than at fighting its opponents. Other than “Yes, we can” and a few other phrases, it’s hard to remember any lines from his speeches, including ones drafted by Rhodes. Many of them are profound meditations that can stand reading and rereading—Rhodes quotes some of the best—but Obama’s way was to rise above simplifications that would have stuck in people’s heads and given them verbal weapons with which to defend themselves.
His aversion to the dirty tasks of politics culminated in the moment during the 2016 campaign when U.S. intelligence about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump reached the Oval Office. Obama’s instinct was to avoid politicizing it at all costs. Rhodes urged the President to be more vocal, just as he’d urged him to intervene in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but Obama replied, “If I speak out more, he’ll just say it’s rigged.” Trump, if he lost, was going to say the election had been rigged regardless. His supporters were going to disbelieve anything Obama said. The rest of us deserved to hear it, anyway. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” Obama protested to Rhodes, concerning the issue of Russian interference. “What else are we going to do?” He wasn’t going to worry about it, true to character; Rhodes, true to character, did the worrying instead, and still does.
In “The Final Year,” a new documentary that focusses on Obama’s foreign policy at the end of his Presidency, Trump’s victory leaves Rhodes unable to speak for almost a full minute. It had been inconceivable, like the repeal of a law of nature—not just because of who Trump was but also because of who Obama was. Rhodes and Obama briefly sought refuge in the high-mindedness of the long view—“Progress doesn’t move in a straight line,” Rhodes messaged his boss on Election Night, a reference to one of Obama’s own sayings, which the President then revived for the occasion: “History doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags.” But that was not much consolation. On Obama’s last trip abroad, he sat quietly with Rhodes in the Beast as they passed the cheering Peruvian crowds. “What if we were wrong?” Obama suddenly asked. Rhodes didn’t know what he meant. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” Obama took the thought to its natural conclusion: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.”
Rhodes wrestled with this painful blow. It sounded like a repudiation of everything they had done. But then he found an answer, and it was in keeping with the spirit of his years in service to Obama: “We were right, but all that progress depended upon him, and now he was out of time.” ♦
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June 5, 2018 at 11:48PM
A Hotel Worker Was Unexpectedly Attacked by an Elk in Yellowstone National Park
On Sunday, 51-year-old Charlene Triplett was attacked by a cow elk near the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel at Yellowstone National Park.
Triplett, an off-duty hotel employee, was kicked repeatedly in the legs, head, torso and back by an elk protecting a nearby calf.
According to a statement issued by Yellowstone National Park, it is unknown whether Triplett was aware of her proximity to the calf that was “roughly 20 feet away and hidden by [cars].”
“Anecdotally, elk injuries are not common,” a Yellowstone National Park spokesperson told The Points Guy, “although elk charging people seems to happen each year.”
The spokesperson explained that the national park does not track incidents of this nature, and that not all instances are formally reported.
“Animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be. When an animal is near a trail, boardwalk, parking lot, or in a developed area, give it space.”
Travelers are advised to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including bison and elk. “If need be,” the spokesperson continued, “turn around and go the other way to avoid interacting with a wild animal in close proximity.”
In the statement, Yellowstone urged park visitors to be cautious around elk, particularly during calving season. In a 2016 Facebook announcement, for example, the park service warned that elk can hide their calves in “unexpected places” — busy parking lots included.
“We start seeing elk calves show up in late May,” the spokesperson explained to TPG. “And [calving season] goes on throughout mid to late-June.”
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June 5, 2018 at 11:31PM
Philadelphia Eagles Accept Mueller’s Offer to Celebrate With Him
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—The Philadelphia Eagles have accepted Robert Mueller’s invitation to come to his office and celebrate their Super Bowl victory with him, Mueller has confirmed.
The special counsel said that he was “absolutely tickled” that the Eagles had accepted his invitation. “I’m a huge fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, and it turns out the feeling is mutual,” he said.
According to one member of the team, the Eagles accepted Mueller’s invitation only after being assured that their visit would not in any way distract the special counsel from “getting his job done.”
“What Bob Mueller is doing is so much more important that any Super Bowl,” the Eagle player said. “If he wins, the whole world wins.”
For his part, Mueller praised the Eagles for responding to his invitation so quickly, adding, “I invited Trump to see me months ago, and I still haven’t heard back.”
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June 5, 2018 at 11:13PM
The First A380 To Enter Service Is Being Scrapped
Even if you don’t consider yourself an AvGeek, if you’ve been reading TPG for a while, you probably know by now that the Queen of the Skies (aka the Boeing 747) will soon be a thing of the past. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise though given that the plane’s been in service for nearly 50 years and there are much more fuel efficient aircrafts available today. However, that’s not the only superjumbo jet being scrapped.
Just one decade after entering service, Airbus’ first A380 ever to fly for an airline, the one bearing the Singaporean registration 9V-SKA, has been retired and is being stripped for parts. Several others have also been sent to storage in Tarbes, France, and may soon follow suit.
The plane was originally delivered to Singapore Airlines and had its first commercial flight on October 25, 2007 from Singapore (SIN) to Sydney (SYD) — the inaugural A380 service. Singapore Airlines returned the plane to its lessor, Germany-based Dr. Peters Group, as soon as the lease expired in October 2017, and the company has had no success in finding another airline to take it. After months of negotiations, the company made the decision on Tuesday to pull the plug and gut the plane.
Rather than scrap the $250 million (at time of purchase) double-decker jets entirely, valuable components such as landing gears and electronics will be preserved and sold off, generating $80 million per aircraft. The plane’s engines have already been removed and leased back to manufacturer Rolls-Royce for use as spares.
The A380 is TPG’s favorite aircraft to fly because it’s quiet and smooth and is easy to book using miles, but there’s simply not enough demand for the 500-plus seater. Airlines would much rather operate smaller and more efficient twin-engine planes now in the market, like the A350 and B787. That being said, Singapore Airlines isn’t completely bailing on the A380: The carrier is replacing the retired aircraft with new ones — equipped with the carrier’s latest and greatest suite.
Singapore Airlines’ retired A380s which are not being scrapped are going to Hi-Fly, a Portuguese company that’s in the business of wet-leasing of aircraft, but only time will tell how long they’ll keep them in service.
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June 5, 2018 at 10:31PM