Customer Service by the Tweet

I’m sure there were a few companies that viewed the Twitter enterprise with trepidation when the bluebird first came into our lives. “We just figured out how to interact with our clients on Facebook and now you want us to do it all over again in 140 characters?”

When I first started using Twitter, I was following my favorite sports teams, travel mags and local businesses. I got my news, my tips and my specials all in one place. Back in August 2010, I blogged about Tweet & Travel – paying homage to some of my favorites as I prepared to leave for Spain.

Since then, I’ve been using Twitter on a daily basis. I use it for work (@EIUStudyAbroad) as well as for myself (@kmarieholland). It’s become way more than I originally anticipated, and I’ve gone on record saying that I prefer Twitter over Facebook (gasp!). Why?

- It’s more interactive. You can use hashtags (#studyabroad) to link to lists of content and tag users (@eiu) to show them something, or let them know you’re talking about them.
- It’s concise. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, you’re out. #sosorry
- It’s organized. I use lists to follow my students in each term, or leaders in the field, or interests by topic.
- It’s public. Unless you lock down your account, it is open to the wide world. This allows a company to pick up more followers, and reach a wider audience. I would argue this also forces users to rethink how they tailor their messages if they’re going beyond their usual target audience.

What’s the big deal with an interactive social media platform? It’s good customer service, it’s visible and it’s accessible. Here are some recent examples of excellent Twitter users that have interacted with me on various topics:

hotelscom

The big chains may have tons of people working on their social media platforms, but I don’t care. The more reason to buzz them with kudos, questions and comments. Everyone loves data – and this is a measurable form of feedback.

tafwyl

Now this is fun. A local Welsh festival that had their social media tags prominently displayed on their website and all of their print material when I was visiting Wales in June. Those tags are there for a reason, they want to hear from you!

derbyhotelsI always try to take the time to thank hotels, restaurants and other businesses for a good time. I don’t think that Twitter is the right place for serious negative commentary. Take to the airwaves and the Twitterverse with the positive, the pensive and the occasional provocative statement.

espnradio

ESPN is a huge company, and you’re thinking they’ll never have time to ring you back. Wrong! If you are an ESPN fan you’ll also notice that they will feature fan tweets on a daily basis, when broadcasting the Sports Center Top 10 among others. Your shot at 5 seconds of fame :)

wistatefair

I particularly love when local businesses or events are super chatty online. I’m more inclined to look at links they send me, and even more likely to tag them later on when I’m at their event or location.

usair

Here’s my limit on Twitter bitchery. It was 7 a.m. and I was NOT happy. Note: The issue with US Air was ultimately resolved by phone .. but this first msg came within 15 minutes of my tweet. One snag – if you are not following a user, they cannot direct message you. So my second msg some time later from US Air was a “please follow us so we can DM a response.” By then, I’d already gotten someone on the phone.

And without question one of the greatest Twitter convos of all time:

americanairI knew the situation was out of everyone’s control – me, the pilot, the airline. But how great is it that they 1) answered me immediately, and 2) had a sense of humor about it. Kudos to you, @AmericanAir – well played.

A festival of colors

After four long months of planning, details, logistics, phone calls, emails, drawings and 66 lbs. of colored powder from Colorado .. we finally had our day in the sun. And literally – the sun was shining. In Central Illinois. In April. Believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.

Our Holi Festival of Colors was originally intended for April 19. On the way in to the office that day, it hailed. It had rained almost all week and the quad was a disaster. At 10:30 a.m. we called it off, and postponed to April 26 – the last day of classes.

With all approvals signed, sealed and delivered – I woke up early last Friday like it was Christmas morning. Eyes wide open, I scrambled for my phone and squinted at the Weather app. Already it was 40 degrees at 6 a.m. It had been 40 degrees close to noon the week before, so I considered this a good sign.

My staff rolled in at 9 a.m. and we headed out to the quad to prepare. We chalked, we walked, we talked. We hooked up a sound system, a photo booth, filled four giant troughs of water, and hauled powder out to the field. I took phone calls, fielded media inquiries and gave interviews with the sun on my face and my heart in my throat.

By 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes to go time, we had music going and the staff were getting giddy. Our first round of volunteers arrived, we started putting color on each other and Paige dunked her entire head in a trough like a champ.

By 11:45 a.m., bystanders were asking if they could start. Well, why the hell not.

By 12 Noon, groups of friends had sprinted onto the quad and were squealing, laughing and dodging cupfuls of cold water. We cranked up Nate’s sweet playlist on the sound system and started harassing passers by and handing out free study abroad t-shirts.

By 12:30 p.m. it was packed. We saw faculty, staff, students, children. We had bystanders, we had paparazzi, we had participants. EAGER participants. Holy crap these kids are having the time of their lives! My white shirt remains untouched, and my face is clear until Marilyn and one of her students approach to dust my face with color on their fingertips, as though they are painting.

By 12:45 p.m. we readied for an announcement and a toss. Asking our participants to get a handful of dye and hold, the president of the Association of International Students spoke about the Holi tradition celebrated by Hindus in India and Nepal. When he handed off the mic, I gave a few more instructions, and we faced the MLK Jr. Union and the tripods with cameras on the roof.

Three ..

.. Two ..

ONE …

An explosion of powder and color.

Red, yelling. Blue, laughing. Green, dancing.
Yellow and Orange, waving. Purple, blowing in the breeze.

I can remember the long meetings with the staff in the cold months of February and March. How many participants would we have? Were we doing a good job with marketing? How many pounds of this damn powder could we possibly need? Would people get bored quickly? Would they be entertained? Would they understand what this festival meant to us .. what it meant to the world?

That huge surge of relief comes somewhere after 1 p.m. People are smiling, the sun is shining. My shirt is no longer white, and my palms are dark green. I’ve been chased by some of my students, had color slapped on my face, and had water dumped on my head at least twice. And it’s beautiful.

All that hard work has resulted in a hugely successful, colorful, magnificent festival. Did they all get the message that it was about celebrating spring, friendship and new beginnings? Maybe. But after a long academic year and some incidents on campus that made us questions ourselves and each other, there they are – running through the quad, sliding in the mud after each other, and tossing color into the air. I don’t know if they’ll be able to articulate exactly what Holi is about .. but they sure do have the right idea.

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for a look at the fantastic portraits taken by photographer and EIU CATS professional Jay Grabiec, visit the Flickr set at eiu.edu/holi.

for a peek at local news coverage by JG-TC Charleston-Mattoon: click here.

SoCal Foodie Delight

My first trip to California. Yes, really. I’m 29 and the furthest West I’ve been is Arizona. Well, no longer.

Flying to the West Coast in February had even more allure than I thought – namely because it was 30 degrees when I left my home in Illinois and it was almost 80 degrees when I landed in Orange County. What better way to fight the Midwestern winter than with sunshine?

What’s the best way to see a new city? To eat.

Sure, Hollywood Boulevard is important, but my stomach is always growling. Luckily, when you roll with a fellow foodie, your priorities are always the same. Here are some of the stops we made over the course of my brief weekend in SoCal. (all addresses are in LA unless otherwise noted)

* In & Out Burger – My first ever! Thanks to local assistance, I knew to ask for both burger + fries “animal style.” Next time will ask for Neopolitan shake.

* Mashti Malone’s ice cream – 1525 N. La Brea – So many wild flavors here .. I chose Rose Saffron

* Olocuilta – 3958 W. 6th – Homemade Salvadorean pupusas here, oddly enough – in Koreatown. The abuela in the back seriously know what she’s doing.

* Cafe Tropical – 2900 W. Sunset Blvd – guava and cheese empanada. Yeah, you heard me.

* @ an undisclosed location – street tacos! $1 a piece and right on the money.

* Lynda Sandwich – 15380 Beach Blvd, Westminster -  banh mi’s for the beach.

* Egg Heaven – 4358 E. 4th Street, Long Beach – outrageous breakfast. Do not miss the super browns loaded breakfast potatoes. I died.

* One of the many Farmer’s Markets for superior produce & snacks – my first brush with an ojo blanco (less acidic grapefruit) and the best oranges I’ve had since Spain.

Other fun stuff
Skylight Books – 1818 N. Vermont Avenue
Griffith Park Observatory -2800 E Observatory Road
(check out their free public star parties!)
Watts Tower – 1761-5 E 107th Street
Dodgers Stadium – 1000 Elysian Park Avenue

Tasty wines
Babble wine (wins best label), Khroma (wins fancy label and cheap local red), Carpe Diem (stole my soul & that of NYTimes winos a few years ago).

Thank goodness for Los Angeles, and Natalie :)

The monument you can’t miss

You’ve got to see…,” they say.

Don’t miss the… (Insert Monument Here.)

True or not, there are some monuments that have their own claim to fame. It’s what locals point to, and seasoned tourists nod sagely about. As if every city as an unwritten list of things to see before you depart, and it is everyone’s job to point you in the right direction. Paris? Eiffel Tower. New York? Empire State Building. Do they define a city? Not necessarily. I’d just as soon point to Gray’s Papaya or The Strand when advising someone on NYC.

What’s worse is when you finally do see the thing that everyone has been pestering you about and think: well. You could’ve been huddled up in a café somewhere instead of standing outside in the cold waiting for this damn clock to chime. Truth be told, this was my reaction when I’d seen the Mona Lisa live and in person. Who knew that after racing through the Louvre (with the Da Vinci Code playing in my mind) that I would feel disappointed at the finish line?

Personally, I’m more inclined to a) see monuments that have a story or are generally lesser known, b) trust travelers I know to steer me in the right direction, c) do my research so I know what’s a tourist trap and what’s not.

For example, Holly and I loved the Clock Museum (aka The Palace of Time) in Jerez, Spain. It was WAY off the beaten path, super weird and charming. Thank you to whomever wrote that in the Fodor’s guide. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about with the IAmAmsterdam sign in the city of the same name (I was focused on nearby Van Gogh). People flock to the peeing statue (Mannekin Pis) in Brussels, Belgium. The astronomical clock in Prague, Czech Republic draws a crowd at every chime. Worth it? Maybe.

On my recent trip to California, I was able to visit an awesome monument that I’d never heard of before. Watts Towers, tucked into a small neighborhood in Los Angeles, are a work of art. Visiting my artist friend and LA native Natalie also guaranteed an insider look at the local art scene. She knew the story of the Italian immigrant who had come to California and spent over three decades using found objects to build this unique fortress of art.

History says that the artist eventually abandoned his project, and the neighborhood that was giving him grief. It was almost torn down until it was put to the test – literally – by an engineer, at the request of the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts (composed of community members, artists and activists trying to save the site). Once the structure was determined safe, the city declared it was allowed to stand where it still stands today. A small community arts center, free of admission, tells the artist’s story and the monument itself stretches high into the California sky.

A little story goes a long way, doesn’t it?

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Irish Pub 101

Guinness Dublin Ireland

My goodness, my Guinness

The click of my heels on the pavement pauses as we stop at the mouth of an alleyway. It has all the requisite charm of a European side street: cobblestones, low lighting, and every so often a tumble of noise from a nearby doorway.

This is the one, Kelly – one of the oldest pubs,” says my friend, tugging me along toward the bright spot halfway down the alley. A Guinness sign shines like a beacon, and I wonder at the ease with which we use superlatives. Is this how we travel? How we mark a good time? At the oldest, tallest, widest, finest, darkest, most, best place in all the land.

I’ve been to bars. I was a bartender for 4 years during my undergrad years, at a hole-in-the-wall college bar. I know the smell (cigarettes and stale beer), the feel (the bar rag sticking on a spill), the sight (packed house, patrons on the prowl) and the sound (Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Frankie Blue Eyes crooning from the corner jukebox). But a pub? That’s a bar of a different color.

The noise comes first. The heavy wooden door yawns open and the hand on the small of my back nudges me into the room; glasses clinking, booming laughter, the steady thrum of conversation. It’s packed. It’s warm. The light is yellow like sunshine and puddles on the scarred wooden tables, the piles of winter coats cast into corners. Immediately, we are drawn in.

The boys march toward the bar, and the girls locate a table in a back room. There are people everywhere – ruddy faced, full of gestures and the bravado of storytellers. The conversation rises and falls around us, and I realize that although it’s loud, this is not the cacophony of a bar where you yell at your friends and lose your voice. This is the sound of people. Saturday night, no work tomorrow, pass me a pint, people.

My cider is cold and crisp like the apples it came from. My cheeks are flushed and I’m relieved when a nearby couple vacates a low table so our group can sit down. A rowdy bunch of women are roaring in the corner booth, under a long mirror which extends the room and reflects plaques on the walls that are polished to a high gloss. Strangers share tables and stories, friends pick up the next round of pints and barkeeps maintain a steady banter in a rhythm older than time.

How easy to settle into a place like this, at the elbow of an Irishman with a brogue as thick as his Guinness.

This, is an Irish pub.

duke of york belfast northern ireland pub

Duke of York

[photo 1]: Gravity Bar, Guinness Storehouse, St. James Gate, Dublin, Ireland

Impressions are based on Duke of York pub, Belfast, Northern Ireland