TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Milwaukee during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After close to fifty flights to four continents during the Time of Corona, here is yet another first. Indeed, traveling in this pandemic inevitably always features some “firsts.” What is first about this trip, is that instead of flying to Rome or Berlin or the Maldives or Casablanca or Istanbul, I am flying to Milwaukee. We’ll get to another first later.
It is kind of unnerving not to have to take a COVID test to be permitted onto a plane. But that is how it is in America, although there are rumors it may change. Yes, masks are required, but you have no idea if the persons around you are vaccinated, positive for COVID or perfectly harmless. Which is why I have chosen to fly from Newark to my destination aboard a United Embraer 190 in First Class, where there is a row of single seats along the port side of the aircraft.
Whizzing through security courtesy of Clear and TSA Precheck works like a charm: a simple probe of my eyes and I’m a VIP. I’m taking carry-on for this two-night trip, something I rarely do, as I am a horrible over-packer. But for this trip to attend the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a couple of pairs of jeans and a couple of sweaters is more than I need. Plus my usual assorted paraphernalia – pared down for this short trip.
Newark Airport feels virtually back to normal this afternoon. It’s crowded and its usual chaos. Everyone is obediently masked and the stores and restaurants are doing a land office business. I board my first domestic flight since COVID escaped from Wuhan, and it’s the usual mix of mostly leisure travelers, children, babies in arms, and the jetway is crammed with strollers. Even in First Class, I see maybe two or three passengers who appear to be on “business.” (And in the days of Zoom, perhaps this is proof that business travel will never revive to pre-COVID levels.) Since September 2020, I’ve been used to flying international routes; this is my first flight with a passenger sporting a “Second Amendment: the ORIGINAL Homeland Security” tee-shirt.
It never occurred to me that Milwaukee Airport, a 75-minute drive from O’Hare, would be immense. But it is. And extremely empty. I walk from the arrival gate along a massive concourse with its Green Bay Packers sweatshirt stores, and food-stands hawking “brats” and beer, and it looks like I am the only person in search of a taxi. I climb aboard and ask for the Hilton City Center.
It’s Sunday afternoon at 6PM so it’s not surprising that downtown Milwaukee is deserted. I pass interesting buildings with that kind of turn-of-the-20th-century granite grandeur similar to the older skyscrapers of Chicago. They are big, heavy, arched buildings, reeking of gravitas.
I except the Hilton to be your average Hilton, yet we draw up at a hotel that dates from 1928 and whose lobby turns out to be a gem of exquisite art deco. Opened a year before the Wall Street Crash, and during a period when Al Capone spent much of his time in Milwaukee, the Schroeder Hotel was – and remains - a landmark. The lobby is in perfect repair, miles of marble, gilt art deco friezes, a dozen massive crystal chandeliers, and, hotel addict that I am, I am suddenly excited.
The excitement is short-lived. The cavernous lobby is deserted save for one woman behind a glass panel at the vast oak reception counter. She is dealing with an arriving guest, and I wait patiently. The arriving guest takes her key card and walks to a bank of elevators whose intricately detailed bronze doors are reminiscent of the Chrysler Building. “Wow,” I think, “this is going to be special.”
It is now my turn with the receptionist. She seems weary and glassy eyed. Her mask is slung below her nose. She looks at me without enthusiasm. “Can I help you?” she asks reluctantly. Smart-ass Geoffrey bites his lip and refrains from countering, “well yes, you could smile and welcome me to your hotel,” but I meekly respond that I am checking in. The formalities are completed in silence, I am given a keycard and waved in the direction of the Chrysler Building elevators.
My room is big, with an adequate bathroom, and I rush to change to make my way to the convention’s opening reception at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I board the convention shuttle bus, and greet a few bemasked friends and we chug through the even-more-deserted-than-earlier streets. Eventually we can see Lake Michigan and we draw up at a white whale of a building. I take one look and mutter “Calatrava” to myself. I enter a space that is vast, with a striking similarity to New York’s post-9/11 Oculus and to the public buildings of Valencia, Spain. I know this has to be another piece of magic wrought by the eccentric and always over-budget Spanish genius, Santiago Calatrava. In Milwaukee, of all places. I am impressed. And I try to put away my snotty Manhattan disparagement of the “flyover states.”
The reception is elegant; indeed it couldn’t not be in this magnificent space, that seems to float over Lake Michigan. Apparently, the building has vast Oculus-style wings that open and close to denote the times the museum is open. It’s enormous. Masked waiters are passing trays of manicured canapés and there is the usual bustle that marks the opening of an SATW convention…even more so this year because this is the first since 2019. The Milwaukee Visitors Bureau has arranged a lavish entertainment program of choirs and truly interesting chamber music, but everyone is talking too loudly in this echoing cathedral that it’s hard to hear. I meet friends, bump elbows, and exchange those hugs that are whole-hearted, but with faces over shoulders so that there is little chance of droplet exchange. Eventually, most of us hesitantly remove our masks or slide them askew to sip, because one of the rules of this 2021 SATW convention is that it is open only to vaccinated members of the society. And the rule is enforced with a check of COVID certificates upon entry. And I am just perfectly fine with that.
I sleep soundly in my large room and waken to a panorama of parking lots and highway overpasses. And I spend the next eight hours attending the convention’s opening ceremony – which is all talk and video and very little ceremony. We are all congratulated, and we congratulate ourselves, that we are here and have survived the plague, and are traveling again. Indeed, for most of the delegates, this has been their first trip since March 2020. The afternoon is spent at an event called Media Marketplace at which my colleague Ann-Rebecca Laschever (whose Dad, Barney, was one of the founders of the SATW in 1955) meet with journalists in order to extol the delights of our clients’ destinations and properties.
By 5:30 we are both dizzy and talked out. Ann leaves for the Saint-Kate, the other convention hotel, and I make my way up to my 19th-floor bedroom. I enter to find the bed unmade and my used towels on the floor. The coffee makings of the morning still litter the dresser. I know some people might not be bothered – but I am livid. I had expected to return to the serenity of a freshly primped room.
Seething, I call Housekeeping. “I’ve just returned to my room, and it hasn’t been serviced.” The woman at the end of the line seems hesitant. There is a long pause and a rustling of papers.
“I don’t have you down for cleaning today,” she counters.
“Oh, when am I due to be cleaned,” I ask.
“I’m leaving tomorrow, so yes, I would expect you to clean the room.” I find it hard to mask my sarcasm.
I’m placed on hold. I listen to Musak. And as I wait, I pluck from the depths of my memory having read an article about Hilton reducing its daily cleaning of guest rooms as a cost-saving measure, blamed it on the pandemic. Eventually, the hesitant voice returns. I decide to take charge.
“OK, please just send me fresh towels.”
“Do you need amenities replaced?” the voice inquires helpfully.
“Oh, yes, coffee, please.”
Five minutes later there is a knock at the door and a young man with long hair and a red sweatshirt hands me a plastic bag. I peer inside. There is enough coffee for a week. I thank him. And then I remind him about towels, pointing to the used towels I have strategically piled on the floor next to the door.
“I’ll be right back,” he says seizing the towels.
And he is right back, with a pile of towels, which I refold and place on the rack.
I make my bed. I’m good at it, hospital corners and all. But it’s not the point. I can rent an AirBNB if I want to do housework. To me the whole point of staying in a hotel is to be taken care of. Conrad Hilton must be turning in his grave. I think Paris Hilton might also be ashamed. I vow to avoid Hilton until they return to normality.
I knew Milwaukee was the home of Anheiser-Busch and copious beers. I also knew that Golda Meir grew up here before moving to Palestine. But not being a fan of motorbikes, I didn’t know that Milwaukee is the home of Harley-Davidson. And tonight’s “awards” dinner is to be held at the Harley-Davidson Museum. I’ve missed the museum tour while I was playing room valet, but an Uber gets me to the museum in time for the cocktail hour. The tables have centerpieces of model bikes and sculptures fashioned from carburetors. We are welcomed by Bill Davidson whose great-grandfather had a friend called Harley. The staff is masked, but most of the guests are not. We sit to dine, and I watch the society’s annual announcement of the Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in journalism. Friends like Paul Rubio and Blaine Harrington win awards. And Travel+Leisure wins the gold award for best travel magazine. I sms its editor, my friend, Jacqui Gifford, who doesn’t know and is thrilled. The dinner is to be followed by a tour of a new market that actually sounds lovely (and, I learn the next day, is more than lovely), but it’s been a long day and I yearn for my handmade bed.
The cab driver to the airport asks me where I’m from. He’s detected my accent during our exchange about whether I want him to wear a mask.
“From England. 48 years ago,” I tell him. “And you?”
“Ukraine. Then Israel for five years. Then Milwaukee.”
I respond in Hebrew, but his five years in the Promised Land were not happy, and he’d rather speak English. He tells me the reasons he didn’t stay in Israel and why he came to America. He talks a lot. He doesn’t seem the least curious as to why someone with an accent like Prince Charles should know Hebrew. I mention to him that Golda Meir grew up in Milwaukee. He tells me there’s a Meir Hospital here, but I get a sense he doesn’t really know who Golda Meir was, which is sort of sad, as she was Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union he happily fled in 1988.
Milwaukee Airport is again acres of emptiness. But it has a sense of humor. A large sign over the area where one puts one’s belt back on and reorganizes one’s luggage after security sports a large sign: “Recombobulation Area.” Cute. Although nobody around me seems to notice or smile.
The friendly, flirty flight attendant on my flight to Milwaukee has been replaced by a solemn fellow who reads the instructions about mask-wearing (and the punishments for disobedience) with the seriousness of a court bailiff. Curiously, the captain has a British accent. At Newark, his co-pilot, a remarkably handsome young Black man, pins flight wings onthe four year-old who has spent the two-hour flight from Milwaukee closing and opening the window-shade.
Newark Airport is busy. Everyone is masked. We all seem to be getting quite used to traveling in the Time of Corona.