Monday, October 26, 2009

How to Trash a Successful Brand

In 1957, when my late first-wife (Lola) and I first reached California, we stayed with an old friend of hers from Liverpool, at that time married to a Canadian-born Phd (in psychology). I really admired their skill in running a counseling practice, known as The Learning Center, in a clever way. Most of their clients were the parents of children suffering from dyslexia. A non-profit operation, with it's own Board, encouraged tax-deductible donations from the wealthier clients. The non-profit employed the psychologist and his wife, who was the business manager. In parallel with this, a more conventional counseling practice charged relatively modest fees. The non-profit furnished the psychologist with an appropriate automobile, and so forth.

I was reminded of this example of American ingenuity when I learned that the Boston-based Elder Hostel organization, also a non-profit, had some relationship (I don't know the details) with two travel organizations, headquartered in the same city. The very successful Elder Hostel program presumably furnished the travel businesses with a mailing list for their own commercial offerings.

Barbara and I returned on Friday from what had originally been advertised as an Elder Hostel trip. We were surprised to find that Elder Hostel has changed it's name to "Exploritas" (ugh). The director of our program explained that the Elder Hostel folk were finding that as the Boomer generation reached the age of elgibility for Elder Hostel, they were not joining in the program with the numbers desired.

The Elder Hostel folk employed a consultancy firm, which held focus groups, etc. The upshot was that Elder Hostel changed it's name to "Exploritas", to avoid any reference to aging. At the same time, age restrictions were eliminated.

We have now attended three Elder Hostels: the first held at Apalachian State College in Boone, NC; the second at Sienna, in Tuscany; and the most recent one, in the Monterey area of California.

Elder Hostel attracts folk of retirement age, or approaching that. My guess is that far more women than men attend these programs, based on my limited observation. The programs are described as "Lifelong learning" and typically contain a blend of three or more unrelated topics. Our "magical Monterey" program combined biographical information on John Steinbeck and Jack London; with the music of Scott Joplin, the Ragtime pioneer; with the natural history of the region; a tour of the seventeen mile drive and other attractive points in the area; and winetasting, with the fine products of what is now the Carmel Valley appellation. We had three couples, and a dozen women, including widows and single women. The majority of those present were past or present school teachers or otherwise involved in education. I think we all felt that we were getting good value for our money, and cheerfully put up with the dormitory-style accomodations. Our food was quite adequate and varied.

No one there liked the change of name and the opening to younger participants.

I could have accepted a new name, such as "Senior Adventurers", but we didn't get to vote.

The website tells us that it has nearly 8000 educational tours in all 50 states and more than 90 countries. Participants are asked to pay by check, to help the organization avoid "more than $2,000,000 annually on credit card fees".

The people behind the program are professionals, and presumably know what they're doing, but I am left remembering the old saying "if it ain't busted, don't fix it".

Monday, October 19, 2009


I love music, or rather I love some music. I like almost all classical music, especially Baroque. I learned to love swing music and jazz in my early teens. I enjoy most folk music, and the protest songs of the sixties. Readers who know me will not be surprised to learn that I actively dislike heavy metal, rap, hip-hop, although I can tolerate "soft rock".
I never had any talent as a performer. The fine music teacher at my prep school, dispaired of my ability on the piano, and only once yielded to my entreaties to be allowed to learn to play the organ. I couldn't even play the recorder with any ability. I used to quip that the only instrument I played was what Brits call "a gramophone", and on this side of the Pond we term "a phonograph."
I have always admired skilled musicians. At that same prep school, one of our students was George Hurst, who became a successful orchestra conductor while still in his twenties. Another friend was Christopher Raeburn, who parlayed a deep appreciation of Mozart into becoming the renowned producer of musical recordings for DECCA, until his death about a year ago. I am lucky enough to have two sons who sing very well, primarily in church choirs, but in the case of the elder, in opera and in symphonic music.
Nowadays, I have become, with Barbara's support and encouragement, a supporter of the San Francisco Early Music Society and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, among others. I have learned to share her love of the works of Mahler.
As some of you will know, my stepdaughter, Laurie Lewis, has for many years been a star in the world of bluegrass, although she enjoys a unique blend of folk music and even some "pop". Laurie is a perennial star at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the hugely popular annual 3-day program, held at several stages in Golden Gate Park. This is a wonderful gift to the city of San Francisco from the billionaire financier, Warren Hellman, who has become a good friend of Laurie's.
I had met Warren briefly at a San Francisco Foundation function, and Laurie had once introduced me to him. On one of the occasions when I attended Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, I was walking alone on a path someway behind the stage where music was being played. Coming towards me were two men, one of whom I recognized as Warren Hellman. As he approached, I blurted out "Oh, Warren, I didn't expect to see you here". What I really meant was that I hadn't expected to run into him like that.
Warren's response, before he moved on, was a perfect squelch:
"Well, I don't know why not. After all, it is my party"

Monday, October 12, 2009

Confessions of a Wuss

I did not know this word until a dear friend, long since removed from her Texas childhood, laughed at my moderation and said "Nigel, you're such a wuss". British readers of this are probably unfamilair with the term, but it is appropriately used on someone unwilling to take a firm position on an issue.

Being "slow to anger" is part of my culture. I was brought up to avoid whining, to keep calm, and listen to others. One of my favorite sayings is "make small alterations in plenty of time". This dates back to my naval days, when I was at the wheel of a war ship (Not normally the responsibility of even a junior officer) and the ship's captain told me to look astern, to see the squiggly wake I had left. I don't find it easy to change course - or my opinions - quickly or easily. This is not stubborness, but (I guess) an innate conservatism. I tend to support the "establishment" position. I am, by nature, a centrist - leaning slightly left. This certainly applies to politics, as well as other aspects of my self image.

I supported the farm workers when they had a strike against the growers in California's Central Valley, I even spent a day marching with them along highway 99 in the Central Valley. I also was glad to drive down to Delano, to present a check from my parish to Cesar Chavez in person. (In those days when we recorded events on colored slides there was a great picture of me shaking hands with Cesar Chavez, but I have been unable to find it for more than forty years.)

I was talking to some friends at church soon after that time, and announced that I wasn't really a radical. Our curate remarked "Nigel, no one would ever accuse you of being a radical". I knew he was right. In my self-esteem, I am proud of being an island of stability in a chaotic world. The other side of the coin, is that I really am a bit of a wuss.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On Bath

When I lived in England over fifty years ago, showers were rare in private homes. The nearest equivilent was the hand-held shower, attached to a faucet. During WW II, we were urged to limit the level of water in our baths to five inches. In some places, lines were actually painted inside the tub to help find the right level. In the coalition government, the socialist Home Secretary (Herbert Morrison) was jeered at for suggesting that the daily baFont sizeth was "a middleclass habit". My own mother was among the many folk who would not have felt that the day had begun properly without their morning bath.

Prep schools in the UK are preparatory for those entering the so-called "public schools" which are infact expensive private institutions. We did not have showers, but we were limited to one or two baths a week. In the colder months, when we played soccer or "rugger" (rugby football) , we were expected to sit on a tile-covered bench and take a foot bath in a specially-designed container, which at least made use of warm water.

Things were different when I moved to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, at the age of 13. Each dormitory contained a large communal bath, equipped with showers. I soon became used to starting the day with a brisk cold shower. There were also baths, and Naval Cadets were limited to one a week, although those who performed menial tasks for the Cadet Captains were allowed to take another bath, as a reward for their work. By this time, I had learned to enjoy a hot bath, and it was often possible to have a "second bath", meaning that there was no prohibition of making re-use of someone else's legitimate bath water.

Many of you will be accustomed to the "navy shower", inwhich one first soaks one's self and then turns off the shower, then one soaps themself, scrubs, and then uses another brief shower to rinse off. This was not strictly enforced for naval officers, but we all learned to be economical with water, as every sea going vessel can only carry a limited volume of water to be shared by all aboard. This can be supplemented by the desalinization of sea water, but this can only produce a limited quantity of fresh water.

On coming to the United States, I soon abandoned the bathtub for the ubiquitous shower. I can't remember when I last had a traditional bath - probably on a visit to the UK over thirty years ago.

My dear wife, Barbara, tells this story on herself from sometime before we were married in 1970. A friend offered to show her around the city of Bath, which he pronounced "Barth". When their train drew into the station, she saw the sign which read "Bath". She responded "Bath? Oh, I see, Barth!".