Dee-Ann Durbin, The Associated Press
Published Friday, December 21, 2018 1:38AM EST
Can you take a vacation from your cellphone? A growing number of hotels will help you find out.
Some resorts are offering perks, like snorkeling tours and s’mores, to guests who manage to give up their phones for a few hours. Some have phone-free hours at their pools; others are banning distracting devices from public places altogether.
Hotels that limit cellphone use risk losing valuable exposure on Instagram or Facebook. But they say the policies reflect their mission of promoting wellness and relaxation. And, of course, they hope that happily unplugged guests will return for future visits.
“Everyone wants to be able to disconnect. They just need a little courage,” said Lisa Checchio, Wyndham Hotels’ chief marketing officer.
People’s inability to disconnect is an increasingly serious issue. Half of smartphone users spend between three and seven hours per day on their mobile devices, according to a 2017 global survey by Counterpoint Research, a technology consulting firm. In a separate study by the non-profit Common Sense Media, 69 per cent of parents and 78 per cent of teens said they check their devices at least hourly.
Wyndham knew it had a problem when hotel managers requested more beach chairs to accommodate all the people who would sit in them and stare at their phones. It discovered that the average resort guest was bringing three devices and checking them once every 12 minutes — or roughly 80 times a day.
On Oct. 1, Wyndham Grand’s five U.S. resorts began offering prime spots by the pool, free snacks and the chance to win return visits when guests put their phone in a soft, locked pouch. The phones stay with the guests, but only hotel staff can unlock the pouches.
Wyndham says 250 people have used the pouches so far at resorts in Florida and Texas. The program will be found at more Wyndham hotels next year.
Wyndham Grand resorts also give families a 5 per cent discount on their stay if they put their phones in a timed lockbox. The hotel provides supplies for a pillow fort, s’mores, a bedtime book and an instant camera for adults and kids who don’t know what to do with all the newfound time on their hands.
That appeals to Matthew Cannata, who heads public relations for the New Britain, Connecticut, schools. He worries about the impact of technology on his two young children, and he tries to keep devices out of sight during family meals.
“Any chance I can get to put the phone away is great. Sometimes, people need to be forced to do things to start a thought process and then create a habit,” he said.
At the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit in Mexico, a so-called Detox Concierge will “cleanse” your suite of all electronic devices and replace them with games like Jenga and chess. Guests at its sister resort, the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, trade in their phones for a bracelet that gives them free access to activities like snorkeling; they must do at least four activities to earn back their phones. A timer placed in the lobby shows how long each family has lasted without their devices.
Emily Evans likes the idea of rewarding people for putting their phones away. A senior at Eastern Kentucky University, she says she barely keeps her phone charged while on vacation, but her girlfriend is constantly checking her phone.
“I feel most millennials would choose discounts and saving money over having their phone out to Instagram and Snapchat pictures of their meals,” Evans said.
At Miraval, a Hyatt-owned resort in Arizona, the emphasis is less on family time than on mindfulness and tranquility. Miraval, which will soon open two more resorts in Texas and Massachusetts, bans phone use in most public areas.
Guests are encouraged to tuck their phones into soft cotton bags and leave them on small wooden beds in their rooms. Staff wears name tags with gentle reminders that guests should unplug and “be present.”
Some resorts encourage a total ban. Wilderness Resorts, an African safari operator, intentionally provides no Wi-Fi at many of its camps. Adrere Amellal, a 40-room hotel at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, lets guests have phones in their rooms, but there’s no electricity or Wi-Fi.
Not all vacationers want to be weaned from their devices. Phones double as cameras, music players, travel guides and e-readers. They also might be critical in an emergency.
David Bruns, a communications manager for AARP Florida, uses two phones. He tries not to check his work phone after hours, but he carries his personal phone everywhere.
“I don’t think I would like being made to put the thing down,” Bruns said. “It feels like that is more about me being told what to do by people I am paying to do something for me.”
Ayana Resort and Spa in Bali, Indonesia, understands that, so it tries to meet guests halfway. Its winding River Pool bans phones between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. But it invites guests to take photos and post away to social media before and after those times.
As shopping habits change, Ottawa targets credit card swipe fees
The federal government is taking aim at credit-card transaction fees as shifting shopping habits resulting from pandemic lockdowns have substantially driven up costs for many small merchants.
The budget released this week promises the government will launch consultations aimed at lowering the average charges — known as interchange fees — paid by merchants every time a customer pays with a credit card.
Though federal officials plan to engage with stakeholders, including credit-card issuers and merchants, about possible changes, Monday’s budget also raises the threat of legislation to regulate fees “if necessary.”
This is the third time in less than seven years that the federal government has pressured credit-card companies to lower transaction fees, which vary between retailers, types of cards and payment methods. In 2014, there was an agreement reached with Visa Canada and Mastercard Canada to lower average fees to 1.5 per cent. Then in 2018 a five-year pact was struck that included voluntary commitments to lower average fees to 1.4 per cent, starting in 2020. (American Express struck a separate deal with Ottawa.)
But COVID-19 has rapidly altered consumers’ spending patterns, creating pressure to revisit that deal. Many of the interchange fees that were reduced applied solely to payments made in stores. As public-health restrictions have forced stores to limit access or close, fewer customers are swiping, tapping, or paying in cash. As a result, businesses are bearing the brunt of higher transaction fees charged for online purchases – unless they pass those costs on to customers by raising prices.
“The pandemic has been a huge driver of credit-card interchange [fees] as people have dropped cash and have moved online,” Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said in an interview. “It is a rapidly growing cost and was a rapidly growing cost even prior to the pandemic.”
The interchange fees paid by Christina Kotiadis, co-owner of Toronto gift store Lemon & Lavender, have gone way up during the pandemic. She built an online store for the first time to process e-commerce orders, and more customers who visit the store are tapping cards to make contactless payments. She also bought a mobile terminal to take payments anywhere in the store, or at the front door, which charges higher fees than the store’s plug-in terminal. For health reasons, she allows customers to pay with cards even for small purchases and absorbs the added costs.
“I refuse to raise prices. I don’t feel good about it. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and I don’t want to raise the fee because they don’t want to use cash,” she said.
Before the pandemic, about 60 per cent of payments at independent grocery stores were made with credit cards, and the rest with cash or debit cards, according to Gary Sands, a senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Now, more than 90 per cent of purchases are with credit cards as online ordering and curbside pickups become more popular, and the resulting interchange fees are adding up.
“It impacts prices, it impacts the ability of small businesses to stay in business,” he said.
Ottawa considers taking action against ‘predatory lenders’
Ottawa will consider lowering the maximum interest rate to stop the “predatory lending” of outfits that make high-interest loans, which anti-poverty advocates say have exploited Canadians during the pandemic.
In Monday’s budget, the federal government announced plans to launch consultations on lowering the “criminal rate of interest,” the maximum annualized interest rate for credit allowed under the federal Criminal Code.
For instalment loans — longer-term credit with high interest — lenders can charge up to 60 per cent annual interest under the usury rules.
Payday loans — high-interest loans that are typically due two weeks later — are exempt from federal rules under a 2007 amendment, if provinces have their own regulations for payday lenders, which all now do.
Many low- or moderate-income Canadians rely on high-interest, short-term loans to make ends meet or for unanticipated emergencies, leaving them stuck in a cycle of debt, the budget states.
Anti-poverty advocates have zeroed in on companies like Money Mart, Easy Financial, and Cash Money, accusing them of misleading advertising, not being forthright about the strings attached, and pushing borrowers to take out larger loans at the highest interest rates possible.
They say the practices are continuing during COVID, when more Canadians than ever are facing financial hardship.
“They’re thriving, because they’re taking advantage of people,” said Donna Bordon, a member of the anti-poverty group, ACORN Canada. “People are afraid of losing their homes, so they borrow money from these places.”
The consultations are a “first step” in tackling predatory lending, Bordon said, adding she hopes they include more than industry representatives, who will sharply oppose any changes.
Despite low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, poorer borrowers are more likely to lack the requirements to access safer loans from traditional banks. Instead, they seek quick cash from payday lenders, despite the risk of falling into debt they can’t escape.
In Ontario, for example, payday lenders can charge $15 in interest for every $100 over a two-week period — equal to an annualized interest rate of 391 per cent.
Last July, the Ontario government capped the interest rate that lenders can charge on defaulted payday loans at 2.5 per cent per month. It also set a maximum fee of $25 that lenders can charge for dishonoured or bounced cheques, or pre-authorized debits.
In 2019, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had taken out payday loans in the previous year. The percentage was even higher for Indigenous people, and low-income and single-parent households.
Last month, NDP finance critic Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill to lower the maximum interest rate to 30 per cent, and to remove the exception for provinces that regulate payday lenders — measures ACORN supports.
The Canadian Consumer Finance Association, which represents payday lenders, said in a statement that while it’s still reviewing Monday’s budget, it’s opposed to lowering the interest-rate limit.
“Instalment loans are long-, not short-term loans, and they provide an important source of credit for many Canadians who cannot access credit elsewhere,” the organization said.
“Any reduction to the federal maximum interest rate will result in removal of access to credit for those Canadians with lower credit scores who previously qualified at the current rates. The government should not take any action that results in denial of credit to Canadians, or forces borrowers to access credit from illegal, unlicensed lenders.”
A survey of 376 ACORN members published by the group last February found 40 per cent of respondents were turned down by a traditional bank before taking out a high-interest loan. Seventeen per cent said they’re now unable to make repayments due to COVID-19.
The federal government should seek ways to provide alternative lines of credit to low-income Canadians, such as mandating banks to offer lower-interest loans, Bordon said.
Besides setting up a complaints process for consumer lending that’s stronger than the provinces’ systems, it should also consider postal banking for rural areas and small towns, she added.
The ACORN survey found that 70 per cent of its survey respondents had once turned to payday loans. Forty-five per cent had taken out instalment loans, an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when only 11 per cent said they’d taken out such loans.
ACORN represents low- to moderate-income Canadians. Sixty per cent of its survey respondents earn less than $30,000 a year.
Federal budget 2021: Ottawa ties end of financial supports to completion of COVID-19 vaccination campaign
The federal government will extend its business and income support programs until the country’s vaccination campaign is complete, but their subsidy levels will start to drop before the deadline for all Canadians to get their shots.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget, tabled Monday, sets Sept. 25 as the end date for the direct business and personal income supports the government introduced in response to the pandemic. That is in line with the end-of-summer deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set for the completion of Canada’s vaccine rollout. It’s widely expected Canadians could also be sent back to the polls around that time.
The government proposes spending $15.1-billion more to extend the emergency support programs until September and create a new subsidy, which Ms. Freeland called a “lifeline” for Canadians and businesses in her speech to the House of Commons.
The budget also, for the first time, pegged the cost of Canada’s vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion; however, officials were not able to provide any details on that number, including how much has been already spent or allocated.
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it was encouraged by the extension of the business supports during the pandemic and cautioned against their hasty withdrawal. “The government must ensure that support is not being removed too early and that the level of support does not decrease too quickly,” president Perrin Beatty said in a statement.
On Monday, neither Ms. Freeland nor federal officials were able to explain why the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, Lockdown Support and the Canada Recovery Benefit will all decrease before the vaccination program is expected to be complete. The government also did not say whether the decrease is based on metrics such as COVID-19 case counts or vaccination rates.
“No one knows for sure what the course of the virus and new variants will be, and that is why we are prepared to act further and to further extend the supports should the course of the virus require that,” Ms. Freeland said at a news conference.
The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit are also set to end in September. If the pandemic gets worse, the government will introduce legislation that will allow it to extend those programs until Nov. 20.