Thursday, September 19, 2019

Wellness destinations appeal to Colorado visitors

In Colorado, wellness is not just a trend. Colorado’s outdoors, active lifestyle, fresh air and sunshine appeal to visitors in search of wellness offerings. 

Historians estimate that as many as one-third of Colorado’s early settlers moved to the state for reasons associated with health. Several historic Colorado destinations and landmarks such as The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder were originally founded, and are still sought after, as places for wellness retreats and individual healing. 

These one-stop wellness spots give visitors the opportunity to refresh, recharge and reconnect.

Boulder: In the late 1800s, John Harvey Kellogg founded the Boulder-Colorado Sanitarium and Hospital promoting ‘hydro-therapy, exercise and a vegetarian diet’ as the way to good health. From Mount Sanitas came the word sanitarium, and today the area is home to popular hiking trails.

Boulder Farmers' Market, a hub for the local community for 30 years,
 has been named #1 farmers' market in the U.S.
In 1898, the Colorado Chautauqua was built at the foot of the Flatirons as a family retreat focusing on nature, culture and music. Today, Boulder offers 45,000 acres of unspoiled outdoor beauty for visitors to explore via 300 miles of hiking and biking trails. 

Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks offers Shinrin Yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing, a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Shinrin-yoku has been scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones in the body, lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, boost mood and more.

Breckenridge: In recent years, Breckenridge’s county was ranked among the highest life expectancies in the country according to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Wellness is the way of everyday life in Breckenridge with more than 60 miles of trails taking off from downtown historic Main Street for year-round adventures.
Mountain biking through Gold Run Gulch and mining ruins near Brechenridge
Other features include a newly-renovated 17-million dollar recreation center, welcoming yoga studios and innovative spas (complete with grottos, reflexology, CBD, TCM, reiki treatments) peppered throughout town, and local makers creating tinctures, salves and elixirs from native Breckenridge plants.

Colorado Springs: As far back as 3,000 years ago, the indigenous Ute people lived near Garden of the Gods Park. The area also served as a Native American crossroads, where numerous nomadic tribes gathered in peace. Beginning in the early 20th century, the city’s dry air, nearly year-round sunshine and high altitude attracted those afflicted with tuberculosis. Following the Gold Rush, Colorado Springs’ first major economic driver was wellness tourism. More recently, Colorado Springs became known as Olympic City USA and is home to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. The city offers athletes a mild climate, incredible natural training grounds and awe-inspiring beauty. 

For feelings of peace, tranquility, and relaxation in Colorado Springs,
float in a private pod with 10 inches of water and 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt.
For decades, members and guests have come to Garden of the Gods Resort and Club not just to disconnect from the outside world, but to reconnect with the best that life has to offer. Strata Integrated Wellness Spa is a destination for holistic wellbeing that is multilayered and all encompassing. This wellness spa offers energy practice, psychotherapy, acupuncture, mindfulness work and more.

Crestone: This picturesque mountain town in the Mystic San Luis Valley region of Colorado has emerged in the last few decades as a spiritual mecca for world religions. What began as a small mining town now accommodates a Hindu temple, a Zen center, a co-ed Carmelite monastery and several Tibetan centers. Visitors can experience nearby Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa for a soak in secluded mineral hot springs and a full-service spa treatment. Joyful Journey offers a variety of accommodations ranging from classic hotel rooms to Tipis, all-season yurts and campsites.

Glenwood SpringsTherapeutic healing via hot springs and wellness treatments have a long and storied history in Glenwood Springs—a Rocky Mountain town historically called “Colorado’s Spa in the Mountains.” A wellness paradise, Glenwood Springs’ global reputation as a healthy destination dates to the 1880s, and the healing tradition continues with numerous spas offering an ever-increasing array of exceptional treatments and services. With its ample geothermal amenities and outdoor activities, Glenwood Springs is a Colorado wellness hot spot for relieving stress and restoring balance.

Glenwood Springs is home to the world's largest hot springs pool
which has been offering mental and physical health benefits since 1888.
Glenwood is home to one-of-a-kind wellness attractions that include the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, considered the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool; Iron Mountain Hot Springs with its 16 soaking pools situated along the banks of the Colorado River; and the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, the only known vapor caves in North America that offer therapeutic steam naturally.

Information courtesy of Carly Holbrook, PR for Colorado tourism, which provided photos.


Saturday, September 7, 2019

Fishing for halibut in Alaska

When you go to Homer, Alaska, the first area you’ll want to explore is the Homer Spit. This thin 4.5 mile stretch of land curves southeast from the mainland like a tongue lapping at the sea.
Bridge from the mainland to the Homer Spit
Experts think the Spit is the remains of an ancient glacial moraine that is constantly being reshaped by ocean currents. This natural feature might have disappeared years ago if humans had not decided it was worth preserving. Almost every winter storms from the northwest try to separate the 4.5 mile strip of sand and gravel from the mainland, but locals are committed to this iconic piece of history. They have built rock walls and fortified the Spit to preserve the beginnings of their town.

Archeological finds indicate that the Spit was occupied by humans long before written history. Pacific Eskimo, Athabascan Indians tribes, and Russian explorers all added their cultures, and the Spit improved economically over time. As more settlers arrived, Homer grew to encompass the foothills. After roads connected Homer to the rest of Alaska in 1950, towns on the north side of Kachemak Bay like Homer grew in importance.
Aerial view of the strip of land called Homer Spit
There’s not much to the town center (the Islands andOcean Visitor Center is worth a visit), but Old Town provides glimpses of Homer’s early history. However, it’s the Spit that has garnered most of the attention and become the center of tourist activity. Homer Harbor, Seafarers’ Memorial, Mariner Park, the Salty Dawg watering hole and lighthouse—along with a plethora of gift shops, restaurants, and tour company offices—attract strolling tourists and photographers.

Tourists enjoy walking around to see shops, restaurants, and more
on the Homer Spit.
Our first morning in Homer, we made the 10-mile drive to the end of the Spit, primarily to purchase licenses ($25 each) for our halibut fishing excursion in the afternoon. Not being avid fisher people, we chose to do this mainly for the experience—catching fish would be a bonus.
After a bumpy hour and three-quarters ride in a relatively small boat to the spot populated by many halibut, we were instructed to drop our baited lines (outfitted with a 2-pound weight) 200 feet to the bottom of the ocean. Then the fun began!
I struggled to reel in a large halibut.
It wasn’t enough that the boat lurched with the waves so that keeping balance wasn’t easy, but reeling the line was awkward for my left-handed self. Several times I could feel that a fish was hooked and struggled to reel in about 20 +  pounds of flipping fish, but I got too tired to continue, and the halibut managed to escape. Not the result I hoped for.

“You have to reel it in yourself,” the guide told me. “And don’t stop until it’s in the boat.” Something about regulations that prevented them from catching the fish for us, especially since we were only allowed two halibut per person. I was determined not to be a total failure at this, even though I often wailed, “I can’t do this!”
We caught our limit--2 halibut each.

So, I’ll tell you that fishing for halibut is hard work. Larry managed to get his limit a while before I did. But I finally had my catches tagged and stowed, awaiting what comes next.
Before beginning the filleting process on the return boat ride, the guides offered to take pictures of us with our 60-80 pounds of halibut. With all the fish filleted and bagged, the crew tossed scraps overboard as an easy meal for the circling gulls.
Guides were very adept at filleting the fish.
As I walked my exhausted self off the boat, a guide handed me a package with all the “meat” from our four fish. It was so heavy I almost dropped it to the ground. We estimate there were at least 25-30 pounds of fish filets in that bag.

Since this was the beginning of our three-week trip, we decided not to have the fish shipped back to Texas. Instead, on the recommendation of a local Alaskan, we took the bag of filets to Captain Pattie’s Fish Market on the Spit. This restaurant cooked an amazing meal with our really fresh fish. And then the waitress set a huge platter of halibut filets fried with a light, fluffy crust on our table, enough for four more meals—which greatly satisfied our taste for halibut.
Each piece of fish is a serving size, so we enjoyed several meals
from our catch.
And more lucky restaurant clients got the benefit of fresh fish from our excursion.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Friday, August 30, 2019

On the way to Homer, Alaska

“I had forgotten how beautiful Alaska is,” my husband Larry exclaimed as we started the drive from Anchorage to Homer. He’s right--the majestic mountain scenery does not disappoint.
Driving from Anchorage to Homer, Alaska
Having cruised the Inside Passage in Alaska many years ago (a trip everyone should take once in a lifetime!), we wanted to explore new places on this recent journey. Driving to the southwestern tip of the state seemed like a good place to start.

 We headed south from Anchorage along the Seward Highway before picking up the Sterling Highway. Much of this route follows the Kenai River. The salmon had just started to run, and we saw people fishing in boats and waders.
A perfect 72 degree day with blue skies and sunshine provided our introduction to this region. The drive could be done in 4.5 hours, but we were on the road for double that time as we stopped to take in the sights at scenic lookouts such as volcanoes across Cook Inlet.
Our first long stop was at Kenai National WildlifeRefuge, a popular visitor attraction not too far from Anchorage. Here you can get close to bull moose, wolves, foxes, bison, elk, caribou, deer, porcupines, and much more.
Elk at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Designed as a sanctuary for preserving wildlife, the center offers guided tours (but you can easily walk the paved trails on your own), enrichment programs, research, and quality care for abandoned or needy animals.
Visitors can walk on this raised path and view wildlife below.
One of the brown bears we saw
from the raised path.
A highlight was the center’s new raised bridge and pathway that allows visitors to observe and photograph wildlife roaming below without the encumbrance of fences. The most thrilling event, of course, was watching several brown bears amble by, munching on berries to fatten up before winter comes.

Forests on either side of the highway added another dimension to the landscape. Bright fuchsia fireweed flowers decorated fields along the way. Since roadsides are not mowed, wildflowers are able to flourish naturally.
After an impromptu lunch of elk and caribou brats purchased at the Wildlife Center and devoured later beside Summit Lake, we continued driving past Turn Again Arm and Cook Inlet. This stretch of highway is one of the most beautiful in all of Alaska.

Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik
Just for curiosity, we stopped at Ninilchik, a small village with a notable Russian Orthodox Church and cemetery. The location gave us another great look at Chigmit Mountains and Iliamna Volcano on the other side of the Inlet.
Puffin cabin outside Homer that we stayed in for four nights.
Eventually, we arrived at Kenai Peninsula Suites, a few miles outside Homer and our home for the next four days. Constructed like a yurt with a circular roof that comes to a peak at the top (to let in light and let smoke out in the old days), our cabin was well-equipped with a modern bedroom on the ground floor and living room, kitchenette, and bathroom on the second floor.

Large circle at the top of the ceiling
in our yurt-designed cabin.

Another outstanding view of the bay and mountains greeted us in back, along with native flora and blooming wildflowers. We  didn’t  need the fire pit since the weather was so warm, but we shared a peaceful sigh as the serene calmness of this place settled in at sunset.
View from behind the cabin. Fireweed was in full bloom.
Good thing, too, because our next couple of days would be filled with exhaustive adventures and exciting memories.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Saturday, August 24, 2019

Bots deliver customer service for travel insurance company

 On the second floor of a high-rise office building in Richmond, Va., six bots are quietly delivering better customer service. Article by Christopher Elliott

Ada handles claims. Walter III specializes in documentation requests. Hedy, DaVinci, Marconi and Jude perform support functions. Together, they complete a total of 26 tasks and thousands of transactions a month at Allianz Travel Insurance.

Bots of Allianz Insurance: from right to left--
Maconi, Jude, Hedi, Walter III, and Ada
Photo courtesy of Christopher Elliott
"They're helping us get more done," says Brian McCray, whose official title is RPA developer. But you can call him the Robot Overlord. He doesn't seem to mind.

McCray and his team of bots are at the vanguard of a customer service revolution. Chatbots, the applications that talk to customers, are the flashy face of the movement. But behind the scenes, there's a growing army of bots hidden from sight and silently working to deliver better customer service. 

Yes, artificial bots are controversial (even the good ones) when it comes to customer service.

·         Only 15% of consumers have used bots to communicate with businesses in the past 12 months, according to Drift's latest State of Chatbots report.

·         A survey by CGS found many consumers still prefer human agents to chatbots. Nearly 50 percent of U.K. respondents and around 40 percent of U.S. respondents said they'd rather deal with a person. 

·         A UJET poll found 58% of respondents believe that chatbots were not as effective as expected.

If you've participated in a chat with a customer service
representative, you might have dealt with a bot.
Companies are adding new technology slowly and thoughtfully. Ideally, customers won't even notice they're dealing with artificial intelligence (A.I.). 

What are customer service bots?

The Allianz customer service bots probably aren't what you would expect. They're a row of simple computer terminals, each with its name scribbled on a green sticky note. The screens display an electronic travel insurance form, and the bots automatically fill out the forms. They also create automated emails that request everything from medical documentation to meal receipts.  

McCray says these applications can handle the same tasks it once took dozens of humans to do. Bots do it faster and usually error-free. 

"That's the benefit of automation," he says. "It frees us up to handle the customer service interactions that a bot can't do. And it allows us to spend more time with our customers."

You've probably already received better customer service from a bot. 

If you've ever had to fill in a travel insurance form, you've probably seen Ada's work. She handles a lot of the repetitive tasks, such as asking for receipts, hospital bills and expenses. You probably didn't suspect there was a bot behind the request.

The company's first bot came online in late 2017. Since then, McCray and his team added another five, and they have plans to add more. Bots have become central part of the company's customer support functions. They've helped cut in half the time it takes Allianz to process a claim. Bots don’t go on vacation and they don’t take coffee breaks.

"Bots ensure that every user gets the very best experience," says Bret Greenstein, vice president and global head of artificial intelligence at Cognizant Digital Business. "This kind of interaction allows a company to digitize the complete user experience, providing tremendous data and insights about what customers want, how they ask for help, and how they feel."

Some bots don't deliver better service

"Consumers can get caught in frustration loops," says Tracy Sherman, a senior marketing manager at Helpshift, a company that develops A.I. customer service applications. "This can have a significant negative impact on customer satisfaction and even affect retention and acquisition numbers." 

Muddu Sudhakar, CEO of Aisera, which develops A.I. applications, says there are other potential customer service bot downsides. "The technology adoption curve includes the possibility of false positives and incorrect results," he says. "All of these, however, improve over time with self-learning capabilities and training."

Bots work better when they're part of a team

If you're facing the row of bots at the Allianz headquarters, turn around. That's where you'll find Doug, the bot handler. He spends his entire working day with Ada, Walter III, Hedy, and the others, ensuring they are not trying to overthrow the universe. McCray says bots can't do everything. At some point, there has to be a hand-off to a human agent.

"Bots can't stand on their own," says Priya Iyer, CEO of Vee24, a company that provides live customer engagement solutions. "They need to be integrated with every aspect of a company's systems, from CRM to online banking or order tracking to be effective. And, more importantly, they need to be able to escalate to a human agent when they are unable to respond. 

What's the future of bots in customer service?

More bots will start to come online, ushering in a new era of more automated customer service.
Cute, wheeled bots like this may find a
place in customer service, too.
"Bots will only continue to improve the customer experience," predicts Ido Bornstein-HaCohen, CEO of Conversocial, a social media customer service firm. “We're talking more than 90 percent automation, and it's not that far away."

Of course, the technology will get better. "As the A.I. improves, customer service bots will be able to learn on the fly by analyzing the inputs entered by real customer service agents in response to requests it couldn't handle," says Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at  For now, Allianz’s bots are just doing the mundane, repetitive tasks that entry-level employees used to have to do. 

Christopher Elliott's latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). For help with any consumer problem, please visit This article originally appeared in Forbes.
© 2019 Christopher Elliott.

Additional photos from free sources