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

































Sunday, August 18, 2019

Glaciers and whales in Juneau, Alaska

One of the most popular ports on Alaska cruises is Juneau. It’s a unique destination because there are no connecting roads to other cities, making it only accessible by water (such as on a cruise) or air.
Glaciers are plentiful in southeastern Alaska.
Nestled next to Gastineau Channel in the Alaskan panhandle, Juneau is Alaska’s capital and second largest city. Mount Juneau rises above the city’s downtown area, providing a scenic setting of mountains and water. Boats from luxury cruise ships to local fishing boats and small floatplanes fill the waterfront.
Mendenhall Glacier
Above the historic downtown (included in the gold rush) is 1500 square miles of pure glistening glacier known as the JuneauIcefield. Having flown via helicopter over these magnificent glaciers on a previous visit---and landed for the quintessential Alaskan experience of dog sledding—we opted for a small group photography excursion during our most recent cruise.
This excursion combined two of the things Juneau is most known for—Mendenhall Glacier and Orca whales. We got good opportunities for pictures of both.
Waterfall on our hike
Because of the surrounding ice, many people don’t realize that Juneau is deep in a temperate rain forest. There are more hiking trails than roads, which makes it a perfect place for nature-lovers. So our morning began with a hike  on Steep Creek Trail to Mendenhall Glacier through a thick forest canopy. Located in the Mendenhall Valley 14 miles from the city center, the glacier flows 12 miles from its source and has a half-mile-wide face.
Dense vegetation in the forest
Along the trail were posted year markers showing how far the glacier had extended in the past. Since it loses about 75 feet a year, the signs and photos showed a remarkable story of glacier retreating. Yet, the geography and unique climate of the area has allowed Mendenhall Glacier to survive much longer than other glaciers in North America.

Mendenhall Glacier extends around the upper left corner.
Despite a report of a bear sighting on another trail, we didn’t see any, even though salmon were plentiful in the surrounding lake. Still we had a good look at the glacier and later spotted large, red salmon darting among fallen branches and leaves in the water.
Lots of sea lions
Following a short bus ride to the harbor, we boarded a small boat designed for photography. Large windows on both sides of the enclosed space opened fully to allow for unencumbered picture-taking. During the boat tour we spotted a dolphin, numerous sea lions, a sea otter floating on its back, and an eagle.

Whale tail as it descends into the water
When we arrived at the area where Orcas hang out, it didn’t take long to spot a female whale named Flame. She had a cub and ducked underwater to escape prying human eyes. Another female whale named Riddler was more accommodating, darting in and out of the water several times, allowing us to take numerous quick photos.
Tell-tale spout before a whale surfaces
Once the Orca’s tail has gone under water, it is generally 10 minutes or so before the whale will surface again. But you never know just where that will be. So we were all mesmerized watching for the spout of water that signals a whale about to surface.

Too soon it was time to head back to the ship where we heard about other outdoor adventures that cruisers had enjoyed including canoeing near the glacier, flight seeing, dog sledding, exploring native art, zip lining in the forest, river rafting, and salmon fishing.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Sunday, August 4, 2019

A garden wonderland for your bucket list

 It’s Fantasyland for the horticulturist and Wonderworld for the masses. Famed Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, is a blue-ribbon showplace in one of the loveliest corners of the world.
Every path leads to another spectacular view.

Visitors marvel at the variety and harmony achieved by co-mingling easily recognizable flowers like dainty purple daisies and ruffled pink geraniums with unusual specimens such as teardrop fuchsia and delicate drooping trout lily.  Since passing the century mark in 2004, privately owned Butchart Gardens has featured more spectacular scenes than ever within its 55 acres. 

Never-ending vision

With different plants in bloom 46 weeks of the year, each season (The Gardens counts five seasons—spring, summer, autumn, Christmas, and winter) brings new items of beauty and interest for the public’s pleasure.  Fifty full time gardeners and additional part time staff work in 26 greenhouses year round to supply The Gardens with the best possible plant specimens.
Twelve thousand tulip bulbs are imported annually from Holland to provide a dramatic prelude to spring. One and a half million annuals grown on-site plus flowering trees and shrubs fill beds and lawns with a brilliant display of shapes, textures, and colors. 

Summer is nirvana for plant lovers.  Not only are flowers blooming in myriad hues, but also thousands of colored lights transform each night into a glowing floral delight, casting shadows and a magical luster on trees and shrubs. On Saturday evenings fireworks light up the sky, and guest artists perform on the Concert Lawn. 

Colors peak in mid-October with flaming red and russet maples and 53 varieties of chrysanthemums leading the autumn parade.  As the blooming season winds down, guests enjoy greenhouse tours in November.
Christmas displays are crowd pleasers every year, and visitors enjoy ice skating on the outdoor rink during the winter.  Background shrubs take center stage while flowering plants are dormant. The family home on the estate was christened “Benvenuto,” Italian for “Welcome,” and during the winter it is open for tours showcasing memorabilia that chronicle development of The Gardens. 

In the beginning

In 1904 Jennie Butchart, wife of successful cement manufacturer Robert Butchart, began to beautify an abandoned limestone quarry near the family home. Originally, the quarry was expected to support the cement factory Butchart built in 1898 on Tod Inlet. However, the quarry was soon exhausted, leaving an ugly, empty gravel pit.
As a diversion, Jennie set about transforming this bleak sight.  Under her personal supervision, top soil was brought in by horse and cart, and other improvements were made.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers planted under her watchful eye eventually took shape as the Sunken Garden.
Friends and neighbors flocked to see Jennie’s beautiful gardens, and visitors traveling to Vancouver Island spread the word about the floral displays.  During the 1920’s more than fifty thousand people admired Jennie’s creation, and it began to take on a life of its own.  As the concrete business declined, Jennie established a viable business by offering guided tours with a cup of tea, an idea that proved popular with both locals and visitors.
Since Jennie’s husband Robert collected ornamental birds from all over the world and kept live ducks and peacocks, many elaborate birdhouses were stationed throughout the gardens.  The Butcharts incorporated landscaping visions from their world travels in the form of a Japanese Garden on the sea-side of their home and later an Italian Garden and a Rose Garden. 
Traditional hospitality is still evident during High Tea in The Dining Room Restaurant when fruit and yogurt as well as a generous selection of tea sandwiches and homemade sweets are served.

Whether you stroll on well-maintained paths meandering through several distinct garden sections and expansive lawns or rest beside one of the many cooling water features, you’re experiencing the result of more than a century of pride and caring from Butchart family members. Memories of this spectacular wonderland will stay with you a very long time.

Getting there: The Butchart Gardens are located on Vancouver Island, 14 miles north of Victoria and 12.5 miles south of the Vancouver-Victoria ferry terminal at Swartz Bay. Ferries are available from several points in Vancouver and Washington state, or you can arrive by plane or boat. Allow at least three hours to absorb the elegance of Butchart Gardens.