Monday, November 24, 2014

Melaleuca moves to new headquarters; open house still pending

The empty parking lot at Melaleuca's old office building on South Yellowstone Highway.
Melaleuca, Inc., moved its operations last week from South Yellowstone Highway to its new $50 million complex near Interstate 15 Exit 113, but there are a lot of finishing touches to be made.

Company spokesman Anthony Lima said employees are settling in, but many of the common areas still need to be finished. He estimated the work could take another few weeks and that an open house may come after the first of the year.

Melaleuca broke ground nearly two years ago on its 371,000-square-foot corporate headquarters nearly triple in size of the office space it was occupying. The new location puts it closer to the company's research and development building and warehouse.

The stage for expansion was set in July 2012 with the announcement of a $399,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Bonneville County for sewer line extensions, a lift station and roadway widening. Melaleuca contributed $1 million of its own money to the project, bringing its total infrastructure investment in the area to $2.3 million.

At the time of the groundbreaking, Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot said he expected the project to result in new jobs, but declined to estimate how many. Melaleuca passed $1 billion in annual sales in 2011. The company makes and distributes close to 350 health and wellness products through a network of "marketing executives" who earn commissions based on product purchases by customers they refer.

Although the majority of Melaleuca’s business growth has been in the United States and Canada, global sales accounted for 45 percent of the company's 2013 revenues. Melaleuca does business in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Singapore, Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Broulim's confirmed as Sandcreek Commons tenant

Broulim's first store, on Rigby's Main Street.
Ball Ventures and Woodbury Corp., the developers of the Sandcreek Commons shopping center in Ammon, confirmed today that regional grocer Broulim’s will be one of the anchor tenants, joining Cabela’s and Hobby Lobby.

The new grocery store will be constructed near Cabela’s off Hitt and Sunnyside Road. It will be roughly 60,000 square feet and the company’s plan is for it to open in spring 2016.

Broulim’s is a family-owned grocery chain founded by Charlie Broulim with the first store opening on Rigby’s Main Street in 1922. The Ammon grocery location will be the tenth store for the chain. Broulim’s has stores around eastern Idaho and western Wyoming, including Rexburg, Driggs, Afton and Montpelier. The Ammon store will add roughly 100 jobs, taking the company workforce to well over 900.

The new location in Ammon isn’t the first time Broulim’s has served the Idaho Falls’ area. “My grandfather Charlie Broulim and his brother actually opened a store in Idaho Falls in 1928. It was the first store in Idaho Falls to include a bakery,” said company president Robert Broulim. “We are excited to be returning to the Idaho Falls area. This is an opportunity we have been looking forward to for many years.”

Eric Isom, Ball Ventures’ chief development officer, called Broulim’s an ideal fit for the new Ammon retail center. “We have enjoyed working with such a respected Idaho company and are pleased to be part of bringing them to Sandcreek Commons.”

Sandcreek Commons is a 40-acre development located in Ammon, currently home to Zions Bank and Wendy’s. D.L. Evans Bank is building a branch, and Mountain America Credit Union filed site plans this week to build a location next to Wendy’s. Overall, the plan is for a mixed-use development with retail, restaurant and other uses. For more information, call (208) 523-3794 or visit ballventures.com.
A map of the Sandcreek Commons Shopping Center (click to enlarge)

Idaho Falls company sells mermaid tails worldwide

Fin Fun's seven mermaid princesses (from left): Brynn, Zoey, Destiny, Crystal, Jia, Waverlee and Serena
Landlocked Idaho Falls is the last place you might expect to find mermaids, but a local company has turned one young girl’s fascination into a global enterprise.

Fin Fun, a company with its headquarters on Sunnyside Road, is now shipping mermaid tails and suits to 86 countries. The company has grown to 40 people, and has 100 seamstresses spread out across the upper Snake River Valley, from Blackfoot to Rexburg.

“Our market is little girls all over the world,” said Melinda Turner, the company’s marketing director.

It started in 2009, when Karen Browning of St. Anthony got a puzzling request from her granddaughter Emily, to make her a mermaid tail. "Having sewn for over 50 years, I laughed and said, 'I don't know how to make mermaid tails,'" Browning said. "Well, she soon showed me that by ingenuity and working together, we could do it."

Using spandex swimsuit material and rigid material for the fin, Browning applied her sewing skills to the project. "It proved so popular as she and her sister Sarah swam in them that soon her friends were asking where they could get their very own tail," Browning said. She knew she was onto something. She began selling them on eBay and set up a store on Etsy.

Demand took off, so much so that Browning’s sons, Eric and Steve, came back to eastern Idaho to run the company. Forging a relationship with Elevate Fulfillment, a third-party logistics company on Lindsay Boulevard, the company grew.

From a marketing standpoint, Fin Fun offers a great lesson in what the Internet has made possible. Turner has set up a Web site, www.Finfunmermaids.com, that features not only the company’s products but art, photos, videos and a Meet the Mermaidens blog written by Emma Turner, 16, a student at Hillcrest High School. The Facebook page has more than 27,000 likes.

The company also makes shark fins for boys and just this Monday released a merman tail. Turner said the hottest markets of late are Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the Philippines, where there are classes that teach girls and boys how to swim with the fins.

With 39 grandchildren, Browning has a special place in her heart for young people. “We have been delighted to be a part of making dreams come true for so many little (and bigger) mermaids,” she said. "Even now, after so much growth, we are proud that all of our suits, costumes and monofins are still made here in the USA.”

In addition to offering the best product they can make at an affordable price, Fin Fun donates a generous amount of its profits to children's causes. In 2013, these included Primary Children’s Hospital, Make-A-Wish Foundation, World Association for Children and Parents, Idaho Falls Humanitarian Center, Unicef, Mentors International, CASA, Amazima Ministries, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Operation Smile and Idaho Art Lab.

“We hope to do even more to bless the lives of children,” Browning said.

Here’s a YouTube video:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

American Nuclear Society honors four from Idaho

David Nigg
Four members of the Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society are being honored this week by the American Nuclear Society at the organization’s winter meeting. The honors are for professional contributions to the organization and to the nuclear profession.

David Nigg, Idaho Falls, was one of five members selected as an ANS Fellow. “Fellow” is the highest membership level within ANS, reserved for senior members who have compiled a professional record of significant contributions in to the advancement of nuclear science, engineering and technology. Nigg is also an INL Fellow and the principal investigator for the laboratory’s Advanced Radiotherapy program. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Kansas, a master’s in nuclear engineering from Texas A&M University and a doctorate in engineering sciences from the University of Kansas.

Shannon Bragg-Sitton, Idaho Falls, received the Mary Jane Oestmann Professional Women’s Achievement Award for her exceptional contributions to the U. S. Department of Energy’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program and nuclear hybrid energy programs. Prior to joining Idaho National Laboratory, she served as an assistant professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University. She received a Master of Science and doctorate in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan.

Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, Idaho Falls, received the Landis Public /Communication and Education Award. She is an Associate Professor and the Associate Chair in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Health Physics at Idaho State University. She received her Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 2003. Her research interests include the nuclear fuel cycle, systems modeling, spent fuel processing, and waste form development. She is the chair of the ANS Public Communication Committee.

Brad Merrill received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the ANS Fusion Energy Division. He is a distinguished engineer in the Nuclear Science & Engineering Experiment Programs Department at INL. He is the technical lead for computer code development for fusion safety. He also works on licensing, fusion safety code development and modifications for computer codes for the ITER International Project. He has a bachelor of science degree in nuclear engineering from Oregon State University.

The Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society was honored for providing the Best Public Information among the large ANS local sections within the organization.

Established in 1954, ANS is an international professional organization of engineers and scientists devoted to the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. Its more than 11,000 members represent government, academia, research laboratories, medical facilities and private industry.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Westbank closure puts holiday party space at a premium

The dividing line between the Hotel on the Falls and the Westbank Convention Center. The latter has been closed since late August, when owner Dane Watkins decided to look for someone to lease or buy the business.
If you're wondering why there are barriers and a fence between the Hotel on the Falls and the locked-up Westbank Restaurant and Lounge, they've been erected for liability reasons, said Dane Watkins, owner of the latter property.

With the holiday reception and party season at hand, the Westbank's closure has put space at a premium, and the Shilo Inn is doing business like never before. Anyone thinking about an event between now and the end of the year has only Monday and Tuesday from which to choose, said Bill Gossett of Keefer's Island Restaurant and Catering.

While the Westbank's closure, which happened in late August, has meant more business for his catering company, Gossett said there was enough business for everybody. "We're sad to see them go, but very happy we can accommodate the community," he said.

Watkins said he is looking for someone interested in leasing or buying the business. Signs in the door to the restaurant say "Closed for remodeling," but they're waiting to hear what any potential operator might say needs to be done, he said, adding that he recognizes the site's great location and historical resonance.

The restaurant and lounge, motel and pool (now frozen solid) date back to the early 1960s, when they were built by Ferris Clark, who started on the land with two log buildings in the 1920s. Clark, the grandson of Idaho Falls' first mayor, built the eight-story tower in the mid-1970s and reportedly had plans for a second where the convention center and motel now stand empty. Due to age and declining health he retired in 1980, and died in 1987 at age 79.

After his departure, the hotel went by different names, including Best Western, Red Lion and finally the Hotel on the Falls. Until 2012, the property was owned by Jim and Sharon Bennett and Robert and Sharon Paulus. That year, the hotel was deeded to trusts set up by the families while Watkins bought the convention center and the land on which it sits.

In 2006, an Indian company called Om Shiv Ganesh LLC took over operation of the hotel and convention center. Doing business as Red Lion Hotel on the Falls, the managing partner, Bhupendra Patel, took out a $4.37 million mortgage in 2006. In summer 2008, terms were amended to reduce the unpaid balance to $2.505 million, then, in April 2011 the company got a loan extension allowing it to make interest-only payments for six months. But with the economy at a low, the company's struggles didn't end. In June this year, Idaho Hotel Holdings, the Los Angeles company that now owns the tower, filed a default judgment against Om Shiv Ganesh for more than $3.4 million, claiming they had stopped making payments after December 2012 and failed to pay property taxes for five years.

Brady Kraupp, who runs the hotel for Westerra Realty & Management, the Salt Lake City company managing the receivership, said he's optimistic about the tower's future. "It's in pretty good shape, really," he said. "It's a concrete building. We're hoping to have a new owner after the first of the year, perhaps have some chain come in and buy it. I could be partial, but we still have the best view and the biggest rooms."

Meanwhile they're getting dozens of phone calls every day from people wondering if they can rent a room for a party. Sales manager Tom Williams tells them to call the Shilo.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Togo's opening first eastern Idaho restaurant in Rexburg

Togo's Eateries is opening its first eastern Idaho restaurant in Rexburg at 485 North 2nd East. To celebrate the occasion, it is giving away 1,000 free hot pastrami and turkey avocado sandwiches and giving guests a chance at winning free sandwiches for a year, free product, a catering party and more.

The grand opening will take place Nov. 2. The Togo's team will also host a training fund-raiser for Madison High School Athletics on Tuesday from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. There is a $5 suggested cash donation in exchange for a regular sandwich and drink.

"We've been hooked on Togo's since our first bite," said franchisee Debbie Jenkins, who with her husband, Ty, announced plans last spring to open five Togo’s in Rexburg, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Twin Falls. "We sincerely love the food and know the people of Rexburg will love it too."
In all, the restaurant plans seven weeks of giveaways, including:

The hot pastrami or turkey avacado sandwiches will go to the first 1,000 people to sign up at www.togosrexburggiveaway.com. The coupon will be valid Nov. 21-26.

Week 2, free sandwiches for a year will go to every 100th guest.

Togo's Rexburg will be open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Guests can call 208-372-8040 or visit http://www.togos.com to place an order. Delivery will be available throughout the local community.

Gator Jack's opening in old Winger's location

James Pace amid the remodeling in the old Winger's restaurant, soon to reopen as Gator Jack's.
You might not have noticed, but the old Winger's building on Hitt Road has changed from blue to green. It will soon be the second location of Gator Jack's, a Rigby restaurant operated for seven years by James and Kimberly Pace.

Pace said he hopes to be open by Dec. 1, but admitted it might be more like the middle of the month. The interior of the 3,300-square-foot restaurant is being remodeled to give it a "swampier" motif. Gator Jack's specializes in Cajun food, fried chicken, gator tail, etc.

Originally from California, Pace's experience includes operating a bed and breakfast in Saco, Maine. He came to eastern Idaho in 2004 to attend BYU-Idaho, after which he started Gator Jack's near the North Rigby exit on U.S. Highway 20.

If you want to know more, the Facebook page is as good a place to look as any: https://www.facebook.com/GatorJacks.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rocknak's opening Postal Service shipping center

Brian Rocknak of Rocknak's Hardware
Rocknak's Hardware will be opening a U.S. Postal Service mail and shipping center in its store. When that will happen is a good question, but they hope it will be in time for the holiday rush.

Idaho Falls' west side has been without such a location since Walker's closed in the spring. Brian Rocknak said the USPS approached several businesses in the area, and that he and his father, Dave, decided it made good business sense, as it would bring more people in the door.

The contract was signed in October, and they are now waiting for fixtures and training from the Postal Service. They plan to be hiring three people to help out, he said.

A west side retail mainstay since 1996, when Dave Rocknak bought Jones Hardware, Rocknak's has carved out a niche for itself on a few different fronts. "This is the best year we have had since we opened the new store in 2005," Brian Rocknak said.

Right now, their hottest selling item is .22-caliber shells. "For some reason, everybody else is having a hard time getting them, but we've got a few sources and have been able to keep them in stock, he said.

Also, the store's special focus on bird seed and bird feeders has made it a destination for a lot of people in the areas. "I never thought it would be that big a part of our business, but it has," he said.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Take a Chance: Hire a Veteran

In all my years in HR management, Mike, the mechanics laborer, is my most memorable hire and recruit.

The position was with a company in Boise that did industrial repairs for major companies and corporations. It was entry-level, supporting more of the technical and high skilled positions. The work was laborious and the pay was low. We were not hopeful about finding solid candidates, because unemployment was low at the time and the job offered no benefits. It would be a challenge finding someone willing and able to do the work, let alone stay with it more than a few days.

Then we met Mike. After 10 years in the United States Army, working with tanks and combat equipment, he had decided he needed a change. With a couple of tours in Iraq under his belt he headed off into the civilian world to find a new career.

I’ll never forget looking at his resume and being surprised how with his extensive experience he hadn’t found a job after leaving the Army. Actually, I was completely shocked.

I asked him why he thought he hadn’t found a job.  His response was just as surprising. He looked at me, paused for a moment and said, “I guess what I did in the Army doesn’t really make sense to a lot of companies and I don’t have the right skills or experience to fit their needs.”  He said his search had been so disheartening and disappointing he was considering rejoining the military.

I hired Mike on the spot. His supervisor, who was a very tough manager to please, respected Mike so much that he told people every mechanics laborer needed to be “just like Mike.” Mike worked hard and moved up in the company.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 800,000 veterans are currently unemployed nationally. According to a 2012 study, 60 percent of veterans listed “finding a job” as the greatest challenge in transitioning to civilian life.

As we wake up and hurry off to work on Veteran’s Day, many of the people who fought for our freedom would like to be doing the same. Veterans deserve a chance to prove themselves as solid candidates. They deserve more than the opportunity to shake hands and pass out resumes at career fairs.

Employers who choose to unfairly evaluate or consider veterans for open positions could face discriminatory legal liabilities. However, the loss for not considering veterans goes well beyond lawsuits. Employers who choose not to consider veterans as candidates are missing out on a large pool of high-caliber candidates.

While logistics technician, paratrooper or even combat infantry might seem like military jobs with
non-transferable skills, they actually are. Regardless of job title, military service provides high-level leadership development and vocational training to all service members. Many times this extensive and high-intensity training comes in a non-traditional and high-stress environment. Veterans are accustomed to working in diverse and cross-functional teams to accomplish common goals. They are detail oriented and adapt quickly. They have the ability to handle conflicting priorities and expectations and hold others accountable for their responsibilities. High levels of compliance and discipline are engrained into their mindsets and work ethics.  Dedication, loyalty, team-work and perseverance are also traits that can’t be forgotten when considering veterans as employees.

So the question is why wouldn’t a company consider a veteran as a candidate?  Companies like JP Morgan Chase, Disney, Capital One, Toyota, Johnson and Johnson and Verizon have come up with programs to recruit and hire veterans and are wondering why other companies aren’t doing the same.

I am not suggesting that employers simply hire a veteran over another candidate just because of the veteran’s status. I am suggesting, however, that if you have entry level positions, a general pool of candidates, or are in a situation where you are considering Candidate A vs. Veteran Candidate B that you take an extra look at that veteran’s resume and really consider the potential.

As a business owner and proud wife of a veteran, I am dedicated to giving those who have served a chance to find careers and opportunities and enjoy the American dream they fought for. I challenge you today to take a stand and make a difference for these brave men and women. Isn’t your freedom worth it?

Monica Bitrick is CEO of Bitrick Consulting Group, an Idaho Falls human resources company.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I.F. Ad Fed taking entries for 2015 Gem Awards

The Idaho Falls Advertising Federation is taking entries for the 2015 edition of the Eastern Idaho Gem Awards. The competition is open to any company, organization or individual that produced advertising work at facilities here in eastern Idaho. The finished work must have appeared in 2014.

Once again, winners and others (there are no losers!) will be recognized at a blowout in late February or early March. You can find all the entry materials and instructions here.  Early-bird deadline is Dec. 9. Late deadline is Jan.12.

To make things more fun, IFAF is holding a LEGO® Building Contest on its Facebook page, now through January. It's an all-ages contest with sweet prizes, so build us something neat. You know you want to be a LEGO® Building Master. Prove it!

Victor man named to national utilities co-op board

Jay Hanson
Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative’s board president, Jay Hanson of Victor, has been elected to the board of the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation. Hanson will represent District 9, which is comprised of 12 western states and territories.

Formed in 1969, CFC is a non-profit finance cooperative created and owned by America’s electric cooperative utilities, and is guided by a 23-member board of directors that represent ten geographically defined districts. It helps ensure access to low-cost funding for electric cooperatives.
Hanson has been on Fall River Electric’s board for the past nine years. Before that, he spent 33 years as an agricultural extension agent for the University of Idaho and the University of Wyoming.

CFC was instrumental in helping Fall River Electric secure $14 million in clean renewable energy bonds, to finance the Chester hydroelectric project. “In addition to assisting us toward securing the financing, CFC’s fixed interest rate of 1.4 percent will save our owner-members over $9 million when compared to conventional financing options,” said Bryan Case, Fall River’s  CEO and general manager.

Salon h. davis holding canned food drive to aid Soup Kitchen

Salon h.davis, 2450 E. 25th Street, is partnering with Idaho Falls Soup Kitchen, 301 S. Boulevard, to collect canned food items to stock its pantry.

Founded in 1985, the Soup Kitchen is open seven days a week and serves more than 55,000 meals a year, relying solely on donations and community volunteers. People served by the Soup Kitchen include the working poor, homeless, transients, low income, elderly, children, unemployed and handicapped. No one is turned away and no questions are asked.

“In preparation for cold weather, we want to make sure they have enough donations to feed anyone who needs a good meal,” said salon owner Niki Young.

“The Soup Kitchen is an incredible resource to our community. Many of the guests that they serve are employed, but are not making a wage that is allows them to be food-secure. We cannot stand idly by while families with children struggle to obtain food. Our salon needed to find a way to help.”

From not until Nov. 29, salon h.davis is offering a $5-off coupon for any service at salon h.davis in exchange for five cans of food or five non-perishable food items. Canned fruits and vegetables, creamed soups like cream of mushroom, chicken, tuna, etc., canned chili and canned spaghetti sauce are good, too. Please consider purchasing a few extras and dropping them off this month, Tuesday through Saturday.

On a personal note, I would encourage anybody to eat lunch at the Soup Kitchen sometime. The food is always good, but you will get more than something to eat — you will meet real people who aren’t a whole lot different from yourself. You will not be taking food out of anyone else's mouth. No one is going to hassle you about whether you are deserving or “gaming the system.” What you will come away with is a true appreciation for God's love at work in the world.

"If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:17-18

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Melaleuca hands out $1.6 million in bonuses to 150 longtime employees

Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot with Jolene Hill and Dauphne Lords at Tuesday's annual employees' meeting.
Melaleuca, Inc., paid out more than $1.6 million in bonuses Tuesday at its annual employee meeting, recognizing 150 longtime employees for their years of service.

The company's loyalty and longevity bonus is available to all full- and part-time employees, regardless of position or pay level, and is simply based on length of service. The company pays $5,000 for five years, $10,000 for 10, $15,000 for 15, $33,361.55 ($20,000 net) for 20, $25,000 for 25 and $30,000 for 30 years.

Jolene Hill, a product development operations manager, and Dauphne Lords, Idaho Falls store manager, each received $25,000 checks from Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot at the event.

Fourteen employees walked away with $20,000 net checks, and 16 employees picked up $15,000 checks. Melaleuca also presented$10,000 checks to 72 employees and $5,000 checks to 46 employees.

"This check is a 'thank you' bonus for your hard work," VanderSloot told recipients. Before the meeting, VanderSloot encouraged employees receiving bonuses to think about planning for retirement. The company has created a program for a 30-year employee to have more than $1 million in the bank when they retire. All they need to do is invest the longevity bonuses, participate in the company's 401(k) matching program and achieve a modest rate of return.

"I've always put money aside, even when I didn't have much to put away," Hill said. "In a couple of years I hope to retire, and these longevity bonuses will give me freedom to do so."

Melaleuca pays its employees many types of incentives based on performance and productivity. In addition to the company's loyalty and long-term contribution bonus, Melaleuca offers many benefits that can be found on the Melaleuca jobs Web site.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

INL announces Grossenbacher leaving

John Grossenbacher
The Idaho National Laboratory announced today that John Grossenbacher, director of Battelle Energy Alliance, will be leaving and that a new chief is being sought to take his place by Sept. 30, 2015.

Grossenbacher was named INL director in February 2005 after leading the effort to land BEA the contract to manage and operate the lab. “(His) unprecedented tenure as lab director in Idaho has had a tremendous impact on the success and growth of the laboratory, and we are grateful for the strong leadership and vision he provided to INL and Battelle,” said Ron Townsend, Battelle’s executive vice president of global laboratory operations. “Under John’s leadership, BEA saw its contract with DOE extended for another five years for its stewardship of INL, while the laboratory grew in programs, capabilities, the physical campus, budget, and staff.”

Townsend said Battelle will begin a national search for a successor immediately.

Grossenbacher earned a bachelor’s of science in chemistry from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University. He served 33 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of vice admiral. Before he was selected to lead Battelle in its bid for the INL contract, Grossenbacher led efforts to develop and build joint nuclear science and technology programs across Battelle-managed laboratories and partner organizations.

As INL Director, Grossenbacher led the consolidation of Argonne National Laboratory-West and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory to form INL. During his nearly 10-year tenure, INL’s budget grew from $540 million to more than $830 million, earned 18 R&D 100 awards, and built or acquired 16 new facilities to expand the research capabilities of the laboratory. INL also attracted world-renowned scientific and technical leadership during his tenure.

Ammon, I.F., officials to discuss network, data sharing

Officials from Idaho Falls and Ammon have been summoned to meet at the Bonneville County Commission office Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. to talk about connecting their fiberoptic networks, but Idaho Falls Power Director Jackie Flowers said she has already offered her opinion that she thinks there are less expensive ways to share data.

“There’s a lot of data that moves in this world that’s not on the same piece of wire,” she said.

According to a story in Tuesday's Post Register, the meeting was called by Bonneville County Commission Chairman Roger Christensen. “You want the fastest, most reliable system you can put together, because otherwise you’re gambling with people’s lives," he told the newspaper.

But Flowers said she told county and Ammon officials in a memo last summer that she thought a virtual private network would be less expensive and just as effective. GIS address data, to aid ambulance workers and firefighters, could be updated and uploaded every night and would be available to all three parties.

“I’m a little mystified what this project is and what the need is,” she said, adding that she will be at the meeting Wednesday.

Since the mid-2000’s, Idaho Falls has had fiber strung to all compass points within city limits. Originally approved in 2002 to replace aging copper wire and allow Voice over Internet Protocol communications, the fiber connects city offices and facilities. Fiber strands are also available in pairs to businesses and Internet service providers at $1,340 per month, a cost laid out in the City Code.

At the moment, the city has 22 pairs leased to companies such as Melaleuca, Mountain View Hospital and Battelle Energy Alliance, and ISPs like Digis. Altogether, the leases net Idaho Falls Power roughly $500,000 a year. Flowers said they anticipate paying off ahead of schedule the $2.7 million loan the city took from its utility reserves to build the network.

“We’ve had a very successful run,” she said.

Because the city leases only dark fiber, it has avoided some of the legal problems cities like Chatanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., have encountered competing with telecoms like Verizon and ATT. “It’s as basic an infrastructure as you can get. We would welcome Century Link or Cable One leasing pairs if it made sense for them,” she said.

Ammon’s fiber system is newer and a work in progress. In addition to linking all its offices and facilities the city is providing four 10-gigabyte connections to Bonneville Joint School District 93. Fiber is also being leased to cell phone service providers (linking their towers) and some private businesses, said Bruce Patterson who oversees the city’s broadband operations.

Patterson said Ammon, Idaho Falls and Bonneville County would benefit by having an integrated fiber system for sharing the information for which they’re all responsible. “If we could find a more efficient way to operate it would trick down to the public,” he said.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Brothers' blog explores every aspect of traveling for next to nothing

Tickets for six for an insanely small amount of money.
I’m sure you’re aware of all the credit cards that offer travel points in exchange for signing up and charging a certain amount. Sounds confusing, or perhaps like more effort than it’s worth, right?

Guess again, says Brad Christensen, an Idaho Falls financial adviser who with his brother Sheldon has made a hobby out of exploring all the angles and traveling with their families for as little as possible.

Their accounts of these trips can be found on their blog, WorldWanderlusting.com, where they also share their secrets for almost-free travel.

“Nothing pains me worse than hearing people say, ‘I’d love to travel, but I just can’t afford it,’” Brad said.

Nevertheless, there are some basic things you want to keep in mind. What follows is his basic advice for plunging in.

A Five Finger Formula for a Frequent Flyer Fortune

In the past three years, I've stayed 49 free nights in hotels. I flew my family of six to Panama for $261 out-of-pocket. My wife and I just returned from a two-week trip to Italy that we booked for 40,000 points and $81 each.

I could go on and on, but you're catching the vision. You see, most people think they're already playing the frequent flyer mile game, but they aren't even in the stadium. There is a world of travel-hacking out there that would astonish you, and the fact that you have an Alaskan Airlines credit card is only getting you started. There are people like me who are hoarding loyalty points aggressively (chubby-kid-under-the-piƱata style) and I want to invite you to become one of them.

1. Understand the Programs

The first key to taking advantage of loyalty programs is, of course, to understand them. It's not nearly as intimidating as you'd think. To begin, know that there are essentially three forms of travel rewards you can accrue:

  • Airline Miles: You probably belong to at least one of these programs - Delta Skymiles, American AAdvantage, Southwest Rapid Rewards. These are the most visible of all loyalty points and they're a key to making free-travel happen.
  • Hotel Points: Similarly, hotel chains offer loyalty programs that usually span a few different brands. Ones that may be familiar might include the Marriott Rewards program or Hilton Honors.
  • Bank Points: These are generally deeper in the shadows, but they are supremely powerful because often they can be transferred to various other programs or spent like cash. Examples include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Barclaycard Arrival Points.

Now that you know that there are programs in each of these categories, consider that you can obtain points a few different ways.

  • Direct Usage: Airlines usually give you miles for every mile you've flown and hotels give points based on the number of dollars spent. This is a painfully slow way to accumulate points. If you consider that a domestic flight is typically 25,000 points and the United States is about 3,000 miles wide, you'd need to do at least four to five round-trip flights from coast to coast in order to have enough for a free flight.
  • Per Dollar Spending on Credit Cards: If you have a business that is heavy on inventory or that makes other large-dollar purchases that you can pay with a credit card, this is a great way to build points, yet most of us are not that fortunate. I find that I can spend about $1,000 to $1,500 per month in everyday expenses, also making the accrual to free-travel levels achingly sluggish.
  • Upfront Bonuses from Credit Cards: For me this has been the rainmaker. In the past three years, my wife and I have applied for 34 credit cards and racked up more than 2,200,000 loyalty points across a number of platforms. This is not for everyone, as it does require discipline, but it is so insanely worth it.
  • Promotions: Loyalty programs are about creating — you guessed it — loyalty. They want to see you look to their brand first when making travel plans, and they get that by helping you love what they offer. Often programs will run special programs to bump your balances. You need to know about these.
  • Transfers: Some programs like the Starwood Preferred Guest will even allow for specific transfers, but usually these come from the bank points we mentioned above. It's especially nice to make transfers when they're offering multiplier bonuses. (what does this mean? Quick definition or example)
  • Buying Points: I almost didn't include this because more often than not, it's not a plausible thing to do, but every once in a while, they make it worth it.

2. Sign Up for Them

You don't need to go out and sign up for a bunch of credit cards right away, but there is no harm in enrolling in the loyalty programs for airlines and hotels. Do yourself a favor and create a single username and complex password that you'll use to register for all of the programs. E-mail yourself the account numbers once you've registered and keep them in a special folder. By doing this you'll also be piped into special promotions they'll e-mail from time to time. Also, this way you'll always be ready in case you happen to fly on an airline you don't normally use or stay in a hotel you weren't a member of. Commit that you won't allow opportunities to fall by the wayside. I have friends who are crazy about travel and yet somehow they allowed 17,000 miles to go uncaptured after flying to China without registering for a program. Don't do that to yourself.

Also, create a stream of ongoing points and miles education by subscribing to some blogs. Obviously we'd welcome your subscription to WorldWanderlusting.com and we'd urge you to check out MillionMileSecrets.com and the forums at Flyertalk.com. This way you'll always be aware of what's happening in the Miles and Points world.

3. Get Some Points Coming

Maybe you've already got some built up. Perfect, that's a good start, but good is an impediment to great. I want you to get a taste of what it feels like to be empowered by an award wallet that is brimming with opportunity. My favorite "getting started" strategy right now is to begin piling up points with the Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard. It's super simple to redeem the points - just reimburse yourself for travel purchases. The up front bonus is healthy. You get $440 in free travel after spending $1,000.

Aside from that, make a determination about which programs best suit you. If you fly Southwest Airlines often, search out some ways to pile up Southwest Rapid Rewards. If you love staying in Starwood Hotels, get the Starwood card that offers a bonus of enough points to stay as many as eight nights in Category 2 hotels after meeting the minimum spending requirement.

4. Know How to Value Them

This is easily the most challenging part. Travel points are currency, and as such, their value is variable. The most confusing element for people is the concept of "miles." They're referred to as such because historically airline miles have been accrued on a "miles-flown" basis. But with most programs,  redemption has little to do with distance flown. Because I always think in terms of maximum value, these figures are for the lowest possible redemption for each program. You can pay much more in points than this, but these are baseline figures for the lowest amount you can get away with.

Here's how redemption breaks out for most airlines:

Domestic flights are generally 25k points on the major carriers. The exceptions are Southwest, whose redemption is directly relative to the cost of the flight (~70 Rapid Reward points per dollar on Wanna-get-away fares), and British Airways which does consider the length of your flight in valuing redemption (making it an incredibly cheap way to book short flights.)

Central America/Caribbean/and Hawaii flights are 30-40k. Availability for these is best on American, Frontier, and US Airways.

Europe and South America run between 40-60k. I think the greatest value in all of frequent flyerdom is the 40k redemption to Europe on American between Oct. 15 and May 15. Getting $1,300 flights for 40k miles is like an ultimate clearance sale. American Airlines is also an incredible value to South America, sometimes even offering flights for 30k points.

SE Asia, Africa, Australia, and everything else are 60-100k. I like United for these kinds of flights. Delta works, too, but availability is scarce.

You can research each program on their individual websites, but we consolidated the links in our Using Airlines Miles page.

But getting free flights is just the cake. Free hotels? Now that's the icing. The variance on hotel points is far greater, so it's nearly impossible to create a value system that runs across systems.

The first thing you need to understand about hotel points is that all hotel chains divide their hotel properties into categories. The higher the category, the more points they call for. In most cases, Category 1 hotels are very few and far between. I always like to look at programs in terms of how many points it takes to redeem for a Category 2 hotel. That gives you a good baseline value to compare across the board.

Approximate points required for one night in a Category 2 hotel:

Marriott Rewards, 10k. Obviously there is an abundance of Marriott hotels across the globe. The best finds for Category 2 hotels are right here in the U.S. and in Spain (don’t ask me why).

Starwood Preferred Guest, 3-4k (Sheraton, Westin, Aloft). I used a few of these hotels in Italy and there are some good ones in popular vacation destinations in the U.Ss as well.

Club Carlson, 15k (Country Inn & Suites, Radisson). This is my favorite program right now, especially because having the card they offer equates to a "book one, get one free" deal that really stretches the points. There are super nice Category 2 hotels all over England and in a number of countries in Central and South America.

Hilton, 12.5k (Hampton, Doubletree). I feel like this is the most overvalued chain, charging a lot of points that are tough to accrue for hotels that aren't all that great.

Priority Club, 15k (Holiday Inn, Candlewood). You can search out Category 2 hotels, but the best way to use these points is on their Point Breaks hotels that allow you to stay for only 5k a night.

Choice Hotels, 8k (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn). This is a great option for free stays in good locations in large cities that usually require far more points from other programs. Examples are Paris, Rome, London, Frankfurt, etc.

Cruises and rental cars
Now, you've got a stash of hotel and airline points that you're greedily counting like Scrooge McDuck. All you need is a way to tie it all together. Is it too much to ask for free car rentals and cruises too? No, it's not, in fact. You can pull this off with Bank Point programs that have a portal that allows you to book these things for free, or that provide reimbursement for travel purchases. In many cases you can also transfer these points to hotel or airline programs to top off your accounts when you need a little boost.

Here are the major bank point programs:

Barclays Arrival Points. I lead with this one because I love how flexible it is and how simple the earning capacity is. You earn 2 points for every dollar you spend and a 10 percent-point kickback when you reimburse yourself for travel purchases. It equates to 2.2 percent cash back for travel, and that just doesn't get beat.

Chase Ultimate Rewards. This is another solid program with an option to use the points as cash at a 1.25 ratio. You can also transfer to a lot of other programs. There are a few different cards that you can use to pile up these kind of points.

American Express Membership Reward Points. AMEX controls the market on business spending, so there are a lot of people with hundreds of
thousands of these points. I'd much prefer to have the others, though.

Capital One Venture Points. Also a travel reimbursement program, this one is good, but it has been a long time since there have been big up front bonuses to lure me in.

Overall, the points are only worth what you value them for. If you never want to go on a cruise, maybe the Barclay Arrival points aren't all that great for you. If you stay with friends or rent vacation homes, maybe you're better off to focus on airline miles over hotel points. The important piece is that you know what you want and go get them.

5. Know How to Redeem Them

All this is for naught if you can't figure out how to use these points you've been gathering. There's always the good old-fashioned way of calling in, but unless you’re a pro at interpreting broken English and waiting on hold excites you, you're going to want to book online.

I keep track of all my points in various programs with www.AwardWallet.com - it's a handy tool that keeps me organized and feeds my wanderlust when I need a pick-me-up.

Why is AwardWallet.com good? What does it do? Can I book through there? Tell me more!

Every program has an online portal and booking with points is not much different from normal reservations.

We've done a number of instructional videos on our Youtube Channel, but fiddling around with it yourself is really the best way to get it accomplished.

When booking, the most important rule is to be flexible. This is the real secret to using loyalty points efficiently. I tell people, "If you want to use frequent flyer miles to go to Hawaii from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2 and stay at a specific hotel, there's a chance you could do it, but it's going to completely drain you. If you want to go to someplace with a nice beach in the wintertime and stay in a clean hotel, you will be amazed by how much you can do with how little."

Your frequent flyer adventures will be so much cheaper, so many more, and so much more memorable if you'll be willing to take what opportunities present themselves, rather than prescribing a necessary plan that they must conform to.

Here's an example: Every quarter Priority Club releases its list of Point Breaks hotels, properties they let you stay at for 5,000 points per night. Since I have 85k, I could stay in one of them for as many as 17 nights. Looking through the list I think, "Hmm ... a Staybridge Suites in Valley Forge, Pa. Isn't that where General George Washington knelt and said a humble prayer before leading the Continental Army to victory?" Guess who just booked a trip to Pennsylvania?

Travel (real travel, as in, going places that are not occupied by cartoon characters) is about experiences. It's about learning and living and loving. It's about adventure and risk and excitement, and you don't get any of that if you aren't willing to break out of your comfort zone.

Commit now to do more than casually collect frequent flyer miles and points. If you're doing it right, it will feel like stealing - the exhilarating part, without the guilt. Just like travel itself, it's something you'll never regret.