SXSW Music 2015: book reward nights now!

(Source: SXSW)

(Source: SXSW)

I just booked our reward nights at Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake for the music portion of SXSW (March 17 – 22, 2015). Badges go on sale in the next week or so, if the schedule stays the same as previous years. Once that happens, there will be nothing left. So if you want to save some serious bucks and avoid couch surfing, this is your chance!

Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake (20 North Ih-35) has reward nights available for the entire music portion of the festival at this time.  We really liked using this hotel as a home base last year, because it’s just on the edge of the craziness of downtown but steps away from the Rainey Street venues and awesome food trucks.  Reward nights are a reasonable 25,000 IHG reward points per night (or 15,000 + $70/night).  Don’t have enough points?  You can always do the (not so) secret workaround.

If don’t mind a short hike, Hampton Inn & Suites Austin @ The University/Capitol (1701 Lavaca Street) also has rooms available for the entire conference/festival at 50,000 HHonors points per night.  This is about the same distance from the action as the Holiday Inn, just in the opposite direction and a up a slight incline from Sixth Street.

The rest of the hotels at the edge of downtown are already sold out of award nights, as many didn’t offer them in the first place because of demand. That being said, there are many other hotels available outside downtown on various shuttle routes. I would still book as soon as possible if you have the points available.

I must say, if you can score a hotel through SXSW Housing right when badges go on sale, they do offer decent rates.  Last year I was able to grab the Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake and I think it was about $210/night.  I ended up cancelling because I decided to use my pre-booked award nights to save extra money.

Good luck, and see you in Austin!

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Update: Hotel award nights still available for Lollapalooza

Note: This is an update to a post I wrote in January.  Now that the incredible line-up has been released, the mad dash is on to score hotels near Grant Park.

One of the best things about music festivals in large cities is that there are so many hotels for concertgoers, you can get away with booking award nights a bit later than in small markets.  Chicago, for example, is used to hosting huge conventions and has a booming tourist trade.  So not surprisingly, there are still a few hotel award options left for you music fans within a few blocks of the venue, even with up to 300,000 attendees expected this year.

Lollapalooza takes place this year from August 1 to August 3 in Grant Park, and passes go on sale in the spring.  Line-ups are typically announced shortly before the sale date.  So what if you don’t like the line-up?  Well, that’s the beauty of award stays.  Just cancel your reservation and you get all those points back, with no fees or penalties (as long as you cancel before the date your stay begins).  And in the meantime, you can feel secure spending the dough on the festival passes (which aren’t cheap!) knowing you have a free hotel room at least.

So what are your remaining award stay options within a few blocks of Grant Park?  Here you go.

Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel (221 North Columbus Drive)
Located just a few blocks north of Grant Park, this hotel has beautiful views of the lake, the parks, and even north toward the river.  The hotel imposes restrictions over the Lollapalooza weekend, stating that customers need to wear hotel issued wristbands (thereby restricting friends from coming up to party in the rooms). I stayed in the hotel in spring 2013, and absolutely loved the location and hotel design.  Award stays are available through Club Carlson for 50,000 75,000 points per night (the top of the scale, for a luxury room and extra amenities).  Those of you who have a Club Carlson Signature Visa enjoy additional award discounts, getting your last night free (after at least two consecutive award nights).  Note: unlike some other hotel chains, Club Carlson considers this weekend ‘special’ and may not refund points if you cancel your reservation (so be careful).

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park.

View from my Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel room, looking toward Grant Park on a stormy April day.

Best Western Grant Park Hotel (1100 South Michigan Avenue)
Also on Michigan Avenue, and located at the southwest corner of Grant Park, the Best Western Grant Park is one of the best-placed locations for the south stage area.  Just a block from the gates, it’s about as close as you can get without sleeping on a park bench.  Want to book Lollapalooza weekend?  It’s 28,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.

W Chicago – City Center (172 West Adams Street)
Surprisingly, availability has opened up for W Hotel Chicago that wasn’t there in January.  And even better, it’s a reasonable 12,000 SPG points per night.  This is one of the closest hotels to the main entrance in the middle of Grant Park.

Westin Chicago River – North (320 North Dearborn Street)
Located just north of the river, the Westin is within walking distance of the north side of Grant Park.  This could be a good pick if the closer W Hotel sells out of award nights, as it is also 12,000 SPG points.

Chicago has some amazing transit options, and the further away from the festival you get, the better the availability (and lower the points).  So consider taking transit to the festival to save even more!  A reminder: with 300,000 attendees, transit systems will be crowded.  So plan accordingly and have a great time!

Have any tips about staying in Chicago during Lollapalooza?  Please share!

Hangout Festival: beats on the beach

Surf, sand and sounds at the Hangout Music Festival. (Source: barryfest.com)

Surf, sand and sounds at the Hangout Music Festival. (Source: barryfest.com)

You can spend a few days at the beach, or go to a killer music festival, but rarely do those two experiences converge into one amazing weekend.  Welcome to the Hangout Music Festival, held each May in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  It’s literally on the beach.  That’s right, like right on the sand.

This is the fifth year of the Hangout Festival, which grew in popularity quickly due to the incredible line-up each year amidst the soft sands of the Gulf of Mexico. This year’s line-up includes a mix of indie, hip-hop, rock and electronic music.  Headlining are Outkast, The Killers, Jack Johnson and The Black Keys.  The supporting acts could easily headline festivals themselves, including the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Modest Mouse, Portugal. The Man, and Fitz and the Tantrums.

The location at the beach, while playful and fun, does make for transportation issues due to parking shortages.  The festival deals with the issue well though with moderately priced festival shuttle passes that run to the various hotels in the city.  Early bird shuttle passes are sold out, so the price now stands at $50/person.

Beachy goodness.

Beachy goodness.

Hotel prices have skyrocketed of late, but there are still some free nights available at local hotels.

Holiday Inn Express Orange Beach – On the Beach (24700 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach) – 35,000 points/ night.  This hotel is on the eastern shuttle route.

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – Foley (3155 Abbey Lane, Foley) – 35,000 points/night.  This hotel is actually about 12 miles away from the festival, so your best bet would be to drive to Pelican Place, on the North Line shuttle route, and then take the shuttle down from there.

Econo Lodge Inn & Suites – Foley (2682 South McKenzie Street, Foley) – 20,000 points/night.  Another good option for driving to Pelican Place and then taking the shuttle the rest of the way.

Best Western Riviera Inn – Foley (1503 South McKenzie Street, Foley) – 20,000 points/night.  Just down the street from the other Foley hotels.

So grab your sunscreen, beach ball and best friends and plan to Hangout in Gulf Shores.

Bumbershoot: a gem of a festival in the Emerald City

Music under the Needle.  Photo credit: cntraveler.com

Music under the Needle. Photo credit: cntraveler.com

Seattle closes down the summer festival season with a huge party every Labor Day Weekend, with the eclectic Bumbershoot Festival.  Dubbed the largest arts festival in the United States, Bumbershoot sees up to 100,000 or so attendees over the long weekend.  You may be thinking, “what kind of weird-ass name is Bumbershoot”? Well, it’s a synonym for umbrella, which makes sense considering Seattle’s drizzly weather.

While the 2014 line-up has not been announced yet, Bumbershoot crosses many music genres, often sporting well-known festival headliners, the cream of the indie crop, and a slew of homegrown Seattle artists.  This year should be no exception.

The festival setting is the Seattle Center grounds (think: Space Needle), which is just north of downtown and Belltown.  The area is well-served by transit, including by bus, ferry, and monorail (which takes you to Westlake Center, where you can pick up the light rail system).   Some of the newest and least expensive hotels just happen to be within walking distance, with ritzier hotels just a short walk or monorail ride uphill to downtown.

Seattle Center provides the perfect setting for the festival, with large open spaces for sunny days and a number of exhibition buildings for rainy days.  The main stage is indoors at Key Arena, which has decent acoustics and provides a reprieve from the weather and a (fairly) comfy seat.  In addition to a talent-packed music line-up, pass holders also get into comedy shows, dance performances, and a number of exhibits celebrating the Great Northleft, as they like to put it.

As it is still early in the year, there are several hotels nearby available on award nights.

All of the above hotels are within a few blocks walk of the Seattle Center and have availability from August 29 to September 2.  There are even more hotels in the downtown area, often for higher points.  Downtown hotels tend to be highrises, so they may stay available with points even longer.

While Seattle Center provides for many food options right on the grounds, the Belltown neighborhood is just a few short blocks away.  Belltown is home to many up-and-coming restaurants, gastropubs, and even my favorite hole-in-the-wall bar, the Five Point Cafe.

So enjoy one of the most laid back urban festivals in North America, and don’t forget your bumbershoot!

Big Guava: big festival, big savings

You may not have heard of it (yet), but that’s good.  It means that you can see quality acts for cheap.  Well, cheap for a festival. Big Guava is a new festival in Tampa, Florida that is sporting a lot of the big acts you’ll see around the concert circuit this year. A three-day pass for the inaugural year includes parking, free rides and general admission, and is still under $200 per person all in.  But you know what’s really cool?  Hotels are nearby and they are cheap! No ridiculous $500/night hotels like other festivals sporting many of the same bands.

What about the lineup?  Awesome!  Headlining are Outkast, Vampire Weekend, and Foster the People.  Other festival favorites include Cake, Grouplove, Haim, Violent Femmes, Tegan and Sara, Walk the Moon, Band of Skulls and many, many other fun bands.

Vampire Weekend draws a good crowd!

Vampire Weekend draws a good crowd!

The venue is the State Fairgrounds in Tampa, which has many inexpensive hotels nearby.  How inexpensive?  Well, if you want to pay up front, some are as cheap as $75/night plus taxes.  Many hotels are available on award nights as well, although if you snag a cheap rate, this would be a great time to earn points that you can burn on more expensive festivals later.

Violent Femmes still put on an awesome show!

Violent Femmes still put on an awesome show!

In fact, I’d recommend the two IHG (Holiday Inn and Staybridge) hotels, which have stackable promotions, in order to really get the points earning machine running.  Trust me, the IHG promotions will add up fast.  For the best info on how to sign up for IHG’s promotions, read the first post in this FlyerTalk thread, and then sign up for all of the codes at the bottom of the first post under ‘2014 codes in numerical order’.

Here are some of the great hotel deals:

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites : Tampa-Fairgrounds-Casino (8610 Elm Fair Boulevard) – $127/night or 15,000 points

Staybridge Suites : Tampa East- Brandon (3624 North Falkenburg Road) – $155/night or 20,000 points

Comfort Suites at Fairground-Casino (4506 Oak Fair Blvd.) – $105/night or 16,000 points

Sheraton Tampa East Hotel (10221 Princess Palm Ave.) – $111/night or 7,000 points

With deals like these, hopefully many people will get to enjoy the super-talented acts coming to Tampa.  If you make it to Big Guava, please comment and let the rest of us know how it rates!

Award night hotels for New Orleans Jazz Fest

This year the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary with an all-star lineup.  One of the longest running festivals, it is also one of the most diverse in terms of music (despite the moniker).  This year the festival is being held over two long weekends, from April 25 to May 4.

The festival is held about 10 minutes north(ish) of the French Quarter in a residential area  and next to one of the iconic New Orleans cemeteries.  There really aren’t any options (other than one B&B) within walking distance, so the festival partners with Gray Line Tours for continuous shuttle service between three different stops near downtown and the French Quarter.  The shuttle gets preferential access to the site (meaning less traffic lineups), and is really a good deal.

Jazz Fest attendees are really lucky this year because there are still a few good hotels left on award nights within walking distance of the shuttle stops, and right smack in the middle of the French Quarter action.

Some of the fun from 2013! (Source: New Orleans Jazz Fest)

Weekend 1 & 2 Availability

Availability for the first weekend is pretty slim by now.  But there are a couple of options.

Country Inn & Suites New Orleans (315 Magazine Street) – 44,000 points/night
This hotel is closer to the convention center than the heart of the French Quarter, but not horribly far from a shuttle stop.  Not super close though for those that can’t walk 10 or 15 minutes.  For those that have a Club Carlson credit card, read up on award nights as you can save lots of points and a get an extra night free.

Wyndham Riverfront New Orleans (701 Convention Center Blvd) – 30,000 points/night
The Wyndham Riverfront, as the address suggests, is also right by the convention center. At 30,000 points/night, this is a good deal consider you would have to pay about $350/night to stay during the festival.

Weekend 2 Availability

IHG has a few more hotels available for the second weekend, in great locations.

Crowne Plaza New Orleans French Quarter (739 Canal Street) – 40,000 points/night
You can’t beat this location for fun, fun, fun in the French Quarter, and it’s just a few blocks to the shuttle stop in front of the Sheraton.

Intercontinental Hotel New Orleans (444 St. Charles Ave) – 50,000 points/night
The Intercontinental is a ritzy place also in the heart of the action, and also just a few blocks walk to the Sheraton shuttle stop.  It’s a bit more spendy, but this is a lovely hotel and a good deal for the points as well.

Have fun jazzing it up with these free stays in the Big Easy!

An amazing hotel award option for SXSW

Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.  Not only is the occasional hotel still available with points for SXSW 2014, held between March 7 to March 17 in Austin, but there is a good hotel still available and it’s at an amazing value.  The Westin Austin at the Domain is still available, and it is 10,000 points per night.  With SPG’s fifth night free for award bookings, this brings the hotel stay for the entire 10-night festival down to just 8,000 points per night.

Proof that I'm not crazy. Source: Screenshot of SPG website

Proof that I’m not crazy. Source: Screenshot of SPG website

To give you a sense of what a crazy good deal this is, Lucky at One Mile at a Time values Starpoints at 2.2 cents each or more, and The Points Guy says 2.5 cents each.  The going rate for this hotel over the conference period is a whopping $499 per night.  Without adding in the taxes, etc., you would normally have to pay for the hotel, the stay values the Starpoints at a minimum 6.3 cents each.  Awesome!  I’m not going to lie, you are at The Domain, which is not downtown where the vast majority of the action is.  But the hotel is on the SXSW hotel shuttle route, so you aren’t out of luck.  Hurry, hurry, hurry, because this won’t last long!

As a side note: there are pretty slim pickings anywhere near downtown.  But if you are swimming or more like drowning in HHonors points, the Embassy Suites in Downton/Town Lake is still available for 40,000 points per night as well.

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This article first appeared on roadeightyfive.com.

Using points for free concerts, festivals and elite experiences

The credit card industry has been changing, and in my eyes it’s for the better.  Certain elite credit cards from the days of old, like American Express and Diner’s Club, provided unique experiences for their members pretty much from day one.  In a way, they made you feel special.  Somewhere along the way, that feeling of uniqueness got lost in the mass credit market.  Well, customer service and personal touches are back, and providing that special experience is driving some competition between credit cards.   The result?  Really cool once-in-a-lifetime experiences for you!

American Express has long been a leader in providing their members special treatment and experiences.  One of those perks is the Front of the Line program, giving members early access to all types of entertainment, usually for the most popular bands, festivals and plays through Ticketmaster.  Not only can you get your tickets early, but if you are short of cash, you can also use your Membership Rewards points to pay for the tickets.

HAIM

See HAIM for free? One of many offerings through Front of the Line. Source: Ticketmaster

SPG lets you redeem points for elite experiences (called Moments by SPG). Some regular offerings include VIP suite access at Wrigley Field or Madison Square Garden (including concerts!), tickets to major sporting events (like the NHL Winter Classic), or musicals in Vegas or New York. For foodies, SPG offers exclusive dinners with the hottest chefs (like a private dinner party with Chef Keller at French Laundry in the Napa Valley). Every once in awhile SPG pulls out the really cool stuff, like access to award shows, Sundance Film Festival events, comedy festivals, or VIP access to major concerts.  Examples?  How about VIP access to P!nk in Amsterdam, or a meet and greet with Coldplay and VIP concert access?  SPG also promotes an ‘On Tour’ offering, where they package hotel nights with concert tickets to some of the biggest bands.  Follow U2 across South America? No problem!  It’s one of the reasons we have an SPG American Express card, which also gives us the Front of the Line access.

There are a lot of other alliances to note.  In the US, there are programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, which has auctioned off experiences such as Mad Men meet and greets and VIP packages including passes to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  North of the border there is TD Bank, a major sponsor of music education and events in Canada, which provides discounts on concerts through their TD Music Access program.  Offerings lately include 2-for-1 tickets and $10 per ticket concert credits.  In some cases they also have a reservation program for concerts that I have yet to try, but it looks pretty cool.

Reserve tickets for the hottest bands through TD Music Access (like Imagine Dragons in Montreal).  Source: TD

Reserve tickets for the hottest bands through TD Music Access (like Imagine Dragons in Montreal). Source: TD

So if you love music and you can’t afford to travel (or can’t afford the tickets for that matter), look into what points can do for you.  At the very least, it may help you quench your musical thirst!

Have you redeemed points for a concert, festival or other experience?  I’d love to hear about it!

Points collecting: where to start

I’ve written a few posts now about award nights available for various festivals or events, yet I’ve neglected to start with a primer for the uninitiated points fiend.  And well, I’m still not going to write one.  Because quite frankly there are true experts out there, and there would be no point in putting in that time and effort to create yet another points primer.  So instead I’m going to make a few points about where to start, and then list a few links to the best primers for the collecting newbie.

1.  Figure out which airline and hotel programs you want to collect points with.  If you travel for business and your company pays for only certain hotels or airlines, go with those (free points!).  If you have certain aspirations that you want to start saving points for, then pick a hotel or airline that will get you to that place.  It’s all about making the points work for you, and that doesn’t mean changing your whole life because of point collecting.

2.  Start looking for opportunities.  Look at your spending habits, and then look at ways you can make points from that spending.  Does your grocery store have a point programs, or partner with an airline (like Safeway in Alaska, with Alaska Airlines)?  Or do you do all your shopping online?  There are tons of online stores that partner with airline and hotel programs through their online shopping portals.  Do you go to restaurants regularly? Because many restaurants also are part of the Rewards Network program.

3.  Look at your credit cards.  Do you have good credit and can pay off your credit card monthly?  I only ask the second question, because you don’t want to get in a dangerous credit situation.  If the answer is yes to the two questions, you may want to consider getting a points-earning credit card.  Once you do, follow a blog of someone who writes about deals on that credit card and to learn about tips and bonuses.  Credit card bonuses can be quite lucrative in the States especially.

4. Learn from the best.  Once you figure out the first two things, you are really home-free. Is there more to figure out and learn?  Uh, yeah… but start slowly by finding a few blogs that align with your interests and follow them regularly (the most informative blogs have multiple posts per day).  I will provide suggestions below.  Also, consider joining a frequent flyer forum.  For the newbie, the most friendly site out there is MilePoint.  Flyer Talk is the most popular, but it is haunted by both experts and know-it-alls (and unfortunately there is little patience for newbie questions).  

So have a look at my resource list, and go to it!  If you have a particular interest and you need help finding resources, please comment and I’ll give suggestions.

INTRODUCTIONS TO ALL THINGS POINTS

  • The Points Guy has an awesome Beginner’s Guide.  I think opening up an account with EVERY airline/hotel is a bit over-doing it, so I would skip that suggestion he gives.   But he has an extensive list of programs with explanations under each.  He also details how to manage your accounts with sites like Award Wallet.
  • One Mile at a Time‘s recent post “How to Choose a Frequent Flyer Program” is also a good place to start if you need help figuring that out.  Especially if you don’t fly too often but want to enjoy perks from a credit card.

ONLINE SHOPPING

  • One Mile at a Time has the best rundown on the shopping portals and how they work in this post.
  • The Points Guy’s Beginner’s Guide also has a comprehensive list (after you read One Mile at a Time’s blog, that is).

CREDIT CARDS

You will probably find more resources about credit cards than anything else (well, sometimes it feels that way).  Let’s be honest: bloggers make money off credit card links.  Well, not me.  I wish.  Until then, pick your favorite blogger and choose a link on their page to help support their work.  Here are my favorites:

  • The Points Guy: ‘Top 5 Credit Cards‘ has the best current deals for the US.
  • View from the Wing’s ‘Advice: Credit Cards‘ page is a compendium of individual posts that cover just about everything you should know about credit cards.
  • Rewards Canada is THE PLACE to get any info you want about, well, anything you need to know about points collecting in Canada. And that includes their analysis of Canada’s best credit cards, and their Guide to Choosing a Credit Card (complete with table AND flowchart… *swoon*).

DINING

  • The Points Guy has a good article with the various links.  He’s also a bit of a foodie it seems, so it would be fun to follow him if you like your chow.

KNOW YOUR TICKET

Just because you have a reservation, doesn’t mean you have a ticket.  Know the difference, because it may save you someday.

TRAVELLING WITH KIDS

Other blogs try to address the subject, and there are some good articles out there on many blogs.  But hands down, there is only one great points website with a focus on family.

  • MommyPoints has you covered.  Everything from your child’s first flight to strategies of making travel as comfortable for your child as possible.  She gives reviews of hotels from a parent’s perspective as well, and covers a myriad topics about family travel.

So that’s a good place to start.  By all means, if you need additional resources, please feel free to comment.

My points collecting philosophy

I like to think of points collecting as ‘travel futures’.  Like investing in the stock market or in commodities, I try to make small investments (through credit card spend, flights or hotel stays) that will lead to big travel payoffs later.  So just like the ‘buy low, sell high’ mantra of stockbrokers, points collecting is a game of ‘spend small, experience big’.

I live in Canada, where the gains from credit card opportunities are pretty few and far between.  And I’m not sure how much I can get behind the credit card churning (signing up for credit cards and then cancelling after receiving the sign up bonuses) that occurs more commonly in the States.  So you won’t hear me changing out my credit cards all that frequently.

So what’s my strategy?  I have two main credit cards: the SPG American Express card and the MBNA Alaska Airlines card.  We put everything we can on these cards for the points, and pay them off as quickly as possible (though admittedly we don’t pay them off completely each month like many in this hobby).  The SPG Amex is one of the most flexible cards out there, with transfers to most airlines at a 1:1 ratio (and a bonus of 5,000 points with any 20,000 point transfer).  It’s all about flexibility with SPG.

The Alaska Airlines card, however, I mainly have as a back up (not everyone accepts Amex).  But it’s also great because it gives you a companion ticket for approximately $110 on an annual basis.  When you live in a market like Edmonton, where it takes over $450 just to get out of the province, that $110 ticket comes in super-handy.  We tend to use the ticket for high price travel times, like visiting my parents in California over the holidays.  This year, we paid $110 for what was $1,000 in flights over Christmas.

When it comes to hotel loyalty, we typically look for clean, centrally located hotels.  We don’t need really fancy places, but occasionally like a little luxury.  We only stay in hotels perhaps a total of 20 to 30 days a year, which by frequent traveler standards is pretty paltry.  So to me, it’s all about trying to get the most points for the best value.  I that puts  IHG brand hotels at the top of my list.  Most people associate IHG with Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, but they also have some lovely boutique hotels (Hotel Indigo) and luxury options (InterContinental). They also have stackable promotions (you can earn multiple points promotions on one stay), which makes staying with IHG pretty lucrative.  And in the past year IHG have had some really fun earning games, which really hook me (such as Crack the Case and the Big Win promos).  But mostly, I find the hotels clean, affordable, and well-located.  Other than IHG, we do also stay at the occasional Starwood and Club Carlson brands, especially during games or promotions.

My last statement: free is good! Duh, right?  But there are so many ways to earn free points, why wouldn’t someone want to?  There are survey companies like e-miles and e-rewards, which do take a bit of time.  But then there are also really fun games, like La Quinta’s Stay and Play.  Free is a no-brainer.  In Canada you can earn Aeroplan points for groceries, gas, pharmacy purchases, etc.  And all these little things add up.

There are a ton of blogs out there that tout the high-end hotel brands (in fact most of them).  But I find the more expensive the hotel, the further I get from the ‘real people’ and places I’m trying to experience.  I’d rather spend my money in a open-air market or on a unique experience than in a luxury hotel when in a foreign country.

So that’s my philosophy.  I’m not a points guru, as I don’t look at every program and every opportunity.  But I do spend enough time on points collection to make my own travel go further, and I will tend to focus on those opportunities in this blog.