Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Visit Asheville while in North Carolina for PASS Summit

One of the great things about the choice of Charlotte, North Carolina to host the 2013 PASS Community Summit is Charlotte’s proximity to Asheville and the surrounding area.  Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is approximately two and a half hours by car from Charlotte via the interstate.  Prior to moving to Charlotte, I lived in Asheville for ten years.  I still have family in the area, so I’m there frequently and know the area well.  This post is not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide some ideas for those who might want to spend some extra time in the area and explore a great nearby destination.

Famous attractions

Asheville has become a fairly well-known tourism and vacation destination, and it’s not surprising.  For a smaller city, there is quite a lot to see and do, and the mountains are beautiful.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Biltmore House
    • If Asheville has a signature tourist attraction, this is it.  The biggest private residence in the United States. 
  • Downtown
    • Downtown Asheville is not huge, but very walkable.  There are lots of shops and restaurants, something for everyone.
  • Biltmore Village
    • Similar to downtown Asheville, but more upscale.  Less options for places to eat, but has the nicest McDonalds you’ll ever see. 
  • Grove Arcade
    • One of America’s first indoor shopping malls.  The Grove Arcade was renovated about 20 years ago if my memory serves me correctly.  Lots of little arts and crafts shops, be sure to check out the one that does live glass blowing.  The floors aren’t even close to level, interesting unless you are on crutches or roller skates…then just hazardous.
  • Folk Art Center
    • On the parkway, an art gallery with a focus on the traditional folk arts of the area.
  • Pack Place
    • Pack place is home to a number of different museums, galleries, and a theater.  The Colburn Gem and Mineral Museum is one of the more unique museums in the area. 

Bringing the kids?

Be sure to check out the Western North Carolina Nature Center  This is a good destination for all ages, but is a huge hit with kids.  The nature center has a great wildlife collection, mostly made up of species that are native to the North Carolina mountains.  The river otters are the star attraction.  This was a favorite of my sister and I when we were little.

Outdoor Fun

One of the keys to Asheville's popularity is the huge variety of outdoor activities available in the area.  I've put together a list of destinations that I've enjoyed over the years.

  • Navitat Canopy Tours
    • Navitat does a great zipline canopy tour.  I’ve done this one personally, and recommend it highly to the adventurous traveler.   Some of the runs are very high up, and very fast.
  • Sliding Rock
    • A natural water slide in Pisgah Forest.  Fun, but COLD!  Can get pretty crowded on the weekends.  In October, you’d want an unseasonably hot day for this.
  • Nantahala Outdoor Center
    • Popular destination for rafting, kayaking, climbing, or hiking.  Again, look for a hot day if you plan on getting in the water!  The mountain rivers get really cold.


Asheville is a very popular destination for all sorts of outdoor activities, but one of the biggest is hiking.  The mountains and forests in the area are covered with trails, including part of the Appalachian Trail.  The trails tend to be fairly well marked, and easy to follow due to the volume of traffic they get.  There is a wide range of difficulty as well.  Here are a few that I have first-hand experience with: 

Where to stay

Asheville has plenty of the usual chain hotels, and most are perfectly fine, but there are a couple of upscale options in town that are true standouts:

  • Grove Park Inn
    • The Grove Park Inn is a large historic luxury resort.  In addition to the hotel, there is a golf course, a spa, and excellent restaurant.  The restaurant is a worthy stop,  especially for their Sunday brunch buffet, even if you are staying elsewhere.
  • Grand Bohemian Hotel
    • Right in the middle of Biltmore Village, the Grand Bohemian (one of Marriott’s upscale designer hotels) is not only very nice, but in a perfect location for many of the other stops I’ve listed.  Every room is unique, and it doesn’t look like a chain hotel at all.

Dining in Asheville

This could quickly get to be a massive list, but I’ll just throw out a few great spots that might otherwise be overlooked.  None of these are going to break the bank either. There is certainly no lack of variety in Asheville's restaurant selection.

  • Asheville Pizza and Brewing
    • This is one of my favorites.  It’s a combination bar, restaurant, and movie theater!  Asheville Brewing Company owns it, and provides good food, good beer, and movies to watch while you enjoy them.  There are only two theaters, so your movie options are limited, but they usually have something good.  The movies showing are usually the blockbusters but just after they leave the major movie theaters.  The upside to this is that for about the same price as a normal movie outing with a snack and a drink, you get a full dinner and a craft beer.  How can you go wrong?
  • Tupelo Honey Café
    • If you aren’t from the area and want some really good southern cuisine, this is my recommendation.  Not too traditional, but true to the spirit of southern cooking, and a local favorite for good reason.
  • 12 Bones Smokehouse
    • 12 Bones looks like a dive, as the location was originally a gas station, but it’s one of the best places in town for ribs or barbecue.
  • Frankie Bones Restaurant & Lounge
    • Really good spot on the south side of town to get a bite to eat.  They have a very diverse selection, and an awesome Sunday brunch menu.
  • The Green Sage Coffeehouse & Café
    • If you’re looking for a healthier meal while on the road, this is a great spot.  I’m usually not the health food type, but I’ve eaten here with family a few times and always enjoyed my meal.

Scenic/Fun Routes from Charlotte to Asheville

If you’ve decided to head up to Asheville, you may want to consider one of these routes to get there as an alternative to the boring all-highway route your GPS will suggest.

  • Via NC 181, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC 80
    • Route map:
    • This is the car/motorcycle enthusiast route.  If you have other plans don’t use it!  This takes roughly twice as long as the interstate trip, but it is roughly ten times as fun in a sports car or on a motorcycle.  I regularly ride out to the end of NC80 then come back if I’m not going to be staying in Asheville.  This route keeps you off the interstate for most, if not all of the trip.  Some of the roads I’ve outlined are challenging, so take care the first time out.  If you are on a bike, watch for debris in the roads, as the rainy year we’ve had has washed a lot of junk into the road.  NC 181 is very well-known and is an absolute blast to run up, just watch out for NC Highway Patrol.  NC 80 aka The Devil’s Whip is a tight and highly technical road with loads of elevation change.  Be ready to have your photo taken if you’re there on the weekend, as Blind Kenny is usually out there.  This route also incorporates a nice chunk of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but I like to get off the Parkway at NC 80 instead of taking it all the way to Asheville.  Interstate 40 actually has a fun ascent up Old Fort Mountain (again, watch for speed traps).  You can double back on NC 80 (the uphill run is the most fun) and take the BRP all the way into Asheville if you want.
  • Via Chimney Rock and Lake Lure
    • Route map:
    • More relaxed than the route above, but still a great alternative to the interstate.  Highway 74-A has some really sharp curves as well, so be ready!  This route isn’t nearly the time investment that the first one is either, it only adds about 45-60 minutes to the trip versus the interstate.  The run up NC 226 and back down US 64 is not efficient, but it avoids a big chunk of US 74, and many stoplights and speed traps.  Highway 74A is the highlight of the trip, and runs right by both Chimney Rock Park and Lake Lure.  Both are good places to stop along the way.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway info is available here:
    • Be sure to check for closings, as some segments may be closed for maintenance or due to road conditions. 

I hope this list helps you with planning your visit to this area of North Carolina. Feel free to add your suggestions if you have ever visited the Asheville area.

photo credit: BillRhodesPhoto via photopin cc
photo credit: Mr G's Travels via photopin cc
photo credit: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via photopin cc

Friday, August 23, 2013

Crash and Burn (Recap)

The Manufacturers Respond!

As promised, I am following up on my post-crash gear reviews to detail the responses I got (or didn't get) from the manufacturers.  I made both email and social media attempts to contact Sidi/Motonation, AGV Sport, Bell, and Spidi.  I did not attempt to contact Frank Thomas because they have pulled out of the US market.  Let's start with the items I didn't give purely positive reviews.

The items I panned:

Spidi Carbo Track Gloves

Reviewed here: Crash and Burn (Part 5)

This was the rotten one of the bunch.  Not only did the gloves fail in what I believe is a completely unacceptable way, but Spidi did not respond in any fashion.  If this were a discount bit of kit, I'd dismiss it as "you get what you pay for."  Trouble is, at $299, these were anything but discount gloves.  What a letdown.

I'm planning to look elsewhere to replace these.  I think my first look is going to be at the Held Phantom and Titan models.  They have a stellar reputation for safety and quality, and they have a facility here in North Carolina.  They also do cool is that?  I may also look at Alpinestars, Knox, and Hazardous.  No more Spidi gloves, or any other gear for me.

AGV Sport Photon Jacket

Reviewed here: Crash and Burn (Part 4)

I wasn't happy with the seam failures above the shoulder armor on this jacket.  The fist-size hole above the shoulder seemed a bit much to me.  That being said, AGV's response was one of the best.  I posted my review just before 9:00 PM EDT, and sent my email to AGV shortly thereafter.  I had a personal response in my inbox within 10-15 minutes, from an AGV staff member in Baltimore, MD.  Not only did I receive a response quickly, but it happened off-hours!

The response, and several follow-ups to work out the logistics led to AGV sending me a prepaid UPS label to ship the jacket back to them for inspection.  Several days later, I received a follow up response from another AGV representative stating that they had examined the jacket and it was not defective, that it was simply damaged in the accident.  It, along with all contact from AGV came along with wishes for a speedy recovery.  The last email also included an offer of $100 off a replacement jacket purchase.  I give a huge thumbs-up to AGV's customer service!

While I differ on the conclusion reached, it may be that my expectations were a bit high on what is a mid-priced jacket intended for street riding.  I do think the seam design could be improved in the area where it failed, offering better protection at minimal cost.  

As far as replacing my jacket, I am not sure yet what I am going to do.  I'm going to use my one-piece suit for a while so I don't have to make up my mind right away.  I will not  replace this with the same model.  That said, after the response I have received from AGV, I will certainly consider looking into some of their higher-end offerings.

The biggest reason I am holding back from making a decision is that I had plans before the crash to get a custom-tailored set of kangaroo leathers this winter.  I might go with a two-piece so I can comfortably use it on the street in addition to track days.

On to the items that got good reviews:

 Sidi Vertigo Boots

Reviewed here: Crash and Burn (Part 3)

I couldn't be happier with the way my boots protected me.  No injuries whatsoever, and in a pinch I could still even wear the boots.  I won't because I think the damage to the sole/insole probably compromised their protective ability, but they would still be way better than unarmored boots or tennis shoes.  Okay, I'll be honest, I would also prefer not to wear boots that are obviously crashed! :)

Motonation, Sidi's US distributor responded to my Facebook post with thanks and wishes for a speedy recovery.  Nothing exceptional, but nice to be acknowledged.   Given the job the boots did, that's really all I was after anyway.

My next boots will be Sidis, but I'm not sure which model.  I'm torn between sticking with the Vertigo and moving up to the Vortice, their full-on race boot.  I briefly toyed with the idea of going to the Air models that are perforated.  I'm going to stick with the solid leather since the vents do a good job, and I think the perforated boots would be a real bummer in the rain.  I need to find a pair of Vortices to try on, my concern is that they might be a little too restrictive for something that's going to see street use.

Bell Star Carbon Helmet

Reviewed here: Crash and Burn (Part 2)

The Bell Star Carbon got the other glowing review.  Not only did the helmet take the biggest hit, but it was also flawless in protecting me.  To top it off, the shield even stayed attached and down, so I didn't end up with a face full of sticks and dirt!  For a helmet to take a hit right where the shield attaches and not lose it is impressive stuff.

I received replies from Bell both on Facebook and via email.  Both were very friendly and personal, and it was clear that the writer of the email had read my review completely.  Both responses expressed concern and hope for a speedy recovery.  They also offered a crash replacement discount if I would send the helmet back. 

I sent the helmet back at my expense, and received a phone call the day it was received.  The representative on the phone was very personable and continued the pattern of being interested in my experience with their product as well as my recovery.  She had the helmet at her desk while we were talking. 

The crash replacement offer was 20% off and free shipping.  This was about $165 better than I could do from any reputable source, and still about $50 better than I could do on eBay.  I couldn't give her my credit card info fast enough!  I have a brand-new Star Carbon and Transitions shield sitting at home right now.

Service, personality, compassion, rewarding loyalty, and a top-notch product...this is how you get a customer for life!  Something pretty spectacular would have to come out for me to even look elsewhere.

Thanks for reading, and be safe out there! 


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Submitting a Better Support Request


Oh no!  Something is Broken!

It's never fun when something goes wrong with a piece of software or hardware we depend on.  Often this situation necessitates some form of support engagement with the vendor.  Vendor support varies greatly in quality, and I'm lucky to be writing this from the perspective of a member of the technical team at SQL Sentry, a company that has an excellent support team.  That being said, my experiences as a support customer of various companies has run the gamut from great to terrible. While the quality of the support team you are working with may vary, I would like to offer some suggestions for making the process better from the customer side.

The Goal:

I think we can all agree that the primary objective of any support contact is to resolve the issue at hand as quickly as possible.  Time spent on the support engagement is time not spent on business or personal projects.  We could all stand to have a bit more time right?

So I just fire off an email or call right away, right?

I think this is often when things go wrong, right at the beginning.  I know my mindset used to be that I wanted to get someone started on my problem as quickly as possible.  I've since learned that a little time spent on preparation can save lots of time not just for the support technician on the other end of the call, but also for me!

Why it pays to take a little time:

Sometimes you find the answer yourself.

If you accept the premise that saving time is the ultimate goal, the best support engagement is the one that never takes place.  There are many self-service support resources available: documentation, forums, knowledge base articles, FAQs, and community resources like Twitter.  Chances are pretty good that someone else has had this problem before.  Even if you don't find the answer, you might run across other useful bits of information about the software.

I didn't find the answer that way...what now?

The time spent doing a quick search for an answer at least allows a few potential causes of the issue to be eliminated.  Make sure to pass along a quick note of what you've already investigated to the support technician.

The next step is to decide on what support channel to use.  Often you are presented with three options: email, phone, and forums.  Forums are great if you have a quick question that's not really pressing.  Email is usually the best way to go.  I say this because email provides you the best opportunity to provide the support team with the information they need to help you resolve the issue quickly.  We will talk about building the best possible email in a moment.

What about phone? 

My suggestion is to leave the phone for follow up.  I don't start with a phone call unless the issue is causing major chaos to a business-critical system, and needs to be resolved right this second.  I say this for two reasons:  First, a phone call doesn't just tie the support tech down, it ties you down as well.  You aren't going to be able to get anything else done until the call ends.  Second, as you develop a relationship with the support teams at your vendors, they pay attention to this.  I want the support team to know that if I am calling to initiate a support engagement, it's because it is an issue that cannot wait.  I also make sure that I'm ready to dedicate a significant amount of time (say an hour or so) to working on the issue.

Crafting a better support email:

The first email to the support team can be the most important from a standpoint of saving time.  The more complete and informative this message is, the better.  I'm creating these lists simply as examples, but they are based on my experiences and input from the SQL Sentry support team.

Please do:

  • Include as much detail in the initial email to support as possible: full screenshots, errors, and alert messages.  If you need to scrub out a bit of sensitive data that's fine, but don't crop out 90% of the screen.
  • Try to be as detailed and accurate as possible in describing what you were doing in the tool when the error occurred.  This is especially important if you are reporting an exception.
  • Read the responses you get from the tech thoroughly, and respond with all of the requested information in the format the tech specified (if any).  This really helps eliminate the need for lengthy email exchanges, and it saves everybody time.
  • Provide the full version number of the OS, SQL Server, and SQL Sentry (or other application if you aren't contacting us), as well as a good contact phone number for you in case a support call or online meeting is necessary.

Room for improvement:

  • Errors without any context:
  • This is just one of many possible examples, but if all the tech gets is this, they really don't know anything other than that an installation failed.  This could have been due to a permissions issue, lack of disk space, or any number of other causes.
  • Replying to an old incident email to start a new one.  This seems minor but sending in a fresh email really helps the support team out.  It means they know it's a new incident right away, they don't have to dig through old notes and emails to get to the current one, and the (hopefully) accurate subject line can help ensure it gets routed to the right person the first time.
  • Sending the support request directly to the tech that helped you on a past incident.  This may result in a longer wait time, since you are now depending on one person rather than the whole team to respond.  It also bypasses automated ticketing systems, creating manual work that has to be done by the support team and making the incident harder to track.
If you follow the "please do" recommendations above, there is not too much need to worry about the "room for improvement" stuff, as you will already be putting things on the path to a speedy resolution.