For half of the 20th century, America defined the world. Hollywood, our military, our economy, our food. I realize there’s a curious American arrogance in that statement, but this doesn’t make it any less true. Our airlines webbed the globe, as did our movies and restaurants. It was a big deal in any country if McDonald’s or KFC made it there. If Arnold Schwarzenegger made a movie, the world saw it. If Michael Jackson made an album, the world listened.
But this is the 21st century, and America isn’t what she once was.
In fact, a number of the things America was once the best at are now far better outside our as-yet-unwalled borders.
Here’s a few:
1 Malls. America pretty much invented the mall as we know it, and for some time in the 80s The Mall of America in Minneapolis was the biggest in the world. It even made itself a tourist destination. But most American malls today are sad, old remnants, the anchor stores like Sears and J.C Penny all but gone, and the remaining outlets barely clinging to their heavily waxed and shiny floors. Within the next three years it’s estimated that a quarter of the malls in America will close.
On the other hand, malls outside America are amazing. While malls in America have been going to seed and closing, the rest of the world is upping the game, or changing it entirely.
Dubai has taken the lead on this one, with over a hundred malls of every size, from small buildings catering to the millions of low pay foreign workers — Pakistanis, Indians, Phillipino and so on — to massive extravaganzas that cater to a global market stretching from Bangladesh to Algeria. The Emirate’s Mall has its own indoor ski slope, this in the middle of a desert that regularly sees 120-degree days. The Mall of Dubai, currently the largest in the world (another even bigger is under construction right next door), features an ice skating rink and several indoor theme parks as well as unbelievably large fountains and a gold souk.
But nearly every major city in Asia and South America and Africa has anchored shopping and eating districts around malls. These are often the social and cultural centers of the city. Actually, even the minor cities have fantastically opulent shopping centers.
America once stood for a certain kind of luxury. Not the expensive silk and cream luxury of English royalty, still embedded in a million-dollar Rolls Royce or a show like Downton Abbey. Not the seamlessly engineered luxury of a German appliance, or the futuristic luxury of a Japanese television or video game. American luxury was an everyman’s affluence. It promised quality and excellence in goods and experiences available to all, rich or poor, city or country.
Like a mall open to the entire county, it was also the movie theatre within that mall that promised an everyday extravagance to all citizens.
2Movie Theatres. Here’s the thing. It’s entirely possible to go to a movie and not pay 50 dollars for the popcorn. Due to the way Hollywood structures its payout, concessions are actually the only thing letting movie theatres turn a profit, since they make almost nothing from the movies themselves. The low margins on theatres in America has meant few of them invest in all the upgrades available in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, everywhere else in the world, movies are inexpensive and concessions affordable and varied. In Colombia, you can get Sushi or a hotdog, and beer delivered to your seat mid-movie. Oh, and the popcorn costs about a dollar. Movie theatres around the world offer luxury seating, including blankets and in-house service, the latest technology, and affordable experiences. Yes, you can download the movie at home, but you genuinely WANT to see it in a theatre outside America.
Like Malls forgetting that most buying experience is communal and driving us to do all our shopping online, American movie theatres seemed to forget that the movie experience is more than just the movie itself. They abandoned the seats and the service and the food, and simply hoped that the Blockbuster event of every movie was enough to lure us in, where they could turn a profit gouging us on the popcorn.
A similar disconnect between Amenity and Service happened with the way we travel. Our airlines are not what they once were.
3 Airlines. For a while there, the idea of an Airline was dominated by the US. (In the ’80s, Americans alone still accounted for more than half of all air passengers worldwide.) When I was a kid, flying was treat. I actually looked forward to airline food, despite the reputation. There was a sophistication to flying, and a real sense of privilege that was maintained throughout the flight. Anyone and everyone who got on a plane dressed up as if going to church. The food had a simultaneous reputation of extravagance and awfulness, but the attempt was always made to make it special.
My father moved often and far when I was a kid, so we flew a lot. It was always special, from the elegance of stewardesses and stewards, to simple amenities like eyemasks for sleeping, tiny pillows, and — pre Walkman/ipod/earbuds era (almost impossible to imagine such a distant time)— special, if painful, headphones. (For awhile, in the 70s, airline ‘headphones’ were essentially hollow tubes that piped sound directly to the ears, like mad-genius tin-can telephones. Not knowing any better, they were kinda awesome.)
On today’s American-based airlines you’d be lucky, in coach, to get a bag of nut-free pretzels thrown at you. It’s as if American businesses have forgotten the entire concept of Experience when offering a Service. You can get food on a domestic flight in the States, but you’re still going to have to haul out the credit card mid-flight. You bring your own entertainment, of course, but like the food, that’s a necessity driven by the absence of genuine quality produced by the airline itself.
Meanwhile, on Emirates and Singapore Airlines and British Air and every other decent national airline, you get excellent food and service, free in-flight entertainment of the latest movies and shows and music, blankets and pillows gratis, all delivered by a flight attendant who genuinely seems to enjoy the job.
Travel has changed over the years, and thankfully most hotels are leagues away from their former shabby selves. But if the rooms are cleaner and the sheets crisper and the bathrooms a bit shinier than they once were all over the world, the same cannot be said of the food offered up by hotels, particularly the breakfast.
Now, it might be arguable that American hotels never promised a good breakfast with the room, but you could reliably count on a nearby diner to provide some manner of freshly home-cooked eggs and bacon. That hasn’t changed; there’ll always be a Huddle House or Cracker Barrel a short drive away.
But outside America, the hotels have changed the whole ballgame with the in-house breakfast buffet.
4 Buffets. This list of observations was actually started when a friend visiting Budapest Instagrammed a picture of a breakfast buffet at his hotel. It was indeed opulent, pyramids of fresh fruit, 20 different juices, 40 different cheeses, 30 feet of bread, a dozen salamis and 6 kinds of olives. And that was just the cold food. He didn’t post the hot food aisle, which no doubt held 5 kinds of potato, a pancake station, omelet chef, soups, quiches, sausages rice, and more.
I recalled the standard ‘breakfast included’ offering at the American hotels I’ve frequented. Top-of-the-line means one of those self-serve waffle machines and real cream cheese for the mini bagel.
I once attended a week-long conference at a fairly fancy resort in Miami. Upon arrival, the conference organizers gushed about the amazing breakfast buffet I would be treated to each morning. It wasn’t the Days Inn, but it was a quarter the size of any standard buffet of any hotel in Dubai, even the Holiday Inn there. When a hotel overseas, any hotel, says ‘breakfast included’ they aren’t messing around. I often make that my main meal of the day, and happily go to bed hungry knowing I’ve got a feast waiting.
There are two forces running alongside each other in this set of observations. One hints at a declining or absent concept of ‘included’ goods or services. No amenity is part of the package anymore. If you want it, you gotta pay for it, usually dearly. You paid for the flight, the movie, the room: nothing else. Businesses offer a clear and direct product, and there’s profit to be had in the niceties, for those willing or able to pay. If anything, many American businesses, not simply the four listed here, act genuinely resentful that anything more might be asked of them. How dare you, the customer, expect anything other than what you have directly purchased? How dare you?
But the other force is more significant. Because all of these disparate things share a common attribute: Community Experience. The things that America no longer performs as well as the rest of the world are united by their shared community event, by the simple fact that you do them with many strangers. We have forgotten, in America, that things and experiences matter because we do them with other people, not simply for the thing itself.
The Mall, the Movie, the Flight, the Buffet. All of these are experiences made meaningful by the fact that we are having them together. It may seem like we are shopping for ourselves, for our own unique needs or desires. We watch a movie in the dark, in our own seat, munching our own popcorn. Each person on that flight is only momentarily pressed together in that magical airborne tube; at arrival each launches off to their own unique destination. We come downstairs from our rooms in the morning and have a solitary breakfast, then off we go.
All of this is true. Yet the communal experience is what makes the mall or movie meaningful and special, and it is the amenity of the event, small or large, included in the ticket price, that binds us to it.
We go to the store to get the shirt, but we go to the Mall for the experience of getting the shirt, and that experience is significant because the Mall itself is an experience. This is what you understand at the Mall of Dubai, with its jaw-dropping fountains and gleaming architecture and marble souks.
We go to the movie to see Arnold’s latest experiment in blowing things up, but the theatre itself is an experience we share together, collectively hypnotized. It’s an experience that includes food and service and comfort willingly offered, not gouged out of any but the wealthiest.
On the flight, we’re all headed away from each other eventually, but all of us traveling together? That’s a powerful moment that should be celebrated, should be made special by the airline. The airline takes us from here to there, but between here and there they’ve forgotten their own role in that journey.
America was, and still is in many ways, a nation that worked to bring the world together. Our food and airlines and movies and products once delivered the Experience of America embedded in easy accessibility.
Funny how the rest of the world still remembers what we have forgotten.