60 Seconds with FlyerTalk's Mikel Bowman

60 Seconds with FlyerTalk's Mikel Bowman

FlyerTalk.com, the Internet’s most popular Web site for all things miles and points, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. We crossed the hallway to speak with Mikel Bowman who has been working at FlyerTalk for eight of the 10 years.

InsideFlyer
How long have you been involved with FlyerTalk and what is your role?
Mikel Bowman
I began serving my FlyerTalk master in 2000. At that time, all of us who worked for Randy served as moderators in what was then a much smaller community. Today I actually do very little moderating. My time is spent on an assortment of tasks, most of which involve assisting members in some form. I also work closely with the technical team to maintain and improve the site, and write the bi-weekly TalkMail newsletter.

IF
How many FlyerTalk members are there and why do you think the site is so popular?
Bowman
There are currently close to 178,000 registered FlyerTalkers! I can think of several valid explanations for FlyerTalk’s popularity. The Internet in general has become more popular, frequent flyer miles are a popular topic and an addictive game, road warriors need some way to stay connected while on the road, etc., etc.

But, in my opinion, FlyerTalk owes its popularity to the type of members it has attracted. Like many sites, we receive much of our traffic from search engines. Those people find us because our members continually contribute the best and most up-to-date travel information on the Web.

That’s great in and of itself, but it goes beyond that. Once these visitors find FlyerTalk they not only find the information they need, they also discover a community of exceptional individuals who make them feel welcome and who encourage them to join the conversations. FlyerTalk has developed a culture of civility, thoughtfulness, generosity and friendliness that feeds upon itself in the best way possible.

Then again, the popularity might very well just be the result of exceptional administration. Yeah, let’s go with that.

IF
What are you wearing right now?
Bowman
I have very strict standards when it comes to apparel. Only the least expensive fabrics I can get my hands on are allowed to touch my skin.

IF
When FlyerTalk started, what was the original vision behind the development of the site and has that changed over the years?
Bowman
You would have to ask Randy about the original vision, as he launched the site in 1998, and I joined in 2000. Having said that, I would venture to guess that the vision hasn’t changed much. The scope of topics has expanded a bit. In the early days the focus was almost exclusively miles and points. Today there are areas of the site where members can discuss everything from fine-dining options in Rio to how best to entertain twin two-year-olds on a 14-hour flight.

Randy might disagree, but I don’t think anyone ever envisioned how popular offline community events would become. Back when FlyerTalk started, meeting someone in person who you had originally met on the Internet was considered a dicey proposition. Nowadays, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of offline FlyerTalk events each year all around the world where FlyerTalkers get together in groups from two to 200. These “DOs” as they have come to be known are organized by the members, many of whom invest countless hours of their own time to make arrangements, organize outings and generally make sure all the attendees will enjoy themselves. And these events have really helped to foster the community spirit in a way that probably wouldn’t have been possible had the interactions remained exclusively online.

Still, I’m not sure the vision has changed. FlyerTalk is and has been a place where people who like to travel, or who travel for business, or who don’t travel often but enjoy discussing travel, or all of the above, are invited to share their knowledge and experiences in a welcoming atmosphere … simple as that.

IF
How are decisions made on FlyerTalk and what is the role of volunteer moderators?
Bowman
The volunteers on FlyerTalk serve an incredibly important role and play a big part in our decision-making process.

We actually have a couple of volunteer positions on FlyerTalk; the forum moderators and the member-elected TalkBoard. The moderators are essentially the eyes and ears of FlyerTalk. They welcome and assist new members, inform us about issues that are impacting the community, help organize the vast amounts of information that has been compiled over the years, and generally do their best to ensure members can enjoy all that FlyerTalk has to offer.

The TalkBoard is a much smaller group, but no less important. Voted in by the members of the community, the TalkBoard is influential in guiding FlyerTalk’s development. The TalkBoard volunteers essentially are an advisory committee whose advice is often followed.

While the volunteers and the members themselves guide much of the decision-making process, we also rely on several standard tools, including cost-benefit analysis, member satisfaction surveys, dartboards, astrological charts and the old reliable Magic 8 Ball.

IF
We’ve heard stories of FlyerTalkers banding together to help other FlyerTalkers. Can you give us an example of this?
Bowman
Like any community, there are countless examples of members helping members. One immediately pops to mind because it was exceptional, even by FlyerTalk standards.

In October of 2007, a FlyerTalk member posted on the forums seeking advice. This, obviously, is not at all uncommon. What was uncommon was the type of advice needed. This FlyerTalker’s daughter, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was engaged in a semester abroad program in Costa Rica when her insulin pump failed. The U.S.-based FlyerTalker had explored the options and had to that point been unable to find a way to get a new pump to his daughter, who was, needless to say, in dire straights without it.

Within minutes of posting, several members of the community had provided alternative options and offers of assistance. Two hours after the initial post was made, a member offered to cash in her own miles to fly to Costa Rica at a moment’s notice and deliver the pump.

Less than 10 days later, that FlyerTalker did indeed hand deliver the pump to the girl in Costa Rica!

It was truly a remarkable story that played out live on the forums, and demonstrated that FlyerTalk had certainly developed from just a Web site into an actual community.

Anyone who wants to relive this particular event can go to http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=745696 to see how it unfolded.

IF
If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be and why?
Bowman
If you’re asking what type of bird I most resemble … I don’t know. If you’re asking what type of bird I would wish to be … I don’t know.

IF
What’s currently the oldest thread?
Bowman
We don’t archive threads on FlyerTalk, so unless a thread is closed for some reason it is always active insofar as members can still contribute to it.

The first thread on FlyerTalk was started on May 5, 1998 and featured a very brief discussion of what was then a new trend in the industry — airline alliances.

IF
Who has posted the most?
Bowman
A member with the username “doc” contributed 47,344 posts between May 1999 and November 2006, which translates to roughly 20 posts a day for six-and-one-half years!

IF
In the eight years that you’ve worked on FlyerTalk, can you give us an example of one of the most memorable threads or FlyerTalk OMG moments?
Bowman
A couple of threads that are most memorable to me centered on tragic events, but evidenced the depth of community that had been achieved on FlyerTalk.

A couple of years ago, when fighting broke out between Lebanon and Israel, two members of FlyerTalk, one who lived in a Kibbutz in northern Israel and another residing in Beirut, began sharing information about the conflict along with well wishes for one another. In addition to providing incredible firsthand information about what was happening in the battle zone, these two FlyerTalkers demonstrated that ties developed through an online community could become every bit as binding as those developed in physical communities. Through their posts and the media attention they attracted, they put a human face on the longstanding conflict in the Middle East and convinced many that hatred was not a universal condition in the region.

Something similar happened on 9/11. Members of FlyerTalk shared detailed information about events that were occurring in real-time in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as in the various airports and hotels around the globe. But even more importantly, they checked in on one another, worried about those who hadn’t yet checked in, and quickly expressed a communal resolve to not allow the events of the day to frighten them into altering the way they would live their lives, especially as travelers. FlyerTalkers, I’m sure, reacted like many others that day, but the members of the community were some of the first who I witnessed stand up collectively and say, “We will not be intimidated. We will continue to fly.”

IF
Are there any changes in the works for FlyerTalk or any recent improvements to the FlyerTalk experience that you can share with InsideFlyer readers?
Bowman
Change is constant, especially in an online community. We’re continually adding features to the site in an effort to improve the experience for all of our members. Recently, we’ve implemented some more social networking components that are intended to help members develop even stronger interpersonal bonds and make it easier for them to engage their fellow FlyerTalkers offline as well as online.

IF
Over the past 10 years, what developments would you consider as some of FlyerTalk’s milestones?
Bowman
Well, let’s see. In 1999, a group of FlyerTalkers attended a “Party in Paradise” in Hawaii, which was the first semi-official FlyerTalk DO (though these offline get togethers weren’t called DOs at the time). As I mentioned before, in the early days of FlyerTalk, and the commercial Internet in general, meeting someone in person who you had originally met online was considered a big risk, so flying to Hawaii to meet a group of people you had met online qualified you as practically certifiable. But the event proved to be a tremendous success and in many ways it influenced what the community of FlyerTalk has become today.

The one-millionth post milestone was another biggie. It was reached in June of 2002 and I remember the feeling of awe we all had at the time, realizing just how popular this “little” community had become.

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