Where to stay and eat in Milan

by Steven Brenner

Linda and I recently spent a few days in Milan to see the Dalai Lama.  We wanted to stay somewhere inexpensive and cute and not too far from the train station.  We found a great little apartment near Porta Garibaldi station and booked it on-line.  Although we don’t have any immediate plans to expand Cross-Pollinate to Milan, we’re often asked if we have any recommendations – and this place was definitely recommendable.

For about 120 euro a night you get a private apartment with air-conditioning, a nice bathroom, wifi, TV, and a kitchen.  The owner, Alessandra, bakes little cakes for tea time and has all the breakfast stuff you would need – bread to toast, milk, sugar, and an espresso machine.  From there, you can jump on the subway at Moscova to get anywhere in the city, or walk down the fashionable Corso Garibaldi, to the Duomo in about 20 minutes.

Porta Garibaldi B&B – viale Pasubio 8 – 20154 Milano tel: 02-29061419 cell: 335-8044030 bb@portagaribaldi.it


Food is good in Milan, but not cheap.  Our close friend, who’s originally Milanese, suggested we go to a restaurant called Al Pont de Ferr in his old stomping ground of the Navigli, the canal area of Milan, lined with hip places to eat and drink.

Normally, I really hate fancy food – I find the no frills, humble version to much more satisfying than a pretentious attempt at being creative with a dish that really doesn’t need to be improved.  But these guys at Pont de Ferr are seriously creative.  They do stuff I’ve never seen or tasted before.  Stuff that frankly would never even occur to me.

This is their take on an eggplant parmigiana:

an appetizer of red onion and goat cheese:

the dessert menu, which I like to translate as, “we’re not playing around with this dessert!”:

Al Pont de Ferr – Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 55 – Naviglio Grande, Milano tel: 02-89406277

Not All Vacation Rental Agencies Are Created Equal – an Interview with NY Habitat


I have a lot of respect for NY Habitat.  I’ve used them personally in New York, years ago, to book an amazing apartment that cost a fraction of a hotel and gave our family at least 3 times the space.  More than that, I respect them because in many ways they are on the same side of an imaginary line that separates Cross-Pollinate from other sites that, in my opinion, are following a dangerous trend in the vacation rental market.

I’ve lost count over the years of how many accommodation agencies have sprouted up like weeds online — many of them promoting the same properties (sometimes unbeknownst to the owners) in an identically impersonal way and with cookie-cutter designs (large slideshow image of a beautiful apartment and a big, fat text box that says something direct like “where do you want to go?”).  The business model may differ from site to site, but almost all of them that are getting serious press and financial backing, and thus are the ones competing for your eyeballs, have traded in any notion of quality control for scalability.  Having witnessed everything that can go wrong in international travel over the last 10 years, the thought of what happens to that 1 or 2% of tourists who fall through the cracks — ie. gets scammed, books a place that doesn’t exist, or has their accommodation canceled by the owner at the last minute — makes me cringe.   Large sites find this percentage acceptable, and perhaps when you do millions of revenue, it’s a small price to pay.  But when you’re the guy on vacation, with 1 week to spare a year, things look a helluva lot different.

It didn’t used to be like this though.  When we started Cross-Pollinate in 2000, it was all much simpler.  It was rare that people sought out apartments and spare rooms in the first place, so we had to go and inspect them and make sure they existed before we could promote them. Sites like ours, and NY Habitat, which was founded in 1998, were certainly pioneers in getting these alternative accommodations online so they could be reserved easily.  Unfortunately, this model of ours, which works quite well, albeit on a small, manageable scale, has grown into an industry of inexperienced players, flushed with cash and credibility issues.

Talking to Marie-Reine, the founder of NY Habitat, helped reinforce my conviction that the “mom-and-pop / Main Street” version of the travel world is worth preserving.



1.  What’s your personal background and how did New York Habitat get started?

Originally from a small town in Western France, I actually started my career working in an antique business company. For business purposes, I traveled to New York for a few months in 1981. That was the first time I discovered NYC, and I immediately fell in love with the city! I had to go back to France shortly after but returned to the city later on to settle eventually. Since I was living in the Big Apple, I started having a lot of people asking to stay at my apartment to visit the city: first family, then friends, then friends of friends… I had so many people asking me to host them I even told everyone to stop giving out my contacts! That’s when I realized how much of the big dream New York represented for so many people. Everyone wants to come here! So I decided to turn the loft I was working in into a vacation rental for anyone coming to New York City. It all went fast from then on: I obtained my license, expanded the team, Francois Roux joined up and implemented the website (http://www.nyhabitat.com), and we were on our way to becoming the successful company New York Habitat is today.

2.  What’s the New York Habitat model and what do you think distinguishes you from other websites?  In other words, why should someone book through you and not stay in a hotel?  Why should someone book through you and not another website?

The strength of New York Habitat lies in three factors: cosmopolitanism, expertise and protection. Indeed, you could picture NYH as a bridge between owner and tenant, between two people and between two cultures. We have agents fluent in many languages, including French, Spanish, Italian and German, and we have branches not only in New York but also in Paris, London and in the South of France. Also, we rely on our staff of most professional Real Estate Agents, who make a point of assisting and educating our clientele in their search for an accommodation or housing. Finally, we understand that in a world where it is becoming easier and easier to rent an apartment or a vacation rental, people need a safety net to protect themselves from many of the threats we have seen in the papers lately. This is why we provide guarantees before, during and after the stay of clients through state licenses worldwide and compliance to the latest current laws surrounding housing.  We want our clientele to feel safe and fully enjoy their stay in a New York Habitat accommodation.

3.  You’ve been in the business long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the online travel industry.  What changes do you predict in the next 2-5 years?

Well, first of all, I think that e-booking is definitely going to go mainstream and, with so many things to make it easy for us to rent an apartment, I am certain that within a few years we will be able to rent an apartment just like we book a hotel room. Also, we will attend the development of peer-to-peer in the market, with all of these new websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other. This will deeply reshape the housing market and the role of brokers in the future. In order to follow these changes smoothly, we need to think about new concepts and grow towards a more complete expertise and better communication. We need to create tomorrow’s broker.

4.  New York Habitat has a stunning amount of fans/followers – you’re like a rock star!  What do you think the key to your success is?  What is it that you think people identify with about your company?

99% perspiration, 1% inspiration! It’s been a lot of work accumulated throughout the years to become what New York Habitat is today. Our work is very tiring because what we create is something sustainable and strongly built, and I think people can see that: through a constant level of excellence in our service. Our internationality combined with a personalized expertise helped us build our reputation over the years. And all the work behind the scene, like a case-by-case approach and a thorough inspection of each one of our apartments, gives a unique sense of safety to our clientele.

Over the last 2 years, we have started to engage in the social media community and it has been very exciting. Our Facebook fans (30,000 as of today) show us what they are interested via their Likes and comments, and our Twitter followers (12,000 so far) encourage us to find new ideas, new deals. All of them share their experiences with us, which allows us to improve our service and strive for excellence. It is definitely a win-win situation when you take the time to listen!

Our goal is to share and expand our knowledge via articles, to-do lists and videos.

We recently started sharing content on Tumblr (very visual website with lots of pictures and tips), on Flickr, on Foursquare (if you are not sure what to do in New York, Paris, London or even the South of France, check us out!) and on Google+.

We enjoy sharing our knowledge and receiving feedback from our customers and Fans.

5.  Do you have a horror story that comes to mind either from the perspective of a guest or owner or agent, or all three?

We did have a few bad stories like you never expect them to happen, but there is one that struck me especially. We had found housing for this woman in a roommate share in a Paris apartment and about a year ago, a huge fire started for an unknown reason and burned down the whole place! There was absolutely nothing left but ashes! But luckily no one got hurt. Of course, since the rental was completely destroyed we relocated her, as well as the landlady that was also living there and had lost her apartment…. Insurance kicked in and helped them out but trust me we got really scared for the people living in the accommodation!

6.  Can you tell a story about how NYH has been able to come through for someone and really save the day?

It sounds incredible but we find emergency housing for people almost every week! You have no idea how many people get scammed by Craigslist all the time! We even wrote an article about them on our New York Habitat blog (http://www.nyhabitat.com/blog/2011/02/04/how-to-spot-an-apartment-rental-scam/) People think it is easy and simple to rent an apartment so they just go ahead and reply to an advertisement but they don’t realize how dangerous that can be until it is too late! Hopefully, most of the time we are able to find them another apartment to live in and people are always extremely grateful to us when that happens. It makes me personally proud because that is another proof of the level of service we fight to reach!

7.  What are your plans for the future – either for New York Habitat or otherwise?

Work smarter, more efficiently and keep raising our service to the next level. Now more than ever the housing market has grown increasingly competitive with the appearance of a whole series of unfair competitors. Peer-to-peer websites that allow people to rent apartments directly to each other represent a real threat to the traditional real estate model. If this peer-to-peer trend isn’t challenged legally, the whole market of real estate housing will be completely reshaped. A recent law issued by the State of New York and prohibiting rentals for less than 30-days in class-A buildings already modified our entire business structure. We adapted ourselves and do our best to stay afloat while respecting the law but this has to apply to every player in the real estate market. You will find more legal information on this blog dedicated to New York housing laws: http://protect-vacation-rentals.com/. We don’t know what tomorrow will be made of but yet here at New York Habitat, we’re hoping for the best… and long live vacation rentals!

To discover more about New York Habitat, visit our website and find the social media icons like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.

by Steven Brenner

Views from the Cross-Pollinate Office

Until we moved to Rome and opened The Beehive, I’d never had a career, only a handful of jobs, and never anything that required working 9-5 in an office.  Linda was the opposite – always stuck in a cubicle somewhere, surrounded by different shades of that ubiquitous office blue-grey.  The times I’d end up at her work, I was uncomfortable the way most people are uncomfortable in hospitals – I never liked the swish swish swish sound of her coworker’s business casual slacks as they walked down the carpeted halls.  I tired easily of hearing about the interoffice politics, protocols and endless policies.  Then there’s the coup de grace: casual Friday, or Hawaiian shirt day, or whatever other asinine variation many offices seem to do “for fun”.

Without this standard model of how a company should look and where work should take place, we’ve been able to build a company without an office and take advantage of the freedoms modern technology offers.  I’ve also been lucky to find long term staff members who equally don’t like bosses hovering over their shoulders, and don’t want, or need, to be told what to do.   As a travel company, it seems natural that we would be mobile.    It also suits our workload being dispersed – we have all the time zones covered:  I’m currently on sabbatical in Bali until June and Amy, who has no official title but is affectionately known to Linda and I as “pretty much in charge of everything”, is in Central America.  The staff at The Beehive in Rome covers any phone emergencies throughout Europe, and various associates do their thing, whether it’s accounting or design, in other locations.

I also have my own particular “guerilla” work style.  That is to say, with three kids and no office (I don’t even have a desk for that matter), I don’t sit down to a calm, organized space and do one task at a time, taking a break for lunch.  No, I’m accustomed to checking reservations, sending sms messages and answering emails while wiping bottoms, making dinner and breaking up sibling squabbles.  Give me 5 minutes of even relative calm and I can get a hell of a lot done.

I’ve never logged it, but I’m probably on the computer 10 hours a day, maybe even more.  I can’t even remember the last time I turned my computer off completely.  I have an iPhone (which also remains on 24 hours a day), so the only times I’m not involved in some way with work, or not capable of responding to a problem, is when I’m in the water surfing or getting a massage, which might equal 3 hours total for both activities.  Otherwise, I’m “at the office”, and really I couldn’t imagine life, or work, to be any other way.

As a way to show gratitude for this time spent in Bali and of not being stuck at the same boring place everyday, I give you the following photo tour of all the typical views I see during my current work day.

by Steven Brenner