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Monday, May 5, 2008

Strange Planet (part 3) or How I learnt to stop worrying and love the Lonely Planet Loophole

By Terry Carter*
Hallelujah! On the weekend Peter Munro writing for The Age in Melbourne cleared up the whole Lonely Planet scandal. Thank god that’s over. Yes, we were getting bored with it too. But in the words of Lonely Planet publisher Piers Pickard: “No freebies — period.” Thank you and goodnight! What? Oh, wait, there is a caveat? Sorry, folks. Quotes from the story in italics below.

Peter Munro writes: Are there exceptions? He (Piers) pauses. He says Lonely Planet lets its authors accept free entry to state-run institutions such as museums or national parks.
Phew. Well that’s okay, journalists usually get media passes to these things anyway. We’ve always asked for them. Nothing to see here, move along. Thanks for reading! Oh no, now what?

Prodded further, he says the company also allows freebies when obtained through a tourist office. He says the wording of its policy will be tightened further in future books to close any perceived loophole.
Readers, do you know what you can get through a tourist office as a travel writer working on a guide book to a city or country? Sometimes very little. A meeting with the tourism officials, with tea and biscuits and mind-numbing small talk. But most of the time you can get the whole trip paid for. In full. Flights, transfers, meals, hotels, car hire, and VIP treatment the whole way. That’s not a perceived loophole, that’s a free pass to writers such as the couple mentioned in the article who openly admit to taking freebies. But more on these miscreants later. Now back to Piers. Changing the text in the books to "close any perceived loophole" when you allow freebies obtained through a tourist office smells like three-day old fish at an outdoor market. It’s still not clear what the real policy is. And when Lonely Planet stakes its credibility on this, you’d better get it sorted out. But let’s cut Piers some slack. Perhaps he was just a little flustered because of all the media attention over the past couple of weeks. He’s probably as tired as Barack Obama and as nervous as Hillary Clinton. This might account for his weak attempt at spin:

The interest in the scandal is "because of the trust people have in Lonely Planet not because of distrust".

Nice try, but not quite accurate. The interest in the scandal for many is because your customers (your loyal readers) want to know whether they can still trust your books or not. You know, whether you really are the only ‘cleanskin’ guide publisher, who doesn’t accept freebies and visits every establishment. Once again, Lonely Planet has staked its reputation on this, and, as former global publisher Richard Everist puts it in the story, it positions itself as, "being on the side of the angels". You’re the good guys. With integrity and moral fortitude. But there are others, especially in the travel writing industry, who are interested in seeing Lonely Planet get taken down a notch. Including many other publishers who feel that Lonely Planet had been setting themselves up for this by stating the policy in the first place, not paying authors enough to fulfil the promise, or hiring authors who really take advantage of the ‘perceived’ loophole. Astonishingly, the author Peter Munro finds one Lonely Planet author totally in agreement with everything in the paragraph I’ve just written:

New York-based writer Zora O'Neill, who has written guides for several publishers including Lonely Planet, says Lonely Planet uses its official no-freebies policy "to imply it's somehow better, cleaner, more righteous" than its rivals.
To implicitly validate that it’s not better, cleaner and more righteous than its rivals, Zora goes on to commit an act of author disembowelment and perhaps bids farewell to her relationship with Lonely Planet.

Freebies were a necessity "both in terms of dealing with the pay you get and getting to know a place". Lonely Planet author verification teams, once you’ve finished in South America following up Thomas’ tall tales, next stop Egypt. Zora is one of a group of authors who find the best way of “dealing with the pay” and “getting to know a place” is to accept the commission and wink at the loophole, instead of doing the right thing and refusing the commission. Author Paul Hellander is another one of the authors who enjoys the fruits of the loophole provided by Lonely Planet’s policy, but with a twist:

…Paul Hellander, who has worked for Lonely Planet since 1994 on about 35 titles, says flexibility still applies. He argues that while he has never sought a freebie on assignment, he is entitled to accept them regardless of Mr Pickard's protestations. "(The policy) certainly means I can receive a freebie without any real soul-searching because from my view I have not transgressed the line of exchanging content for service," he says. OK. So Lonely Planet has a policy with a ‘perceived’ loophole and Hellander takes guilt-free advantage of it. Lonely Planet says they’re tightening it and Hellander says he’s still ‘entitled’ and flexibility still applies. So, what’s changed? As long as authors with his attitude are still working for Lonely Planet, nothing’s changed.

He says in some countries, such as Greece, the refusal of a free meal or accommodation could offend locals. "If someone says, 'The meal is on me,' I say thank you and walk away," he says. "Lonely Planet would be fooling itself if it sincerely believed its authors had not received a gratuity at some stage."

But Paul, how does the restaurant or hotel know you’re from Lonely Planet? Lara and I have written the Greece chapters (twice) for several Lonely Planet European guidebooks and we've never had a restaurant owner in Greece just randomly give us free meals. And we’ve eaten at many of the restaurants that you’ve reviewed in your books. And we’ve done it while working for Lonely Planet. Here’s a tip: Need to get the correct phone number, opening hours or ask if they’re closed in winter? Ask after you’ve paid the bill. If you end up having to tell them why you need these details and you show them your business card and they insist that the meal is on them, put the money on the table and walk away. We’ve never been chased off a Greek island for paying a bill while working for Lonely Planet and we’ve been in the same situations as you – and I’ve put money on the table and walked away. Plenty of times. I guess we just have a different idea of ‘entitlement’, the kind of entitlement where you show someone your business card, they offer you a freebie and this somehow ‘entitles’ you to accept. After all, you don’t want to offend anyone…

Even more far-fetched is Hellander’s claim that accepting free accommodation is equally a guilt-free practice. Firstly, Paul, you’re letting hoteliers in the industry think that Lonely Planet authors can be bought. (Although unfortunately this isn’t news.) And, yes, hoteliers talk about it to each other. And they don’t see Lonely Planet as any different than all the other guidebook companies. In fact, some see it as being the most cynical and duplicitous of all the guidebook companies. Secondly, it makes it awkward for the next author who can’t be bought while on assignment for Lonely Planet. But soul-searching clearly isn’t your strongest suit. I can probably guess why.
There are several other Lonely Planet authors I could name who point to this loophole while accepting freebies for Lonely Planet, but if The Age story is any indicator they’ll probably end up confessing anyway, as if they’re members of some strange cult seeking absolution. Strange indeed.

* Terry is my husband, co-author and a photographer. We wrote and contributed to over 25 guidebooks and stacks of other content for Lonely Planet over four years. Take a read of part 1 and part 2 of this strange saga here.

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