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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Brilliant minds think alike, or, Why so many guidebooks share the same listings: part 2

By Lara & Terry*
If you've just joined us, this continues from the previous post so read this first.
So, why would these three places now get glowing reviews in an updated guidebook? What do they have in common? The answer: all of these places do excellent public relations. And when you read the reviews it’s quite easy to tell that the writer hasn't set foot in any of the places, or if the person did, they were blindfolded. A quick search on Google revealed that many of the reviews of the restaurant we left out of our edition use the same language to describe the chef, the preparation of the food, and the cuisine itself. It’s not a coincidence. It’s simply a recycled press release. And to the writer in a hurry on a tight budget, the 'general consensus' is enough to tick it off for inclusion and write the review from the establishment’s website, a press release, or other lustrous reviews.

In this particular city, we had tried all the restaurants we put in the first edition of that book, as we’d been regular visitors to the city for years. And on subsequent visits we used our local industry contacts (hotel staff, chefs and so on) to identify new places to try. But what we found most interesting from our guidebook test were the other reviewers’ responses to the restaurants we didn’t think were very good. When we discussed this with our informed local contacts in the restaurant or hotel business they almost unanimously said: “I can never understand why foreign writers think that place is so good!”
One famous chef we recently interviewed knows exactly what we’re talking about. He told us that one dish that was on his menu for only a couple of months a few years ago keeps appearing in 'reviews' of his restaurant in travel guidebooks and articles. He blames one high-profile magazine article (which has since appeared on the internet) for this and is bemused by diners coming in and asking for the dish! The mention of this dish is his benchmark for judging whether the writer has even looked at his menu.

And this is why buying a guidebook is such a lottery. If you’ve been to a city before and you’re looking to buy a guidebook on it for another trip, look for a review of a hotel or restaurant you know. Is it in there? Good. Does the review make it sound remotely like the place you know? Yes? Excellent. If it doesn’t list it or it describes it in a way that’s not like the place you know, leave the book on the shelf.

Just as an aside, we were relieved to find that our names aren’t mentioned at all in the current incarnation of that first book we originally authored. It’s somewhat petty of the publishers, seeing our content was original, but considering the state of the current edition, we’re actually grateful!

Pictured? One hotel in Northern Italy that in no uncertain terms lives up to its eco-friendly credentials, Vigilius Mountain Resort. This is a photo of our room. We actually stayed there. Do you trust us?


Anonymous said...

So, a follow-up question... If buying a guidebook is such a lottery, how can the average consumer who has never been somewhere before pick up the a book that is actually based in reality, not press release fantasy?


ps. Enjoying this series of posts by the way!

Anonymous said...

Great series. The next time I look for travel guides I will definitely look for something I know about.

I just started reading your blog, and I love it!!!


Lara Dunston said...

Hi Eric, Hi Jamie

Thanks for the feedback!

Eric - that's a great question. I'm going to answer that one in a post actually.

Jamie - glad you liked that tip!


Anonymous said...

Hey Eric, it's not just about the press releases, it's the whole “it's in Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Frommers, Fodors, DK, so it can't be less than OK, right?”
Wrong. Too much exposure, too many people coming in asking DO YOU HAVE AN ENGLISH MENU? or restaurateurs getting greedy because they're in all the above books can also spoil what was once a good place to eat – not to mention spoil the atmosphere if it was a local favourite. The fact that there are only so many places that a reviewer can visit if they're not a resident sees reviewers playing it safe. Good PR just facilitates an easy review to be written by someone who never set foot in the place when they sit down back at home to write the reviews.