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Saturday, August 23, 2008

How travel writers 'discover' hotels

Hotel gurus Mr and Mrs Smith recently shared their secrets as to How Smith finds hotels on their engaging blog. Mrs Smith is a Cool Travel Guide reader and after she recently commented on my post Don't judge a guidebook by its cover: judge it by its author, I asked her how she selects hotels. Mr and Mrs Smith use a combination of sources: their staff, members, hoteliers, press releases, the media, Smith spies, and hotel books. Travel writers draw on a similar set of resources, dividing We our hotel research into pre-trip and on-the-road research:

Travel guidebooks & websites - if we're updating a guidebook, we'll start by looking at the hotels in the book, to see what's in there and what's missing. Then we skim through other guides on the destination. Because publishers like Lonely Planet, DK, Fodors and Frommers have put so much content online, we don't even need to visit a bookshop. What are we looking for? Overlap first of all. If a hotel appears in every guidebook then it had better be special or it had better be the only one in town. If it doesn't appear anywhere else, then we need to find out why. We make notes on these things which we'll investigate later in person.
The Internet - we'll look at the websites of hotels on our list and make notes as to which look suitable, suspect, or so fabulous we have to investigate further. We'll check hotel booking sites like Design Hotels, i-escape, Tablet, Hip Hotels, Holiday Pad , Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Leading Hotels of the World, and of course, Mr and Mrs Smith, to see if there are any new hotels that could be worth considering. We'll also do some random Googling. Occasionally we'll check Trip Advisor; there, we're not looking for new properties (as we're more interested in reviews by professional travel critics, people who spend more nights in hotels than they do at home) but rather to confirm any suspicions we might have about a place.
3) Hotel GMs & PRs - because we've stayed at, inspected, reviewed, and photographed tens of thousands of hotels around the globe, we have a lot of friends who manage and work at hotels, so we hear about new hotel openings over conversation, whether it's by email or at dinner, drinks or parties.
4) PRs & press releases - ditto; we have contacts who work on staff at hotels as Public Relations, Media Relations or MarkComm managers, or for PR agencies representing hotels, so we're on a lot of mailing lists and feeds. Dozens of emails arrive in our In Box every day about hotel openings (including invitations to launches!) See Terry's photos of the behind-the-scenes preparations and glam opening of the InterContinental Dubai Festival City earlier this year here.)
5) Travel media - we read every travel magazine and newspaper travel section there is, as many in-flight and hotel mags we can get our hands on, and frequently scour their websites. We subscribe to all the industry and trade feeds and online newsletters. I don't tend to look at travel websites or blogs like Hotel Chatter for new hotels, because generally they've received the same press releases I have, and I'd rather read the information straight from the source than someone else's interpretation. While I occasionally rip items out of travel magazines, due to their long lead times we tend to know about the hotel, and have probably already stayed there, by the time the issue hits the newsstands but their still handy for some we may have missed.

Hotel experiences - once we're on the road in a destination, we'll be testing out hotels by staying, eating and drinking at them (both undercover and through arrangement), and by doing hotel inspections. We'll also hear about new hotels this way. While the hotel PR is showing us a suite, she'll probably say "Oh, have you seen the suites at the new xxx hotel? I hear they're lovely but not as spacious as ours."
Leg-work - once we arrive at a destination, we'll have a lot of places to check out and try, restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs, shops, museums, galleries, and other attractions, and during encounters with people at these places, we'll inevitably hear about hotel openings.
Accidental discoveries - as we pound the pavements of a city all day every day, there'll always be one or two hotels we stumble upon that we haven't read heard about and nobody has mentioned. They may have just opened or may still be under construction, or maybe it's a hidden gem that's been continually over-looked or recently renovated. Either way, we'll be in there checking it out.

So, how do you hear about hotels? And have you ever discovered secret gems that weren't in any guidebooks or websites that nobody seemed to know about? Pictured: our studio apartment at the sublime Aleenta Phuket, which we experienced last October while we were in Thailand for DK.


Anonymous said...

Great post topic offering worthwhile insight. Personally, I've found the "pounding the pavement" approach to be most effective, particularly as it relates to countries emerging from third world status.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Janice - thanks! Much appreciated. You're absolutely right. It takes a lot longer for word to spread about a new hotel in say, a small town in Bolivia, or even in a big town in Syria.

For instance, we wrote in the last edition of our Lonely Planet about the 'boutique' hotels that had started in restored old houses in Aleppo (that was 5 years ago that we did that research), but it wasn't until 2-3 years ago that stories started appearing in travel supplements and magazines about the emergence of this 'new' breed of hotel. Probably because a journalist had gone there using our book, wrote a story, and then everyone caught on.

For the latest edition of that guide, which we researched in May-June last year, we drove across the whole country and went to every single town and village in Syria with anything of interest to it. If there was going to be a new hotel anywhere, we'd find it. And as it turned out, we did find quite a few in Damascus, currently under construction and being renovated.

But you're right, aside from Damascus, those places are not going to know how to send press releases to Conde Nast Traveller and they are certainly not going to employ a PR rep in London!

Tamara said...

Hi Lara
I don't know about you but the bit I love most about my job is the 'pounding the streets' bit. Even though it can be exhausting, it's almost always worthwhile for the information you come back with. When you do discover a hidden gem - well - that's the bit that after so many years now of looking at hotels, still gets me excited!

TravelMuse said...

Lara - I do a lot of the same research when looking for hotels. I also hit for discussions on luxury travel. You can't beat walking the streets though. I discovered a gem of a hotel in Portland that's not in any of the guidebooks or online. I can't wait to go back and stay there.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Tamara - yes, I agree, I love that part of the job too. It beats sitting at a desk writing for 14-16 hours a day, which is what I'm doing now!

Hi Travelmuse - I've checked in on extravigator a few times... still thinking about how I feel about it actually... But as for your Portland hotel, you need to stay there and write about it before anyone else does!

Anonymous said...

I found that really interesting

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

This was a very informative post for us, squirreled away in the emerald rice fields and sugar cane plantations of Isaan!

We'd love to welcome you to the area (which definitely differentiates itself from the more travelled regions of Thailand), but as there are no "pavements to pound" in the region, can only rely on the internet (and writers such as yourselves!) to get our word out.

Your post also makes us wonder how you and your readers would define "luxury"? For us, it's a combination of genuinely hospitable service, facilities offered, and style - but importantly, also, space and unique elements in both the product and the the experience. We wonder if you would agree that if we made a graph, with Product in the Y axis and Experience on the X axis, would the "luxury line" start high on the y axis and move lower as it travels along the x axis? (Perhaps a thought for a new forum!)

Green Gecko is a single, private pool villa in what some might call the middle of nowhere, and some see as a "hidden gem." We aim to score well on both axes above, but hope that those looking for a rural getaway, with freshly prepared Thai and Isaan food in a natural setting, will find what they have been looking for here and that the unique experience offered will help encourage visitors to get off the beaten path and try something new.

Again, many thanks for your interesting insights and a thoughtful, "sticky" blog!