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Monday, October 12, 2009

Travel experts versus 'real' travellers

Travel 'experts', whether they are travel writers, guidebook authors, travel bloggers, tour guides, travel agents, hoteliers etc, are also 'real' travellers in my mind. Yet publishers and travel sites are frequently pitting the two against each other. Sure, the travel experts sometimes get special treatment and they can rarely shut themselves off from the act of reviewing, even when they're on holidays, but the fact is that they do take holidays and do travel like 'normal' people too. I book my flights and hotels online. I have to negotiate local transport like you do. I eat as many bad meals as I do good ones, and I also get allocated my share of crappy hotel rooms too. Yet increasingly the opinions of the experts - the people who stay in hundreds of hotel rooms a year, catch scores of flights, and talk to thousands of other travel experts and travellers - that is, the people who make it their business to accumulate vast travel experience and knowledge and develop skills at discernment - seem to be increasingly undervalued and overlooked in favor of the opinions of 'real' people. One example is the hotel reviews in Budget Travel (a magazine I love, by the way), such as this one which states that "Online reviews generally praise the hotel as an affordable gem with a fun, unique theme" and "Reader Dawn recommends Franklin Feel the Sound, where she stayed in June 2009. She writes that the Franklin exceeded her expectations and was excellent value". Frankly, unless I know who these online reviewers were and have more information about them and Dawn, I don't care what they think. I want to know how much hotel experience they've had, how many hotels in Rome they've checked into and inspected, and how many hotels they've stayed at fullstop, so I can then determine what their idea of "affordable" or "unique" is, and how different their expectations may be to that of other travellers. You see, travel experts know these things. What do you think?


Rachel Cotterill said...

I find both things useful, and it partly depends on what you're looking for. The opinions of people who travel a lot are valuable for the implicit comparisons, but on the other hand, websites where reviews are written & submitted by multiple non-specialists have some advantages: (a) a cross-section of opinions over a period of time, (b) potentially much wider coverage, and (c) being probably more up-to-date than a printed guidebook.

Vicky Baker said...

Great post, Lara.

This happens in all walks of journalism. People keep turning around and suggesting we're not real people and can't make real judgments.

Dawn's comments, in this case, are absolutely worthless (sorry, Dawn). The place 'exceeded her expectations'. But what were her expectations? Does she usually stay in hostels or 5 star?

I do see the value of readers' contributions and user-generated content, but it has to be well managed. Not just there for the sake of it, as in this Budget Travel example.

And let's face it, why are publications so keen to push so-called 'real' content right now? Because it's free.

But free can come at a price too.

Fly Girl said...

You know I'm totally with you on this one Lara. I think that the attraction of the web has overshadowed the benefits of many traditional resources like well-versed journalists. People are all excited about the sudden democracy of voices and opinions, which I do believe is a good thing. The caveat is that if you don't have much experience with a particular destination or hotel or restaurant, then your opinion isn't going to be very developed. You just don't have much to compare to. I do browse through Trip Advisor and Fodors and various dining forums and have learned to read between the lines with comments. Sometimes I gain fresh insight, sometimes not. I'm just grateful that we still have the choice of reading expert opinions and those of regular people available to everybody.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Rachel

I definitely agree with you that it's great to have multiple opinions over a longer period of time - great point! - for one, you can see whether a hotel has maintained its quality over the years, whether it started off great and has declined, or opened in a stay of less-than-readiness and improved over time.

But, I just can't value the reader's opinion unless I have more information about the reader and know what their experience is - how many times have they stayed in hotels for instance? If they've only stayed in a hotel a few times in their life, then how can they judge how good it really is. I guess I've read one too many Trip Advisor reviews where people have gushed over dumps.

But you're so right - they're definitely going to be more up-to-date than guidebooks. I'm about to go through queries for a book I began researching last October and it won't be out til early 2010. Admittedly the economic crisis affected the publisher's schedule, but still...

Thanks for your comments!

Lara Dunston said...

Thanks, Vicky

I so agree with you that reader's views have to be managed. I actually linked to a couple of interesting posts this week from Twitter - some great analyses of suspicious user-generated content.

And, you're right, what's mainly driving this move is the fact that it's free. Have you seen that 'Real Travel' magazine by the way? Completely put together using free content provided by readers.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Fly Girl

Agree that the democracy of voices is wonderful and, look, I don't want to risk sounding like a complete snob. I definitely value reader's opinions - and more so when I know more about them. And I'm not saying I don't want to read them - I love reading the comments at the end of online articles, especially when they're informed - and especially when they're more informed than the writer's! But what I'm objecting to is that they're increasingly replacing the writing of people with authority. Like you, I want to be able to read both.

Thanks for your comments!

Jason said...

This is a growing trend that has exploded most recently through the creation of Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The individual now has a voice that can reach millions of people. CNN now has iReport etc. Bigger more traditional companies such as CNN are now searching for a "common" person's opinion or direct access to a story. We all know positives and negatives both exist. During Michael Jackson's death, a few other deaths materialized through the use of Twitter. News agencies began to fear they were behind the news feed and published false deaths or stories fabricated by individuals on Twitter. The risk is that you don't have verification or much trust in the source. A benefit of an individuals voice may be that you can find an opinion from someone whose lifestyle matches with yours. The example used here would be a hostel or hotel review by a non-professional. A non-professional might be more likely to issue a non-biased opinion since they aren't tied to a large publishing magazine. Or, they might be an individual posting on TripAdvisor as a recent visitor to a hotel, when they in fact work for the hotel.

It's difficult to decide which is better for information, but one thing is clear. There is a growing trend to communicate an individual's voice versus a companies' voice and companies are started to adapt.

Great topic!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jason

Thanks for responding with the thought-provoking points!

But don't you see content such as that on iReport (which I've been watching and loving for many years here on CNN International in the Middle East - I'm not sure they've always had it in the Americas, have they?) as being quite different? To me, that's citizen journalism and it definitely has a place, especially when it's a small story coming from places bigger news orgs aren't going to send journos to and where freelancers don't see they're going to derive enough income.

Citizen journalism is wonderful because small stories - especially local, community-based stories - can be told and get covered that normally wouldn't. But a lot of that content is actually being produced by journo/media students or local content producers. Citizen journalism is also essential when professional journalists can't get to places immediately, such as a the site of a tsunami.

In this case I'm just talking about hotel and restaurant reviews... not 'real' news.

Re bias - the vast majority of professional travel writers are actually freelancers - now more than ever! - so they aren't tied to any one magazine but may work for dozens of magazines, so bias doesn't really come into our work in the way it can for a news journalist working for Fox for instance.

I think a backpacker spending 2 months at a hostel is going to have more reasons to be biased (free/cheap bed, free beers, free net access etc) than a travel blogger/journalist spending a week or a few days there.

I don't know, what do you think?

Linda said...

Hi, this is a really interesting post and debate, thank you for the food for thought.

I'm the editor of a blog called and it carries reviews from parents of various holiday destinations, some are journalists, some aren't.

As the editor I'm most interested in their views as parents rather than as journalists.

The blog was launched because mainstream media travel sections are full of pieces about places which are out of the reach of many a family and those sections also seem to have a message that often parents are more interested in reading about how to keep your child or children busy while parents also want to know about enjoying time together.

I think your debate about 'experts' versus 'real' travellers comes into play here as we are writing for people who aren't experts - while a knowledgeable travel writer may be able to tell us that say, a holiday spot in say Crete has more to offer than a holiday spot in Wales, that would be interesting and useful, but bottom line is we want to know what value we are going to get for our money, so we are just as interested in what's on offer in holiday parks in the UK - and these sorts of places aren't visited by 'travel experts'.

I hope that makes sense, all the best to you.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Linda

Thanks for your comments! Lots of thought-provoking stuff there!

You do make a lot of sense although I have to disagree that just because readers aren't experts doesn't mean experts shouldn't write for them or they shouldn't be reading the advice of an expert.

Another travel writer tweeted something today to the effect that when we're going to a lawyer or accountant or doctor or whatever we want to go to those with qualifications and those who are going to provide us with the most informed advice. Same with kids' education - we want the best teachers, the most experienced, not the amateur ones. Just because someone knows a bit about health, dabbles in law, is good at maths, can teach stuff, etc, doesn't mean they should be doing those things professionally. I don't see travel writing as being any different.

In the case of holiday parks, I know there are a lot of writers in the UK who specialize in camping, especially cool camping, but I don't know if there are many in the UK specializing in holiday parks, but there certainly are in Australia. In fact there are several excellent caravanning magazines.

While I'm sure people who use holiday parks regularly know how to pick them, I'd prefer to read content written by people who know the subject but who also know how to write in an engaging, concise and entertaining style. If you can find travellers who do then that's great. But I hope you're paying them! :)

If you're not, then unfortunately you're undermining our profession. :(

Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda!

Linda said...

Depends what you mean by expert, for our audience, parenting experience and 'expertise' is more valued than travel writing expertise, if you see what I mean.

Of course I am going to disagree with you that I'm undermining any profession.

I don't expect anyone to write for free and as such have not advertised for writers. Writers' guidelines make it perfectly clear that it's not a paid opportunity and there is an established team. (Me and other willing bloggers, basically.)

Yes, the bloggers who have contributed to this site can write brilliantly.

Professional journalists have volunteered their copy, either to help build a portfolio, add to a CV or increase online presence etc.

The 'nitty gritty' answer to your question re pay is no they aren't being paid, but then neither am I. I'm as irritated as anyone by internet start-ups who ask people to write for free and promise riches in the future, which never appear.

But the writers are finding other benefits.

For example I've arranged for contributors and their families to get tickets for their local Christmas pantos this year, they are then going to join in a "Great Panto Review" 2009 and also boost a charity supporting holidays for children with cancer.

With potential advertising income looking less likely, we need to look at sources of income for the blog.

The professional journalists who have written for the site have done so at a time when various publications don't pay for travel pieces. They have told me they are keen to boost their online presence and they know how I feel about people writing for free.

I've been a journalist for 20 years and aren't in the business of screwing anyone over.

Jeremy Head said...

Absolutely. People seem to think that because they can write a postcard home or whatever that qualifies them to be a travel writer. UGC reviews have their place, but I believe sincerely that in time (and not all that long either) professionally written travel content will be seen as all the more valuable with all this unqualified user generated stuff around... UGC ss flavour of the month now and will remain important, but ultimately people will need help whittling down the every greater choice of holiday options online to a manageable number that are suitable for them - and considered opinion that takes into account context - will be all the more important. Ultimately people will I think be prepared to PAY for this.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Linda

That's great to hear! Good luck with it - I'm sure these are challenging times to be doing what you're doing.

Thanks for dropping by!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jeremy

Totally agree with you!

Just saw your post: The Internet is Ruining Travel Journalism too - great stuff!

Thanks for your comments!

Linda said...

Hi Lara,
Just popping back as I was so interested in the issues raised here.
I've written a post 'On blogging, travel writing and working for free' in the hope of further discussion and have been interested by the responses coming back from writers/bloggers/journalists with different perspectives. Have a look if you like:

I was thinking that me saying to you writers were paid in panto tickets sounded a bit crap so am glad to have outlined more professional benefits people have found from contributing such as help with commissions and training which has brought in more work!

Lauren Quinn said...

Great post and conversation. As others have said, this is a really big and important issue in journalism and travel writing right now, and I'm glad to see it addressed so openly. More discussions like this need to take place.

Here's a World Hum article that prompted a really interesting discussion:

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