When the Macedonian was stalking me, we talked a little about that endless knotty issue that travel writers deal with: freebies. And I had a small brainstorm.
As I’ve said before, I’m marginally pro-freebie, in that often it’s the only practical way to find out if a hotel is any good. But just as often a free hotel stay is more trouble than it’s worth, if you have PR breathing down your neck, your schedule is tight, the place turns out to suck and so on.
But that’s jaded me talking. What about someone who just got hired as a travel guide writer, and is a little excited about the prospect of being lavished with free crap? It can be pretty exciting, I admit, being treated like you have a real legit job where you might do someone some favors. Fruit baskets! Meetings! Free drinks!
Here’s what I think Lonely Planet–and any other guidebook publisher who’s concerned about its writers being unduly swayed by free crap–should do:
As part of “training” (which, to my knowledge, only LP does anything remotely like), newbie writers should get sent on press trips. Not press trips to the countries they’ll be covering, because that could get messy, but to anywhere else in the world–whatever random press trips that get offered up by PR people calling the publisher’s offices.
Only by going on a press trip will a writer realize what a pain in the ass these things can actually be. Your hours are all fully accounted for. Your luggage gets jammed with useless press kits. You have to smile nicely and make conversation with people you might not really click with, all while thinking, How is this relevant to the people I’ll be writing for? (To be honest, I’ve never even been on a multiday press trip–I’m only extrapolating from hotel stays and tours up the wazoo.)
At the same time, press trips can be very practical training grounds for newbie writers to evaluate luxury hotels and services. I don’t know about you, but until pretty recently, my idea of a fancy hotel was the Albuquerque Marriott, where my parents would occasionally escape for the weekend. Or we’d go to the cafe there for roast-beef croissant sandwiches–oh, the 80s-cuisine decadence!
So send those new writers off on their PR-sponsored trips with checklists for what a luxury hotel should and shouldn’t do. That’s the homework: Is there dust behind the toilet? Does every staff member greet you? Did you get turndown every night? You really have to stay in only a few luxury hotels to notice the subtleties. Pretty quickly, these writers will know the difference between business-class pretenders and the real luxe deal.
Then, in return for the press junket, the newbie writers will comment to the larger LP/other publisher community: They will dump their impressions into a file labeled with the country name, and post that file somewhere accessible to other authors, so they can refer to it when they’re preparing for their own research trips. This satisfies PR demands that the experience gleaned on the press trip goes toward a larger project.
More important, though, it gives the writer the experience of commenting critically and honestly without repercussion–something they’ve surely been doing for friends or they wouldn’t have gotten this job. But when you suddenly do it for a larger public, there’s a subtle shift in dynamic.
Looking back on some of my hotel and restaurant reviews from my first trip to the Yucatan, I was reminded a little of the process of writing record reviews for my college radio station. The first few albums that got thrown my way, I was very excited: “My opinion is valuable–I will express myself in great detail and with a generally positive attitude!” Also present was this thought: “And I don’t want to say anything too negative, because what if it turns out I just didn’t have the knowledge to appreciate a work of genius?” I wrote some fatuous crap on those first few albums, and even stuck some in the high-rotation section, because I didn’t quite have the experience to accurately compare what I was listening to with better stuff. And I tended to give things the benefit of the doubt when they didn’t deserve it.
By writing their impressions of their trip in a private forum, though, newbie writers can better replicate the process of making recommendations to a friend–no reprisals from PR people, no mentally making allowances for some random person who might like this experience. They can write as much or as little as they want–this doesn’t have to be a succinct, punchy 30-word review. In the process, they’ll learn better what it feels like to write an honest review that really reflects their opinion. What was genuinely good on a press trip will come out, just as what was genuinely hideous and a waste of time.
And, finally, the thrilling bonus: The writer gets a free trip! I’m not even being sarcastic. There’s something a little dispiriting about this job, in which every time someone finds out what I do, they say, “Cool! So that means you get to stay in all these awesome places for free?!” And I say, “Well, actually, not really.” And then the other person looks both crestfallen and pitying–like I’ve disillusioned them and revealed what a loser I am for not somehow getting in on all the corporate waste going around.
So…what do you think?
(That’s rhetorical–I know my comments are still broken. Yahoo, you suck. In fact, I would probably compromise all my ethics and guarantee positive coverage to anyone who will take charge of moving my blog and website to a new host. I don’t have time because I’m busy writing travel guides.)