Thursday, September 25, 2008

The cat among the pigeons.

Exploring the changing face of travel journalism and tourism marketing.

For years the travel industry has had it easy, with an almost endless supply of journalists willing to write "ooh ah, isn't it lovely" stories, in exchange for an all expenses paid holiday.

Perhaps it’s to be expected, after all most people read travel stories in the same light as plastic-wrapped men’s magazine – for a moment of escapist fantasy provided by idealised accounts written through the most deeply tinted of rose coloured glasses. Being told, “actually she’s got pimples on her bottom,” tends to ruin the effect.

But if you’re actually going to be paying your own hard-earned cash to stay somewhere, you need real information, the ‘pimples and all’ details if you will (I’m talking about travel now, not the girly magazines).

With a few exceptions – Lonely Planet being the most notable – that sort of information has been sorely lacking for far too long. I suppose not many publishers can afford to print travel material, particularly regarding high-end destinations, without the support the industry and tourism ministries to grease the wheels.

The industry holds all the aces, and that’s the way it’s been for as long as anyone can remember. Not for much longer, however. Enter the great shaper of twenty-first century society, the internet.

Over the past few years user generated content sites like Trip Advisor and to a lesser extent Thorn Tree have allowed anyone with an internet connection to act as a reviewer, telling the good, the bad and the ugly details of their travel experiences - and throwing a cat among the travel industry pigeons in the process.

So what's a poor tourism marketer to do? You can't bribe and schmoose every customer like you do travel journalists. How are you supposed to respond?

The new wisdom says three things:

1. Cut the crap - Tell people what to expect, don’t be tempted to ‘spin’ the truth or take artistic licence – if you’re a quirky B&B don’t try to convince people you’re the Ritz – customers will find out they’ll post it, and then you’ll have a crisis on your hands.

2. Get amongst it - When, inevitably you do have a ‘clanger’ of a review, don’t freak out, everyone gets them occasionally. The seven star Burj Al Arab in Dubai has been described as, “The worst hotel I have ever stayed in!!”, and Queenstown’s five-star Blanket Bay has been described as, “One of the World's great rip-offs.”

What you need to do is participate in the discussion – standing by idly while your reputation is trashed online is a great way of saying that you really don’t care what our customers think.If someone has highlighted a genuine flaw in your business acknowledge it and demonstrate that you’ve taken steps to fix the problem. If someone is just having a rant then invite them to contact you offline. Either way you’re showing that you’re paying attention, and that says a lot.

3. Harness the power - People will believe a collection of good reviews by a customer over a great review by a critic every time. So if you can work with your customers to generate positive e-publicity you’ll earn yourself a whole lot more business than by running expensive ad campaigns or trying to seduce visiting journos.

Set people’s expectations accurately, provide a good service consistently, charge a fair price and you’ll reap the benefits of the new technology.

So, for the not-so-humble-anymore customers, next time you’re about to book a hotel room for the night, take a quick look and see what other travellers have to say – you’ll be glad you did. And next time you have a really bad travel experience, don’t go screaming at front line staff or barking at junior management, just politely ask if directions to the nearest internet cafe.

Power to the people!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who the hell is Henry Mencken?

The ultimate bigot, he was an elitist, sexist, racist and atheist - but damn he had a way with words.

I'm currently studying the history of journalism. It's an undertaking that for has involved spending an inordinate amount of time trolling the net - even more than usual - looking for gems of historical wisdom and eyewitness accounts of events from the Hindenburg to Hiroshima.

Between Google and Wikipedia, it's amazing what you can find. What's perhaps more amazing is the things you bump into by serendipitous accident - like Henry Menken.

Son of a cigar maker, Mencken never attended college, but never the less grew into a talented journalist, essayist and satirist. In the early twentieth century his pen produced cynical, elitist, atheistic, and anarchistic points of view. He was sometimes unpopular, often controversial, and is called a bigot and a racist to this day, but his words still raise a grin (at least for me) and no doubt a few hackles. Here’s my top ten:

10. “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody is looking,”
9. “Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable,”
8. “Self-respect: The secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious,”
7. “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice,”
6. “Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents,”
5. “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends,”
4. “Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence,”
3. “Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood,”
2. “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,”
1.…and the classic, “Nature abhors a moron.”
He died in 1956, after falling out of favour with the American public due to his position on the nation's involvement in World War II and a stroke that left him unable to read or write for his last years. On his tombstone was engraved the words:
“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl."
If you’d like to find out more, check out his wikipedia page, or Google Henry L Mencken.