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The life of a working travel writer

We left New York on Sunday and headed to Boston for one night, before driving on to spend two nights in New Hampshire and two nights in Vermont.  Over the course of those five nights and six days, we’d be staying at three properties. Among the articles and photo essays we’d be working on were pieces about what makes hotels “green.” Two of the three properties promote themselves as sustainable, trumpeting environmental values as a reason why guests should choose them over competitors. We’d be meeting with managers, talking with staff and guests, and walking the properties to see whether their claims were true.  Our hotel stays and most meals were comped, though some other expenses–transportation and parking, for example–were out of pocket.

*

We arrived in New Hampshire last night and hurried to dinner before the kitchen closed. Though the property has several restaurants, only one is open during our stay. Bummer. In researching this hotel before the trip, I’d read about its chef table service and was prepared to pay for that meal if it was not included.

The menu is uninspired–”New Hampshire comfort food”–pot pie, a flavorless ribeye with potato au gratin and maple glazed carrots, roast beef with boursin, duck breast with an orange glaze, lobster stew. Our appetizers of crab and lobster cakes and calamari get cold as Francisco moves the plates around, testing the dining room’s low light for a photo shoot.

“Sir, you can just tell us if there’s a problem,” a manager says, discouraging the photos.  I explain why we’re taking pictures (so many people mistakenly believe properties and their staff treat you better when you’re a visiting travel writer/photographer, but I’ve rarely found that to be true; most staff are totally unaware that you’re not visiting solely for pleasure).

“Why are you taking photos?” the woman at the neighboring table asks. We explain that I’m a travel writer.  “Ooh… sounds fun!” she says. “What a glamorous job!” her husband says. “Fun, definitely,” I tell her. “But glamorous? I don’t know. It barely pays the bills.” He looks at me like he’d give his right arm to not have to go to an office. “We have vacation twice a year,” he says. “I like the idea of vacation all the time.”

I didn’t want to disabuse him of his fantasy.

Besides, you’ll never catch me complaining about this job; it is pretty incredible. I get to travel with Francisco and Mariel frequently, and we’re able to share experiences that we’d not be likely to have otherwise.  And then we write about it and spend whatever we earn on new experiences.

Such is the life of a travel writer.

*

“So what do you do when a place isn’t good?” the woman asked as she waited for their daughter to polish off a cup of vanilla ice cream. “I’ve never really seen any travel writing that isn’t positive.”

Yep, that’s the tough part.

On this trip, for example, the properties themselves haven’t been particularly impressive.  Because this property has won numerous service awards, I’ve been surprised to see that the service isn’t simply unimpressive; it’s not consistent or attentive. After one dinner and one lunch here, we’ve scoped out options off property that we’ll have to pay for ourselves. And most importantly for our present purposes, I haven’t yet seen compelling evidence to support claims that this property is green.

This kind of let down is not uncommon. The more you travel, the greater your frame of reference becomes for evaluating properties, food, service, and experiences, and the more demanding you become. The better your filter becomes for marketing speak, too.

*

Before we leave on a trip–before we even propose one–we discuss ideas about articles and angles. These ideas are provisional- they’re the angles we want to scope out while we’re on the ground, but they’re not non-negotiable. Often, a more interesting and totally unanticipated story will emerge. And just as often, a story idea will be retooled or scrapped completely when the on the ground experience simply doesn’t support the original angle.

Since we’re not yet finished with either of the “green” properties, no decisions have been made yet about what stories will be written after this trip. But to answer the woman’s question, I told her that we won’t write positive articles about places or properties we genuinely can’t endorse. Nor will we drag them through the mud. There’s always a way to angle for a new story– you just have to be willing to look for it and continually adjust your own plans and expectations.

*

This aspect of travel writing is one of the issues I’ll address on the ethics panel at TBEX10. If you have questions about this aspect of travel writing or related ethical issues, please leave them in the comments and I’ll be sure to answer them.

13 responses »

  1. Great honest post. I’ve found that most things that seem super glamorous have a lot of drudgery, once you peer behind the curtain of fantasy. But you do it for the love, which is the important part.

    Reply
    • It’s true– even the most dreamy job has its yucky elements. But I’d still take these any day over going back to an office!

      Reply
    • Completely agree! I spent some years in the kinds of “glamorous” jobs that get their own reality tv shows and all that and what I found was that everything that is exciting for like a month is everyday mundane after a while. I quit. Now I’m a broke freelance writer. A happy one.

      Reply
  2. Restaurant staff always look at my husband and I funny when we take pictures of the food, and I always feel slightly nervous, as if I’m doing something “wrong” by taking a picture.

    If you guys ever need a place to stay between NYC and NH/Boston, let me know. We’re in Fall River (about an hour south of Boston) just off routes 24 and 195 with two spare bedrooms.

    Reply
  3. Nice post that gives us a real look at the life. Way to debunk those myths!

    Reply
  4. One thing I struggle with is one thing that you’ve noted – you don’t drag places through the mud. I agree with not doing that nor placing somewhere high on a pedestal. Most places really are somewhere in the middles. But it’s so interesting to me that many people will sing praises without a second thought, yet not be critical of a place. I don’t want to burn bridges with anyone, but do you think we at all owe it to our readers to be honest about a negative experience, just as we would if we were honest about a positive one?

    Reply
    • JoAnna-

      Yes, I absolutely think that we need to share negative experiences, and I do that. I don’t tend to recast the angle, as I write here, without mentioning the shortcomings I’ve observed– shortcomings that I think genuinely reflect more than just my own stringent expectations! :) I think there’s an art to doing that in a way that leaves the place intact, though.

      What I tend to do in these situations is contact the manager and the public relations representative and express my concerns before writing anything. I let them know that I found some aspect of service disappointing or less than advertised, and I give them a chance to respond to my concerns. Often, there’s a perfectly legitimate reason why something isn’t up to par, but it’s not advertised or the guests aren’t warned. These discussions often end up being really interesting and useful, with both of us walking away with greater insight.

      Let me dig up an example of a piece I’ve written about a place that hasn’t quite lived up to its reputation, and I’ll post it here.

      Reply
  5. This is a great post, Julie, I will definitely not miss the ethics panel discussion at TBEX!

    Reply
  6. I’ll be looking forward to the ethics panel discussion.

    Even before I began pursuing travel writing, my husband and I used to lament the lack of bad reviews. I want to hear what’s good and what’s not.

    The act of omission is the most irritating. I assume, when I don’t see a review for a place, that I’m taking a chance. (Which is often exciting.) What annoys me are the reviews that rhapsodically praise part of the hotel/restaurant, but leave out glaring problems with service, atmosphere, or something else.

    Thanks for your honesty in this piece. I’ve been wondering what I would do in a press trip/comped situation if it was lacking….

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Writing about crappy experiences for travel publications: 3 examples « Cuaderno Inedito

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