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.