Those of you who are travel writers provided some thoughtful feedback and questions in response to last week’s The life of a working travel writer, in which I described an exchange I had with a hotel guest who asked me whether and how travel writers talk about the crappy places they’ve visited or experiences they’ve had. “I don’t ever really see any bad reviews in travel magazines,” she said.
That’s true. Thumb through any of the glossies in your pile of magazines and see if you can come up with a single negative review, even a mild one. Not likely.
But, travel writer JoAnna Haugen asked in the comments, “[D]o 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?”
I responded to JoAnna by saying yes, I think we do, and that I’d write a follow up article in which I’d offer some examples.
So here it is.
Before we look at three examples (not all mine) of travel writers I know and respect who have written openly about crappy travel experiences (and by experiences, I really mean service of some sort–not an adventure gone awry, but the experience of a service that is expected to be provided at a certain level doesn’t at all fulfill expectations), it’s important to make a few preliminary notes.
First: As always, remember your audience and your purpose. There are so many genres and forms within travel writing–guidebooks published by companies with a solid reputation and established audience; destination pieces in glossy magazines that have to sell advertising to thrive; soulful narrative writing on personal and multi-author blogs making little or no money. Though they’re all valid, they tend to serve different audiences; thus, the decision you make about whether/how to write about crappy experiences should be informed largely by the purpose of the publication and the expectations of its target audience.
Second: What have you done, in terms of due diligence, to discern whether your experience was an anomaly or whether it might be reflective of the norm, and what have you done to express and resolve your concerns with your contacts before writing about them? As I mentioned in the previous article, I always talk with on-site managers and/or public relations representatives or email them to convey my concerns and to ask for clarification or a rebuttal, if warranted. Often, I’ve learned information that influenced my decision to write about the negative experience– it wasn’t that the experience itself changed, but that the information provided justified the negativity in some way. For example, I was once reviewing a boutique hotel in Mexico and was wakened by extreme levels of noise on two mornings. When I talked with the manager, he explained that the hotel actually still wasn’t finished (though it had been written up in the New York Times and Travel + Leisure, which really led me to wonder how and why), and since I was the only occupant at the time, he figured it would be okay to start jack hammering on the roof at 8 AM. While it’s not the decision I would have made, the fact that construction wasn’t done yet put a lot into perspective (though I still gave it a very lukewarm review for other reasons).
So, onto the examples…
1. Express dissatisfaction by omission.
Coincidentally, the day after I published “The life of a working travel writer,” my editor at Fodor’s contacted me to ask why I hadn’t included a particular property in one of my feature sections. He pointed out that the property had been designated as “Fodor’s Choice” in the previous edition of the guide, a status that is coveted by properties because it’s perceived as setting them apart from their competition.
I replied by saying I hadn’t included the property because the manager had been hostile during my contact with her. In addition to insisting that the property had never been in the previous guide, she stated that she didn’t have time to give me a tour because she was a “very busy person.” The manager had also not responded to emails in which I’d tried to establish an appointment with her. I simply thought the level of service wasn’t just bad; it was atrocious. If the manager was willing to be so hostile with a guidebook writer, imagine how she responded to guests.
The property hasn’t just been delisted as a “Choice” property; it’s been deleted from the guide.
2. Just call it like it is.
I love to read Alison Wellner’s writing because no matter what she’s writing about (and she occupies several niches, all with equal credibility), she always shoots straight.
Alison and I have talked at some length over bahn mi in Union Square about design hotel fails, so I particularly enjoyed reading this article because she uses two hotels and their design flaws as a way to illustrate what she and I both consider to be utterly stupid design trends in the boutique hotel world. She doesn’t bash either of the properties–in fact, she mentions many of their upsides, too–but she calls it like it is when it comes to dumb design details like the open-concept bathroom.
Highlighting a property’s or experience’s lows–as well as its highs–seems like common sense, but I don’t know a whole lot of writers who do reviews that are as well-rounded as Alison’s.
3. Approach the issue abstractly.
If you are concerned about burning bridges, as JoAnna mentioned, if you aren’t sure how to write a bad review that is also fair, or if you’re interested in using a single experience to think about broader trends or issues, approach your criticism abstractly.
Sarah Menkedick does an excellent job using this approach in “The Luxury Orbit,” an essay she wrote on her own blog. She never names “the hotel I stayed at in London,” and it doesn’t really matter. What Sarah does in this essay is use the experience of staying in a single luxury hotel to look at the larger phenomenon of luxury hotels in general. It’s not that the service was bad or that there were design flaws–it’s that the whole concept of luxury was flawed and that her experience of staying in a posh British boutique hotel was “like a sharp and expensive cheese you’re supposed to gush on about but that really makes your nose itch.”
How do you write about crappy experiences? Do these examples help you when you think about writing about negative experiences?