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Writing about crappy experiences for travel publications: 3 examples

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.

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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.

Take “3 Design Hotel Failures” , written for Luxist, as one example.

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.”

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How do you write about crappy experiences? Do these examples help you when you think about writing about negative experiences?

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15 responses »

  1. This post was incredibly helpful, I’m so glad you wrote it! I’ve been starting to get into reviewing places (mostly restaurants), so I’m assuming this will come up for me at some point in the future!

    Reply
  2. Bravo! Excellent advice for how to handle what can often be an awkward – if not downright uncomfortable – situation for many travel writers (if you are one, and haven’t faced it yet, trust me you will someday).

    I believe writers have an obligation to be honest and authentic when writing about their experiences, but what form that honesty takes is a critical one, and while travelers deserve truthfulness, many are savvy enough to discern truth from what’s not being said as well as from what is. As you said, consider first the audience and its expectation.

    Reply
  3. Excellent post that outlines various ways of approaching the issue.

    Funny, I just wrote about reviewing a luxury hotel today! – http://lolaakinmade.com/2010/03/03/snapshots-of-luxury-and-latest-news/

    I did want to add that factors as mundane as someone having a personally crappy day can taint one’s overall experience even though the other 364 days of the year, the place meets and exceeds expectations.

    So the writer should also keep a level of objectivity when reviewing crappy experiences.

    Sometimes, a place truly is fantastic and at a certain point, after digging for everything and anything that might be a downside, without uncovering one, I just give them the kudos they deserve.

    Reply
    • Lola-

      Thanks for adding that really critical point about someone just having a crappy day- true!

      And I love to report the good. 🙂

      Going to read your piece right now!

      Reply
  4. I usually have an assignment in advance. Luckily, any negative experiences have been just one property in a story about several experiences. In that case, I omit those properties from the story entirely. The publications I generally write for don’t want to publish negative stories, although I’ll include minor negative experiences in a mostly positive story on occasion. For instance, I included my disappointment recently that a 4-star hotel didn’t provide bathrobes. I also don’t want to be hard on a property for making one mistake, but I’ve had a couple of experiences that were very bad. In one case, I didn’t have an assignment beforehand, and I decided that I didn’t want to give the tour operator ANY publicity whatsoever, even if it was poor. So, I never pitched it. I don’t make blind promises to properties or PR reps before a trip. If my experience is negative, I’ll either write about it or not write the story at all. Our allegiance always, always must be to the reader.

    Reply
    • Mel-

      Great points, especially the importance of not making promises to a property or a PR rep. Thanks for adding that insight!

      Reply
  5. You write about this so honestly, Julie. I think it’s something working travel writers have to think about a lot. Reminds me of that long email thread at Matador about how to best utilize press trips — how can you accept free travel and still be critical and honest? I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s definitely something writers have to actively think about. And I think it’s not just whether to write positively or negatively about something, but also about how to keep your own unique perspective throughout an experience that’s entirely mediated and directed by an organization that wants a very specific end goal (good PR).

    You’ve been on a role addressing these issues lately! Thanks. And thanks for including me. 😉

    Reply
  6. If I have a *really* bad experience when traveling on my own dime, I have absolutely no problem writing about it. Here is an example:

    http://www.writingtravel.com/2008/04/five-star-five.html

    Part of the equation might be that I’ve had no *really* crappy experiences on a hosted trip.

    I’ve had some unexpected (or bad, depending on one’s POV) experiences on hosted trips that were completely unintentional on the part of my hosts. I’m thinking of a few right now and chuckling to myself because it’s all funny to me unless serious personal injury is involved. And no, I didn’t write about them because they were flukes (possibly tied to my own idiosyncrasies) and not at all central to my assignments.

    One day soon, however, I’ll have gathered enough of these experiences for a longish piece of prose. Names changed to protect the guilty? Perhaps.

    Reply
    • Lanora-

      Yes! It’s so important to analyze one’s own idiosyncracies. Alison Wellner and I have agreed that we have exceptionally high expectations and we’re not easily impressed, so we’re careful to ask ourselves whether our criticism is really valid just to us or whether it’s likely to be valid to a larger readership.

      Reply
  7. Thanks for addressing this issue Julie. All three are great suggestions, though I think different situations call for different approaches.

    Another thing I’ve done in the past when there’s been some sort of negative part of an experience is make a “nice sandwich” which shares a positive point, works in the negative stuff, then somehow closes with a positive shift. That way the negative points aren’t entirely excluded, but it doesn’t rub the wrong way either.

    Reply
    • JoAnna-

      I definitely agree that different situations call for different approaches. And thanks for reminding me about the sandwich idea- I like it a lot and it’s helpful.

      Reply

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