Grantourismo blogger on guidebooks and travel writing

Grantourismo on guidebooks and travel writingLast week I posted a Q & A with blogger Lara Dunston and her husband and partner Terence Carter about their travel project and blog Grantourismo. In addition to good advice about renting a vacation apartment and getting “under the skin” of a place when traveling, they had a lot of interesting things to say about guidebooks, both from their experiences writing them and how they see travelers using them wrong.

Read on for more on the guidebook writing process, how you can use them best on vacation, the changing media landscape, and which bloggers and publications offer the best content for travelers.How did this project stem from your experiences as travel writers?
Grantourismo began as a personal travel project that developed from our frustrations, firstly, with our own work as travel writers, and secondly, with how many travelers rely so much on guidebooks. Terence and I wrote, updated or contributed to around 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Footprints, Rough Guides, DK, and others, and what we loved most about guidebook writing was when we worked on a city guide and rented an apartment for a month or two and really got beneath the skin of the place.

So many writers who aren’t residents of a place ‘parachute in’ to a destination for a few weeks and do crazy 18-hour days ticking off sights/bars/restaurants etc in a frenzy and leave. We didn’t start travel writing to live like that. However, what we disliked was the tedious stuff – ensuring the post office was in the right spot on the map, checking bus timetables, etc. We’d also been doing lots of feature writing, especially profiles, for magazines and newspapers, and what we loved about that was experiencing places through their people.

What’s the difference between guidebook and feature writing?

Grantourism guidebooks travel writingWith guidebooks, unless Terence had a photography commission for the same book we were writing, we mostly traveled anonymously. As feature writers we could contact people, doors would open, and we’d have incredible experiences, and come away feeling like we’d really learnt something. For instance, for a story on Michelin-star chef Pierre Gagnaire’s Dubai restaurant, we spent a night in the kitchen, Terence cooking and me observing and notetaking and – Terence ended up cooking a dish for Pierre! Grantourismo was an attempt to develop a project that would give us the opportunity to have more of those kinds of experiences and have the best of both worlds, of guidebook and feature writing. We also wanted to inspire travelers to travel in the same way, to engage more with locals and explore their own interests when they travel. This desire grew out of a frustration with seeing how obsessed people were with their guidebooks and witnessing travellers miss out on amazing opportunities because they would only go to places their guidebooks recommended.

I’ll never forget going to a great little stand-up seafood tapas place in Barcelona and seeing a young American couple sitting on the doorstop next door frantically trying to figure out if it was in the guidebook. The place was heaving and it was full of locals! Just go in! There’s also another famous tapas bar in Barcelona which once had a great reputation but it fairly mediocre now but because it’s in every guidebook, people line up for it an hour before it opens. Yet there are 20 other better tapas bars in the surrounding streets! We’d rather see people leave their guidebooks closed occasionally, talk to locals more and pursue their interests. If you’re passionate about food and cooking, why not go to a place and do a cooking course, stay in a vacation rental and shop at the markets and cook? If you love a restaurant get tips on where to eat from the waiter, and if the restaurant is quiet, why not ask to see the kitchen and chat to the chef?

So can travelers still rely on guidebooks for basic info?
Guidebooks are great for background information on a wide variety of topics on a place. What’s the alternative? Lugging around half a dozen books on the history, politics, geography, culture etc of the destination? Or load those books onto a Kindle or iPad, although of course not all travelers can afford hi-tech gadgets or even want to take them to some destinations. The ‘front/back matter’ in guidebooks can usually be relied upon – sometimes the stuff is written by subject experts, or it’s written by authors who do a great deal of research, it’s fact-checked, and it doesn’t date quickly.

Where guidebooks can be unreliable on the other hand is in the perishable information – reviews of hotels, restaurants, shops, cafés, bars, their addresses, phone numbers, prices, opening times etc. It’s not necessarily the author’s fault. Businesses move or close down, things change. It’s the fault of the publisher and their long production schedules – sometimes a year or 18 months can pass from the time the author has done the research to the time the books hit the shops. Some places never change or change little, like small country towns, but cities like Shanghai or Dubai change constantly.

We once worked on a first edition guidebook that took two years from the time I submitted the manuscript and Terence submitted the photos to reaching the bookshops. I wrote the first edition of one guidebook and updated the second edition, but I know that book has since been reprinted twice without further updates. How can travelers rely on those books? In some cases, I think the publishers have a lot to answer for, particularly when new museums or significant sights would make a ‘Top 10′ list but haven’t been added.

Any guidebook series you do like for local recommendations?
We like niche guidebooks, such as Hedonist’s Guides, which uses authors that really know their stuff when it comes to restaurants, bars, and hotels.Hedonists also come in a cool hardcover book as well, so they don’t fall apart, and as iPhone apps that are updated much more frequently than the book.

This year, on our Grantourismo trip, we’ve been on a mission to find locally produced guidebooks in each place we’ve visited, and when we’ve tested out a book and loved it we’ve interviewed the publishers/editors and showcased the book on our site, such as the arty and rather philosophical ‘My Local Guide to Venice‘ and the straight-talking ‘Not for Tourists
in New York. We want to encourage travelers to look for these books because they bring a uniquely local flavor and multiple perspectives on their destinations, unlike the big mainstream global guidebook publishers where the authors’ personalities are never allowed to shine.

Grantourismo guidebooks travel writing
What can user-generated content like TripAdvisor offer travelers compared to traditional media?
I think user-generated content supplements books and travel features in newspapers/magazines but can never replace quality guidebook authorship or travel journalism. While user-generated content wins out in terms of currency (the reviews have dates), guidebook authors and travel journalists are professionals with expertise. It’s our job to assess hotels, restaurants, bars, sights, and so on. Having slept in thousands of hotels across all budget categories, eaten tens of thousands of meals at all kinds of restaurants, visited thousands of museums, etc, gives you a degree of experience and expertise that the average traveler who has 2 weeks (in the USA) or at most 4-8 weeks (in the UK/Australia/Europe) holiday can never hope to match. If a guidebook author tells me the XXX hotel is the best in Milan and a reviewer on Trip Advisor tells me the YYY hotel is the best, I know whose opinion I’m going to trust.

If the traveler writing on Trip Advisor focuses on describing in detail their very specific experience of a hotel or restaurant, that kind of information can be helpful when weighed up against other reviews by travelers and experts. Where it can be detrimental is when the Trip Advisor reviewer starts making claims about a certain hotel being the best in the city or the cheapest or friendliest or whatever. What I want to know is how many hotels have they stayed at or inspected to be able to compare their hotel to? A guidebook writer specializing on a destination might have stayed at a dozen hotels in that city over a number of years, and inspected 50 others. So when it comes to user-generated content, my main issue is with the authority of authorship. There are also plenty of games being played out behind the scenes with
manipulation of reviews (both positive and negative) of properties. In a recent destination we visited a local foodie who told us to simply ignore the top 10 places listed on Trip Advisor as they’re rubbish. And she was right. We’ve personally seen scathing reviews of hotels and restaurants that we know are some of our favourites in the world – so who are you going to trust? The user ‘britney_1537′ or a professional travel writer?

Where do you see travel journalism going?
I can’t see travel journalism in magazines or newspapers changing significantly because it hasn’t changed in its genre, form or structure a great deal at all. What has changed is that there are far more journalists working for broadsheets and travel magazine these days that are doing trips ‘courtesy of’ a tourism body or travel operator – and it’s apparent from the first paragraph, even if it’s not declared. There has definitely been a trend toward publications redefining and narrowing their focus and we’ve seen wonderful new niche travel publications born in the last year or so such as Wend and AFAR – a magazine after our own hearts and minds!

I can see traditional travel publications embracing more user-generated content in the way that some of the UK newspapers have been doing by incorporating reader’s travel writing and tips and linking to those on their main travel pages. I love how The Guardian in the UK engages its readers on Twitter and I dig the Twi-Trips that Benji Lanyado does, which are kind of mini-versions of that fantastic journey the Twitchhiker did that had us all engrossed in his journey halfway round the world relying totally on the hospitality of strangers.

I also think we’ll start to see more travel writers like Terence and I who have worked across traditional media platforms entering into direct relationships with companies as we have with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals and producing content on their own websites and blogs or on the company’s blog, as say, David Whitley has done for Round the World Flights in the UK. But it will only work if the writer can negotiate editorial control as we did with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals. As long as writers maintain their integrity and apply the same ethics they would to a story for a newspaper or magazine, it’s a good thing. But how many travel companies are willing to give writers this freedom? If you look at our last few posts on Cape Town and our first posts on Kenya – which are both reflective and critical – you have to ask yourself how many travel-related companies are willing to let writers produce this kind of content that doesn’t gloss over the situation on the ground?

How can travelers benefit from the changing media landscape?
Travellers can benefit by content that is more creative and less restricted by a publications editorial style or writing guidelines, by content that is more freewheeling in spirit. A perfect example is Pam Mandel who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, who has a unique, intimate, chatty style of writing that wouldn’t work for a lot of newspapers for instance – but she’s heading off to Antarctica soon on a sponsored trip and I can’t wait to see how she brings her own singular brand of writing to that adventure. What’s important with these gigs, like Grantourismo, is that travel writers continue to be upfront, honest, critical and opinionated in their writing. They need to maintain their integrity and ethics. Travelers in turn need to expect that of the writers they’re reading – if they’re seeing ‘sponsored story’ or company widgets/logos on their blogs (both travel writers and bloggers), they need to look for an editorial policy. It’s only by writing critically that writers will win readers’ trust in the long term and projects like Grantourismo will succeed.

Check out more on Grantourismo on their blog and Twitter page.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.