In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!

Top ten ways to deal with a slow Internet connection while travelling

Internet, internet
Adventure travel has its downsides. One of them is that out-of-the-way places tend to have slow Internet connections. Usually this isn’t a problem. You aren’t going to the ends of the Earth to tweet about it, are you? Sometimes, though, we need to keep in touch. While writing my Harar travel series, I’ve been having serious problems trying to do this broadband blogging job on a dialup connection. Not only is it always slow, but it died completely for a week. Today the Internet came back as mysteriously as it disappeared. Assuming you can get a connection, here are some time-saving tips I’ve come up with, along with others that fellow Gadlingers suggested to keep me from pulling my hair out at the local Internet café.

1: Compose on Word or Notepad while your email is loading.

2: Don’t try to open more than one tab at a time, but while you’re reading one you can open another.

3: Turn off “automatically load images.” In Firefox you do this by clicking Tools-Options-Content-then unchecking “Load images automatically”. In Internet Explorer click on Tools-Internet Options-Advanced-scroll down to Multimedia and uncheck “Show pictures”.

4: Some email accounts like Gmail have a Basic HTML option that will make your email load more quickly.

5: If you have your own computer, NoScript is a useful program from cutting out a lot of the high-bandwidth crap that clutters up the Internet.
6: Scott Carmichael says, “Find mobile versions of sites. Always make sure background apps like Dropbox are disabled.”

7: Meg Nesterov says, “Can never be said enough: save early and often. Load text-heavy or videos that buffer first while you’re active on other pages, then read/watch them last. Some sites will load faster in Mobile view.”

8: Stephen Greenwood says, “When I was in Arusha, Tanzania, I would go to the fanciest hotel in town (they had the fastest WiFi) and pretend I was staying there so I could upload photos / blog posts from the lobby.”

9: Once you’ve logged out, wait a moment and then close the tab. The command has already been sent and you will be logged out. Yes, I’ve checked this and it really works.

10: You’ll probably have to do without high-bandwidth sites like Twitter.

. . .if all else fails, send a postcard!

Do you have any time-saving tips you use when struggling with a bad connection? Tell me about them in the comments section. I need all the help I can get over here!

[Photo courtesy user cfarivar via Gadling’s flickr pool]

10 Reasons You Must Revisit – what to see when revisiting a destination

Revisiting a DestinationRevisiting a destination is essential to understanding it. Traveling the world is a marvelous thing, but if you’ve only been everywhere once, how can you have a true sense of the nature of any of those places?

Change is one of the few things you can count on in this world. When it comes to destinations, revisiting after a year, or five, ten, even twenty, can be an incredible lesson in what is permanent and what isn’t. What a culture chooses to preserve speaks volumes about that culture, as does what it chooses to demolish. Furthermore, the rate at which technology and commercialism progress is different in different regions; a phenomenon which is fascinating at the very least.

We’ve all had the experience of saying “Oh, I’ve been there,” only to hear that major attractions sprang up in our wake. That’s #1. Here are 10 Reasons You Must Revisit:

1. To see a new attraction.

This was one of the major reasons I chose to revisit Liverpool last year. After attending school there for three years, I revisited to take a look at Liverpool One, the mega-shopping center, as well as the Echo Arena and the burgeoning gastronomic scene. As I wrote in my article Visiting the new Liverpool, it was like a “spaceship [had] landed in the town center.” I could hardly speak about Liverpool with anyone who had lived or traveled there in the past few years if I hadn’t revisited. Its entire town center is completely different, attracting a completely different crowd.2. To check out the new within the old.

Again with example of Liverpool, Albert Dock is a historical site which is constantly in flux. The iconic exterior stays the same, but inside, different shops and restaurants and clubs are always popping up. This is true in most cities with major historical attractions; new things constantly pop up in and around those attractions.

3. To see if your favorite place is still open.

Depending upon how long you’ve waited to revisit a destination, this can be less and less likely to end favorably. Still, it can be heartwarming and oddly rewarding to find your favorite hole-in-the-wall still bumping along successfully; somehow surviving the cold years without you. It makes you feel like you were right.

4. To see what tourism has done.

Even if you went there before it was cool, the tourism industry has a way of spreading itself to even the most remote locations at an exponential rate. For example, heard about all the cruises to Antarctica lately? Unless the place you visited was already a tourist trap, you’re likely to find new shops and establishments catering to tourists when you revisit a place. It’s not always the development you had hoped for, but it is worth seeing what kind of tourism a place you knew now gets.

5. To see what commercialism has done.

Much like with #4, commercialism has an uncanny way of spreading itself. You may find your favorite authentic establishment now serves Coca-Cola — and the locals couldn’t be more proud of it! Seeing a city before the outside world gets in is an amazing thing, but seeing it just after it gets in can be contextually profound. If you wait long enough, commercialism can be a shocking change, even to the way people treat you. It may be sad in some ways, but I prefer to look at it as educational.

6. Because you didn’t like it.

It’s happened to many of us; you have what you consider to be a dreadful time at a destination, only to hear friends come back from the same place with wonderful stories to share. It doesn’t necessarily mean you did it wrong, but you may have had bad luck. If you hate a place, and you’re interested in why it was bad for you and good for others, and you have the time and means, go back. You may be amazed at what you learn about yourself and the destination.

7. Because you loved it.

There are plenty of people out there who go to the same place for a vacation every single year. Many of us consider ourselfes too adventurous to be satisfied with that; unless we are also traveling to new places throughout the year, but there are definitely destinations we’ve all loved and long to return to. Revisiting a place you love can become a very spiritual thing. It becomes a place for you to reset and unwind, but with the comfortability of familiarity.

8. Because you want to show somebody.

Many of us do the bulk of our world-trapsing as singles. It’s just the easiest time in life to get away. Without the ties of love and kids, and that pesky mortgage, you can take off for months at a time if you set your life up for it. But then, when you do find love, and even when you have kids, you may have a love or a kid you think would truly enjoy a place you’ve been. For example, say you’ve been to Vienna, but then you have a child who turns out to be a classical music prodigy — that’s a terrific reason to go back.

9. To visit “in style.”

As time goes on, if we play our cards right (and fate doesn’t have it in for us), we tend to grow more affluent. Thusly, if we visit a place and return there years later, chances are, we can afford to do things we couldn’t before — stay in a fancier hotel, dine at the finest restaurants, indulge in tickets to major cultural events and more.

10. To check in on friends.

It is a special, yet somewhat common experience to meet a local on your travels with whom you stay in touch. Or, even if you don’t stay in touch with them, you can be treated so well by a local shopkeeper or restaurant owner that you swear you’ll return. These promises often fall by the wayside, so this is #10: to check in on friends — or at least people you haven’t forgotten — if only to let them know you haven’t forgotten them. This is an excellent reason to revisit a destination. It may mean even more to them than it means to you.

Have more reasons for revisiting a destination? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.

Photo by Annie Scott on the (temporary) Liverpool Wheel.

Ten passport photos that look like mug shots

passport photos that look like mug shots - whoopsNo one really knows how to take the best passport photos. To smile, or not to smile? It’s a question we all ask ourselves, but usually not until we’re half a second from that snap of the camera which will define our official “look” for the next ten years. The result? We tend to look confused, undecided, and in some cases, mildly criminal.

Click through the gallery below for ten passport photos which look like they were taken in the clink, and the crimes the “offenders” look like they committed.

(Sorry, but if you post your passport photo on Flickr under the creative commons license, you are kind of asking for this):

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You can avoid this fate. While most of us go to the local drug store or the post office to get the picture done (we want to make sure all the guidelines are met), you can take the passport photo in the comfort of your own home. Here are the official passport photo guidelines (via travel.state.gov):Proper Lighting Arrangement

  • Position light sources on both sides of subject to avoid shadows on face.
  • Use a light source to illuminate background behind subject to avoid
  • shadows in background.

Camera/Subject Position

  • Place camera approximately 4 ft (120 cm) from the subject.
  • Have camera at subject’s eye level.
  • Position subject facing the camera.

Photograph Print Properties

  • Produce 2 inch x 2 inch (51 mm x 51 mm) color photo.
  • Print photo on thin photo paper or stock.
  • Ensure the print is clear and has a continuous tone quality.
  • Do not retouch or otherwise enhance or soften photo.

7 Steps to Successful Photos

  • Frame subject with full face, front view, eyes open.
  • Make sure photo presents full head from top of hair to bottom of chin; height of head should measure 1 inch to 13⁄8 inch (25 mm to 35 mm).
  • Center head within frame (see Figure 2 in the pdf linked above).
  • Make sure eye level is between 11⁄8 inch and 13⁄8 inch (28 mm and 35 mm) from bottom of photo.
  • Photograph subject against a plain white or off-white background.
  • Position subject and lighting so that there are no distracting shadows on the face or background.
  • Encourage subject to have a natural expression.

Further instructions and a handy diagram can be found in the government pdf.

[Top image by mexican 2000 via Flickr, other images in gallery as credited.]