Should Travel Reviewers Be Anonymous?

male eating in restaurant
Alamy

Yesterday New York Times reporter Pete Wells published a review of the Manhattan French restaurant Daniel, removing one of its four stars in part because of the unequal treatment he received as a recognized journalist. He and a lesser-known colleague ordered the same meal, but had totally different experiences, with Wells receiving additional items, extra wine pours, and more doting service. While the other reporter still felt well taken care of, Wells wondered if “regular” guests could benefit as much from a little coddling as the critics.

Slate’s “Brow Beat” culture blog compared Wells’ experience to former Times critic Ruth Reichl, who once visited Le Cirque both as her famous self and in disguise. She surmised that the “favored patron” treatment was actually part of the draw of the restaurant: the hope that one could be given the VIP service. The blog suggests reviewers dispense with the pretense of being anonymous reviewers and go public, perhaps balancing reviews with intel from the non-famous.In the travel media world, the problem of anonymity and freebies has long been an ethical debate. “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine adheres to a “truth in travel” policy, stipulating that its writers never accept freebies and travel unannounced to try to ensure honest and equal opinions. Some guidebooks such as Fodor’s allow some comps for reviewers, but insist they will not guarantee a good review or even inclusion in a guide. Writer Chuck Thompson exposed some of the industry secrets in his book “Smile While You’re Lying,” noting that much mainstream travel writing is just PR copy, and how many reviews are simply tit for tat.

In the age of tweeting, checking in, and Instagramming our meals and trips, is anonymity even possible? More importantly, do we care? While a famous reviewer might have a richer experience than your average Joe, he can also get deeper access and a wider variety of offerings, combined with a professional’s expertise. Do you want to read a hotel review from a guy on his first trip to London, or someone who has stayed in dozens? Perhaps user-generated content such as Trip Advisor and Yelp can balance the VIP reviews, and give us a broader spectrum.

Do you care about anonymous reviews? Can freebies stay free from bias?

Tell us your most horrible travel moment, and win a copy of Chuck Thompson’s “Smile When Yoy’re Lying”

In case you missed it, Abha recently interviewed Chuck Thompson, author of the new book, Smile When You’re Lying, and we’re running a contest to give away some free copies. It’s really easy to enter to win — just tell us the worst thing that’s happened to you while traveling in the comment section of the interview. You don’t need to write a novel or anything, but the funnier/more outrageous, the better! We’ve already got some good stories from our readers. Here’s one:

On being sick in India, Eva writes, “I was so out of it, I genuinely thought I was dying. For two days I just lay in my bed and cried, and then got mad at myself for wasting bodily fluids on tears when I was clearly already dying of dehydration, and then I cried even harder. I even called my dad to say goodbye!”

Fun!

Let the world hear your worst travel moment, and you just may win a copy of Smile When You’re Lying! (Remember: don’t leave the comment on this post! Go here instead.)

Talking Travel with Chuck Thompson

Aaron recently introduced Chuck Thompson’s new book, Smile While You’re Lying, and today Gadling got the opportunity to have a chat with him. The interview talks about savage travel stories, “Journalistic Tiramisu,” travel-blogging, the authors complaints on the road, and the future of the travel-industry. Enjoy!

We also have 5 copies of the book to giveaway, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can score one for free!

Thank you for talking to us here at Gadling! The content of your book elaborates on savage travel truths that are usually off-limits for general travel-press, what motivated you to make this book happen? What were the challenges you faced in getting this book published?

I got fed up with coming back from intense experiences on the road – and I mean ??intense?? in both good and bad ways – and being muzzled by editors who demanded copy that sacrificed intelligence and storytelling for the sake of advertiser-friendly pap. Not just in travel, but a lot of magazine writing these days is basically glorified PR copy. The stories I told my friends over beers or wrote about in emails never seemed to make it into my bylined pieces. I’d have a story published somewhere and weeks later a friend would call and say, ??Hey, I saw your article on Panama in such-and-such magazine.?? And I’d sort of cringe and say, ??Oh, man, let me tell you what really happened in Panama.??
The challenges were pretty much the challenges faced by any unknown writer with a book proposal-it’s matter of finding the right agent and editor who really “get” your idea in the same way you do. The first agent I sent my proposal to sent back a nasty note telling me how appalled she was by the pitch and my Thailand chapter and how I’d better rethink what I was doing. She actually sent me some photocopied pages from a book on how to be a successful writer. But I remained pretty confident about finding the right people to get behind this. From the time I sent the first proposal out to the book actually getting published took about three and a half years.

What inspired the title of the book and its visual?

The title alludes to the small fibs that travel writers such as myself have to go along with in order to preserve their jobs as travel writers, the larger ones told everyday by the travel industry that perpetuate the accepted myths of the industry, and also the broader triumph of public relations that’s made our mainstream media supplicant to corporate and government spin. As for the cover, it’s meant to express what the book aims to be-fun and entertaining, but also something that shines a subversive light upon travel icons. A lot of people don’t catch it, but if you look at the cover closely, you’ll find a little subversive visual joke hidden in there.

I had to laugh as you tagged travel stories in glossy commercial magazines as “Journalistic Tiramisu,” could you explain this term?

Just the sort of lightweight, drooling, praise-heavy hack copy routinely applied to make mundane places and trips sound “magical” and “resplendent.” Travel writers can’t just walk, they have to “amble” or “meander.” They don’t simply eat, they “dine.” Any store opened within the last two years is “hip,” “hot,” or “happening.” All seas sparkle, all views are breathtaking. My favorite descriptions of this sort of travel reporting are “witless puffery” and “sun-dappled barf,” both of which I heard from other travel writers. (So please don’t present them as mine, even though I wish they were.)

You talk about the travel industry being in a state of dramatic flux and that the “golden age” of international tourism may be drawing to a close; what then, in your opinion, is the future of the travel industry?

There seem to be two divergent opinions on the matter. Boeing and Airbus and other travel and transportation companies-many based in China and around Asia-currently forecast a five-percent annual increase in air travel over the next two decades. This will cause world air traffic to triple by 2030. Imagine three times more babies and three times as many wankers in the middle seat battling you for armrest hegemony on your flight from New York to L.A.

There is a mitigating factor and that is oil. Can we get a stable supply of it out of the Middle East for the next twenty years? Even if we can, is Peak Oil for real and, if it is (which I happen to believe), how soon will it begin causing major problems with mass transportation? Look, you can build all the battery-powered cars you want and probably make ’em work, but getting a fully-loaded 757 off the ground or turning diesel-powered props of a cruise or cargo ship is quite another story. At the moment, there’s nothing even close to alternative fuel for those monsters. Those things aren’t little, plastic four-seaters that need to range 150 miles at a time. They require real power.

The “savage” type of content in your book is often found on travel blogs. How do you think the blogging industry — that warrants personal, raw and original content — will affect the travel publishing industry?

I love blogs. I like contributing to them, reading them, and being a part of them. It’s the best place right now to find authentic travel writing, even if it’s sometimes rough. I wish I had more time to spend reading them. However, I firmly believe the demise of print media has been greatly exaggerated. I don’t expect print to go away in my lifetime, I don’t expect books or magazines to lose their appeal, especially not as long as we continue to condition our kids to read on paper. You know what’s happening with the children’s book market in this country? It’s a gold rush, a boom economy. When I walk into a bookstore and see rows and rows of featured children’s books, I think, “Good for all of us in the print biz.” And just for portability and tactile pleasure and saving my eyeballs, I do prefer books, magazines, and other hard copy to reading on a monitor. I think blogs already are and will become an even larger part of the legit media mix. This is great. But they aren’t going to replace mainstream media anytime soon.

You say in your intro that one of the best things of being a traveler is complaining about the parts you don’t like, I couldn’t agree more! Care to share some of your biggest complaints on the road with Gadling readers?

I know it comes with the territory and I’m generally good-natured and smiley about it, but I absolutely hate being the zoo-animal white guy celebrity in rural Asian and African villages. There’s a smile-when-you’re-lying moment for you-me surrounded by thirty kids yanking at my arm hair with a big idiot grin of affability on my face. I’ve got a bunch of those photos and in every one I was hating life when it was taken.

Another complaint I have is with uppity “travelers” who complain about all the damn “tourists.” We’re all tourists, to a degree, none really any better than the next. If someone wants to spend his travel dollars squatting for two weeks in a bamboo hut in Cambodia, cool. If someone else wants to take her three kids to Walt Disney World in Orlando and stuf
f them with fried dough and Mega-bucket Dr. Peppers, as far as I’m concerned, that’s just as authentic an experience, whether they enjoyed it ironically or not.

What is the worst thing that has happened to you on the road?

I guess having all my money-$1,200-stolen in Thailand. I attempted to turn this into a humorous story in Smile When You’re Lying, but it was absolutely horrible when it happened and I was not thinking at the time how enriching an experience it was. In fact, I was sort of panicked. I was on an island and couldn’t even get off to make a phone call for help for lack of ferry fare. Wandering around that island starving and begging for help was lonely and miserable and embarrassing.

The biggest travel myth in your opinion?

That places are dangerous and people are scary and out to get you. I’ve been to a lot of cities and countries I was repeatedly warned not to go because it was so dangerous. Muslim-rebel territory in Mindanao in the Philippines. The Congolese jungle. Caracas. Wherever there are people, there’s normalcy. People go to work and school, they buy food at the market, they make dinner, they love their families, they’re generally kind or at least civil with strangers. I’m not talking about legitimate war zones, which are different, but for the most part, the paranoia of many people about international travel is grossly unjustified. People who don’t travel to these places think that those of us who do are adventurous and brave. But you go to these places and you see what a lie that is. And you come home and smile about it. What the hell, let ’em think you’re brave. Maybe they’ll buy one of your books.

Thanks, Chuck!

More information can be found at www.chuckthompsonbooks.com

Want to win a copy of the book? It’s easy. Here’s how:

  • To enter, simply leave a comment below telling us about the worst thing that’s happened to you while traveling. Make sure to use a valid e-mail address, or else we’ll have no way to contact you if you win!
  • The comment must be left before Friday, January 4, 2008 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter once.
  • 5 winners will be selected in a random drawing.
  • 5 winners will receive Smile When You’re Lying (valued at $15.00).
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.