Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.

Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.

Free press travel: necessary … and certainly not an evil

The blogosphere has been heating up over the issue of ethics and “swag.” There’s plenty of free stuff flowing through the media industry. At Gadling, obviously, the big one is travel, but gadgets, books, liquor, cigars and other products are often supplied for use in writing a story. The Federal Trade Commission has made what was a debate into a legal issue by requiring disclosure by bloggers when they receive these freebies (Gadling already requires this, so no changes will be necessary here). The issue is not only contentious, but it’s emerging unevenly. In the end, it’s the readers who will be impacted.

The FTC rule requires disclosure only by bloggers – traditional media outlets will not be affected, despite the fact that they receive plenty of swag … and that we (the bloggers) learned it from them. If the goal is to help the consumer make an informed decision, this rule will only “help” blog readers and leave consumers of traditional media exposed.

Beyond the question of fairness, though, there’s a greater issue: practicality. Especially in the travel space, the trips and gear provided by hotels, restaurants, manufacturers and their publicists is a vital part of how we can provide more than mere reblogs of “man pukes on a plane.” Original travel content comes at a cost. Travel writers need to be out on the road to be effective, and even 12 months of discount travel can add up quickly. For readers interested in luxury and upscale experiences (and there are many here and at Luxist, where I also write), it would be impossible for impoverished bloggers to deliver first-hand accounts of these destinations.

It can be tough to understand the role that comp’ed travel can play in an operation such as Gadlings – or that of any other publication that covers travel. So, to help clarify the issues involved, here are 10 factors that help make sponsored press trips effective.

1. Boots on the ground make a difference
You can do a lot using other people’s information. Press releases, websites and interviews can provide plenty of insights on what it’s like to visit a particular destination. And, most travel writers, especially when faced with the prospect of daily deadlines, use these resources regularly. But, there’s no substitute for feeling the sand between your toes, breathing the mountain air or smelling a Seoul subway during rush hour (not bad, just very different from New York). If travel writers need to pay for these trips, there won’t be nearly as many … which means that readers lose the on-the-ground observations that make a hotel or city or flight come to life.

2. The money has to come from somewhere
There are three parties that could conceivably pay to send a writer to cover a destination: the writer, the publication or the destination. Contrary to popular belief, travel writing (or any other form of blogging or journalism) really isn’t a road to riches. We do it because we enjoy it. So, paying to take a trip could cost at least as much as we’ll make writing about it. Now, the publications could pay. But, if you haven’t noticed from the number of magazines closing, media companies are about as wealthy as their writers. They can’t afford to have travel writers out on the road frequently. Hell, some of them can’t even afford to have travel writers at all. Finally, there are the PR agencies and the destinations themselves. They realize that they’re taking a risk when they pay to send a reporter on a press trip (they could wind up with a shitty story). But, they generally have the resources to commit to the effort. So, do the math – where can the money come from?

3. An awful trip will be noticeable
If a travel writer has a truly miserable experience on a press trip, you will notice it in the writing. I can tell you I’ve never been pressured to deliver a positive story. I do tend to highlight what interests me or what I think would interest you, simply because that’s what I figure interests you. If you’re heading to Paris, for example, you probably want to know what to look for – what’s fun and exciting. The reason these trips often contain positive information is because nobody I know plans a trip around misery. But, if there is something that warrants your attention – that happens to be negative – the travel writer will probably make sure you’re aware of it.

4. Objectivity isn’t really the point
Travel is inherently subjective. I look at the type of trips Kraig Becker enjoys and wonder if he was dropped on his head (or fell on it on one of those excursions). And, I’m sure the backpack-and-hostel crowd looks down its collective nose at the luxury trips that I usually prefer. The travel writer’s job is to cover the destination fairly and accurately … which is much easier if you’re actually there. As long as you’re honest, it doesn’t matter who writes the check. Disclose who paid for it for good measure, so the readers can make the call for themselves.

5. Informed comments keep travel writers honest
Gadling has hundreds of thousands of fact-checkers: you. And, we make it easy for your voices to be heard. If you have a particular knowledge about a destination and disagree with the writer’s take, you can let him or her – and the other readers – know how you feel. Our articles are really the openings of conversations. Some openings don’t lead to much talking, while others do; the choice belongs to each reader. But, the mechanism is in place to keep the system smooth.

6. Desk reporting should be disclosed
It’s always interested me that desk reporting doesn’t have to be disclosed. If I go to a resort and write about it, I need to tell you if the resort picked up the tab. Meanwhile, a reporter at another publication who writes about the same place and has never been there doesn’t need to disclose a damned thing. If you follow the advice of the latter, you’re making a decision based on someone who’s only seen the walls of a cubicle. The information that that reporter used probably came from a press release or an interview with an executive from the resort being covered. If a sponsored press trip compromises reliability, desk interviews should raise big, frenetically waved red flags. It might make sense to see a bit more of the following: “This story was written from a press release and a short phone conversation with the resort’s managing director. I’ve never been there and have no plans to go. So, act on this story at your own risk.”

7. PR agencies and destinations know the deal
Any publicist who thinks it’s possible to buy a good story is a moron. If they weren’t worried, they would actually enjoy press trips. Instead, the PR folks organizing these things are always stressed out, making sure that a herd of reporters gets to the right place at the right time, ensuring that rooms are in order and so on. When something does go wrong, damage control is immediate. If the story were already paid for, they wouldn’t care.

8. The “best foot forward” problem
Unless travel writers were to go undercover, there’s always the opportunity for a hotel or attraction to go the extra mile for a writer. We know it happens, and we (at least I) assume our readers realize this, too. We try to cut through this to see how things really operate, but a well-run hotel, for example, won’t be able to do too much extra for visiting media. If it specializes in high-touch treatment, for example, they can’t really go extra high-touch for us. The things that bother me most – waiting in line behind an idiot intent on giving his life’s story at the front desk – don’t go away when you’re on a press trip. When restaurants close, they close – even for us. Hotels don’t have special, fluffier bathrobes for travel writers, and a few extra mints on the pillow won’t change the tone of a story.

9. Press trips are work
It’s pretty easy to perceive press trips as free, extended parties. There’s plenty of liquor flowing, the food is great and the accommodations are spectacular. Well, this is generally true (depending on the trip), but there’s a lot of work wrapped around this. In my experience, travel writers don’t get much sleep – after the day’s festivities are done, we actually get down to the business of cleaning up our notes, filing stories (from the road or on unrelated topics) and catching up on e-mail. We format photos, mess with video and try to keep track of the information being fed to us through a fire hose. Sleep is the first luxury to be sacrificed. It’s the nature of the beast. Press trips can be fun, but there’s also a considerable amount of effort involved.

10. The writer asks questions, hides and breaks the rules
Even though this is at least implicitly discouraged on some trips, the better travel writers will push the envelope. If I see something that interests me, I’ll excuse myself. If I’m told that’s not an option, I’ll raise hell until it becomes an option. I ask questions, and I know I’m not alone. At one restaurant, on a press trip, I wanted to interview the chef. The publicist wasn’t moving quickly enough for me, so I barged into the kitchen, interrupted the chef and got my interview. And, I know I’m not alone. When something doesn’t interest me, I skip it. Sometimes, I “accidentally” get lost. The better press trips, though, realize that travel writers can be like this, and they involve the loosest of agendas so we can wander around and cover what we want.

As you can see, I’m a pretty ardent supporter of free press trips, but I can see both sides of the issue. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this. It is a serious issue for the travel writing community, as it is for our readers. How do you feel about it?

[Photos via Migrant Blogger]

South Africa Gearing Up for World Cup…Maybe.

In a little less than 2 years, South Africa will become the only country on its continent to ever host the FIFA World Cup. That is, unless FIFA decides that the country is unprepared and moves the world’s most watched soccer tournament to one of the alternate locations it has already selected. There are concerns about stadiums and infrastructure projects being completed on time. South Africa has announced that a stadium in Port Elizabeth will not be fully constructed by the time a major tune-up tournament is slated to be played there next summer. In addition, the country is plagued by power outages and high crime rates.

But South Africa seems unconcerned and claims that everything will be ready well before the first shot on goal. To promote themselves to travelers, the country’s tourist organization is beginning a major PR push on the BBC World Services Network. The campaign will include television commercial, documentary-style vignettes about destinations in South Africa and an online, user-generated travel guide. It remains to be seen if these efforts will help the country’s image. It could all be undone if FIFA pulls the plug on South Africa 2010.