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.

Cubby is your New York City luggage storage and courier

luggage storageMany visitors to New York City come for the shopping. What to do with all those bargains and souvenirs when it’s time for dinner? You could stow them at your hotel or use a left luggage desk at a transportation center like Port Authority, but what if your day takes you different places?

Cubby
is a new bag check and luggage storage service on Manhattan’s Park Avenue South and 23rd Street (perfect location for a post-shopping lunch at Shake Shack) that will not only watch your bag but also send them via bicycle courier to the destination of your choice. The shop is open daily from 8am to midnight and has an iPhone and Android app you can use to make a reservation and get a discount on storage. Cubby charges $5-8 for the first bag with lower rates for additional bags and $10 for courier service.

The current Gramercy location is a pop-up until October 31, but they are working on making it a permanent store and looking to expand to further downtown locations.

Hat tip to Jeanine Barone for the find. Photo courtesy Cubby.

Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service: why you shouldn’t leave the US without one

The goal here was to utilize Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service to stay connected and work while traveling. The trip? Four days in England, followed by three in France. I was scheduled to shoot my first international wedding in Paris, and was spending a few days in England beforehand — partly to enjoy the country, and partly to ensure that no weather problems in the US delayed my flight over. Xcom Global provides a service that every US-based international traveler should consider: they rent MiFi devices for a host of nations (a list that seems to grow each month), and if you aren’t familiar with a MiFi, the concept is pretty simple: it’s a battery-powered pebble with a country-specific SIM card in it. Just press a button, and within a few seconds, you’ll have a WiFi signal that connects up to five devices to a country’s 3G network.

For example, a French MiFi gives you unlimited 3G data with Orange. So long as you keep a charged battery in there, you can leave your smartphone in airplane mode and still use Google Maps to get around a foreign city — just connect your phone to the MiFi over Wi-Fi. If you aren’t familiar with what it costs to use data internationally, it’s around $5 per megabyte. What does that mean? Downloading the emails you missed on the flight over could easily cost $20, and if you maintained that connection for a whole day? It’s easy to rack up $300 or more in data roaming charges. No US carrier offers a decent international plan (at least not anymore), so you’re really left with two options: struggle to find Wi-Fi, or use Xcom Global. These guys will rent you a MiFi for under $20 per day, with return shipping included. That means unlimited Wi-Fi for around $17 a day in a foreign country, and it’s a connection that multiple people can use at once. If your hotel wants to ding you 10 Euros per day for Internet, just use this — problem solved. It’s an awesome way to stay connected while abroad, but honestly, it’s more than that. For mobile professionals, it’s a necessity.

I love my husband very much, I really do. But even he was kicking himself when we took off from the US and realized our MiFis were still in their shipping bag in our vehicle, safely parked at the airport, slipping further and further from Manchester. This piece was slated to be a review of Xcom’s services; instead, it has morphed into a thesis on just how frustrating it is to visit a foreign country without their services. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone — isn’t that what they say? Read on for more.Both my husband and I were scheduled to continue working while in England. The plan was to use Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel rooms to check up on emails nightly, return any missed calls via Skype and then use the Internet on-the-go. We’d never been to Manchester, and we were banking on using Google Maps Navigation to get us from our train stop to our hotel. Needless to say, we spent nearly 10 Pounds on a taxi ride that we could’ve easily walked if we had the Internet to guide us. And that’s just the beginning. We arrived at our first hotel, a Holiday Inn. It’s a fine place, but they wanted 15 Pounds for 24 hours of Internet usage. Internet that we couldn’t take with us when exploring the streets of Manchester.

At this point, the only reasonable alternative was to find an O2 store, which sells a pay-as-you-go SIM for 15 Pounds that includes 500MB of data. But alas, it’s hard to locate an O2 store when there’s no Internet to find a store locator. We run downstairs and spend a solid ten minutes attempting to take directions from the front desk, and then another 15 minutes wandering aimlessly to a bus station. And then another 30 walking to a mall, and then another 30 waiting for the SIM to be activated. After our entire first morning in England was shot, we finally had data — on one phone, and we could only use around 100MB per day. After that, it forced us to wait until midnight for the next block of data to become usable.

This was obviously far from ideal. We were fortunate enough to own an unlocked smartphone (a standard Apple iPhone from AT&T would never accept another carrier’s SIM, for example). Plus, the Nexus One has a Mobile Hotspot function that pipes 3G data out over Wi-Fi. This enabled us to check our emails on our laptops, but O2 badly compresses all images that are uploaded, so obviously I was unable to create any photo blogs using this solution. To say that this wasn’t the perfect solution would be a tremendous understatement. Had we been in possession of Xcom’s MiFi, we would’ve had unlimited data to use as we saw fit, without any image compression or daily usage limits. Even if you aren’t interested in working while overseas, having the ability to use Google Maps to search for eateries and monuments (and get directions) is a total godsend. Without a MiFi, the only way to do it is to pay absurd roaming charges or to rent a SIM card — provided you own an unlocked device.

Eventually, we took a train to London. There, our hotel also wanted 15 Pounds per day for Internet access, which just so happened to go down for a critical five hour period where my husband was scheduled to make an important Skype call back to the United States. We had already used up the 100MB daily allotment through O2, so it was off to the streets in a frantic attempt to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Considering that we had no mobile Internet to guide us, we were forced to remain on streets we had visited the day before and knew were well-lit. It was closing in on 9PM, and we had already spent an hour on Regent Street — one of London’s most popular roads — with no luck whatsoever. The Starbucks closed at 8:30PM, and the only coffee shop that we could find with later hours wanted to charge us 5 Pounds for using their Wi-Fi for just 1.5 hours.

In the end, we ended up standing outside of a locked Apple Store door, borrowing their free Wi-Fi long enough to complete a 20 minute phone call. Something that would’ve taken 20 minutes if we had Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel room ended up taking around two hours, and rather than being able to have a private call, everyone on Regent Street could pass by and have a listen.

In France, it was even worse. Hardly any of the signage is in English, which left us with little choice but to Google Map something in our room and then write down instructions before heading out. We were also unable to make Skype calls on the go, as we weren’t able to procure a local SIM here. Unlike the UK, there’s no carrier in France that openly sells prepaid SIM cards with data; it’s possible to get one from SFR, but it takes over a day to activate and it requires fluency in French to sort through a phone menu to have the data feature added.

In the end, I found it interesting that going a week overseas without Xcom’s Global MiFi rental service is the best possible advertisement for the service. It may be easy to assume that “you’ll be fine” without Internet access, but consider the life that most of us lead today. We’re perpetually connected. We rely on Google Maps to get us anywhere. We lose connections with people if email sits around for two days. And as for ponying up for Internet at the hotel? That’s a frustration that no traveler should have to face. Looking back, I would have gladly paid Xcom Global $17 per day to have unlimited access to the Internet both in my hotel and everywhere I traveled to while overseas. Suffice it to say, this has taught me to never leave home without one when traveling abroad — in my mind, it’s just as essential as a passport. If you still have your doubts, you could head overseas for a week and do your best to find the Internet. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Gadling Q & A with Daniel Edward Craig, author and hotel consultant

Daniel Edward Craig shares a name with the current James Bond, and like 007, he’s a world traveler and a man of many hats. He’s taken a career in hotel management and a keen ear for storytelling and parlayed it into a murder mystery book series, an engaging industry blog, and a hotel and social media consultancy. Here he tells Gadling about his history in the travel world, who’s providing the best social media content for travelers, and what’s next in hotel trends.

Tell me about your history in the hotel and travel business.

I’ve worked in hotels off and on for about twenty years. I started on the front desk at the Delta Chelsea Inn in Toronto and went on to work for a range of hotels, from big-box to boutique, in positions ranging from duty manager to vice president. Most recently, I was vice president and general manager of Opus Hotels in Vancouver and Montreal.

What title do you think best captures your profession these days
?

These days I work as an author and hotel consultant. I left Opus at the end of 2007, shortly after my first novel was published, to complete the second and third novels in the Five-Star Mystery series. Now I am working on a fourth book as well as various consulting projects for the hotel industry, ranging from social media strategy to executive coaching. I also continue to write my blog and articles about the hotel industry. It’s been a rough few years for hotels, and I think we could all use some levity, so in my writing I try to take a lighthearted look at issues.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to managing a hotel?

I hope so. Hotels are my first love; writing is secondary. As a hotel manager, I feel fully engaged and at my best, whereas as a writer all my neurotic tendencies come out. Writing is a solitary profession, and I’m better as part of a team. Once I finish my current book at the end of this year, I’ll decide what’s next, and that could very well involve a return to hotels full-time. I’ll always write, but after a year of 4:00 AM mornings and late nights, I promised myself never to write books and manage a hotel at the same time.

What are you most critical of as a hotel guest?

I’m extremely service oriented. I’ll cut a property a lot of slack if it isn’t my style or if facilities are limited, but bad service can ruin my trip. In particular, I dislike overly scripted, apathetic service. I love a hotel with originality and a lot of life in the lobby. And I look for soul, a combination of design, culture, clientele and spirit, that intangible feeling that I’m in the right place. That’s why I prefer independent boutique hotels – it’s easier for them to do these things well.

What’s your favorite hotel?

Don’t make me choose! It depends on my mood and the nature of travel. I was just in Chicago and was blown away by the new Elysian Hotel. If I’m relaxing or working, I like the Four Seasons. I can’t always afford to stay in them, but I will splurge on a drink in the lounge and will hang around until I’m asked to leave. My favorite is the Four Seasons Georges V in Paris. But I also love contemporary boutique hotels. I’m a city boy, and when I feel like socializing I want to stay in a hotel with a scene, like the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, the Mondrian in Los Angeles, and the Clift in San Francisco. XV Beacon in Boston is also one of my faves.

Given the many social media experts today, how do you stand apart?

I’d never call myself a social media expert. Who can keep up? I’m a hotelier first, who happens to know a lot about social media and reputation management. Social media allows me to combine my two professions as a hotelier and an author, because essentially it’s about storytelling. Social media touches every department in a hotel, and as a former general manager I understand the interplay and interdependence involved, and to rise above individual departmental interests to develop a strategy that benefits the hotel as a whole.

What hotels/travel companies do you think are doing social media “well”?

I think there are a number of hotel companies that do certain aspects of social media well, but nobody is doing anything particularly innovative. HKHotels in New York are doing a great job of reputation management. Best Western runs a good Facebook page. InterContinental Hotel Group makes great concierge videos. The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee manages Twitter well. Red Carnation Hotels in London and Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver have good blogs. Joie de Vivre Hotels does great contests.

Hoteliers are great storytellers, and with all the comings and goings of guests we have a rich resource of content to draw from, and yet this isn’t translating to social media. A lot of hotel content is trite and uninspiring, and most of the voices sound the same: perky and vaguely annoying. Hotels can learn a lot from online reviewers, who spin the best stories, with strong points of view, hooks, humor, trivia and facts. I think there are huge opportunities for the hotel industry, and I’d love to help a hotel become the social media hotel in a given destination.

What made you start writing murder mysteries?

I always wanted to write, and naively thought that writing a mystery would be fun and easy. They say write what you know, and at the time I was working as a duty manager, so I set it in a hotel. Ten years later, Murder at the Universe was published. For me it was a one-off, but my publisher liked the idea of a hotel manager who writes mysteries set in hotels, so they contracted me to develop it into a series. Since then I’ve published Murder at Hotel Cinema and Murder at Graverly Manor.

After three novels, I started to get bored with my protagonist, the hapless hotelier Trevor Lambert, and all that whining. And there could only be so many murders in his hotels before people started suspecting him. The book I’m finishing up now is non-fiction, an irreverent insider’s look at hotels, written for travelers.

What do you see as the next big trends in hotels?

Mobile is huge. Increasingly, people are researching, booking and recommending travel via smart phones. Social media will grow as people continue to bypass travel journalists and hotels for travel information in favor of travelers, friends and social networks, all from the palm of the hand. When it comes down to it, however, above all hotel guests still want comfort, convenience and value. They just have much larger audiences to air their grievances to when they don’t get what they want.

What’s next for you?

After I finish the book, I’ll put book writing on hold for now and will continue to work on hotel projects, to blog, and to write articles. I’m starting to book quite a few speaking engagements in 2011. My platform as an author and hotelier is quite unique, and social media reputation management are hot topics. If I find a good job with a progressive hotel company, great, but until then I have no shortage of things to keep me occupied.

Read all about Daniel Edward Craig, his books, and his blog at his website, www.danieledwardcraig.com