Talking Travel with Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman

Avalon travel writer, Joshua Berman, whose Moon Belize guidebook (8th edition) hit book stands in October, took time from his busy book tour to answer a few questions about travel, writing, and living and breathing idyllic Central America.

Don’t forget to enter the Gadling Giveaway of the latest edition HERE (you only have until tomorrow to enter!), or read my glowing review of Moon Belize HERE.

Enjoy the interview!

GAD: Not that I’m criticizing your choice here, but how did you end up in Belize? In your mind, what makes it such a special travel destination?
JB: It was a natural northerly progression, beginning in Nicaragua in 1998, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; followed by Honduras as both a trip leader and guidebook researcher. Then one day my publisher asked if I would take over Moon Belize from Chicki Mallan, the book’s original author, who was retiring. I said yes.

GAD: Based on your experiences living and traveling in Nicaragua and other parts of Central America, how does Belize contrast with its neighbors?
JB: Belize is less crowded, more diverse, more expensive, and just as tranquilo as Guatemala, Honduras, or Nicaragua. Belize is the only English-speaking country in Central America and its heritage as a British colony also makes it stand out from the rest of Central America (including Belizeans’ unique affinity for dark beer and stout).

GAD: What are your favorite things to do in Belize, and how do those activities reflect who you are as a traveler?

JB: I like to hike, paddle, and meet people. I also like to run into old friends, which happens every time I visit Belize. My favorite is when these activities all combine, like when I run into people I know atop Maya pyramids, on rivers, or in caves. It speaks to how small and special a place it is.

GAD: Can you tell us something about Belize that the less knowledgeable traveler may not know?
JB: Belize has one of the biggest cave systems in the world, the highest waterfall in Central America, and the planet’s first (and I think only) jaguar reserve. It also hosts one of the world’s longest and most grueling canoe races every March, La Ruta Maya Canoe Challenge.

GAD: With ever increasing eco-tourism and travel advancements in Belize, what kinds of changes do you see for the country as a travel destination within the next ten years?
JB: Belize is constantly walking the line of sustainability when it comes to tourism. There are always massive projects being proposed to increase cruise tourism, the airport, and the size of the developments on delicate islands and wetlands. But when it comes down to it, more than 70 percent of Belize’s 500 or so hotels have 10 rooms or less. That means small structures, family-run hotels, and lower impacts on the environment than big resorts and mega-hotels, which are standard fare just up the coast in Cancun. Also, I’d like to think that there are just too many forward-thinking people involved in Belize tourism to let it go astray. Belize recently hosted the third annual World Responsible Tourism Conference, which is a big deal. Ten years from now, I think Ambergris Caye and Placencia will continue to be built up, but the rest of the country will remain wild and small. We’ll see.

GAD: Based on your bio, I gather you split your time between Central America and the Rocky Mountains. How is this lifestyle and do you see it changing?
JB: I teach Spanish in Colorado during the school year and I travel to Central America on jobs during my breaks. Sometimes my family gets to tag along (here’s my two-year-old, Shanti, on her first backpacking trip to Nicaragua). It’s a tricky juggling act, but so far it’s working out, and it allows me to get my travel fix every few months while maintaining a home, job, and family.

GAD: What other parts of the world (not Central America) appeal to you – and why?
JB: My wife, Sutay, and I went to Pakistan on our honeymoon. This was in 2005 when it was a little edgy but not as dangerous as it seems to have become. We went north to the Hunza Valley in the Himalayas, which was one of the most spectacular lost worlds I’ve ever seen. It makes me drool to think about the milk tea and the glaciers and the apricot soup and yak-wool hats … incredible spot and very welcoming people.

GAD: What will be your next project as a traveler/travel writer?
JB: I’m putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my first narrative book. It’s a travel memoir about my honeymoon and is tentatively entitled YOU WILL SOON BE CROSSING THE GREAT WATERS: A Love-Marriage Memoir from Pakistan, India, Ghana, and The Gambia. I’m hoping to publish it independently in the next year. I’m also updating two guidebooks this winter, Moon Nicaragua and Living Abroad in Nicaragua, with my coauthor, Randy Wood. You can always stay updated on my blog, The Tranquilo Traveler. See you out there.

Gadling is currently accepting entries to a giveaway of Josh’s Moon Belize guidebook. Entries are due tomorrow — Wednesday, November 18 @ 5 p.m. EST!!!

While you’re at it, check out my review of Moon Belize, too. You won’t be disappointed!

Talking Travel with Step Back from the Baggage Claim, Jason Barger

Jason Barger already knew a fair amount about people before he headed off his 7-day, 7-airport travel spree to do nothing but watch them interact. He’d spent many a spring break leading adolescents and adults on house-building ventures in Mexico, a trip that took him through various airports with a band of travelers of all ages, for example.

Wanting more fodder to further develop his ideas about airport behavior and what it says about humanity, he decided to airport hop logging thousands of miles and observations as he zig zagged across the U.S. While he watched people either shine with behavior that would make Mom proud –or in such a way that if they were a piece of luggage no one would claim them, Barger honed his ideas about how the airport is a perfect metaphor for modern day life.

The result was Step Back from the Baggage Claim, a book that Barger hopes people will leave on a bench somewhere for someone else to pick up once they’re done reading it. The result of passing the book along will be that people will think about how they interact as they move through their day.

Ever since I read Barger’s book, I’ve made my own observations about airport interactions. It does seem he’s onto something. Over the past months since his book came out, gaining steam through venues like the Washington Post and ABC News, I’ve kept up with Barger’s efforts. Yesterday, there was a post on his new video.

Today is a Talking Travel interview with questions Barger answered through e-mail in between a trip to the Dominican Republic to help with a house-building effort there. If you are looking for a tasty bite to eat that’s not expensive while passing through an airport, Barger has a suggestion.

With Thanksgiving travel rapidly approaching, listening to Barger’s advice to step back from the baggage claim is not a bad idea.

Now that people know that you’ve written a book about airplane and airport behavior, do you feel like the “Dear Abby” of travel? Does everyone have a story to tell you and want advice?

It has been fascinating to see that “everyone has a story”. Also, because the airport metaphor has been so highly relatable, people are connecting with it in profound ways.

2. What surprised you the most about your airport hopping experience? Something you didn’t expect to find out?

That we’re on ‘Autopilot’. I had the perception that people were either experiencing a real ‘high’ and excited about where they were headed or a real ‘low’ and miserable about their travels. However, what I observed was that the majority of us look like we’re walking around on ‘Autopilot’ – we’re going through the motions, almost as if we’re in a trance. This was a powerful image for our everyday lives – are we truly alive as we move through our routines? How can we be more awake as we travel from point A to B in life?

3. Have you noticed any connection between how people dress and the airport/airplane experience? Does dress for success work?

Hard to make generalizations on this one, but certainly an indicator of how a person is ‘entering’ the airport environment. Some are laid back and comfortable and some you can tell are all business.

4 Do you think it’s possible that very nice, sane, considerate people actually turn into jerks at the airport? If so, why? Is it catching?

Yes, for some reason it appears that the airport is a space in the world where some people alter their normal behaviors. I choose to believe that people are good and want to be kind to others, but it appears that the stresses and uncertainty of the airport environment often brings out the worst in people.

5. Have you ever seen Improv Everywhere’s stunt “Welcome Back?” where In case you haven’t. Here’s the link. (In this video, actors meet people at the airport with signs, flowers, balloons and applause to welcome them home. They find people to welcome based on the names scrawled on signs that drivers hold–those who are at the airport to pick someone specific up.)

Wonderful. It is amazing what positive ripples it sends to everyone in the area when others feel ‘welcomed’. It reminds me of a time years ago when I went to the airport with some friends of mine to pick up another friend coming home. We dressed in suits as if we were secret service and ushered the person off the plane. It got a great response from all!

Okay, here are some quick airport questions. They can be about ANY airport, not just the ones you chose for the book.

6. Which airport has the coolest feature and what is it?

Detroit’s ‘cosmic tunnel’. It is a great deviation from the norm. see this blog entry for specifics

7. Which one is the most comfortable for hanging out?

Seattle. I love the Seattle airport. Beautiful high glass windows looking out on Mount Rainer, thoughtful seating arrangements, variety of creative eating options, and just a well thought out design contribute in positive ways to the atmosphere.

8. Which airport has the best personality, if airports have different personalities?

Seattle for the laid back pacific northwest charm and Minneapolis for it’s classy Midwest warmth.

9 . Which airport seemed to foster anxiety?

Miami. Lots of construction, limited seating and food options, and clusters of people add to the normal airport tensions.

10. What airport has the best food find. What is it?

The Quiznos’ pre-made Italian sub that you can find at a Quiznos ‘to go’ kiosk in many airports is one of the better pre-made sandwiches I’ve ever had.

11. Name three airports you have not been to that you would like to if you had the chance?

Johannesburg, South Africa. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tokyo, Japan.

12. And one more– Based on what you’ve observed from airport and airplane behavior, is there any hope for humanity? Any hope at all? Any?

Absolutely. We all share in the creation of today. We all contribute to each moment based on the spirit we choose to put out into the world. We can begin to ‘Change the World’ by bringing more gratitude and compassion to life in the seemingly insignificant daily moments – such as at the airport. Step Back from the Baggage Claim: Change the world, start at the Airport!

US Airways customer service director: À la carte fees are the only way forward

John Romantic is the director of customer relations and central baggage resolution at US Airways. But he’d prefer that you simply think of him as your advocate at the airline. For the last nine months, he’s had the unenviable job of improving the carrier’s checkered reputation for customer service. I asked him how he’s doing it.

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about some of the changes within US Airways, when it comes to handling customer service questions. And I’ve seen a marked decrease in reader complaints. What are you doing?

Romantic: We are doing a lot, and we’re glad there is a buzz starting.

My goal when taking my position nine months ago was to transform customer relations from a complaint resolution center into a customer advocacy center. Better said, while we handle customer inquiries, we also need to globally understand customer sentiment and use all of that data to look at our product, policies, and processes. Our focus is to find ways to be easier to do business with.

Q: How?

Romantic: We code 100 percent of the customer responses we receive, and have created better reporting from this data. We have established an executive steering committee which meets regularly with the primary focus of understanding our customers’ feedback, and finding ways to improve our customers’ experience resulting in reduced complaints. The work of this team has lead to several recent changes – with some still in progress.

We realize we have a little more ground to make up on customer complaint rankings, but our actions are starting to close the gap with our competitors.

Q: How many requests does your department handle in an average week? Can you break it down by phone, fax, letter and e-mail, please?

Romantic: The actual number of requests varies by time of the year, load factor, peak and off-peak times. But the current breakdown is 91 percent handled via e-mail, 5 percent via phone and 4 percent via fax or written correspondence.

Q: What’s the best way of contacting US Airways when you have a problem with a flight?

Romantic: The preferred method of contacting US Airways is to use our Web form on the US Airways Web site under “Contact US”. The data provided by the customer on the Web form enables us to assign the issue to the best person available in customer relations to handle the request.

It is also the most expeditious method of contact in that it allows the representative to complete any research before responding to the customer.

Q: What’s your average response time? Do you have performance targets for responding to customers, and if so, can you tell me what they are for inquiries by phone, fax, letter and e-mail?

Romantic: We publish a response time of one to three business days. But to be honest with you, I get a little excited when our response time climbs above one day. We are looking to improve upon that metric by looking at more technology to improve productivity and respond more quickly.

Q: How are passenger inquiries prioritized? Do frequent fliers get answered first? Do people with tickets booked through a consolidator get processed closer to the end?

Romantic: Another advantage to using the Web form is that the structured data fields enable us to triage – or compartmentalize emails by issue or customer type. This allows us to prioritize certain types of customers such as Dividend Miles Preferred customers or customers with disabilities. It also allows the many compliments that we receive to be handled later in the queue and by other employees in the department.

Emails sent directly to specific personnel at US Airways do not get the same level of filtering or prioritization. We do not currently differentiate our service by ticket price in any way.

Q: Tell me more about your new email system. What did you change, and how is it working out for you?

Romantic: In September of last year, we replaced our database system with a Web-based customer response management system. The CRM application provides us with a database by which we can better understand our customers’ concerns as well as positive customer feedback. It also enables us to better manage the type of requests coming in as a result of the email triage component of CRM.

We are looking at more automation as well that will further improve productivity and reduce customer response time.

Q: What one thing about handling customer complaints do you wish customers knew, but don’t?

Romantic: Customers can do a couple of things to ensure an appropriate and speedy reply to their concern.

Customers should always summarize their concern at the beginning of their note, including key information like their confirmation code, date of travel, and flight numbers. Then, provide a few succinct bullet points illustrating the key aspects of their experience. We sometimes get very long, detailed letters that include irrelevant information. These types of contacts are difficult to comprehend and craft an appropriate response in a timely manner.

And give us a chance. Sometimes customers feel like they increase their chances of a successful outcome by sending their concern to multiple points of contact in the company. We have seen instances where customers research our corporate officers, sending each one a personalized letter detailing their experience. This sometimes lead to multiple people trying to solve the problem, and can cause the response to be delayed.

Q: Let’s say the question wasn’t answered. That happens from time to time — and I’m guilty of doing this, too — but sometimes agents read the first two paragraphs and send a form letter that doesn’t address the issue. What’s next?

Romantic: This does happen, but fairly infrequently. Our representatives are well-trained to handle just about any type of customer issue to their satisfaction.

The appropriate way to handle this is to simply send us another short response. We categorize this as a rebuttal, and it gets prioritized for handling. We also realize that at some point it may make better sense to use the phone and we will contact a customer after a rebuttal. This also gives me an opportunity to look at rebuttal responses for coaching improvement, as we strive to continually increase customer satisfaction when corresponding with customer relations.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes customers make when dealing with your department? Is there one thing that guarantees you won’t get an answer — like YELLING or using profanity?

Romantic: Well, we understand when things don’t go well that a customer may be upset. Our representatives are well trained to handle the emotions that sometimes follow service failures.

One thing we hear from time to time is that responses from customer relations get trapped in someone’s spam filter. So, it is best to ensure that your email is set to receive a response. We do appreciate not yelling or use of profanity though!

Q: What do you think passengers should expect from US Airways? Do you think that differs from what passengers expect, and if so, how?

Romantic: I believe that more often than not, we are able to meet our customer’s expectations. It really depends on the circumstances and the type of service failure. Expectati
ons seem to have a wide range dependant on the person and their situation.

We do get a lot of requests for roundtrip tickets on traveled — yet delayed — itineraries. We do not provide round trip tickets as compensation, but we do compensate with future travel dollars when the circumstances warrant it.

Weather delays and cancellations can also be tricky as we typically do not compensate for acts of nature outside of our immediate control.

Q: I’d like to ask about some of the more recent changes, including the baggage fees that were added last month. How do you go about explaining something like this to passengers who maybe feel as if luggage charges and other ancillary fees are unfair?

Romantic: Without a doubt, the airline industry has changed dramatically over the past five years. The model that airlines used five years ago is no longer a model that can sustain the costs of doing business. Even at today’s lower fuel prices, airlines are still losing money.

As a result, most major airlines are adopting an “à la carte” business model, which allows customers to pay for what they need, and not pay for what they do not need.

Sure, it sounds easy to just raise prices across the board instead of applying fees for services. But with too much capacity in operation and fares changing literally every minute, it is simply too hard to raise fares while remaining competitive with other airlines.

Besides, if you are on a business trip or typically carry on your one bag, then you would not want to be subject to higher fares. So, for some customers, the a la carte business model may actually save them money.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, which shows 63 people wrote to the government to complain about US Airways in February. Can you help put that number into perspective for our readers? How do you get that number down, apart from appealing or shifting the complaint to a regional carrier?

Romantic: In February, US Airways flew 3,843,035 passengers which excludes Express carrier traffic and received 63 complaints written to the DOT [Department of Transportation]. That is a rate of 1.64 per 100,000 customers flown. Purely from a numbers perspective, most carriers are within 5 to 10 complaints of each other monthly. And US Airways is closing that margin fast.

We are analyzing our DOT complaints very closely. As I mentioned earlier, we are looking at everything we do that may detract from customer satisfaction. The prominent driver of DOT complaints for all airlines is ineffective recovery from flight problems that occur. While US Airways boasts one of the better on-time records of late, we must look at ways to better manager service challenges when they do occur.

The March report will be out soon, and we are definitely seeing progress. The actual number of DOT complaints is down 35 percent year over year through the first quarter of 2009, and 29 percent on a ratio per 100,000 customers.

Finally, it is my responsibility to understand what drives complaints and work on solutions. As we do that, I also want to ensure that all customers know that their voice is being heard when writing directly to my customer relations team at US Airways.

Elliott is a syndicated travel columnist. You can read more interviews on his travel blog.

Talking Travel with Equitrekking’s Darley Newman and Chip Ward

Have you ever dreamed of seeing the world on the back of a horse? I’ve had my fair share of horseback adventures, so it’s definitely something I’d love to do. It’s certainly an eco-friendly and challenging mode of travel.

Equitrekking, the first travel television series to explore the world on horseback, takes viewers horseback riding around the world to experience history, adventure and culture with local people. Darley Newman, the show’s hostess, and her husband Chip Ward, its producer, searched the world for the best places to horseback ride. Everywhere they go they ride on local breeds of horses.

Gadling had the privilege of sitting down with Darley and Chip to learn more about Equitrekking and to talk travel. Enjoy!

GADLING: Thanks for taking time to correspond with Gadling! Where are you now, and what are you travel plans in the foreseeable future?

Darley: We’ve just gotten back from riding with the gauchos in Uruguay, our 27th episode, and we’re traveling to Montana, Jordan, Peru and Alberta next.

GADLING: What is the ultimate aim of your Equitrekking series?

Chip: Our initial goal was just to get ONE episode on PBS. Now we have 26 episodes broadcasting in over 93% of the country and Equitrekking broadcasts internationally in over 25 countries. We also have a coffee table book, Equitrekking Travel Adventures on Horseback, and our website has become a great resource. We couldn’t have dreamed it better. That said. It’s been a lot of hard work. We just hope to continue traveling and producing Equitrekking, because we love doing it and it’s a special series. There’s really nothing else like it on television.

GADLING: Can you briefly explain for our Gadling readers where the Equitrekking idea came from?

Darley: Equitrekking is the first travel television series to explore the world on horseback. Equitrekking combines my passion for horses and travel with my background in television production, so that’s how it all got started. In every episode, we travel through an area with local people on horseback to discover history, stunning scenery, culture and destinations that aren’t on the typical tourist path. This is my favorite way to travel, because I discover things that aren’t found in the guidebooks.

Chip: When you explore a place on horseback, like we do in our series, you ride with local people, who are showing you the best of their area and their favorite places. I usually end up just chatting with the locals as we ride, and we have regular conversations about what’s going on in the world, etc., so I’ve gotten to hear a lot of different world views. Horses are really just a way to see the world, and from a much different perspective.

Darley: Seeing a place on horseback, gets you off the beaten path to some beautiful natural areas where a lot of people don’t venture because they are remote. This makes the trip very special. I am also more aware of my surroundings when I am riding and so I notice more than I normally would if I were walking or biking or in a car. In Costa Rica, we rode through the rainforest, viewing howler monkeys, colorful macaws and other animals we wouldn’t have seen had we been in a noisy vehicle and maybe even hiking, as we were able to travel further into the jungle more quickly and quietly.

GADLING: What is the coolest equitrek you’ve done?

Darley: Central Turkey was one of our coolest adventures. We rode through these bizarre geological formations, called fairy chimneys, in Cappadocia, and to Güzelyurt, a small village in Cappadocia where not a lot of tourists trek. Because of this, the villagers were very welcoming and curious to see what we were doing, especially as we rode through the town on horseback. The town is literally carved into this big rocky outcrop. As we rode through the cobblestone streets, local children came out of school to greet us. In Güzelyurt, many people are still living a subsistence lifestyle, so we passed people laying out apricots to dry and riding by carrying wheat on their donkeys. We were invited into a local home to drink homemade ayran, a salty yogurt drink that very popular in Turkey. Because we rode with a local, we were able to meet others in the village, who invited me into the town square to play backgammon and have tea, before we visited Güzelyurt’s underground city. It was an amazing experience that we were able to film for our new Equitrekking Central Turkey episode.

Chip: One of my favorite experiences was riding in Waipi’o Valley on Hawaii’s Big Island. It’s a valley nestled between the ocean and steep mountains, and one has to hike down a mile long, very steep decline to get there or have a pretty substantial vehicle with 4WD. Of course, one must walk back up the road as well, which deters many tourists. It turns out that people live in the valley, many without electricity, showering in waterfalls and subsisting off an abundance of fresh fruit, fish and taro. These folks are truly off the grid and rather welcoming provided you aren’t there to disrupt their lifestyle or damage the land. There are wild horses, spectacular scenery and the freshest fruit I’ve ever tasted.

Darley: In Waipi’o Valley we actually rode wild horses native to the valley that Maile, our guide who was born and raised in the valley, had tamed. This is the only wild herd in the state of Hawaii. At many points during our riding and filming, my horse would whinny really loudly to his friends, who were milling around eating grass and crossing dirt lanes throughout the valley. Because there are rivers to cross and because you can ride with a true local like Maile, I think horseback riding is a really great way to experience Waipi’o.

GADLING: What is the difference between horseback riding abroad and equitrekking? More importantly, how realistic is equitrekking for practical travelers?

Darley: Equitrekking is a word that we use for horseback riding travel in general and you can do this type of travel in far away destinations like Namibia or in areas closer to home, like your local trails, and state or national parks. The great thing about horseback riding is that there are opportunities for all levels of riders on all budgets. You just need to find a riding opportunity that fits your fitness level, budget and riding ability. For instance a stationary ranch vacation can be great for beginners and families, because you can ride when you want, get paired up with a seasoned horse and experienced wranglers. The horse and the wrangler can both help you learn to ride and then when you get to sore you can sit on the porch or soak in the hot tub. There are lots of riding opportunities in the U.S. state and national parks that may suite beginners and more experienced riders and these may range from one hour to multi-day trips, so you can make a vacation out of the ride or incorporate one into your vacation. More experienced riders may want to head to Ireland and ride from inn to inn or take off with the gauchos at an estancia in Uruguay.

GADLING: What are the newest destinations for the latest Equitrekking series, and where else do you hope to go?’

Chip: We have a new season of episodes starting now on PBS with high definition episodes from Scotland, Alaska, Southern
Spain, Quebec City and Beyond, Wales and Central Turkey. We’re in pre-production on a new season now. We just returned from Uruguay and are traveling to Alberta, Montana, Peru and Jordan in the coming months and then… I’d really like to film in Kyrgyzstan for the fifth season.

Darley: I think that people would be surprised by the great horseback riding opportunities around the world. I hope to hit as many places and ride as many horses as I can and learn about these destinations from the locals, because it’s such an exciting way to travel.

GADLING: What is the most challenging part of filming and photographing Equitrekking?

Chip: Equitrekking is a very challenging series to film, because a lot of times our entire crew is on horseback. That means that Greg, our cinematographer, and I are sometimes riding with our equipment, like in Costa Rica. We filmed a Cabalgata with hundreds of people on horseback. Everyone is riding and constantly moving with stops for food and drinks, so we had to get set up to film and then gallop ahead to keep getting in front of the crowd. We galloped with our high definition cameras and equipment, which is not easy to do and can be stressful for us producers who own the equipment! It was worth it though, because the Cabalgata is such a unique thing to film.

We’ve done all sorts of crazy shoots. Last winter we filmed in Quebec and Greg and I were hiking uphill through backcountry snow ten feet deep, wearing snowshoes and falling into snow banks. We did this so that the main path where Darley and her local friend Daniel would be riding would remain pristine for the filming. I ended up losing a shoe and falling into snow up to my neck. Greg wouldn’t help me out ’till he got some good pictures. The good thing about our crew is that we have a sense of humor along with our sense of adventure. You can never really plan what’s going to happen on our shoots, so we always just go with the flow. There are so many stories I could tell you… frozen equipment in -10 degree cold, overheated equipment in 110-degree desert heat. In Quebec I had a hard drive tucked against my chest to warm it up because it froze solid. In Turkey I crawled through tunnels with my still camera in an underground city that ran for miles. Early Christians hiding from persecution originally dug out the tunnels in the first century. Some are lit… until I accidentally kicked a bulb and shorted out the system. We had to crawl out from several stories underground. Total darkness is something we in the modern world don’t often experience, unless of course you’re in an underground city. You tend to miss the holes in the ground, which drop down to other levels as they’re masked by total darkness. It’s always an adventure.

Equitrekking’s new fourth season debuts on PBS stations across the nation in April and May. You can find out where Equitrekking is broadcast in your area with our PBS station finder. Check out their companion coffee table book, Equitrekking: Travel Adventures on Horseback, or read Darley‘s blog. The Equitrekking website is a resource for travelers interested in horseback riding with video clips, expert and travel articles and an online Travel Guide.

Talking Travel with

A few weeks ago, the world wide web saw the launch of a most useful travel resource called Guide Gecko hopes to serve the dual purpose as an online bookstore and independent travel writing recruiter. The site’s mastermind, Daniel Quadt, spent the past year and countless hours speaking with travelers and writers to make Guide Gecko a useful travel resource. The end result hopes to please independent, knowledgeable travelers as well as those setting out for the first time.

Daniel sat down with me to talk about travel,, and the site’s potential.

BY: Thanks for taking time away from Guide Gecko’s exciting launch to correspond with Gadling. Where are you now, and do you have any plans to travel to either promote the site or for recreation in the near future?

DQ: I am in Singapore, the base for Guide Gecko and my ‘hometown’ in the last four years. Singapore is a perfect travel hub for South-East Asia, and I plan to visit Malaysia, Thailand, and perhaps Indonesia in the coming weeks and months. I don’t have a fixed schedule yet, so maybe faithful Gadling readers can let me know if they know of any event that could be interesting for Guide Gecko, or if they simply want to meet up and say “hello.”

BY: Can you briefly describe for our Gadling readers the kind of traveler you are? How often do you travel? Where is your dream destination? What is your preferred mode of travel?

DQ: I started traveling extensively during my studies, when I was a part time software developer for a major airline, and got to enjoy discounted tickets all around the world. Nowadays, I usually travel with my wife, and we try to go backpacking through southeast Asia every few months. I do like sightseeing in cities and temple ruins, but also enjoy lying in the water on a nice beach, sipping beers and waiting for the sunset. Given the proximity to Singapore, I would say that the ‘double beach’ on Pulau Redang, an island off of peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, comes very close to being my dream destination.
BY: Where did the Guide Gecko idea come from? Of all genres (ie: fiction, non-fiction, coffee table reads), why did you choose travel?

DQ: Naturally, the idea came while traveling – in Penang, Malaysia, to be precise. We usually prefer to have a drink in a bar with some locals around us, and try to eat in places where not all of the other diners are fellow travelers ordering what the Lonely Planet recommends. Nothing against the Lonely Planet – we have big collection ourselves – but the locals know what’s best and what not, and their information is always up-to-date. We thought there must be a way for both locals and tourists to profit from this. Our goal is to make this information available to anyone who is interested, in a concise way through travel, lifestyle and entertainment guides and not scattered over isolated travel tips or blogs.

BY: What service do you hope the site will provide for both writers and travelers in a way that is not yet offered online, through publishers, or in bookstores?

DQ: We bring authors and publishers together with customers and readers. We provide an opportunity for customers to find exactly the guides they need, and for authors to market their guides to consumers worldwide. Any budding author can publish his or her guide as a printed book or as a PDF download. The guide can have any length, from 1-1000 pages, and can cover any travel, lifestyle or entertainment topic. Publishing on Guide Gecko is free. As an author, you only need to write and upload your guide. We take care of everything else, from marketing and payment collection to printing and shipping. Authors set the retail price and earn up to 75% for each sale, from the first copy onwards.

BY: How does Guide Gecko market independently written guides by “greenhorn” travel writers? What kind of service does the site provide to ensure a degree of success for these guides opposed to the commercial (Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, etc) guidebooks?

DQ: We intend to make Guide Gecko the first in mind website for travel guides. We believe it is a great way for independent authors to market their guides. Customers may visit the site to order a Lonely Planet but end up buying your guide, especially if you offer it as a reasonably priced PDF download. When writers publish their guide on Guide Gecko, it will be listed on the front page, where it gets maximum visibility. An affiliate program where website owners, such as travel or food bloggers, can promote our guides on their site and earn a certain share of the revenue is also in the works.

BY: Do you promote the site only on the internet, or do you use offline marketing as well?

DQ: We promote the site online and offline. We have already experienced great media coverage, including feature articles in magazines and newspapers. We have focused our offline efforts on Singapore and southeast Asia as a start. We’ve already participated an interview on TravelTalkRadio, a U.S. radio show. I continue to sum up the media coverage in Guide Gecko’s company blog, so feel free to check that out for the details.

BY: If I were a consumer using the site, how could I be certain that I’ve chosen the best guidebook to fit my needs?

DQ: Our intention is to make the site as consumer friendly as possible. Users can find the right guides by searching not only by destination, but also by categories. You can combine categories too. For example, you can search for ‘budget travelers’ along with ‘barhopping’ — or ‘women’ with ‘wellness’ (and vice versa). When it comes to quality, we have a rating and review system where you can read what others think about the guide. We are currently developing a ‘preview’ functionality, which allows you to preview certain pages before making a decision. If that’s not enough, you can also ask questions to the author or to fellow users.

BY: I know you spent a considerable amount of time talking with travelers and writers to make this a great travel resource. What have you learned about the travel industry in the process, and in what ways had your initial vision for the site changed after gathering information, advice, and suggestions from travel enthusiasts like myself?

DQ: I have learnt that there are many budding travel writers with lots of interesting topics and good writing skills. However, many complain that there is a lack of opportunities to market their writings. They pitch their stories to magazines or guidebook publishers, only to collect rejection letters, if it all. I sincerely hope that Guide Gecko will provide them with the right tool to reach out to consumers. The market may be small for some niche topics, but with Guide Gecko, it is possible to serve such customers.

To give you an example, I am in contact with some authors who write guidebooks for travelers with disabilities, which are very comprehensive guides with lots of information you won’t find in any off-the-shelf guide. (Who knew there is a wheelchair friendly access to the Sacré Coeur in Paris though an elevated walkway from a neighboring guesthouse!). I hope that Guide Gecko will provide such guides with the attention they deserve, and let the authors focus on writing more guides of this caliber while we take care of the marketing, logistics and payment.

I have also talked to potential customers. Many of them told me something like, “If you could provide us with good guides on where and how to travel with
children, we’d be your first customers.” That showed me that there is a demand for many niche topics, which is how we came up with our 68 guide categories.

BY: If all goes well with the Guide Gecko launch, in what ways could you see the site grow or expand?

DQ: I would like to venture more in the area of electronic guide formats. I believe this is the future for guidebooks. Who wants to carry a heavy book when you already have a large-screen camera or a PDA with you all the time? It would be good to offer downloads for commercially available titles as well, be it as PDFs or in more interactive formats. So, if you are a publisher interested in this field, do let me know and we can see how we can work together!

Travel enthusisiasts: STAY TUNED to Gadling and Guide Gecko next month for an opportunity to submit your travel guide requests and/or proposals for great prizes! Or, If you’re a traveler in need of a special guide or a writer in need of platform and you’re ready to get started, head over to right now and create an account. Membership is free.