Common Questions About Travel "Lies"

I did an interview with a German newspaper this past week. A number of the questions the reporter asked were similar to those that have come up in the Q&A portion of appearances I’ve been doing to promote Smile When You’re Lying. Given that there seems to be widespread interest in these sorts of issues, I thought I’d post a few of the questions and answers.

Q: Every time I read about travel and resorts in German newspapers, the cheapest hotel costs around 100 Euros, the flight is 1,200 Euros. I ask myself: Who has the money to spend on holiday in these places? Why don’t they write about cheaper possibilities?

A: They don’t write about cheaper possibilities because the businesses that support cheap travel (local restaurants, inexpensive modes of transport, single-owner hotels, etc.) don’t have the money to advertise. Travel publications and travel sections of newspapers exist in significant ways as the megaphone of their advertisers. So, if Four Seasons buys $100,000 worth of advertisements in a certain publication, what hotel do you think the publication is going to write about? A mom-and-pop guesthouse can never afford to advertise in a Western magazine or newspaper. But the Raffles Hotel in Singapore can. That’s why you get “tips” advising you to go to the Raffles in Singapore, and not a one-room hut.

The best travel magazine I ever worked for was called Escape. It was published out of Los Angeles. Escape was trying to be a magazine for the Lonely Planet type of traveler — out-of-the-way destinations, stories about independent travel, maximizing cultural experiences. It was a terrific magazine and had many loyal readers, but it went out of business because it couldn’t sell advertising to the kinds of places it was telling its readers to go to. Readers are important, but ultimately magazines are kept in business by advertising money.

Q: What role does PR play?

A: It’s an extension of advertising. Advertising dollars get a magazine’s attention. PR people are the second wave that come in to “help” the publication push its editorial content in the direction that most pleases the advertiser.

Example: A Caribbean country’s tourist board commits to $250,000 worth of advertising to be spread over a one-year period. A month or two later, a PR representative from that country’s tourist board calls the magazine’s ad director and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a story about a new golf course and four-star resort that are opening three months from now on our island.” The ad director says, “Great idea!” The ad director has a meeting with the editor in chief during which he or she reminds the editor in chief of the $250,000 ad buy.

The editor in chief delegates the story to a staff editor, who in turn assigns the golf-course-four-star-resort story to a writer. The primary contact given to the writer is the PR representative who initiated the story. The writer calls the PR rep. The PR rep arranges the writer’s trip (air fare, hotels, food, booze, round of golf, maybe a golf lesson with the club pro, everything paid for by the PR agency). The writer takes the trip, tours the new facility, and has a genuinely nice time and writes his or her glowing account of the wonderful trip. The magazine gets a nice story and advertising dollars, the Caribbean country gets some nice promotion, the PR agency earns the trust of its client and a feather in its cap to flaunt to prospective new clients about its insider contacts. Everyone is happy. (And by the way, that word “commit” up there is important because it gives the advertiser the opportunity to withdrawal the remainder of its advertising buy for any reason; for example, in the event the publication in question prints something the advertiser doesn’t like.)

Now, did anyone “lie” in this exchange? Not really. But when he or she flips through the pages, the reader usually has no idea of the process, not to mention the $250,000 account, that led to the story about the new hotel and golf course they’re reading.

Q: You mentioned Lonely Planet. When you travel for example in Thailand nearly everyone has a Lonely Planet. Are you sick of this?

A: I wrote critically of Lonely Planet’s self-righteous attitude in my book and I was sort of surprised to get a lot of supportive reaction from people who agreed with me. For whatever reason, I thought my dissatisfaction with Lonely Planet was somewhat rare. But I don’t begrudge LP for its success, which I think it earned in an honest way. But, yeah, it has become sort of a victim of its own success. It’s like the old Yogi Berra line: “That place has gotten so popular that nobody goes there anymore.”

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