Posts Tagged ‘Simonseeks’

Andy and I have recently been involved with two UK based travel websites, Simonseeks and Sunshine that are attempting to break the mould when it comes to online travel and travel advisory sites.

Simonseeks has come in for some flack for its bold approach with some sites claiming that the ambitious travel advisory site has not won the approval of ‘the travel writing community’.

Really? Whose travel writing community is that? Europe’s? America’s? The World Wide Web’s…or five bitter blokes in a bar in Grimsby?

A criticism levelled at Simonseeks by some professional travel writers is that it uses travel guides from amateurs and celebrities. Celebrities heaven forbid; the quality press would never stoop to that level. I’m still laughing at that one.

But it’s the criticism related to using amateur writers that’s more interesting. This comment from a professional writer on a blog about Simonseeks was quite illuminating:

‘…I feel more useful and welcome at TTE (the Travel Editor) while at SS (Simonseeks) you are just another name among all those amateurs.’

Just another name amongst the amateurs. Simonseeks has what amounts to a level playing field when it comes to travel writing and here’s the rub. It’s the general public who decide whether contributors’ articles are useful and interesting. And that little fact creates a whole new ball game.

Simonseeks lists its most popular writers in order of recommendations from readers and guess what? Its top ten writers aren’t all professional travel writers. The list includes people who are travel enthusiasts rather than professional writers and that might not sit well with some.

Online travel writing has opened up a brave new world and I have a suspicion that the root of some criticism lies not only in a concern for maintaining quality (newspapers have been dumbing-down their travel sections for years) but in bruised egos and protectionism.

To me using travel enthusiasts (let’s not use amateur) is to be applauded….as long as they can come up with the goods. I’m a meritocracy fan (I’ve never been a fan of clubs so I have to be). The only thing that matters to me when reading travel articles is that they are accurate, informative and interesting, not the pedigree of the author or who they happen to know.

Ironically, after getting hot under the collar about the apparent arrogance of some pro-writers I came across a forum topic on Simonseeks and discovered the bitching wasn’t all one sided.

A handful of amateur contributors were complaining about the pros on Simonseeks. However, what the complaints actually revealed was that those making them really were amateurs, but maybe not in the sense that the quality of their writing was amateurish.
Many clearly didn’t have a clue about writing for the web (but then I suspect that’s not exclusive to amateur writers). What really came across as amateurville was that the most ‘outraged’ complaints were based around popular holiday destinations receiving prominent exposure on the site.

Some felt articles about off the beaten track and less well known destinations were more in line with what the ethos of Simonseeks should be. This isn’t only naïve, it demonstrates a complete lack of savvy regarding the business of mainstream travel writing online.

That quirky article about milking a yak in Outer Mongolia may be fascinating, but the ten people who read it a year aren’t going to make the writer, or more importantly Simonseeks, any money.

Like it or not, those popular holiday resorts are what are going to attract the most viewers and if that sounds depressing, it shouldn’t be. There are always, always different angles to be found by anyone who writes about them…as any true traveller and professional writer should know.

It became increasingly difficult to feel incensed on the non-pro writers’ behalf when some were coming out with nonsense like the following.

“…what I’m really looking for when I trawl the Net for hotel/resort/destination reviews is an amateur perspective. In fact, I don’t care how badly written it is – I just want to know what the ordinary punter has experienced in a place.”

I stopped reading after that little gem.

Ultimately who cares if something is written by a professional or amateur travel writer as long as it’s written well? The answer to that is both professional and amateur travel writers apparently.

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I’ve just read a blog by travel writer David Whitley about the pros and cons of guide books.

I’ve used a number of the guidebooks that David mentions and go along with Lonely Planet as my first choice. I’d opt for it over the Rough Guide mainly because of my experience of something that the blog touches on; who is best placed to write travel guides; a local ‘expert’ or a visiting one?

David comments ‘it’s far better that someone goes in fresh and researches it meticulously than someone who knows it like the back of their hand gets lazy and assumes the reader does too.’

Seems a far point except for one thing – ‘unconscious incompetence’, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

When it comes to travel writing, the web is full of absolutely awful copy…and some of the biggest names in travel are the worst culprits for churning it out. Generally speaking a lot of travel companies are feeding readers the same old bland guff that any half decent copywriter could glue together after half an hour of research.

The question is this. When everybody has access to the same research material what do you do to ensure that your travel advice and guides stand out?

Chris Clarkson of Sunshine.co.uk had one answer – you use locally based experts to give you a warts and all (within reason) guide to holiday destinations. No amount of dipping in and out of a place can keep any ‘visiting’ travel writer up to date with the location no matter how good their research skills are.
That quaint little gem of a bar or restaurant just doesn’t have a website to tell you all about it…hell half the time it doesn’t even have a telephone. And if you don’t speak the language – forget it.

Travel advisory site Simonseeks has gone some way down the same road. Its guidelines for applying to be an expert states: ‘You will need to live in the destination that you are interested in covering, or at least visit regularly, and have got to know it over a significant period of time…’

Using specialist knowledge from a local insider can give travel guides a different voice.

Saying that, I agree with David’s suggestion that writers in situ can get lazy…on the other hand being a ‘visiting’ expert doesn’t exclude writers from the same malaise. I’ve read any number of rehashes of the same article, even on the same travel website, by visiting ‘expert’ travel writers.

And that’s where the unconscious incompetence comes in. You may be the most meticulous researcher on the planet with the gift of bringing holiday destinations vibrantly to life, but unless you know a place exceedingly well you simply just don’t know what you don’t know.

Maybe to the general public that doesn’t matter, but if we’re talking authenticity and accuracy it should. Of the last four articles I’ve read about Tenerife in the UK broadsheets for example, there have been quite basic mistakes in every one. Mistakes that an experienced ‘local’ writer wouldn’t have made.

For travel guides – online or in print – visiting writers just aren’t paid enough to be able to do the job as thoroughly as they would like.

And that brings me to why I ditched the Rough Guide in favour of Lonely Planet. My Rough Guide to Tenerife completely ignores the area that locals considers to be one of the best for restaurants (King Juan Carlos eats there when he visits) even though it is a route that every traveller followed before mass tourism turned the spotlight on the south. But that’s not its worst crime. The only two bars that its visiting ‘expert’ author recommends in Puerto de la Cruz don’t get going until after midnight and are frequented by ‘barely in their teens’ Canarios; Most Rough Guide readers are in for one hell of a shock when they enter one of those recommendations…unless Rough Guide readers are mainly sixteen year old binge drinkers with a taste for thumping Latino music and Spanish pop rock.

If the Rough Guide can get such a popular holiday resort like Puerto de la Cruz so wrong how can I trust them when it comes to China, Kenya and Thailand…unless I know they’re written by writers who actually know the place i.e. live there and therefore not make rookie errors.

In the end what I actually think is that the best person to write a travel guide is someone who not only knows a location thoroughly (whether they live there or not) but who is also as comfortable in a cheesy karaoke bar as at a classical concert; likes wandering around museums, churches and old buildings as much as theme parks and shopping centres; gets nearly as much of a buzz from being alone in the great outdoors as they do from being bumped and jostled in a fiesta crowd of thousands and relishes wolfing down a good home made burger at lunch before sitting down to art on a plate cuisine for dinner.

Convince me of that up front and I might trust your guide.

While researching for the news round up for Tenerife Magazine I came across a couple of interesting snippets.

The first was that pharmacies on Tenerife were completely doing away with paper communication between themselves and colleges. All updates and information about new drugs, procedures etc were going to be done purely electronically. It’s a modern and efficient way of communicating – great.

Another snippet that caught my eye was about tourist statistics. The Tenerife government released figures that showed that 8 out of 10 people had booked their Tenerife holiday online. 8 out of 10. That’s quite a staggering figure.

So what’s the connection between these two groups? The answer is wildly opposing practices on Tenerife.

Tenerife’s pharmaceutical profession by its very nature has to stay at the forefront of technology, but there’s a reason why the news piece about them caught my eye. It’s not consistent with the way that other occupational sectors on the island are embracing the internet.

You’d think that bars, restaurants and anyone at all trying to attract the attention of the millions of visitors to Tenerife would have long ago woken up to what was staring them in the face – that the internet might just be their best friend,. But many are working almost as though they exist in a stand-alone cottage industry.

Recently Andy compiled information about restaurants for travel website Simonseeks. Even though we’ve already accumulated mountains of information about Tenerife’s restaurants over the years, details change. But trying to find updated info without actually visiting restaurants again can be a nightmare. Many still don’t have websites; some don’t even have phone numbers. In businesses which rely on income from tourists this is almost retarded. At least one restaurateur smugly commented that they didn’t need a website; all their business was word of mouth. That way of thinking is beyond comprehension. Even in the midst of an economic crisis they just won’t open their eyes.

But if some restaurants are backward, some bars are positively Stone Age. I recently read a letter from a British bar owner in Puerto de la Cruz in one of the English language papers. He bemoaned his lack of clients and listed what action he felt should be taken to bring tourists back to Puerto and his bar. There was nothing wrong with his list…if he’d written it in 1984. At no point did he mention using the internet or social media. It simply did not enter his consciousness to have an online presence and his bar is not in an obvious spot in the town.

The reason that I mentioned the number of people booking Tenerife holidays online is how many of those 8 out of 10 people are visiting Tenerife for the first time and have decided what bars they were going to drink in and where they were going to eat long before they ever set foot on Tenerife? What’s sure is that the bars and restaurants in the resorts without any online presence are in danger of being overlooked. For them not to have a web presence seems positively suicidal.

But here are a final couple of points that seem blindingly obvious to me, but clearly not to bar, restaurant and shop owners who continue to plough what little advertising money they have into newspapers on Tenerife.

The people reading those papers are already on Tenerife. By the time a visitor sees an advert for what looks like a nice bar, or a good restaurant, their holiday may be all but over. But that’s not the only reason why I personally think advertising in them is money down the drain. One of the English language papers on Tenerife has currently 15 pages out of around 52 which are dedicated to what’s on British TV.

Nearly a third of the paper dedicated to British TV listings. As Tenerife’s hotels don’t have ITV, BBC etc, these pages can’t be aimed at visitors staying in hotels. Therefore it would appear that they’re for the benefit of ex-pat residents. If that’s who businesses are aiming their adverts at, then fair enough.

But if not, then these businesses really have slept in. The coffee stewed long ago.