16 December 2005

Sad to see the end of Nortours

What a sad thing that Nortours has collapsed (See Travel-Lists headlines).

The general media are all talking about how tragic it is that 500 families now suddenly, at the last minute, won't be going to Lapland to see Santa Claus - which IS tragic - but I feel sorry for everyone including the staff and directors.

Nortours wasn't just a 'Santa Tour' operator, they were specialist operators to all of Scandinavia and the Baltic. From short breaks to Iceland, to farm hols in Denmark, arctic adventures in Norway, shopping and unusual theme parks in Sweden, Santa visits in Finland, city breaks in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, etc... they even had a 'virtual airline' (Fly-Fresh) operating low-cost/charter services to Scandinavia.

All in all, Nortours - or Norvista as we used to know them - have been a popular tour operator for over three decades, and I'm really sorry to see them go.

27 November 2005

Big travel shows, getting bigger

World Travel Market is a huge travel exhibition for the travel industry held in November when thousands of exhibitors and visitors from all over the world turn up in London to do business.

As a travel journalist I've attended every year since 1989 when it used to be held in Olympia. During most of the nineties it was held at Earls Court and then a couple of years ago it outgrew that space and moved to Excel in London's Docklands.

And it continues to grow. I've just seen the figures for this year's event, which was held 14-17 Nov.

49,000 people attended WTM this year, up 5%, with 202 representative countries and regions exhibiting. More than a 100 Government Tourism Ministers, Ambassadors and High Commissioners also attended.

And journalists? Apparantly there were 2,909 of them (well, 2,908 of them... and me). No wonder the press rooms felt crowded!

As big as it is, it is not as big as ITB - the which is held in March in Berlin. Although, unlike WTM, ITB is also open to the public for two of the five days. Last year there were 142,351 visitors overall, of which were 83,987 trade visitors.

The only other trade show I know that is on anything like the same scale is Pow Wow in America where the U.S. travel industry sells itself to domestic and international travel companies. It's much smaller at 5,500 visitors & delegates (+450 journalists!) but extra-curricular activities and parties out-do anything at WTM or ITB!

09 November 2005

Positive Feedback

I was at a press function last night where I met a magazine journalist who said "Travel Lists! I know your site. It saved my bacon a couple of weeks ago. I had to write a large feature about Morocco and your Morocco lists were the core of all my research".

That's cool! It's nice to get good feedback. Even if the site is not really intended to be a press resource, rather a starting point for people to research their holiday & travel plans. I should have asked her if she gave us a mention!

This morning I was looking at our visitor stats - still low after Google's re-shuffle. I wish I could understand why - and I was struck by the size of our returning visitors. Almost a 2/5ths (38%) of our visitors so far this month (1 - 8 Nov) are not first-timers.

27 October 2005


Haven't blogged for a few days now largely because I've been distracted by 'Jagger' and my role at the British Guild of Travel Writers (I'm the webmaster) which suddenly becomes onerous in Oct/Nov as I oversee the annual update of our Travel Industry Database (TID).

The TID has press contact details for 2,600 travel companies, public relations companies and media companies. It is continuously being updated but once a year every single record is checked and updated before being used to compile the listings section of the Guild's yearbook. Thankfully many companies respond to our invitation to do it themselves online, but about half have to be phoned up by a team of data-checkers, and it's a massive job that I'm always glad to see the back of in December!

'Jagger' is something else I would very much like to see the back of. In fact I wish I hadn't seen the front of it!

If you are a webmaster or involved in the world of Search Engine Optimisation, you'll know all about 'Jagger' already because the SEO forums have been talking about little else for the past few weeks.

'Jagger' is a Google update. Periodically Google changes the way it looks at websites and the algorithms it uses to sort and present them to you when you search for something. When there is a big change, as with hurricanes, Search Engine Optimisers (SEOs) and Marketeers (SEMs) give it a name - 'Florida', 'Bourbon', that sort of thing.

Actually, these days Google tweeks tend to be smaller and more frequent so that many SEO experts thought the days of the big, named, update were over.... until the beginning of this month, when a major, 3-part update started sweeping across Google's worldwide network of data centres turning the world upside down for a huge number of web businesses who were swept off the top ranking postions and into oblivion.

Travel Lists has been one of them.

'Jagger' is not over yet and usually good sites
(search engines particularly like websites that have unique content, are frequently refreshed and have lots of other sites pointing to them) that drop out for no clear reason tend to work their way back to the top end of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) after a while. So, I'm hopeful for a recovery. But it is a blow because Google normally sends twice the number of searchers to Travel Lists than all the other search engines put together.

What really sticks in my throat though is that another directory, which is strong on destination info (visas, geography, voltages, etc. The stuff we don't do) but useless at listing travel companies, is still sitting at the top of the SERPs for many of our keywords. IE if you search on Google for "tour operators to countryname" this site will probably be there on the first SERP, offering a page with a list of zero to 2 tour operators... those two operators being its sponsors. Google is giving top positions to pages with no content. How frustrating!

16 October 2005

Private guide 'services' in China... um?

I'm really not confident that I'm not making a fool of myself on this one. But hey! If I am, I can be sure that somebody will let me know soon enough!

There's a Chinese travel guide agency, KanXiQi.com, promoting itself through the travel trade industry right now, with one eye on the forthcoming 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

They've just announced the launch of the English version of their website and it is rather... unusual.

I've listed it in the Research Notes section on the China page.

It is a detailed database of 700 private guides available for hire, who just happen to all be young women aged 20-30 (I can't find any male guides on the database)!

Not only can you select a "guide" on location, price, languages spoken and qualifications, but there are also photos and personal details such as hobbies, interests, age and height.

I'm probably just being really naive, but it looks genuine... although maybe a little 'over the top' in terms of European sensitivities.

I mean, how much should I read between the lines when it says: "Everybody can join in our part-time private tour guide team to help travelers insight through his/her own place, in exchange for a number of benefits including money, friendship, joy and more"?

14 October 2005

Call me 'fickle'

A decade ago the foreign exchange company, Travelex, used to run/sponser a set of annual travel journalism awards, which I felt didn't get the balance right between being a marketing tool and a genuinely worthwhile award. So as a travel editor I stopped nominating journalists and attending the awards lunch... and never really felt very warmly towards them since.

But call me 'fickle', I feel much more friendly towards Travelex this week after enjoying an evening at the National Theatre (to see a play directed by my old boss) which cost me just a tenner, thanks to the Travelex £10 Season!

Balance restored.

09 October 2005

A Million Copycat Creeps

You know that scene in the first film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when the hobbits are hiding from a 'dark rider' whose presence draws hundreds of bugs and creepy crawlies out of the ground?

Well that image keeps coming to me when I hear about more cynical 'million pixel' webpage authors crawling out from under their stones.

I could be wrong about this, but don't seem to be. As far as I can make out, 21-yr-old Wiltshire student, Alex Tew, came up with the MillionDollarHomepage.com in late August. It first started appearing in local news stories in early Sept, and sales began to viral (sic) out of control from that point.

That also seems to be the moment when dollar (and cent, and penny) signs began to light up in the eyes of scammers all over the world, from the USA to Belarus, who in some cases even design their cynical copycat sites to look exactly identical (no doubt to pass themselves off as the original).

The world is full of creeps.


PS. Why do I mention it? Well, yes Travel Lists does have a single block on the original.

Go Alex! Let's hope the get-rich-quick-on-other-peoples'-talent merchants crash & burn!

02 October 2005

Armchair Safari

What an extraordinary example of the outlandish opportunities the digital revolution creates...

I'm sitting in my office in London on a Sunday evening. It's dark and raining outside. On my computer is a dark but visible fullscreen image of an African elephant lying on its side in a waterhole in the Mashutu Game reserve, Botswana.

It's night time there too. The bugs are flitting across the screen as I watch and listen to this elephant, in real-time, thousands of miles away in southern Africa, rythmically raise its trunk up out of the water and lazily splash it down again. Just a buzzing of insects and splashing of water - one of the most relaxing things I've seen for ages.

I was astonished to trawl through the daily photos taken by the Mars landers as they crawled their way around the Martian landscape millions of miles away, but somehow it is not as amazing as the National Geographic's Africacam

27 September 2005

What leaves mean to trains

I've blogged before about the golden rules for writing press releases, but I've just been sent one that breaks one of the rules (Try to avoid writing anything longer than a page) ... and gets away with it.

Virgin Trains have just sent out a press release about how they are using washing up liquid to simulate mouldy leaves on the track so they can train their drivers (see story here), but it is a lengthy release, not least because there are several paragraphs of notes. Normally the longer the release, the less readable/interesting it is.

Not this time. For once it is interesting background info. (which I can't use in the news item, so I'll share it here!)

I never really understood what it was about 'leaves on the line' that causes so many rail delays each autumn. I'm mean, obviously it makes it slippy and that must cause trains to take longer to get going and to stop. Maybe the occasional train slides through a red light and that upsets schedules. But it can't add up to more than a slight reduction in efficiency - why do the railway companies get so steamed up about it?

Well the answer is, because it can be a bit more serious than that...

Effect of 'leaves on the line' on trains/track/signalling

In addition to delays caused by train drivers having to drive more cautiously when approaching signals and stations (known as 'defensive driving'), there are three specific problems leaves cause to the infrastructure:-When the train tries to stop, the wheels can lock and the train could slide through a station. The sliding wears a flat spot on the train wheels (known in the trade as a 'flat'). When the train gets going again the 'flats' hit the track with the force of a sledgehammer, causing potential damage that can lead to broken rails and possible derailments. It also results in the train having to be taken out of service to allow the wheels to be re-profiled. When a train tries to pull away from a station, particularly on an incline, the wheels can spin. This can lead to shallow dips (known as 'wheel burns') on the railhead. When subsequent trains travel over the 'burn' they have a similar effect on the rail as 'flats' and can cause damage leading to broken rails.

Every signal box has an electronic diagram of the track and signals it controls. Signallers know where every train is by the movement of lights across the diagram. The movement of train along the track causes a short circuit of a very low voltage charge in the track, thus illuminating its position on the signaller's diagram. (This is how a track circuit works.) Leaves on the line can interfere with this process, causing the lights not to illuminate on the signaller's diagram; hence the signaller 'loses' his trains and no longer knows where they are. (This is known as a 'track circuit failure' or TCF.) As a consequence, every train has to stop at affected signals and contact the signaller before getting permission to proceed, all of which adds considerable delay to the train.

There! Now while you are waiting on a windswept platform for a delayed rail service, you'll have a better understanding of why!

26 September 2005

Parasite Directories

Monday morning begins with the usual small collection of link exchange request emails in my in-tray.

"I have found your website travel-lists.co.uk by searching Google for "luxury villas and country inns in tuscany italy". I think our websites has a similar theme, so I have already added your link to my website...." blah blah blah.

Of course if they HAD actually looked at Travel-lists they would see we have a clear reciprocal links policy, because Travel Lists is a REAL directory for the benefit of internet users, not a link farm.

It's not a big deal. All such emails are instantly deleted, so they hardly waste any time!

But I mention it again now because I've become more aware in recent days of how parasitical the 'directories culture' is, after spending some time looking around a tech/SEO/webmaster forum.

I'd never really given much thought to the reasons for the huge number (thousands) of junk directories online. They are all very similar. They look similar, they use the same open source or paid for software scripts, and they are all seeded with listings from Dmoz.

I assumed they were just created by naive enthusiasts. What I found on the forum were lots of exchanges from the people who create these things, and actually they are quite shrewd and analytical about what they do. Most of these webmasters run several directories and are exchanging ideas about the merits of new niche directories they are planning and how efficient they will be. Their purpose is not to provide a useful index for surfers, but to tap maximum revenue from Google Adsense and possible submission fees from punters.

The whole trick is to generate as many reciprocal links as possible to increase search engine rankings for the site - more visitors means more ad revenue and when you have several such sites that revenue begins to add up. Ironically, the targeted adverts from Google are even more attractive (likely to be clicked) if the listings on the page are poor.

(What a contrast! I check Google ads displayed on my pages to make sure that all the good companies are already in my listings - that there aren't any quality companies I've missed! The general result is that the Google ads are always LESS useful than the page they are on.)

It's a self-perpetuating world of income-generating Internet junk. The losers are surfers who get caught up and waste time in it, and advertisers who pay for it.

23 September 2005

You can't rely on the weather

Hmm, I like this. It's a really quick way to check likely weather conditions pretty much anywhere around the world (1400 locations). It's compiled by some people at Pinewood Studios who tell film producers where to go to get the weather they want.

But I wouldn't rely on it too much.

It may tell you what the weather 'should' be like for your forthcoming holiday, but it is not a forecast - just an historical average.

In all my years of travelling THE most common greeting on arrival at any destination has been: "Oh no, this weather is MOST unusual for this time of year! Pity you didn't come last week!!"

... You know. That's what they say when you arrive in Istanbul airport in March and look forlornly at the thin layer of snow on the ground.

I mean, just ask anybody from the seaside towns of America's Gulf Coast if they feel they've had normal weather this summer!

22 September 2005

Guyana, the next 'hot ticket' for British travellers?

It's funny how co-incidence can fuse several ideas when they come together.

My son made me watch a wildlife programme (Animal Crime Scene - David Attenborough, BBC1) last night, which - although I found the 'detective' style a bit irritating - was a fascinating reconstruction of the death of a 3-toed sloth in the rainforest. Whodunnit? Which likely predator was the likely killer? The Caiman, the Jaguar, the Harpy Eagle, etc There were some extraordinary animals.

This morning as I was working on some new lists (travel lists) for the Guyanas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) I suddenly found myself looking at all the same amazing animals. And some others.

What is my absolute favourite animal? The 'must see' exhibit every time we go to our local zoo (London Zoo)...? The giant anteater. Where does it live? The Guyanas.

Guyana in particular - a country I've not been to, not sent anyone (journalists) to, and not given much thought to in the past - has now fired my imagination...

  • The only English-speaking (and cricket-playing) country in South America.
  • With stunning landscapes, rainforests and waterfalls - the Kaiteur Falls are five times the height of Niagra Falls and twice as high as Victoria Falls. The Essequibo river has over 300 islands in it, some as big as the island of Barbados.
  • And wildlife to die for: Tapirs, Ocelots, Jaguar (25% of visitors get to spot one of these elusive creatures), Giant River Otters, Spider Monkeys, 2 & 3-toed Sloths, Giant Anteater (yippee!), Giant Armadillo, Golden Frog (secretes a poison 160,000 times more powerful than cocaine), Black Caiman, Arapaima (the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world, up to 10 ft.) and Harpy Eagle (one of the largest of the eagles, half the length of a man, aka "the flying wolf"!).
  • Even Georgetown, which I had thought might be a fairly grim place, turns out to have loads of flowering trees and shrubs, some fine 19th century buildings, lots of pretty white-painted wooden houses on stilts, the tallest wooden building in the world (the Anglican cathedral), elegant (Victorian) botanical gardens, the 'finest cricket ground in the tropics', and the world's longest floating bridge (1.25 miles across the Demerara River).

Best of all: It is, as they say in the brochures, "unspoilt by mass tourism".

Not for long. If word gets out, I predict Guyana could be the hot new ticket for adventurous British holiday-makers before too long.

A few years ago the hot-spot in Latin America was Costa Rica. I think Belize (one of my favourite destinations) is still under-recognised and may yet 'take-off'. Guyana won't be far behind.

20 September 2005

HK Disneyland... and this is important, because...?

Hong Kong, or Disney, or both, clearly had a plane-full of UK journalists out there for the opening of HK Disneyland a week ago yesterday, because their copy has been appearing all over the place in the last 7 days.

(They all say pretty much the same thing: pretty island setting / much smaller than other Disney parks with fewer rides / bizarre cultural juxtaposition / tri-language difficulties.)

I keep wondering, why? Why were they invited and why did they go? What's in it for a UK audience/readership?

I mean, I know 'why' - the opening of a multi-million dollar Disney park is quite a big thing, and wouldn't you enjoy a freebie out to Hong Kong - but it's not really going to be a big draw for a British traveller is it?

Disney World/Land in California or Florida might be a significant reason to go to the USA (their true cultural setting). Disneyland Paris is important because it's our local Disney park. But no Brit would travel to Japan primarily to visit Tokyo Disneyland, would they? These parks are aimed at their local/regional markets. That's why the next one is planned for Shanghai.

If Disney and their government partners want to attract both domestic and international visitors they have to give the parks more individuality and autonomy. At the moment there are minor regional differences but, like KFC and MacDonalds, it's essentially the same.

Put more simply: my family have no interest in going to Disney in Paris, Japan, California or Hong Kong because we've seen it all, 'got the t-shirt', in Florida.

If the parks had greater autonomy for their own 'imagineers' to develop their own rides and attractions (within the Disney intellectual portfolio) each one could reach both markets.

Meanwhile the fact box at the bottom of Fred Mawer's HK Disneyland piece in today's Telegraph tells me I can fly halfway around the world with BA for £x to stay in a Disneyland hotel, how much the park tickets will cost, etc, etc.... yeah right! That's useful to know!

19 September 2005

Title Mania - How do some Sub-Eds think them up?

I'm struck this morning by the headline of a CNN International story about two British divers who got caught in a current while diving on the Great Barrier Reef and ended up 10 Km away from their dive boat having drifted for six hours in the water. Understandably they were very happy to be rescued.

The headline is: Lost amid the sharks for six hours

But on reading it, it turns out there was, in all that time, only one shark. Only one of the divers saw it. And it circled briefly below them before continuing on its way.

"I think it was a white-tipped reef shark," she said, referring to a species of shark not known to attack humans. "But not too big."

So, hardly the scene of two defenceless meals floating in the middle of the ocean surrounded by fins... as conjured up in the headline.

No doubt the sub-editor who dreamed up the title (could have been CNN or Associated Press) was focused on the similarity with the film 'Open Water' based on the real life disappearence of two divers left behind on the Great Barrier Reef, but distortions like that only make the public more & more suspicious about anything they see in the press.

Yesterday I was looking at the website for a tour operator: The Gambia Experience. It has a page of recent travel articles published about The Gambia. Interesting, but disappointing, to see how many sub-editors came up with variations of the same cliche for a title... 'Gamble on the Gambia','It's not a gamble going to Gambia', etc!

Most journalists know that feeling you get when you've produced a sophisticated piece of writing - to spec and to deadline - only to see it published with the most crass headline.... which, since it is immediately followed with your byline, every reader assumes was written by you - not some brain-dead sub editor fresh out of work-experience and desperate to finish work and get down the pub!

Coming up with a good headline is not always as easy as people might think... but mostly it is.

04 September 2005

Dropping visitors - what an idiot!

Oh God, what an idiot I've been!

Around the second week in August I began to notice a decline in visitors to the Travel Lists site. I wasn't too bothered. August, and particularly the second half of August, is the least likely point in the year for people to be looking at travel websites.

But then the figures began to get worse. I checked over a basket of keywords I use at Digital Point to keep tabs on how the site is , and found a load of red numbers - indicating Travel Lists was slipping down the rankings.

"Help!" I thought. We've got caught up in the purge that Google has been having this summer on scraper directories - directories that are all broadly similar having taken their content from Dmoz, the Open Source Directory. But that didn't seem likely. The falls weren't that dramatic and they began to slow up. And most importantly of all, Travel Lists is entirely 100% original & unique content.

The decline kept up all the way into Sept.

I can't even say for certain that is has bottomed yet.

What I can say is that
I've realised what has happened and it's all my own fault!

In the immediate aftermath of the site relaunch in June we were left with a hotpotch of files with .htm suffixes and a large number of .html files that had been converted from .aspx.

Under the old subscription system there were two version of every list; a short extract (.htm) which the search engines could see, and the full list (.aspx) which could only be seen by logged in subscribers.

As a housekeeping excercise I've been tidying up these , turning them all into .html in small batches as I'm working on the individual lists... without realising that when they were labeled .htm they had several years of search engine legacy, which they instantly lost when I added the 'l'!

You can see the difference in the few remaining .htm lists.

For example lk2villa.htm has a page rank of 2 on google and hasn't dropped at all in search results. While lk2ig.html, which used to rank highly, now has a PR of zero!

How could I have been so stupid!

Nothing for it, now. I'll just have to be patient while the renamed files slowly re-establish their credibility.

02 September 2005

Why So Secretive?

I think surfers are instinctively wary of secretive sites - sites whose identity is hard to pin down. I think consumers like transparancy. They like to know who they are dealing with. Who they are buying from.

This is a real problem for the online travel industry which, with the growth of dynamic packaging, often presents tiers of different identities to the buyer. He or she goes to a website called (eg) deadgoodhols.com, finds a holiday in Australia which, when they click on it, goes to a new (affiliated) site, kangaroohols.com. The booking procedure involves hotel, flight and excursion components that appear to come from sisterbrand.com, and when they finally get the email confirmation, it's from parentcompany.com (which these days is inevitably OTC.com! Oh sorry, no. Their parent, lastminute.com!)

Anyway, I'm straying slightly off-topic.

I've just come across a new site: www.WeDoWeekends.co.uk. Weekend breaks at five country house hotels in the UK which feature talks or performances from celebrities.

Nowhere on the site is there any information about the company. Just an 0870 phone number for bookings. There's no address. No 'Contact Us' page. No 'small print'. Not even a clue in the online booking url. This is clearly a brand for somebody, but who? And why are they being so secretive?

A visit to Whois at Nominet reveals the answer. It is the Bourne Leisure Group (Haven, British Holidays, Warner and Butlins). But why would they want to hide that and what makes them think a consumer isn't going to be wary about a company hiding behind a brand name?

31 August 2005

Morons from Planet La La

Living in an internet world full of spam and viruses is something we all have to do. So why do so many people behave as if the script kiddies and spammers don't exist?

My anti-virus and anti-spam systems are up to date and pretty effective, but dodgy emails still get through.

They are pretty easy to spot: an unlikely-looking address/id. "Re" a subject you've never heard of. That sort of thing.

Why would anyone with half a brain - PR companies take note - send out a press release as an attachment to an email and nothing in the subject line? What do they imagine will happen when an email shows up in somebody's intray from 'katrianaNeverHeardofHerBefore@trendyname.com' with an unidentified attachment, and a blank subject line??

(If you're wondering, I'll tell you. I close down the preview mode so it doesn't trigger a virus payload, select and delete it. How often does that happen? Oh, 2/3 times a week.)

I'm mentioning it today because last week I bought £90 worth of gear online from an outdoor equipment warehouse. I got an email confirmation by return from the net bank, but nothing from the retailer.

It turns out they did send it, but surprise surprise.... an email "Re: order" from "newserver" never made it past my defences!

Morons from Planet La La!

21 August 2005

The cruising fear that dare not speak its name

The weekly travel trade newspaper, Travel Trade Gazette (TTG), is headlining cruise industry fears after Princess Cruises were forced to divert their ship Grand Princess away from her scheduled visit to the Turkish port of Kusadasi last week - on a warning from the US State Dept - and news that a Syrian man was arrested in Turkey for plotting to blow up an Israeli cruise ship.

These are nightmares which the ever-growing cruise industry has had for years now but dare not speak about for fear of scaring away passengers in their droves.
In fact it is amazing that nobody has really discussed it openly. I can remember thinking about, and talking with colleagues about the obvious opportunities that cruise ships present for terrorists even before Sept 11 2001.

Just imagine: thousands of westerners, particularly Americans who love to cruise and whose cruise companies dominate the industry, all crammed together in one metal box and remote from immediate assistance... which Al Quaeda operative's murderous black heart wouldn't beat faster at the thought?

Of course, cruise ships have now beefed up their on-board security in a big way. Crew and passenger boarding routes are bristling with detectors, so it is more difficult to smuggle a bomb on board.

That would be the most obvious type of attack and simplest. If there's a range of mission alternatives for attacking a cruise ship, the top end might be to try and launch an (ex-Soviet/Chinese) anti-ship missile... but that's way too complicated and prone to mishap or discovery.

So the thing that must absolutely terrify cruise companies and their officers at sea must be the prospect of a small boat, maybe a fishing boat packed with explosives, approaching them while they are offshore - a skill that terrorists and militia in the Middle East have demonstrated before in attacks on tankers in the Gulf and on the USS Cole.

As James Hart, Commissioner of the City of London Police, said earlier this month about the prospect of an attack on his patch: the question is not "if it'll happen". It's "when".

20 August 2005

Air passenger watchdog sides with airlines

A very interesting article by Miles Brignall in today's Guardian, So, Just what are your rights when you fly? highlights the sticky grey areas that consumers are getting bogged down in when it comes to the new EU regulations on delayed flights.

He certainly got his head bitten off by not just the airlines but also rather surprisingly by the Air Transport Users Council (AUC) - who are supposed to be on the side of the consumer - when he suggested that the EU statement:

"When the delay is five hours or more, the airline must also offer to refund your ticket (with a free flight back to your initial point of departure, when relevant.)"

When the delay is five hours or more, the airline must also offer to fully refund your ticket, and if stuck abroad or away from your start point, must also offer a free flight back to your initial point of departure, regardless of whether your ticket(s) was a 'return' or two 'single' flights.

It's worth reading.

What do search engines know? Part 2

A follow-on thought from the What do search engines know? post a few days ago...

A yardstick for judging whether search engines are improving is the 'hotel test'.

Search for a specific independent hotel and see how many pages of online accommodation agencies you have to wade through before you actually come to the website of the hotel itself.

Tarnished Image?

I'm not sure how long it's been going on (9 months / a year?) but most days I get emails 'returned' to me because they've been rejected by the recipient's security systems. They are 'undeliverable' either because there is no such person at that address or a virus has been detected. Usually it is one or two emails. Sometimes more, sometimes none. This morning I've had four.

As most people know, 'spoofing', is rife. Clearly script kiddies are sending out dozens of virus-laden or spam emails in our name (purporting to be from admin or somebody@travel-lists.co.uk). We are certainly not alone in suffering this curse. There's nothing to be done about it, and it's not worth bothering about.

But, what interests and irritates me is the way they seem to target victims in the same industry sector. Many/most of the recipients tend to be in the travel industry or media. The scum who send them are not using our own address books or anything. Many of the recipients are companies or organisations we've never dealt with or heard of. But they are targeting companies/organisations we could be likely to communicate with.

Although 'spoofing', like 'phishing', is a well-known computer phenomenon/irritant, I wonder what damage it actually does to our image. If I intercept a virus in an email from a company or organisation (as opposed to an individual hotmail/yahoo/aol/etc address) I assume it is not really from them.... but how many other people do?

19 August 2005

Three strikes and you're out

Now that British Airways have got their flights, if not food, back in order, they'll be trying to assess what long-term damage last week's strikes caused.

I fear, and I suspect they fear, that it will be disastrous. That's because this is the third peak summer season strike they've had in a row. Whatever the background to the strikes, holiday-makers will see one disrupted holiday as bad luck. Two will be forgiven as a horrible co-incidence. But three strikes and you're out. Very many British travellers will not forget and will not fly with BA in the summer months for a long time to come.

You have to feel sorry for BA, but not much. Quite what possessed them eight years ago to outsource such a mission-critical part of their operation as catering, completely mystifies me. A large part of the business logic behind outsourcing is that you squeeze best prices and quality from a number of suppliers. If you simply sell your own catering division to another (foreign) company who are then your sole supplier, you gain nothing and lose...control.

18 August 2005

Hooray! We've got ibanking

Barclays finally came through this morning. I received part of the login in yesterday's post and the password in this morning's. So I've been able to check up on the state of our finances in 'real time' (and they are pleasingly better than I had expected, too!)

12 August 2005

Barclays update

Made the call. Got more apologies.

I don't really mind the apologies. At least they do it. In the old days companies never apologised. Maybe they thought it was an admission of guilt. Now it's the first thing they do. Which is fine, but not what I'm after.

Later the Personal Business Manager called to say that the online dept (in India?) had told him it was all set up, but he could now see himself that it wasn't. He says he'll fix it.

At the end of the day I got another call from a Barclays manager who was "following up a complaint I made". Every time you talk to them they ask you if you want to make a complaint. The first few times I didn't bother, then a few weeks ago I said ok. All the times after that I told them not to worry I'd already done it! I explained to this manager the history (again). She apologised and said she would oversee it.

Yeah right! I told her not to apologise, not to promise, just do it.

From now on, anybody from Barclays bank who does not give me a login name & password for my account is simply wasting my time.

How could Barclays Bank be SO inefficient?

It seems a bit silly that an online business like Travel-Lists should have a bank account that is not online - especially since most of our income is paid in electronically. It would be nice to be able to check that invoices have been paid, and maybe to pay some bills electronically.

That was my thought back in June. So I phoned the Barclays Business Banking Call Centre and asked if we could get online access to the business account we have had with them since Dec 1999.

"No problem. The registration paperwork should be with you in 7-10 day" said the nice woman.

Two weeks later I remembered it and called again. They were mystified but promised to send it straight away.

A week later I phoned again. Much mystification & apologies.

Another week goes by. This time I speak to a manager who will get it sorted. Many apologies. He gives me a reference number for the phone call. (Which I lose).

More days/weeks. More calls. This isn't vitally important. We've been managing without online banking for five years, but it is beginning to irritate now.

Last week I happened to go into my branch to pay in a cheque and saw somebody sitting at the business desk, so I asked him about it. He checked to see who my 'Personal Business Manager' was. It turned out it was him. He said he get it sorted.

This week I phoned the call centre again. More grovelling apologies and an attempt to call my business manager to see where it was held up. No luck. I was left with a promise that my business manager would call me.... yesterday.

I'm about to call the call centre again, but my heart really isn't in it anymore. I'll have to go through the same endless story again, listen to the same heartfelt apologies... for what?

All I want is a login to my account. If they can't do that, God help us if we need something important.

Dialling now. Wish me luck.

09 August 2005

What do search engines know?

I just checked out a keyword phrase on MSN search that Travel Lists has always ranked high on in google & yahoo (in google it has not moved more than one place in two years - a useful benchmark) and couldn't find Travel Lists anywhere on the first five/six pages. Stopped looking after that.

The relevant page in Travel Lists matches the keyword phrase EXACTLY - it is a comprehensive answer to the search being made. However the results in MSN are junk. Some good and rather obvious sites languish on pages three and four, and sitting in pole position on results page number one.... is my pet hate.

I'm not going to name the site (which is why I'm not detailing the keyword phrase) because I don't want to slag them off in public. But it is another travel directory, and one which 'punches above its true weight' in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) on all the search engines. It carries quite a lot of destination content - which is not particularly unique - but very little on travel providers. Often listings of travel providers for a particular destination are either non-existent (blank page) or, as in this case, are limited to two companies who sponsor the page. Particularly irritating when Travel Lists lists 22 specialist operators from the UK and 23 local travel providers.

It always winds me up when I see this site high in the SERPS for a destination or subject on which it has no information. I won't publish a list of travel providers until I am satisfied it covers all or nearly all the key players. If Travel Lists has any shortcoming it is that it doesn't cover enough destinations (it's ok on holiday types). There are plenty of obvious missing countries in the directory, but that's because there is a huge quantity of pages 'under construction' with already sizeable listings... but still not good enough to publish yet.

There are those who think that web directories are being made obsolete by increasingly clever search engines... and you can understand how they look at the development of the semantic web and the sophisticated ways in which google et al are processing and sorting web pages, and see that happening.

But then, thankfully, you are brought back to earth with a bump. In this case MSN is producing rubbish SERPs in response to a search for travel providers, but none of the major search engines are good, or even close to good. If a searcher uses a search engine (on its regional setting) to find a list of travel providers for a particular destination they will get appallingly bad results: just a few specialists (ironically some of the most useful ones will be paid-for listings), some travel giants, and hopefully a couple of proper directories like Travel Lists, Travel Quest, or Tuttinsieme to get the searcher back on track!

"...and the travel associations' directories!" somebody will be thinking now.

Yeah, and them too. The ABTA, ANTOR, AITO, ABTOF directories, which are all excellent and comprehensive directories.... but,caveat, of their members only.

04 August 2005

Explore are exploring the blogosphere & the planet

Explore, or Explore Worldwide as they used to be, have always been a pioneering tour operator.

I think that spirit probably comes from their remarkable founder & MD, Travers Cox, (now sadly no longer with us) and Derek Moore their tireless Operations Manager, who from its launch in the eighties quickly turned it into one of the most successful and inspirational tour operators in the UK...and most comprehensive. I remember sitting down with Travers one time in the early nineties and trying to think of destinations they didn't have in their programme, which in that year featured something like 160 countries.

These days they have a a dedicated family adventure programme, which for 2005/6 they have doubled in size to 32 adventure trips. These include the chance for families to meet Borneo's orang utans; go on safari in Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia or South Africa; sleep under the stars on a Greek yacht; go cycling, canoeing, walking or fishing around the lakes & mountains of Macedonia, Slovenia or the Pyranees; explore the wonders of Egypt; or go dog sledding in Sweden; or watch the Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Magical, life-changing holidays for kids!

And I've just found the blog that one of their staff, Tanya Durkin, is writing as she accompanies five families on the current tour of Borneo. It's a great way to draw people... customers... into what they are doing.

Well done Explore!

03 August 2005

Co-incidence? I think not

Blimey! That's interesting. My stats for Travel Lists are showing referals from dmoz. It appears that the site has finally been listed.

I'm a bit shocked because it's been a long wait - over two years since the site launched and I made a first submission (or one year and eleven months since my second submission. Not that submissions are terribly important since dmoz editors work pro-actively).

Could the sudden appearence of Travel-Lists have anything to do with the blog entry I made a week or so ago about dmoz, and the comment posted by KC?

I think so.

To be honest I didn't really understand what KC meant, and read his "take note that your blog entry has been noticed" as slightly sinister. In the light of today's discovery I'm reconsidering my opinion of him. Thanks KC!

01 August 2005

EUjet - a reminder

This is not an original thought - plenty of travel editors and organisations with an interest, like AITO & ABTA, have been saying it in recent days - but the collapse of the low-cost carrier EUjet a week ago, leaving thousands stranded, is a reminder that financial protection for holiday-makers is not automatic, as many people assume.

If you book your holiday through a tour operator or bonded travel agent (eg ABTA) you will be rebooked, refunded or repatriated at no extra cost if your airline goes bust.

DIY travellers are on their own.

If you are thinking: "that's no prob because I used my credit card to book", think again.

Firstly, your ticket must have cost more than £100. Then, normally it is only the credit card holder who is protected - not the rest of the family/friends booked in the same transaction. Nor will the credit card company refund payments made outside the UK, so you won't be covered for the extra accommodation & tickets needed to sort yourselves out and get home. And, if the airline was not based in the UK you may not be covered anyway.

That's why the 'local' lists on Travel Lists warn: 'You may not enjoy the same level of financial security and protection if things go wrong when you book directly with an overseas company'.

28 July 2005

Tell it like it is

Neil Lyndon's destination feature (Daily Mail) about the French Atlantic coast resort of Biarritz makes interesting reading. You have to feel for him - all he really wanted, was to go home!

But given that it was one of those fairly rare things - a negative travel report - why didn't it name names - the agency that let them down, the ghastly holiday apartment, the restaurant with the surly waitress and the rudely closed chocolate museum?

That's the point of travel journalism: we name names, with phone numbers and web addresses, (to the delight of our colleagues in the ad sales dept) when it's good.

We should do exactly the same when it's bad.

27 July 2005

P&O Webcams and Ship-Tracker

Back in February/March when P&O Cruises' Aurora got herself into a big and rather public mess with engine problems postponing, and eventually forcing the cancellation of, the planned world cruise, I (along with many people, I expect) kept an eye on events through her onboard webcam.

It is a brilliant use of web technology and I've always admired P&O for doing it so well... and for keeping on doing it. It's the sort of web embellishment that can be expensive to run and prone to hiccups, but it must be a useful marketing tool and it probably has practical uses for travel industry partners, suppliers, etc. After all anyone can see where any of their ships is at any time - handy if you've got to meet it with a truck load of supplies when it gets into port.

When Aurora limped off to Bremerhaven to get her motors fixed, the url for her camera stayed on my browser's 'regulars' list for weeks because I got in the habit of quickly checking to see if she was putting to sea yet.

And it is still on my browser. It has become part of my routine. It's quite fun to click on the camera every day or so and see a sunny sea view, or exotic harbour... or Southampton docks. In the last couple of months it's been fun to see a glorious sunny sea view at 11.00pm at night as she works her way through arctic waters.

Sometimes, if I take my daily peek around 5.30pm, I catch her as she is leaving port. I've just been watching her back out of Messina this evening. At least it looked like Messina, but I wanted to check, so I interrogated the ship-tracker map.

And that's why I mention all this. I knew that when the little ship symbols are close together I could right-click and hide the large name tags that tend to get in the way and cover things up, but I had never bothered to explore the other right-click menu options.

Try it. You'll be amazed. You can zoom in for a closer look and then superimpose weather conditions on the map. Everything from wind speeds to wave heights. You can call up a display of where any individual ship has been recently. I had no idea it was so sophisticated!

The evening before last, I had an enjoyable chat with an industry colleague who used to work for P&O Cruises (actually that's a serious understatement of his position) and we were talking about how the company culture had changed since he left. I hope that doesn't include them getting beady about any costs in making their ship-tracker and webcams available online. That would be a great loss to my working day!

25 July 2005

What's that smell?

Somebody asked me this morning "why isn't Travel-Lists in the Open Directory (dmoz)?"

No idea.
(I had to check. They're right. It still isn't)

It is irritating that competitors like Travel-Quest are in dmoz (excellent site. It should be in!) and less worthy sites, but they got in before internet growth began to outpace dmoz's ability to map it.

I submitted Travel-lists when we launched two years ago, which I think was just the point at which the rot began to set in. Back then - when I used to check these things - the editor of the travel directories category used to update once a month, adding & removing a total of around 5 sites each time. I don't know when it started to decay but last time I looked, which I think was last month (June) I noticed it had been touched since March. It has now (the last update says 16 July) but it doesn't look very different to me.

More to the point, I've seen numerous comments in articles and on forums over the last year talking about dmoz's shortcomings and how its importance as a source is being downgraded by some of the search engines that use it.

There's an air of malaise about it now. Even the dmoz zealots who patrol industry forums defending it from anyone who dares criticise it, seem to do so with less rottweiler energy these days. (Wonder if they'll sniff this blog out?!)

Hardly surprising. Editing a directory is bloody boring hard work - I know. Now that the honeymoon period is over it can't be easy to go on and on doing it for love and no money.

Pity, because no matter how out-of-date/non-comprehensive it gets, Dmoz is still the 'best show in town'. But I fear Dmoz is beginning to smell funny, and things usually smell funny when they are dead.

22 July 2005

The ethics/cash balance

Ok, I've crossed the Rubicon.

I said it would happen quickly if I decided to do it.

The ability of being able to reject submissions to Travel-Lists without the awkwardness of holding onto the submission fee was too attractive. So now it's down to me to maintain the editorial integrity of the site even if that means turning down payments.

I don't think I should find that too hard, but god help Travel-Lists if I ever sell it to a company with fewer scruples!

19 July 2005

Up-to-date directories

If I ever have moments of self-doubt about building a valuable travel resource in Travel Lists, I should remember to go and look at what the 'competition' is.

There are a couple of worthy competitors out there, but there's a lot of shit ones too!

I just passed by quite a classy-looking travel directory and browsed a couple of categories to find hardly any listings in them, but among them one listing for Motours which surprised me. Motours was a well-known and rather good niche operator (run enthusiastically by a guy called Keith Swift, if I remember right) which specialised in self-drive motoring holidays on the continent...... but it sadly went bust in April 2003.

Good to see my competition has a firm and up-to-date grip on the UK travel market!

18 July 2005

Rethinking Refunding

The issue of refunds has been on my mind over the last few weeks.

For the new version of Travel Lists (which we launched at the beginning of June) I came up with what I thought was a bold, clear and admirably independent way of charging companies who want to be listed in Travel Lists: charge less the other directories but make it a non-refundable review fee.

That would cut out any time-wasters and, as we put it on the 'addurl' page, enable us to "be selective without commercial pressure" remaining an "edited directory as opposed to an electronic advertising billboard".

It sounds good in theory but I've been feeling less convinced as the first few weeks have gone by. My main concern is that I just don't feel very comfortable about rejecting somebody, and taking their money too. (it's only happened twice so far)

The deal is clear enough, it's a non-refundable fee. You submit on that basis. But it seems a bit insulting - or put another way - I've thinking that I'd feel a whole lot more assured if I was able to say "sorry, you can't get in but here's your money back. You haven't lost anything by trying".

I had thought that visitors to the site would be reassured of its independence by such a policy on submissions, but most are probably unaware of the non-refund policy. So why couldn't it be a pay-only-if-accepted system, with the associated 'commercial pressure' (to accept) if ultimately I am the guardian of editorial standards and able to ruthlessly exercise those standards?

Two occurrences have caused me to give it more thought over the weekend.

The week before last I rejected a submission by a national airline to be included in the Budget Airline list. (They really didn't match the criteria for a budget airline, and I felt vindicated a few days later when a Reuters article in its very first line went out its way to describe them as a 'full-fare airline'.) They asked if they could have their money back, but didn't complain when I reminded them this wasn't the deal.

Then somebody phoned at the end of this week to enquire about getting onto the Spa Tour Operators list. I tried to keep my editorial distance while at the same time wanting to see if their company was a likely candidate, so I could advise them whether or not to spend their money. It seemed like an interesting company. I found myself giving off confusing signals because I was both interested to find out if they might be a good addition to the directory, and stand-offish because I wanted them to pay.

It makes me wonder if the overall sales message is just too confusing - e.g. If the directory is mostly compiled pro-actively, why do we charge? - and the non-refund policy just adds to the confusion.

I'll give it some more thought, but if I decide to change the refund policy it'll be quick to happen.

15 July 2005

Publish and be dammed

I found an article by a friend last week (A quick fix of the Sahara, Max Wooldridge, Mail on Sunday) which was typically imaginative, witty and inspiring. Max has always been a brilliant travel writer. (I dropped him an email to tell him that.. again!).

Anyway, it's left me feeling a bit wistful. Not just for the Sahara, but for publishing travel articles. I used to do it on the old Travel News Organisation website - the forerunner to Travel Lists. But Travel Lists just doesn't have the budget and the British Guild of Travel Writers would , quite rightly, tear the epaulettes from my shoulders and eject me if I started publishing unpaid-for articles.

Ho hum

11 July 2005

Why are so many visitors confused?

It's not good. A website should not be confusing, but I cannot understand why so many people seem confused about what Travel-Lists is.

I don't think I can make it any clearer. The site headline title describes it: Independent Travel Directory.

The header above the home page directory (laid out in the traditional time-honoured online directory style) says: Directory of Travel Companies.

I've even got a navigation button in pole position captioned 'What is it?' that takes you to a full-on explanation of what it is, and notably, what it isn't.

So why do I get so many emails (nearly always from overseas) wanting to do business with what they take to be a travel agency or tour operator?

It's a recurring theme for me (see previous posting) in this case because I've had two such emails this morning, and just now a phone call from somebody wanting to make a booking or something to a U.S. tennis tournament!

"Isn't this a travel agency?" he asked when I sounded confused by his question. I wish now I had interrogated him more closely to see what exactly made him think it was.

In the past, I've assumed that, because the majority come from non-english-speaking countries they are really wanting to get into the directory but only have one catch-all business enquiry email translated into English... so they send that.

08 July 2005

It's the way you tell it

Back in May 2003 a new and quite stylish online agency suddenly appeared on the Internet called Hotfoot Holidays, offering late availability holidays departing from the UK to the East and West Coast USA, Florida and the Caribbean.

There was studiously no mention of it on the site, but Hotfoot's address and ATOL number gave the game away; Hotfoot was Virgin Holidays, and this was what we might call in the trade their 'distressed stock' shop.

I've just been to the Hotfoot website to find an interesting notice. Virgin Holidays are announcing the "good news" that:

From the 17th of June 2005, Virgin Holidays has expanded its portfolio to fully embrace all products featured in the Hotfoot programme and all of these hotels, plus many more, can be found in a wide selection of brochures offered by Virgin Holidays.

So, it didn't work then?

01 July 2005

That's the way to do it

I've come over all 'Punch & Judy'... That's the way to do it!

I got an emailed press release from Ian Briggs at the London Luton airport press office at 11.00am about their new departure lounge which they opened this morning. The release is dated 9.00am, 1st July (today) and has photos taken in the lounge at 05.30am.

When I went to check something else at their airport website, I passed by their Press & PR page, which - lo and behold - already has that same press release posted on it.

Well done London Luton! The Internet as it should be used.

Compare and contrast with Rough Guides. I came across a little news item earlier this morning about them publishing some electronic guides. When I went to the press page on their website the latest press release was from 2004! And there's no contact info for their press office.

"Oh I know", said Demelza, their press officer when I phoned her and mentioned it. "We're in dispute with the guy who posts the releases for us."

She sounded a bit embarrased. She should be.

30 June 2005

50% visitor increase - hooray

The Travel-Lists redesign which launched on 6th June seems to have had a big impact on stats at least, if not the bottom-line.

I only got the visitor tracking module started on 10th June so I have a week of missing numbers for unique visitors, and I should be doing this tomorrow (1st July) so I have a day (today) missing at the end of the month too, but if I take the daily average unique visitors for the remaining days of the month (503), multiply it for the missing 10 days (5,030) and add it to the monthly total (10,373), I get over 15,000 unique users for June 05.

I can't compare unique users month-on-month because I didn't have them before. The old design wouldn't let the tracking module code work. But I can compare pageviews. Adding averages of 3,377 per day for two missing days (today and a day at the beginning of the month when the stats server went down) I get 108,082 pageviews for June.

May's pageviews were 72,136 so the increase (35,946) is 49.8%.

Quite a change.

27 June 2005

Bye Bye WAP

I've been providing content for WAP phones (and in a simple xhtml format for other mobile devices) for over a year now.... and I've had enough! Too much extra work for no income!

The WAP pages are supposed to sell (through Bango.com) at .20p for access, but there has been little interest even with the site listed on numerous WAP directories.

The great micro-payment fortunes talked about, and promised to those who get on board the mobile Internet, do appear to exist, but only for those who sell ringtones and porno pictures.

I started with a sub-section of around thirty travel directory pages, but it was a nightmare to maintain and didn't get much interest so I then tried just a simple page of 'Travel Bargains and Late Availability tip-offs'. Still no interest.

I should have dropped it ages ago but my plan had been to convert the whole Travel-Lists directory to xml and then apply an xslt stylesheet to render them for each platform - normal web, xhtml mobile and WAP. Unfortunately I discovered that Google Adsense won't work in XML (see blog on Google & xml) and since Google ads are a revenue stream, unlike WAP, I abandoned that project.

So, bye bye WAP

It's the wrong business, Gromit

I'm completely mystified about how many overseas companies appear to not understand what an online travel directory is. I get emails on a daily basis (today's first is from Ghana) from incoming tour operators who wish to introduce their company and do business with me; handling the ground arrangements, tours, excursions, transfers and accommodation bookings for my tour groups...

Where on earth do they get that idea from? Travel-Lists is a directory.... period ... not a travel agent or tour operator.

I suppose so many portals & quasi-directories have 'book this' buttons that they assume every directory operates affiliations, taking a commission on refered sales.

20 June 2005

Another reason to use independent travel directories

I knew there was a delay getting a new website to register on Google, but I hadn't really taken in its significence until I read this comment (thread) from Jill Whalen, Head Honcho at HighRankings.com, who was suggesting Yahoo et al might like to use it for advertising copy...

Did you know that when you search at Google, you won't find any sites that are less than a year old? But at Yahoo you will! Don't you want to find the latest and greatest results when you're searching?

More detail here.

18 June 2005

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it an airport hotel?

Somebody has been asking about our definition of an airport hotel.

Well, as we all know airports and hotels are inclined to categorise anything within 15 miles / 30 mins of the airport as an airport hotel.

To us though, that's not an 'airport hotel', just a 'hotel near an airport' (shuttle or no shuttle).

An airport hotel is located within the perimeter fence or butting up to it. Anything else is a quasi-airport hotel.

It's the Internet, stupid! (2)

Another It's the Internet, Stupid! moment.

I'm looking around the mighty Carnival Cruises website checking which areas they are cruising to these days. Only to discover that if you use the 'Find a Cruise' search facility, you are required to register!!!!

What! That kind of thinking disappeared from the Internet six years ago, when the likes of expedia, lastminute.com, et al realised that nobody was visiting their sites to just browse.

Ask yourself. If you walked into a shop and at the door were met by a shop assistant who asked you for your name and address before letting you browse their shelves, what would you do?

17 June 2005

A little praise goes a long way

I've always tried to make a point of phoning or emailing - a boss if possible - to say 'thank you' when somebody does something special; provides a special service or goes "above and beyond".

In these days of consumer power and litigation, companies and organisations are so braced for complaints it can really be a bit of a shock if somebody just calls to say 'well done'.

Anyway... I've just been on the receiving end.

Out of the blue, a phone call from the Wendy Wu of Wendy Wu Tours - an Australian specialist tour operator to China that has just recently opened an office in London - to say she has just had a customer who found them through my listing on Travel-Lists and 'thank you very much'.

That's cheered up the afternoon!

Tourism Marketing Organisations can pay to launch directory pages

Now that I've got the new Travel-Lists site up & running I'm keen to start expanding the directory again, which is always difficult because I have to spend so much time keeping the main pages fresh with news and bargains, and the existing lists up-to-date. It leaves little time to create and publish new lists. And, of course, as the directory expands, so does the problem!

Obviously the solution is to have more people working on them. Sadly I don't have the budget for that. But I began to wonder the other day whether there wasn't a symbiotic relationship I could exploit between tourism promotion organisations (national, regional, local), fellow travel journalists and Travel Lists.

For that reason I'm starting a Fast-Track system, allowing tourism and marketing organisations to pay for a list or lists to be 'fast-tracked' into existance. This way I can afford to drop what I'm doing to work on a new list or pay for somebody else to create it.

  • The tourism organisation gets a permanent, continuously updated page of riads in Rabat, chalets in Carpathia, breweries in Bruges, nightclubs in New York, or local travel operators & agencies in Toronto on Travel-Lists.
  • The journo, who's probably already done the research/been there, gets a commission (half the fast-track fee) to create the list (which won't clash with any other commissioned articles).
  • I get half of the fast-track fee (I've still got to organise it, edit it, mark it up, and build it into the site structure) and more content for the site.

I've put the details on the site. It'll be interesting to see how it works.

16 June 2005

The First , Only, Biggest and Best

Naturally enough PR folk love to use the "world's first" variety of description whenever they can in order to attract attention, but such phrases need to be used judiciously not only to avoid diluting their impact, but also to avoid being caught out.

I had to smile at the carefully constructed sentence in a press release today from Travel City Direct's PR company. Announcing a new early check-in service for their charter flights back to the UK from Florida which enables their passengers to spend a luggage-free last day before flying out of Orlando in the evening, the release claimed it was "the first UK tour operator to provide this service for its charter flight passengers".

Technically true, but a little unfair on their scheduled airline rivals, Virgin, who have been offering the same facility on their Orlando flights for years.

Still, I can also remember smiling at a Virgin press release which claimed it was the first airline to offer personal in-flight video screens in all classes..... when several years earlier I had flown in the launch aircraft for Emirates all-classes in-flight video facility!

What goes around....

12 June 2005

Some groups are not worth antagonising

Ouch! I hope the editor of the Sunday Times Travel section doesn't find himself/herself 'reaping the whirlwind' when they open their in-tray tomorrow.

As a travel editor, it's a lesson I learned the hard way many years ago. You can push at the envelope of journalistic prudence in pretty well any direction you like, but there are two groups in particular that you really don't want to upset: the Greek Cypriots (never feature northern Cyprus unless you have to, and never call it 'Turkish Cyprus') and animal lovers.

The lead picture on today's 'Directions' page in the travel section is a photo of a pretty ugly-looking dog (a pug?) on a leash getting out of a New York cab and the paragraph underneath reads as follows...

This one survived his flight to New York, but new figures suggest that one in every 100 flying Fidos fails to make it alive. A source from one American carrier said: 'Technical delays are the real killer. We pulled a pooch from its box that had been stuck on the tarmac in a blizzard at Vancouver - it was just a furry lollipop.' Container crushes and slow-roasting in hot loading areas are other hazards. Step forward Virgin Atlantic, which has never had a fatality in the two years it has been carrying pets. In its new Flying Paws scheme, pets are accompanied on board and even get T-shirts. Too late for the lollipop, though.
I fear the author may find the Sunday Times has some readers who will consider that there is a little too much levity in the treatment of this story, and who don't share his/her sense of humour!

07 June 2005

Eurotunnel - can they dig themselves out of a hole?

I feel really sorry for Eurotunnel, and mystified about their predicament (they are struggling to keep up payments on their loans). The whole gargantuan project seemed so obviously the right thing to do all those years ago; a permanent, fast connection with the continent un-affected for the first time in all our history by the weather. How could it not work?

Nobody anticipated how cut-throat competition from the ferries and the spectacular growth of budget airlines would take customers away from the tunnel in their droves... but it has. Something like two thirds of short sea Channel crossing traffic still goes by ferry and Eurotunnel's figures have been declining for several years now. I still can't quite believe it. (Eurostar has been doing ok, but we're talking 'Eurotunnel' here, which operates the tunnel itself and the car/lorry shuttles)

I should have seen the writing on the wall a few months after the tunnel opened. The whole idea of the tunnel was that it should be a simple shuttle operation: you drive into the terminal and onto the next departing train. But oh no. Mr & Mrs British holiday-maker, after a lifetime of being made to queue for everything and generally being treated like children rather than paying customers (anyone remember flying with British Airways in the 70s & 80s?), couldn't get their heads round that and insisted on being able to pre-book themselves onto a specific train! So Eurotunnel had to introduce a reservations system!

Still, nobody would want to cross the channel, taking up to three times as long to get there, on a potentially vomit-inducing ship that might or might not make the crossing if the 1) wind wasn't right 2) sea wasn't right 3) engines weren't right, or more likely 4) the French fishermen were blocking Calais. Would they?

Well,apparently 'yes'!

In fact, when my family and our friends (two families travelling together) go for our hols in France, we all have to go on the ferry.... because one of our party doesn't like tunnels!

Today, hoping to claw back some customers from the ferries (though obviously not us!), Eurotunnel have announced price cuts of their own. They are introducing a budget airlines pricing structure with low lead-in fares that get sold first leaving the higher fares for those booking closer to departure.

Let's hope it works.

Finding the perfect listing

One of my favourite things is finding a specialist travel company that I hadn't heard of before.

With the arrogance of a journalist whose been covering the travel industry since 1988, (and one who runs the BGTW's Travel Industry Database) I tend to think I know of pretty much every UK operator in some of the niche markets... and then up pops a company that's been around for several years offering something a bit special, that I didn't know about.

So then I think (same arrogance) that if I hadn't heard of them, not many other people will have either (!) and I can't wait to tell them... with Hermione Graingeresque arm-waving zeal - "oh! oh! Sir? Please..."

Yesterday's discovery was Foot Trails, a small business in the South-West run ("passionately" as Alison says) by Alison & David Howell.
They offer gentle guided or self-guided walking weekends and holidays staying in character inns and cosy hotels.

The classic example of a perfect listing for Travel-Lists

03 June 2005

A new day, a new style

Phew! It's been a busy few weeks. I've been re-designing, rebuilding, and re-populating the Travel-Lists site, and now it is finally 'live'.

The basic thinking behind the redesign and the new business model is explained here, but it's also a long-overdue change of style.

The old site dates back to 1998 when it was designed for the Travel News Organisation. Ever since I changed the logo to travel-Lists and re-labeled a few bits I've been fighting the site. The navigation was never intuitive and because it was a 'frames' site visitors were always arriving from search engines on isolated pages (I couldn't use the javascript self-referencing frames hack for technical reasons). All in all it was an old-fashioned looking bodge job and I'm delighted to have a simple speedy site that does more or less what I want.

The new CSS-driven site looks business-like and is ruthlessly efficient. I can't tell you how liberating it is to strip out all the graphics! Anytime I want to change the design I can just fiddle around with the stylesheet. I'm not restricted by images of lines, boxes, corners, etc - the usual Fireworks flotsam & jetsam!

The original stylesheet comes from Ruthsarian (open-source, free copyright) and is a work of genius! It does two really clever things: it is multi-browser friendly (IE, Firefox, Opera, etc) and arranged so the centre-column content comes first in the source page, which makes it spider-friendly too.

Anyway, back to work. There are still a few little dead links and other minor glitches to sort out.

27 May 2005

Niche Directories are the way to go

I read encouraging views from my friends on the well-respected www.highrankings.com site this morning.

In a thread about the future of online directories they all, including top-dog/head-honcho Jill Whalen, agree that human-edited, niche market directories with high standards for acceptance
are the way of the future.

That's Travel-Lists. Especially the new re-built, very-soon-to-be-relaunched, version of Travel-Lists!

(At least it will be, just as soon as I can track down my programmer, who has disappeared .... last seen in California a week ago!)

26 May 2005

Alastair McKenzie - it's my name. You can't have it.

Looking through my site statistics for the last few days I notice my name appearing higher up the list of keyword referrals than usual. This is the number of times somebody visits my biog page having searched for 'Alastair McKenzie' on Google or another search engine. There's always a few - one or two a day - but sometimes, as now, the figure leaps up to five or six a day.

The reason, I assume, is because my namesake has appeared on TV again - maybe a new series of Monarch of the Glen in which he plays a/the lead role.

Here I am, riding on the back of his fame. And, assuming he's noticed, it must be a little galling for him that I have quite a high profile on the internet, so that anyone searching for 'Alastair McKenzie' ... gets me. To get him you need to search specifically for 'Alastair Mackenzie' because that's the way his name is spelt.

It's just one of those names I'm afraid! It gets spelt every which way. Regular variations are Alistair, Alister, Alasdair, Mackenzy, etc etc. My favourite variation was when somebody entered it on the passenger list for a cruise ship as 'AllStar McKenzie'! I had to spend a week on board with people calling me 'All Star' - it was tough!

(BTW - My wife who is a writer and ex-publisher/editor absolutely hates it when people miss-spell McKenzie. I, on the other hand, as a broadcaster, couldn't care less. I only object if they mis-pronounce it!)

Anyway, what my namesake probably doesn't know is that I think he only has the name because I gave it up. His predecessor wasn't so lucky.

Under the rules of the actors' union, Equity, no two members can have the same stage name. When I came to join in 1976 I was aware of a child actor called Alastair McKenzie who had been the understudy to Jack Wilde in the film 'Oliver' and then gone on to play one of the children in the London Weekend television series of Black Beauty. So I was expecting to have to change my name (I won't tell you to what - too embarrasing!). In the event I got there first... and he had to change his name!

The Black Beauty series was very successful and from time to time over the next decade (every time they sold it to Nepal TV or somewhere) a repeat-fee cheque for a few hundred quid would turn up in the post, having been sent from LWT to Equity to me. It was heartbreaking to keep sending them back (especially with my name on them!) but Equity never amended their records and eventually sometime in the late eighties on about the eleventh occasion I phoned the LWT accounts dept and explained what was happening. That sorted it. A few months later I got a letter from him, thanking me and suggesting we meet up and compare the lives of Alastair McKenzie. Sadly we never did, I lost the letter, and I cannot remember what his stage name was.

I stopped working in theatre in the late eighties and let my Equity membership lapse a few years later. I assume that the one-person-one-name rule still applies and that the spelling (Mck v Mack) is not crucial. So presumably, if I had kept my membership up, the Monarch of the Glen would be called something else.

The good thing is that spelling is everything to computers, so he won't be wanting my domain, www.alastairmckenzie.com !

12 May 2005

It's the Internet, stupid!

And today's winner of the "I didn't know the internet could be so immediate" prize goes to Sofitel Hotels.

I've just visted their online press room to see if there was a press release on the Sofitel Lisboa, which re-opened yesterday after a complete renovation. The most up-to-date release they have is for the opening of a Sofitel in Estapona, dated 14 August 2004.

It's the Internet, stupid!

New generation websites and Google

Haven't posted for a few days because I've been focused on a makeover (long-overdue) for Travel-Lists.

One of my primary objectives is to use up-to-date coding - CSS2 and XML/XHTML. In particular I want to rebuild my lists as xml documents which are then transformed (using xslt stylesheets) for different platforms, eg. web, WAP mobile, xhtml mobiles, etc.

Everything was going fine until I discovered that Google are still living in the dark ages. I can't display my Google adverts, until I can perform a hack to make them work. It turns out that the javascript they use to deliver their Adsense ads uses 'document.write' and 'iframes', niether of which work in any strict xml enviroment.

See http://keystonewebsites.com/articles/adsense.php for a good description of what is going on.

Since content-driven advertising (Adsense) is Google's great moneyspinner, I keep wondering if their shareholders are aware that, as things stand, it won't work on modern websites! I'm also surprised more people aren't talking about it.

Meanwhile, I'm off now to have a look at how blogger.com hacks around the adsense error...

03 May 2005

Roar: Lions of the Kalahari

Went to see a preview of a new National Geographic film on saturday, at the IMAX cinema in the Science Museum in London.

Roar: Lions of the Kalahari is a Tim Leversedge production shot in giant Imax format around a waterhole on the edge of the Kalahari desert. It follows a small pride of lions over the course of a year and a challenge to the throne from a young male lion. The image and sound quality is amazing when viewed on a screen taller than four double decker buses with a 1200-watt sound system. Tim Leversedge himself was there and talked about the difficult editorial judgments to make about what to film and what not to film when a three-minute roll of imax film can cost several thousand pounds!

For me the highlight, among many, was the moment an elder lioness showed her younger inexperienced sister how to hunt. As the crowds of animals drinking at the waterhole scatter in blind panic she catches a leaping springbok in mid-air with such explosive ferocity it knocks the wind out of everyone watching!

If you are stuck in the UK suffering from safari-withdrawal syndrome, go and see it.

It is showing at the Science Museum from 15 June. There's also an amazing 3D movie, Wild Safari 3D: a South African Adventure showing from 20 May, which literally sits in the back of a open 4-WD safari truck as it drives through various parks in South Africa watching rhino, giraffes, lions, leopard, elephants and others.

Am I plugging these two movies? Yes. I really enjoyed them and so did my nine-year-old son. So I have no prob with that!

More info at www.nwave.com/wildsafari , www.destinationcinema.com/main.asp and www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Press Release Rule #5

It's the start of the week and straight-away I can award this week's Press Release Plonker prize... to Quality Villas (an otherwise excellent holiday villa company) who have today issued a release with their, David Sullivan, named as the contact person for further details.

Only when I phone up, he is "away all this week".

(see 'Golden Rules for Writing a Press Release' post below)

A pity because nobody else is aware that such a press release has been issued. It is about one of the villas in their portfolio becoming famous because it features in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and is being used as a key location in the film. Unfortunately, because the film company are occupying it most of this year, there is little or no availability, so QV tell me it has been withdrawn from their portfolio, and may not return!

Not much point in sending out the press release then, was there!!

29 April 2005

Online journalism is closer to broadcast than print

About 90 mins ago I got an email from airline PR about a new air fare to Beirut. I was just preparing a couple of special offers for the Travel Lists site, RSS newsfeed and mobile feeds, so I thought I'd add it in. As I began editing it I realised it didn't actually say that this fare was better than the one it replaced! So I fired of an email reply asking them to confirm, parked what I had done so far, and got on with something else.

An hour later there was no reply so I phoned. Answer machine. I didn't bother to leave a message. I dropped the story instead, and found something else to take its place.

As it happens, the PR had popped out for something. As soon as he got back he phoned me and confirmed the item. As a result, I've added it to the feed.

My point is a lot of PRs still move at the pace of print, which means I wind up dropping the story. Because if I try to follow up a story lead, I want the answer back that same morning or afternoon. The next day is usually too late.

Shameless plug for my hosting company

Received this month's newsletter from Hostway this morning. It had an item about a survey they've done in the USA about blogging.

I fired off an email to the Editor - who doubles as Hostway UK's marketing manager - asking when he was going to start his own Hostway blog, and had a nice exchange of emails which started off with him asking what's new with Travel Lists .

I must say it's one of the things I like about Hostway... it's a big international company with tens of thousands of clients but at local level it remains small & personal. Like everybody else, they are not perfect but when something goes wrong (IE my site goes down. Doesn't happen often.) I phone the support team (in Germany I think), and usually get hold of Chris... who knows me and my site.

By contrast my ISP, Blueyonder, (who provide a brilliant and mostly reliable service) are big, impersonal and efficiently clinical. Technical Support starts with a low-level operator who starts with all basic 'reboot, CPconfig & ping' options and if they can't tick you off their checklist they pass you up the line to someone more senior. It is undoubtably efficient but I'll leave you to guess which company you are more likely to want to shout at when it goes wrong!

Spotlight on search engine paid-for listings

Good news for me. There seems to be a growing awareness these days of the issues surrounding search engine advertising. This article by Jason Miller in Webpronews.com is the latest example. It talks about the well-known survey conducted in 2002 in the USA which revealed that almost two-thirds of internet users were unaware that search engines display paid-for listings.

It goes on to say that Consumer Web Watch, the organisation that commissioned it, is hosting a series of high profile conferences in the USA to discuss the question of search engine ethics.

The more that internet users realise how little independent information they are shown, hopefully the more they will turn to sites like mine.

27 April 2005

Ah! That would explain the lack of coverage!

Hadn't expected a four-hour maiden flight! (Why would we? There were no releases about what they were going to do) Nobody was talking about Airbus because it wasn't safely back on the ground yet!

The price of independence

How depressing!

I had an email yesterday evening from the MD of a new hotel accommodation website who's noticed that I list them on Travel-Lists. (They are new this month so I don't suppose they get many referrals in their stats yet!) He emailed to thank me for the listing and to offer an affiliation deal - a commission on sales to people refered by us - quite a good deal actually.

It's a fairly regular occurance, and I always have to bite my tongue when I turn it down!

We've had an exchange of emails and I had to explain my policy on affiliations is because I'm swimming against the tide. In order to claim total editorial independence from the travel companies that I list...

  • I don't do affiliations
  • there are no paid-for listings
  • I don't take submission review fees
  • and, worst of all from my point of view I don't do reciprocal links... which really hurts my search engine rankings!

The 'upside' is that I get to legitimately claim that travel-Lists is "the only truly independent travel directory on the internet".

Sometimes (times like these!) I wonder if it's worth it. Charging visitors a subscription to access quality content instead of charging companies to advertise themselves in a directory is definitely 'swimming against the tide'.

(In some quarters it is seen as offence against god and the Internet! Two years is not an unusually long time to wait for a listing in dmoz, particularly in a popular category, but I've long suspected that the reason Travel-Lists is not listed, and not likely to be, is that that Open Source Movement find the subscription business-model too distateful. Ironic really, because I consider dmoz to be the only other fully independent directory, but not quite as independently aloof as me when it comes to inclusions policies!)

It is certainly nothing like as profitable, as just caving in and taking the money like every other professional (non-hobby) directory on the net. Never mind if the public only ever get shown clients, members, or advertisers when they research their holiday options on the net...rant! rant! rant!