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.