08 December 2006

A bit of a lull

I'm not blogging anything like as frequently as normal, nor is Travel Lists looking as fresh as it should (out-of-date news), because I'm completely bogged down in other stuff at the moment - in particular the BGTW yearbook (www.bgtwyearbook.blogspot.com).

It should all get better in the New Year.

I did take some time off on Tuesday to attend a couple of functions. At one of them a tour operator bounded up to me...

"We've just secured a £40,000 booking thanks to a referral from Travel Lists!"

Note to self: Must look again at the question of commissions on leads!!

(Note to readers: Only joking. Sadly, total independence is the cornerstone of our site philosophy. If not rich, at least we're honourable!)

Hey ho... back to work.

17 November 2006

License to Sell

It's possible - but pretty unlikely - that you may not have seen the vast new marketing campaign called "James Bond".

It's a very clever concept. Some global advertising, sales, and marketing folk all get together and draw up a huge list of products they want to 'place', and then, almost as an incidental component, some film writers, producers, etc are brought in to create a vehicle for the campaign...

At least that's what it looks like.

If I see one more article in the travel pages of any newspaper, one more travel feature on the TV, or another press release email in my intray with the words "James Bond", "Stirred not shaken", "Casino Royale" "Licensed to" or similar I WILL F**KING SCREAM!!!

Let me make it absolutely clear, NO destination or product has or will make its way into Travel-Lists or any article or podcast I make if it has any connection with that marketing campaign.

07 November 2006

Qatar Airways boss is impressive

I went to a Qatar Airways press conference yesterday at World Travel Market. Oh the whole I wish I hadn't. It started 20 minutes late and went on too long (time is precious at World Travel Market, especially on the first day) and had no real news value.

But I didn't come away entirely empty-handed.

Akbar Al BakerThe CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, flanked by his two senior managers did all the talking (paraphrase: "we're continuing to expand with a new terminal building, new flights to Nigeria, Tanzania, Vietnam, New York, and Bali... and some other places I can't tell you about") and then took questions from the floor.

Not surprisingly Malcolm Ginsberg, a long-standing aviation journalist (I remember him when he was with Brymon Airways back in the eighties) who knows his way around the aviation industry better than I know the way to my own flat, piled in first with a direct question about how the delayed delivery of their Airbus A380 superjumbos was messing them about.

A couple of other specialist journalists also asked some other detailed questions, all of which Mr Al Baker fielded efficiently and politely, not giving much away.

Then some old duffer business journo took the mic and began banging on about a journey he had just made with Qatar Airlines to an economic forum in Singapore. It wasn't a question. It was list of complaints about the service he got...

He didn't get the veggie meal he ordered.

He and his fellow passengers where held up on landside at Changi airport on the return journey, while passengers from other airlines were able to go through to the "more interesting" airside.

There had been no response to the application form for frequent flyer membership (Burgundy cardholder) that he filled in and gave to a cabin attendant.

etc, etc.

Those seated around me exchanged looks and quietly groaned. This was obviously payback time because he hadn't got the treatment he thought he deserved, but to the rest of us it was an abuse of his position as a journalist, our role as journalists, and our time.

Most CEOs in that situation, even if they hadn't detected the frisson of annoyance that ran through the room, would have summarily dealt with the questioner and moved on.

But not Akbar Al Baker. He very politely pandered to the man's ego, cleverly answering each point in detail and using each to expand on aspects of the business.

It was an impressive performance. Not least because 10 minutes and several questions later a note was passed to him and he was able to return to the old fart and joke that he could prove the efficiency of his staff because in those few minutes they had checked with the head office in Doha and discovered that his application for a Burgundy card had indeed been processed but that the hapless journo had applied under an old address. The card had been sent there.

Al Baker - "Dix Points"
Journo - "Nil Points"

It was an impressive demonstration of how to turn an awkward question to your own advantage and win over your audience at the same time.

World Travel Market - a feast but not fulfilling

It's World Travel Market week again.

On my way to the Excel exhibition centre yesterday morning I was counting up. This must be at least the sixteenth World Travel Market I've attended.

I still quite enjoy it. It's a huge gathering - over 48,000 travel industry professionals participated at WTM 2005 representing 202 countries and regions - and always impressive.

But although I always get some valuable new information, ideas or contacts from WTM, I usually come away feeling a bit disappointed - as if I didn't get as much out of it as I should have done. Like leaving a sumptuous banquet not satiated.

I think the reasons are two-fold.

Firstly the scale works against you. There's so much going on in those giant halls, you can never feel you've seen any more than a fraction of it, just scratched the surface.

Secondly, WTM is a trade show. Travel suppliers selling to travel retailers. It's not aimed at consumers and the story ideas I'm looking for are for 'end-users'. So, for example, looking at web travel... the exhibitors I'd like to see are online brands (lastminute.com, expedia, etc) the ones exhibiting are back-office systems developers and agency booking engines.

Still, I found a couple of interesting items...

A huge (5 Km) cave complex in Oman which is being opened to tourists and caving enthusiasts, and a company that operates adventure tours, eco tours, special interest and motorcycle tours in the Ural mountains.

I'll be adding them to Travel-Lists soon.

04 November 2006

Air security relaxed for us but not others

Monday's relaxation of the UK security regulations banning liquids from aircraft cabins may seem like good news, but not if you are travelling from other parts of Europe or from further afield.

Writing, as I do, for British travellers I tend to take a UK-centric view on these things but a warning from PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) that arrived in my in-tray this morning reminded me that a pan-European synchronisation of air security might ease restrictions for us, but introduces new ones for other countries who hadn't banned liquids.

The alert warned...

UK Asia Pacific travellers taking a flight which transits through Europe could be in for rude shock from next Monday – some of their duty free purchases could be confiscated by airport security.

Under new European Union (EU) regulations effective from November 6, 2006, passengers on flights from non-EU airports transferring at an EU airport will have any liquids, pastes and gels in containers over 100 ml confiscated at the security checkpoint.

The items will be confiscated even if they were bought at a licensed duty free shop at the originating airport or on board the aircraft en route to the EU airport if it was flown by a non-EU carrier.

According to the President of the European Travel Retail Council (ETRC), Mr. Frank O’Connell, the changes are likely to cause “chaos” at airports throughout Europe.

The new rules are in response to the recent foiled terrorist attacks in the UK, allegedly involving the planned use of liquid explosives on trans-Atlantic flights.

The confiscation rule does not apply to non-EU passengers who arrive at an EU airport, clear customs and depart the airport. It only applies to those transiting to another destination.

Under the new rules, any passenger departing an EU airport will be allowed to carry small amounts of liquid – such as toiletries, lotions and perfumes – on board within the following limit: a total of 500 ml in five separate containers, each a maximum of 100 ml, carried in a clear plastic re-sealable bag.

If you’re a non-EU traveller transiting through Europe and you want to take a bottle of liquor or eau de cologne over 100 ml to your final destination, make sure you purchase it at a duty free store beyond check-in at the EU transit airport – and not at your point of departure or on board the aircraft if you are travelling on a non-EU airline.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and other industry groups are calling on national governments, security agencies and aviation authorities to come together to develop a consistent set of global guidelines to avoid widespread confusion and disruption.

Site Reviews

I've just turned down a site submitted to Travel Lists.

It reminded me that it doesn't happen very often.

(...thankfully!...since current policy is to refund review fees - I don't like telling people their site is not good enough to get in, and taking their money too!)

It's interesting how self-balanced the submission process is. I'm surprised that we don't get more unsuitable submissions - we certainly get loads of unsuitable link exchange requests. (All, like the one a few minutes ago, are instantly deleted - see simple policy).

It's as if only companies that are confident of their 'product' bother to apply for review, which is perfect from my point of view.

27 October 2006

Visitors to Travel-Lists.co.uk

Somebody from a travel PR firm has just called to ask about the number of visitors we get.

She asked about 'hits' - so, quickly for anyone not up on this...

Hits - useless, irrelevant. A 'hit' is recorded for every object on a page. One visit to one page of a website could record 10 or 200 'hits'. For this reason most website statistics concentrate on...

Impressions aka pageviews - how many pages have been visited. But this measurement is increasingly misleading because it measures every visit by man or machine, and these days spiders and news aggregators (checking every few minutes to see if newsfeeds and blogs have been updated) can make a huge difference to the stats for a site, so...

Unique Visitors - are the statistic to look for.
How many real people have turned up once. Or for monthly statistics...

Unique Visitor Sessions - How many visits have real people made to the site.

Anyway, for anyone who is interested, last month's (Sept 06) figures were...

(Hits: 515,516)

Impressions: 437,805

Unique Visitors: 11,706

Unique Visitor Sessions: 15,556

Not as high as I would like, or as I have had, but ok. Especially, for a site that has a strict 'no link exchange' policy, which does handicap our search engine rankings.

Time standing still

I write a regular travel column for a monthly magazine for business bosses which appears in print two months after I hand it in.

A couple of months ago, in anticipation of the switchover from summer to winter airline schedules which occurs at the end of October (with the clocks) I wrote a piece - that will appear early Nov - about rail and air timetables and how they've evolved and been digitised.

At the beginning of the article I made the point that it was the introduction of the railway that triggered the widespread development of clock technology and the mass-production of clocks. Until trains nobody, except navigators, needed to tell the time accurately.

I wish now that this little piece of news from Virgin Trains, which arrived today, had been more timely... because I could have used it

Virgin Trains has now announced that it is to include ALSTOM's depot staff in its Every Second Counts initiative, which was launched with Network Rail earlier this year. ALSTOM depot staff at the Midlands Traincare Centre will become the first ALSTOM staff to be issued with Radio Controlled watches, which receive electronic time signals and are accurate to within one second every three million years. The watches will be rolled out at other ALSTOM depots over the next year.

The watches were issued to Virgin Trains' drivers, train managers and station staff earlier this year in a project to ensure everyone was working to the same time.

The decision to issue staff with the watches was taken after a survey of station staff, drivers, train managers, onboard staff, suppliers and signalmen showed that there could be differences (fast and slow) in the timepieces being used.

"This meant that in some instances staff might not be in the right place at the right time", said Charles Belcher Managing Director Virgin West Coast, "and a mere ten second delay at the start of a journey could cause a domino effect delaying not just that one train even more but also creating knock-on delays to other trains along the 401-mile route from London to Glasgow. That ten second delay could have been caused by the train being late off a depot.

"We have used the 'Every Second Counts..' name for our staff awareness campaign because it is delays of mere seconds -as well as minutes - that can affect train performance. A one second delay may not seem significant but multiplied for every mile travelled it would total six minutes and 41 seconds for a train travelling from Glasgow to London. The likelihood is that the train would also lose its timetable slot somewhere on its journey and the delay could then easily become ten minutes or more late."

Times may change, but in some respects some things don't change with time... like the need for accurate clocks!

18 October 2006

Don't rule out the Lebanon

A significant part of my electronic and physical post, comes from regular sources - daily or weekly updates, newsletters, press releases, etc.

One specialist Travel PR, Nick Redmayne, sends journalists a weekly batch of press releases about his client companies which he prefaces in his covering email with a few idiosyncratic thoughts - often amusing, usually (rather like a blog) little vignettes on what he personally has been up to in the last few days, and always with his suggested 'website of the week'.

They are fun, and I suspect most of his recipients enjoy reading them. This week's was thought-provoking and since it doesn't mention any of his clients and it isn't a blog or on a site that I can link to, I've asked him if I can reproduce it here...

I've just returned from a few days in one the Mediterranean's most fashionable cities, where the hotels are top notch, restaurants excel and cafes, bars and nightclubs, amongst the world's funkiest, are filled by possibly the chicest and most civilised party crowd I've experienced. Where is this Shangri-la of sophistication? Beirut of course, that recent target of high explosive ordnance supposedly smarter than the average bomb, and redoubt of those Islamophilic good-time guys, Hezbollah. Here in the UK the overriding impression is that Lebanon fell off the wagon of peace yet again, careering into the 'last chance saloon' of Middle East politics and, in an uncertain progress, spilled the pint of its most belligerent neighbour, Israel. The rest is 34 days of history that have cost Lebanon 20 years of progress.

However, as with all things Middle Eastern the reality is more complicated. From Beirut 'downtown' the scene is not of rubble-strewn streets patrolled by chanting mobs, rather a stylish city's showcase redevelopment frequented by the country's 'beautiful people'. Even during Ramadan, other areas of the capital are more alive than ever, from the coffee shops of Gemayzeh and the bars of Achrafieh's Monnot Street to the city's many and several hedonistic night clubs, all are thronging with an affluent Lebanese-only crowd.

In contrast, the population in the southern suburb of Harat Hreik, targeted by Israeli, has suffered. Areas around the al-Manar TV studios, and other Hezbollah-associated structures have been razed below the ground. In many instances buildings not directly hit have been and so badly damaged that demolition is the only answer. Bridges, including the highest in the Middle East, have been destroyed and though traffic finds a way through, snarl-ups are unavoidable. Along the coast, treacly oil spilled from ruptured storage tanks has left black tide marks around boats, on beaches and in historic harbours. Though the clean-up is well advanced, marine and birdlife has been decimated. In the south of Lebanon cluster bombs ignore the UN ceasefire and fail to discriminate between the old, young, unwary and unlucky, maiming and disfiguring all with equal malice.

Lebanon's tourism community remains resilient and waits for confidence to return. In the tourist areas of Byblos and Baalbek, guides and shopkeepers twiddle their worry beads waiting for foreign travellers - no great deluge is forecast anytime soon. FCO travel advice still recommends against all but essential travel.

This week's website of the week is http://yalibnan.com/site/

15 October 2006

The Greek cycle of life

As two go, another appears.

In recent weeks two longstanding high-quality specialist operators to Greece (Tapestry & Laskarina) have closed or announced their closure, victims of a changing market where more and more travellers arrange their own DIY holidays to popular European and Mediterranean destinations.

Interesting then to see an announcement from another, Vintage Travel, who have been specialising in villa holidays in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and more recently Croatia for over 17 years. Vintage say they are launching a Greek properties brochure for 2007 covering the Ionian islands of Corfu, Kefalonia and Ithaca, the Aegean island of Skopelos and the Peloponnese peninsula.

09 October 2006

Florence - One of Italy's tourism icons

Ponte Vecchio
I was in Florence last week for a few days on business/pleasure. My first time there. It is a lovely city and it's hardly surprising it has been such an influential and iconic destination for so many visitors over the centuries.Ponte Vecchio

You'd think all those visitors would be spread out over the centuries but most of them seem to have congregated in the months of Sept/Oct 2006! It was heaving in the 'honeypots' - around the Uffizzi palace, the Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. I was surprised. This is very much 'shoulder season' when Europeans are back at work and their children at school, but of course this is a different market. The vast majority of visitors were either older students on class trips or retired couples, and for the local tourist industry Sept is peak season.

Roman AmphitheatreTo get away from the crowds, I and a colleague caught a bus up to Fiesole in the hills overlooking the city, where we explored the Etruscan and Roman ruins including an amphitheatre and baths. Not that we came away very enlightened, the vast majority of visitors to the site were English or American yet there was no English-language signage on the site or in the museum of artifacts - just one half-hearted A4 sheet and some guidebooks you could buy in the shop. Useless!

While the Uffizzi gallery itself was hot and overwhelmingly crowded, the Vasarian Corridor, was most certainly not.

While I was in Italy, the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, delivered his proposed budget to parliament which included a provision for urban councils to set a tourist tax (up to 5 euros per visitor per day) to support their tourism infrastructure. One of the cities that might take advantage of the new tax is Florence. You can recognise the use it might be put to in the Vasarian Corridor - one of Florence's most important historic buildings and notoriously impossible to visit.

Vasarian Corridor interiorThe 1km medieval corridor was built above the streets and over the old bridge (Ponte Vecchio) to give the Medicis a private passage between their palaces on either side of the river. Along its length there are 6-700 priceless paintings so any visitor who is allowed in (eg academics) has to be accompanied by a gallery official at all times. The trouble is, the main galleries of the Uffizzi are so busy, they just don't have the staff.

Guide in Vasarian CorridorSo it really was a bit special for a small group of us, with our guide (appropriately named Giovanni Guidetti!), to be able to walk the Vasarian Corridor from the Uffizzi Palace to the Boboli Gardens in the Pitti Palace (.mp3).

You're going to ask, 'how did we get in?' Well, largely down to our hotel (Hotel Bernini Palace next door to the Uffizzi) and a little bit of luck I think.

24 September 2006

Space tourists are nothing to do with tourism

I'm beginning to get irritated with the coverage of 'Space Tourist' stories in the travel press, both online and off.

I lay the blame at the door of journalists and computers

Computers are still too stupid to realise that a handful of wealthy individuals buying a ride on a space rocket has nothing to do with the tourist industry, even if a journalist has refered to them as "space tourists".

Newsfeed aggregators just look for keywords, so you often see misplaced headlines appearing in the wrong category. (A classic example was Moreover running an item about models slipping off the runway in their aviation industry category. The models were the Gucci/Prada/YSL sort and for some reason the journalist had described a catwalk as a 'runway'.)

I think journalists get confused about this kind of story because the 'space tourist' concept is somehow reinforced by Richard Branson being involved. (Despite all his music, radio, finance and other Virgin businesses, Branson is inextricably identified with travel because he runs the airline and rail company.)

Until a choice of destinations is available - a space station, the Moon, Mars, etc - people who pay to go into space are simply "passengers" on a ride.

12 September 2006

Colin Thubron podcast

One of the UK's best-known travel writers, Colin Thubron, has just published (7 Sept) his latest travel book Shadow of the Silk Road - an excellent and exotic tale of his travels through China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.

The Times Online have a podcast of the author talking about his book and reading extracts.

I think it is both interesting and evocative (it certainly rekindled my enthusiasm for visiting parts of that region) but you shouldn't take my word for it because I have have a vested interest. It was me (wearing my podcaster hat) who produced it for them.

Theme park fingerprint scanners

Some time ago the major theme parks in the USA started introducing fingerprint scanners at their turnstyles to prevent visitors from using tickets that had been resold or transfered.

In response to an item about Disney upgrading their scanners, there's a very interesting and informed debate on the ethics of all this at the The Park Insider blog.

Moderation in all things - especially advertising

Every time I login to write a new blog I'm presented with the option to 'make money from your blog'. IE to add Google adverts to the Travelling Online blog site.

Tempting.... but no.

We already have enough Google text ads on the Travel-Lists.co.uk site, and I tightly control them so they don't become too obtrusive (eg not on the home page or slowing up any navigation pages).

Sometimes you can have just too much of a good thing!

03 September 2006

Life's little irritations

Oh purleeze!!

I'm in 'grouchy old man' mode. Haven't had my coffee yet! (Actually I have. It's Sunday morning and I've already bought my newspaper and read part of it over a coffee in the local Costa bar. It occurs to me that the startlingly rapid growth of the Starbucks, Costa, Nero et al must be down to the widespread use of instant coffee. Next to that, any proper coffee tastes good. But if, like me, you only drink real coffee, what they offer is pretty mediocre and unsatisfying - not a patch on my own prefered brew, Taylor's 'Take it Easy'.)

Anyway. I digress.

My (other) irritation this morning is the usual batch of emails from people trying to get into the Travel-Lists directory.

The link exchange merchants who "have studied your impressive website and think it would make an excellent match for visitors to my site" clearly haven't looked very closely at all. If they had made even the most superficial study of how the site works or what the contact details are, they would have discovered that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to be listed in Travel-Lists in return for a link!

A few, as today, realise that and try the 'official news source' approach by sending a, usually badly written, "press release".

Look, it's easy! Go to the British Guild of Travel Writers website (www.bgtw.org), pay £108 for the yearbook and access to the online database, both of which will list all 214 PR companies that specialise in the travel sector. Then hire any one of them for several hundred pounds to write and distribute a press release, which might or might not catch my eye... or pay our £16.50 review fee!

Ah, my perculator is just reaching the end of its 'perc'... relief!

29 August 2006

Phony endorsement in the Telegraph


A newsbrief item on page 4 of the Telegraph's Travel Supplement on Saturday (26 Aug) catches my eye... and sticks in my throat.

Terror Alert hits Travel

Cheapflights.co.uk, the UK's leading travel price search and comparison site, has reported a 19% drop in people searching for flights since the terror alert a fortnight ago.

Is Cheapflight.co.uk the UK's leading travel price search and comparison site, in the considered view of the Telegraph's travel editor? It's quite an endorsement!

I think not. At least I don't think that's the description the Telegraph intended.

Especially since Cheapflight's PR company sent me the same press release... which begins (as ALL of their weekly press releases for Cheapflights do):

"Cheapflights.co.uk, the UK's leading travel price search and comparison site, ...".
Oh well, I suppose it's easy enough to mess up and let a phrase like that slip through into the copy, but I would hope that you never see a marketing strapline appearing in Travel-Lists. I spend hours carefully extracting the sales-speak from press releases when I'm writing them up, and taking out the word "just" before prices in special offers!

22 August 2006

Family holidays in term time

Ah, yes. It's mid August again. That point in the year when cool young PR things start issuing 'special offer & late availability' press releases on behalf of their clients trying to get rid off end-of-season distressed stock of family holidays.

Every year they do this (actually three times a year, but it's most noticeable in Aug), quoting discounted prices for adults and children - forgetting (not being parents yet) that children have to go to school in Sept.

Yes, there are families with pre-school toddlers, but why quote for children up to 12 and teenagers?

18 August 2006

The sound of Lufthansa

Lufthansa have got themselves a "stab" - radio speak for a musical bullet point, or ident.

They've commissioned an agency in Berlin to create an acoustic logo to go with their visual branding, and before too long it will start appearing in their radio and tv ads and on their call centre telephone messages.

Strangely, they wrote about it, and what they were trying to achieve, in some detail in a press release a few days ago...

Transforming brand values into sound is an intricate exercise. It requires a high degree of intuition and sensitivity to create a sonic identity that precisely reflects a company’s attributes. Like the corporate design, the sound of the brand communicates Lufthansa’s quality message, its leadership role and its innovative skills as well as sovereignty, appeal and sensitivity. Based on a rising sequence of four tones, the acoustic logo elicits the feeling of ”taking off“ and “wellbeing”.

... but nowhere on their website could you actually hear it!

I had to chase them to get a copy. Here it is - the sound of Lufthansa.

(I think that file might be slightly corrupted. It sounds a bit crackly to me and it keeps crashing my encoder when I try to convert it from a fat .wav file to a leaner .mp3 format. It still plays though.)

15 August 2006

Print journalism 'best before' dates

There's no doubt about it, I do find it hard to get my head around the idea of designing/writing articles with a long shelf life.

I had an article rejected (quite fairly) by an editor yesterday because it was too timely. I was expecting it to be published in a few weeks, and in fact it won't appear till October.

Although I've written loads of freelance articles - one-offs and series - for various magazines over the years, I'm really a broadcast journalist - working on radio or the Internet. So when I write something, it is for broadcast or publication within a few hours.

Sure, I've made plenty of radio programmes to be aired in a week's time when I would be away, or for multiple airings, and for those you've got to be very careful about how you refer to things temporally so it doesn't sound strange.

But writing about something contemporary which will have happened two months ago (a lifetime!) for the reader is really strange!

13 August 2006

More Travellers than I thought

I've just been updating the url and name for the specialist culture tour operator, The Traveller. Formerly, The British Museum Traveller until the museum decided to concentrate its resourses on "core business" a few years ago, The Traveller has now teamed up with the Indian sub-continent specialist tour operator, Palanquin to become The Traveller & Palanquin.

When I performed a search to find all references to "Traveller, The" on Travel-Lists I was reminded there are a number of 'Traveller' tour operators...well, four...

The Traveller & Palaquin
The Imaginative Traveller
The Sporting Traveller
The Classic Traveller

12 August 2006

Update on Chinese tour guides

Last year I blogged on my doubts about a new tour guide agency in China

Well it's been a few months since that posting but I've just had an email from them (KanXiQi.com) addressing my doubts/comments one-by one, and I'm happily persuaded by it.

...So much so in fact, that I've decided, rather than just attaching David Wu's email as a comment on the original post (which probably wouldn't be seen by many people), I'm posting it as a fresh blog to draw attention to it.

See what you think...

Dear Mr.Alastair McKenzie,

Thanks a lot for your concern and writing on our service. I'm KanXiQi.com's marketing manager, and I came across with your web page via search engine today. It's not surprise to see your negative comment to our website. Below please find some information to address your concerns.

1. Attached please find photo copies of our business license, state tax certificate and local tax certificate. Please note, we are 100% legitimate business entity, and you can find those red-line circled Chinese characters on attached photos are our company name, which is identifical to the company name follwing the "(c)2006" sign at the bottom of every page in our Chinese version as you can check (http://www.kanxiqi.com/ch/)

2. Up to date (10 months after the English version launched), we've got nearly 1000+ registered freelance private tour guide, and we'll recruit more. Detailed info please see our news: "10,000 Olympic Private Tour Guide Recruitment Campaign Will Be Launched" (http://www.kanxiqi.com/news/articleshow.asp?ID=593)

3. We do have much less male candidates as in China, some jobs are gender-featured. Like secretary, nurse, shop clerk, restaurant hostress, bus conductor, subway clerk, flight hostress, teacher and tour guide ...are typically female-dominated professions. However, you do can find quite a lot male candidates in our Chinese version (http://www.kanxiqi.com/ch/) - you may not read Chinese but you can still manage to browse around to identify this. Even in English version, we have a few male candidates too:


For your information, the number of male candidates is increasing.

4. We do honest and legitimate business, never involve in any illgal activities. What we claim, we mean it. Our mission is to explore a new approach to enhance tourists' experience, by private tour guide for customized trip, not in group with shared tour guide that was crafted by Mr.Thomas Cook centuries ago. The business model may still be in fine-tuning, but we never do illgal stuff. There is easy money to earn, but as you can see, our interest is far beyond to make quick money.

5. "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"...yes, we mean it. There is no "between the lines" - the "and more" does not necessarily imply "sex".

6. Upon exactly two years before the 2008 Olympics opening, we launched an intereesting 2-year long compaign. Detailed info please see "KanXiQi.com Offers Free Private Tour Guide Service Upon 2008 Beijing Olympics": http://www.kanxiqi.com/news/articleshow.asp?ID=607

Hope above info will help. :)

Thanks again for your interest in our service. If you have any further question or need any further information, I'll be more than happy to help.

With best regards,

David Wu
KanXiQi.com 头前带路 - 看稀奇
Insight Into China Through Private Tour Guide

Yes David. I'm convinced! Apologies for doubting you! Thanks for getting touch.

11 August 2006

Tour Operator Collapse

It should be that only the bad and/or incompetent companies go under, but life's just not like that.

It was a shock to read that Tapestry Holidays, who for as long as I can remember have been operating really good 'away from the beaten track' holidays in Turkey (their speciality) and also Greece and Croatia (they also operated to Oman for a while), collapsed yesterday morning.

What a blow! Not just for the estimated 1500 customers currently on holiday abroad with Tapestry (who at least will be able to finish their holidays) and especially the thousands of customers with holidays booked who now won't be able to go, but also the staff.

I can think of a lot of tour operators I'd rather see disappear than Tapestry, and I'm clearly not alone. A number of agents, competitors and associates have been expressing their sorrow in the industry forums. It shows how well-respected and liked the MD Nick Wightman and his team of 30 staff are/were.

It also says a lot that in an interview with Travelmole, Nick Wightman praised the CAA for all their help (normally MD's complain bitterly that their company might have survived if only the CAA hadn't been so quick to call in their ATOL bond at the first sign of trouble) and praised his staff who have been coming in to the office despite holidays and illness to help sort out stranded customers.

What a real shame. With luck they'll all find new positions with other operators and maybe some parts of their programme will re-appear in other brochures. Let's hope so.

01 August 2006

Telewest Customer Relations - getting it right

My phone number transfer finally got sorted last week (see below) meaning all my business contacts and colleagues are finding their way through to me again. Yippee!

Damian Oates certainly helped. He's clearly quite senior at Telewest and he called me a few days before the next scheduled attempt to sort it out, to apologise and tell me he would oversee it, and then call me back afterwards to check that it all happened. It did, and he did.

"Is there anything else I can help with?" he said.

"Actually there is", I replied. "Your automated telephone payment system is driving me mad. I can't make it work and I can't find a way to talk to a human being!"

I explained that I've been trying to find out about a bill for a sum I didn't recognise and pay it. And meanwhile, he confirmed looking at his screen, I've got another monthly bill for broadband, tv & phone to add to it.

"How can I pay it all? Can I do it now over the phone?" I asked.

"No you can't", he said, "because I'm just clearing it. I think it's the least we can do considering how much we've messed you about!"


It's good, effective customer relations. It hasn't cost them the Earth (£50+) and if they are lucky I might mention it when talking to friends - 'word of mouth' is one of the most powerful marketing media.

... Oh, I just did!

18 July 2006

Declaring an interest

If you are going to have a "fiercely independent" travel directory it has to be "fiercely transparent" too!

How else can it claim to an authoritative resource?

I am indebted to a friend, Chris McIntyre, a guidebook writer and expert on Southern Africa, who has enthusiastically contributed a number of suggestions for the Safari Camps in Zambia list.

Because I trust his judgement, because he too is fastidiously independent, and because he has matched my editorial style perfectly, I am successfully tempted to use his listings and notes pretty much un-altered (IE. passing them off as my own!).

So I have to declare an interest (and I've linked those listings back to this blog). Chris is also the Managing Director of safari tour operator, Expert Africa.

17 July 2006

Telephone transfer nightmare

I am incandescent with rage.

My business phone line, which I have had for ten years, is floating around in a digital no-man’s-land thanks largely to Telewest. They have now failed THREE TIMES to take over the number from BT, and I am very worried I may lose it all together.

I first arranged for the transfer in mid-June, to co-incide with my house move on 23 June. Something went wrong. I'm not sure where the problem was but Telewest's transfer request was refused by BT. The process had to start again.

This time I got a letter from BT confirming that they would release the number to Telewest on 6 July. Nothing happened. I called Telewest and BT. It turned out the number was ready for release but Telewest failed to collect it. The transfer window closed. Back to square one. To their credit, Telewest were quick to admit their error, apologised, offered me two months free line rental and set the order in motion again for a transfer on Fri 14 July.

On Fri 14 I phoned Telewest just to remind them and check all was in order. It was. The transfer should go ahead, but a day late on Sat 15.

On Mon 17 (today) I called Telewest to be told. There was no sign of the transfer. No it hasn't happened and they'll have to start again!!!!!!!

The next scheduled transfer date - now being overseen by a manager and guaranteed to happen - is 27 July.

... Yeah! And Elvis is his boss.

I'd better postpone printing the stationary and business cards for another month. Thank God for mobile phones and email!

12 July 2006

The art of good comedy/journalism.... timing

Sometime around 1990 I recorded a destination feature for a travel programme that I was presenting on local radio, in Yugoslavia - or rather off the coast of Yugoslavia, it was a flotilla sailing holiday.

Six months later when it was due for transmission the director of the tour operator (Yugotours) sailing division and a local travel agent joined me in the studio for the live programme. I played the recorded feature and then we started discussing the holiday and the political state of Yugoslavia, because in the interim a fair amount of unrest had been flagged up in the media.

"What people will want to know most", I asked my guest from Yugotours, "is - is it safe?".

"Most certainly", he told us. And went on to convince us that their comprehensive network of workers and contacts in the travel industry throughout the country and tourism ministry officials were all very relaxed about the political tensions.

Within a fortnight all bloody hell had broken loose, and Yugoslavia, let alone Yugotours, was no more!


Tricky stuff.

Yesterday I recorded some stuff about skiing in the Lebanon (See previous posting). During the course of today I wrote a short item about it, edited the audio, compiled it as an mp3 clip and inserted it in couple of locations on the Travel lists website. I also offered it to a colleague on a national newspaper for their website.

When I finished I got in the car and set off to collect my son from school. As I turned the ignition and the radio came on, Radio 4 started their news at the top of the hour.

Hezbollah in the Lebanon have kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and Israel has declared it to be an act of war...


Skiing in the Lebanon

Had fun yesterday at Crystal Ski's annual press review of the ski market, where they look at what happened last season, and talk about the season ahead. Crystal are the largest UK ski operator and they put on quite a professional show. This year it was held at the Absolut Ice bar in Heddon St where on arrival we were fitted with peculiar arctic ponchos with hoods and mittens before being led into the bar where all the fittings, furniture and glasses are ice, kept at -6c. Perfect on a hot day!

The presentation was in another room at normal temperature, but during this cool pre-presentation gathering I was chatting with a colleague who asked where I fancied going skiing. I said it would be fun to go off-the-beaten-track and try the Andes, or Japan or the Lebanon.

At that, she looked slightly taken aback and I started explaining that people have been skiing in the mountains behind Beirut for years. The trendy thing to do is ski in the morning and water-ski on the Med in the afternoon. Furthermore there is a ski resort up there which has recently had a makeover and so there's been a resurgence of interest. (I remember writing about Intercontinental taking over the chalet style hotel there, but I can't find it in the archives.)

Needless to say, she looked deeply sceptical.

A few minutes later we were sitting down listening to Crystal Sales & Marketing Director when he suddenly announced that next season (06/07), Crystal Ski are adding two new and unusual destinations to their programme - Japan and the Lebanon.

My friend practically fell off her seat.

Train operators who don't know where they are going

I can't quite believe it's been a whole month (nearly) since I last blogged here.

To be fair, it has been rather busy and I have been distracted by a number of things, not least moving home/office.


I've just been updating the list of UK train operating companies, and getting very irritated by some of their websites. I should have thought that it would more than blindingly obvious that for a rail company - like an airline - something you MUST have, clearly available through a button or link on your home page, is a schematic map of your network. A map hidden two clicks away from the home page is simply not good enough. How can a user know it's there and why should he/she have to hunt?

For any new visitor one quick glance at the visual layout of the routes and stations showing their relationship to each other can save endless minutes of confusion in the website's booking engine and timetables. It instantly answers the primary questions from a potential customer, 'Do their trains go from my departure point to my destination and what happens in between?'

This is so fundamental I am astonished at the railway companies who get something so basic, so wrong!

I'm talking about the likes of you: NI Railways, Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern Railways, SouthEastern, Virgin

By contrast, well done: Central Trains, C2C, First Great Western, First Scotrail, GNER, Hull Trains, Merseyrail, Midland Mainline, South West Trains, Southern, Silverlink, Northern Rail.

14 June 2006

America not popular, and they know it

This has been an ongoing theme for a little while now (see Are America's Surly Doormen damaging Tourism? and Florida not as popular as before ) and I notice Jeremy Skidmore has been writing about it again in the Telegraph...

But I was surprised by the open and heartfelt style of this official statement emailed to me today by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA)...

The following is a statement by Roger Dow, President and CEO, Travel Industry Association of America, on the latest survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealing that “America's global image has again slipped and support for the war on terrorism has declined even among close U.S. allies like Japan.”

“Pew’s latest survey sends a stark message: America’s image is in crisis. Our nation is increasingly viewed with distrust. The implications – economic and diplomatic – are considerable.

There are major issues impacting our global standing, such as the ongoing fight against terrorism and conflict in Iraq. But solutions do not need to be limited to these areas. In fact, we need to find a different way to present ourselves to the world – one that goes beyond the headlines of the day.

We embrace Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes’ recent call for enhanced ‘people-to-people’ communications. It is the American people who represent the best of America – our ideals, spirit and way of life.

Unfortunately, the American people are underutilised in the battle of ideas.

Travel and tourism presents a unique opportunity to empower the American people to do what they do best: represent America. The more international travellers that come to the U.S., the more ambassadors we create for our country. Studies consistently show that people from other countries who visit the U.S. leave with a significantly higher opinion of our nation and our people than those who have never been here.

But, like public opinion of the U.S., our share of the expanding global travel market continues to decline – more than 36 percent in the last 15 years.

It is time for policymakers to embrace travel and tourism and recognise its potential to boost our image around the globe. When it comes to improving America’s image, there is no substitute for experiencing our country.”

If you look at the Pew link, you'll see that 'Favourable Opinions of the USA' in Great Britain have dropped from 83% in 2000 to 56% in 2006. No wonder he is alarmed.

Kaliningrad specialist surfaces

Old submarine in Kaliningrad
Hmm. I've got slightly mixed feelings about this one now.

Yesterday I got an email, which rather put me on the spot because it precisely hit the Achilles' heel in my business model.

The main revenue stream for Travel-lists.co.uk is from review fees - if you think your site should be listed, you have to pay us to evaluate it. But the site 'mission' is to be an authoritative directory of all the best companies and organisations in their field, and nothing turns me on more than finding really good little specialist travel companies that I can tell our visitors about. (Especially if they are comparatively unknown. In a way that justifies the site. The search engines are useless in this respect. It is the very reason why I created Travel-Lists in the first place). So Travel-Lists.co.uk is not built from submissions. The vast majority of listings are hunted and found by me.

Despite explaining on the site that we only take site suggestions formally (through the review fee system) I get a continuous trickle of "hi there" emails bypassing the system. Ninety-five percent of them look as if they 'might possibly' be interesting and are dumped in a holding file which I rummage around in from time to time (about once every three months), but every now and then I get one which IS interesting. And that leaves me in a difficult position - torn between the need to earn a living (in which case I should ignore it and stick it in the dump folder. Maybe they'll get the message or get tired of waiting and pay to get reviewed) and the delightful urge to tell all our visitors about this amazing little company we've just discovered.

The email I got yesterday from Sally Chambers of Baltics and Beyond (with some genuine queries about being listed in Travel-Lists) was definitely one of those. There are quite a few UK tour operators who feature the Baltic States, but not many who specialise in activities and discoveries away from the capital cities, and I'm only aware of one other operator that takes travellers to the forgotten Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
So there was no contest. The urge to tell readers won hands down and I immediately phoned Sally to find out a bit more.

This morning, when I had finished updating the relevant lists on the site, I opened my emails... and that nice feeling dissipated. Travmedia, a leading travel industry press distribution service, is circulating a press release from Sally about the launch of Baltics and Beyond to all the travel journalists in the UK. Baltics and Beyond has not so much gently 'surfaced' as performed a full, out-of-the-water, Samu-the-killer-whale-style body breach!
Suddenly my sense of exclusivity has been wiped out.

It's not an emotion I'm proud of - and I'm pleased for Sally that her new business will, I'm sure, get lots of publicity. Wait till the weekend newspaper travel sections come out! - but I rather resent other travel media getting 'my' story.

02 June 2006

Florida not as popular as before

Interesting item in Travelmole about the collapse of a travel agency specialising in the USA, and Florida in particular.

"The Florida market has been really tough for a while now" says the owner, and the article continues... 'Many operators, including First Choice, have recently reported a slump in bookings to Florida, as families look for an alternative to theme park holidays.'

I'm sure there has been a slump, but I wasn't aware there has been a mass movement away from theme park holidays. The market may have come slightly 'off the boil' recently with fewer new parks and rides opening (actually there have been some terrific rides opening recently in the USA, like Goliath at Six Flags over Georgia, and The Voyage at Holiday World and Splashin' Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana... just not at the well-known parks in Florida), but theme park holidays are generational - families go when their kids are in the age bracket and when they stop the next, younger families start going.

No, I think the reason has a lot to do with the perceived (or real) welcome, hassle and privacy issues involved in travelling these days to the USA. As I've suggested before Brits are getting less enthusiastic about unwelcoming officials, lengthy immigration queues, inquisitorial security checks, the risk of having their baggage forced open for inspection unless they remembered to keep it unlocked, and the requirement for 34 pieces of passenger information including credit card details and phone numbers to be transmitted to American officials prior to arrival.

I'm sure the response of many British families is 'why bother? Let's go somewhere else'.

18 May 2006

Casinos - sorry we don't do them

At no point throughout my entire life (and I'm getting on a bit now) have I ever been aware of any pressure group, lobby or campaign in this country to relax the gambling laws. Drinking - yes. Sunday shopping - yes. Gambling - no.

So where did this rush to build super-casinos, relax the regs on existing ones, and fill our TVs and computers with online gambling, suddenly come from?

I have my suspicions. I don't think it was initiated by anyone in the UK. I think an American businessmen got access to our Prime Minister and persuaded him it's what "lil' old Britain" needs... and, probably (the clincher) that "God is 100% behind the project"!

Over the years as a travel journalist I've visited a good many casinos. In Middle East resort hotels, on cruise ships, in the coin-tinkling / light-blinking night-clubs of Tokyo, or the ski resorts of Colorado. One thing I recognised early on: this is not the happy vivacious pastime it is made out to be. Most people in casinos don't smile. I have seen the exact same sad faces with the same fixed - anxious or determined - look of concentration in the Salon Privé of the famous Casino in Monte Carlo, as I have on the grubby casino barges moored alongside the seafront in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Not sure if they are back yet. Hurricane Katrina smashed them up. Maybe God's backing is less than 100%!).

That's why - and now we are getting to the message in this blog - I never cover casinos. I don't think they are glamorous. I think they are squalid. So they are never mentioned in anything I write and are never listed on Travel-Lists. It's also, I'm afraid why I have never written anything about Las Vegas. Can't see the point.

Oriskany gone

I see the 'Mighty O' has been sunk as planned.

Congratulations to all involved. If that's not premature. Navy divers are scheduled to go down today and inspect her on the bottom. And we'll only know then that all is ok. (I don't think anybody is expecting her to have tipped upside down or broken up, or anything!)

As I've said before, I'm sure it'll attract divers and sports fishermen to the area not just from the USA but overseas as well.

If you want to be one of them, you might check out www.divemightyo.com.

Addendum (23/05/06). It seems she is upright at least. I've found some footage taken by the first navy divers to visit her on the bottom.

17 May 2006

Hurtigruten ferry strike

Here we go again. Norway's ferry officers are on strike. I've just written a short item about it. Let's see if Google starts delivering public service ads onto the news page. (PSAs are triggered when Google detects 'stop words' like "murder" "accident" ... and "strike")

15 May 2006

Santa tours off the map

Oh, there it goes again... Santa tours is off the map once more!

'Santa tours' is a search keyword that I track on a daily basis. It's one of a basket of 40 keyword phrases that I follow to see how the site is performing on Google (and by comparison, Yahoo & Msn). 'Off the map' means that it has fallen below position No. 50 at which point the software ceases to look for it.

Most of my 40 keywords used to be 'on the map' until Sept 05 when Google started its 'Big Daddy' infrastructure changes. Now only a handful are on the map and they tend to come & go. 'Santa tours' is one of those.

A search for 'Santa tours' should find my page Travel List : Tour Operators of Santa Tours / Father Christmas Breaks.

The graph of where it appears in Google's search engine results pages (SERPS) is very interesting...

  • From June 14, 2004 to October 1, 2005 Google thought it was the most relevant/important page on the internet to anyone searching for 'Santa tours' and continuously listed that page right at the top of the pile at position No.1 (apart from a couple of weeks when it dropped to No. 2 and then returned).

  • Then on October 1st, 2005 it disappeared off the map.

  • It re-appeared on Jan 27, 2006 at position No.17 and then remained fluctuating about between positions 17 - 12 until March 18 when it disappeared again.

  • On April 28 it re-appears in position No.2 where it remained... until today.

The question is, regardless of how important the page actually is or how important Google thinks the page is, how many searchers are aware of just how inconsistent Google's results are?

It's not the page that has changed. At least, not materially. It is updated periodically but remains broadly the same. Google is in flux.

Of course if there's just one change, that's fine.

For example. One of my other test keyword phrases is 'tour operators to Estonia'. All keywords fluctuate a little but this one used to be the most stable of all. It returned my page Travel List : Holiday, Travel and Tour Operators to Estonia in position No.1 right up to Sept last year when it disappeared from the Google SERPS and never returned. That's fine. You could argue Google thought it was important, then changed the criteria it uses to judge and now considers it isn't an important page for that query.

The problem comes when pages keep appearing and disappearing.

If Google thought that my list of Santa tour operators should be brought to the attention of Searcher A in February or Searcher B yesterday, why shouldn't it have been shown to Searcher C in late March or be shown to Searcher D today?

Undoubtedly two of those searchers are being given poorer search results. Which two is not important.

Travel Lists more useful than Google

What a great way to start the week: an email in my intray from a Travel Lists visitor...


Sorry to clog up your email - but I just wanted to let you know how useful I have found your site. You have given me a very comprehensive list of operators for my "glacier express" holiday - and much more complete and easy to use than the list I got from my google search


penny jackson

No, thank you, Penny!

That is precisely what I built Travel Lists to do. So it's a real shot in the arm to have someone go out of their way to tell me that's what it is doing.

04 May 2006

Public Holidays - Well, so much for forward planning!

Appropriately, at the time of year when Bank Holidays are thick on the ground in the UK, I've been doing some freelance work on an international business resources website. Updating their political, economic notes and public holiday dates for 27 countries.

The biggest headache is checking dates for up-coming public holidays. You'd think that most of these would be pretty easy, eg. 'Victory Day' falls on 1st Aug every year... but it doesn't necessarily!

That's because:

The world's countries seem pretty evenly split between regimes where, if the 1st Aug falls on the weekend, tough! No forwarding to Monday nor any days off in lieu! And the more relaxed governments who automatically move every holiday forward or back if there's any kind of date clash.

Then there are the festivals whose dates are set by a lunar calendar, or religious calendar... anything but the Gregorian Calendar. This means that some festivals can leap about all over the place from year to year, and in some cases, such as the Hari Raya Haji (Feast of the Sacrifice), appear twice in one year and then skip the next year!

And if that isn't enough to wrong-foot you, nothing, it turns out, is fixed forever. Governments add holidays (Japan has introduced a controversial Emperor Day into their calendar which in turn has bumped another holiday to another date) and take away national holidays (In 2005 Russia dropped the old Nov 7 Revolution Day that marked the Communist revolution, and Boris Yeltsin's Dec 12 Constitution Day holiday introduced by President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 to celebrate the adoption of Russia's current constitution. To make up for the loss they added some days this year to the New Year holiday extending it into the Russian Orthodox Christmas in Jan to make it one long holiday) or switch them from one calendar to another (South Korea is moving some of its festivals and holidays from their solar/lunar calendar to a Western Gregorian calendar).

Blimey! Who'd be a diary publisher!!

And even then, no two lists of a country's National Holidays agree. Take any list of a country's public holidays and I can show you another seemingly authoritative list of its holidays that will have additional holidays (or fewer) and at least one different date.

But this is the bit that really surprised me.

Given how incredibly complicated and inconsistent it is, you'd think for everybody's benefit - authorities, businesses, citizens - that it would be important to calculate and publish official lists of all these dates way in advance so everybody can forward plan.

But hardly anybody does. It is almost impossible to find a list of public holiday dates beyond the middle of next year (2007). In some cases they are not that far advanced at all - the Swedish Tourist Board is currently listing public hols in 2005.

If ever there was a case for centralisation... Perhaps the United Nations website should host a definitive version of the world's public holidays.

26 April 2006

Google advertising (Adsense). Why do we carry it?

Well... duh!

That said, it's not exactly a major revenue stream for Travel Lists. It pays for the odd pint down the pub.

Despite that, we don't exactly go out of our way to improve advertising revenue. We could try advertising from other sources (Yahoo, Valueclick, direct sales, etc). We could put it on more pages. A quarter of the site's pages are menu pages, free from advertising (yes, I know about Google's 'terms of use' but like many publishers seem to, we could ignore the TOS altogether, or add a couple of words to dress the pages up as content).

No. The reason there is no advertising on menu pages (or on the home page) is that it slows things up. Every ad is another call to another remote server, and these are navigation pages. You should be able to whizz through them at the speed of light. That's why we dropped all graphics from the site design in the first place. That's why we don't have a logo. Just a favicon.

Anyway, the real reason why I started this blog...I was just thinking that, being an independent directory, our commitment/relationship with the advertising on the site IS slightly odd.

For one thing, we are in competition with ourselves. The better we do our job - list all the travel companies worth bothering with - the less likely it is that a visitor will click on any adverts.

On the other hand (and this is a benefit) if we are not doing our job properly (it happens! occasionally!) an advert might appear on a page for a worthwhile company that we haven't got listed, and that can be a handy tip-off!

All in all, you can tell, it wouldn't take very much to tip me in favour of ditching all advertising from the site, but for the time being I think I'll leave it and keep onside with the landlord at my local.

22 April 2006

XML is lovely stuff

I was just looking at my screen desktop and noticing that I'm using raw XML more and more these days for simple day-to-day lists. From keeping a note of the weight I'm (not) losing from exercising, to drawing up a list of party invites.

They are beginning to stand out because the numerous XSLT stylesheet files attached to them also litter the desktop. That, of course is the great strength - the same data sorted, filtered and presented in different ways.

I'm running an ongoing marketing campaign at the moment sending emails to people who send me press releases, newsletters and other promotional information. For the last month or so I've been keeping a list
(an XML document) of them so I don't send them an email more than once. A quick change to the stylesheet means I can sort them by company, name, date, email address, whatever.

I'm also moving house right now and trying to sort out what furniture will fit in the new place and where. A few days ago I opened notepad and started another XML doc to record dimensions of furniture, current location, future location, notes etc. One XSLT stylesheet sorts it all by current location. I just created another to produce a comma-separated text file to export into Excel so I can calculate scaled down sizes for a scale drawing of the rooms (could have made those calculations within the stylesheet itself but I'm not quick enough yet). And when it comes to the move, I can produce other variations telling the removal men room by room where to find it and where to put it.

Nice simple elegant stuff, XML!

18 April 2006

Losing it

Every week one of my favourite PR gurus mass-emails his newsletter with details of what his clients are up to. The email itself usually has some comical or quirky banter in its introduction but today I'm a little concerned he might be losing it...

I hope Easter proved the earned / expected re-charge for everyone, though time lifting one's nose from the keyboard does allow peripheral spectres to float centre field into the vestigial sharpness of an otherwise atrophied mind's eye. Life is too short indeed. Now that Cold War is a historical reference unfamiliar to some adults, the mental agility test posed by 'the four minute warning' has lost its intrigue. 'What would you do... and with whom?' is no longer topical conversation. However, listening to Iranian and US rhetoric flying through the water glass of PR spin and media interpretation perhaps we won't have to wait too long for the clock timing the Human Race to be heard ticking once again. Then we'll know what it is to be alive...

And, in case you're wondering, my Self Assessment reminder arrived this morning.

Have a good week.

What do you reckon? Should I alert him to the presence of those men in white coats creeping up behind him with a big net?

17 April 2006

Are America's surly doormen damaging tourism?

Travelmole has an interesting report from the World Travel & Tourism summit in Washington DC at which the US homeland secretary Michael Chertoff reportedly recognised that increased security measures at US airports is damaging inbound tourism.

"Americans lose when we put up rules, when we keep people [out] who are good people who want to come to work, study and play in the United States" is the quote.

What is striking is the tone of the first four (and only, at this point) comments posted at the bottom of the article. They all complain of long queues and bully-boy treatment by US Immigration officers who seem to consider all foreigners as undesirable, and probably illegal, aliens.

And remember, this is not a consumer magazine, this is a news site/community forum for registered travel industry workers - people who by definition are better travelled than most and can make comparisons.

The truth is, of course, that there are plenty of nice immigration officers (I've met some of them!) and not every entry these days into the USA is a grim and humiliating experience. But there is an increased risk that your arrival in America will not be joyous, and for some potential visitors that's enough to make them pick an alternative destination (Europe, Canada, Australia) where they are more likely to feel welcome from the word 'go'.

14 April 2006

Poor little specialist operator. All dressed up but nobody will know.

There was an interesting statistical juxtaposition yesterday that made sober reading for hundreds of excellent specialist travel providers (tour operators and travel agencies) in the UK, and for travel consumers searching for the very expertise they have to offer.

Firstly, in his leader column in yesterday's Travel Trade Gazette (TTG, weekly trade newspaper for travel agents and the travel industry) Graham Donoghue, head of new media at travel giant TUI, recounts how he has been learning in recent weeks all about the 'Big Daddy' update at Google and how it has "had a negative impact on some of my sites".

(At this point, wearing a torn singlet and carrying a machine gun, I lean out of a broken window at the Nakatomi Building and shout: "Welcome to the party, pal!")

He warns travel companies to check their rankings and points out this is important because search engines are "the number one entry point for around 70% of the people in this country (UK) who buy travel online".

Move on to a new survey reported on BBC Online.

Conducted by Jupiter research in the US, it shows that most people using a search engine expect to find what they are looking for on the first page of results, and will only go through three pages before giving up.

Gosh! Would never have guessed.....NOT!

But it also found that while 62% of the 2,369 people surveyed clicked on a result on the first page, four years ago that percentage was 48%. Consumers are getting lazier.

Gosh! That, I didn't know... really!

Some 90% of consumers clicked on a link in the first three pages. That's up from 81% in 2002.

In other words, if you are a travel provider not listed in the first three pages - by default, 10 to a page, that's 30 listings - your chances of being found by a consumer (70% of online purchasers, remember, according to Graham Donoghue) are slim and getting worse.

Ok. Try a little experiment. Take Google. Seventy-five percent of searches in the UK are made on Google according to the latest research (Websidestory Inc, 24 March 06), so Google handles 52% of all searches made by travel consumers in the UK. Search for "tour operators to XXX" inserting a destination of your choice. Now, of the top thirty listings, how many are genuine candidates?

According to research conducted at the Université de Provence in France earlier this year, search results on Google manage an average relevancy of 46%. So, it's not even thirty listings at the top. 54% of them are likely to be irrelevant... A travel provider (let's hope it's a good one!) has to be one of the top 14 relevant listings in their niche.... to even be noticed online.

There was one chink of light among these gloomy stats. According to the same Jupiter Research survey, 41% of consumers changed engines or their search term if they did not find what they were searching for on the first page. Let's hope THAT figure grows.

12 April 2006

Airtime on BBC radio 4

I've just fired off a 'How'd you do that?!' email to Steve Barrass the MD at Airtours.

I was making coffee and heard what amounted to a 10-minute advert for Airtours' new package holidays to China on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme.

I'm not complaining. I'm admiring!

It's a good item for the programme and interesting enough to deserve coverage. They had an interview with Steve about the holidays and then got the independent expert view from the Telegraph's travel editor Cath Urqhart who talked up the Airtours China programme, talked ethusiastically about China as a destination and then in support of the humble package holiday.

Since the demise of Breakaway (R4 holiday programme on saturday mornings) there have been very few opportunities to talk in any detail about new travel 'products' on national radio. I know PR gurus and travel industry marketing directors who would sell their granny to get 10 mins like that on Radio 4!

Safe sex the Google way

Been pondering this for a while, and thought I had already blogged about it, but I can't see anything in the archive.

Background: Search engines are in a continuous state of war with spammers, whose aim is exploit the system to try and push their sites higher up the search rankings than they should naturally be. Google, which is the biggest search engine of all by a long way (In the UK 75% of searches are made on Google. The nearest rival, Yahoo, accounts for 9.5%) bases much of its ranking on the number and quality of links a site has pointing to it from external sites. As a result a huge trade in links has built up - webmasters exchange links ("you link to me and I'll link to you") and set up directories where you can buy a listing (link). Google can spot most of these activities and devalue the importance of links that don't appear to be natural endorsements.

In the spring last year Google told webmasters that by adding a little bit of code (rel="nofollow") to a link they could tell Google's spider not to follow the link and therefore not pass any credit to the target of the link.

Why would you not want to pass credit onto a site you are linking to?

Well as Google's Spam-Master General, Matt Cutts, explained in his blog, you could avoid the risk of your site's own reputation being devalued by Google if Google thought you were trading links. "If you sell links", he said, "you should mark them with the nofollow tag"... or as the wags among the search engine watchers quickly dubbed it, a Google condom.

Much scorn has been passed on the "links without juice" idea by the Search Engine Optimisation/Marketing (SEO/SEM) community, in blogs and on forums. A common reaction has been, 'why should we do Google's work for them, identifying paid-for links?' and 'will Google put nofollow tags on its own Adsense advertisements, since they are also paid-for links?'

Directories (that's me!) are the prime targets* here because most directories are really commercial notice boards full of paid-for links. They are caught, as is Google's intent, between a rock and a hard place. If they put nofollow tags on their links they are undermining the very value of what they sell. If they don't, they run the risk that their own PageRank (that little green bar you see on Google toolbars) will be devalued, and that's one of the ways potential customers judge the directory's importance - the higher the PR of a site, the higher the value of the PR it passes on to sites they link to, the more worthwhile it is paying for a link there.

But what if you are not a directory of paid-for links?

How does Google decide if links might be paid for? Does it just look for a site with a directory structure, lots of links and an e-commerce payment system? Ooer, that's me again! (We take a review fee from sites who don't want to wait for us to find them).

But Travel Lists is exactly the very opposite. Every link is there precisely because it has NOT been paid for, or bartered in a link exchange. Every one specifically IS a recommendation. The very concept Google's page ranking system is built on.

Ironically, since the links on Travel Lists are not paid for it wouldn't matter if I did put a Google condom on them. I don't owe anything to the websites I list. But that's not the point. The point is that far from practising safe sex the Google way, the links on my site DO 'have juice' and SHOULD be passing it on.

So like I say, I've been pondering it.

Back in the autumn last year, when this became a topical issue I did slightly panic and put condoms on every link on the site. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was ridiculous and 48 hrs later I took them off again!

And that's the way it's staying for now. I'm not really bothered about large travel brands, but I do think some of the smaller specialist travel companies deserve to have proper, un-requited link votes, and like other webmasters I rather resent the fact that Google is making me choose between benefiting myself or my 'linkees'.

*Other prime targets are signature links on forum postings and links in comments posted on blogs (I haven't looked to see if the default setting on blogspot is with or without juice), but feel free. I have to approve them anyway!

04 April 2006

Company failure the modern way

Here's an interesting twist on the way these things normally happen.

When tour operators and travel agencies go bust, the first we hear of it is usually a notice from ABTA or from the Civil Aviation Authority who run the ATOL licensing scheme. There's normally very little information; a standard note on the status of travellers who are abroad at the time or have forward bookings, and some advice about possible refunds.

That's it really. It is in the nature of these things that offices close, telephones shut down, and directors/staff are difficult to contact. Sometimes if web host companies are slow to close the website, there might be a sad notice apologising to customers and thanking them for previous business.

Today it was the turn of an agency/operator in Harrogate called Raho Travel, which traded as Kiwi Talk Travel and Oz Talk. The CAA has just called in their ATOL bond to repatriate & refund customers.

What makes this one different is that I first saw it on a newsfeed from Travelmole.com, a travel trade community site, and attached to the news item is a comment from the owner explaining how the business came to collapse - basically the drop in business after the tsunami created their problems but, she argues, the CAA has acted prematurely forcing them into liquidation. This is then followed by another comment from a manager at another well-know tour operator expressing sadness and asking her to get in touch to see if there's anything he can do to help!

Amazing how the internet can shape communities, accelerate the pace of communications and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of news dissemination!

02 April 2006

The best promo gift I ever received?

... was a CD opener.

I was just musing that over the years, in amongst a, not huge, but seemingly endless stream of small promo gifts - sunhats, T-shirts, sunglasses, calendars, paperweights, notebooks, drinks containers, toiletries, bottle openers, calculators, key fobs - that turn up each year from PR companies, hotels, tourist offices, etc, a few stand out.

Three in particular have stood the test of time and are still in regular use. In ascending order of importance...

3) A plastic bottle opener from the Zambian Tourist Board. Not sure why it's been so successful, it's not very pretty really, but when it's not on picnics and trips, it's in the kitchen drawer and used most days.

2) A magnifying glass from Thistle Hotels. Actually it's multi-role desktop item; a paperweight (doesn't get used for that!), a world time zone calculator (line up the time with the cities under the glass. Sometimes used for that), and a magnifying glass (used continuously by everyone in the household for reading small print, extracting splinters, etc etc)

1) A CD opener from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A simple plastic device with a little embedded cutter that you run down the side of a CD case to strip off the selophane wrapper. You know, the plastic that most people spend minutes trying to tear with their teeth and fingernails. It's brilliant! Especially in an increasingly CD-rich world - music CDs, CD-roms, DVD-RW, etc etc. It might not get used quite as frequently as the other two but it wins on the grounds that I could replace the others easily.

Anyway... I've just used it again and I thought I'd share that with you.

PS. And while I think about it, some advice for anyone responsible for buying promo gifts for their organisation:

  • T-shirts & hats are always a pretty safe bet.

  • The large, easy-to-write-on calendars, are good to distribute in Dec. Particularly for domestic kitchen-wall use. But you always run the risk of competition (another calendar might get there first).

  • I think mousepads are underestimated. It sounds silly but mousepads wear out. You don't know what you've been missing till you get a new one and your mouse glides again!

01 April 2006

Ocean Village cover up for Brits

Hats off to the 'eagle-eye' at trade newspaper, TTG, for spotting this one.

They've published a picture taken from the German edition of the brochure for Ocean's Village's 2007 cruise programme, showing the glamorous on-board sauna
on their new ship, Ocean Village 2, with two naked couples enjoying the sea-view window.

Underneath they've printed the exact same photo in the English edition of the brochure. It has computer-generated swimming trunks and bikini tops added to protect delicate British sensibilities!

31 March 2006

April 1st - God is it that point in the year already?

Just received a email from the Mr & Mrs Smith hotel guidebook people, saying 'help we'll have to change our name!' and attaching this clipping...

Although they are a day early, I was instantly suspicious, and rightly so ... the byline confirms it!

Good try though. Presumably this is for publication in a paper tomorrow. I wonder if any readers will be taken in!

Who is watching who at Alton Towers?

Interesting use of technology being pioneered at Alton Towers.

Basically they are installing automated cameras throughout the park that will be triggered by RFID-enabled (Radio Frequency Identity) wrist-bands worn by visitors, creating a personalised DVD record of their visit that can be purchased on exit. (see story)

When I suggested to the spokeswoman for Venue Solutions, who are setting up the system at Alton Towers, that no doubt other theme parks will be watching with interest (Busch Gardens in Florida are already in the frame) she said "yes, Alton Towers are anticipating receiving a large number of visits from theme park managers next year!"

I can see why. It's not just an attractive new service for visitors and revenue stream for the park...

In their coverage of the story, computer magazine VNU mention that "The Sony video cameras will also be used for security purposes, to help tackle vandalism and prevent break-ins".

Alton Towers are not clear yet on exactly how they will distribute the wristbands at the entrance. (They are optional. Visitors don't have to wear them). If the park records a name against a tag, or just match credit cards to wristbands, they will have a pretty powerful 'Big Brother' security system.

Even if wristband wearers remain anonymous, imagine what detailed marketing data the system will provide when managers are able to watch and trace individual visitors' entire visit to the park: where they go, in what order they approach rides, what choices they make, where they pause, what they buy, etc.

I'm not sure it's the visitors who are going to have the most fun with this system!