07 December 2007

Oh, do me a favour!!!!

It's the first week of December. Christmas is on everybody's horizon and the further-sighted are talking about the New Year.

Yet among my emailed press releases this morning are two jokers who think it is time to start promoting special offers and opportunites for Easter and Mother's Day!

FFS! Talk about the first cuckoo of spring! We haven't even had the first of the endless Valentine's Day promo press releases yet!

15 November 2007

Virtual Friendships travel sector

Run with me on this. It's an idea in development...

Virtual Friendships (VF) - seems like a good name for it - is a niche sector that I don't think anybody in the travel industry has spotted yet.

Some market trends just stand out, like the sudden growth in the number of middle-aged parents visiting their teenage children on gap year placements, spotted by a small travel agency in Wales a couple or years ago. They now specialise in making the, sometimes quite domestically delicate & diplomatic (!), arrangements for such visits.

More recently, the marketing intelligence company, Euromonitor International, has just published its 'World Travel Market Global Trends Report 2007' highlighting a few of the latest market trends: Pet Travel (a rise in the number of people travelling with their pets and hotels & travel companies catering for them); Diaspora Tourism (driven by Diaspora tourists who wish to discover their heritage and ancestry, particularly at festival or event times such as Christmas, weddings, christenings, etc); and Debaucherism Tourism (hedonistic young travellers, particularly 25-34 yr old Americans, heading to the Caribbean, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Vietnam, Macau & Dubai to emulate tabloid celebrities by 'partying hard').

I began to think about the possible existance of a VF market a few weeks ago when my son and I were invited by some friends to visit them in Romania.

When I say 'friends' I mean people we spend time with, most days of the week...yet we have never met them.

These are online friends who play and chat together in the world's largest MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), The World of Warcraft (WoW). Over the last year we have got to know each other (and what we look like, what we sound like, what we do, and what we are like) really quite well. Joe and I play on a European server with regular friends from Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, Croatia and Romania. Three of our Romanian friends live in the same Black Sea town, Constanta and one of our UK online friends will be visiting them a couple of weeks before we go. As things stand at the moment another good online friend from Antwerp is planning to join our trip, and others might too.

It got me thinking. If we are doing it, the chances are other people are also making Real-Life ("r/l") travel arrangements too. It's a common subject in WoW circles. There's even a mini-movie about r/l encounters currently doing the rounds on YouTube.

"Um......yes" I hear you say, "but the fact that you happen to be organising a trip to see some other people from a bizarre fantasy world..... doesn't really indicate a travel 'trend'!"

Ok. Try this on for size.

World of Warcraft may be the biggest, but it is by no means the only MMORPG. It has over 9 million users worldwide including 2m in N. America, 1.5m in Europe and 3.5m in China. (Oh, and by the way, this is not a boy thing. My guess is that at least a third are female).

Now add to that all the other "Web 2.0" places that online friendships are formed...

Not just the well-known ones like Facebook (more than 54 million active users, and doubling every 6 months), Myspace (100 million users); Bebo (40 million users aged 13-24); Second Life (2 million accounts), or even dear old Friends Reunited (9 million members). Nor Windows Live Messenger which last year (can't find more up-to-date figures) was used in more than 60 countries by more than 240 million active accounts...

Think about all the hundreds of thousands of blogs, chat rooms and special interest forums where friendships are kindled and professional relationships developed.

For example I joined a forum of Search Engine Optimisation experts in 2002 and even back then there was a high level of collaboration that spilled over into the real world with people arranging to meet each other at and around overseas conventions, conferences, business and social trips.


So you reluctantly recognise that there may indeed be a significant number of real world travel arrangements born out of digital world encounters.... so what? What is in it for the travel industry?

Well, a couple of things.

  • Marketing strategy. Maybe re-allocating some advertising budget from traditional travel media to keyword targeted campaigns online would be a smart move for a travel company who wants to develop a new market. If you are a specialist tour operator specialising in battlefield tours or factory visits, perhaps you should be running Google or Yahoo ads on history or motoring forums.

  • Product. In a lot of cases VF travel requirements will be no different to any other. But a few tweeks might make a product more suitable. Using the battlefield/factory tour example above, if you designed a tour for small groups assembling from multiple start points, that would make it very suitable for the VF market. There might be other ways in which a travel provider could develop VF-specific products. Safety and security could be an issue for people meeting in real life for the first time. So a travel agency might offer escorted travel or a 'get me out of here!' facility for clients who find their r/l encounter is not as enjoyable or comfortable as they hoped and want to curtail their visit.

I think that VF could be an un-discovered market for the travel industry and perhaps it is time researchers tried to evaluate its size and potential.

14 November 2007

I wish World Travel Market was back at Earls Court!

WTM at Earls Court
Monday was 'day one' of the annual World Travel Market (WTM) and I was reminded yet again how much I hate the venue.

I've attended WTM every year since 1989. In those days it was held at Olympia, but it quickly outgrew that venue and moved in 1991 to Earls Court. In 2002 it moved to ExCel in the docklands.

So what's wrong with ExCel?

Its design and its location.


I'm sure its marvelous for exhibitors. A vast purpose built space with no impediments (pillars, low ceilings, angled walls) so designers can take flight without restriction, and organisers can fit thousands of people and stands into it. Good access for trucks. Amazing facilities (catering, technical services, etc).

But from a visitor's perspective it is a nightmare. The two identical halls with a central "boulevard" between them are totally dis-orienting. There is nothing to distinguish them so visitors have to spend ages concentrating on maps to work out which way they need to go. In Earls Court you knew the Far East & Global village sections were in the back hall. North America, South America & the Far East could be found on the balcony and the UK & Europe was downstairs.....easy. If you looked around you, you could see at a glance where you were. At ExCel, you toss a coin and set off in the hope you are in the right hall and at the right end of it.

And I'm not just making a silly fuss. It is serious. I was blessed with a good sense of direction. I'm always sub-consciously aware of uphill/downhill, where shadows are, where the wind is coming from, etc. So I instinctively know which direction I'm facing. I'm also one of the few people I know who can find their way back to anywhere after just one visit.....but in ExCel, I am lost.

There are other problems with the design.

The break-out rooms are along endless corridors that run the full length of Excel. The skeletons of journalists last seen heading east or west looking for a press conference, have been found the following year in the wilderness extremities of those corridors! Maybe they recognised the problem (so few journos finding the right room in time) because this year and last they seem to have concentrated more press conferences in the rooms at the Press centre.

And focus. There is no focal point at Excel. There is a programme of events each day at WTM. In Earls Court these were held on the main stage in the middle of the hall - a natural amphitheatre with the balcony all around. I can honestly say, in the five years I have been attending WTM at Excel I have not seen one 'mainstage' event. Occasionally over the PA you are aware an event is going on somewhere... but god knows where!


Earls Court is in London. ExCel is stuck out in some remote industrial wilderness at the end of an obscure branch line of the DLR.

Getting there and getting away is a horrible, complicated and lengthy process.

It hasn't got any better since the debacle of the first day in 2002 when the DLR service was overwhelmed and practically ground to a halt. (DLR executives could look out of their HQ windows overlooking Westferry and see WTM visitors trying not to fall off the packed platform as they were forced to change trains because there were no direct trains from bank to ExCel!)

In fact for me, this year it got noticeably worse. They've 'nerfed' my route from North London. I used to be able to catch a Silverlink train from Highbury & Islington to the Custom House station at ExCel, thus avoiding the DLR sardine trains. That's gone now, for some reason.

Frankly it is simpler, and almost as quick, to get to the NEC outside Birmingham.

I expect WTM is simply too large to leave ExCel - it now attracts 40,000+ trade visitors, including 5,000 exhibitors - but I miss Earls Court.

01 November 2007

Good cruise website, shame about the podcasts

There's an interesting new cruise portal being launched this week.

Inside Cruise is the brainchild of Ideal Holidays (aka Ideal Cruising) part of the Freedom Travel Group.

The site is a social networking site where cruisers, be they expert enthusiasts or first-timers can communicate through forums, reviews and instant messaging and I think it is a brilliant move on their part. It not only recognises the significance of 'next generation' Web 2.0 social media sites. but also the huge community of cruise lovers who are desperate to talk about their favourite thing - cruising.

Don't take my word for it. Just look at the volume of traffic on the well-established U.S. cruise forum site Cruise@ddicts (20,000+ registered users) or the astonishing runaway success of John Heald's daily blog from his ship Carnival Freedom. And there are other competitors too, like the wonderfully named, Ship Happens (forum, news & reviews), the excellent (and independent) CruiseMates, and Cruise Critic.

It's clear that for many cruisers, the space between one cruise holiday and the next is only to be filled up with blissful chat about the last and bliss planning & anticipation of the next. So I'm sure this site will be a success for them, and they'll make pots of money from advertising on the site itself and, their primary interest, selling cruise holidays.

My only gripe is with their own content.

The current stock of commercial videos and images they used to seed the site will soon get replaced with more worthy material from their users... so, no problem there. But their articles are pretty bland. They look exactly what they are - words strung together to make content for search engines to read. These are the sort of commercial articles you could probably buy in bulk from an office supply company or somewhere!

And their podcast clips are appallingly aweful! Now I do have to declare an interest in podcasting, but these are a definitive example of how not to do it. They are SO bad it gives podcasting a bad name.


23 October 2007

Classic example of PR mediocrity

Ok, here's a classic example of how not to write a press release, breaking guidline No 3 of the Golden Rules for Writing a Press Release...

It's an announcement about a tour operator buying its first hotel.

The quote from the boss is soooo bland, it is unforgivable, and completely useless to me as a journalist....

“The Caribbean is a firm favourite amongst British holidaymakers (no shit! That's revelatory!) and the xxx hotel will offer some of the finest views in St Lucia (we know. You told us that earlier in the release). We are bringing the tremendous experience and service levels (blah blah) provided on our xxx, including our chefs, to the Caribbean and are looking forward to welcoming guests (blah blah) who will enjoy the complete xxx hotel experience in 2008 (more blah blah, and you have already told us when you are opening!).”
The problem is, this isn't unusual. I get press releases with this kind of useless quote, all the time.

See more things that journalists hate about PRs

01 October 2007

You can't keep the good ones down

The travel industry is in a continual, and quite fast-paced, state of churn (so too is the closely-related travel PR industry). What I mean is, the same faces appear and reappear in new locations all the time as their careers take them from one company to another.

(which reminds me. I must apologise to the woman I saw a few days ago who, I had completely forgotten, has just moved from a well-known travel PR company to become the in-house PR for a very well-known tour operator. She looked at me rather strangely because I had been in her office only a few weeks ago when she was physically getting ready to leave & start work at the new place.... so how could I get confused about it!!! Dummkopf!)

Anyway, there is another similar and concurrent process at work in the travel industry - the re-appearance of travel innovators.

These are people who create unique and flourishing, small independent specialist travel companies which then get gobbled up by large travel companies. After a short while (usually after the competitive trade restriction clause in the sale contract has timed out) they pop to the surface again like corks.

Obvious examples include people like Graham Simpson, the man behind the hugely successful Simply Travel. A year or two after it was bought (in 1999) by TUI/Thomsons, up popped Mr Simpson with a fresh new company called Simpson Travel.

Another would be Edward Maquis, the guy behind International Chapters, the specialists in sumptuous holiday rental properties in glamorous destinations. Abercrombie & Kent swooped down on that one in 2002 (I notice they've dropped the 'Chapters' part of the brand. The portfolio seems to be fully swallowed up by the A&K brand now.) Meanwhile, these days Edward Maquis can be found running a new holiday rental company called The Villa Book.

I mention this because this morning I received an email newsletter from an up-market travel agency/operator that I had not encountered before. To my surprise and delight it turns out that In-Style Travel, and its sub-brand In-style Opera (there was my first clue) , is the creation of Andrew Blair and his associate Jeanette Garrad.

Andrew is well-known in the industry as the founder of Travel for the Arts, one of the best-known and most successful arts & music specialist tour operators. (It's a small sector. He and at least two of his leading competitors all used to work together as juniors at a third!) Now Travel for the Arts is a brand of Specialised Travel ltd.

Which leaves me wondering when Christopher Kirker, founder of the independent short break specialist Kirker Holidays, will surface in a new guise. Last time I heard he was still acting as a consultant for them, but you can't keep the good ones down for long.

11 September 2007

Don't buy travel online

I have a couple of 'golden nuggets' of advice that I've regularly passed on to travellers over the, almost, twenty years that I've been a travel journalist. I'm just going to mention one of them again....

Never buy anything but the most simple travel components online.

Low-cost flights, basic hotel bookings, simple city break packages for two... are generally ok (especially if you actually have first hand knowledge of the accommodation or destination)

...but never buy anything more complex online, like multi-leg flights or a family beach holiday. Always do the research online and then book it through a human.

It's not just to avoid the laughable pitfall of booking the wrong thing - this week's humerous Internet mis-booking story in the press is about the Norwegians who ended up in Rodez in France, instead of Rhodes - it's because computers can't anticipate the things you expect, or need to consider. There simply isn't a select-best-hotel-based-on-possibility-of-aunt-joining-us-midweek button on an internet booking form. Nor do computers have personalised expert knowledge - that's why travel agents were invented!

The only reason for booking travel online is to make life easier and reduce costs for the travel company, if that's what you want to do. That's why companies make it difficult to use the phone or charge you extra for it (like British Airways who add a £15 per person surcharge for telephone bookings).

07 September 2007

Belgium on the brink of break-up?

I've long been aware of the two contrasting halves of Belgium.

When I was 12/13 I was sent for a few weeks to stay with a French-speaking Belgian family in Mons who were friends of my parents (very longstanding friends as things turned out. Only death and old age has finally stopped them being travelling companions.) And it was there I first began to realise there was a rift between them and their northern neighbours.

Over the years I visited a number of times, both along the coast (as a sailor) & inland (as a travel journalist), and during that time I've watched as the ancient differences between the Flemish and the Walloons have become more formalised and pronounced.

Particularly noticeable in my line of work was the break up of the national tourist board into Tourism Flanders-Brussels and Belgian Tourist Office - Brussels & Wallonia.

And I'm ashamed to say that only this week, in my own small way I even exacerbated the situation by cracking a (mild, but rather witty) anti-Walloon joke with a Flemish friend.

I mention this because in the context of the European Union, the idea of individual would-be states asserting their independence (Scotland for example) hasn't really seemed terribly disastrous.....or imminent.

But I was brought up short this morning, reading this appraisal of current Belgian politics which suggests that the 'unlikely' might become 'likely' rather more quickly than anyone had supposed.

05 September 2007

Grassing over the cracks

I like this photo, sent this morning by GNER's press office. (GNER are the popular East Coast train operator who won't be for much longer, cos they lost the franchise.)

In order to highlight new statistics showing rail travel from Newcastle to London is more than five times greener than flying they covered the concourse of Newcastle station in astroturf for one day this week.

Phone a Belgian

Automated telephone answering systems are one of the unloved but all-pervading features of modern life, so it's nice to get a press release from Tourism Flanders-Brussels who are promoting their enquiry line on the grounds that it is operated by humans.

Tourism Flanders- Brussels operate a “real” live operator line from Monday to Friday on a London local rate telephone number. Calls are actually answered by a member of staff unlike so many tourist offices nowadays! Its is rare not to have automated answering lines and we pride ourselves in the fact that we can answer public queries in person without the need to incur prohibitive telephone rate charges for our visitors.

The Tourism Flanders-Brussels live operator line is manned daily from 9am – 4pm, Monday to Friday. Should the public want further information, a free brochure ordering line is available too.

In a world where we all rely on machines, it’s nice to know that some tourist offices value the human touch!

Of course the irony is that if the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium suddenly started attracting significantly more visitors and enquiries (maybe triggered by a rush of enthusiasm for human operated enquiry lines!) one of the first things to go in order to cope more efficiently, would be the humans who answer the phones.

Still, t
here is a more serious and more sinister aspect to all this.

Machines answering phones are generally accepted as unpleasant but necessary, as long as they make the process of being routed through to a relevant person more efficient.

Phone transactions that are entirely machine operated (booking tickets, paying bills) are tolerated but dis-trusted and dis-liked.

The Halifax bank is the only organisation I am aware of that has crossed the line and turned to the 'dark side' by introducing a machine that phones you... and goes on relentlessly phoning you every two hours or so (during the day and early evening) until you have completed the transaction. Phone stalking by machine.

I know this because I refuse to talk to it on the grounds that once companies get the idea that we'll answer phone calls from their machines, the floodgates will open and we'll be deluged with their spam.

It is also
the ultimate insult to treat customers as non-human entities that can be engaged and handled at arms length by a machine.

As the Carlsberg adverts would have it - it's a pity Tourism Flanders isn't a bank because they'd certainly be better than the Halifax.

(and yes, I will be voting with my feet and taking my business elsewhere)

04 September 2007

Watch out for travel surveys

Note to self: It's best to be a little more sceptical than you already are, of all those surveys sent each day by PR companies ....

Surveys are one of the PR industry's primary tools and yet the example of Veet's Sexy Walk survey summarised here illustrates just how seriously dodgy (and ridiculous) they can be.

I do occasionally use the copy from travel survey releases - if they haven't twitched my 'tosh antenna' or 'subtlety sensor' - but I think I need to be even more wary these days.

29 August 2007

Another rule for sending press releases by email

I've just received a press release from Avis' PR company.

When I say "just", I really mean "just".

It was by pure accident I saw it.

That's because when batches of emails come in I switch off the preview screen and delete all the spam that my anti-virus/anti-spam software misses.

Spam is pretty easy to spot. One of the telltale signs is an email with nothing in the subject field and from a name I don't recognise.

So, listen up PRs....

When sending releases (or anything) by email, always write a clear and explanatory subject line, preferably mentioning the name of the client.

27 August 2007

Mass Email Press Release Error

This story about a "PR disaster" is kinda nice to read - the view from the other side.

I receive loads of emailed press releases. Occasionally the senders make the classic mistake of sending it with the full list of recipients visible in the CC: field, not hidden in the BCC: field.

It doesn't happen very often. The anonymous writer quite accurately describes the amount of effort and cross-checking that professional PRs normally put into writing and distributing releases...which is why errors like this (and typos) stand out.

(off topic: what bizarre mental process/deficiency is it that allows you to proof-read something a dozen times and yet the very moment you commit - send it to the printer, publish it on the website/blog, or hit the email send button - the most glaring, in-your-face, ta-dah typo leaps out at you!!!)

But I am surprised at the reaction he got. Why such hostility?

It's true. Most journos DO treat PRs with disdain bordering on contempt (although they usually disguise it pretty well when there's something on offer like a press trip!). It's largely because in journo circles it is viewed as 'politically correct' to distance yourself from PRs in order to be seen to be squeaky clean and independent. But too many journos take the 'fashion' too far, especially when they are in the company of other journos at the workplace. (You want to hear what my journo guild chums say about PRs when they get together! Mind you, it would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when PRs are discussing journos too.)

It's also true that sometimes PRs do make crass mistakes that are either irritating or make life more difficult for the journo (more on those in a moment).

But accidentally revealing your mailing list is hardly a PR disaster!

What? The hapless journo is so dense he/she didn't realise this wasn't an exclusive story, hand-made just for them, and is insulted to be given a mass-marketed release?!?!

On the contrary. When I get them I feel sorry for the PR who has accidentally revealed his hand and intrigued to see who else is on the list.

No, here are much more serious errors for PRs to worry about making. (See my 'Golden Rules' for writing a press release.) In particular the two cardinal sins:

1) Leaving it un-dated.
2) Not being available for follow-up enquiries.

22 August 2007

Foreign currency reserves

Years ago I was on a small group press trip which went astray on its return to the UK - for some reason (bad weather or something) our flight was diverted to Frankfurt late on a sunday evening, where we had to spend a couple of hours on the ground in transit. On the bright side, there was an enticing bar. On the gloomy side, none of us had anticipated going to Germany, this was pre-Euro, and there didn't seem to any money exchange facilities in operation.

Before we could start exploring the possibilities of setting up a credit card tab, one of the journo's (a well-organised travel editor I had travelled with a couple of times before) pulled out a large wallet thing with fan-folded plastic pockets packed with international banknotes. With a flourish she ran her finger along to the pocket containing Deutchmarks and bought a round of drinks.

I remember being impressed (and grateful!), but I wondered if it wasn't 'overkill', wandering around the world with an emergency multi-national piggy-bank!

Nevertheless, I was clocking up between 15-20 overseas trips per annum at the time and had built up a substantial stash of foreign notes and coins at home, some of which - US dollars in particular - I was able to re-use on return visits.

Tip: Always keeps small denominations of US dollars. They are invaluable for tipping when you arrive in the USA or Caribbean again. Likewise Euros.

... nothing usual in that. Many of us hang onto small quantities leftover foreign cash on our return. After all, nobody feels comfortable with the concept of throwing away real money!

I mention it, because it appears we are hanging onto larger amounts these days. Lastminute.com have been asking their clients about their foreign currency habits.

It turns out that, with many of us taking more than one holiday/break in a year, we are even more inclined to hang onto major currencies. Four out of ten people polled by Lastminute admitted they have up to £35 in Euros in their sock drawer and just over one in ten has more than £35 worth.

Interestingly, the weakness of the dollar means that holiday makers are not hanging on to them as much, with only 11% surveyed hanging on to between 1 and 50 dollars and 14% keeping more than fifty dollars.

Almost 20% of lastminute.com’s customers also collect other lesser used currencies such as the Moroccan Dirham and the Thai Baht as these are also considered as souvenirs.

Lastminute have been doing their sums and they reckon that there is approximately £170m worth of foreign currency lying around in people's drawers in the UK.

Not much of it is mine though. I still keep small supplies of US Dollars and Euros, but I got rid of my huge collection of Malaysian ringitts, Australian dollars, Lebanese pounds, Zambian kwachas (great wadges of them!), etc...to a charity.

20 August 2007

Passport delays - not just us then!

Until I saw this story, I hadn't noticed the absence of one of our annual travel themes.

Normally the early part of the summer is populated with news stories and TV reports about passport delays as Britons prepare for their summer hols. We haven't had them this year. But the Americans have.

The old stereotype image of Americans is that they are un-travelled and till now the supporting evidence has been that only one-fifth of Americans hold a passport. Well, that's because in their sphere of influence they didn't need them.

Now, post-911 security legislation is forcing a change. Not only do Americans require passports to go to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean by air, new regulations coming into effect next year will require them to have passports for travel to those destinations by land or sea as well.

All of this has meant a mad scramble for US passports - the '1 passport holder in 5 Americans' statistic is now 1 in 4 and expected to be 1 in 2 by 2011 - and what had been a 3-day turnaround for passport applications is currently somewhere around 12 weeks according to one report.

I only mention it for its schadenfreude value.

17 August 2007

At last, a good reason to go to Brussels!

Leonardo da Vinci
Belgium is a great destination to visit from Antwerp, Bruges & Ghent in the north-west to the Ardennes in the south-east..... but Brussels has always been the weak link. Pity, cos that's where the train goes!

Now, finally (and sadly, temporarily) there's something for real visitors (ie not politicians or business folk) to do in Brussels other than watching that silly little statue peeing into a pond, stretch out a coffee at one of the cafes in the Grand Place, and peer up at the Atomium (I did that once, sometime around 1969!).

Opening tomorrow for 7 months, as part of the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, is a seriously major exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's works including the Codex of the Flight of Birds, on loan from the Turin Library, as well as Leonardo's only self-portrait in red chalk and the Tongerlo Copy after Leonardo's Last Supper, painted barely 20 years after Leonardo completed the original, and reputed to be the most accurate copy of the subsequently damaged fresco.

A portrait painted on a wooden panel of Marie Magdalene will also be on show, for the second time ever after it was first revealed to the world as a Leonardo at Ancona's Mole Vanvitelliana museum in October 2005.

The exhibition will also feature facsimiles of Da Vinci's notebooks, several of his inventions, films about the artist’s universal genius, and no fewer than 45 working models built to scale, including a 20 metre swing bridge never previously constructed.

And to finish it off, they are looking at his influences and influence on European art, so there will also be around one hundred original drawings and sketches by Raphael, Michelangelo, Canaletto, Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch!

Better book your tickets now before Eurostar starts to fill up.

15 August 2007

Carnival Cruise Director's blog

I mentioned John Heald's blog a couple of days ago, and its rapid growth in the blogosphere...

Carnival have issued a press release with some more detail...

MIAMI (August 9, 2007) – The on-line “blog” written by Carnival Freedom Senior Cruise Director John Heald, which offers lighthearted stories and amusing anecdotes of shipboard life, has reached a new milestone with more than half a million visitors since its debut in March.

Originally created as part of the micro-site developed for the launch of the Carnival Freedom (www.carnival.com/freedom), the blog has been making a steady climb, attracting 25,000 visitors in its first 10 days and reaching the 300,000 mark in June. Heald’s blog consistently ranks among the top 100 among the nearly 1.3 million blogs hosted by Wordpress, a leading blog-hosting service.

“I was astonished when we reached 25,000 visitors, amazed when we hit 100,000, shocked when the figure reached 250,000, but 500,000 – well, I am completely ‘gobsmacked,’ which is a quaint old English colloquialism for ‘I have no words,’” Heald said. “All I can say is thank you to all the readers who take their valuable time each day to read the blog thingy. I will keep typing as long as my two fingers allow,” he added.

Through his blog, Heald shares with readers his personal stories and photos about life aboard the Carnival Freedom with wife Heidi, as well as entertaining and heartwarming encounters with guests and crewmembers he comes in contact with on a daily basis.

The blog’s increasingly popular question-and-answer section has quickly become a fan favorite. In it, Heald personally answers questions about the Carnival vacation experience, provides information and recommendations on various cruise-related topics, and offers personal travel tips on things to do while in port.

The blog’s popularity has led to the “John Heald Bloggers Cruise,” a seven-day western Caribbean voyage aboard the Carnival Freedom Jan. 19, 2008.

It has also spawned a series of T-shirts and polo shirts which are available on-line via www.carnivalfuntees.com, a specialized Web site that enables consumers to create custom-designed Carnival-inspired shirts.

Three different shirt styles are available. “I Love John’s Blog Thingy” and “I’ve Seen John’s Blog Thingy” are modeled after Heald’s own moniker for his blog, and “Official Member - Heidi’s Fan Club,” a tribute to Heald’s wife, who is the Carnival Freedom’s assistant cruise director and occasional blog contributor.

The “John Heald Bloggers Cruise” will operate round-trip from Miami January 19-26, 2008, visiting three of Heald’s favorite ports of call: Ocho Rios, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico.

During the cruise, Heald will host a number of special events, including a Welcome Aboard Reception, trivia contests, and question-and-answer sessions, and participants will receive memorabilia such a limited edition calendar featuring Heald’s top 12 entries, a custom-designed “Bloggers Cruise” T-shirt and more.

Carnival is currently accepting reservations for the “Bloggers Cruise,” with prices starting at $599 per person, based on double occupancy. Special rates for third and fourth guests sailing in the same stateroom are also available.

Not just international trains and UK destinations benefiting from airports backlash

I've mentioned a number of times, on this blog and in articles, how the grisly experiences of air passengers at UK airports is driving people onto Eurostar, and to take more short breaks and holidays in the UK.

I'd sort of assumed that they must also be turning to the ferries to get to the continent. Today I see firm evidence from the Passenger Shipping Association who say that ferries are experiencing a growth in demand triggered by the airports backlash.

Their latest Ferrystat (IRN /PSA) figures for the half year to June 2007 show an overall 3.5% rise in car journeys to the Continent, Ireland and the British Islands (excluding Scottish routes). UK and Ireland routes have seen car carryings up by 5.6%, journeys to the British Isles are up by 4.4%, while car journeys to the Continent have increased by 2.4%.

Their (PSA) opinion is that more and more travellers, especially families, are taking self-drive holidays to avoid "unpleasantly crowded" airport terminals.

Interestingly, the travel trade site, Travelmole.com, ran this as a news item today and the first comment they got was from the Travel & Tourism coordinator at Truro college who said that her brother had been held up for an hour and a half at Plymouth on Sunday when he arrived on a Brittany Ferry from Roscoff. The reason was that every passport now has to be scanned into a computer. The person doing this told him the whole boat could have been cleared in 20 minutes under the old system.

She's right! That'll dampen people's enthusiastic re-discovery of ferries. Travelling is becoming less & less fun whichever way you go!

13 August 2007

Airport delays - tell it like it is

Another simple and timely idea...

The independent network of (780 home-based) travel-agents, Travel Counsellors, has set up a really useful website to monitor the experience of passengers at UK airports.

UK Airport Delays enables air passengers to simply record the time they spent queueing at their airport, and produces league tables of the best/worst airports.

Needless to say Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick were occupying the bottom three slots on the table when I looked today. But, newly launched with only 178 entries so far, it's hardly a reliable evaluation. Wouldn't it be useful though, if the site was widely publicised and thousands of air passengers started reporting each week?

Of course, the tendency will be for people to use it when they have had a bad experience (to 'get it off their chest') so the computed average delay times themselves will hardly be 'balanced' data, but the relationships between like-for-like airports will be interesting.

Another missing luggage idea

In January I was walking through the snow in Aviemore with a fellow travel journalist (we were attending the British Guild of Travel Writers annual general meeting) listening in sadness to an account of his Christmas break.

A loved one had died last year and he had decided to cheer himself up by taking a self-indulgent luxury christmas cruise on one of the small Seabourn ships. (He is a well-established specialist cruise writer so he knew exactly what he was looking for - high luxury, high formal.) To cut a long story short, somewhere on the way out to the ship, he and his luggage parted company and he wound up without any formal wear (without much 'wear' at all!) eating christmas lunch alone in his cabin.

Since then I've been much more aware of the misery of losing your luggage on holiday. It's never - touch wood - happened to me so I confess I hadn't really given it much thought before.

The recent publicity given to British Airways appalling record on lost luggage seems to have triggered an outpouring of 'holiday without luggage' stories... and suggestions, like the one in my previous post.

And I've just come across another close-to-brilliant suggestion in John Heald's blog.

John Heald is the cruise director on board Carnival Freedom and in recent months his honest day-to-day blog has become firmly established among the blogosphere's most popular blogs, not least because he not only writes about his own thoughts and experiences, he also includes endless letters comments and photos from friends, passengers, and other contributors, turning it into a continuous conversation.

In today's post, there is a letter from a couple on board, Sandy & Gary Stigger, who say:

My husband & I were talking about the people who have no luggage on board. We had an idea for you. It would be funny to have tee shirts printed for them that look like tuxes and formal dresses for formal night. It could have printing such as "I made it but my luggage didn't!"

It could be a badge of honor for them, make them laugh a little, and it would be a great gift for them.

What a great idea! Simple, cheap and effective. I think it should be spread throughout the whole cruise industry. It would do so much to alleviate the misery of lost luggage victims on cruises.

I can hear cruise companies thinking 'yeah, but we don't really want to draw attention to how often this problem occurs' but it's not a reflection on them. Who's to know who lost that passenger's luggage? Most passengers seeing a 'lost luggager' would assume it was the airline.

09 August 2007

Why does baggage need to be handled?

One of the many comments posted on the end of Graham Boynton's Daily Telegraph ire-provoking article (published yesterday on their website) about lost airline luggage, really made me sit up and take notice...

The answer, of course, is for airlines to re-equip with some of the wide-bodied Iluyshins I travelled on in Russia. These come fitted with a "left luggage room" under the passenger cabin. We boarded with our all our luggage, left it in in the luggage hold, then walked upstairs to our seats, collecting the luggage as we disembarked. No luggage check-in, and no hanging about waiting for the handlers to finish their tea/strike/football pools. Wonderful.
Posted by John Bienias on August 7, 2007 7:41 AM

Brilliant, out-of-the-box thinking!

Why do airlines and airports need to handle luggage in the first place? Is it just because they always have?

Why don't passengers take all their luggage on board themselves?

Think of the advantages (I mean just immediately off the top of my head)....

  • No carousels or waiting in the arrivals hall
  • No check-in. (Just think, BAA, of all that space freed up for retail!)
  • No lost luggage (well virtually)
  • No baggage handlers (which also means no baggage handler strikes). Maybe just hireable porters (skycaps) to assist if needed.
  • No delayed flights because bags belonging to missing passengers won't have to be found and removed from aircraft hold before take-off.
  • One set of security checks for all your bags.
  • Less luggage overall because if they have to carry it through through the airport, passengers will be more economical with their packing.

I can't see it happening anytime soon, but it does deserve serious discussion. Isn't it time we re-examined some of the fundemental systems of air travel to see if they are even logical or sensible in this day & age?

08 August 2007

Allaboutyou.com are ahead of the curve

Good news!

Back in the spring I approached the Hearst Digital group of online sites (actually I approached one of them, Handbag.com) with an idea for a bi-media travel feature about a canal boating weekend. To their great credit they were keen to expand their content range and leapt at the idea, so Bernadette Fallon, the editor of Allaboutyou.com (She magazine website) commissioned a 1,000-word article and accompanying 5-10min audio feature (mp3).

The text feature was published on the site in mid June but they had to wait for the IT guys to sort out a pop-up player for the audio clip, which has just arrived.

So, you can read the article and listen to the actuality here... Canal boat weekend.

I'm so pleased about this because I have been talking about how digital technology means print publishers can become enhanced multi-media publishers since 1998. The newspapers, led by the Guardian and followed by Times Online & the Telegraph, have been early adopters, but magazines have been much slower to recognise the opportunities.

Hearst Digital (who by a strange quirk of fate are located in the same building as my former employer, Classic FM) is keen to publish more multi-media material. It's now up to us multi-media journalists to start offering it.

Their sites are: allaboutyou.com | handbag.com | getlippy.com | gomamatoday.com | cosmopolitan.co.uk | menshealth.co.uk | goodhousekeeping.co.uk | youandyourwedding.co.uk | netdoctor.co.uk | countryliving.co.uk | cosmogirl.co.uk | runnersworld.co.uk | babyexpert.co.uk | prima.co.uk

Oak Ridge tour is only for Americans

I've stumbled across an item about the secret town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which would make an obvious addition to the Travel List of factory tours and brand museums, were it not for one awkward restriction....only US citizens can go on it!

Oak Ridge is the historic nuclear plant that enriched uranium and constructed the first atomic bomb as part of the 'Manhatten Project'.

In 1942 the US government bought 60,000 acres of land in Tennessee and built a secret city for scientists and workers. Within three years it was the fifth largest city in the state with houses, schools and shops for 75,000 citizens...and guards at the city gates. Only when they read the newspaper one morning in August 1945, did the vast majority learn what they were working on.

Now the city has shrunk to 27,000 citizens, but it does have a name...and it does now appear on maps. However, according to the local tourist office press release....

Of the three Manhattan Project sites that were built to enrich the uranium needed for the bomb, two of them, the Y-12 Plant and X-10 Graphite Reactor, are back behind the fence as a result of the terror attacks on 9/11. But during the months of June through September, a special Public Bus Tour takes visitors (US citizens only) “behind the fence” for a glimpse at several historic sites, including a tour inside the X-10 plant. Other highlights on that tour include a drive to an overlook (not open to the general public) to view the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which at the time was the largest building in the world under one roof; the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), which opened in April 2006 and will be used to further the research of neutrons; the Bethel Church, a pre-WWII structure that stands as a testament to the Appalachian heritage of the region; and the Secret City Commemorative Walk, built to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII.

All tours are free with admission to the American Museum of Science & Energy, and are open to US citizens with proper identification.

16 July 2007

'Festival in the Desert' now on my To Do list

Perhaps it was just a co-incidence of festivals.

On Saturday morning I was lying in my tent listening to Radio 4's Excess Baggage. It was particularly interesting because Sandy Toksvig was talking with her four guests about music festivals worldwide.....and here I was, camped in a field in Dorset with 3/4000 others, at the Larmertree Festival, which is mostly world music.

One of her guests, Simon Broughton, contributor to the Rough Guide to World Music and editor of the magazine Songlines, (subject: world music), started talking about the 'Festival in the Desert' - a Tuareg festival held out in the sahara not far from Timbuktoo in Mali. In recent years it has become quite well known outside the country thanks to broadcasters and writers like Simon Broughton and Andy Kershaw, but only a handful of international travellers actually make their way to this remote spot.

It sounded - go to the EB site and look for the podcast clip for that edition on 14/07/07. (There's no permalink so I won't link to it directly here) - fabulously exotic and attractive... but then after a windswept and rainy night in a tent in a muddy field, anything would!

After another day & night of good music (and rain) I was talking with the two middle-aged couples in the next door tent about Larmertree and festivals in general. I mentioned the R4 programme and the Festival in the Desert.

"Oh yes" they said, "We went a couple of years ago. It IS fabulous."

It turns out they made their way there having read about it in the Guardian, and found themselves in company Ex-Led Zeppeliner, Robert Plant, who gave a performance under the stars (Stairway to Heaven?) with some local musicians.

"Magic", said Nigel, a solicitor from East Devon. "...if not a little surreal!"

...And the sand underfoot, they agreed, is exactly as Simon Broughton described it - "like hourglass sand".

I'm hooked. I'll have to find a commission and go!

11 July 2007

New travel ideas are not always obvious

Last night I went to the annual Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Summer Press Party in London, where AITO members (tour operators) and travel journos get to relax, and chat.

The AITO chairman, Derek Moore, made a short speech with a couple of interesting points in it.

One was that the new DoT guidelines on the travel industry still fail to nail down a precise definition of what a package holiday is, and so leaves plenty of wriggle room when it comes to compensation and cover against failure. His point was that ALL holidays provided by all AITO members are fully covered....period.

The other point he made, with journos looking for story ideas in mind, was that not all AITO tour operators have fresh, quirky, innovative 'new product' all the time. Most AITO tour operators are specialists in their niche and many just get on with doing what they are good at....better.

It was a good point. Moments earlier I had run into Akin Koc, MD of Anatolian Sky . He specialises in holidays to unspoilt parts of Turkey and to North Cyprus. He has been doing it - very well - for many years.... and I've run into him many times over those years at functions like this.

When I asked him "what's new this season, Akin?". The answer was, as I expected, not much. A couple of new tours along the Black Sea coast of Turkey.

It's a pity. There are loads of really good, small independent tour operators (not all members of AITO) who specialise in their own niche area - it might be a destination or a special interest - and who don't always get the publicity they deserve because they don't stray far from their core business and create new news-worthy 'products'. They just quietly get on with doing what they are good at as best as they can. (These, by the way are the ones I'm always keen to find and list on Travel-Lists)

Ironically, it later turned out Anatolian Sky are doing something new and interesting.... they just didn't realise it.

I was chatting later to a friend who has just spent several weeks in North Cyprus checking details for a guidebook. He returned to his local airport in the UK on a direct flight from Larnaca on the Greek side of the 'green line' - something that would have been impossible until recently.

It turns out that restrictions on movement between north & south have been eased and, although it is still not falling-off-a-log easy to cross the border (nor is there any significant time saving), for some British travellers who live near regional airports it is a new travel option for getting to North Cyprus (instead of flying via Turkey).

When I mentioned it a little while later to Akin, "why didn't you tell me about the new way of getting there?", he said, "Oh yes, we are doing that. We've started offering it to our clients this season... I just forgot!"

Sometimes travel companies don't realise they are doing something newsworthy... or, in this case, blogworthy - until we write about it.

27 June 2007

Foreign cash dispensers from Raphael Bank

Here's something new. Or at least, new to me.

I've never heard of Raphaels Bank before. They are based in Aylesbury and they are "one of the oldest independent banking houses in the United Kingdom established in 1787".

Anyway, they've sent me a press release, using the 40th anniversary of the first cash dispenser in the UK as an opportunity to highlight their foreign exchange and ATM activities.

It turns out they have their own ATMs at Luton Airport, Gatwick Airport and the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo, which dispense Euros and US dollars.

So if you see one, and think 'Raphaels...eh?' - that's who they are.

Make travel bookings by phone without talking to a machine

Cheapflights have come up with an excellent idea.... a cheatsheet for making travel bookings by phone.

Actually, it's not a new idea. It's an updated edition of their cheatsheet....but it's the first time I've seen it!

The cheatsheet has contact details for the top airlines, travel companies and hotels. It
lists the name of the company, its telephone number and website, and simple instructions on which keystrokes to make to bypass the boring automated voices on the telephone and speak to an actual human.

It also has instructions on how to make a complaint.

25 June 2007

Funny phone call

More anecdotal evidence that Romania is being 'discovered' this year.... though it came accidently in a wrong number phone call a few moments ago.

The caller wanted me to sort out some travel arrangements to Romania, involving a visa.

I explained we were not a travel agency.

"But you did it for us last year when we went to Canada"

"Um, no I don't think so"

"Yes, you did"

"No we don't do that sort of thing"

"Yes you absolutely did!"

Then the penny dropped and I heard myself say "Who do you think you are talking to?"



Aha! I know Travcour. One of the visa specialists. In a flash I was able to look it up on the site, give him the phone number and send him on his happy way.

Now, for interest's sake, I wish I'd asked him what he & his wife were going for - Sibiu (Euro culture city this year)? Dracula? Wildlife watching on the Danube Delta? or in the Carpathians?

Still.... "who do you think you are talking to?" - not often you get to say that, and come away unscathed.

12 June 2007

Possible film boost for Belgium

If there is one promotional vehicle that the marketing people from any destination crave, it's a movie.

So the folks at Tourism Flanders-Brussels are clutching themselves with glee that Dreamworks Studios have announced plans to produce a series of films based on Belgium's most famous export (after Leffe beer)... Herge's Adventures of Tintin.

05 June 2007

Hotel company & Kids' TV get together

Sleepover Club
Drake & Josh **
Genie in the House
Ned's declassified School Survival Kit *
Zoey 101 *
Kenan & Kel
Naked Brothers Band
Genie in the House
H2O *
Sabrina the Teenage Witch *
My Parents are Aliens **

Do any of these names mean anything to you?

How about...

Spongebob Squarepants

Nothing? Good, well you can leave the room now and get on with your life.

For the rest of us - those who know only too well that these are all programmes on the kids tv channel, Nickelodeon - there's bad news on the way.

Marriott and Nickelodeon are launching Nickelodeon-themed hotels - a case where the sum of the two brands will probably weigh considerably less than their individual parts.

I like and respect Marriott. A very good hotel company. I certainly like and admire Nickelodeon. They broadcast some very good kids programmes (I've marked them with an asterisk, and the best with two). Having an 11 year old son I am VERY familiar with all their output!

But the idea of a 'Nick'-themed resort hotel is not appealing. We all know what it's about. Some corporate drones are attempting to "leverage the brands". (Ugh! How that 'L' word makes my skin crawl!). The result will be as lovely, individual, creative, natural and authentic as a Hard Rock Cafe or Disney shop.

If you recognised those names, the chances are your kid will have outgrown 'Nick' by the time they are built. But you have to feel sorry for the next generation of parents who might get caught up in it.

30 May 2007

Plastic travel sites, bleagh!!!

I was just adding an entry to the list of tour operators to Slovenia, and as usual checked over existing ones, when I found a typical plastic site... ugh!

So I deleted it.

Three years ago it was a small travel agency with specialist knowledge of Slovenia. They may still have some specialist knowledge of Slovenia, but their site is now just another mass-market bland clone with 'white-label' travel 'products' supplied by one of the big online travel 'providers'.

There's a place for mass brands & standard products. It's on every high street in Britain - Starbucks, WH Smith, Orange, Vision Express, Tesco, Waterstones, Clinton Cards - and every search engine results page (SERP) - Lastminute, Expedia, OTC, Travelocity, A2B.

...but wouldn't you rather shop at your local independent fishmonger, baker, optician, etc, and buy unique travel directly from an independent specialist travel company?

21 May 2007

PSARA gets a decent name

I've been banging on about PSARA for many years now (in a good way!).

It's the Passenger Shipping Association's Retail Agent scheme. Members of PSARA have to reach standards in training set by the PSA. In other words, if you are looking for a cruise, go to a specialist travel agent accredited by the cruise industry itself.

The trouble is, PSARA has never really caught hold in the public's collective consciousness in the same way that say ABTA has, or to a lesser extent, AITO. It sounds like a trade organisation - which it is really - and not something of interest to consumers.

So it is welcome news that PSARA is changing its name to ACE - the Association of Cruise Experts.

Hooray! Much better. Simple and to the point. Now maybe the public will catch on.

17 May 2007

Ramblers go worldwide

Ramblers Holidays have changed their name to Ramblers Worldwide Holidays.

Of course, Ramblers always have taken people on walking holidays worldwide. In fact they've been doing it since 1946, the year after WW2 ended, when they took 600 people on walking holidays to Denmark, Sweden, the French Alps, Tunisia, Andorra, Provence, Corsica, Paris and the Ardennes. Imagine how easy that was to organise in the aftermath of the war!

But that's not the general perception. People think of them as operators of walking holidays in the UK. Hence the need for a change of brand image, which they are marking with a new look expanded brochure and website.

The problem is (and this is a name you will not read in their press materials covering the re-launch) people link them with the Ramblers Association - a uk-focused charity.

Hardly surprising, because although Ramblers Worldwide Holidays studiously avoid making that connection, they are linked.

The official line is:
Ramblers Worldwide Holidays and Countrywide Holidays are the 2 trading names operating walking holidays. Both are owned and operated by the private limited company Ramblers Holidays Ltd (RH).

RH is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ramblers Association Services Ltd (RAS) which is an Industrial & Provident Society regulated by the Financial Services Authority. As such it has around 300 "members" or shareholders which own and control RAS. It is governed by a management committee elected from within the shareholders. This committee appoint the directors and senior management team of RH and therefore control the management of both Ramblers Worldwide Holidays and Countrywide Holidays.

RH gives a certain amount of profits into the Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust (RHCT) each year. This is used to fund various projects in support of walking and enjoyment and protection of the countryside. The Ramblers’ Association (RA) is one of the main beneficiaries of grants made by RHCT.

The Ramblers’ Association is a totally separate legal entity and operates entirely independently of RAS & RH. At a management and operational level there are closer ties between the organisations, working closely for mutual benefit.

Be that as it may....

As a 'worldwide' brand, RWH would like to distance itself from the RA (indeed there was apparently much internal debate about ditching the 'Ramblers' part of their name entirely), but the RA, through its newsletter & website, is one of RWH's most loyal & lucrative sources of business.

So although RWH & the RA share a bed, right now Ramblers Worldwide Holidays would prefer it if they are not seen in public together.

15 May 2007

Airbus A380 - weighty issues

Airbus A380
Airbus rolled out their first commercial A380 from the paint shop (well, huge hanger actually) in Hamburg last week, all decked out in the livery of their launch customer, Singapore Airlines.

They issued some stats:
Approximately 792 gallons (3,600 litres) of paint was used for the livery. Some 100 painters worked over four shifts polishing the 3,100m2 surface area of the aircraft fuselage by hand, and the painting process took 21 days.
It got me thinking. How much does almost 800 gallons of paint weigh when it is dry? It must be a lot. And we know how concerned Airbus has been over the weight issue. How do they factor it in to the the calculations when, presumably, different liveries weigh different amounts? (depending how subtle they are!) And those differences for a paint job on such a large scale, must be significant...

Thinking about it reminded me of the time when, after the Paris crash, BA & Air France had to fit Kevlar linings around the fuel tanks in Concorde. I remember doing a story about how they were compensating for the extra weight.

British Airways - and I can't find my notes here, so I'm sure someone will correct the detail if I'm wrong - did a redesign of the cabin for the re-launch of services, which included replacing all the seats with new ones commissioned from Recaro (I think). Their significant design feature was that they were all lighter than the old ones, offsetting the weight of the new tanks.

When I phoned Air France and asked them how they were going to deal with the weight problem I could 'hear' the disdainful Gallic shrug at the other end, "but of course, we are just not selling the last four seats!"

09 May 2007

Un-fashionable pastimes becoming trendy breaks

I'm just in the middle of writing an article about canalboat holidays...

... in which I'm arguing that the new surge of interest in domestic holidays - brought about by environmental concerns over flying and the increasingly horrible airport experience (delays, strikes, security, et al), coupled with the rise in the number of short breaks we all take now - has meant that canal boat holidays are no longer considered to be a pastime of the 'tired & retired', but instead are becoming trendy.

The shiny Mercedes 4x4 disgorging a large middle-class London family, plus all their bikes, into the rented narrowboat moored alongside ours a couple of weekends ago (when we spent a few days on the Grand Union canal) was anecdotal evidence of that. And I notice there have been a couple of travel pieces about canal holidays in the Times recently, backing that idea up.

But it's not just canals. The resurgence of interest in traditional UK holidays has made several things 'trendy' again.

There's a fantastic new generation of stylish hotels and B&Bs breathing new life into the traditional British seaside holiday - think how fashionable Cornwall (or "Rick Steinwall") has become in recent years!

Farm holidays are back in vogue - take a look at the Featherdown Farms brochure for the very definition of middle-class aspirational family holidaying!

Camping (especially at music festivals!) is fashionable again. That range of designer tents with cows printed on them probably helped! It certainly triggered a spate of 'camping is chic' articles last year.

and they even say, (sometimes using photos of retro-styled aluminium Airstreams or refurbished horse-drawn gipsy wagons to back it up) that caravanning is becoming trendy


I'll go along with the rest, but that is one proposition too far!

Caravanning has never been, and will never be fashionable. Period.

k. Rant over. Back to the article.

04 May 2007

Boo.com re-appears as travel site

As anyone who read the book (boo hoo) knows, boo.com was the definitive dotcom crash. However, not daunted by the legacy, somebody has bought the domain name and is this week re-launching it as a travel website.

That 'somebody' is Web Reservations International (WRI), a Dublin-based online reservations company that includes
hostelworld.com, hostels.com and trav.com among its brands and provides 'white-label' booking engine services to other websites.

I'm sure Ray Nolan, CEO of boo.com, has read the book and knows the history. WRI probably think (quite rightly) that people are unlikely to make directly negative associations between the new site and the original site. Indeed they probably figure that the familiarity of the name will have a positive benefit...

But my instinct is the opposite.

By re-using a well-known brand name with a previous history - good or bad - you are only highlighting the fact that it is 'second-hand', 'used', which somehow makes it feel cheap - like a cyber-squatter.

And by re-using a well-known brand name with a spectacular previous history - good or bad - you are setting a high standard to live up to. A site that is any less spectacular is just going to look second rate - a pale imitation.

I wish them well (not least because I like the site) and hope I'm wrong.... but I don't think I am.

20 April 2007

Who is Travel-Lists for?

Somebody has just asked me if I can describe who Travel-Lists is for.

Not so much the demographics of typical visitors, but what its purpose is.

Good question.

I have tried to put it succinctly on the site itself (here), but I can expand a little...

If you are a doctor, all your relatives, friends and acquaintances ask you if they should be concerned about the pain they have in their leg.

If you are a travel agent or, like me, a travel journalist (of some 19 years - just been counting!), all your relatives, friends and acquaintances tell you they are thinking about visiting Mongolia and do you have any tips/suggestions.

My usual response is "yes, actually there a few really good specialist companies arranging travel and operating tours in Mongolia. I'll email you a list of them."

Travel-Lists is all those lists.

So it is designed for friends.

17 April 2007

Car stories

I rather like some of these, but can't use them on site.

They are stories being used as padding for a puffer press release from a car rental company called CarDelMar.com.

It goes without saying that it is always a good idea to fill your car up with petrol before embarking on any trip. One thief in Seattle got more than he bargained for though when he decided to siphon petrol from a motor home. Police arriving at the scene found the man lying ill on the ground after mistakenly putting the hose into the sewage, rather than the petrol tank of the motor home.

A misguided man in Monheim, Germany, had no licence and had been out on the tiles when his car broke down. The 31 year old went to call the breakdown service, but mistakenly called the police – resulting in the prompt appearance of officers to arrest him for his two-fold law breaking.

Speeding truck drivers in India caught out by police end up going nowhere fast. Police in the state of Bihar subject drivers to humiliating punishments rather than sending them to court; the most popular of which is make the speedsters hop like frogs. Police hope the half a kilometre hop while offenders hold their ears will be a good deterrent for those planning on committing the offence again.

A motorist out driving with her dog broke down in Addlestone, Surrey – a problem that was solved by her dog starting the car. A breakdown patrol man had arrived at the scene, and the woman explained that she had changed the battery in the electronic key fob but was still unable to start her car. Further discussion led to the realisation that the dog had eaten the immobiliser chip –the breakdown man put the dog in the front seat and then started the car with the key.

29 March 2007

Internet articles are read more thoroughly than print

Whoa! Here's another myth busted, for those PRs who still think newspapers have more influence than online media...

It turns out that where most people (me included) assumed that Internet users have a shorter attention span than traditional book/newspaper/magazine readers, in fact they read articles online more thoroughly.

These are the results of Poynter's EyeTrack07 study, presented yesterday to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. The study tracks the eye movements of readers as they read news content. (see report)

Basically, because they select what they want to read ('pull' rather than 'push'), they read an average of 77% of the article, compared to 62% in broadsheets and 57% in tabloids.

I wonder too, if online articles tend to be shorter than print versions? Which would make it easier to read more. Perhaps there's a note for online editors there. Perhaps we/they don't need to keep online content shorter.

28 March 2007

The purpose of RSS feeds

Hmm, I 've been having an interesting 'conversation/exchange of views' on the subject of newsfeeds and copyright. (Which I think I'm sort of losing.)

I tend to view RSS as an offsite promotional tool that you can use to point to content on your website. So I have a set of RSS feeds on Travel-Lists for Travel News, Latest Travel Ideas, News of Travel Bargains, and Updated Lists.

These days the use of RSS has long since evolved from RDF Site Summary to Really Simple Syndication, so 'whole content' is now being carried in RSS files eg in blogs or podcasts.

As such, it should be, and is, copyright protected. But part of me still feels that if you use RSS to index content on your site, you should waive copyright and expect it to be published anywhere not just in the places you'd like to see it eg. Bloglines, Yahoo, Moreover, etc. After all, let's not kid ourselves, that's why you are doing it.

21 March 2007

Grand Canyon Skywalk finally open...ish

So the Grand Canyon Skywalk is open. They got lots of coverage. BBC tv news last night and most of the newspapers this morning.

Not really surprising. It may have been controversial with some members of the Hualapai Indian tribe (on whose tribal land it sits) and those who consider it to be a blot on the natural beauty of the park, but IS a dramatic concept - walking on a glass floor suspended over a 4,000ft drop? That's twice the height of my first parachute jump out of an aeroplane! - and it will be hugely popular.

Two things surprised me.

  • I thought it had already been completed ages ago. They've been blathering on about it for long enough!

  • It doesn't look complete. The original designs had the horseshoe-shaped walkway jutting out from traditional stone buildings designed to blend in with the canyon rock face for minimal visual impact. At the moment it's just a steel & glass walkway cantilevered out over the drop. Where are the buildings?

Addendum (26/03/07): Oh that's very interesting. It turns out they haven't got a proper road either, according to an article in Sunday's Observer British rancher blocks Skywalk tribe.

I met this guy a couple of times, promoting the Heli USA business. I knew about the ranch and knew there was a link between the two businesses but I had no idea he was actually the 'governor'. I though he was just the UK rep!

I'm not surprised he is concerned. He's absolutely right on all counts. Pristine wilderness IS what visiting Brits want to experience. That IS why they go to the ranch. And the Skywalk will be so popular as an excursion from Las Vegas, the road will resemble a morning rush-hour motorway into London.

Sadly, the fact that he is a Brit (not a fifth-generation land-owner from the pioneer settlers) in dispute with native American indians means he probably won't get as much support as perhaps he should.

13 March 2007

Travel-Lists is available to the Chinese

I spotted the Great Firewall of China site on alexa.com's list of rising stars, and tried it out just now.

It checks any website url you give it, to see whether it is viewable or banned in China. Nice simple graphics.

Anyway, the good news is that Travel-Lists.co.uk is available to X-squillion Internet-connected Chinese citizens... though what possible use it might be to them, God alone knows!

12 March 2007

Turkish baths look cool.... tepid, warm & hot

I've only ever been to Harrogate once in my life (hundreds of years ago, it seems like), so the baths have never really 'appeared on my radar'.

But The Yorkshire Tourist board have just emailed their newsletter with a short item on the Turkish Baths & Health Spa ... and a photo, which I thought looked rather good!

08 March 2007

Why U.S. Tourist Office websites tend to be better than ours

Last week I came across an interesting item on Neil Mclean's Travel PR Blog about the difference between U.S. state tourist office websites and our local tourist office websites in the UK.

Essentially it is pointing out that the Americans have more sophisticated sites than us.

I wanted to highlight some reasons for that, but it's an old blog item (Jan 07) and it won't accept my comments. So while they're on my mind, I'll use my blog!

There are a couple of significant reasons why the US Tourism organisations have better websites than us.

1) They have a huge domestic market to address. The vast majority of (Internet-savvy) Americans take their holidays in the USA, and usually by car. US families want lots of easily researchable detail in depth.

2) They recognised the importance of the Internet before us.

Back at the turn of the millennium the Travel Industry Association of America's bi-annual survey into the travel habits of Americans was already demonstrating that.

Of the 1300 adults polled in 2000/01, 17% indicated their primary source of travel planning inspiration came from general magazines. 17% used guidebooks. 20% used TV. 25% referred to newspapers, and 26% read motor club magazines (like the AA. Remember, most American families go on road trips for their vacation)... However, a massive 40% used the Internet.

The US travel industry got that message loud & clear and started investing in the web.

Al Fresco Farm Holidays

I stumbled across this on Monday when I was doing some research.

I've written it up on the Holiday Ideas page but I'm blogging it too because my format on Travel-Lists is deliberately low on graphics (the limited images on the site are only at thumbnail size) and this picture needs to be large to see the detail Eg. the child in the 'cupboard bed' (they call it a 'canopy bed'. Not sure why!)

Feather Down Farm Days are the brainchild of Luite Moraal (the Dutchman who introduced Centre Parks to the UK). He vets farmers who want to take part and if they and their farm are suitable, he erects up to 5 tented cottages on their land for the summer season.

The tents, as you can see, are pretty luxurious, eco-friendly, and are fitted out in in traditional 1930s rustic style with plenty of wooden furniture, wood stoves and oil lamps, and no electric - or digital - equipment in sight!

Thinking I'd stumbled on something new, unique, and rather special, I called them up and was forwarded to a PR who I know quite well. She told me the idea had already been successful in Holland and that they piloted it on one farm in Hampshire in Sept & Oct last year, where it sold out immediately. It also, and this is the bit that surprised me (and her), was enthusiastically covered in several broadsheet papers and Conde Nast Traveler... and I missed it!

There's not much new product that appears in the UK travel sector without me noticing... but obviously some things slip through!

01 March 2007

PRs should consider long term benefits of fam trips

I've just been editing a podcast interview with a tour operator who is also a scuba dive instructor. We were talking about the joys of Ambergis Cay in Belize, which include a barrier reef that's easily in the same league as Australia's and a formation called the 'Blue Hole', which is a bit of a dive icon.

I didn't know I was going to be talking to her about Ambergis Cay, but by good fortune - because its not well-known to British travellers - I have actually been there and dived there, albeit quite a few years ago.

Not only did this mean we could both talk about it with enthusiasm, each feeding off the other, but also I was able to feed her questions about things that she had forgotten to mention.

It's not the first time. A few weeks ago I was recording another podcast interview with an AITO Specialist Agent, Polly Davies, (you can listen to it on TTGLive) when she talked about matching customers' interests to holidays and used the example of a woman passionate about botany who she sent to a place in central Belize. I recognised it immediately and suddenly we were enthusing about this little resort inn called Chaa Creek.

But that's not the first time. In the 12 years since I spent a week travelling around Belize on a fam trip, I must have referred to it in copy, dozens of times, and in conversations with fellow travel journalists and travel professionals, hundreds of times.

Chaa Creek itself got at least the monetary value of my visit back when, a few years ago, the head of communications for a national tourist office in London went there for her honeymoon purely on my personal recommendation.

Oh, and look here we are talking about it again, with an online link and a tag!

These are just the spin-off results of one fam trip - I must have done dozens & dozens over the years.

When PR companies, Tourism Organisations and/or Operators put together press trips they are inevitably and quite rightly thinking about what immediate press coverage they will get.

But if they are hesitant about the benefits of taking any particular journalist or whether to increase the overall size of the group, they should definitely consider it positively. The cost/return balance swings firmly in favour of fam trips when you consider the long-term coverage you can win.

27 February 2007

Travel podcast clips on Explore blog

I've just realised I haven't mentioned the excellent new blog for adventure/discovery tour operator Explore Worldwide.

I'm afraid my "excellent" description is entirely biased and un-trustworthy because they are using me to do their podcasting.

However, there are some interesting clips to listen to - eg. on tour leading, on travelling in Africa, Ukraine & Belarus, holiday planning, etc - even though I do say so myself!

Ray Winstone joins the 'walking dead'


A little item in Saga Holidays newsletter, PRESS On, (which I think is just a regularised 'puffer' release/round-up for journos) caught my eye...


The celebrated British actor Ray Winstone turns 50 this month. Among his most famous lead performances was as Gary Dove in the hit gangster film Sexy Beast, based in the Costa Del Sol. Seven years after the film was screened, Winstone could now return to the region with Saga Holidays for a stay at the four-star Hotel AGH Estepona. Prices start from £464 per person for seven nights at the secluded hotel, which has two outdoor swimming pools and, of course, plenty of sun loungers. The price includes half board, a free bar open four hours daily, return flights, insurance and cancellation cover.

Nobody likes reaching 50. I know I didn't. And I certainly know how I'd feel if Saga used my birthday as a promotional tool for holidays for oldies!

The next thing in air fare search engines

Needless to say, it comes from the USA.

In an article on SearchEngineWatch, Brian Smith highlights the latest developments in air fare search and two sites in particular...

Farecast.com tells travellers when to buy tickets to get the best deals. The site tracks airfares and using
"data-mining algorithms to search for patterns" it predicts whether the fare for a particular route is about to go up, or down. At the moment the 'beta' site covers routes from 75 airports in the USA, but no doubt it'll migrate over here one day, or somebody else will do it.

Farecompare.com does work in the UK. It simply lays out the lowest fare on a route (eg. London - Los Angeles) over the coming months so you can see which month is most economical to travel in.

Like all good ideas, both are simple and cause you to wonder why somebody didn't think of them before.

19 February 2007

Brief Respite

That was quick! Five days!

... between Valentine's Day and the first press release offering ideas/special deals for the next marketing cash cow... Mothering Sunday (aka Mother's Day, 26 March).

They'll be thick on the ground - or in my in-tray - before too long, competing with travel offers for Easter, which this year comes hot on its heels in early April.

Memo to self: Give up freelance travel journalism. If you want a solid year-round income, sell flowers or cards.

15 February 2007

Happy Island

You learn something new every day.

I've just read a press release on the Caribbean island of Dominica - not to be confused with the Dominican Republic - which says:

Dominica continues to be recognised for its attributes and sustainable tourism efforts, including being the first country in the world to receive Benchmarking designation from the prestigious eco-tourism organization Green Globe 21 and ranking as the only Caribbean destination in the top five happiest countries on earth in the Happy Planet Index (compiled by Britain’s New Economics Foundation).
I didn't know there was such a thing as the 'Happy Planet Index' but I like the sound of it. I shall go and investigate, find out who tops the list, and maybe report back!

04 January 2007

Airliners faster than ostriches

Just received a truly vacuous press release from a well-known online flight agency...


The increase in London Underground fares make the system one of the most expensive underground systems in the world but also one of the most expensive ways to travel, says travel retailer XXX.

The price of a single zone one journey, which can often be less than a mile in distance, has gone up to an astronomical £4 and that is for a hot, crowded and often very uncomfortable journey.

Compare this with travelling first class on one of the world’s best airlines down under to Sydney and you have an average cost per mile of just 13 pence. Travel in economy and this brings the cost per mile to just three pence.
(They just happen to be selling flights to Sydney at these rates)

Imagine the difference in experience. One you’re reclined in your seat, watching your favourite movie whilst drinking Dom Perignon and having a personal chef bring you whatever you desire to eat. On the other you’re stuck between stations on a tube that is close to 100 degrees in temperature, jammed in like sardines with your head close to someone’s smelly armpit.
... and your point is?

Well, according to their quoted Marketing director, it is that...

Air travel receives a lot of negative media coverage for rises in taxes and fuel surcharges, but statistically it is cheaper to travel by airthese days than ever before when you consider the distances travelled.

OK, try to understand. The travel headlines earlier this week, for example, about how flying to Paris is x times cheaper by air than by train.... these are ok, because these are real and comparable options. Commuting from Finsbury Park to Oxford Circus in the first class cabin of an airliner is not.

Let's try and dream up some less obvious and irrelevant headlines to promote your business. How about..?




BTW. Speaking of online travel agencies and flights to Sydney. Did anyone see this story on yesterday's newswires? German Tourist ends up in Sidney not Sydney