The popular and influential travel site gadling.com recently featured an interview by Meg Nesterov with travel blogger Lara Dunston and photographer Terence Carter on the subject of travel writing and guide books. Lara and Terence have written some 50 travel guidebooks, countless feature stories and thousands of hotel and restaurant reviews, and have visited more than 60 countries since they started travelling together in the late 1980s. Together they have written and updated guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, The Rough Guides, AA Guides, Thomas Cook, Insight, Footprint, and Hedonist’s Guides. The current travel project of these seasoned travellers is the travel blog Grantourismo.
During the interview, they were asked “What can user-generated content like TripAdvisor offer travelers compared to traditional media?”
Here is what Lara had to say:
I think user-generated content supplements books and travel features in newspapers/magazines (have their place) but can never replace quality guidebook authorship or travel journalism. While user-generated content wins out in terms of currency (the reviews have dates), guidebook authors and travel journalists are professionals with expertise. It’s our job to assess hotels, restaurants, bars, sights, and so on. Having slept in thousands of hotels across all budget categories, eaten tens of thousands of meals at all kinds of restaurants, visited thousands of museums, etc, gives you a degree of experience and expertise that the average traveler who has 2 weeks (in the USA) or at most 4-8 weeks (in the UK/Australia/Europe) holiday can never hope to match.
If a guidebook author tells me the XXX hotel is the best in Milan and a reviewer on Trip Advisor tells me the YYY hotel is the best, I know whose opinion I’m going to trust.
If the traveler writing on Trip Advisor focuses on describing in detail their very specific experience of a hotel or restaurant, that kind of information can be helpful when weighed up against other reviews by travelers and experts. Where it can be detrimental is when the Trip Advisor reviewer starts making claims about a certain hotel being the best in the city or the cheapest or friendliest or whatever.
What I want to know is how many hotels have they stayed at or inspected to be able to compare their hotel to? A guidebook writer specializing on a destination might have stayed at a dozen hotels in that city over a number of years, and inspected 50 others. So when it comes to user-generated content, my main issue is with the authority of authorship.
There are also plenty of games being played out behind the scenes with manipulation of reviews (both positive and negative) of properties. In a recent destination we visited a local foodie who told us to simply ignore the top 10 places listed on Trip Advisor as they’re rubbish. And she was right.
We’ve personally seen scathing reviews of hotels and restaurants that we know are some of our favourites in the world – so who are you going to trust? The user ‘britney_1537’ or a professional travel writer?
You could dismiss this as a case of “Well, as professional travel writers they would say that, wouldn’t they” but they also make some very good points.