Immediacy vs. Experience
Brooke Ferencsik, spokesperson for TripAdvisor, a travel site that features reviews from the general public, and Spud Hilton, travel editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, share their views on the relationship between traditional travel journalism and first-person accounts by the traveling public.
FFW: What is the primary service you’re offering to readers?
Ferencsik: The beauty of TripAdvisor is that you’re getting the opinions of millions of people and you can actually find out if they’re people that have the common travel preferences that you do because you can actually look at their profiles. You can send them direct messages. And TripAdvisor now has a very cool product called TripAdvisor Trip Friends, which allows you to directly connect with your Facebook network on TripAdvisor so you can get that really trusted advice from the people that you know best and trust most, and that’s your friends and family.
Hilton: Travel writing is a completely different realm of feature writing, where instead of trying to capture the personality of a person, you’re trying to capture the personality of a place—and that’s essentially the gist of what we’re trying to do here.
We try to find that locale that maybe you’ll go to, maybe you won’t, but either way we try to write it in such a way that you’re transported there or inspired to go there. But the transported there is the important part. We want to take readers along for the ride. Our goal isn’t reviews so much as observations about places that help illustrate something about the focus of a story. In a story about how Seville is becoming more chic, I would talk about whether the hotel I’m in fits that mold and if it doesn’t, I would point that out.
Most important: My impressions and observations aren’t necessarily more valuable, but they do have something most user-generated ones do not: context. Most folks who write user-generated reviews don’t spend a lot of time at work learning about hotels, restaurants, airlines and cruise ships. If they do, they should probably be fired! I do spend that time and, while it doesn’t make me an expert, it does give me more context for my observations.
FFW: What do you see as the value people get out of online reviews written by the general public?
Ferencsik: The beauty of the collective wisdom of crowds that you find on TripAdvisor is that you’re going to find out all kinds of
different opinions on places around the world. So, it’s that incredible depth and breadth of content that really gives travelers every single bit of information they need to know to ensure that the hotel they’re researching or that vacation rental or an attraction or any destination is in line with their own travel needs. And so I think that’s pretty unique to what you might find in travel guides, which tend to be one person’s opinion.
Hilton: I think that they’re very important in that they give you a broad view, where you might not believe any one single review. But you look at the bulk of them and say, in general this gives me a view of this place and in general people like it. Everybody has different tastes, everybody comes from a different perspective when they’re looking for something they like.
So, having an experienced travel writer write about this place is handy in many ways. But it’s not great for research necessarily. Those online reader-generated things are good for research because you can sort of take off the most glowing reviews and the most hating reviews and figure out from the middle ground whether or not this is some place you would appreciate.
FFW: Spud, is that the drawback that you see as well?
Hilton: There is something to be said for experience in travel writing and there’s something to be said for somebody without an agenda. Theoretically the best travel writers don’t have an agenda. They travel anonymously. They pay their own way. They talk about what they witnessed. They make observations. They try to draw you into the place with descriptions and a sense of place. And if “trustworthy” means “more authentic to the average traveler’s experience,” then you could say there’s a good chance the observations of writers traveling anonymously will be more trustworthy.
You have, for the most part, a non-agenda for most of the people who are writing reader-generated reviews. But it’s impossible to know how much of that content does have an agenda. For instance you might have a guy who works for that hotel coming up with an assumed name and saying, “Hey, this is the greatest hotel.” Or the guy who works across the street coming up with an assumed name and saying, “Hey, that hotel sucks.” So that’s why you have to take sort of a broad look at the reader-generated one.
It really does serve a different purpose than the destination narrative that inspires you about a place. I think there’s room for both obviously because people more and more want to do good research to get their money’s worth. But those reviews aren’t meant to inspire. They’re meant to inform.
FFW: Travel + Leisure, a traditional travel publication has a circulation of around 930,000. TripAdvisor receives 40 million monthly visitors. With these metrics in mind, do you think the publishing segment is threatened by online user-generated content?
Hilton: User-generated review sites and traditional travel publications are apples and oranges. The former is good for research and shared observations, but is lousy for inspiration, engagement and armchair travel–being transported by the writing and photography.
As far as numbers go, again, its apples and oranges: 40 million people didn’t pay a cent to click on a link; 930,000 people paid $5 for a copy of Travel + Leisure. Why? Because many people still want to be inspired and engaged and an endless stream of “I didn’t like the pillows” doesn’t do that.