I just spent a few days at something called the Travel Media Showcase, where travels writers eat, drink, and be merry with loads of tourism bureaus and travel PR people. A reciprocal suck-up. It was great fun, but a bit trying also. I’ve never done “speed dating,” but this seemed pretty close.
About 25 times over the course of two days, I would sit at a booth with a representative from Wyoming, or Malaysia, or some PR firm with a dozen clients, and talk about how I could possibly get a story published about their destination. Fifty or so other writers were doing the same thing. As in dating, sometimes there’s a great match, a meeting of the minds. Except in this case the attendees are free to play the field, to be polygamists.
Inevitably, the tourism people who spent all this money putting on this conference and then inviting writers to their destination will get loads of press coverage: in good newspapers, in good magazines, on good web sites, and of course in plenty of those terrible fluff publications that look like a tourist brochure.
I am working on a book right now called The Contrarian Traveler. One chapter deals with the whole business infrastructure of tourism and why people act like sheep when deciding where to go and what to do. It’s no secret how the most popular destinations stay the most popular: they spend more. They buy more advertising, they host more travel writers, they get more visitors, and the cycle repeats. Like any good brand, they out-maneuver the competition.
I’ve got no problem with all this–it’s smart business. After all, travel writers don’t make jack squat for earnings, so of course they’re going to cozy up to those who can make the trip possible. But as a tourist who is deciding where to go, do some homework. Don’t just go to London or Cancun because everyone’s going to London or Cancun.
If I learned one thing from this conference, it’s that there are hundreds of interesting places to go in just the US and Canada. There are spots I had never even heard of that sounded fantastic (like the 1,000 Islands area in Great Lake Ontario, between New York State and Canada). So don’t fall into the trap of going to New York City, Myrtle Beach, or Toronto just because it seems like the thing to do.
These days, there are cool things to do in almost any city, even ones you probably wouldn’t think of, like Indianapolis, Kansas City, or Albuquerque. No matter where you live, in whatever country, watch for airfare specials and just grab a deal to anywhere. Or see some more of what’s nearby. If you’re like me, there are probably a dozen worthwhile places within a hundred miles of your house that you haven’t been to yet. (I’m looking at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama –yes really!)
The conference was also a good way to slam back some beers with some other writers and swap stories. I got to hang with Bruce Northam, who wrote Globetrotter Dogma and edited the In Search of Adventure anthology. Max and Kent from GoNomad. Vic Phillips, who once wrote a book called The Heroin Merchants and was the national anchorman for CTV in Canada. Mike Snow, who spent 14 hours in a Cuban jail and got a great story out of it for the Washington Post. The Johnny in JohnnyJet.com. And loads of guidebook writers and people who show up in slick magazines I never seem to get around to even trying to write for. And I’m such an idiot that I didn’t read my packet and notice that Anne Banas was there, editor of the super-helpful site SmarterTravel.
I know that these people will write good stories, with some depth, about any place they go, no matter how much they get wooed, wined, and dined. But when you see 12 stories next year about the Finger Lakes in New York State, no, it doesn’t mean there’s some big trend you somehow missed out on. It doesn’t mean the Finger Lakes are heaven on earth and your local lake region with wineries is just ho-hum. It only means the former has some talented people and ample resources in their visitors’ bureau.