Do PRs and Marketers take guidebooks seriously?

17 Mar

I recently met up with my editor to discuss the upcoming second edition of my Frommer's guidebook: Day By Day Seville. I was delighted to be able to share an email with him from the Andalucia Tourist Board offering to fix up trips, organise a hire car and some accommodation if I wanted to get out of Seville and see more of the region.

It's a breath of fresh air. It's clearly easier to get people to help you when you have a finished product in your hand to show them. I've had notably better success with the main Seville Tourist Board this time around. When I first pitched up there, I was made welcome, but the help I got was pretty limited and I had to work hard to get it.

That's not really the  point I want to make though... what I just don't get is how hotel owners, restauranters, tourists boards, PRs and all fall over themselves to provide accommodation, meals, tours etc if you are writing a feature for a national newspaper.

Tell them you are writing a guidebook and many of them don't even reply to your emails. To me this is nuts. Why?

A newspaper feature gets published - once (in print) and that's it. Some tour cos I have worked with on features have had awesome response from them. Loads of calls as a result of people reading my piece. Others have had next to none. It's totally variable. It can depend on whether it rains that particular Saturday (people have more time indoors to peruse the travel pages and make a call) what else is in the supplement (there's an awesome competition or whatever) whether it's a slow news day (David Beckham hasn't injured himself).

Compare this with a guidebook.  Once printed, it lasts. People use it to plan their trip, they take it with them to their destination, they lend it to friends also planning trips there too. It sometimes gets reused if people return to the same destination. Admittedly guidebooks are printed in far lower volumes than newspapers, but think what a tiny proportion of the 300,000 readers of say the Guardian actually want to go to Seville and so will pick up the phone as a result of reading a feature about the city? Everyone who purchases a copy of my Seville guidebook clearly plans to go there and will certainly act on information printed in it.

My hunch? It's about short term PR and lazy marketing. A PR agency needs to demonstrate the value of its service to its client. The quickest and highest profile way to do this is a newspaper feature. If three years down the line someone books a night in a Seville hotel due to a recommendation in my guidebook, no one will be able to tie that action back to the work of a PR co organising for me to stay in the hotel years previously. Likewise with the hotel's marketing team. Chances are the hotel reception won't even track the fact that the enquiry came as a result of reading my guidebook.

I see this approach as pretty typical for our times. Short spans of attention... give me a bright shiny thing now rather than a more durable dull thing later.

But that attitude runs totally contrary to building sustainable, long-lasting business.

I have relationships with GMs of several hotels that I've struck up personally in Seville. I know them and their businesses well. It's a pleasure to recommend them. They are genuinely excellent. If I was working for a hotel chain in PR, I'd have a programme devised specifically to target guidebook writers. If I was a hotel marketer, I'd make it my job to get to know guidebook writers and to work with them.

These kinds of relationships will far outlast a single hit in a newspaper and - whilst it's difficult to prove with hard data - I'm convinced they will deliver more business over the long term.

What do you think?

18 Responses to “Do PRs and Marketers take guidebooks seriously?”

  1. Hal Peat 21. Mar, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    You are right, there's a sort of short-term focus on immediacy, and "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". The PR is tied into media that will produce rapid results, the hotel owner's impressed by the fact of appearing in a broadsheet and the quick rash of calls it will probably produce. But I think some properties do get it as far as the value of appearing in media with a long shelf life, i.e., guidebooks, especially if the property is not part of some huge brand name and is reliant on the guidebook writer that's dedicated to really research what exists in a region or country. Recently, I was talking to a couple in my part of the world that owned a greathouse converted into a small hotel, and the first thing they commented to me was "If it wasn't for Lonely Planet, we'd have no press. Aside from the writer for that guide, you're the only travel journalist that's included us in anything." Which I think makes the point that sometimes if a hotel isn't in a large urban or resort area, it falls off the media radar unless someone seeks it out with an unusual story angle like mine, or a guidebook writer from Lonely Planet does his due diligence to uncover a hotel that belongs in a comprehensive listing of interesting properties. I think a PR that reps an entire national tourism or regional tourism board would get that, because they have their eye on the long-term impact of coverage to their country or region rather than just how one or two hotels are featured in a newspaper or magazine.

  2. Jeremy Head 21. Mar, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    Hi Hal
    Yes I agree completely. I think there is a real opportunity for DMOs (Destination Marketing Organisations like eg Visit London, Visit Florida etc) to highlight these lesser-publicised places. I personally really like to seek out the small, family-run, quirky places. I'd far rather spend time somewhere like this both from a personal perspective and because they tend to make for better copy too. I think many other people prefer these kinds of places too - and for now they struggle to find them with google searches etc. Does UGC (User generated content) redress the balance a bit? Sometimes TripAdvisor does deliver very successfully - but certainly not all of the time. I stayed at a lovely place in Prague which I found on Trip Advisor. Nonetheless, the guidebook remains a great tool for balanced, detailed, portable reviews.
    Thanks for being the first person to comment on the all new travelblather! :-)
    Jeremy

  3. Karen Bryan 22. Mar, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    I have similar issues when I say I am writing for a travel blog, being told by some DMO or PRs that they are only interested in assisting/hosting print media journalists. However things have improved a lot in last year or so.

  4. Ian McKee 22. Mar, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Firstly - like the new look Travel Blather Jeremy!

    You've got some good points for hotels, obviously inclusion in a guide book is great publicity for them, and due to the longevity etc must be better than a newspaper feature. I'm surprised you'd ever find that you'd getting less of a response from them than if you're writing a newspaper feature. But, I don't think you're seeing it clearly from a DMO's perspective.

    The majority of our clients are tourist boards, and the majority do not financially support guide book writers. We don't advise them too either, for the following reasons -

    1. A guide book is not a reason for a tourist to book. They'll likely buy it after having booked, and of course it may be helpful to them once in the destination, its not likely to be what brought them there. A DMO's primary aim is to get people into the destination, what they do once they're there is secondary. Guide books don't address that primary aim.

    2. DMOs are government organisations, and for that reason there are restrictions involved in what they can put money into. You may have heard a DMO say they can't fund a guidebook writer's trip because its a 'commercial project'. Yes, I know, a newspaper is commercial too, but there's a distinction. Frommers (for eg) intend to make profit directly from the guidebook they are publishing about X destination. A newspaper publishes articles, but they don't intend to make profit directly from one specific article about X destination. For that reason it is more difficult (and less advisable) for the DMO of X destination to put money into the guidebook.

    All that said, guidebooks are helpful for tourists and DMOs want their visitors to have good resources for info, so we'll always try to help where possible - even if that's just info and contacts (i.e at the hotels who should jump at the chance to help!)

    • Jeremy Head 22. Mar, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

      Hi Ian
      Thanks for your candid comments. Afraid I just don't agree with your points though! ;-)
      1) I have lots (I really mean it) of friends who buy guidebooks as research tools - before they have decided to go to a place. Indeed my mate Steve had a copy of the Rough Guide to Montenegro on his table when I went round last weekend... just cos he wondered what the place was like. The format of guidebooks has changed to reflect this too - think how different Rough Guides and Lonely Planet guides are to a decade ago. These days they have glossy inspirational 'best of' sections up front... most definitely aimed at the indecided visitor as much as at the one who has decided to go to that particular place. Even if the book doesn't get bought, it gets browsed and persued in the shop and people make decisions based on these sections. (Well that's my assumption anyway)
      And 2) also seems like nothing more than smoke and mirrors... I just don't see how you can say that a newspaper won't try to profit directly from a feature - its sales teams will be ringing every tour operator (and probably the DMO too) trying to get them to stick an ad next to it.
      Melissa and Jonathan below seem to share my opinions too.
      Glad you like the new look TB - various other plug ins on the way to make following comments etc easier!
      Cheers
      Jeremy

      • Ian McKee 24. Mar, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

        Sorry its taken me a while to reply! Must remember to check notify me by email...

        Fair enough though, to be honest I can't imagine any of my non-travel industry mates reading a guide book to a place they hadn't already booked a holiday too. But then I can't imagine them reading the travel pages or a travel magazine either, so perhaps if you are interested in travel, you're quite likely to browse a guide book before you book.

        My second point was less my own opinion than the outlook of clients really. Perhaps they all just have a sentimental view of newspaper editorial! Either way, of course I realise advertising is sold around features (I used to work in magazine ad sales and did exactly that myself!) but I still think there's a bit of a distinction here. A (good) travel editor's main criteria for choosing which destinations to feature is not what they can sell the most advertising on. A guide book publisher's main criteria for choosing which destination to publish a book on is whether it will sell. No?

        I've added you to our blogroll by the way, doesn't seem to have appeared at the moment but just so you know! A crime you weren't there already...

        • Jeremy Head 26. Mar, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

          Hi Ian
          My apolos for taking a while to reply to you too! You know what? I bet you that if you got a few drinks inside a travel editor and asked them straight out how much their decisions about what to run on their pages is dictated by who will advertise next to it you'd be quite surprised. How many deals have you done for DMO clients to pay for 'promotional supplements' too? So I think they are indeed being sentimental... and I'd ask... are PR people merely encouraging them to keep thinking that way because it suits them too?
          Thanks for your comments - really interesting stuff!
          Cheers
          Jeremy

          • Ian McKee 26. Mar, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

            Yeah you're probably right. Especially now in times of advertising revenues dropping and many travel editors feeling the threat of their sections being dropped. The distinction should exist in theory though, and if a DMO can use that distinction as a reason not to spend money, then believe me, they will.

            That's the other issue here, DMOs do have limited budgets, and for that reason do have to choose how they spend them. I often feel like writers (of guide books, features, even bloggers) think that a DMO has an obligation to help media on trips. I've spoken to writers who have got possitively irate when I've told them a client won't be supporting their trip. "I'm travelling all the way to your client's destination, and going to give them FREE publicity, and they can't even book a room for me!?" - that sort of thing. There is no obligation. We didn't ask you to visit the destination, if we did, then obviously we'd be supporting it! A DMO is a marketing organisation, not a charity, and many DMOs have much smaller budgets than you might imagine. For that reason, we choose media targets, and if you're not one of them, then sorry but we can't help everyone. And really, you, or your publisher/editor, will be making money out of this feature, so why can't you fund the trip yourself?

            I know that's not how it works in reality, as the writers themselves end up funding trips and get paid a pittance from their publisher, but from the DMO's perspective, what's the difference?

            Apologies if that rant's going a bit off topic, we PRs get irritated too you know! :-s

  5. Jonathan Gilbert 22. Mar, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Interesting article. As an editor I try to make my own contacts with tourism boards to ensure my writers do get the support they need. In my experience, tourism boards seem much happier to initially deal with staff from travel guide publishers, rather than with freelancers who may or may not be involved in the next edition. This sort of relationship building is useful for editor, tourism board and writer.

    To my mind it is the DMOs responsibility to highlight and promote the biggest, best and newest features of their destination. If they aren't doing everything possible to achieve that across all media, then something is wrong and potentially being missed.

    I'm also failing to understand the difference Ian pointed out between newspapers selling content and travel guides selling content. I have of course heard this before and been dumbfounded before. Both types of publisher explicitly aims to make profit from the content that it publishes. These days newspaper articles also have a limitless shelf-life, kept alive and freeze-dried on the web. Online travel sections of national newspapers look more like travel guides every day.

    The publishing world is going through continuing changes in the way that its content is used. The iPad and interactive books is the next step. PRs are going to have to start keeping up.

  6. DonaldS 22. Mar, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    Great site redesign, and an interesting piece with some good questions (I had a preview, obv, when you commented on my guidebooks vs. newspapers piece a couple of weeks ago: http://www.donaldstrachan.com/archive/2010/03/guidebook-or-newspaper). I think there's definitely a difference in motivation between, say, a hotel chain and a DMO. Ian hints at the key DMO point above, I think: if you're writing a guidebook to a destination, *you're already going there*. There's no incentive for them to pay for a trip you're already contracted to make. And, like Ian says more explicitly, the guidebook writer is in an analogous situation to the traveller: by buying a guide to Seville, you've almost certainly signalled your intention to go there. Job done for the DMO.

    But for hotels, I couldn't agree more with you here:

    >> If I was working for a hotel chain in PR, I'd have a programme devised specifically to target guidebook writers. If I was a hotel marketer, I'd make it my job to get to know guidebook writers and to work with them.
    -0-

    And I can't work out why they don't. Perhaps your uncharitable interpretation about short-termism is right.

    However, I'm not sure the general absence of funding (at least in well-touristed destinations) for guidebook writers is a bad thing. What gets paid for is what gets written about, on average (otherwise, why would it be paid for?). If little or nothing is getting paid for, the objectivity of the writer is less threatened. I'm just about to depart for Tuscany on a guidebook job and have turned down 4 offers of free accommodation for that reason. In my opinion (and it is only my opinion... I'm not preaching here), the readers are better served as a result.

    • Jeremy Head 26. Mar, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

      Hi Donald
      Apologies - I meant to link to your post myself and forgot. Thanks for providing it... I found it really insightful!
      Cheers and thanks for your comments as always
      Jeremy

  7. Hal Peat 22. Mar, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    I'm not sure why DMOs would see it in their best interest to just bring people to a destination without any eye to targeting who exactlyy they are bringing. Also,a guidebook does provide a fairly wide-ranging and more in-depth look at a city, province or country that a one-off magazine or newspaper piece which might certainly be the initial enticement that sparks the traveler's enthusiasm, but then that traveler might be the type that wants to do some more research on what the destination really has to offer beside one category of activity, one event, or whatever that article was about. Finally, I'd also note here that so many guidebook writers find they have to pursue a two-pronged strategy when they commit to a long-haul projeect like a guidebook. Meaning, they have to take on the shorter media assignments while on the road just to make the book commitment financially viable. So in fact, if DMOs are more receptive just to writers covering for other shorter media, they can still often find it in the travel writer with guidebook commission but also wearing that other hat.

  8. Melissa Shales 22. Mar, 2010 at 4:16 pm #

    I have been fighting this one my entire working life. Hotels are normally pretty receptive to guidebook authors, but tourist offices are not. My research over the years has shown it to be an incredibly short-sighted approach as a) many people head down to the local library and take out guidebooks to help them decide on where to go on holiday (all my family and friends come round to my house and borrow mine); b) many newspaper writers use the guidebooks as background briefing for the endless round-up articles that now fill the travel pages and c) as has already been said, few of us can afford to write guidebooks on their own and are usually doing articles as well. I use the guidebook research to learn a destination, become an expert and then write articles on the back of it. It is a system that can work extremely well. Sensible tourist offices should cultivate the good guidebook writers as the bedrock of the whole industry.

  9. Mark Pawlak 22. Mar, 2010 at 4:17 pm #

    Hello,

    My friend asked me for my postcode when he was only two streets away. I immediately knew why: he was using his iPhone and Google Maps for directions. Consequently, the post code search took him into the wrong road! And therein lies the problem: People want it digital, even when digital misses the point.

    My dog-eared travel guides sit lonely, as if on another planet, tucked away under reference books. When it comes to packing for a destination I have yet to visit, it need some very sharp copy to part my money from its leathery bed.

    For companies looking to commission guides, the choice is also a tight one. Obsessed about keeping up with social media, (something we as writers and editors benefit from) they must struggle to turn back the clock to the paper format.

    We all know the internet is far from perfect, but what it offers is not just one review, but many. Younger people have a distrust of hypodermic information that borders on the ridiculous. To take only the paper form, sometimes tied-in to corporate sponsorship, over the digital resource is, for them, a choice too far.

    For me: I'll take both - and enjoy the haptic pleasure of turning pages, while others take ages looking for coverage. Mp

  10. Matthew Teller 24. Mar, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Great post -great new look, too, Jeremy!

    Just to add my voice to the guidebook writers posting here with another point: if the DMOs were to support me in my guidebook-writing work, they'd find that the benefits would filter through to the traditional media pretty darn quick - I've lost count of the number of times that places/hotels/attractions I've unearthed in odd, unvisited corners of, say, Jordan for my 'Rough Guide to Jordan' have mysteriously turned up, shortly after the book appears on the shelf, in newspaper round-ups and magazine news sections as "new discoveries", often using phrases and - sometimes - whole sentences lifted more or less verbatim from my golden prose...

    Fact: newspaper journalists use guidebooks to research destinations. Heck, DMOs themselves use guidebooks, both to answer questions from punters on the phone and to give to journalists in order for them to write about their destinations!

    The idea that guidebook coverage is different in any material way from press coverage, in terms of promotion for the destination concerned, is either completely muddle-headed or deliberately obfuscatory. It results, most of the time, in worse guidebooks - and worse guidebooks equal worse press coverage. Wise up, PRs!

  11. Mick Thompson 24. Mar, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Hi,

    Yes, the lack of help for guide books is odd. I value them enormously and only recently helped organise a journalist trip to the New Forest for a Footprint book which involved staying at 8 different accommodations and arranging many things to do during the day. A lot of work but it will be of great benefit to all the New Forest Tourism Association members who helped...

  12. Michelle Vickers 26. Mar, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    Interestingly not ONE of the guidebook writers who have published guides to Mafia in the last 3 years even came to mafia. I approached one via email and gave our details and she included us, the others cribbed from hers. One didn't include us, just re-iterated his previous words on Mafia. Therefore, no I don't have much faith in them, especially as not one of our guests in the last two years had used a guide to find us. I'd be more than happy to meet them, show them our hotel, have them stay, but they seem happy to crib from each other or use out of date material.

  13. Eduardo Blanco 02. Apr, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    I just think hoteliers are too busy trying to increase their revenues and bookings, and don´t pay much attention to some aspects that can definitely bring business to them. Guide books, journalists and travel writers are an excellent source to improve a hotel´s image and reputation. With my hotel background, I know this well. But some GMs and DOSMs still don´t.