Time for a new kind of destination guide?

26 Jul

Destination Guides - everyone does them. Airlines, tourist boards, airports, hotels. The web is awash with the things and I've even contributed quite a number of them for one of the UK's leading airlines.

For a while content solution companies like Whatsonwhen (now part of Frommer's of course) made a pretty good living providing travel sector companies with off-the-shelf blocks of content to populate their sites with 'useful content'. Then people got wise to the SEO potential of this kind of stuff and started adding keywords into the mix.

The end result nowadays is lots of very generic, sometimes ageing content which is often targetted at search engines and not particularly useful for the user.

The content in the KLM guide is particularly interesting for me as a content person. It's very detailed and of a genuinely high quality. It's written by Whatsonwhen/Frommers. I particularly like the themed walking tours (which look like they might have been lifted from the Day By Day guides series that Frommer's publish).

But, does anybody find or read them?

I tried searching for keyword combinations like 'Amsterdam guide', 'destination guide to Amsterdam', 'things to do in Amsterdam', and two of the terms it looks like the page is targetting 'flights to Amsterdam' and 'Amsterdam holiday'. None of these pages show up on the first page. In fact I struggled to find them at all.

Guess what? I've been asked to come up with a format for some destination guides. And I want to create something that's a bit different and genuinely useful. (Particularly as the KLM example above suggests that going for the SEO/keyword approach isn't really worth the effort.)

I think  the KLM example is lovely from a content perspective, but probably a waste of money. Are people going to come to an airline for top things to do and places to go for a destination? Probably not I'd say. You'd go to a more well known and credible source like say Lonely Planet or for example in London, Time Out. So why spend all that money on destination guides that few people will read anyway?

So what do you need in a destination guide?

Minimum requirements I think are base-level facts. We're talking stuff like weather, visa requirements, getting around in relation to your physical property (the airport if you are an airline or airport, your hotel if you are a hotel etc) getting there, health and safety. I do wonder though if you could link to the right (ie most authoritative) places which offer really frequently updated information that is trustworthy, rather than having to maintain content of your own. So for Health and Safety link to the FCO website's travel advice pages or (if only the offered them) pull relevant info onto your page using their RSS feeds.

Going totally local could be a smart idea for a hotel chain. Get the guys on the concierge desk to recommend their top restaurants, shops, things to do and really focus on writing about the less-visited, genuinely cool recommendations rather than the usual old favourites.

Targetting specific readers could be good for an airline or airport. Think about organising your things to do and so on around the differing needs of your distinct customer groups - families, couples, business people etc. I think Top 5 things to do for families, weekend breakers, business people could be much easier to digest and more useful than far more long and detailed offerings we tend to get at the moment that try to be all things to all  people. Keep it light, but make it much more focussed - easier for the reader to find the stuff that's appropriate to them.

Using expert opinion to add more credibility seems like a nice idea too. Who cares what Air France thinks are the top things to do in London? Paris maybe, but London? Why not find some people who live in London (maybe people with specific demographic profiles - a family, a businessman etc) and get their Top 5 ideas? I'm far more likely to believe them than a big brand that has no real association with the place. Here's a rather nice example from Red Visitor.

What would you put on a destination guide to make it genuinely useful and a bit different?

13 Responses to “Time for a new kind of destination guide?”

  1. David Whitley 26. Jul, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    I've been approached about similar destination guides recently. Wonder if it's the same one? Anyway - that's not the issue. How to make destination guide content stand out is. A few off-the-top-of-the-head suggestions from me:

    1. Suggested itineraries, broken down by length of stay.

    2. Do it as more of a blog thing - one blogger for each destination, encouraging interaction. Andy Jarosz seems to be quietly doing a good job of this for Discpunt London. Either that or hosting bloggers to come and write for the site about their experiences - make it more about personal experience and inspiration rather than guidance and information.

    3. Most leisure travellers are on a relative budget; they want to stay somewhere decent for under £100 a night, eat well but not at extortionate prices and have a good time. Aim at them, not the tiny overcatered for minority that stay in £250 'boutique' hotels, insist on drinking in only the coolest bars and going to the best restaurants in town. Show people how to have a good time in the city on a modest but reasonable budget - and stop pretending that they're a weird, poverty-stricken minority.

    4. Break down suggestions by personality type.

    5. This is the key one for me - if you really want to stand out, be frank. Say what things probably AREN'T worth going to, which restaurants are overrated, which bars are full of tossers and which cafés are overpriced tourist traps. Say what the tours are like and who they are and are not suitable for rather than just saying they exist; be honest with how much the taxis will cost; stick your neck out and be prepared to piss people off. The purpose is to stand out and be useful rather than keep everyone happy, yes?

  2. Emma Field 27. Jul, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Thanks for the post Jeremy. I do agree that it's about time for a new approach to online travel guides.

    I used to commission and edit online guides for Columbus Travel Media, a content solution provider. The content was in depth, written by professional travel writers and, here's the key, for a reasonable monthly fee, regularly updated for the client. It's an easy way for everyone to provide destination guides. But you're right, it does lead to a lot of generic content aimed at the average traveller.

    Personally, I really like your ideas about going local, whether that getting recommendations from the hotel staff or asking local experts/families/businessmen/etc for their highlights. VisitLondon.com used to organise their suggestions by traveller type - families, green, young person and so on - which I thought worked really well. Unfortunately, I noticed the other day that they've now stopped that. Maybe they know something I don't?

    Anyway, 10 things I think make an online guide genuinely different and useful:

    1. As David said, opinion. So rare. So essential.
    2. Lists of highlights arranged by interest (e.g. culture).
    3. Places to get off the beaten track, particularly useful for repeat visitors.
    4. Lists of places the locals go for food, drinks, dancing, relaxing etc.
    5. Srong, clearly labelled images.
    6. Personally presented video (i.e. not rehashed from the tourist board's)
    7. David's itinerary suggestion does it for me too. I'd like to see them presented by interest too, so 'London's museums/markets/parks/etc in 48 hours' and so on.
    8. Regularly updated lists of local special events, especially the irregular and free ones.
    9. Local specialities, whether that's food, drink, souvenirs or massages. I want to know what I can sample/buy only in this destination and nowhere else in the world. I hate to miss out.
    10. Finally, all of this content geomapped please!

    Let us know what you come up with.

  3. Trisha Brandon 27. Jul, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    Though Red Visitor's is stunning, they have a unique perspective and a distinct segment they're talking to, which makes this approach more feasible.

    For a broader audience, I think a topic page could work well, with a section appealing to each demographic, but not segmenting so much that readers don't see the content of broader interest, so there's a single destination page.

    This approach also allows for expert content to shine, while bringing in a broad cross-section of other topics the expert might not get to.

    I like the NYTimes' as a model:
    http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/index.html

    Here they are by country (not travel specific, but drawing in travel, food, etc.)
    http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/news/international/countriesandterritories/index.html

    Experts might feel this dilutes a little, but I think it removes the onus of constant updates in cases where there may not be the resource.

    Trisha

    • Jeremy Head 27. Jul, 2010 at 9:10 am #

      Hi Trisha
      I really like the NYTimes pages - nice the way they aggregate a range of different types of content. Like this for example:
      http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/europe/france/overview.html
      So there's off the shelf background content from Frommer's along with a range of features etc. Of course a newspaper has much richer content resources to play with. But no reason why you can't pull in some of this content via RSS feed to your destination pages (as long as it's not News International content now locked behind its paywall)
      J

  4. Sophie 27. Jul, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    I think reviews are always good, but at the same time if you are planning to go to a particular place or tourist spot then you're going to go anyway regardless of whether reviews are particularly good/bad.

    Also, 'bewares' are good ie: hot spots for pickpockets, or where not to leave your car etc etc.

  5. Hal Peat 27. Jul, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    "...stop pretending that they're a weird, poverty-stricken minority."

    Actually, they are. Not weird maybe, but many are poverty-stricken. It's a simple fact of socio-economics that in terrible financial times, people need the release provided by an "escape" even when they can't really budget for it. In the U.S., for instance, we just this spring had something called the Superbowl in Miami that filled about a 35,000 capacity stadium, many of whom had flown cross country, booked several night into a hotel, budgeted for meals, transport and other entertainment over 2-3 days and of course Superbowl tickets some of which ran into the hundreds of dollars. I wonder what their total bill was over those days? Now, that's mostly an upper-middle class demographic probably, but probably also guess what? It's also some of the lower middle class grimly determined not to let go of their beloved football even during the Great Recession.

    Whether anyone likes it or not, it is in fact that in the leisure market, it's either the moneyed classes or those seeking temporary escape from desperate circumstances at home that continue to travel. The first group *do* want to know about the cool boutique hotels, the latest fashionable restaurant or club, or high-end lifestyle event happening in that city. They're the ones that will spend more on the ground at that destination than the temporary escapers economizing at Budget Inn -- and they'll still travel for themselves and not just special interest escapes like Superbowl. The state or county know it, the tourism board knows it, only some PR firms and bloggers don't know it and think they can just speak to the backpack contingent and host "bloggers' retreats" at some pseudo-chic resort on the verge of bankruptcy. Sorry, but the blogs won't be pulling the hotel out of bankruptcy, and the other bloggers who follow and read won't be able to afford to stay there anyway.

    • David Whitley 27. Jul, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

      We were talking about destination guides, not blogs.

      I think you're bang wrong anyway. The market segment I'm talking about is people with a decent amount of disposable income, but common sense about how they spend it. It's just about everyone I know, and they travel regularly.

      They see no point in paying £200 a night for a self-styled "hip boutique hotel" wankfest when they can get a well located and perfectly satisfactory four star for £60 a night. They might treat themselves to one splash- out top restaurant meal, but most of the time they want somewhere reasonably priced and enjoyable where the food is good. It's not about economising - they probably wouldn't stay in the £200 a night place even if they were loaded - it's just seen as an unnecessary waste of money, and they'd sooner spend it having a good time, doing stuff and having a few drinks and nice meal.

      Not sure where your Superbowl example comes from. I wasn't talking about lower middle classes trying to buy what they can't afford - I'm talking about people who are arguably being in the upper middle classes and have got substantial disposable income being largely ignored and made to feel as though they are little more than bedbug-ridden hostel-dwellers purely because they won't spend ludicrous money on something that's patently not worth it.

  6. Hal Peat 27. Jul, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Nope, we were talking about blogs within a destination guide format of some kind. At least, that's what I infer from Jeremy'r original referenced links. Then again you state originally: "..hosting bloggers to come and write for the site about their experiences - make it more about personal experience and inspiration rather than guidance and information."

    I'm not sure why anyone would want a purely impressionistic and non-detailed, non-informational blog to support their own trip plans, but then again maybe some people do.

    As far as the Superbowl example, I used that because I thought it was a good indicator of spending behaviour during a period of extreme economic distress. The demographic that continues to travel is the one that gets the attention from tourism boards and publishers of guides. Yes, there's guides that are marketed to specific niches, but when it comes to the focus that tourism board officials give to who they want to attract and support among travelers, of course it will be the ones who they calculate will spend the most along the way. That doesn't rule out what you're saying in your last paragraph, because yes, even people with deeper pockets want more authentic value from the travel experience rather than just overpriced resorts and services. But if you'd tie that in also to what is going on in the world financially, you'd also have noted that many of the higher-end resorts are now the ones offering some of the best deals. "Luxury on a budget packages" are the natural consequence. Same with dining or other entertainment -- all sorts of "specials" on hand there that travelers might not have seen just 2-3 years ago. At least, in my neck of the woods.

  7. Mark Pawlak 28. Jul, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    Hi Emma, Jeremy

    I think I would integrate soundslides, instead of video. They add fantastic contextual information and can help demonstrate the all-round skills of a travel writer/photographer/journophotalist...

    The program is not free to own, but should still be free to trial. Here's a useful example and a link to the site.

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/audio/news/local/guitarlessons/

    http://www.soundslides.com/

    In my opinion, it is about showing a level of interactivity with the destination and passing that on to the reader/viewer.

    Let's face it, they are likely to Google it and be bombarded with user generated video clips, so lets give clients and readers something better.

    Best wishes,

    Mp

  8. Simon Veness 28. Jul, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Fully agree with David Whitley about being frank and opinionated. In general terms, we think it's the key to successful guides (whether online or the 'old-fashioned' variety) but it's important to draw the line about being TOO personal. Remember who your market is (with the Brit Guide titles which we started in 1995, we are very much mass-market, package-holiday style, but with our own personalised touch), write accordingly and don't take your own interests too far (for example, I love American sport, but we don't try to push it prominently in the Orlando guidebook, even though it provides a great experience, as it will only interest a handful of people).

    From the other standpoint of essential content, I'm always keen to ferret out the key 'local' experiences when I travel somewhere new, hence that is something I always look for in online guides.

  9. Molly 22. Jan, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Great info above, need to spend more time digesting it all but my answer to Jeremy's question for my biz was to come up with simple one-page guides (jump tags used so users stay on page, no wasted page load time having to click to the page with restaurants, the page with activities, etc. etc. that may or may not have info they want), with highlighted things to do pulled-out on separate pages in many cases, all containing photos as well as short vids for many things too.

    Most importantly -- all researched by me personally or a travel writer I hire to research an area. Would never take info from a RSS feed, but that's just me.

    http://www.southamericaliving.com/free-online-south-america-travel-guides/

    Molly

  10. Molly 22. Jan, 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    oooops, clicking through the site, didn't realize the above was for, um, year 2010. yikes. yet I don't see anything new and exciting since then on Web regarding destination guides... my format is one of the more unique, fresh approaches I think.