Near the end of our Travel Editors Roundtable this week, the editors of the country's leading consumer travel magazines discuss the importance of an angle in their articles. Writers aren't simply sent to a destination and asked to record their impressions; they're sent with very specific instructions.
They may use the work of Gaudi as a theme to explore Barcelona or focus on the vineyards producing the most expensive wines as the raison d'etre for an article on the Bordeaux region.
Sometimes the "angle" slips into full-blown contrivance: A writer pursues a formulated quest, perhaps tracing the footsteps of Jesus through the Holy Land or, to cite an example from a recent New York Times travel section, attempting to channel Ken Kesey while reporting about Manzanillo, Mexico, where Kesey hid after being busted for marijuana in the U.S.
Why bother? Why not simply write about Manzanillo without forcing the Kesey connection? "There's always a contrivance. There has to be. It's called a point," said Culture+Travel editor Kate Sekules.
Without packaging a destination around a point, Budget Travel editor Erik Torkells believes, there's less incentive for a reader to pick up his magazine. "Other people's trips, in an age where we all travel, aren't as interesting," he said.
Of course, the travel industry, too, packages travel experiences. A great deal of time is spent constructing tours, theming hotels and plotting cruise itineraries. But interestingly, for the most part, the final product doesn't seem to have a point. In contrast to the editors' approach, the names of most tours promise only that you will visit a destination and that the experience will be both generic and clich.... If the tour designer is particularly excitable, the name may slip into hyperbole, but it seldom promises to follow a specific story line.
Consider the titles of these tours currently on offer: Milan and Italian Treasures (Trafalgar); Russian Glories, Baltic Treasures (Tauck); Italian Treasures (Globus); Treasures of North Africa to Britain (Lindblad).
At the very least, these companies should invest in a good thesaurus.
Even when you believe that a tour has a point, in reality it might or might not. Globus, whose slogan is the enticing, "Every journey tells a story," offers both A Taste of Italy and Flavors of Italy. Only one actually focuses on food. I'm thinking a coin toss figured in the naming process.
Still, I know many of the marketers and principals of these and other tour companies, and they are, to a person, exceedingly bright. They must have concluded that it's easier to fill a tour with people who have a vague longing to see Italy than it is with people who want to focus on Michelangelo or Chianti or olive oil or glass-making.
And, for the time being, there are niche operators who can fulfill the desires of people with more specific appetites. But where does the trend toward the pursuit of authenticity fit in? The editors claim that their angles, even their contrivances, enable a writer to go deeper into a culture and touch something authentic. Packaged tours, on the other hand, seldom suggest that the traveler will experience anything more specific than "treasures," "dreams," "wonders" or "highlights."
Perhaps it is simply an ironic suggestion that the travel industry can package authenticity. Even hotels, anchored physically in a culture, are viewed skeptically by some editors. Sekules observed, "When local elements are brought into the surroundings of a major luxury hotel company, it just strikes me as inauthentic authenticity. But then, at least they're trying."
Torkells was willing to meet tour operators halfway. "As long as you're hiring a guide, it's not authentic, right? But you can get a guide to take you to somewhere authentic."
Only USA Today travel editor Veronica Stoddart seemed comfortable endorsing organized authenticity. "It doesn't have to be entirely spontaneous," she said. "I'm thinking that a hotel could bring in a local chef and teach people how to prepare the local cuisine. It's organized, yes, but you're getting deeper into the culture. It doesn't all have to be stumbling upon it on your own. The industry has evolved to provide a more authentic sense of place in what they're offering."
I'll leave the last word to Travel+Leisure editor Nancy Novogrod: "There is more and more of a desire for one-of-a-kind and custom experiences now, and hotels and outfitters are providing this. There is certainly a proliferation of properties in fairly remote destinations that offer experiences billed as authentic. It's kind of mediated authenticity because it's with a guide, or it's in a hotel that has introduced local elements. It may not be real-real, but it does present more contact with place."
"Mediated authenticity." I like that. And it's certainly a phrase the industry can embrace more enthusiastically than "inauthentic authenticity."
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].