Skills for Researching Guidebooks

02-23-13 FB Rick LaptopWe are just about the only guidebook publisher who still endeavors to visit–in person–every sight in our top-selling titles every year. (And even our lowest-selling titles get a personal visit every other year.) That’s a lot of territory to cover, and we have a team of talented and hardworking researchers who are preparing to set out on their annual research rounds. While I still enjoy the work and wish I could do it all myself, it’s just far too much for me to cover in the 60 to 80 days I dedicate to guidebook research each year. Each spring, we meet with our researchers to review our strategy and share advice on smart researching. Here are just a few of the tips that came up this year:

Tourist Information
To identify English-speaking locals, look for young people who are well-educated and/or work in tourism.

The TI clerk may freeze up when they realize you’re a “journalist”; therefore, just ask questions as a confused tourist as long as you can.

Many tourist information offices (TIs) are now privatized–and have become ad agencies in disguise. Use them, but be savvy. Recognize when TIs are pushing their own pay phone numbers (when a toll-free alternative may still be available) or talking up hotels and tour companies that buy their favor. Be skeptical of gimmicky sights, restaurants, and activities that advertise in the TI magazines–in many places, a TI seal of approval means only that that outfit gave them money. TI scorn is likely just a blacklisting of small businesses that refuse to buy into their game.

Hotels and Restaurants
When visiting hotels and restaurants, to be sure you have the correct contact details, write your research notes on the establishment’s business card. Cross your 7s–European-style–so you don’t mistake them later for sloppy 1s.

Look for decals on doors of hotels and restaurants to see which guidebooks and organizations recommend them. If it’s in all the guidebooks, that’s a negative.

At a hotel, pretend you intend to sleep there, and ask for only one night. That way, you’ll be considered as “undesirable” as possible, so you’ll be offered the worst-scenario price and see their hardest-to-sell room. Don’t worry about the quality of beds–the days of saggy beds are past. And if we cover something in one listing, it needs to be consistent and specific in all the others.

Walk different routes to maximize your learning about neighborhoods where we recommend hotels.  Also be sure to walk through these neighborhoods late at night to gauge possible lowlife and noise problems. We won’t necessarily delete a place with these problems, but we need to be candid and warn people who might find this a problem. Don’t let hoteliers edit our listings. If they are above a porn shop and don’t want us to mention it, ignore their request. The listing is not a paid ad. They are lucky to be in the book at all.

List when the museum actually closes, not when they shut the ticket window. If researching during the off-season, be sure to ask about peak-season hours.

Combo-tickets are generally a scheme designed to let mediocre sights that few people will pay to visit enjoy the coattails of sights that everyone will see at any price. The disadvantage of combo-tickets: They cost more. The advantage: You can buy your ticket at the unpopular sight and walk directly into the popular sight without waiting in line (examples: Correr Museum for the Doge’s Palace in Venice; Palatine Hill for the Colosseum in Rome).

Nothing temporary is worth knowing about for your guidebook research. Don’t be distracted by something that won’t be there anymore by the time the book is published.

Be a cultural lint brush. Live the book. Stay on top of your research. Try your hardest not start the next town until all your notes from the last town are carefully typed up. Remember: The quality and thoroughness of the work you do will impact thousands of travelers next year, and will make for more happy travels than you can imagine.