Someone wondered in a previous blog “just how does Rick spend his time and what does he do for fun in Europe?” It’s strange that I would take time out of my sightseeing to respond…but, for some reason, I feel like you are all my travel partners…and it’s fun to share. Here’s my routine (excuse the clipped writing…but I’ll be fast):
Bottom line for me–get eight hours of sleep and stay healthy. Otherwise, virtually every minute while I am researching is dedicated to the mission: make the books more helpful for my readers. While working in Europe, all experiences of the day are dedicated to research. If my readers can’t do it next year…it doesn’t exist. I thrive on local tips, leads, and feedback. Hotel receptionists, who deal with American travelers day in and day out, are hugely helpful. My Madrid hotel doesn’t serve breakfast so I need to find one. If it’s a problem for me…it’s a problem for my readers too. I ask the receptionist’s advice–where’s a good churros place (greasy cigar-shaped doughnuts Spaniards dunk in hot chocolate for breakfast) He says, “Americans want Starbucks…it’s over there.” I need to balance my interest in having people enjoy the old fashioned cliché and the modern reality. I dunk a few churros (it’s a chain cafe…not much local energy) and treat myself to a latte and blueberry muffin (we’re all just human). Next year, it’s in the book.
Over coffee I review my goals for the day. Updating a chapter is like that video game where the little guy bounces through all sorts of pitfalls collecting golden rings. He won’t get them all, but the more the better. There are a million little things to check. If I’m well-organized, I’ll visit nearly all in person and minimize what I call “the phone sweep.” As the books have grown, it is unrealistic to physically visit every place mentioned every year. When my time is just about done in a town, I call it good and finish things off by phone. You’ll see phone numbers in many listings that you might wonder “why have a number for that?” It’s there for me (or another researcher) for updating purposes.
Making a smart schedule is critical. Minimize walking and do things at the smart time. Checking hotels before 10:00 is bad news–people haven’t checked out yet…the staff is still busy with breakfast. It’s hard to get anyone’s time and it’s hard to see a room. Checking late in the afternoon is also bad–everyone’s checked in for the day and many places are reluctant to show rooms.
To save time these days, I often hire a taxi by the hour to hit a series of hotels and sights. This saves time but puts distance between me and the transfer reality of a typical tourist with my guidebook. I need to understand the public transit challenges. I routinely take the subway and bus just to physically do what my readers are doing. For instance, a few days ago I took the new shuttle bus in from the Madrid airport, connected to the subway, and walked and walked and walked between underground trains with what seemed like millions of people with my bags to get to the hotel. This is the experience of my readers and it’s mine too.
A major challenge these days is to find the real price of a hotel…sorting through the ups and downs dictated by new-fangled computer programs that predict the demand and price-sensitivity. These days rack rates are bloated to cover the 20% commissions paid to web booking services (which are becoming the standard system for most hotels in Europe these days). I try to convince hoteliers to appreciate my readers coming direct by giving them a net rate (their rack rate less the commission they assumed they’d lose).
My great advantage over other researchers is that the recent success of my books means I meet people all the time who I can quiz. They think I’m so friendly and gracious to take time to chat…but I truly enjoy it…and it’s practical–very helpful for me because I learn what works and what doesn’t and what are the pitfalls and frustrations people traveling with my book are dealing with.
I wonder when I’ll burn out, but I absolutely love this research work. I guess I’m powered by the proud feeling that no one in America with his name on a guidebook is actually doing this. The sight of my frayed pants and dusty old shoes gives me a tri-athlete’s buzz (I think). I have a knack for finding small business people who love their work in Europe. This gives my books a passion for people-to-people connections. I can understand how President Bush can claim to look into someone’s eyes and see their soul. (But if I’m wrong, it’s just a bad hotel value). I meet someone for a few minutes and factor in their passion and integrity for their work as I decide which of many otherwise similar hotels or restaurants to recommend.
How do I find the good hotels and restaurants that make my books work well for travelers? It’s certainly not me. I feel so clumsy in much of Europe. For twenty years I’ve been pushing doors that say pull and walking into doors that say push. Here in Madrid, to say “where’s the toilet?” I still point my index finger to the ground and say “Psss?” My ability to suss out good places is from carefully compiling and building upon twenty years of local tips, and the advice from guides and European friends who generously share their expertise. That is then combined with my secret weapon: 20 years of experience as a tour guide, seeing for myself the joy, fear, frustration, exhaustion, and wonder in the eyes of my travelers up close and personal.
It’s expensive to spend so much time researching guidebooks. No other publisher invests so much shoe leather in annual updates. There’s never really enough time. Triage is standard operating procedure. The day is divided between hotels, sightseeing, travel practicalities, and eating. I filter out information on temporary exhibits that are gone next year. Festival events that are rare on the calendar are invisible to me. I don’t care if the Queen’s sharing her box at the Royal Albert Hall…if my readers can’t do it next year, it doesn’t exist.
Year after year, I visit the sights and do the walks. Every two years I’m here in Madrid: dropping by the cloistered nuns (just as I propose in the book). I talk into the dark wood of their lazy susan (me in English, them in Spanish), and order their cheapest cookies. This year they spin out lemon short cake. I measure the experience and affirm that it’ll work for my English-speaking readers.
I balance time between three star sights all travelers will do and the obscure and new sights. (Yesterday in Madrid, I dropped by the Egyptian temple given to Franco for helping save antiquities from the rising Nile while building the Aswan Dam. Everyone says it has the best city view in town. My experience: The temple is under rated…the view overrated. A big wide view of Madrid only makes you wonder why anyone would build a city in this non-descript piece of Iberia…so don’t seek a big fat view.) But nowhere else in Europe can you see an actual Egyptian temple standing in a park.
Lately, restaurants have become a big priority for me in my research…perhaps because I like to eat well now more than in the past. There are two hours of prime restaurant review time each evening. You can bet every evening that’s when I’ll be out–checking restaurants. (I call it “blitzing restaurants.”) I get my ducks in a row (take a minute to write out a smart plan on the map), consider all reader feedback received (both for existing places and tips on new places). My reward–just before the kitchens close…eat at my favorite place visited. Each year I try to add a few and drop a few just to keep things fresh. I can’t eat everywhere…but I can talk to people in each place. If I meet a couple with my book who are eating for the second night in a place (for instance), that’s a fine listing.
My challenge is to write up a listing so people can really know which place is best for them when reviewing options back in their hotel room. My image: one traveler is in the shower, their partner is on the bed paging through the guidebook reviewing the options. Listings need to be clear and concise so the right choice is obvious.
Menus and the mechanics of ordering can be frustrating. It’s my challenge to sort this out for people. If a stew is a local must-eat experience and big enough for two, I learn if splitting is allowed. If the place is mobbed after 8:30, I’ll suggest ways to avoid the line. If the ambience is great on the ground floor and lousy downstairs, I’ll make that warning. If it’s dead on hot evenings (as many indoor places are), that will be noted. If the business practices are aggressive, I’ll say so with encouragement to understand an itemized bill before paying.
Like giving the chapter a haircut, I enjoy trimming extraneous info and needless words that sneak into the book by my crew of earnest and talented researchers and editors. When it comes to a good guidebook, less is more. And I’ve found credibility is hard earned and easily lost.
My favorite two comments when on the road researching: local Europeans who marvel at how useful the book is for them when they enjoy a night out; and travelers who pack lots of guidebooks along, but only one leaves the hotel room with them when they’re out and about…mine.
More then ever, these books have become a team effort. We’d never be where we are with these without the help of many great writer/travelers. And I am spending more and more time apprenticing researchers. Still, personally writing and maintaining these guidebooks is the work I enjoy most.