When my books were 200 pages long, I prided myself in personally visiting every listing every year. Now, with 20 books averaging 400+ pages each, I rely on a staff of researchers. We just had our annual meeting, and I had four hours to inspire and instruct our team. Here are a few concerns we dealt with:
Reader feedback: We get mountains. While tips on what has changed and areas of confusion are really helpful, most new hotel and restaurant suggestions are a disappointment. Still, we track many of these down because gold nuggets do pop up. Run down suggestions when you can.
Writing vs. checking information: Researchers are primarily information-checkers. My co-authors and I get the exhausting privilege of expanding our coverage.
Tap locals for help, but don’t be hoodwinked by cronyism. We need to survey our friendly hoteliers and B&B hosts, as they know what our readers are doing day in and day out…which tours, tricks, eateries, and so on work best. Where are we letting our readers down?
Cheap tricks: With our dollar in the tank, in 2008 we will all dredge up cheap tricks for eating, sleeping, transportation, and sightseeing at every stop.
Decipher hotel price schemes: When hotels have crazy computer-generated price schemes, try to find the average peak-season rate and suss out how travelers score the best actual prices in each place.
Avoiding lines: If there’s a line, there is a way to avoid it. We want those with our books to never need to wait through a line. Find clever ways around them.
Get deals for those with the book: Many prices assume a commission for some agency or website. Because our readers are going direct, try to negotiate for them a discounted rate that cuts out the middleman, saves our readers money, and gets the business all it would net out through an agency. But be very careful not to negotiate a discount from someone who isn’t in authority to back it up and make it happen next year. Check each discount in the book anonymously.
Don’t clutter up the book with bad-value sightseeing passes. Europe must have a university course called “Confusing Nonsensical Museum Passes.” Few are worth the trouble, much less the ink to explain in a guidebook. Really crunch the numbers.
“Live the book”: When researching, you are working every waking hour — eating, sleeping…living the book. Know what’s in the book. Know the frustrations of our readers. Do what our readers do, and report on it.
Think strategically: For example, figure out the connection from Lagos to Salema (which our readers will want to use). Avoid an expensive hotel by taking the overnight cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo. If flying home from Milan’s airport, consider spending your last night in Stresa and catch a shuttle directly to the airport from there, rather than detouring through Milan.
Don’t pollute the book with needless details (last entry 15 minutes before closing) or rare offerings (free second Sundays, English tour summer Wednesdays).
I like to illustrate a job well done by examples from last year’s research. Here are a few I used:
A new sight listing (in Berlin) written up clearly after a visit: The Film Museum is the most interesting visit in the Sony Center. Your admission gets you into several floors of exhibits (3rd floor is film and TV permanent exhibits, 1st and 4th floor are temporary exhibits) made meaningful by the included (and essential) English audioguide. The film section takes you from the beginning with emphasis on the Weimar Republic time in the 1920s when Berlin rivaled Hollywood (Metropoliswas a German production from 1927). Three rooms are dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, and another section features Nazi use of film as propaganda. The TV section tells the story of das boob tube from its infancy (when it was primarily used as a Nazi propaganda tool) to today. The 30-minute kaleidoscopic review — kind of a frantic fast-forward montage of greatest hits in German TV history — is great fun (it plays with 10-minute breaks all day long). Upstairs is a TV archive where you can dial and click a wide range of new and classic German TV standards. The Arsenal Theater downstairs shows art films in their original language.
A new restaurant listing (in Berlin) that makes the dining experience clear, and offers a distinct style and great value: Zum Schusterjungen Speisegaststatte is a classic old-school eatery. It’s German with attitude and retains its circa 1986 DDR decor. The “Boot Boy” is famous for its schnitzel and filling €7-8 meals. It’s a no-frills place with quality ingredients and a strong local following. It serves the eating needs of those who lament the fact that it’s hard to find solid traditional German cooking with the flood of ethnic eateries (small 40-seat dining hall, daily 11:00-24:00, corner of Lychenerstrasse and Danziger Strasse 9, tel. 442 7654).
A cheap transportation trick: Eurailpasses don’t cover the Czech Republic, so you need to buy a ticket for the Czech portion of the trip before boarding a train. (Tip: Since the Germans charge double what the Czechs do per kilometer for tickets within Czech Republic, you can actually save money by crossing into Czech Republic without the Prague leg of the journey paid for. Buy it from the conductor for €7 and pay the €2 penalty…and save a few euros over the €14 price for the ticket bought in Germany.)
An example of a fun detail (in Luzern) that could change if Frau Segesser retires, and therefore needs to be checked each year: Midway across the old wooden covered bridge is a little chapel from the 16th century, built to guard against destruction by flood. A line of family crests acknowledge the volunteers who, over the years, have kept the chapel decorated with the seasons. Since 1987, this has been the work of Frau Segesser. While you’re paused here, notice the serious woodwork.