Overguiding: notes from a gilded cage
Once, travel was about putting yourself out there. You went to a new place, and you figured stuff out. You got things wrong. You paid too much. Maybe you carried a guidebook – but they were sketchy at best. Hand-drawn maps. Skimpy on the detail (the 1987 Lonely Planet guide covered Jordan and Syria in 200 pages: the current LP Jordan alone is 360 pages). Dodgy, pennypinching advice (“Carry a pocketful of Smash with you, so the first time it rains you get a free meal” – apocryphal line from an unspecified guidebook, as related to me by a veteran writer in the late 90s. He was joking. I think.).
Now, though, there’s an urgency in the air. An author friend recently sent in his updated chapter on Palma de Mallorca, only for the editor to return it because he hadn’t supplied a street address for the cathedral. Another friend, working on a Cotswolds app, was required to find every public wifi hotspot between Cheltenham and Oxford, with price where applicable. Another, in Tuscany, was told to supply phone numbers for every church.
27.175444,78.042096 – Taj Mahal, Taj Ganj, Agra (U.P.) 282 001, India
Then there are the geocodes. Rough Guides have abandoned – for now – their newly announced requirement for authors to supply geocodes for every named building, attraction, point of interest, hotel, restaurant, bar, shop, cow and haystack, after authors (I’ve been one for the last 15 years) jumped up and down and shouted a lot about copyright and workload and other stuff, but the requirement will no doubt resurface in some other form, sooner or later. Geocodes in NYC or NSW I can understand – they can be useful in a big city – but geocodes in the Jordanian desert? As part of ordinary guide content for people touring around? Put the damn phone away. Talk to the bedouin. Look at the road. If there is one.
If you think travel is a sequence of unconnected dots which need linking, knowing geocodes make perfect sense. But if you think travel is about people, local knowledge, local stories, landscapes, journeys and experiences, knowing geocodes is about as useful as knowing the Taj Mahal’s address.
But the impulse to overguide doesn’t stop there.
When is a price not a price?
Since Rough Guides started, in 1982, they’ve had a system of price codes for accommodation: the author draws up nine brackets relating to the price for a double room in high season (e.g. 1 Under $10; 2 $10-20; 3 $20-30; and so on) so that every hotel in the book is given a price code, indicating an approximate range. When you’re travelling you quickly establish that hotels in, say, the 3 or 4 brackets suit you, so your eye goes straight to them. Or you stick with 1s and 2s – or you splurge on a 9.
It was a rough guide – and it matched what travel is like. But if you have that system you HAVE to tell the reader what the price code means. Rough Guides took their eye off the ball. With tweak after design tweak they hid the info that explained the price code system. You had to read the whole book to know where it was. By the end it was squashed into the gutter of the inside back cover, between some corporate blurb and the photo credits. It forced you to keep flipping to and fro. So when Rough Guides went to focus groups (oh yes, publishers pay through the nose to find out what you think), they realised people had to flip to and fro. Nobody explained price codes, so readers didn’t understand them. What does 5 mean? Where’s the price?
As of this year, Rough Guides have abandoned price codes. Now they will – like Lonely Planet – list an actual price for every hotel. Good, eh? Progress?
“In the book”
Except most hotels don’t have an actual price. There are different rates depending on how you book – direct, through a local travel agent, through a travel agent at home, through an online booking system, and so on. Prices shift according to demand. And season. And how far in advance you book. Some hotels offer cut-price deals every weekend; others drop prices midweek. There may be a range of room types, at different prices on different days. And then, of course, this year’s price is out of date before it can even be published.
A single price is actually a lie. It looks like it’s pinpoint accurate, putting power in the hands of the consumer – and it lets the publisher boast about how great their book is – but it’s really hiding the truth, and it’s really misleading the reader. A range of prices would be more honest, more accurate and more informative. Something like, ooh, a price code would do the job really well.
Hoteliers, too, prefer price codes, because they know that the inevitable result of quoting a price to a guidebook writer is that, 12 or 18 months down the line (if they’re lucky; perhaps years in the future), some white-kneed foreigner will be standing in reception, stabbing his fat finger into a guidebook and demanding a room AT THAT EXACT PRICE and not a penny more “because it says so in the book”.
Online updates, in one form or another, get around some of that – but which publisher is going to pay to have authors keying in updated prices for every hotel in every book, every six months? Apps go out of date too; it’s just, when you download them, it doesn’t feel that way. They feel permanently new. Another lie.
The awful truth is that PEOPLE DON’T NEED TO KNOW an exact price for a hotel; they just need to know roughly how much to expect, then they can check out the booking options for themselves. They don’t need to know phone numbers for all the museums in Yerevan. They don’t need their mass-market guidebook to Oman or Brazil to be quoting geocodes for every village (unless they’re on a serious offroading expedition, in which case they wouldn’t be buying the Rough Guide anyway). It’s a waste of everyone’s time.
One researcher can’t find every public hotspot in a single city, let alone an entire region – and even if they did, what value would that information have in 3 months, when it’s only 95% accurate? And 12 months, when it’s 75% right?
The gilded cage
Overguiding – turn-by-turn directions, precise information that isn’t precise, contact information for places nobody needs to contact, illusory prices – is a gilded cage. It’s like Google: apparently beneficent, actually evil. We’ve been seduced by it, imagining all this information makes us more powerful, more knowledgeable, more travel-savvy. In truth, it traps us, by cutting off the need to explore. It packages the world; it’s an attempt to eliminate strangeness that is doomed to fail, because travel is strange. What does travel mean – in Cheltenham, as in Kamchatka, as in your very own street – if not finding stuff out for yourself?
Newspapers and travel magazines do it too, with their relentless Top 10s and Best Ofs – gutting and filleting destinations to shield us from the horror of Getting Something Wrong. Eating an unremarkable meal. Sightseeing in a touristy part of town. Sleeping in an ordinary hotel. The shame.
But who’s kidding who, here? If overguiding is bad for readers, bad for writers, bad for travellers and bad for locals, why do publishers do it? Who benefits?