That’s a typical question, asked of a travel writer. And it’s fair enough. Because if you haven’t stayed in all the hotels reviewed in your guide, then how can you know what they’re really like?
Basically, can your reviews be trusted? Can your book or website – no, make that, can you – be trusted?
People, there’s good news and bad news.
Bad news first. No one can stay in all the hotels (and eat in all the restaurants, and go to all the clubs – more on those another time). No regular guide writer has the money, the time or, frankly, the inclination to do that.
Good news? If you’re great at your job, it doesn’t matter. You can trust me when I say this is a decent hotel in a quiet part of town with boutique-on-a-budget rooms. Here’s why.
The numbers behind the travel
Let’s start with some basic numbers.
The last guide I updated and researched, to a popular European city-break destination (Google away, Google away), contained 69 accommodation reviews, from hostels and boutique B&Bs to five-star designer hotels. That’s 69 nights, or 10 weeks, if I stayed a night in each place to get a real feel for the accommodation. But most city research trips for a book like this might be for 10 days or 2 weeks – problema, as we might say in this charming, fashionable Mediterranean city (damn, damn!).
Truth is, when I sit down and do a count, I’ve stayed overnight in 19 out of those 69 hotels. Not all on the same trip , but over several years on many different visits. Some I’ve paid for, and others have been hosted (ie, paid for) by the hotel, the local tourism body or a PR company. (And that’s a whole other story for another time too.)
Nineteen may not sound too good, but on the flip side, there are only 7 hotels – out of the 69 – that I’ve never yet set foot inside. So there are 62 reviews (that’s 89 percent of the total) based either on an overnight stay or on a personal visit by yours truly, where I have looked in a few rooms, inspected the bathrooms, sat on the beds (lay down on them if no one was accompanying me), checked for street noise and generally thought – hm, do I like this hotel enough to recommend it?
Like it or not?
But is a quickish visit – say 20 minutes – enough to be able to review a hotel properly? I’d say so, if you’re experienced and know what you’re looking for. They don’t know I’m coming and they don’t know who I am – I just turn up and ask to see a room. This way, I don’t just get shown the best rooms, just the best available ones, like you would too. (Top tip, by the way: don’t ever be afraid to do this, even in the swankiest, most expensive of hotels. Unless they’re full, most – nearly all – places will happily show you a room and tell you about the facilities. And if they’re not happy about it, ask yourself why not. I always do.)
I also back up my own opinions by checking TripAdvisor, and other websites and guidebooks, to see what they say about a particular hotel. There’s something in the wisdom of crowds – mostly, the places that get good reviews are, well, good, or else someone, somewhere would say so. In which case, I might think again, or go back and have another look, just to see if I was wrong.
And finally, as a guidebook writer, I get a lot of feedback – conversations, emails, tweets, letters – telling me what people thought of my previous choices. So once I’ve seen a place or 62, and put some background work in, I’m generally sure that they’re good enough to get in the guide.
Building up a picture
Those 62 places, by the way, are on a rolling programme. I don’t return for another look every time I go back, just to check they’re still OK. That would be too time-consuming – if you figure on doing 7 or 8 hotel visits a day (and that’s a lot, given all the other stuff you have to do), that’s a straight week just thinking up new ways to descibe furniture and décor.
But I might do a third of them again on the next trip, and a different third on the one after that, plus fitting in looking at all the new places that have opened up or been recommended to me. So I not only hoover up cool new places, but keep an eye on the rest, to check that standards haven’t slipped, or prices skyrocketed. This way, over time, you can build up a pretty solid picture of the best places to stay in any given cool, maritime city with amazing Art Nouveau architecture (oops).
So that’s how I end up with a reliable list of hotel reviews – improved, honed and weeded over time. But what about the places that haven’t been visited or stayed in? What does that say about a travel writer’s reliability or otherwise?
That’s for Part 2. Maybe keep that room reservation on hold for now.