You’ve enjoyed writing since childhood. Tell us about your passion for the craft.
I’ve always liked to argue and see my name in print. Writing combines these passions. I’ve written several thousand articles, and I still get excited when one is published.
How did you become a travel writer?
After a stint in banking—yes, banking—I moved to Washington, DC in 2000 where I worked as a full-time editor. At that time, I started a blog and wrote about the topics that interested me. This form of writing was so new then that we didn’t even call it blogging. But it was a great outlet for me. I was writing two to three 750 word columns a week, and I built up an audience. In 2004, after a break up with my then girlfriend, I found myself with no home and no job. So I did what anyone would do: I backpacked through Europe. I blogged about my adventures. When I returned, I saw that Gridskipper was looking for a DC-based writer. I didn’t apply for the job with a traditional letter to the editor. I sent a link to my site, and got the job that way.
Travel writing would be a dream job for many. What’s the real story of its best and worst days?
At its best, it really is as good as you think. You get to travel to far-flung destinations and have eye-opening experiences enjoying the local scene. One of the few negatives is this: the destination usually covers my travel expenses, but I pick up some of the incidentals. When I travel, I don’t write. I want to immerse myself in the experience. So I sometimes lose money when I’m on the road.
What do travelers want from the travel and hospitality industry today?
They want travel experiences that are authentic. More and more, people don’t just want to be in the hotel having a blatantly manufactured vacation experience. While the degree varies by the traveler, most people want to feel an element of risk and a sense of adventure when they travel. And they want the travel industry to be there behind them, providing a safety net so they can take risks without real danger. People also want something that’s going to stand out on Facebook or Instagram. It used to be that people took trips and then shared a slide show with friends. Now, our friends and family travel with us vicariously in real time through our social media postings.
How important is social media in influencing people’s travel decisions?
It’s huge. People trust their friends more than they’re going to trust a travel writer like me. Travel writing used to be about educating people about a destination. Now, people can get information on destinations from so many trusted sources. So I see my role as putting an idea in people’s heads that they take and run with—and consult their friends about on social media. Those trusted relationships are everything.
What changes have you seen in the industry over the years? Which surprised you the most?
I’m fascinated by how widespread rentals of private homes have become. Hotels give you a certain experience. But when you stay in a personal residence, you get an entirely different perspective. On our honeymoon, my wife and I rented a flat in Paris. Every morning, I would walk out and get coffee and pastries. I had the experience of living like a Parisian. This is the essence of the authentic travel experience that travelers want today.
What travel trends and innovations are you watching?
I’m looking out for any company that can disrupt the airline industry like Airbnb did to hotels and Uber did to taxis. The biggest obstacle for most travelers is the price of the flight. Ticket prices just keep going up. And flying is a hassle. There’s a big opportunity for an emerging player to totally rethink airplane travel.
How is digital technology changing the guest experience?
It’s interesting because the media publishes a lot of articles about the value of unplugging when you travel. I think this is a mistake and a disservice. I need to be connected to family and clients when I travel. I think a lot of people do. Sure, we all need to be responsible and put the phone down sometimes, but checking in alleviates anxiety so we can actually relax. And digital tools make travel so much better and easier. They empower us with easy access to resources to make decisions. Technology empowered travelers have more channels to reach the travel company when something goes wrong. When I backpacked through Europe just over ten years ago. I was hauling an older Lonely Planet book. I often think how different that trip would have been with a smartphone.
What are your top predictions for travel in 2025?
I think that some of the larger hotel chains and hotel management companies will have portfolios of homes to rent. If they can get past the legal and regulatory hurdles, I definitely see them starting home rental divisions. The hotel brand name lends a credibility factor for travelers who might still be wary of transacting with strangers online. It’s about that safety net we discussed earlier. I also think that civilian travelers will be going to space in 2025, and even sooner. Space travel will be for wealthier people who are searching for bigger, better travel adventures. This won’t be on a mass scale, but it will happen. And there’s a non-trend I’m watching. I’m not as high on wearables as others are. I just don’t see wearable technology creating the need for consumers like the smartphone did.
What is the most interesting travel story that you have covered?
The one with the most traction was an article I did for Gridskipper on how to find crack cocaine in gentrified neighborhoods in Washington, DC. The research was done, but the product was NOT tested. It was a story-behind-the-story approach that was unexpected, and allowed me not to just write about the destination, but to explore politics and urban issues. People liked the story because it was great entertainment. That month, I ended up getting the bonus for most page views.
What is your most memorable travel experience?
It was New Year’s Eve 2007. My girlfriend and I were in Edinburgh for Hogmanay, a fantastic street celebration of the New Year. After midnight, we had someone take our picture in front of Edinburgh Castle. This stranger said to me, you should get married. Instead of proposing later in the week at a restaurant in London as I’d planned, I seized this amazing moment out there in the rain with 15,000 other people.
Do you have any best-kept-secret travel tips to share?
Travel media has become so specialized these days that people can find entire websites dedicated to just about any travel hack. This is something to take advantage of. When I get back from a trip, I take a moment in the car before walking in the door. I always love coming home, but you need to give yourself the space to transition to the real world.