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Online businesses take a page from the old media’s playbook

James Gilden, The Internet Traveler
November 12, 2006
IN the last 10 years, travelers have witnessed nothing short of a revolution in how they research and plan their travel. Not long ago, travelers relied primarily on printed media for information. They searched guidebooks, magazines, brochures and newspapers for reviews, recommendations and inspiration.

Today, most travelers say they get this information online. Websites such as TripAdvisor and VirtualTourist.com, which provide user reviews of hotels, restaurants and destinations — user-generated content, as opposed to professionally written — claim millions of visitors.

Now two successful travel websites — bargain-hunting website ShermansTravel.com and VirtualTourist.com — are doing what seems retro in this ever-so-wired industry: They are launching printed-on-paper travel publications.

Last month, ShermansTravel was first out, publishing the first issue of Sherman’s Travel magazine, a quarterly glossy aimed at sophisticated, value-conscious travelers.

In a sign of how quickly an online business based on a good idea can grow, ShermansTravel, founded just four years ago, has built a large audience among travelers looking for travel bargains and values. Its weekly Sherman’s Top 25 travel deals e-newsletter now claims 3.5 million subscribers.

The company saw a niche in the crowded market for printed travel magazines that it thought was unfilled.

“There is a real need for a magazine that focuses on smart luxury values,” said James Sherman, founder and chief executive of Sherman’s Travel Media. “We recognize that while there are budget travel-related magazines, there’s nothing for the more upscale traveler who’s looking for value.”

And unlike online media, a magazine format allows for big, pretty photographs.

“A magazine is a perfect vehicle for inspiring travelers,” Sherman said. “The Internet is more passively thinking about travel or browsing travel opportunities.” The magazine sends readers to its own and other websites for more information, just as the website works as a marketing vehicle for the magazine.

For now, the magazine is available only by subscription. Subscribers are being generated by sending marketing messages to the Sherman’s Top 25 e-mail list and through postings on the website. It is expected to be available at newsstands early next year.

The magazine is written by staff and freelance writers, though it integrates some user-generated content.

That is in sharp contrast to the route VirtualTourist.com has taken creating its print product.

VirtualTourist.com has been around for six years and has more than 780,000 members who contribute content. It has accumulated 1.2 million travel tips and recommendations on more than 27,000 destinations, making it one of the largest of such sites.

The site has been modeled from the start after a traditional printed guidebook. The chief differences are that the content is all contributed by average travelers and not professional writers and it is, obviously, online rather printed. That is changing.

This spring the company is launching its first VirtualTourist Travel Guides, printed guidebooks composed almost entirely of user-generated content.

“We have really mastered the online user generated content,” said J.R. Johnson, founder and president of VirtualTourist. “Now we want to go after what we had originally wanted to do and create an offline guidebook.”

Using the site’s rating system for reviews as a starting place, a team of professional travel editors selects the best reviews of destinations, hotels, restaurants and things to do and assembles them into a printed guidebook. The first five guidebooks will be on London, Paris, Montreal, San Francisco and Rome.

“If you look at maybe 800 reviews written about the Eiffel Tower, they pick out three or four to include in the book,” Johnson said. “It’s a massive amount of content [on the website]. A lot of it is great and a lot of it is not so good.”

Editors will do little to the selected content other than correct for punctuation and spelling. They will verify information such as addresses and pricing on hotels, though that is subject to change, depending on season and any specials on offer. Otherwise, the writer’s voice is allowed to come through unfiltered, even if the English is imperfect. For Johnson, this is one of the strengths of the guidebook, adding to its authenticity.

“Some guy who lives in Paris — and his English is a little broken, might not be written in the king’s English — that really adds to the content if it comes through in the author’s voice,” he said.

For each volume there are about 300 contributors whose only compensation is a byline and maybe a picture at the front of the book. Readers who find a writer whose travel sensibility matches their own can reference other contributions.

“Being a travel writer is the dream of a lot of people,” Johnson said.

Great. Just what I need is more competition.

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