Budget Travel Online held a roundtable discussion with today's top travel bloggers on September 13, 2006, at Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. Here is a transcript of the discussion. It has been edited for length and clarity.
MICHELLE PRELI, General Manager: Budget Travel Online: I thank everyone for joining us tonight. I am a new addition to the Budget Travel team and I am very happy to be here in such a creative and exciting time in the industry.
This is kind of an anniversary party for us, and we've had a great first year so far. We've got a lot more planned in the future with a lot of exciting features, so you have to stay tuned for those, and I hope you log on over the next couple of months because we will be rolling them out.
As you know, the web has proven to be a really useful tool for travelers, which is why we're here tonight and we've assembled our panel. The rise of travel blogs and web sites really brings a lively new dimension to the industry in how travelers get their information. There's a big hunger out there for the information delivered in a way that people can access all the time. So we invited these fine folks here tonight to talk about how they actually cover destinations and how they interact with their readers, and how they've impacted the industry and given this new, kind of independent travel voice a hearing. I'm calling them bloggers, but I will let them tell us if they prefer a different term.
We have Mark Johnson from HotelChatter.com, and also he's the founder and -- you can applaud.
He brought his own personal fan club.
He's the founder and publisher of HotelChatter.com as well as Jaunted.com, which is a travel site as well. So, if you check out HotelChatter.com you'll find everything from great service information such as Good Rate/Bad Rate, which is a feature they have comparing hotel rooms in the same city to see where you can get the best value. They also have -- which I love -- "Room With an Anti-View," because we have all been in one of those. They also do some nice investigations. They have been in the forefront, for instance, of the hotel bed bug coverage, which is no small feat. They have participated in other media coverage of that. You will find some other things discussed there, too, like, you know, did Nicole Kidman really demand they change the light bulbs in her hotel room? I want to know!
Next we have Erik Olsen, and he is editor of Gadling.com. Gadling spans the world. It dispatches its folks actually on the ground there. With things like "Photo of the Day" and "Word for the Travel-Wise" you get a kind of cultural view of the destination. For instance, I read today that there's a World Toilet Summit in Moscow happening! But I also read about Museum Day on December 30th, which is very practical information -- and for all you out there who want to participate -- there are nearly 500 museums that will be opening their doors to everyone for free. So, it really spans the gamut.
Next we have Randy Petersen, who I am very pleased could be here. He jetted in for us. Thank you very much, Randy. He is an expert on something that really every traveler is concerned with these days, which is frequent flyer programs. He has a new book out on the subject called "Mileage Probe" and that's to help us make every mile count. If you go onto his website you'll find a host of forums dealing with every aspect of loyalty programs, and in the blog section of his site you'll learn things like how you can actually transfer Delta miles among other Sky Mile members, which are all useful things to do. So, we thank him for being here, too.
Last but not least we have Joshua David Stein. He's the editor of Gridskipper.com, and he took over the helm of that site this past July and he is still standing. Gridskipper, if you haven't checked it out, bills itself as "an urban travel guide" and it really does cover all parts of the travel experience from night life to shopping to dining, in a very lively and cheeky way, is that accurate?
MR. STEIN: Yes.
MS. PRELI: Okay --
-- and I will mention that you can log on and vote for the world's sexiest city. You have that up there now?
MR. STEIN: Yes.
MS. PRELI: So you can vote for that, and I do have to mention that since today is Wednesday -- I always on the following Thursday, I check out "This Week on the Runway," which is a wrap up of the Project Runway show on your site, and so we are missing that tonight to be here.
Finally, I'm very pleased to introduce the editor of Budget Travel Magazine, Erik Torkells, who will be moderating tonight, and also I'd just like to mention that we are happy to take questions at the end. So, I will turn it over to you, Erik.
MR. TORKELLS, Editor, Budget Travel Magazine: Excellent. Well, we were trading panel stories before this started, and there is nothing worse than a panel where you don't get to say anything, so let's jump into it. And seriously, please do think of questions. We asked readers questions for this panel and the first one they came up with was, "What is a blog?"
On the one hand it's not a terrible question. We've been throwing that word around and it could mean a lot of things. Maybe in a lot of ways it's just online journalism. But when we used to say "blogs," we meant someone doing an online diary probably more for their own enjoyment than for anybody else's. And yet, it is becoming increasingly corporate. Are blogs in the mainstream yet? And ultimately, what is the difference between a blog and, say, a magazine? Josh, since your blog is most like a magazine, why don't you take that one?
MR. STEIN: Well, I guess ours is like a magazine in terms of there are recurring features, which I think a lot of us have. It's different than a magazine in terms of the immediacy of it, that it comes out -- not only does it come out every day, but there are new articles, there are new posts, every hour and you can really respond in an immediate manner to facts on the ground, wherever that ground is. It's not made out of paper --
-- although I heard that is the next thing -- paper blogs.
MR. ERIK TORKELLS: Are the people from Sherman's Travel here? Because they are going in that direction. But back to that question of whether this is the mainstream yet. Do you feel like an outsider anymore?
MR. JOSHUA STEIN: Gridskipper in particular is a little more, I guess, edgy, which kind of means it's more limited and maybe closer to the outside than -- can I say more widely read and more centrally positioned? But, I think, in terms of who we influence, I don't think we are on the outside.
MR. MARK JOHNSON: Can I just jump in? To me, a blog is nothing more than a format. The reason that we started HotelChatter is because I had done sites in the past that cost a boat load of money to do, and for HotelChatter, using the blog format just made sense. But I really look at it as deeper than a blog, and a blog is nothing more than the format you use -- reverse chronological order and all of that stuff. So, we look at our blog from the mainstream even more as our independent voice, as well as our immediacy. Like when we do the "Gramercy Park Hotel Live Blog," -- you are not going to see the review on that in the New York Times for who knows how long, but we've got probably 25, 30 stories on the Gramercy Park Hotel
MR. TORKELLS: Fair enough. So, we can agree that the word "blog" is -- we are just going to take that as meaning, sort of, online travel communication at this point, right? What is it that readers or users, user/readers, are responding to, specifically for each of your brands?
MR. ERIK OLSEN: I think that a blog develops an identity and it develops a voice. You're saying you are edgy, and, I mean, we feel like we are kind of sarcastic in the way we approach things. We want to provide real information for people. We want to make sure that someone comes and actually gets something out of it and says, "I learned something" or "You are directing me to a great place."
When you're talking about this blog journalism, it depends on the type of blog you're talking about. You can't just say that all blogs are the same. They provide all types of different information, and a blog, in a lot of ways, is meta-journalism. It's journalism about journalism, you know. Someone said that there would be 50 percent less blogs -- I'm sort of paraphrasing --
-- there would be less blogs, you know, if there were no New York Times. So it's not going to replace the New York Times because everybody is blogging about the New York Times or whoever, right? So it's not a replacement. It's a very nice, sort of adjunct that the New York Times and everybody else is glad it exists because it drives a lot of traffic and interest and dialog about what they do. So we've tried to develop a voice. We call ourselves an "engaged travel blog." Travelers log on to know, we want to tell people about trips and places and cool stuff that's out there and so that's what people come for. They look for a place where there's sort of an aggregate, an aggregation of cool stuff that appeals to their sensibilities but is packaged in kind of a fun way that you can get through every time you check in. It's more than just, "Here's a link." It's, "Here's a story and some journalism." Call it, for lack of a better word, journalism around the link. So that's, as far as Gadling goes, that's what we strive for.
MR. TORKELLS: Does anyone else want to talk about what they think their users respond to? One of the beauties, of course, of online journalism is the immediacy and the immediate reaction you do get. It's probably like a lot of things, where you tend to hear the bad stuff more than the good. They tend to talk when they're unhappy. I mean, you talk about the live blogging and the other stuff you're all doing. What's working? What are people really responding to?
MR. RANDY PETERSEN: I'll go in for a second. Actually, Flyertalk.com takes a little bit different angle on the idea of blogging. I think that today it seems to be that blogging is only about a singular voice, a singular post, a singular bandwidth. But Flyertalk.com is really -- it kind of harks back to the start of the internet and public bulletin boards where the voice comes across as the voice of two people, 200 people or 2,000 people that take a particular topic, a travel topic. Right now what's hot is liquid gel bans on airlines. In the case of Flyertalk.com, on a couple of threads there are may be, I don't know, 1,000 different people creating a thread about that particular topic fueled by, I don't know, 100,000 other people, if you will. At Flyertalk it's not to create a blog that's a single voice, mind you, but a merged voice of many different people..
I think sometimes we get carried away with the idea of a blog's individual stuff and we forget the precursory blog and the community voice, which I honestly still think is valuable today and shouldn't be thought of as the old-fashioned way of blogging, that the community voice actually is a fairly more well-balanced voice, if you will.
MR. JOHNSON: Absolutely, and that's what we are trying to do, and when we started HotelChatter.com one of the reasons was that I spent a lot of time on Trip Advisor, which has many, many different voices and millions of different reviews, and I just spent so many hours on there that I was wishing there was a filter or a lens that I could look at this through. So I think that's what we're trying to add and to build on, the forefathers, if you will, of travel bulletin boards.
MR. TORKELLS: Well, that leads to an interesting question. One of our readers -- Lola, from New York -- and I was heartened to see this question because I was going to ask it, but it's nice that it came from someone else. It's: "How do you feel about user-generated content?" I mean, we all use it, but the follow-up question to that was, "Can we trust just anyone or do we need a voice with more authority? Is the future of the internet all about empowering Americans by giving them all a voice? How will this affect the travel industry specifically?"
MR. OLSEN: I think that eventually everybody ends up going to, you know, a series of bookmarks, places they know that they can go to, they depend on for, what is, really when it comes down to it, an edited voice. User-generated content is dynamite, and we're going in that direction. We've hired people who are going out on trips to go ahead and blog about those trips, and yet they still go through us. That is, they go through me and I'm going to make sure that, "Okay, well, you need to do this. You can't do just whatever you want."
So, as far as the kind of stuff we do, which I think is more editorial in a way, more magazine feature-ish, for lack of a better term, you do need some editorial filter. But the contribution of other people is utterly necessary as well, or at least it's utterly beneficial and it gives a sense of community in the sense of people contributing who are out there and you don't have the voice-of-God-control over everything, which is why a lot of people have this feeling -- why they don't like mass media so much, because they feel like there's too much control. So, it's not quite anarchy, but it's in the middle somewhere.
MR. TORKELLS: Gridskipper has been doing interesting things with its commenters recently in terms of trying to filter them a little bit. Can you talk about some of the decisions, about how you got the idea of that?
MR. STEIN: Well, Gridskipper.com is part of the Gawker dynasty, and I think a lot of the comments are just so wildly clever and witty. And on the travel website it works as well, but you also need to have people who aren't posting just to be witty. You want people who are interested in building a community and also giving helpful tips and not just to run off snarky little bits of -- I don't know what it is. So, yeah, we changed the commenting system where pretty much anyone can comment. But it is a very important thing.
We get a fair amount of our posts from tips which people send in, which we then follow up on and kind of make sure aren't lame. Anyone can comment, and as an editor, I kind of filter out the dregs or the non-visceral, non-witty folk.
MR. TORKELLS: In my humble moderator-type opinion, a big part of this problem is anonymity. I mean, when people have that cloak they use it defensively. Do you trust your anonymous contributors less?
MR. STEIN: Yes. We have a rather large team of contributors who, you know, their names are on the masthead. They have ownership of the site, and you know that what they are contributing is quality. And then you have a lot of people who just say, "Oh, well, I went to this restaurant, it was great Mexican food in Austin" -- but it was probably not the case. It might be the case, but it definitely warrants more investigative journalism on behalf of Gridskipper.com.
MR. TORKELLS: Have any of you encountered public relations people trying to plant stuff?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes.
MR. TORKELLS: What happened?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, that's one of the reasons why we went away from anonymous comments. That and the Chinese spam.
But what we saw happening was that we'd get a comment, and we were really excited about that in the early days. Well, it turned out when we did a little research that it was from somebody who worked at the hotel. Or, you know, we'd get an e-mail tip and it was the same thing, so that's why we set up a better system where it's like, all right, you have to sign up and register to be able to leave a comment on HotelChatter so at least we know where we can go and delete your contact.
With the tipsters we actually do a little bit of follow up. If it looks shady, we'll kind of get in touch with them, or even if it doesn't, sometimes we'll get in touch with them and say, "Hey, did you stay at the hotel, or do you work there?" And if there is radio silence, it doesn't go up on the site.
MR. TORKELLS: Randy, have you found this?
MR. PETERSEN: Yes, we actually get a lot of insiders, but it's not from the PR side, actually. I think the bloggers and the anonymity creates a number of insiders who are actually employees who give good inside information before the PR department ever announces it.
Actually, that allows the internet to play its own role. It's less about blogs. It's probably more about the advent of the internet and the speed in real time in which valuable information can be out there, and frankly, in the travel area, you see travel people putting up the lead balloon, more or less, especially from where I stand. They may float an idea through employees or something and if it's not well received in the blogosphere then they're going to kind of say, "Well, we were never going to announce that anyway. Somebody else must have said that." So you find the use of the blogs and the internet used in various ways by what we perceive to be travel insiders.
MR. TORKELLS: Okay. Here is another reader and this reader actually is a travel industry person. Steve LaRouche from Quebec City asks, "As the one in charge of all the e-marketing at Quebec City Tourism, I wonder how I can use blogs to try to influence the writer, or in the end the reader..."
MR. JOHNSON: I have a good story about that. Early on with HotelChatter.com I was trying to get advertisers so I could do this full time and make a living, and the Florida tourism board -- I ran into them at some conference or something -- and they said, "We love HotelChatter and we want to advertise on it." I was really excited about that. And then they said, "But you can't write anything bad about Florida or any hotels in Florida." So, anyway...
MR. TORKELLS: Yeah, that will kill a deal.
MR. TORKELLS: So, let's go back to Steve from Quebec. He says, " -- other than to invite some bloggers on a trip" -- that sounds like fun. He doesn't realize bloggers don't really leave their houses, that's why it's so special for you all to be here today.
"What would you suggest?" That's a great question. You don't want to be bought and used, but you want their information, or do you want their information? How can they help you?
MR. STEIN: Well, when there are interesting promotions that people are running or that hotels are running or events happening in the city or -- like the museum day or something like that -- then yeah, it's just more information that they are giving you. Something that turns me off is 15 e-mails a day about -- I don't know -- jello-molding in Tucson. You just learn to ignore all of that noise. But there has to be a decision on how they pitch it to you, just like everything. You don't want to over expose yourself.
MR. OLSEN: I just think that as an editor it's like you are there to put up good information. A lot of the stuff is garbage and people don't know who they're sending something to. But sometimes you look at something and you're like, "That's pretty good. That's a neat event" or I'll Google it and see what else is there and if it's actually cool. Then, sure, I'll blog about it. I do fairly often, but I probably delete 80 or 90 percent of the stuff, and I'll not read it if it's addressed to Bob or if they happen to have done some research on what they've sent me.
MR. STEIN: Yeah, not if it's "Grid Skipper" -- two words -- or "Mr. Skipper."
MR. TORKELLS: I did this online chat for the WashingtonPost.com about blogs today and this question came up about eight different times. I was warming the online world up for our talk tonight. The question is: "How do you find good travel blogs?" That's for anyone assembled here on our panel. Well, let's broaden that. How do you find good travel information online? Or if you want make that more specific, when you go to a site that you've never seen before, what do you do? How do you look at it to see whether or not you think you can trust it or find it useful?
MR. STEIN: Well, one way to find good travel blogs that I find really helpful is to -- you go to these blogs and they have huge blog rolls and it's just kind of the grunt work of going through each blog. You know, when I started at Gridskipper.com I didn't have that good of an idea of what blogs were out there and what blogs I should be looking at, so what I did was I just went through probably about you know, hundreds and hundreds of sites and blogs and tried to suck out the ones that weren't personal travelogues that had no bearing to me about God-forsaken places.
MR. OLSEN: I end up reading a lot of blogs and you start to make lists and you start to really expand your bookmarks. So every once in a while -- probably every couple of days -- you just stumble upon something that's new. Right now, there tends to be a real solid core of very good, solid blogs that you constantly you go to. But every two days or every day I'm adding things because someone else blogged about it and after I looked at it I say, "This is good. This is quality stuff."
MR. JOHNSON: And we are all constantly linking to other travel blogs that we find interesting.
MR. PETERSEN: The other part of that is that I think people using the RSS read a lot more, where you can actually set up your browser to become the gatherer of that content because the idea is to try to do research on a couple of hundred blogs using your typical Google keywords and just add the word "blog" to it. After a while I think for most people, the average person, especially with the popularity of blogs, would get a little bit overwhelmed, because I mean, if you look at the travel category there are -- I don't know -- 100,000 blogs about travel and I'm not quite sure that's useful.
But, to your point, you are absolutely right, that there is some confusion that a travelogue -- is it or is it not a blog? Is it fair or unfair to say that somebody's travelogue is not a legitimate blog? Where do you feel that the distinction might come?
MR. STEIN: Well, I think I make the distinction in terms of helpfulness for our readers. So if someone is traveling around China and they're blogging about how they're sick, or, you know, how the Great Wall is pretty, that's not going to be useful. But if they're an architecture buff and they're going through and they're saying, "This is a great structure" or "Here are the five most interesting buildings in Shanghai," that is where a personal travelogue becomes useful to our readership.
MR. OLSEN: I will talk about something that is a relatively new phenomenon, and that is that when you talk about the number of blogs that are out there and the difficulty of filtering through them to find good ones, there is a phenomenon called "splogs," which you may or may not know about it, where you basically have people who are literally ripping off your content and creating their own blogs.
They have these spiders that go and they will literally take your entire post, post it on their blog with Google accents so that all those terms that are in your piece, that took you a lot of time to put together, they will then have on their site with the Google accents or ad words. People who are searching will then use those keywords and people will go and find that site and say, "Gosh this looks like well-written content" or "Great content. Useful and interesting," and they ripped it off from you.
So, there is this massive proliferation of these as you find them and try to write them and say, "Please don't rip off our content." But it does make it, for us for example, harder to go out and filter out and find the useful blogs. You would never want to link to a splog because that would be playing into their hands, so that's one of the phenomena that presents a bit of a challenge to folks that are constantly on the lookout, like we are, for certain new content when that is happening out there.
MR. TORKELLS: That's obviously a pretty clear violation of journalistic ethics, which leads me to the next question. Is this journalism? Do you feel like you play by journalism's core set of rules? I can give you an example. A gossip site recently posted something about Budget Travel that was just patently untrue without ever asking us to verify that information in any possible way, and as a journalist I thought that was shady and then I thought, "Well, do they have to play by those rules?" Say you learned, for example, that W Hotels is partnering with a strip club like Scores or something. Would you call W Hotel or Scores to verify it before running that?
MR. STEIN: Yes. Because I don't post on that, yes.
MR. JOHNSON: I think one of the great things about the blogging format is that you can quickly make corrections. So if your tipsters happen to be wrong, one of the things we do is we go in and we strike through so you can see that we messed up and then you can see what the new story is, but a lot of times we find that -- what was it? W is going to partner with strip clubs?
MR. TORKELLS: That is what I heard.
MR. JOHNSON: --- and now we post and W writes us and says "No actually, it is exotic dancing clubs."
MR. JOHNSON: So then we go, alright "exotic dancing clubs." So there are a lot of different sides to this story and we try to give all of the viewpoints as they come in and let the readers see that exchange.
MR. OLSEN: To some extent, blogs are the perfect marketplace. If you are going to generate a lot of traffic and maintain that traffic you have to be a viable and consistently dependable source of information. If you start putting out false information the rest of the blogosphere, which is incredibly alert to false information, will jump on you for it, and you will lose credibility. If you lose credibility, you lose traffic. So it serves the marketplace. The loss of credibility is the loss of traffic and the loss of your blog's popularity, so it is in your best interest to be as accurate as you can.
MR. JOHNSON: Andre Balazs was, forgive me, I am not a New Yorker,doing something about that elevated thing they are going to build -- High Line, yes that is it. Okay. So he was doing a hotel in the High Line and we got the plans for it and so did a little site called Curbed. We both posted about it, and I immediately got a call. I don't even know how they got my phone number but I got a call from Nadine Johnson, who reps Andre Balazs, and she said, "That is just wrong information. Take that copy down. It's wrong. Take that down and we will send you the right one when and if it comes up." It hasn't come up, so we went back in and said: "Apparently this is wrong information." But we didn't take it down. We just said: "Apparently this is wrong information. We just got a phone call from Balazs PR people."
MR. STEIN: The basic rule is that you do try to verify the facts to the best of your ability when the information is posted, but since you are posting in real time consistently throughout the day, there are maybe going to be more errors than if you are the New York Times with their full-time fact checking department. But theoretically it is the same code of ethics as journalism as print journalism.
MR. TORKELLS: I don't want to get too inside baseball for the non-journalism people here. Let's just talk about travel real quick. What are you all seeing? Where are people going or what are people doing?
MR. JOHNSON: You have something to say about all this, so go ahead.
MR. TORKELLS: Well, it's true that I grind that ax on a regular basis. What makes blogs so interesting is that you can play faster and looser, and that's incredibly appealing. That is where the freshness comes from, that is where the edge comes from, and there is a lot to that. But the idea that it doesn't need to be as accurate as the mainstream voice is worrisome to me because I think more and more it is the mainstream voice. I think that people are more inclined to believe something online than maybe five years ago and take it as gospel.
MR. STEIN: I think that people look at blogs, they realize that there is such an individual voice, and to look at blogs and take it as gospel is a little bit naive.
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, Gawker posted, we all got the Eva Longoria in Maxim Magazine in the desert e-mail. And half of us looked at it and were like, "That is bullshit." Luckily, it took HotelChatter a little too long to get to it. Gawker posted about it and then immediately had to print a retraction because it was proven to be nothing more than a viral marketing thing. It is going to happen once in a while when we are posting. Gawker posts 25 times a day but they correct it just as fast.
MR. TORKELLS: What was the Eva Longoria -- was that the aerial view I saw? That cover in the desert? That wasn't real? I saw that on all sorts of sites.
MR. JOHNSON: Josh put it up, too. But they printed a retraction a half an hour later. You have to go back.
MR. TORKELLS: I'm busy.
MR. TORKELLS: Do any of you all in the audience have questions?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I have so many questions. But my questions are more about the business end of it. How many people come to your sites? And how do you go to these places? Like you have to be all over the world and I imagine your budget is not that huge. Are you traveling all over the place like bigger travel companies are, checking out hotels?
MR. JOHNSON: No, we don't have the budget to travel all over the place. We barely have the budget to stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel overnight. But what we do have are loyal readers and tipsters who actually blog. You know, we talked a lot about what a blog is, the format. A lot of people said it is a voice. And people identify with the voice on HotelChatter. They actually kind of think it is a person and they will send things in, seeing hotel reviews, in that same voice. That is the best case scenario.
And another case is they will tip us off saying "This is going on" and management will respond, "Actually I know that person and there is a lawsuit pending right now" and we will be able to post that. And without those people, no, we would not be able to do it. It is very rare we are able to go out ourselves and stay at those places. We have to rely on scouring the internet and our tipsters who send us e-mail.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: How many readers? Can each person say how many readers you have?
MR. STEIN: Yeah, we could do that, I think.
MR. TORKELLS: Would you?
MR. STEIN: Today, we had, I think, around 18,000 page views. The way you measure, in general, is page views because that is the way that ads work and we had 18,000 today which is pretty average.
MR. PETERSEN: Flyertalk probably serves about 20 million page views a month.
MR. OLSEN: Gadling ranges between 10 and 200,000 page views a day but is probably more on the average of Joshua's 15, something like that. It is all over the place.
MR. JOHNSON: In August, those are the numbers coming to mind, HotelChatter had over 200,000 unique users and over 300,000-page views.
MR. OLSEN: It is the quality of their readers not the quantity.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I work in PR in the international tourism area, and quite often we have to discuss with our clients the value of a lot of these different outlets. Particularly in the last year, we've had to say, "Look it is really time to look at these blogs, these online journalists, and to bring them overseas, give them advice, and work with them." And it's hard at times to give a value to online journalism. How do we tell who your readers are? How do we give them a monetary value? It is something in PR we often have to do, so how do you justify the value of your outlet to these tourism boards today?
MR. TORKELLS: And do you measure your audience? In print you know what kind of car they drive, if they barbecued their dinner last night. Does that happen with your audience yet?
MR. JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely. I think we all have surveys that we do.
MR. PETERSEN: So one of the things I kind of see out there starting to happen is more organizations such as yourself actually extend their presence into the blogosphere rather than thinking that it is something quite different. It is really not that different at all. So today on Flyertalk, British Airways has an official group, Starwood, Continental Airlines, even Air France of all people. It is more to do with how travel companies view how legitimate that blogosphere is. And I think your question was, "Is this legitimate or not?" But I think in the case of Flyertalk, it is legitimate enough for them to establish an outpost of extended customer service, but also to correct what happens in the social media. Those are the points of opinion where somebody is wrong about what they are saying.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do you guys sometimes partner with the tourism boards? Do they share information with you and you share information with them about how many hits you get on an article? Do you trade measurements with them in some ways, or have thought about that?
MR. STEIN: I think a lot of that information is available. I know that we use Site Meter and Google Analytics which are programs which yourself, and the shady international cartels you represent --
MR. STEIN: -- measure which articles are being read.
MR. TORKELLS: The opinions expressed this evening are not necessarily the opinions of Budget Travel Online.
MR. TORKELLS: Anyone else have any thoughts about that? Audience?
MR. OLSEN: I am not sure we would do something like that. People come to us trusting that we are that editorial filter that says what is good and what is bad and I think if there was this whiff of a deal or sharing of information, sharing a trip or equipment or something for positive coverage, I think that would affect our credibility to some extent so we try to avoid some of that.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Not necessarily a trip for positive coverage. I used to be a journalist so I understand what that means, but kind of along the lines that PR people today are having to deal more and more with the idea that editorial are not accepting junkets, so we, in turn, are having to change the way we work with journalists and work with you. Clearly, you don't have the budgets to fly to Australia and so how do we, in turn, work with you and justify that for our tourism boards?
MR. OLSEN: I get a lot of e-mails and so do everybody here. I use my editorial judgment and if it is good we will tend to post. One of the dirty secrets -- I speak for myself -- one of the dirty secrets of blogging is you got to get stuff up all the time. It is a lot of work and finding good information for people that warrants them coming back is tough. So if somebody e-mails me stuff that is useful I will very often use it.
SPEAKER: I guess more to the point, have you been offered press trips, have you taken press trips, and has anybody who works for you been offered press trips? And if you did, would you say --
MR. OLSEN: Are you a reporter?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I am trying to figure out how you gather the information.
MR. OLSEN: Bags of money never hurts.
MR. TORKELLS: Press trips. Do you take press trips at all?
MR. OLSEN: No, not really.
AUDIENCE: Are you offered them?
MR. TORKELLS: I think we all probably are, yes. The hardest part of this job is saying "no" to all of that over and over again.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: How do you make your money?
MR. OLSEN: Bags of money, I told you.
MR. TORKELLS: Do you find your readers act on the stuff you wrote about?
MR. STEIN: Yes. I think that if somebody reads in the blog or in another publication, there is no direct correlation between you read it in a blog and you go, or you read it the paper and you go. It is about getting exposure to people and there is a certain percentage of people that act on the information you give them.
MR. TORKELLS: You, raising your hand politely for a long time?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: My question is sort of basic. From my perspective in the corporate world, what are the dos and don'ts in working with your guys?
MR. OLSEN: Spell our names right.
MR. JOHNSON: Everybody here gets tons and tons of PR information in our e-mail box. But if you take the time to call us and address us by name, tell us you are fans of the site, that is a big deal. If you are willing to reach out and talk to us and actually read the site that is a really good start and makes us more likely to react.
MR. TORKELLS: The dos' and the don'ts, I think, aren't so different whether you're dealing with television, print or online or whatever.
MR. STEIN: I don't know how this works with press junkets or free products but a hotel chain is giving us a couple of rooms to give to our readers to use in a contest. Now, I am not going to go to the hotel and use it myself but I am going to create this whole contest that is mutually beneficial that will drive traffic to the hotel and drive traffic to our website, so that is something we can construct and use as a feature which is what all of us really want.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: I can say from experience we once tried to break news using you guys because we didn't think it was newsworthy enough to get into a newspaper. I think it is much more difficult to get into a newspaper that has limited space as opposed to online. It was just a fantastic bang. We learned a lot from it. What it did was show the influence that you guys have with mainstream media.
MR. JOHNSON: That is awesome.
MR. PETERSEN: One little tip is that, it has been said by everyone here. That is learn about the space that each of us and others are in, because with e-mail filtering these days, there is only so many times I can get e-mail that is not relevant to my space, and then it goes into my rules file. And there may come a time that you may have something pertinent to my space, but unfortunately, I decided the other 800 times or 40 times or whatever it might be, you were not paying attention to whatever my space is.
MR. TORKELLS: I know you all have more questions but why don't we take it outside, have a little something to drink, you can ask them all individually, take them in a corner and poke them, and thank you all for coming. Let's go have a drink, and thank you to the panel again.