How to address that classic content challenge familiar to every travel brand...

Writing fresh, interesting copy about the same old places.

A Google search on the phrase 'unspoilt beaches' yields 242,000 results.

It's the default phrase travel companies tend to reach for when they want to say 'that the bit of land next to the bit of sea' in a destination they serve that is rather nice. 

Unfortunately it's a phrase so over-used as to be almost meaningless.

If every beach you fly planes to or provide accommodation at is unspoilt, how can I tell any of them apart? Come to think of it, what does 'unspoilt' even mean in this context?

Unspoilt by the presence of other people? Some holdaymakers quite like to socialise. Unspoilt by oil slicks or rubbish heaps? That's not much to write home about.

Back on Google, I see there are 'unspoilt beaches' in Turkey and Wales and Krabi, southern Thailand; in Valencia, Durban and Antigua; in Dorset, Costa Rica and Turtle Bay, Sri Lanka.

And there you have the travel copywriting challenge in a nutshell:

  • How do we make our destinations stand out when we use the same language to talk about them as everyone else?
  • How can we say something new about this place when it's all been said before? 
  • How can we help potential customers to tell our destinations apart when we barely seem able to ourselves? 

These challenges are compounded by other realities:

  • How can I write about somewhere I've never even been to (or not recently, or not often)?
  • And how can we get 400 original destination guides ready before the new season launch in 12 weeks' time if we have to start being original and interesting about them too?! 

No wonder we reach so often for the warm wet embrace of the travel cliché.

With limited time and limited knowledge, we fall back on the same old descriptions, safe in the knowledge that nothing so generic or unoriginal can possibly be factually wrong at least.        


Travel clichés deciphered

In researching the clichés of travel copywriting, I came across the marvellous Grumpy Traveller blog of David Whitley, a freelance travel writer who has become so tired of all these tired phrases that he's composed his own guide to what each one really means. To paraphrase:

  • ornate = 'I don't really know anything about architecture'
  • desert island = any island that might be a bit far away and slightly exotic
  • stunning vista = writer doesn't want to repeat the word 'view' again
  • hidden gem = used indiscriminately for somewhere that's quite nice 
  • like travelling back in time = could do with a lick of paint
  • rich cultural heritage = 'no time to research the history or traditions of the place' 
  • golden beaches = default descriptor for all sandy beaches, even the white ones [and an alternative to 'unspoilt', of course] 
  • city of contrasts = city contains a few things that are slightly different from each other (check out Whitley's 65 greatest cities of contrasts)

OK, enough about the problem. What's the solution? 

Five tips for writing cliché-free destination guides

1. Remember not all destination guides are the same

And they don't have to say everything about a place. They serve specific purposes for specific users, who may be at different stages of the purchase funnel, or travelling in very different ways.

This guide to Bhutan from Black Tomato assumes you know next to nothing about the place and is full of inspirational messages and rich imagery; this highly practical guide from Virgin East Coast tells you where you can buy a last-minute birthday card in Leeds railway station.  

Each succeeds because it's focused on a specific need state.

Trying to tick too many boxes with a single piece of content is likely to lead to something generic and unfocused. 

2. Sound like you've been there 

With travel copy, there's no substitute for first-hand knowledge. Or at least the impression of it. 

If you've not been to the place you're describing, talk to someone on the ground.

We help our travel clients to draft questionnaires that can be emailed to reps or managers on-site.

To encourage responses, make the questions a simple matter of completing an online form. You don't need polished copy, just some raw, first-hand material to work with.

Ask everyone the same questions too, to yield standardisable information so you can... 

3. Present your destination guides as a repeatable format 


Anyone looking at the Virgin East Coast Trains example above will quickly understand it's one of a series.

You might well be moved to use another in the same series next time you need a cappuccino in Edinburgh, for instance, or a quick pint at York

Desintination guides are a classic content type crying out for the repeatable format approach.

Devise a standardised content template with fields mapped to your goals and your user's content needs. Then structure every guide the same way, so the same bit of information is always in the same place.

That way it's easy for me to move through different guides and quickly compare them. 

For more on this point, see the section, 'Structure your content according to type' in this post on reducing effort for your users

4. Use tone of voice to create a point of difference

Your guides don't need to say everything.

Focusing on cultural info for older users or practical post-sales details for new bookers or things that 18-30 types will care about can give your content a more compelling focus. And so can your tone of voice

Voice can add credibility and flavour to your content. See how little splashes of well-written description add atmosphere and anticipation to the airbnb experience:

An interesting tone can even help you turn potential inadequacies into virtues:  

 

5. Harness the power of the specific - the telling detail

Compare these two sentences: 

  • There are six dining options, so there are always plenty of different dishes for you to try.  
  • There are six dining options, including a rooftop Italian and a poolside barbecue grill.

The first verson is total blah-blah, blandly stating the obvious. It tells us nothing. It includes a dreaded 'so', often the secret source of travel cliché ('the hotel is right by the beach and has three pools of its own, so you'll never be far from a relaxing dip').

The second version makes a point and fleshes it out with some specifics. Concrete detail, real examples, facts and stories... these tangible touches and telling details are what bring travel copy to life. 

No travel destination genuinely 'ticks every box'. Nowhere truly has 'something for everyone'. And this is a good thing, even if it means we have to dig a little deeper and think a little harder, because we can bring our copy to life by focusing on which boxes the place does tick and which details we can highlight to bring it to life.  

Online, specificity sells, the telling detail engenders belief.

As holidaymakers and travellers-to-be, we're not looking for generic statements and empty puffery, and we don't need copy that tries to tells us everything about a place. We need telling details, carefully selected to tickle our fancy and grow our anticipation. 

Thomson Holidays apply this approach very well to their destination guides, with loads of well-researched detail, an approachable voice and a complete absence of hype or cliché.  

Dan Brotzel

Published 10 August, 2015 by Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel is Content Director at Sticky Content, part of the Press Association, and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Comments (2)

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Drayton Bird, Founder at Drayton Bird Associates

What is "tick too many boxes"? Is it a cliché? Is it a better cliché than "talk to someone on the ground"? Or maybe "dig a little deeper"? What is a specific need state? Is it the same as a specific need? What does everyone think?

over 2 years ago

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Peter Roberts, Principal at Peter Roberts Associates

How hilarious - Headline 'five tips' is one of the biggest journalistic cliches!

over 2 years ago

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