Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Paper or Plastic?

My fourth grade teacher, Mr. Duffy, used to read to us. A former Marine with huge hands and a raspy voice, Mr. Duffy ran our class with a wisdom that belied his no-nonsense exterior. He gave us boys plenty of unambiguous direction, and during reading time, if we needed some encouragement to listen more quietly, he wasn’t above throwing the book at us. Literally.

Mr. Duffy usually threw beanbags at us, but sometimes the paperback book he was reading from worked just as well. That year he was working his way through some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books: Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and Little Town on the Prairie. Later, in graduate school, I thought back to this mixture of literature and projectile crowd control and was thankful that he hadn't been reading us the Russian authors I was currently studying. Still later, I wondered what he would have done if he’d been reading from a Kindle, and that got me thinking about the debate between the value of electronic books versus traditional print books.

Though my book Creative Writing in the Real World has just been published by New Plains Press as a traditional print book, it’s not available in electronic format. I have another book that’s ready for publication (pending a green light by The Vermont Press), and I have to decide whether I want it published as a traditional print book, an electronic book, or both. Called A Brief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century, it’s actually an updated version of a book already available as a Kindle book: The Innkeeper’s Husband. So what’s the hangup?

The hangup is the allure of electronic books. They’re much easier to get to “print” than traditional books. They’re easier to market, especially for someone like me, who doesn’t always have the time to invest in the schlepping necessary to promote a page-and-ink book. They’re certainly more accessible and portable. But with that accessibility and portability comes forgettability. They lack the permanence of a physical book. They can’t collect dust and be discovered by future generations. Worse, they can be deleted.

Whenever I encounter these self-generated conundrums, my Goddard College training kicks in, and I try to focus on the writing. I’ll prepare A Brief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century for publication, send it to the editors at The Vermont Press, and look at the finances. Getting it into electronic shape will be easy; I’ve done it before. Choosing the print option raises the stakes with up-front costs that will need to be covered through sales. While I’m able to sell books regularly here at the inn, to really move copies I’ll need to be more active in readings and other events, and given the demands of innkeeping and teaching and family, that’s a problem. Hence the siren call of an e-book.

I can’t imagine Mr. Duffy hurling his Kindle at us fourth grade boys to settle us down--after it bounced off our noggins it would fall to the floor and shatter, and he’d be out a hundred bucks. I can’t believe he used to toss paperback books and beanbags at us--or should I say that I can’t believe that fourth grade teachers aren’t throwing beanbags at rambunctious boys anymore? The technology has changed the reality at all levels. Independent authors like me need to constantly evaluate and manage our writing, resources, and options. E-books give us great opportunities to reach wider audiences and make some money with our writing, but you can’t hurl an electronic file at a fidgeting 10 year-old boy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Conundrum of Lodging Review Sites

     Two of the larger review and booking sites in the hospitality business--TripAdvisor and recently made some changes to their search parameters that have upset many innkeepers in Stowe and beyond. Search parameters are the criteria used to direct Internet users to the things they want to find. In the simplest example, a traveler visiting one of the above sites would type in “Stowe” and a list of properties in Stowe, Vermont, would be returned. A search for “Vermont” would return a larger, more varied list. 
     So it was with some dismay that innkeepers in Stowe recently discovered that a potential guest using TripAdvisor or to search for inns and B&Bs in Stowe would see properties that weren’t actually in Stowe listed in the results. Specifically, properties in neighboring Morrisville, Elmore, and Waterbury all appear in search results for Stowe.
     The appearance of these non-Stowe properties in the Stowe listings had the effect of dropping several inns down in the rankings. The Auberge, for example, was pushed from 8th to 10th on the ranked list. One property in Elmore and one in Morrisville pushed us down. With that information in mind, there are a few things to consider from three different points of view: the traveler, the innkeeper, and the review site.
     If a traveler searches for properties in Stowe by specifically typing in “Stowe,” it’s reasonable to assume that the traveler wants to stay in Stowe--not Elmore, not Morrisville, not Waterbury. By returning results that aren’t in Stowe, the review site has created a confusion for the traveler to overcome. Navigating the Internet can be a time-consuming and frustrating process for many people, especially when they’re trying to plan out their vacation. Skewing the results leads to wasted time for the traveler, significantly impacting the experience of something that should be pleasurable. After all, that’s what vacation travel is for. 
     Innkeepers have been forced into the online social review model in the past decade. I say forced because innkeepers are unable to opt-out of the review system. Review sites have executed an amazing sleight of hand by convincing innkeepers that they actually can control their reviews and rankings directly. This is supposedly accomplished by simply doing a good job and organically growing reviews from satisfied customers. The strength of a system like this is its separation: the innkeepers welcomes the guest, the guest has a positive experience, and the guest writes a positive review for the inn. The more positive reviews, the more business is attracted to the inn.
     The flaws in this system are many. Guests are subjective reviewers, bringing their own expectations to the experience. What pleases one guest might irk another. Exaggerations can occur, and the innkeeper has little recourse, except for a spot to spin the review by adding feedback. Another flaw in this method is its exploitability. Over the years we’ve seen new inns become established by accumulating hundreds of positive reviews in a short period of time. We’ve also known of innkeepers who offered guests a quid pro quo for positive reviews. And we’ve heard of innkeepers creating online personas specifically to leave negative reviews about their competition. 
     From the point of view of the review site, this has been a boon. Innkeepers are driven to the site with offers of paid upgrades (the features of which facilitate the booking process, leading to an expansion of the innkeeper’s bottom line); travelers are driven to the site seeking information; and advertisers are driven to the site to capitalize on the convergence. For many innkeepers, the sticking point occurs over the control of their images and intellectual property. Inns can’t simply opt-out of many online review sites. The sites claim that the reviewers control the content, and they only provide the platform for the communication, therefor, they can’t control whether or not a property is featured on their site. 
     This brings us back to the situation with properties outside of Stowe appearing in searches for “Stowe.” Many of the innkeepers I’ve spoken with wish to discontinue their premium services with several of the review sites, and others would like to opt-out entirely. After all, it’s easier than ever to promote a lodging property without subjecting yourself to the whims of third-party sites. Some innkeepers reading this may wonder what all the fuss is about. Their inns may be located more remotely, so that the notion of sharing a region is actually a positive development on a review site. But for Stowe innkeepers, the stakes are higher. For over 50 years Stowe, and its privately funded marketing organization, Stowe Area Association, have promoted the town’s unique charms and offerings. For neighboring businesses to piggyback on that reputation without paying the same property taxes, without facing the same competition, and without funding directly the marketing of the area is unjust. 
     The biggest loser in all this is innkeeping itself. There are many, many wonderful innkeepers who have embraced the metier of innkeeping, not the business model. But when innkeeping is monetized and leveraged, it necessarily becomes about the money. And when anything becomes about the money, it loses its soul.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Empty Nest

The number one question posed to us this summer is, “What are you going to do?”
It’s been asked by friends and guests alike, upon learning that both our sons would be gone for the entire summer. It’s fun to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they begin to process the information: We’re going to be without our children, and we’re still young enough to do something about it. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Maybe I should say that not everybody has THAT reaction. Many people express dismay: “You’re going to be all alone, without your children, this summer?” Then: “What are you going to do?”
The short answer is that we’re going to do exactly what we’ve done for the previous twelve summers: work our tails off. As evidence I present the recent stretch of 21 days without a minute off. On Monday, we finally had what Chantal refers to as a “jammie morning”: that’s a morning where she can stay in her jammies and drink her coffee and act like a rational human who hasn’t dedicated her life to innkeeping. 
But back to the empty nest: Number One Son, Seamus, is in France for the summer. Specifically, he’s working at a resort called Pierre et Vacances in Grospierre, which is south of Lyon, in the Ardeches region. He’s living on his own, in an apartment with roommates, and to be honest, he’s not a burden when he’s here. He’s about as independent as a kid can be, self-motivated, responsible, etc. He turns up for meals and car keys, and he always calls when he’s going to be late.
Number Two Son, Brendan, is in Maine for the summer. He’s attending the New England Music Camp, and studying tuba with one of the coolest tuba instructors I’ve ever met. Brian Edwards brings both youth and experience to the task, and we’re lucky that Brendan will be studying under someone with extensive music education experience, as well as professional chops. 
So with both boys (I should say young men; though they’ll always be my “lads,” they’re quite capable of taking care of themselves) away, we’re left on our own. But it doesn’t feel that different. The work is still here, even more than in the past. In the summer, the boys had kept busy: last year Seamus took a chemistry course at Johnson State College, and Brendan was away at camp for several weeks.
Here’s where we miss them: dinner. Without two gaping maws to feed (“Is it snack time yet?” Or, “Is it time for between snack yet?” Or, “What’s for dinner, and when will it be ready?”), we lose our compass heading a bit. Chantal has produced six home cooked dinners a week for nearly two decades, and she’s evolved a certain shopping and cooking style. That’s all been abandoned. Now it’s just the two of us, and the will to produce full-blown dinners is not what it was. For example, when I came home from teaching the other night, dinner was two microwaved sweet potatoes with home made blue cheese dressing.