Friday, February 06, 2015

Researching the Joy Out of Mystery

"The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see."
 G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s distinction between travelers and tourists has never been more apt than today. The business of tourism is all about good ol’ American marketing. Experiences are identified, packaged, and sold. If you don’t believe me, just look at our website. Oh, we’ve tried to be as real as possible, but there’s always a little disingenuousness in the effort, as there must be. After all, interest must be first piqued, lest we allow the traveler to fall into a pattern of Deo volente
I’m going to walk a line here, a line between bitching about being unable to be anonymous, and about self-promotion. In all parts of my life I’m torn between these two things, between the desire for a voyeur’s background noise and a hungry baby seal bleating for its mother among a crowd of fellow bleaters. As a writer I’m responsible for my own marketing, and that means breaking out my inner P.T. Barnum and shouting, “Step right up and see the writer! Come witness his feats of vocabulary prowess! You’ll be astounded by his literary calisthenics!” Or something like that.
So, too, must I promote myself as a college professor. Since I’m an adjunct, I work on a semester-to-semester contract. Next semester isn’t guaranteed, and I must be able to convince the metrics of the college that I am worthy of another stint. Evaluations—from both above and below—count. I’m a man in the middle. It’s much the same for us as innkeepers. 
This is, of course, the fault of the Internet. When we got into this business 15 years ago, connectivity still meant guide books and AAA and having a good sign on the side of the road so that families led by Borkum Riff-smoking dads could cruise by and say, “Gee, honey, that looks like a nice place, let’s pull in there.” User-generated content (think of the crowd in the Passion of Jesus Christ: “Kill him! Kill him!”) were off in the distance. Facebook’s father hadn’t met its mother yet. Reviews aside, the Internet has turned travelers into something worse than tourists. It’s turned them into researchers.
Remember the olden days, when you needed a paint brush you’d just go down to the hardware store, walk down the aisle filled with paintbrushes, pay for it with a two-dollar bill, then smoke a cigarette with the clerk? (I know; I sound like Abe Simpson: “Oh, I remember this story! The year is nineteen-aught-six, the president is the divine Miss Sandra Bernhart, and all over the country, people are doing a dance called the Funky Grampa!”) Now you go online—preferably to, so they can stalk you with drones—you spend six hours learning about paintbrushes (“The paintbrush emerged in Summarian culture as a way to stir the malted beverage that became beer…”), you read 3,496 reviews (“This brush was slightly more fine than I wanted, so I give it two stars…but I would have given it three stars if…”), and then, just as the first streaks of light begin to paint the dawn, you collapse into a puddle of tears, your full bladder pulsing in your side, your eyesight wrecked forever.
It’s what I assign my students, lauding its virtues in the discovery of facts as a means to argument. And it’s what happens to us with our guests, turning them from travelers into tourists. They arrive fully apprised of everything they need to know about us, the inn, area. And this is our fault; we’re the ones supplying the information, happily uploading photo and blogging the drivel from my mind. (I realize the full irony of what I’m arguing here: by blogging about being an innkeeper, I’m participating in the very thing I seem to be decrying. Sigh.)
When guests show up now, the well-researched exchange goes something like this:
Us: “Welcome to Stowe and to the Auberge.”
Guest: “We know where we are. The GPS brought us here.”
Us: “We’re—“
Them: “You’re Shawn and Chantal. Shawn is a writer. Or at least he thinks he is. He started his own small press as sort of a feel-good way to publish his last book, A Brief History of Innkeeping in the 21st Century. The Vermont Press, indeed. Shawn got his MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and he worked for FedEx Express for ten years as a swing driver, not a swinger. He comes from a little fishing village south of Boston, where his father was a lobster fisherman. Shawn is a telemark skier and he loves wingshooting. Chantal is from France.”
Us: “Umm…”
Them: “We already know where we’re eating dinner: Phoenix Table. It was opened by local restaurateur Jack Picket last year after Frida’s closed. Before that, Jack was the genius behind Blue Moon CafĂ©, and back in the day he successfully operated the restaurant at Ten Acres Lodge. We’re looking forward to his creative contemporary American cuisine.”
Us: “There’s…”
Them: “A hot tub on the back deck. We know. We also know that breakfast is from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. We’re tea drinkers. And we have our lift passes already. We did the research.”
And so we beat on, hosting our guests, trying to figure whether they’re travelers or tourists, just trying to stay our of their way so they can enjoy themselves. I think we’re doing all right, but I’ll have to do a little research on that and get back to you.