An Interview with Mark Smith of Seat 61

Mark Smith is definitely a success story in the travel industry–his site, Seat61, which started out as a hobby, became his full-time occupation in 2007. Just this year, Seat61 won ‘Favourite Travel Website’ in the Telegraph Travel Awards 2012 and continues to grow. In our interview, he talks about taking a hobby to a full-time occupation and offers us some insight on writing for the web. Enjoy!

How did you initially get interested in the travel industry? What was your first “big step” in terms of getting your start?

I’m not sure I think of what I do as a ‘blog’ in the sense of personal web log.  I found a book about html, the language websites are written in, just as something to read on the train home.  It worked, and I got a web page online.  I thought I’d put some basic train travel information online, information that I thought people could use, but which the commercial travel industry didn’t make available.

When did you realize that your hobby site could become a real business? What did you do from there?

I stumbled upon Amazon’s affiliate scheme, and added a few links for people to buy guidebooks.  Within a few weeks, it had earned a tenner or two.  Wow, I thought, a hobby that buys me a curry!

Do you get invited on train-related press trips? I’m thinking specifically of trips to promote new routes or faster tracks. If so, how do those trips work?

These days, yes.  Deutsche Bahn have invited me on trips to sample the Railjet train in Austria and City Night Line sleeper, Ireland Railtours invited me to try their new train and ferry tour to Ireland, Rail Europe to try the TGV to Reims, and so on.  Such trips are very useful indeed, not only for adding information and photos to the site but also for networking, getting to know key people in the industry.

Are you doing anything differently now than five years ago in terms of bringing in traffic? If so, what are you doing differently and what would you recommend to people in the industry who are just now starting out?

It might be a bit simplistic (SEO companies will no doubt say so) but content is king.  Concentrate on content, content, content, and think what your visitors want, not what you think Google wants.  Think about the terms used by your visitors. For example, visitors always search for train and ferry even though the official terms used by the ‘rail industry’ itself are ‘rail’ and ‘sea’. But nobody searches for ‘rail’ anything, or ‘sea’ anything–it’s always ‘train’ and ‘ferry’.  And visitor questions and feedback are the best market research you can have. As soon as I realise there’s a misconception, or an unanswered question, I update my site to address it.

What would your first piece of advice to someone be if they contracted the “vagabond virus” and wanted to see the world?

Just do it!

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Mark Smith is a career railwayman who ran away from Oxford to join the circus (or as it was then called, British Rail) as soon as he could. Starting out in delightful rural Kent on what was then BR’s Southern Region, he became the Station Manager for Charing Cross, London Bridge & Cannon Street railway stations in London in the early to mid 90s.  He was later the Customer Relations Manager for two major UK train companies, and until 2007 worked in London as the Department for Transport’s expert on UK rail fares & ticketing.  He now runs Seat 61 full-time.

Interview conducted in January, 2013 by Kristin Mock.

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