As the U.S. Travel Editor for Lonely Planet, Robert Reid–who is also a writer and blogger himself–knows the ins-and-outs of the travel industry! In this interview, he talks about how he weaseled his way into his first job, how he landed his first gig with The New York Times, and how it feels to be “the face” of Lonely Planet. Check out Robert’s blog here!
Let’s start at the present. To many people you’ve become the face of Lonely Planet in the U.S. What is your current role with them and what are you trying to accomplish each month?
Wow. “The face of Lonely Planet.” Sometimes I just stop and think how bizarre that is. That that could happen. I moved from New York to San Francisco 13 years ago — a big cross-country drive with a lot of doubt — just to see if I could get a job at Lonely Planet. It happened. I’ve edited, commissioned books, overseen shoestring guides, moved to London, worked as an author for five years on a couple dozen titles, and now am the U.S. Travel Editor. I’m back in New York, here to talk travel under the Lonely Planet banner. I make video, write, and talk to media to help more Americans, in particular, know what LP does. Never really expected it. It’s a privilege.
Going back to the beginning, how did you land a job there to start with how did you progress into researching guidebooks?
Before moving to San Francisco, I was working at Vietnam News in Saigon, and used the open format to get some travel writing experience. I’d write about places I visited – Con Dao Island, Nha Trang, Buon Ma Thuot – so I’d have clips afterwards. That helped. Then once I got a job with LP as an entry-level editor, I spent five years in-house, then left to be a freelance author for another five. So, yeah, I had an inside connection there. But like all authors, I did a writing sample, which got improved, to join the author pool. People ask how to do this all the time. And things have changed. There are 230 authors now, and they’re not always looking for more, unlike a decade ago. The goal is to not just show an interest in travel — who doesn’t have one — but expertise in a specific region.
My sample was on Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where my dad grew up. They have Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper there, the Price Tower, now a hotel and up for UNESCO World Heritage status. Start with what you know. Wherever you are. Though it’s sometimes hardest writing about home, with any sort of context, but if you do it well, people will be interested.
Many long-term travelers look at their guidebook and think, “I could write this thing.” Many also dream that it would be a fun and exciting job, traveling around on someone else’s dime. Give us the reality of what a Lonely Planet guidebook writer’s job is really like.
I know. I felt the same for years. I’d spend lunches in my first jobs out of college browsing LP guidebooks in bookstores, utterly jealous of the smiling faces on the author’s pages.
A lot of people think you ‘get paid to travel,’ which is sort of true and sort of not. I updated the Yucatan for the Central America guidebook twice and spent no more than five minutes in the water the whole time. It’s exhausting work — you’re out all day, frequently missing lunches to capitalize on businesses’ opening hours, asking people questions for things you know, think you know, or know to be wrong — for confirmation. You’re paid for your expertise, and your eyes too. You go and look. I mean, someone may love a certain B&B, but only someone who visits 25 will know it’s $20 for less value than another. Same for a boat tour, or a secondary museum, or a rising neighborhood.
I believe it’s in some ways the most valuable travel writing, because in no other travel writing are you more sure that the reader will follow your advice, thoughts, perceptions. There’s a reward in that, even if no one knows your name. I don’t do guidebooks anymore. But when I see one of ‘my’ old books come through updated — Trans-Siberian, Eastern Europe, Myanmar — it sort of stings to not be a part. I miss it.
Tell me about the work you’ve done for other publications and what it’s like for the BBC to have first dibs on your material.
I have done a lot of LP work, no doubt. Sometimes I’ve been able to spin off ideas from guidebook research into articles, like pieces on Bulgaria, Bogota, Vladivostok for The New York Times — or on Burma’s ‘new’ capital for Perceptive Travel! Right now, I do nearly all my work for Lonely Planet or the BBC. I still feel a thrill being published. Even if it’s on Twitter.
Lonely Planet has always been in the forefront of moving beyond ink on pages (I’m showing my age saying I’ve been on their Thorn Tree internet message board since the 1990s). What’s it been like working so much with video and how has that changed your writing?
I’ve played with video in the most crude sense for 20 years. I used to have a public access TV show in New York of a band I played in — we put much more attention to skits on finding elusive bass players around the East Village and creating a fictional Canadian lacrosse league than making songs. So travel video sort of fell out of that. I’ve done about 80 in the past three years, mostly as part of the on/off again ‘76-Second Travel Show’.
Generally I approach a short video a lot like an article. There’s the same sense of research, point of view, quotes, statistics that you’d expect from an 800 or 1000-word piece. It just ends up in video, not an article or blog post. I like the challenge. And it’s fun.
Now when I go back to writing, I keep thinking – how can I make this a video too?
What advice would you give to the aspiring travel writer just starting out now?
Get online. Despite the decline of travel sections in newspapers, travel writers now have more opportunities than 15 years ago. I’m sort of jealous of the new breed in the self-publishing era. With gumption and commitment, you can build a niche blog brand, network at conferences, meet sponsors and build yourself as a voice of travel. Write for start-up apps that share revenue with authors. This is not at all the same as pitching pieces for Travel & Leisure or The New York Times. People are particularly starved for video right now. Destination marketers, travel sites — you can jump in there, if you’re willing to experiment, get yourself on camera, and go from there.
Robert Reid is the US Travel Editor for Lonely Planet. His writings
have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN.com
and ESPN.com. He also writes and creates videos for Lonely Planet. Raised an Okie, he now lives in Queens, NewYork.
Interview conducted in March, 2012 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.