Storytelling

No More Hidden Gems: How to Hook Consumers and Avoid Travel Content Clichés

In this age where “must-see places with breathtaking views” are listed everywhere, it’s easy for travel content to get lost in the noise.

Marketing copy heaves with destinations that are “state of the art,” “off the beaten path,” or “sun-kissed”—phrases with no function other than to add bloat. Some are so common that they’ve spawned satirical blog posts, such as Grumpy Traveller’s The 65 Greatest Cities of Contrasts.

Travel photography fares no better—just look at Insta Repeat, which collates formulaic Instagram posts with pithy captions such as “Person standing centered at the end of dock” and “Person standing at the edge of this one cliff.”

Clichés are the literary equivalent of fast food, easy to grab but not great for you. Original content takes more time and effort, but it provides a meaningful payoff. It gives travelers a reason to trust you. Tell them that your hotel is the city’s “best-kept secret,” and you’ll get an eye roll. Tell them about the fresh roses delivered weekly, the hand-painted murals, and the teak canopy bed, and you’ll get their attention.

“Empty phrases such as ‘state of the art’ or ‘world-class’… like, what even are those?” said Kelsey Ogletree, a freelance writer who has written for Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. “I think we all fall back on these things, but it’s just lazy writing.”

Here are some tips to rise above the noise and never resort to a “bustling market” ever again.

1. Avoid generalizations

“Blanket statements can get really cringey,” said Skye Sherman, a freelance travel writer based in South Florida. “The things I read about South Florida are so off base and outdated, they make my blood boil. There is so much more to it than theme parks and retirement communities. They miss the millions of young people who are doing incredible things—entrepreneurial ventures in art and theatre, all these amazing elements that are super cool and unique.”

Focusing on the people who make your business or destination—the cooks, the artists, the flight crew—is a simple way to circumvent stereotypes. However, avoid overuse of the word “local,” another meaningless trope enjoying a surge in popularity.

“’The local cheese, the local market,’ that means nothing to me,” said Nick Papa, marketing copywriter at online magazine and travel company Atlas Obscura. “Has it been in the family for five generations? Do they get fish from a fisherman who lives down the street and catches the fish in the body of water next to the neighborhood? What is the actual thing that makes it ‘of the neighborhood,’ as opposed to any chain store that could open up?”

This blog post about Yemeni coffee from Nashville café Crema Coffee exemplifies this writing style. The post goes into detail about the two friends who founded Yemen’s first coffee mill in a warzone and the environmental conditions that make the coffee stand out.

2. Think about your audience

In attempting to please everyone, travel content often pleases no one.

“The statement ‘something for everyone’ always warrants an eye roll,” Sherman said. “Not every location has something for everyone, and that’s okay.”

What you write for millennial parents will differ from copy meant for boomer retirees or Gen X foodies. Keeping your audience in mind will help you to decide what details to include. This is an essential skill for writing short descriptions, which will otherwise end up loaded with empty adjectives.

Compare, for example, the blogs of Contiki Travel and Saga. Contiki Travel knows exactly what their Generation Z and millennial readers want: beautiful, shareable photography; wellness; and responsible travel. Saga, on the other hand, covers wildlife-spotting, beaches, and museums appropriate for its 50-plus audience.

If you’re unsure what your audience wants, ask them. During the coronavirus crisis, Papa has been conducting weekly polls of Atlas Obscura’s followers to ask them which destination they should focus on. He then curates the company’s new “WFH” (Wonder from Home) virtual content to reflect this.

atlas obscura WFH

“Our Scotland trip leader did a bagpipe concert. Our Lisbon trip leader did a virtual Aperitivo,” he said.

The series triggered a massive spike in engagement. In March, Atlas Obscura saw 743 percent more Facebook shares, 321 percent more blog pageviews, and 629 percent more website referrals than in February.

3. Use humor and personality

While working on a piece for Midwest Living magazine about Bloomington, Indiana, Ogletree was struggling to come up with an intro, so she took an unconventional route: She used an unflattering anecdote.

“We got tossed out of a liquor store because they were really serious about everyone showing their IDs when walking in there,” she said. “We are in our thirties, so we thought it was really funny. I didn’t think anything of it but then I ended up finding a way to work that into the story; my editor said he laughed out loud when he read it. If you can be comfortable with it, find a personal anecdote that says, ‘This is a real experience’ and take it up to a new level.”

While much depends on your audience—not everyone will want to read about hardships—anecdotal evidence suggests that a sprinkling of the inconvenient attracts rather than repels.

Travel writers Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux inspired thousands of backpackers to follow their lead, despite describing their trials in great detail. Chatwin frequently slept in a sleeping bag at the side of the road, while Theroux endured uncomfortable carriages and difficult companions on his train journeys across Asia.

Travel companies can capture some of this magic. The blog of adventure tour company GeoEx (edited by acclaimed travel writer Don George) sprinkles unpleasant anecdotes among tales of wonder. In recounting an ant attack, this story about a traveler’s expedition to the Congo becomes more compelling and believable.

4. Catch clichés in your revisions

During the manic, just-get-the-idea-down phase of a first draft, clichés can be useful, serving as placeholders until you think of something better. Fill that page with as many hidden gems and azure waters as you like, but on that second pass, be ruthless.

“Don’t edit as you go. You need to write it up first,” Ogletree said. “Then review the adjectives and ask, ‘Does this sentence actually add to the story?’ If you’re using words like ‘luxurious’ and ‘charming,’ use something different that is more specific and says what you mean.”

Software can assist in this process. SmartEdit, which comes in free and paid versions, allows users to create their own list of “monitored words and phrases,” which it will then scan for and flag.

5. Turn SEO insights into original content

A common complaint from writers is that SEO tactics strangle originality. Perhaps this was once the case, but Google’s algorithm updates over the years have put the focus back on expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.

“A lot of writers look at SEO as a constraint,” Papa said. “But at the end of the day, SEO is all about what actual travelers are typing into Google. What is it that they’re looking for, and how do I deliver content that answers the question? I would look at it as an opportunity.”

To get this competitive edge, marketers can use a keyword research tool such as Moz’s Keyword Explorer or Answer the Public.

At Atlas Obscura, a tour business catering to nonconformist travelers, Papa focuses on longtail keywords that target niche interests. “We typically look for opportunities to rank for keywords that include more than three words,” he said. “The demand for these keywords is less, but the intent of the user is much higher.”

Recent longtail keywords like “Are tailless whip scorpions arachnids,” “Eat like a local in Lisbon,” and “Tips for better travel photography” have all led to unique travel stories.

These words and phrases can help you avoid the pitfalls of travel clichés. “Create content that is as targeted as possible,” Papa said. “That’s always a better time investment than ‘Top 5 Things to Do in Croatia.’ Everyone’s done that, so why would you want to do it again and compete in that space?”

Image by Romeo Cane
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