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Musings on the world-wide movement for ethical business, frugal marketing, and how honesty, integrity, and quality combine with deep relationship building to create business success. By the originator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign and award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and five other books

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Scandal Hits Travel Guidebook Industry

Those who travel frequently know that different guidebook brands cater to different tastes. If you want American-style hotels and restaurants and don’t mind paying well for them, pick up Fodor. If you don’t mind sweeping off the bugs before you roll out your sleeping bag on a hard youth hostel bench, grab Let’s Go. If you’re on a low but not rock-bottom budget and you want some degree of comfort but nothing fancy, that’s Frommer.

And then there are three major guidebook series for adventure travelers, focusing the experience on offbeat experiences most tourists will never see: Moon, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet.

Now comes a report of a major scandal at Lonely Planet: Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that one of its most published writers, Thomas Kohnstamm, not only violated the company’s firm (and understandable) policy of not accepting comps (freebies from hospitality and tourism organizations seeking good coverage)–but worse, he did his Colombia guidebook from the comfort of San Francisco:

“They didn’t pay me enough to go Colombia,” he said.

“I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating - an intern in the Colombian Consulate.

This same writer is quoted in a New York Times article on the lives of guidebook writers that one of his highlights last year was going “out partying in Bogotá and met a lot of cool people. It can be kind of addictive.”

Which Thomas Kohnstamm should we believe?

The International Herald Tribune issued a strong denial by Lonely Planet, which turns out to be majority-owned by the BBC.

And it turns out Kohnstamm was not assigned to the part of the Colombia guidebook that requires in-person visits. Lonely Plant Publisher Piers Picard…

called that claim “disingenuous” because he was hired to write about the country’s history, not to travel there to review accommodation and restaurants. That work was done by two other authors.

As a journalist, I can tell you that it is thoroughly possible to do a very good story of that sort without setting foot in a place. Phone or e-mail interviews and some research with validated sources can be plenty.

So why did Kohnstamm claim in the NY Times article that he was partying in Colombia’s capital? What are his real reasons for dragging his own name through the mud in order to apparently discredit Lonely Planet?


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