Friday, 20 February 2015

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph, travel writing and Queen of Retreats

So, following Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph there has been a lot of debate about whether there is any form of independent journalism left.  He said:  ‘It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart.’  Absolutely.  I remember, when I started in journalism at City Limits magazine, there was an absolute insistence that advertising could not, and must not, influence our writing.  Since then it has all become blurred to the point of illegible.

There have been dark mutterings about travel writing too – about how it’s rare now to find negative reviews in magazines and papers.  Why?  Because the writer’s trip has been funded by the hotel or tour company (who may well be taking out advertising too) so the water becomes very muddy.  But this is nothing new.  In an ideal world, the paper or magazine would fund the writer for the whole trip – this still happens on a rare few papers (the New York Times comes to mind) so the writer can be totally, truly independent.  But no UK paper has the budget.  So, unless a writer has personal wealth, one has to rely on freebies from the hotel, resort or travel company.  And that is why you will see the same old places being reviewed all over the shop – usually glowingly.  I don’t like that.  What I do like is Queen of Retreats.  I came across this outfit a few years ago, when I was looking for independent recommendations of great spas.  Someone on Twitter put me in touch with Caroline Sylger Jones, who runs the site and she was great – hugely knowledgeable, highly discerning, full of integrity.
Caroline at HHH in Greece.
Queen of Retreats is different from other online retreat, spa and healthy holiday websites.  It’s not a travel company and it’s not a listings site.  It features in-depth reviews of places its writers have visited and experienced (not just for a sample day but for the entire programme).  Said writers are all highly experienced: they know their Trager from their Thai massage and they can gauge whether a yoga teacher is good, bad or off with the fairies.  So many reviews in magazines (and even in papers  now) are written by someone who has no experience or knowledge base – without budgets for freelance experts, publications have to rely on staff doing the trip as a perk.  Fine if you get the health editor, not so fine if you get the intern who has never set foot inside a spa before.  Read QoR's mission statement here.  

Anyhow, what I really love is that the reviews are honest.  If something isn’t quite right, they point it out. If it’s not ideal for a certain kind of person, they say it like it is.  Although retreat venues do host the writer, they understand from the get-go that there is no guarantee of a shining review.  Obviously reviews are subjective – how could they not be?  But the reviewers are experienced enough to gauge if a place would suit others, even if it didn’t suit him or herself.

"It’s not smart or ritzy and you will need to turn a blind eye and a forgiving heart to the less than shiny bits. The decor isn’t inspired – if your idea of a retreat is all about contemporary interiors, fluffy bathrobes and spa ‘journeys’ look elsewhere."

Yes, it covers some of the big spas and retreats – the ones that have PRs, the ones you will read about everywhere, but it covers them honestly – not because an ad manager is hanging over the editorial team’s head.  However it also covers small retreats, the ones that have no budget for advertising or PR, the ones that otherwise wouldn’t get coverage, and that’s why I really love it.
Serenity Retreat in gorgeous Greece
So.  Bottom line.  If you’re thinking of going on retreat, if you fancy a spa break or a healthy holiday, do check out the website.  You’ll find a fair few of my reviews, including my beloved Serenity Retreat, The Body Retreat, Yobaba Lounge, Hellenic Healthy Holidays, and The Pause, rubbing shoulders with reviews of the big guys, SHA, Clinique La Prairie, Canyon Ranch and the Sanctuary Thailand (of The Beach fame).
Canyon Ranch
Do spread the word.  Because, in a world where advertising and editorial are all mixed up and muddled up, it’s refreshing to find a place where good old-fashioned editorial ethics still remain.  I think these places need our support.  Don’t you?

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Young at Heart said...

It's like interviews with celebs and reviews of their one can say anything negative as the publisist will ban them from anymore interviews!!

Exmoorjane said...

@YaH - Absolutely. Crap, huh?

Unknown said...

Surely this is a site well worth seeing.

Frances said...

Jane, you've said this well, but truly only scratched the surface, about the thinning membrane between editorial and advertising in the wonderful world of media.

Do you recall Cyndi Lauper's old song with the lyric, "money, money changes everything."

Sing it loudly, but with a smile on your face. xo

LeeAnn at Mrs Black's said...

Thought provoking post. I gave up trusting reviews years ago, sadly. Such a shame, but glad to read that you have found who is honest. Must go and read some of this ..... x

Exmoorjane said...

@Jerry - you bet. Great retreats there.

@Frances - yup, absolutely true. And yes, you have to smile, otherwise you'd surely cry. xx

@Obat - Go for it. :D

@LeeAnn - I think you'd like this site. Only trouble - you'll want to go on way too many of them. :) x