Returning from a quick trip to Hong Kong in February 2003—just days before SARS took the world hostage—my traveling companion Wendy Perrin and I were like foreign exchange students plopped down in the middle of Cathay Pacific’s First Class Cabin. Despite the fact that we traveled the world for a luxury magazine—Wendy as the publication’s well-respected Consumer News Editor, me in the more cushy job as communications expert—we actually had never been exposed to the glamorous life at the front of a Trans-Pacific jet. But the magazine thought it important for our jobs to understand how the top .01% live.
The last ones to board, we raced to learn the proper etiquette. Why are the other few passengers dressed in matching brown colored warm-ups? Are they in some weird club? Oh, those are special traveling pajamas gifted to us for the long journey. We changed in a bathroom suite the size of my NYC apartment. And by the way, where’s my blanket? What kind of rinky-dink operation is this? Oh, the down duvet comes to me upon request. Duh.
“Can I take these attendants home with me?” Wendy asked sadly upon arrival at JFK. “They would change my life.”
That’s what I’ve always loved about Wendy—her sincerity and wide-eyed wonder at the world. Despite growing up in New York City, attending a fancy prep school, and graduating from that famous university in Cambridge, Wendy doesn’t have a cynical bone in her body. And for an optimistic kid from Texas like me, I find that refreshing. Wendy is no-nonsense, constantly in motion, and always speaks the truth—like a travelista’s Suze Orman. Unlike America’s favorite financial guru, Wendy has never been on my Spit List, if you disregard the time at DFW she refused to eat with me at Chili’s Too, and almost made us miss our flight arguing with the Au Bon Pain attendant over mayo on her sandwich.
Traveling the world with Wendy, I often laughed at how the woman to whom even the savviest travelers turn for advice, actually had the worst travel karma I had ever experienced. From malfunctioning hotel alarm clocks to surly gate agents to lost baggage, I experienced it all with Wendy. My suspicion was always that she enjoyed the incidents as they provided fodder for her column.
Over lunch at Marseille, blogger to blogger, she verified my hunch and gave me the inside scoop on the complications that come with straddling the print and online world as “the most trusted name in travel journalism” (a moniker I gave her).
What’s the difference between your blog posts and your monthly column in Condé Nast Traveler?
On the blog, which comes in two flavors—one on cntraveler.com and one on truth.travel—I can address issues that are timely, like what you need to do right now about the labor strike that has shut down your airline. In print, the advice has to be more about trends that are happening—that labor strike is already over.
How do you judge if a post is successful?
I don’t look at traffic statistics—someone else does that. But one way I measure it is if the post gets syndicated—if it shows up on MSNBC or ABCNews.com because it means that it was advice useful to a lot of people. On a more personal level, I know a post is successful when I get a lot of smart comments. I love having the back and forth with really savvy travelers—it gives me article ideas.
An example of a post that’s generating lots of smart responses?
Right now, the “Maximize Your Miles” contest. This is a contest with a very high barrier to entry: You need to submit your best personal frequent-flier-mileage success story, as well as your best tip gleaned from it. So just imagine how well-traveled and savvy you have to be to participate in this. First, you must have traveled enough to accrue significant miles. Then you must have successfully used them. And then you have to come up with a little-known tip that will be useful to others. More than 240 people have submitted so far. Those are readers that I learn from.
How do you handle being inundated with questions asking for travel advice?
I have two different public email addresses: one printed in the magazine that goes along with my column; and another one online that goes with the blog. The questions that I get from the two groups are incredibly different. I can tell from the questions from print readers that they are well-traveled, have more money and are older, with very specific requests like, “I want advice on renting a villa in Provence but would like a chef to be on call who knows the local markets.” The people who have just happened to find me online tend to be younger, less savvy, don’t know exactly what they want, “Thinking about going to Europe. Thoughts?”
How do your over 12,000 Twitter followers fit into that?
They are actually very smart. And, because Twitter users are so active online–they just love to click on articles and post comments on web sites–they come in very handy whenever I’d like to get a conversation going on my blog. Say I ask a question on my blog that I’d like a lot of people to weigh in on. If I go on Twitter, ask the question, and invite people to answer it on my blog, within 30 minutes, there’ll be 30 useful comments posted.
For so long you have been a print journalist, but I get the sense that you love blogging?
On the one hand, blogging is so freeing and so much fun. On the other hand, it’s overwhelming. There are far more questions from readers than I can ever possibly answer. But I love it so much I would blog 24 hours a day because I love the immediate conversation. Unfortunately, I can’t feed the blog as much as I would like because of my workload.
What do you mean? It seems like you are such a powerful online presence that your blog would be a priority.
Actually, the priority is my print deadlines. I don’t get in trouble with my boss when I don’t post on my blog frequently. I do get in trouble with my boss when I don’t hand in my print column on time. I’m forced to neglect the blog so often, which is heartbreaking because I want to spend more time having online conversations with travelers.
So that explains why sometimes weeks go by and there’s no post.
And when I am blogging, it’s usually on weekends or at 3am. When I finally have time to blog, there are at least 10 ideas in my head as to what I want to write. There are hundreds of ideas a month that I don’t get to write. It’s just happenstance what does get blogged—it’s a matter of timing. The people who lose out on that the most are PR people. They could send me something great, that’s timely, that I want readers to know about—but there’s no time for me to post it.
But I feel like I get tweets from you a lot. You have time for that?
Basically, I Twitter when I’m in transit or stuck in an airport or at home at night, not when I’m at the office. Condé Nast doesn’t allow us to have TweetDeck on our computers at work–just one reason why it’s difficult for me to do any useful Twitter stuff at the office. That means, it’s all about my commute. That’s when I have time to go on Twitter and see if anyone has sent me a message. When I’m on a business trip, I love getting on Twitter and seeing what friends are up to.
Given how important your anonymity is to you when traveling on assignment, do you worry that Twittering and Blogging compromise that?
All the time! Because of the magazine’s policy that we are not allowed to receive any special treatment, I have to be very careful when I am on assignment not to do anything in the social media world that would alert a hotel or airline about my presence. So as immediate as blogging and twittering can be, I often can’t comment online about an issue or problem until after the incident. I have to be very careful about Facebook updates, and that’s one of the reasons I can’t use FourSquare. It’s different when I am traveling to give a speech to a group of hotel executives—they all know I’m coming and where I’m staying. So I feel free to tweet about those trips.
After 21 years at the magazine, it seems like hotels, cruise lines, airlines would have pictures of you plastered everywhere—like restaurants do for New York Times critics!
You would think, right? But at the moment, travel companies are still not that sophisticated. I get treated like crap all the time. But that’s okay, I always get a column or blog post out of it.
Knowing the immediate consequences your words can have on a travel company, do you wield your power wisely? For good not evil?
Because my blog posts do not go through a censor or editor, I am very careful about what I write so as not to be inflammatory. My readers want me to be helpful, not bitter. The recent incident I had with Hawaiian Airlines charging me a checked baggage fee despite my having a Continental MasterCard that waives those fees is a perfect example. I had the name of the customer service agent who was in the wrong, and when I posted the photo I had planned on naming that person. But I calmed down and realized I didn’t need to pick that fight. The point of my post was to educate my readers about what to do in that situation—call the credit card company after the fact and they will credit your account.
Any concerns about putting your kids in your posts with pictures?
Blogs are really an emotional connection between you and your readers. I put the kids in because people want to know me personally. They want to know the real Wendy Perrin. For some reason, they want to know about my travails as a parent and traveler. The photos of the kids and me are in there because, frankly, those are the photos that it’s easiest for me to obtain quickly and download into my laptop. And that’s because my husband Tim is a photographer, he’s always right there traveling with us, and he’s always shooting pictures of the kids—I just happen to be in them!
Speaking of Tim, I’ve been lucky enough to travel with him on shoots to South Africa and Guatemala. You two strike me as completely different types of travelers. How does that work out for you?
Tim said the other day that, if we were ever on the same team on The Amazing Race or Competitours, we’d be divorced by the time we got to the first airport. That’s because we travel so differently. While I’m always on guard for anything that could possibly go wrong, Tim is very laid back. I’m always eavesdropping, listening to what the gate agent or flight attendant is telling frustrated customers, and I’m always distracted because I’m busy counting the number of empty seats on the plane or recording the pilot’s announcement about a delay. I can’t ever turn it off. Tim, on the other hand, is always saying, “Relax, why do you need to go pester the gate agent again.” Is he kidding?!
All right, I have to ask. Your first book, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, was turned into an Off-Broadway musical. Are the rumors true about your blog becoming a stage show?
You must be starting those rumors! Trust me, as my former publicist and traveling companion, you’ll be the first to know.