Food and travel bloggers might well envy Sally Shalam. She is a hotel critic, a freelance travel journalist, a motivational speaker and a consultant to the UK holiday industry. She is also one of the regular travel reviewers for The Guardian and Conde Nast Traveller, and, on average, sleeps around 50 nights a year in hotels, writing up reviews for the British national press. Sally advises the hospitality trade on how to improve its offering on all levels and, in particular, focuses on how towns all over Britain can get their unique attractions on the tourist map.
Despite looking glamorous, trendy, blonde and debonair, the long, winding journey that has brought her to this point has not been the easiest one. Sally has lived through several recessions and seen all the ups and downs of an increasingly challenging industry. During the course of my interview, which took place in The Little Red Café in Frome, not far from where she lives in Somerset, I learned a great deal about how consistent hard work, professionalism and focus are vital for those hotels who want to up their game and attract more customers and for those bloggers that want to make the giant leap from personal online ramblings to mainstream media. I took more pages of notes than can possibly be re-counted in a single posting. Her style is engaging, open and energetic: she is very passionate about her specialist subject and embraces the changes in technology that have brought about a revolution in the way readers consume and participate in travel media. But she warns about the need to maintain standards.
“I always tell people who want to start travel writing that creating a blog is very different from being a professional writer for a newspaper or magazine. If you analyse the work of the very best food, travel and lifestyle writers you will see that, for every single one of their pieces, every opening paragraph is different, the anecdotes and stories are different, the approach is different, the pace of the story is different. Whether their dog has died or their child is sick, the professional writer maintains a very high level of quality and range. He or she is there to entertain and to inform the reader."
The reason why I have always been drawn to her work is because of the issue of fairness: where a hotelier is criticised on the left, she praises the good work and service on the right. Sally very quickly dispels any preconceived notion I may have had about how the commercial side of travel writing works.
“If a national newspaper or travel magazine commissions a piece, whether it be for a review of a hotel in Britain or abroad, there is no budget available for paying the going rate. The whole trip is sponsored and paid for by the airline, the hotel, the hire-car company and the travel company. It takes months to arrange a trip, but when you get there you write absolutely what you want to write, there is no compromise. The only obligation in the agreement is that your paper or magazine has to publish the piece. It is then up to the writer to tell the honest truth of the overall experience. The purpose of the review is not to help the hotel sell more rooms.”
There are always many more places to visit than there is time to write the articles. After many years of circumnavigating the universe, Sally is now focusing on Great Britain, detailing great finds in her Blog, Sally Shalam's Britain (www.sallyshalamsbritain.co.uk). She is sure in the knowledge that with the growth in the number of gastro pubs, boutique bed and breakfasts, hip hotels and private homes turning cottages and stables into self-catering accommodation, there is so much to write about in our green and pleasant land.
Yet the number of weeks per annum that a hotel can offer her accommodation is limited, as half-terms, school holidays and the warmer months are, of course, peak seasons for their business. Although her fixtures are always accommodation led, a hotel may well decide to redecorate in January, so that all her plans have to change at the last moment. Sally finds hotels to write about through word of mouth and what she calls “osmosis”.
“I absorb information wherever I go, from talking to people, driving around and reading all about the area.”
She normally travels with a friend, but no photographer, as there is no budget for one. This means that the hotel’s press photography is used.
This absorption of information, people and places has always been with Sally. She studied philosophy at University College London and after graduating she found it very difficult indeed to make a living. She wanted to get into the world of publishing, and, in 1984 serendipity and the right turn of the wheel of fortune enabled her to meet the publishers of a very small magazine called Fashioncraft. The magazine eventually folded, but it was there that Sally learned all the skills and methodology of putting a magazine together. It was an apprenticeship that served her well for the rest of her career.
“There were no computers or internet then. There were 5 women, a very tight budget and all the layout and design were done on huge sheets of paper. I learned all about editing, sub-editing, proof reading, lay out, design, scheduling and checking.”
From there Sally worked on Woman’s Own magazine, Elle Magazine, Scotland on Sunday, W magazine, The Daily Telegraph, World of Interiors, the London Evening Standard and during the last five years she has written a regular travel column at The Guardian.
Although she left London seven years ago to settle in Somerset she still keeps in touch with old friends and colleagues from earlier days. In the last 30 years she has not only worked her way through many different departments and titles, but she has also met the great and the good of the publishing world and ensured she maintained relationships, attended trade conferences and read as much of other writers' work as possible. She still speaks very highly of many of the editors and colleagues she worked for and with.
We discuss the whole upheaval and drama of Tripadvisor, where vengeful customers (and ex-staff) are able to write damaging reviews of places with no recourse available for wronged owners, and it is interesting to note how the tone for blogs needs to account for potential litigation.
“If you are writing for a national newspaper, you have the weight of their legal team behind you, whereas if you are just a private blogger you do have to be very careful of the consequences of your opinions. Hotel owners can get extremely litigious if you point out certain failures or disappointments. I am not a hotel inspector, ticking things off a checklist, I am a reviewer. I want to celebrate all that is good, but some proprietors look dispassionately upon their business and do not see what improvements need to be made. In some cases they do not realize how tatty, dirty or run down their property has become. This is why my role as hotel mentor is very important, because some businesses need to bring in an objective, detached person who can point out areas of weakness.”
I recoil with horror in my seat as I think through the many awful, but expensive, places I have been to stay during the course of my life, and can feel her sense of indignation when she recounts certain establishments where she would have rather driven straight back down the driveway, heading for home. And here is where the world of food reviewing and travel reviewing diverge and go their separate ways:
“For a restaurant reviewer like Giles Coren, Matthew Norman, AA Gill or Jay Rayner, if they book a table at a restaurant that then serves them dreadful food, they only have 2 hours to go before they can go home. With the travel writer, however, there is a whole night and most of a day to get through. The personal time and money investment is much longer and greater and therefore a great deal of thought, research and planning has to go into the booking in the first place.”
She believes that a negative review is not always the damming death knell many readers assume. Sally refers to “The Fawlty Towers Syndrome” where readers just find it funny that a restaurant or hotel has received a very bad write-up, and in fact it encourages them to book a table or a night’s stay there just to see if the standards are really as appalling as depicted. The blame does not always lie with hotel and restaurant staff.
“At the end of the day the quality of the service is down to the management, and not the individual employees. Staff need to be trained and to be empowered by management: proper training produces confident, knowledgeable staff. If I order something from the cheeseboard, for example, I expect the waiter to know all the cheeses on the board, what their provenance is, how they were made, and they should be able to suggest what wine or liqueur works best with that particular flavour.”
She always allows a review to “settle down” inside her head before she writes it. She reflects carefully on all her notes when she gets back to her desk, analysing all the good and the bad points, making sure she writes a balanced, considered account. In listening to her talk about her years in the business, I very quickly glean that she does not miss much, and feels that some hoteliers need “the book thrown at them”, but she is also compassionate and understanding about the many things that can go wrong in a busy establishment, where many balls are juggled at the same time.
“If there are lots of really thoughtful touches in the hotel, but, by accident, they have forgotten the shower gel in the bathroom, I am not going to penalise them by pointing that out in the review. You also have to understand that you cannot, pound for pound, compare hotels in Britain from the offering in, say, Italy, France, or America. Britain has a very different taxation structure, fuel and food prices vary enormously, employment law varies. You need to add the cost of air travel and hire car if you go abroad as well. There are so many different issues that need to be taken into account, so in my articles I try to point out all the details, fairly and squarely.”
She personally replies to travel queries from those that write to her, and frequently receives hand written letters from The Guardian readers who want to know where to take their mother on her birthday or what recommendations she may have for holidaying with granny. She takes this responsibility very seriously and double checks all the information she passes on.
When it comes to helping hotels manage their online content, Sally has very firm ideas.
“I cannot over-emphasise to any hospitality business how very important it is to have an excellent online presence. When travelers land on your website they want to see every room, and in fact several shots of the room from different angles. You need very good, professional photography and website design. Especially in a recession, consumers want to mitigate all the risks. They are, quite simply, not going to take any chances with their hard earned money.”
When I ask her about her very favourite finds in Britain she praises many different places with enthusiasm.
“At the very top end of the budget range I would recommend Skibo Castle (www.carnegieclub.co.uk), now part of The Carnegie Club, which is a very romantic, beautiful, exclusive hotel, where Madonna and Guy Richie married. If money were no object that is where I would go, it’s amazing. The Samling (www.thesamlinghotel.co.uk) on Lake Windermere is also very beautiful, but the ownership has changed hands, and I have not visited it since.
In the middle market range, I really liked Brantwood on Coniston Water, in the Lake District (www.brantwood.org.uk ). It is the former home of writer and painter John Ruskin, and there is a simple apartment for two people with some of the very best views imaginable. The Spread Eagle in Sawley, Lancashire is also a very good recommendation (www.spreadeaglesawley.co.uk). It is set in the Forest of Bowland, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it is an absolutely fabulous pub with rooms.
In the budget range I would say Briarfields near Huntstanton in Norfolk (www.briarfieldshotelnorfolk.co.uk). The accommodation is, again quite simple and basic, but the food is excellent.”
Sally’s advice for getting the best room rate deals is very direct: time your booking well and ask for a discount.
“If you want a good deal on a city hotel room, then go in the summer when everyone else is booking holidays at the seaside. Conversely, you are unlikely to get a good deal on a London hotel room near Christmas or the New Year, or at a family hotel during the school holidays. A hotel room is not a commodity with a fixed price: every day the receptionist and the sales manager need to sell that room, so the price becomes more flexible the nearer the moment comes when it looks as if that room won’t be sold for that night. An empty hotel room makes no revenue. It’s common sense.”
For all those aspiring food and travel writers out there, of all ages and abilities, Sally’s advice is cautionary:
“You have to be very realistic, because the world of journalism and publishing changes every day in the digital revolution. You will definitely not start at the very top, you will have to work very hard for a very long time before you get your own column. I was in my 40’s when I got my column. In order to do this job you will need an innate love of language, words and communication. Good descriptive prose is difficult to achieve, and if you are a freelancer you will need to have a different style for a different readership for every title. The skill of the writer is to evoke a scene in a way that is not pedestrian or obvious. Remember, you need to keep the reader entertained and interested: it takes a great deal of practice.”
I totally agree, and I am still practising. I could spend days learning how the job is done with Sally. There is definitely a gap in the market for more information and education in this very broad topic. If you would like to learn more about Sally’s writers’ workshops, consultancy work and mentoring service, then you can visit her Blog at www.sallyshalamsbritain.co.uk or follow her on Twitter: @SallyShalam.