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July 2010

Pick the right travel topic

Red shoes in Venice  

ABOVE: Before taking the steps to build a travel-planning site, put yourself in your target reader's shoes.

by Durant Imboden, Europe for Visitors

Are you ready to build  an editorial travel site? The first step is to ask yourself a simple question:

"What's my topic, and who are my prospective readers?"

Things to consider:

  • You need to know about your topic. You don't have to be a native of Europe to write about Europe (as writers like Temple Fielding, Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, and a horde of anonymous Let's Go contributors have demonstrated ably), but you should know more about European travel than your target reader does.
  • You need to be passionate about your topic. If you decide to build a site about New York City, you'd better like the five boroughs--because if you don't, you'll soon become bored, and you'll find it difficult to keep working on your site.
  • You need a topic that has commercial potential. That doesn't mean you have to write about luxury resorts, high-end cruising, or tours on private jets, but it does mean that you should think carefully before starting a site about hitchhiking, hobo travel, or budget travel in Albania.
  • You need to find the sweet spot between an extremely broad topic (such as "cruising") and one that's too narrow for long-term growth and revenue (such as "barge cruising in Provence" or "adventure cruising in the Antarctic"). One possibility is to do as we've done, with an overarching topic ("Europe") and major subtopics beneath that topic ("Venice," "Paris," "Germany," "European cruising"). Another approach is to follow the example of former guidebook author Tom Brosnahan: Create a site about a specific destinatuion or topic ("Turkey Travel Planner") and later extend the format to other, unrelated sites ("New England Travel Planner," "Paris Travel Planner").

Other points to think about:

  • If you want to earn a living from Web publishing, your topic needs to reach active travelers, not just armchair travelers. (By "active travelers," I mean people who are researching where to go and how to spend their money.) Travel narrative has its place, and publishing it is a noble pursuit for the independently wealthy, but it won't help you pay the mortgage, put your kids through college, or build a nest egg for retirement.
  • On the Web, "travel" is a sector or category, not a topic. Countless veterans of the print travel-writing generation have launched general-interest "online travel magazines" or all-purpose travel blogs that will never achieve more than a trickle of circulation and income. The Web is a global medium made up of countless niches, and the old Sunday-newspaper travel-section model ("something for every active and armchair traveler in Cleveland, written by generalists who can produce 500 words on any destination") isn't likely to be profitable for do-it-yourself Web publishers.

Next article: "Web site or blog?"