In this month's Industry Interview we chat to Mark Hodson, co-founder of 101 Holidays. A travel writer by profession, Mark spent 12 years working as a full-time freelance travel journalist at The Sunday Times in London before launching the popular travel experiences site. He co-founded the successful sister site 101 Honeymoons a year later. Mark also shares his travel recommendations on Google+.
You worked in journalism straight out of university; how did you break in to travel writing?
I’d like to say it was all part of a well thought-out masterplan but like most things in life it just happened. I had a well-paid job as a sub-editor on a national newspaper at 23 and - faced with the bleak prospect of a long career in an office gazing at a flickering screen - I quit to go travelling. I managed to spend three consecutive winters in Asia and Latin America, returning to my former employers in the summers to top up my bank balance.
It was a great life but not one that appealed to me long term. I wanted to return to London but realised I no longer had a taste for office life. So I started writing articles about some of the places I’d visited and posted them to various travel editors (this was in the early 90s, before email).
Even though I was a trained journalist and a decent writer, I got nowhere. A particularly unpleasant editor at the Mail asked me in for a chat, pulled out the article I’d sent her and (metaphorically) tore it to pieces. It wasn’t meant to be helpful, just bullying.
Then one editor at the Financial Times published a few of my pieces which gave me a cuttings file. I could then send articles to editors with these photocopies attached and suddenly I was taken seriously. Shortly afterwards, I landed a regular gig at The Sunday Times, doing two shifts a week on the desk and filing freelance articles.
What was the hardest lesson you had to learn as a travel writer?
The hardest was that editors don’t give a monkeys about you. If they need you, they will be nice. If they don’t, you’re out. It’s not personal, it’s just the way it works.
However, the most useful lesson I learned was that the reader doesn’t care either. Unless you are Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, nobody wants to know about what you did on your holiday. The skill with travel writing is to know when to put yourself in the story and when to gently step aside to let the real action unfold.
What's your most memorable travel story?
After the Asian tsunami in 2004, I persuaded my editor to let me travel to the Maldives, then to Sri Lanka and Thailand to write about the devastation caused to the local tourism industry in each country, and how travellers could best help the people affected by booking holidays (which many people regarded at the time as being in poor taste).
It meant that The Sunday Times was able to lead the way in helping to rebuild confidence in tourism to those destinations worst affected by the tsunami and - I like to think - helped a few local people to rebuild their lives.
Where's your most recommended destination?
I think if you want to experience the world, rather than skim the surface as a casual observer, you can’t beat India. It’s the most astonishing, fascinating, colourful, complex and emotional country. I also have a very soft spot for Burma.
How would you like travel writing to develop in the future?
Travel writing and travel journalism are going through difficult times. There is a surfeit of supply and a steady fall in quality, even in the so-called serious publications. I would like to see travel bloggers spend less time Tweeting each other and selling links, and more time trying to create high-quality writing. The best way to do that is often to step outside the cultural bubble created by permanent connectedness and spend time alone in a truly foreign place.
What are your top three travel tips?
Go slowly. Put down the camera and talk to people. Try to leave your ego at home.
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