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I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville

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Op-Ed

Jan 28, 2019

The New York Times Travel Show: Beware an Astonishingly Out of Touch Industry

On Friday, 25th January, The Outdoor Journal attended an industry event that left us infuriated at "expert" panels bereft of expertise, or possibly even honesty.

WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

The New York Times Travel Show is a marquee event, held at the Javits Centre in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. According to the Travel Show website, they boast 560 exhibitors, 30 thousand attendees, 280 speakers and 100 cultural presentations from around the world. The exhibitors in the main hall, representing either countries or operators know their stuff and speak with passion. However, the same could not be said for the seminar that we attended downstairs, with an “expert” panel targeted specifically at the travel media industry.

This was far from “expert”, this was out of touch, damaging and ultimately, either unknowledgeable or dishonest.

This week, The Guardian questioned the future of digital journalism as BuzzFeed and HuffPost laid off 1,000 workers. Elsewhere, The New Yorker also asked this same week “Does Journalism Have a Future?“. Travel media should not be immune to concerns shared by the rest of the journalism and editorial media business.

This opening seminar of the event was entitled “Focus on Travel Media – The Future of Travel Journalism”, yet nothing regarding the huge talking points that are making headlines in mainstream media at the moment appeared to be open for discussion.

On four separate occasions, we left the conference room because we couldn’t bear to hear anymore, only to feel a need to return out of morbid curiosity akin to the feelings evinced by a horror film, to squirm some more. We returned because we knew that we must. This “expert panel” was feeding misinformation to an enthusiastic audience, who wanted nothing more than to find personal success in the travel industry. We needed to cover it. The panel spoke of a rosy world, where anything is possible and making a living doing what they’re doing required just a little practice, perseverance and creativity. This was far from “expert”, this was out of touch, damaging and ultimately, either unknowledgeable or dishonest.

The session lasted for two hours, with a six-person onstage panel of so-called experts.

The audience numbers soon dwindled within the seminar.

In the first hour, everyone on stage was given a period of time to talk about some area of focus within the travel industry. Presumably, the brief was “Focus on Travel Media – The Future of Travel Journalism” given the title of the seminar, although you would never have known it. Most just talked about their own publication, sometimes with a little obsequious praise thrown in for fellow panellists. It got so bad that it wasn’t long before an incredulous member of the audience stood up and instead of asking a question, reminded the panel of the name of the seminar.

There were a couple of exceptions on stage, and some valuable information was offered, such as that from Andrew Sheivachman, the Senior Editor of Skift who shared the below infographic. However, after offering his introductory piece, and despite speaking eloquently during his alotted opening remarks, Mr. Sheivachman sat very quietly for the remainder of the two hour period, perhaps aware of the laughable proceedings that surrounded him.

A worthwhile contribution courtesy of Skift that appeared to have acknowledged the name of the seminar “Focus on Travel Media – The Future of Travel Journalism”

The second hour was offered up for questions for the audience, and subsequently, a long line formed behind a microphone set up in front of the stage. Audience members diligently lined up to effectively ask the panel the same self-centered question, again and again in many different ways: “how do I achieve success (as a travel writer/journalist/blogger/influencer/latest-trend-setter)?”.

While the questions themselves may have been tiresome, and honestly a little concerning, the lack of intelligence on offer by the panel was shocking and infuriating.

There was one moment in particular that almost left us in a state of shock. A woman stood up and asked a question that many social media users around the world are now asking themselves. It is an important question that deserves an honest answer from those who are framed as “experts” in the industry.

The petitioner told the panel that she was attempting to visit every country on Earth. She had, so far, made it to 122. Yet she struggles to show growth in followers to her social media accounts.

The influencer marketing industry is now worth billions, but estimates show up to 25% of influencers have paid for fake followers from illegal bot farms

There was a quick retort from “Adventurous Kate” as the resident influencer on the expert panel. “Are your photos good?”
“Yes, I think so”, 
replied the lady. Another member of the “expert” panel offered this woman further advice. However there was more before the lady was allowed to sit down, “Adventurous Kate” had thought of something else. Visiting all those countries, “It’s not that impressive, it’s not that original”, Ms Kate told the supplicant.

The woman asking her question was clearly a little taken aback. She then told Adventurous Kate that 15 women had previously visited every country on Earth, meaning that it remained a fairly rare and unique travel achievement.

“Still” replied Adventurous Kate with a shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps Kate was just jealous that this woman had been to 45 more countries than she had (according to Kate’s website)? She added, “It’s not a good enough story, or maybe your photos aren’t good enough,” adding further “advice”.

Not one word was brought up by the “expert” panel about social media spends, fake followers or the fundamental fact that any new wannabe influencer today, authentic or otherwise, is competing against accounts that buy followers. SocialChain, one of the world’s most notorious social-first marketing agencies, recently reported that “The influencer marketing industry is now worth billions, but estimates show up to 25% of influencers have paid for fake followers from illegal bot farms“. It’s not just immoral, but given brands are expected to pay these “influencers” between $5 and $10 billion in 2020, it amounts to fraud.

Social Chain’s initiative has solidified into like-wise.co, and if you’re an influencer, we encourage you to sign up on their website.

However, there’s still more. You could have a million followers, but without social spend, changes to social media algorithms mean that you can sometimes only expect to reach 2% of them or less organically.

This demands an answer: what are brands, operators, and official bodies paying for? They should be very careful. Brands should either be sure that the influencer can offer them the exposure that they’re selling or instead invest money into a personality whom they believe in without preexisting follows, via social spend.

This is just one of many important topics to discuss within travel media. “Focus on Travel Media – The Future of Travel Journalism” at the New York Times Travel Show managed to dodge almost all of them. If people hadn’t paid to attend and scarily seemed to have taken this “advice” on onboard, then it would have been laughable. Another audience member simply shook his head when we asked him what he thought.

To repeat ourselves, this was not a wider reflection upon those in attendance, upstairs the exhibitors were great to talk to, but the level of content on offer via the seminars was disrespectful to an audience that clearly expected more intelligence.

Finally, a quick mention for the woman who stood up asked the question and was told that her story wasn’t good enough. The Outdoor Journal spoke to Janice Lintz after the seminar, who went on to share her story with us. It wasn’t just good, it was incredible, authentic and genuine – worthy of following. A story that includes speaking out against domestic violence at the height of the #MeToo campaign, a publicised divorce, beating cancer and a complete change of lifestyle to embrace travel.

In the coming weeks, we will publish that story at OutdoorJournal.com, but for the time being, we encourage you to give Janice’s Instagram account a follow here. We’ll be supporting her journey all the way.

Since this article was published, we have since shared Janice’s story – A Passport To Freedom; Following Domestic Violence, a Publicised Divorce & Cancer.

Correction: The Outdoor Journal has updated this page, we previously listed Tom Lowry, Managing Editor as the Skift representative at the event, as per the official event documentation. In reality, Andrew Sheivachman was in attendance on behalf of Skift, as Mr. Lowry was unable to attend.

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Op-Ed

Jun 04, 2019

Healing after Howse: How does the climbing world cope with the triple tragedy?

In April, three prominent young alpinists perished in an avalanche on Canada’s Howse Peak. Their deaths prompt another reckoning with mountaineering’s timeless question: is it worth it?

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The physical aftermath of tragedy is procedural. On April 21st, a Parks Canada rescue team located and recovered the bodies of climbers Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer, and David Lama four days after they were reported overdue from an attempt at Banff’s Howse Peak via the technical M16 route. According to the official avalanche report, none of the men were wearing transceivers; use of these devices can greatly expedite recovery operations. In the absence of transceivers, a trained avalanche dog scoured the frozen debris. Roskelley’s phone was salvaged and in the camera roll, a selfie of the climbers, wide grins frozen on fatigued faces, suggests that the trio reached Howse’s summit. Social media the world over shook with an outpouring of sympathy and support.

Read next: Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer: How the World Reacted.

Avalanche debris on Howse Peak. Image via Parks Canada.

The emotional aftermath of tragedy is less straightforward. Inevitably, many critiqued the sport of mountaineering and its legacy of tragic accidents. Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit? Why do climbers seek out high-consequence routes? Are elite mountaineers doing wrong by the spouses, children, parents, and friends who await their safe return?

Is it ethical to risk death in pursuit of a snow-capped summit?

Last year, the hit documentary Free Solo thrust these questions, normally the domain of the climbing subculture, into the mainstream as Alex Honnold’s unroped climbs astonished millions of viewers. In the wake of the deaths of Roskelley, Lama, and Auer (aged 36, 28, and 35 respectively), the climbing community once again confronts the unforgiving nature and fatal consequences of their craft.

David Lama in basecamp of Lunag Ri on October 19, 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

As generations of mountaineers will attest, the riskiness of a route is part of its allure. Climber Steve House, part of a trio who notched the first ascent of Howse’s M16 route in 1999, wrote the below on Instagram;

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This mountain, Howse Peak is among the most powerful mountains I’ve ever known. She changed many lives this week; in tragic ways. I lost three friends, three brothers. That is the least of it, I’m sure. I knew all three, but I knew @hansjoergauer best of all. He was a both a friend and a God to me. The greatest confusion for me personally in this moment is the role of the route M16. A route I climbed over five days, now so vividly remembered, over 20 years ago. That climb took myself and Scott Backes and Barry Blanchard to the limits of skill, power, judgement, and yes—luck. It challenged our very life-force and we nearly lost. I climbed one of the most difficult and dangerous pitches of my life. Barry was very nearly killed by collapsing snow. Scott held us together as a team far more powerful than it’s parts, then, and forever after. And now that power we knew, has killed. I wish I had words to help the mournful understand who this mountain is. What climbing Howse Peak’s precipitous East Face means. It is simply this: The truest testing place of the most powerful men on their very best days. An arena for those rare and mighty, honed, long-practiced men that are challenged by nothing less than to be locked in struggle to the death with one of the mightiest powers on earth. These men were warriors, Knights, dragon killers seeking fleeting, hot-forged perfection through the dangerous path of alpinism, the creative physical expression of power over the most high, inhospitable, inhuman terrain on earth. To be honest I’m a little afraid to put this out there like that now, in 2019. Seems somewhat out of step with where we are as a society. But damn it, it’s the truth. These were great men. The true 01%. This is something each of them proved with actions over and over again. These men were immeasurable. They were not men, but Gods living among us. And now they’re back with their God. And we are less. Our loss immeasurable. It is with the deepest respect and the biggest ❤️ and wet streams of tears that I, that we, begin to adjust to life among mere mortals, a poorer life, and we begin to say goodbye.

A post shared by Steve House (@stevehouse10) on

House cites a feeling afforded by high-consequence climbing that supersedes normal parameters of reality. It transports the climber to the extremities of human experience.

In an article published in The New York Times following the tragedy, Rock and Ice Magazine editor Francis Sanzaro offered a different perspective:

“I can tell you that standing on a dime-size foothold with no rope, with your fingertips on a sloping edge, in a remote part of the mountains where one mistake means instant death, in no way translates to a heightened experience…If you need to go to the ends of the earth and the edge of your mortality to find some mystical je ne sais quoi, then you need to rethink your strategy. I climb because I love it. So did David, Jess and Hansjörg.”

David Lama scouting Lunag Ri in 2018. Photo via Red Bull Content Pool.

Sanzaro rebukes the “mystical je ne sais quoi” House describes. The rhetoric of the two seasoned mountaineers is at odds; House glorifies the dance with danger, while Sanzaro suggests that risk is overrated. 

Banff-based author Bernadette McDonald is an expert on the psyche of cutting-edge climbers, and she notes the role of luck in even the most seasoned alpinist’s climbs. “If you talk to an alpine climber with a long history in the mountains, it’s extremely rare to find someone who hasn’t had close calls,” she says. “Almost all alpine climbers, if they’re honest, have to give credit to luck at some point.” McDonald believes the climbing community is aware of the risks but was unprepared to lose three luminaries on a peak in the Canadian Rockies. “I think that many people assumed that climbers this skilled and talented could climb their way out of any situation—they climb so quickly, make such informed decisions, etc.—but the objective hazard is simply that. And the East Face of Howse Peak has a reputation that has to be respected,” she says.

Photo (from left to right) of Rosskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak, recovered from Roskelley’s cell phone.

Lama, Hansjörg, and Roskelley presumably understood the risks. Perhaps they welcomed them with fervour, as House describes, or with acceptance, as Sanzaro contends. Does that make them selfish? According to McDonald, it does. “Of course climbers are selfish,” she opines. “The most honest among them freely admit it. Top-level climbing performances can inspire us, motivate us and capture our imaginations, but fundamentally, they are not done for the benefit of others.”

“Of course climbers are selfish. The most honest among them freely admit it.”

It’s difficult to measure the overall riskiness of mountaineering, but researchers at the University of Washington studied the fatality rate of climbers on Mt. Everest, a classic mountaineering objective. Based on data from 2,211 Everest climbers from 1990 through 2005, they found that climbers have a 1.5% probability of dying on the mountain. While this figure does not differentiate by ability or experience (i.e. elite vs. amateur) or route difficulty, it offers a crude baseline of the peril of mountaineering. By comparison, in 2017 Americans had a .97% chance of dying from an automobile accident and 0.88% chance of dying from an accidental fall. It would not be far-fetched to claim that professional mountaineers have a similar chance of perishing in a car crash en route to a trailhead as climbing a difficult objective. And it would be ludicrous to denounce every commuter for having the nerve to set foot in an automobile.

The Himalayas are mountaineering’s grandest venue. Photo by Yulia Grigoryants via Creative Commons.

Part of our collective anguish over the triple tragedy has to do with our perceptions of risk. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert is an expert in risk bias and he contends that we overreact to immediate threats and downplay perils that are perceived as “routine”, like car crashes. Additionally, we overreact to dangers that implicate our morals. These factors may account for our perception of mountaineering as an extremely dangerous and potentially foolhardy enterprise. News of three competent athletes brought down by an uncontrollable avalanche is unnerving in a way that car crash statistics will never be. The charismatic nature of a summit push is spectacular, and by extension, the effort gone awry is spectacularly tragic. In mountaineering, we see an expression of a popular moral archetype—the human protagonist doing battle with fierce nature—and thus we may accuse the sport and its participants of ethical impoverishment when those human protagonists perish. But in the end, we cannot fully comprehend, must less control, the decisions made by individuals. As McDonald suggests, “Some [climbers] have a higher risk tolerance than others, but all climbers need to take those risks—manage them, live with them.” Tragedies will always accompany mountaineering, and we must manage and live with them.

 

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