Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Alastair McKenzie

Alastair McKenzie has experience of working in radio and is the chairperson of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He’s also active in the world of online publishing.

In this interview he answers questions put to him by Stuart Forster.

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in and what drew you to it?

I specialise in ‘mechanically minded travel’, which basically means I write about technical and military museums, battlefield sites, factory tours, historic sites, transport and structures.

I came to it rather slowly. After decades of general travel writing and broadcasting, I suddenly thought “why don’t I focus on stuff I actually like.”

I can find something interesting in pretty much anything I’m shown, but I’d always rather visit a heritage railway than an art museum, a car plant over the historic market, or an airshow over a cultural festival… and don’t get me started on churches! Why does every city tour have to visit the effing cathedral?!

The Rocky Mountaineer train snakes along a riverside in British Columbia, Canada.

The Rocky Mountaineer train snakes along a riverside in British Columbia, Canada.

Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?

That’s hard. You mean ‘ever’?

Well, bear in mind I have been a radio presenter for much of my travel journo life. So there are several radio pieces I remember being particularly proud of in the 1990s on Classic FM. One in particular that melded Aaron Copeland’s Rodeo with pieces of interview and actuality, recorded at the huge annual ‘Frontier Days’ rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In print? Well, there was an ‘ahead of its time’ bi-media feature (print & audio) I did for She magazine in 2007, which I was very pleased with. It was about a UK canal boat break and it had a linked supplementary 5-minute audio feature on their website. Then there have been several pieces I’ve written about digital and social travel media for sites like Travelllll (no longer around) and Traveldudes, that I was pleased with because they broke new ground with new ideas.

I suppose my criteria for being proud includes not only the success in ‘telling a story’ but the way in which I do it as well; the whole ‘package’. So, I’m proud of some of the weekly travel shows I used to do ‘live’ on Google Hangouts on air for three years, and I’m proud of some of my posts on my Mechtraveller.com blog not only because they are (hopefully) well written, but also because I have used a range of tools and techniques to creatively convey the experience, such as video, photo galleries, 360° photos and videos, and animated GIFs.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

Telling people about stuff they didn’t know. I’ve always loved that “Oh I can’t wait till they read/hear/see this!” feeling.

Do you have a favourite destination?

Berlin. It’s easy to get to, easy to get around and full of surprises. It’s almost impossible to get bored with Berlin.

The court house used to hold the Nuremburg Trials, also in Germany, after World War Two.

The court house used to hold the Nuremburg Trials, also in Germany, after World War Two.

What would be a typical working day for you, if there is such a thing?

I don’t take huge numbers of trips so my normal working day is working from my desk at home. I’m a morning person so I get the most work done when I’m up early (between 6 and 7am). I’ll start with checking stats, emails, social media, and then get on with writing.

I’m a bit odd. I write everything in an html editor in raw html. Emails, articles, blog posts, reports, agendas and shopping lists. I’ve never liked using normal editors. I know exactly what it’ll look like and how it’ll behave if I mark it up myself. I don’t have Microsoft Word. If I need to share or print Word type documents, I start it in html and then transfer it to Google Docs.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

Yes – who doesn’t? Like everyone I procrastinate more than I should. I find terribly important things (not) to do instead… then I tackle an easy part of the commission/project, and that usually stimulates ideas for the parts I was stuck on.

What tip or tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

Two tips.

  1. Don’t get seduced by the glamour. It’s a job. More interesting and fun than most, but still a job that requires hours and hours of hard work.
  2. Find a niche and dominate it. The smaller the niche the better. Travel writing was always aspirational and always over-subscribed, even in the old traditional print media days when you needed to persuade a ‘gate-keeper’ (editor) to publish you. Now there are no gate-keepers. Anyone can blog about travel. So if you are writing about mainstream travel — backpacking, luxury, adventure — you are now competing for attention with a squillion squillion other bloggers — good luck with that!
The Roman fort at Saalburg near Bad Homburg, Germany.

The Roman fort at Saalburg near Bad Homburg, Germany.

Which writers inspire you and why?

Interesting question. I sense it is anticipating worthy answers like Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux (have read them!), or Eric Newby (I did spend a morning with him recording an interview for The Times. I found him pretty inspiring. Does that count?), but my inspirations are rather more prosaic…

(Links to the websites of those people mentioned above are emboldened.)

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

To become a centre of authority in my niche… and filthy rich.

It’s a tough industry, what do you see as it’s biggest challenges?

Understanding itself. Travel media is an endlessly fascinating and continuously changing industry. We —  travel writers/ content creators / influencers —  have come a long way in the last eight years, making up the rules for how all this works, as we go along. It’s like a multi-lane highway. Different people and organisations travel at different speeds. Some travel, tourism, PR and marketing organisations are adapting to new ways of working quicker than others and the same is true for content providers. That makes it hard to see clearly how it all works.

Statue of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius outside of the reconstructed Roman fort at Saalburg on the Limes Route in Germany.

Statue of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius outside of the reconstructed Roman fort at Saalburg on the Limes Route in Germany.

What about its opportunities?

Huge! You just have to be open-minded and let your thinking stray off-piste. Everybody jumps on the same platforms at the same time, so think where ‘influence’ lies on platforms that are under exploited, e.g. Google Local Experts, or Quora (a digital advertising guru said Quora is “a sleeping giant” the other day!). But it’s a fast changing landscape, just ask anyone who built their brand on Vine, or Meerkat, or Google Hangouts on Air.

So, it’s better to come up with content on platforms you control (IE your blog). I’m developing a completely unique form of licensed content at the moment. I’m going to try it out in Menorca later this month. We’ll see how it works.

Statue of racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio outside of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

Dead ringer for Bobby Charlton? Statue of racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio outside of the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany.

Is there a destination you are particularly keen to visit and write about?

Dozens, hundreds.

I have a map of some of them, which I’m having to convert into several maps to keep up.

My latest, in the last 24hrs? I’ve discovered that General Motors have a Chevrolet Corvette museum and factory tour in Kentucky, and that there is a museum in the basement of a castle in Haigerloch, Germany where German scientists built a secret nuclear reactor.

The destination, though, at the top of my current trip planner is Mulhouse in France (just) where they have two big museums of interest: Cité de l’Automobile and Cité du Train.

If you weren’t a travel writer what would you like to be?

A naval officer. Don’t ask!

 

If you want to see some of Alastair’s work, why don’t you take a look at his review of Culloden battlefield. Alternatively, head to AlastairMcKenzie.com or LinkedIn.

One Comment

  1. Wise advice about finding a niche and dominating it. Luckily, there’s a travel niche for everyone – and Alastair enjoys the exciting title of “influencer” – runner up to master of the universe? Personally, the idea of visiting countless car and railway museums would fill me with dread (give me the culture and churches any day) but that’s exactly why it matters to care what you’re covering. Equally good advice about not being seduced by the glamour (says she guiltily from Cannes Film Festival).

    Also justified praise of Stuart Forster’s photography skills. Stuart is one of the rare “proper photographers” who can also write, which is less a criticism of professional photographers than an admission about how difficult it is to master such dissimilar crafts.

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