Bolder Travel is a combination of my 30 years in the travel publishing business along with my own blog on life in south west France where I now live. Having developed the Chic Collection of hotels via a series of coffee table travel books as well as an annual book on The World’s Best Hotels I have a fabulous collection of people and places that I know well and Bolder Travel is the platform for me to present these travel experiences.
I started life teaching English in Madrid some 40 years ago. This definitely gave me the travel bug as I was keen to add some Spanish to my reasonable French. In the post Franco years of the new Spain English wasn’t spoken at all and my life was a total immersion in all things Spanish – from religion to politics to of course football and Real Madrid specifically. Somehow I ended up getting involved with a Paraguayan publisher of the Spanish Rugby yearbook. Yes rugby. In Spain. How about that for trailblazing entrepreneurialism? The said Paraguayan then thought, of course, that the next step was The World Rugby yearbook and would I get involved. Well why not I said – there are worse ways to earn a living so off I went to London to meet 2 potential investors that he had somehow found. The investment wasn’t forthcoming but 2 job offers were and I had to choose between life on Fleet Street with The Daily Express or this new fangled media called commercial radio – Capital Radio specifically. I couldn’t see commercial radio working at all (!) so started a career in media sales for the Daily Express. There followed around 4 very un-sober years working my way around the pubs and wine bars of the City and the West End. It really was a remarkable time. A time when printers held management over the proverbial barrel and only signed on for work when they felt like it as there was more than enough cover to go round in the bowels of the building where the paper was printed. Murdoch hadn’t yet flexed his muscles but Mrs Thatcher was warming to her task and having seen off the miners she encouraged Rupert to shut Fleet Street and her archaic Victorian practices down and move to Wapping. And there aren’t many decent pubs in Wapping as you can imagine.
I was on the move again to join the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong thanks to one Elaine Goodwin. A well written letter and a pair of clean shoes (apparently) encouraged her to take me on and as two friends had recently relocated to Asia I chose Wanchai over Wapping. It was quite a leap but indeed one that made me. Within a few weeks Elaine and I were on our way to Tokyo for a week of sales calls, plenty of bowing and hopeful nodding, sake, tempura and sushi and a sense of ‘what really happened in that meeting’ after, well, every meeting. Mazda, Ricoh, Toshiba, Hitachi. These were all iconic brand names back in the 80s when if Japan sneezed the rest of Asia caught a cold. A long time before China and the Coronavirus came along you might say. Next stop Singapore and getting the magazine thrown out for the temerity not to write about the PM opening a new bridge. Malaysia and the Mahatir dictatorship. Who would ever have thought he would be back in power in his 90s to oversee Vision2020 – his far sighted term for Malaysia’s launch into the supposed eternal riches of a developed economy. Thailand and an understanding of what it took to massage (sorry) Thai Airways to advertise more with us than our arch rival Asiaweek. Then to the Philippines where Marcos cronyism was alive and well and a returning political foe had been symbolically shot dead before he could set foot on Filipino soil as he disembarked his flight from freedom. All the while Hong Kong and Britain were locked in negotiations with a tentative China where Deng Xiaoping had declared ‘to get rich is glorious’. In those 80s years the ‘basic law’ handing Hong Kong back to China was enshrined in the Hong Kong constitution and one pale faced British politician after another limped back to tell Maggie that the Brits till ruled the Asian roost. Look where it’s got us.
In amongst this I always felt pangs of homesickness for Battersea, Devon, my mum and not in that order so we headed home with a baby on the way and landed back in Battersea to resume that most British of pastimes. Decorating. It was whilst waving a paintbrush around one evening that a Radio 2 phone-in programme was airing views about how to control London’s worsening traffic. Recalling my regular visits to Singapore and having to pay additional taxi fees during rush hour, or share a taxi, I duly called in to suggest road pricing and a congestion charge was the way forward, only to be told by the talk show host that Nigel should don his safari suit and slip back to the Long Bar at Raffles. Turned out it wasn’t such a bad idea.
On both fronts that is because within a year we were back in Hong Kong on the basis that ‘you’ve lived in Asia you go and sort our business out over there’. Japan was still calling the shots in the region and was on a never ending roll it seemed so the decision was taken to open the office in Tokyo not Hong Kong. Er, well, no sooner had we arrived than the bubble burst, the stock market collapsed, property prices plummeted and yet, yet, the currency rocketed. At that point I knew there had been no point studying Economics at University because that sequence of events never ever happened in any of my seminars or text books. So we spent a glorious 2 years trying to get the office out of Japan and back to Hong Kong without losing face or our shirt. It was terrific fun living in Japan though, if a complete waste of time from a business perspective as nothing you ever said made any difference to anything. Love the country, the people, the food – everything – but not a day went past when I didn’t think: Thank heavens I wasn’t born Japanese. It’s one tough society.
So back to London via Hong Kong and another 4 years of commuting to Asia and back every 2nd month which took its toll in many respects before I took the decision to start out on my own at that make or break age of 40. And so began almost 15 years of publishing travel books in that golden era before hand-held devices took hold completely. Coffee table books. Guide books. Mini books in glossy magazines. In 1993 we had done the first ever edition of The Worlds Best Hotels book based on the annual survey conducted by my employers Institutional Investor. It was a huge tome that had to be faxed and couriered around the world many times during production in the days before PDFs and e-mail. In that fateful month of September 2001 and on that very day when the towers came down we decided to relaunch it as an annual book. Just at that moment when the whole world stopped travelling and then when they restarted it was under security the like of which we had never seen before. It wasn’t the best time to be doing anything new in the luxury travel industry. I had just bought an apartment in Paris – well a small room to be precise – which I had hoped would be rented out to American tourists only to discover post 9/11 that they had no intention of going anywhere.
Shortly afterwards we – Editions Didier Millet Singapore – and I launched the Chic Collection of books on the initiative of Manuel Diaz Cebrian at the Mexican Tourist Board office in London. Manuel wanted to portray Mexico as something other than sombreros and all inclusive resorts in spring break Cancun so we came up with the name MexicoChic. Somehow it worked. After a couple of trips to Mexico including the remarkable annual Mexican travel show in Acapulco – Tianguis – where all, literally all, business is done in the Baby O nightclub between 1 and 4am, we published the book. It did pretty well, on the coat tails of the Hip Hotels series of books and with Mr and Mrs Smith publishing their first book around about the same time. There seemed to be an appetite for small, privately owned hotels who had finally got their act together after the initial fateful days of the Schrager super cool nightclubs with rooms like The Paramount in New York where the last thing you did there was actually sleep. In fact I’m not sure the rooms were even big enough to have beds in from memory. But hey that was so 20th century – we were now in the Noughties and a new century. Small and intimate and discreet was good plus this time round the hotels actually worked.
BaliChic followed soon afterwards, then SouthAfricaChic and another 35 editions as we published our way around the world and EDM sold the rights in various languages at the Frankfurt Book Fair every year. My marketing colleagues and I went to every available travel show there was to meet as many hotels in one place as we could – Cannes, London, Berlin, Madrid, Acapulco, Melbourne, Shanghai. For a while it seemed you didn’t actually need to visit the country you just had to hang out in an exhibition hall for 3 days. Just as I was making plans to relocate the business to Dubai in 2008 the big global crash arrived. Literally the day I arrived in Dubai. Oh no it’s an American/European thing they all said – it won’t affect us. Nobody wanted to meet with me it seemed even though Dubai was keen to attract international businesses to its free trade zones. Then 3 months into 2009 the caravanserai of all crashes arrived in Dubai as they were about to open the worlds tallest building built on the worlds biggest mountain of debt. Abu Dhabi stepped in at the last moment to bail out Dubai and I returned to the relatively calm of Surrey to regroup. Things weren’t looking good for the travel or publishing industries at this stage. No-one had any money and this thing called the internet was free and reasonably accessible now that everyone was walking around with iPhones. Things were changing fast.
We clung on for a while. Mini books, inserts in magazines and our final hurrah with CataloniaChic and the last (very compact) edition of The Worlds Best Hotels in 2012. Hotels would pay us in room nights not cash because they didn’t have any so we turned into a sort of exclusive travel agency selling off all these hotel rooms to friends and family. I needed partners and technology to make the Chic Collectionn work in the digital space, about which I knew very little. Booking.com seemed to be more effective than books. We had things called Ubers in London and then my son suggested I should have people couch surfing in my apartment via this thing called AirBnB whilst I was away. It was all too weird. Why didn’t people just call me up and book a room at the George V anymore? Maybe I needed a landline. Maybe I didn’t. Either way I knew I needed investors who knew what a booking engine was so I set off for Hong Kong again via Dubai. I got no further than Dubai.
So began a 3 year period of grappling with booking engines, Synxis, Indian programmers based in Bahrain or was it Canada, channel managers, site minders, GDS systems, you name it. All of which led down the same route that even if we could get all of our partner hotels to provide us with live room availability we still had to market the backside out of the project just to get 1% of all visitors to the site to make a booking. I know, I’ve probably lost you already but then that’s because I didn’t really understand it myself. It seemed that all curious travellers would indeed visit sites like Chic Collection to do the research but ultimately make the booking on yes, booking.com. Because they could cancel the reservation easily. China is the answer I thought. Hundreds of millions of travellers over the coming decades so what could possibly go wrong until my potential partners bought a French football club then sold their travel business.
It’s really either Technology or Content. To compete with the likes of booking.com or Expedia is a large, deep, expensive, bottomless hole and that’s what brings me back to content and Bolder Travel because people still want good travel information and ideas and suggestions and, depending on the type of trip, still need someone to suggest and actually make the reservation. We used to have books and travel writers and PR people and now we have bloggers and influencers and social media gurus. I think it’s a tremendously exciting time for travel and travel information as well as choosing the right way to sift through the information overload that sits on our screens, large and small.
So thats About Me and what has brought me to the south west of France, seeking out curious travel ideas and knocking 200 year old walls down in between writing and staying connected with wonderful hotels all over the world. It’s a ghastly business writing about or talking about yourself but I guess as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously it’s OK.