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Who’s the fairest of them all?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaHotels and airlines jockey like prize fighters to be No.1. So what do Donald Trump and stewardesses in bikinis have to do with all this?


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Ryanair's sexist calendars were pulled off in 2015

More legroom in economy? Ryanair's Benny Hill-style calendars got the heave-ho in 2015

WHEN THE fiendishly inventive National Enquirer reports, ‘My Mum is an Alien’ or ‘Trump must be President’… because he ‘will chase down illegal immigrants’ – coyly ignoring the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived pre-Wall without even an H1-B visa – you know exactly what to think. Print is powerful but there is that poetic licence...

Don’t trust everything you read. That was my mantra since schooldays when I would hand my father my annual report card with those failed math grades savagely circled in red.

Now there’s the Web where fact is often stranger than fiction. UK newspaper The Telegraph recently ran a disturbing report about a hotel in Tunisia – the scene of a horrific June 2015 British tourist massacre and since shut down – that was handed a ringing endorsement by TripAdvisor and a 2016 top award, intended only for the ‘best of the best.’

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The popular but controversial crowd-sourced travel review group later withdrew the award from its site. It maintains its secret algorithms are its private domain. Pundits assume these formulae are calibrated regularly to ensure only the highest levels of excellence are recognized. This may be so. Yet for many self-styled arbiters of taste – for everything from spas to food and cars – the only ‘algorithm’ at work is from the will-this-earn-us-pots-of-money handbook.

Dollars flow in through high-priced nomination fees (the more categories the merrier) and compulsory gala dinners for hapless winners who are squeezed at every turn till they cry out for the undemanding – and far cheaper – pastures of rank mediocrity.

{The right sorts of encomiums, even daft ones, are very much in demand as consumers are inclined to follow ‘market leaders’ lemming-like...

The right sorts of encomiums, even daft ones, are very much in demand as consumers are inclined to follow ‘market leaders’ lemming-like in order to effortlessly glide along the yellow brick road to enjoy the good life. Not surprisingly, there is much argle-bargle over how to acquire awards, along with a great deal of PR manoeuvring, soul searching, hand wringing, and complex strategizing.

Some hotels even employ ‘Award Managers’ (distinct from PR managers) who are entrusted with the task of securing a large number of outsize trophies commensurate with the size of the display cabinet and, perhaps, the boss’s ego. It is considered a crucial job. One enthusiastic lady cooed with startling candour, “I promised my boss I will bring in at least three awards, including yours.”

I have often wondered how an award manager ‘wins’ awards when surely it is the product and service that earns guest recognition. Award managers cajole guests to vote, build creative myths, hire specialist PR companies for more media muscle, and even dole out cash. Most times it simply comes down to how many people they can deploy to get the job done and vote vigorously in online polls, or to fill out print magazine questionnaires.

It is a high pressure preoccupation and an award manager’s longevity depends on that marketing maxim – ROI. The single-minded focus on ‘return on investment’ has left superior products derelict as no one is telling the brand story.

While editing a regional print magazine in years past I was surprised to see our traditionally low-advertising, low-sales June issue suddenly rocketing off the charts. We had frantic calls from Pacific Place (Hong Kong) bookstores to restock magazines urgently. Hotels around Pacific Place and other locations started calling us and faxing urgently about the lack of magazines available for sale. June was a sell-out. We were pleased at this remarkable editorial turnaround. I was getting ready to pat myself on the back. Then the penny dropped. Our annual poll questionnaire was inserted in these copies.

Later, I visited an airline CEO to present an award to be in turn presented by an even grander award by him. It read, “MR VERGHESE – ASIA’S LEADING MAGAZINE’. What on earth is going on?

Nowadays, online, questionnaires are filled out by robots and armies of PR staff who diligently vote till their fingers fall off. We have spotted instances where schoolchildren have been dragooned into the business. Fortunately, on online polls, enthusiastic voters can be identified and firmly jettisoned.

Then are awards that cheer or flummox and work perfectly well without the ministrations of award managers, like the Golden Raspberry or Razzie (an anti-Oscars for worst movie), Foot in Mouth (for silliest comment by a public figure – George Bush Jr had his moments here), the Ernie (an Australian handout for the most sexist comment), and the Darwin (a bizarrely rude award for the stupidest accidental death that removes outright clods from the gene pool).
The sponsors of the Foot in Mouth award noted last year, “Donald Trump… was unrivalled in the 2015 Foot in Mouth stakes. He seemed absolutely determined to win, and we were keen to reward such enthusiasm.” After its resounding endorsement of The Donald, The National Enquirer must be chuffed.

Irish low cost airline Ryanair perhaps came close to an Ernie after being lambasted as ‘sexist’ for its annual rudely ribald ‘Girls of Ryanair’ calendars featuring scantily clad lasses and a stab at Benny Hill humour that failed to impress at least one Spanish judge and a host of outraged passengers. The 2014 charity calendar was its last.

As another Award Season nears - our own Best in Travel Poll runs May-July - you have been warned.

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