Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

“What kind of Travel Sales Copy Works Best? Comment and Replies”

Last week’s post received 10 very interesting comments.  I have been trying unsuccessfully to find the time to reply to them all week.  So I am using this week’s post for the replies.

Janet Band said:

Michael, I much prefer the edited copy. I want travel copy to be evocative, not overbearing. Labored imagery and cliché detracts. I want the copy to take me 98% of the way–I want to find that last 2% through my journeys. “Search for” is preferable to “come face to face with” as it implies an active getaway. “Crown jewel” trite and overworked. Arenal: still don’t really like the boulders pouring from its mouth. While I don’t love it, I prefer the first version as the last phrase in the edited version seems like an afterthought. Also, an overworked image. Thanks for letting us into the process. I admire what you have done with CRE and am happy for this insiders’ view.

My reply:

How much to put in the copy is a very interesting question. Take something as common as lunch.  Suppose that we have included in the trip having a crew go out ahead of the guests set up an elaborate carefully prepared picnic lunch.  What do we put in the copy?

“Lunch en route,” or, “Gourmet picnic lunch waiting for you en route?”

“Gourmet picnic lunch waiting for you en route,” helps sell the trip and justify the price.

“Lunch en route,” creates a surprise and keeps people focused on the morning’s experience rather than anticipating lunch.

Also “gourmet” or any other adjective to indicate how great the lunch is going to be is vague and means different things to different people.  If I feel that the lunch is an important selling point, wouldn’t my best bet be to give the menu or a photo.

Mike Grainger said:

My reactions are very similar to those in the previous comment. I would think that presenting travel as a something you do as opposed to something that you passively receive would be appealing to many people. While it is difficult to know whether honesty will get you more customers than hype, it should have the advantage of keeping expectations realistic and allowing people to make a more informed choice. It is too easy to fall into some form of scorekeeping when travelling; if I don’t see all three species of monkeys, my trip is a failure or I have been cheated in some way. We need to be open to and appreciate the little things, the less dramatic experiences and impressions, to get the most out of our travel experience.

My reply:

Mike’s last sentence particularly resonates with me.  In a previous post, “Vacation Goals Tolerance, Biking Fall Colors and a Life-Time Memory in The Hudson Valley,” I mentioned dinner at a kitchen window table at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.  My expectations were seeing great meals prepared and then eating one.  Today I have no recollection of what I ate, but I still have a vivid memory of the master chefs terrorizing the students.

Shannon Borrego said:

Very interesting, Michael! I, too, prefer your copy to the original. The wording of the original seemed awkward to me. Yours was “tighter” somehow or maybe it was just grammatically correct. I agree with Janet that something doesn’t feel right about the boulders pouring from the mouth of the volcano. It brings to mind projectile vomiting rather than an exciting display of nature. That said, I think that when one is contemplating a trip somewhere, the sales copy that is most appealing includes a bit of seductive wording. Is that manipulative? Probably. However, as a potential client for a particular destination I do like to imagine the setting of the location, complete with evocative imagery which allows me to daydream a little bit. I don’t think promises should be made that are likely to result in disappointment, but a few over-the-top adjectives sprinkled here and there don’t bother me.

My reply:

For me question is whether the adjective adds something valuable.  Here are a couple of examples:

My sense is that most people have a clear image in their heads that is conjured up when they read, ”tropical rain forest,” adjectives, in my view, detract rather than add impact.

On the other hand this not the case with, turtle nesting.  So if I only have room for an adjective I might break my own rule about telling you how you are going to feel and write, “Fascinating.”  This because I have talked to so many people who have told me that they were surprised and fascinated by what they experienced.

Cheryl Shnider said:

I’m with you as well. My issue is honesty. The clichés are less irksome to me. I dislike misleading wording with a passion. If the wording says I’m going to see monkeys or lava flow, I expect to. Thanks for asking for our opinions.

My reply:

On the contrary the opportunity to get your responses is very valuable to me.

Kathie Sutherland said:

Your post is much more honest and honorable, designed to give a tourist a true picture of what to expect. Their post is marketing, designed to entice a person into buying the product. Unfortunately, for someone who is making a decision about whether or not to go on a trip, their “sell” job may be more effective. For those of us who have had experiences with your trips, we can appreciate that you promise little and deliver a lot.

My reply:

Our goal in our marketing is not to sell trips to everybody, but to sell trips to the “right” guests.  By the right guests I mean guests for whom the experiences we provide create high levels of satisfaction and delight.  Our hope is that these guests will in turn recommend us to like minded friends. That way we do not have to concerned with selling to guests who would be convinced by hype.  Seems to be working so far.

Jennifer Fletcher said:

No, Michael, you’re not too picky at all : the first version immediately aroused my suspicions & gave off a distinct scent of insincerity. The language is florid & suspect, like those menus in certain restaurants that talk of dishes “succulently prepared just for you in an out-of-this-world sauce & nestling on a bed of perfectly steamed aromatic rice…..”. Makes you want to run a mile! Your version is in good taste .What you’re offering doesn’t need overstatement. Your company, your lodges & Costa Rica stand on their own merit . By the way, we did come face to face with a white -faced monkey that was on the roof of the boat when we went on a tour of a mango swamp. He was not at all pleased when my husband tapped the roof from underneath .The monkey postured menacingly & glared at us murderously. It was impressive primate behavior. We immediately backed down.

My reply:

The White Face monkey on the roof of your boat is an example what happens when tour operators create false expectations and guides do what they have to fulfill those expectations.  White Face monkeys would not act like that if the guides were not feeding them. It’s dangerous for the guests and bad for the monkeys.  One place where it a particular problem is the boat tour at Manuel Antonio.  Is that where you were?

Diane Scarritt said:

I certainly understand the reasons for your editing, but must say that I do not select trips based on the sales copy. I am used to the flowery descriptions, usually literal translations from Spanish, and take it all with a grain of salt. I have come face to face with all of Costa Rica’s monkeys, and had a troop of squirrel monkeys traveling across my open air lodging at Tiskita Lodge every afternoon. I have had minimal success Arenal (lots of rumbling and steam, mainly) in spite of multiple trips there. Seeing natural phenomena is so much a matter of seasonal timing and good luck. Corcovado and Monteverde are magic places I will never tire of visiting.

My reply:

Interesting.  How do you decide what to choose when you are not familiar with the destination?

Patty said:

I totally agree – writing promo copy is all about capturing the reader’s attention. Lively, intriguing, authentic descriptions are effective. Breathless hype is not. I used to tell publicists I worked with to cut out half the adjectives in their press releases and see the difference – more concise, muscular copy. Especially when the product is an experience or an idea, you are introducing the reader to it by initiating a conversation. Not telling them everything they will think or feel. Wish I had your rules written out when I was training my associates!

Emily Le Moing said:

I’m a writer and editor who has made several wonderful trips with Costa Rica Expeditions, and I just wanted to say that I completely agree with your edits of the copy on Arenal. The people who’d want to travel with CRE to Arenal would be more likely to be turned off by hype than attracted to Arenal because of it, and it’s certainly a good idea to avoid making promises that the volcano isn’t necessarily going to keep.

My reply:

This  reply is to both Patty and Emily.  Actually it is not so much of a reply as an attempt to get free feedback from the professional writers and editors.  One of the things that continually strikes me is how easy it is for hype to sneak into our copy. Then there are the grey areas….

Here is part of the copy that we use for our Private Turtle Nesting Expedition:

Many years ago, she broke out of her egg, climbed up through the warm sand, and stumbled down to the ocean shore – through a gauntlet of predators.  Perseverance was the first chapter of her life. She is the one in 10,000 who survived. She roamed for all those years through thousands of miles of ocean.  Now she’s big, protected by her big shell and a long life of adventures that made her strong and safe. You too have been roaming the ocean of your life adventures.

At this moment, you and she will meet and perhaps look into each others’ eyes.  Those who have had the privilege say they see a unique expression of safety, serenity, and wisdom.  Others look in those wise old eyes and feel blessed.  No one ever forgets the experience. Amazingly, through her ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field, she has returned to the very beach where she was born 30 years ago. She’ll emerge from the ocean, dig her nest, lay her eggs, and return to the infinite ocean. The cycle of life has begun anew. And you will be there. For her species, it’s been going on for 11 million years.  100s of thousands of generations of her relatives all had to survive to bring her to this place. You will be there at the perfect time, at the perfect place, on that isolated beach, to meet her and grasp something about eternity.

Is it too hypey, too over the top? The background is that over 90% of the participants will see nesting turtles.

This is not just for Patty and Emily.  Please let me have your thoughts.

Catherine Donnell said:

“Perspective: Use it or lose it” The thing that drives me batty about travel copy is typographical errors, I worked for ten years for a famous high end company that consistently misspelled place names and never seemed to care… feeling is that if you don’t care about the details of the copy you are not going to care about the details of the trip. Which is why I have to bust you, dear Michael, on your use of “perspective” instead of “prospective” above; I am pretty sure you meant “prospective clients”. You are spot on with the gist however, except for the fact that I, being a woman, think of volcanoes (erupting without warning, spewing fire, dangerous) as women! I have officially subscribed to this website twice but have yet to receive an email notification–should I take this personally? I see the post on Facebook or Twitter. Big besos, Catherine.

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Comments and Replies

  • At March 03, 2010
    2:45:52 am
    Emily Le Moing said:

    It’s a little over the top, but then I’m sure the experience with the small group will be magical! I’d change a few things, however. “Perseverance was the first chapter of her life” is vague and not necessary since your previous sentence shows how this turtle had to persevere to reach the water. After “10,000” I’d add “hatchlings” or whatever the word is for baby turtles, if that’s the meaning here, since otherwise the 10,000 might apply to adult turtles who’ve reached the ocean. In the sentence that begins “Now she’s big” I’d change the second “big” in “big shell” to “heavy” (to avoid repetition of the same adjective) and in “adventures that made her strong and safe” the verb should be “have made” and I’d drop “safe” because obviously no wild creature is “safe” even though she’s strong and her strength protects her from many dangers. I’d drop completely the sentence “You too have been roaming the ocean of your life adventures”. That one IS over the top and anyway it would be better for those thinking of making this tour to come up with this idea in their own minds, finding a parallel between themselves and the turtle. First sentence of 2nd paragraph, “each other’s”, not “each others’”. I’d drop the sentence “Those who have had the privilege say they see a unique expression of safety, serenity and wisdom.” “Safety” is ambiguous in this sentence (does it mean she’s so powerful she does not feel threatened by humans or that she’s safe to humans?) and “a unique expression” is vague. Maybe you could combine 2 sentences and say something like “Many of those who have had the privilege say they felt blessed by the serenity and wisdom they saw in the turtle’s gaze.” I’d drop “The cycle of life has begun anew” and, if you want to use “cycle of life”, put it in the last sentence instead of the word “eternity”, which seems over the top. Minor quibble: I’d use “Hundreds” instead of “100s” in the next-to-last sentence. Overall, the text lacks sensory detail to help people visualize what they might see on this trip. How big is the turtle? What color is she? Will this experience happen at night, and so will there be moonlight on her shell? What sounds will people hear? Crashing waves, other animals? Rather than focusing on telling people how significant this experience could be for them, you could add details to SHOW people what they would have a chance to experience.

  • At March 01, 2010
    9:21:42 pm
    jennifer Fletcher said:

    Yes,the boat tour was in Manuel Antonio, & I must admit to being uneasy with the way the tour guides were trying to attract the monkeys with some fruit they’d picked from some bushes.

    • At March 01, 2010
      2:06:02 pm
      FamilyGoBoston said:

      I read your prospective copy on the turtles…having taken your trip to see that return to her beach, I don’t think this captures “group” nature of the experience. I was disappointed by the how little actual time one could spend observing the animal and the revolvong door nature of the experience. This copy makes it sound so much more personal than the actual experience. I understand that there very specific (and important) regulations about guest interactions with the animals; but again your aim here is to use language that sets realistic expectations for guests as well as excite them to travel with you. JMHO, I am not a copy writer (obviously) just a person who loves travel.

      • At March 01, 2010
        3:18:13 pm
        Michael Kaye replied
        to :

        @FamilyGoBoston: I couldn’t agree with you more, but the copy does not refer to the standard turtle tour that you experienced. Precisely because of the mass nature of the standard turtle tour we worked out with the Costa Rican Park Service special permission to visit a beach an hours boat ride from Tortuguero. Since we are the only people on the beach and we limit the group size to a maximum of 8 there is no need for the regulations that apply to Tortuguero beach where there can be as many as 500 people at a time on the tour.

        Here is the copy that comes before the copy that I had in the post:
        “Just you and your partner, your family, or a small group you assemble no larger than 8 people – along with our expert guide – will discover a turtle coming out of the ocean.
        You’ll sit with her as she digs her nest, lays her eggs, and returns to the ocean. It’s a fascinating part of her lifetime adventure described below…”

        I should have included it, but I was focusing on phrases like, “You will be there at the perfect time, at the perfect place,”and “No one ever forgets the experience.” When I was writing the post yesterday, I got to wondering about whether I was going to far. It never occurred to me that even in the blog I should make the distinction between the 2 experiences.

        Thank you very much for bringing this up. I am going to make the change in the post now.

        You can find full details about the Private Turtle Tour on the Costa Rica Expeditions’ web site at