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Rory Boland, Which? Travel
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Rory Boland, Which? Travel

This week we venture into a slightly different area of publishing. As Which? Travel celebrates its 50th anniversary, editor Rory Boland tells about the magazine, its history and its role today.

Not-for-profit group Which? has been campaigning on behalf of UK consumers since 1957. Their advice is available to members via a series of print publications and websites, including the monthly Which? Travel. Boland has been editor since 2016


What are you doing this Monday morning?
I work first thing on a Monday morning, through to lunch. And by work, I mean ignore emails/Slack/chats and other communications. The role of an editor has obviously changed a great deal in recent years, and many of us are responsible for a much wider range of outputs. That is demanding but exciting too, at Which? it offers the chance not only to lead online but get involved in press spokesperson work or campaigning. But I can only do those things if my mind is clear that the magazine is in hand and progressing.

We’re at the beginning of our magazine cycle so I will mostly write briefs and feedback on draft copy. Later in the cycle, it could be image selection or signing off cromalins.

The afternoon is then more varied, which I appreciate. There are invitations most days to appear on national TV or radio to talk about Which? Travel research or external events in travel, so I might be on the BBC or ITV in the afternoon. I have a bookcase of travel books as a backdrop for interviews, and a dedicated microphone and lights on the desk. If I’m not doing press work, I’ll probably review a proposal for potential investigations to support a new Which? campaign. 



Describe your work environment
I work at home most days. With no commute, I get more done and see more of my kids. Instead of sitting on the tube between 9-10 am, I can do an hour of work. Instead of sitting on the tube between 5-6pm, I can play with my kids. 

We live in a typical terraced house in far East London, but our attic has been turned into a dedicated office space. I consider myself very lucky to have it because as a freelance journalist for many years, I am familiar with the need to work from your kitchen table or bed. I know that works for some people, but I found it very difficult to switch off with that set-up. 

The view from our attic will be utterly unremarkable to most people outside a major city, but I appreciate the foliage from the Plane tree on the street directly outside, as it screens the windows and lets me hear birdsong most days. The peaks of Canary Wharf lurk behind in the distance, and appear when it gets dark. 



Which magazine do you first remember?
I loved the Beano and the Dandy. My dad would drive us down to London to Brick Lane Market on a Sunday, where you would find sellers with stacks of cardboard boxes stuffed with old issues. You could get an armful of them for a few pence. The issues might be a few months or a few years old, but it didn’t really matter because the storytelling of Desperate Dan and Rodger the Dodger was timeless. 



From about 8 or 9 on I read a lot of magazines. I can associate certain ones with almost every period of my life—from Match of the Day and Marie Claire in high school to Empire and Total Film at university. I remember, with particular fondness, the educational, weekly magazines you collected and placed in binders. They were themed, so each week the magazine would have a different focus; lions, whales or snakes, for example. They felt authoritative and precious. I was sure, at the time, that I would rely on these binders of facts for the rest of my life; for the occasions when I was asked if a whale is a fish or mammal or why don’t snakes have eyelids.


How did you get started in magazine publishing?
I’m the son of immigrants. I grew up on a council estate in the Midlands and went to a comprehensive school. I say this not because have a chip on my shoulder (my parents were brilliant and supportive and I had some really good teachers), but because journalism remains one of the least diverse professions when measured by socio-economic background. Only around 20% of journalists come from a working-class background, and that number has become worse in recent years. That’s not right, because it means as an industry we are missing out on the right balance of stories. 

I did an English literature degree but otherwise didn’t have any formal qualifications or know anybody in the industry, I learnt by reading lots of travel writing I enjoyed. And pitched, and pitched and pitched until I got it right. I started in travel journalism through guidebooks, and wrote for National Geographic and Zagat, as well as lots of US newspapers. 

From the outside, I think journalism and travel writing can seem impossible to break into—there are not always obvious paths. But that can be to your advantage. It remains an industry where hard work is valued. No matter your background, if you can write, and I think that is a combination of talent and learnt skill, pitch your ideas—most editors, and any good editor, will treat all pitches equally on their merits.


Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
The Bluey Magazine. My daughter, like most five-year-olds, loves the BBC’s Bluey cartoon. Her school is still off for Easter this week so the magazine is a fantastic way to get her to engage with those characters and stories in a different, more interactive way. There are things to cut out, colour, and collect, alongside really well-told stories. 

I’m in awe of teams that put together children’s magazines because I can’t think of a more demanding audience. You need to be clever, funny and educational all at the same time. It must demand huge creativity—every issue of Bluey Magazine always has something unexpected. 



Describe Which? Travel in three words
Honest, unbiased, well-written


Congratulations on the 50th anniversary. How has the magazine marked this milestone?
Fifty years felt like a big one so we produced a special retrospective issue. That included revisiting some of the destinations featured in the first issue to see how much or how little they changed in fifty years. It’s been entertaining to read the descriptions that captured places in time now passed. Take this, on Barra in the Outer Hebrides from 1974. 

‘The dancing tends to be very vigorous, so soft drinks are on sale at the kitchen hatch for 8p. The local girls dance daintily (at least as daintily as they can, faced by the clodhopping vigour of the Glasgow lads or visiting fisherman and sailors.)’

We also profiled some of the holiday companies that we have recommended the longest, like the cauliflower farmers behind Britanny Ferries, and celebrated 50 years of campaigning achievements—everything from helping introduce the standardised safety flags on UK beaches to forcing holiday companies to hand back hundreds of millions of pounds in illegally withheld refunds during the pandemic. 

By far the most enjoyable piece, for me, was interviewing three former editors of the magazine, We were able to share stories of how the magazine has changed, but mostly how similar the bones of it still are. The passion we all had for honest, unbiased journalism. A bond over five decades. 



Explain where Which? Travel sits in the Which? range of publications
Which? Travel was inspired by the mission of Which? Magazine. It wanted to make consumers' lives better and fairer. In the seventies, as travel abroad was starting to take off, holidays became an urgent, emerging consumer issue. People were often left stranded, or sent to dangerous places in a time when there was little to no information about where you were travelling to, beyond the brochure, 

A small team of journalists at Which? set up Holiday Which? to provide ‘information holidaymakers could trust’. In their own words, they wanted to apply the same in-depth and rigorous research Which? was famous for so readers could choose a holiday destination and provider with confidence.  

Campaigning journalism was fundamental from the start. It’s difficult to imagine now but health and safety on holidays was a big problem in the 70s and 80s. Holidaymakers often faced food and water poisoning, while deaths from carbon monoxide or drowning at pools were too common. The magazine would regularly dispatch environmental health inspectors and heating engineers abroad to highlight the issue and pressure authorities to act. It fought bitterly, and successfully, for improvements to regulations and laws after several disasters.  

I think what has been striking in looking back over the archives in preparation for our 50th-anniversary issue is how little has changed. Holiday Which? was launched in 1974 because of a lack of trusted information for holidaymakers. We now live in an information age, but in a way, things are worse. Much of what we read about travel is repurposed from holiday company press releases, while reviews are often bought and biased, or just outright fakes. 

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the original mission of the magazine remains. We’re still independent—the only national UK travel publication that doesn’t take freebies—and we strive for accuracy, employing scientists, statisticians and lawyers. We’re still fearless, regularly challenging companies that let consumers down—whether it’s in the pages, in court or in parliament, no matter how big. Our in-house team of journalists, Guy Hobbs, Trevor Baker, Jo Rhodes and Lauren Bell have broken many of the UK’s biggest travel and transport stories in recent years. 

But we are very much a travel magazine, in the sense that most of our features are on destinations. We want people to have a better holiday; it’s just that for us, we understand that remit to include recommendations on where to go but also who to book with, which is probably unique amongst our competitors.  



The magazine was originally titled Holiday Which?, adopting ‘Travel’ instead in the 2010s. What did this change reflect?
As an editor, you are only ever a caretaker for the magazine. It’s the readers who own it, and the name change was to reflect their more independent approach to travel. When the magazine launched, you really had to take a package holiday when travelling abroad but in the noughties the launch of budget airlines and online booking allowed travellers to start creating their own trips. Which? Travel felt like a better reflection of how our readers were booking and travelling. 


The magazine provides vital advice about travel; where should readers turn for a more aspirational addition to what you offer?
I may not be the right person to ask! I find aspirational travel writing quite boring. Like most people, I’ll never afford a £10,000 holiday or an all-inclusive in some far-flung French atol, so it’s not something that interests me to read about. There are very few good stories or surprises in writing like that; everything is predictable. 

A third of our magazine is dedicated to narrative travel writing, and deputy editor, Naomi Leach and I have spent a long time carefully curating some of the best travel storytellers in the country as contributors. Julia Buckley, James Stewart and Oli Smith are exceptional at taking you to a place - their words can lift you from your armchair, which is a rare skill. 

I would look for them, and other travel writers I enjoy reading, rather than a particular publication. And you can find their stories in National Geographic Traveller, CNN Travel and the Times. I suppose that’s because those are publications that we, in part, share a similar outlook on regarding travel and writing. 



Highlight one story from the current issue that sums up the magazine and its mission
Most of our magazine is given over to positive recommendations of who to book with and where to go, but part of what makes us stand out from competitors is that we are completely unbiased—if somewhere or someone is terrible, we will say it. 

So this issue includes a round-up of five travel companies we recommend readers don’t book with. This is based on feedback from thousands of customers who told us the accommodation they stayed at would embarrass Basil Fawlty or the flights never get where they are going on time.  


What one piece of advice do you have for someone producing their own magazine?
Pay your writers. Asking people to write for free is taking advantage of them. If you can’t afford to pay your contributors, you shouldn’t publish the magazine. 


What are you most looking forward to this coming week?
We should get the first spreads laid out this week, which is always exciting. Print and online have their advantages and disadvantages, but what I particularly enjoy about print is the range of ways in which you can display a feature. It’s more curated and more attractive. 

No matter how long you have been working in magazines, there is always something exhilarating about seeing the words on the page. 


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