Oops, there goes the neighbourhood

Image of Tyler Brûlé

This week the great, good and not so good of the global travel business descended on London for the World Travel Market to peddle new aviation routes to destinations exotic and dusty; promote tarted-up hotels with fresh carpets and chairs you’ll never sit on; and sell package tours to countries still glowing from the Arab awakening.

Travel fairs are funny beasts: part modern-day theme parks with elaborate pavilions fronting for countries you’d never want to visit alongside mock-ups of new aircraft interiors with their latest long-haul business-class seats; and part moveable mall with their collections of international brands and discount offers.

Wander the exhibition halls and you’ll see plenty of countries, cities, provinces and super-regions touting their best features, the latter always being the most suspicious as they’re often a concentrated grouping of places that aren’t particularly interesting on their own and become even less so when suddenly turned into a collection of dull places with a bad logo.

No one’s doing a good job of selling their regions at these events as most governments have to please too many people and fail to deliver a focused message. The bigger problem is that too many places are consumed with figuring out a social networking strategy when they should be concerning themselves with infrastructure issues like having nice taxis lined up at their airports or a special rating system for country hotels.

There’s a startling lack of innovation in the retail arena as too many people feel that the answer to modern travel is to have little more than a zingy iPad app and a lovely gallery of photos and reviews. With too much emphasis on user-generated content and online rating systems, there’s more room than ever for companies with experience and a point of view to market to consumers who don’t believe all those user-generated reviews and have too little time to fish around looking for the best place to spend two weeks in June at a decent price.

A couple of weeks ago I popped into a new wine bar in Primrose Hill. I surveyed the menu and ended up settling for a glass of Pinot Grigio from Slovenia. As I’ve always wanted to visit the country and thoroughly enjoyed the wine, I could have easily been sold a long weekend if someone had put a beautiful guide book in front of me and printed out an itinerary. A wine bar meets bookshop meets high service travel agency is exactly what’s missing from my neighbourhood – a place that could look after all my company’s corporate travel as well as my holidays and vacations.

Urban planners, property developers and community leaders are either locking horns or holding hands as they wrestle with the future shape and form of retail districts and their relationship to the residents who surround them – should communities attract dependable, known brands who can pay high rents and help increase property values or should mom-and-pop shops be maintained to give communities the necessary glue to hold them together?

My HQ sits in the middle of a neighbourhood that’s going through a complicated growth spurt – moving from well-heeled district with an interesting collection of independent shops that reflect the needs of the people to a well-heeled district that’s starting to become a destination for international brands that want a more interesting address and slightly cheaper real estate than Mayfair.

As bigger international brands have forced out some of the more quaint stores in the area, there’s a real danger that the very shops that make Marylebone what it is (a vibrant, perfectly positioned neighbourhood at the heart of Europe’s biggest city) will soon be replaced by global brands that are perfectly lovely but have no relevance to daily, neighbourhood life. Having been resident in the area for 15 years, I’ve watched the fishmonger shut shop, the lightbulb lady pull down her shutters and a local laundry give up the game. My biggest concern is that the little ironmonger might be the next to go. While I know they do a brisk trade in vacuum cleaner bags, tape measures, special cleaning solutions and all kinds of screws and fastening materials, I also know there are retailers eyeing up their space.

The area’s main landlord knows the importance of essential services like our little ironmonger but I also know they’re easily tempted by shiny new awnings belonging to purveyors of dainty chocolates or traders of fine linens. I think ironmongers need special status in communities as they’re not only incredible repositories of common-sense solutions to daily problems but they’re places where we bump into neighbours, have things repaired and find delight in doing things by hand.

Ditto for wise travel agents who know their good value, well-run, two-star hotels from their over-decorated and over-priced five star competitors.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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