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As the northern hemisphere takes itself off on holiday, I have been seeing what companies provide on the web to help it have a good time. It seems to me there are great opportunities to provide useful and entertaining information on corporate sites, in the great tradition of the Shell Guide. With a bit of effort I found some, which made me happy. Now all we need is for everyone else to realise that their sites need not be worthy but dull: they can be worthy and fun instead.

Shell Guides, for those who don’t know, were produced in huge quantities from the 30s to the 80s, edited for years by the poet John Betjeman. Mostly they covered British counties, but they went off around the empire too: I am looking now at a Shell Guide to East Africa. Obviously it is not the responsibility of web people to produce such content, but they can surely put themselves forward as providers of a lovely low cost publishing medium for anything the rest of the group produces.

I increasingly hear web managers talk of their site as a “publication”, and they are right to. It is almost certainly read by more people than anything their company produces in print. Thinking of a site in this way should also change the way it is managed, because suddenly it is has to attract and engage, rather than simply to inform. Add the abilities of the web to hold big searchable databases and to ginger them up with the latest technology, and the potential should be crystal clear.

I found some valuable stuff, though I hard to search far and wide. If you are Spanish, look at Repsol YPF, and click the link to the group’s Guia Campsa site. The Ocio y Turismo section has a huge amount of where to stay, what to eat, what to drink information and also, under Municipos, details on the history, geography and of course fiestas of – it seems – every town and village in Spain.

If you are German, the BP subsidiary Aral offers you an excellent Touren und Planen area. Under travel (Reisen) look at the Kids section (Mit Kids Unterweg), which includes both the serious (travel checklist, safety tips) and the fun (games to play in the car). There is also a nice Autotouren section, with suggested trips around different bits of Germany. It feels a little old-fashioned – are we supposed to motor for the sake of it any more? – but it is comfortingly reminiscent of the Shell Guides.

British Airways may have other things on its mind at the moment, but it really ought to make more of the valuable information it has tucked away on its site. The ‘destination’ section is far-reaching if in places a little thin, but the Event guide is quite remarkable. If I tell you that 27 events are listed for Abu Dhabi alone in the next year, you will have an idea of how comprehensive it is. You can filter by destination, theme and event, and so for example discover that there is a waiter race in Brussels on September 22nd, a gay pride march in Tel Aviv next June, and a violet meeting in Toulouse in February.

BA hides this valuable light under a bushel not only by failing to promote it, but also by failing to tell us that the ‘events’ include tourist attractions – the State History Museum in Bishkek (in the Kyrgyz Republic if you’re need reminding) gets a complete page, as does snowmobiling in Iceland and the Togo Shrine Flea Market in Tokyo.

But for me the best site comes from that celebrated provider of travel information, Michelin. From its group home page, click ‘For all your travels’, and be transported to iaMichelin. This has grown from little more than a route planner to an all-singing, all-dancing site that drags information out of all the company’s famous guides. Then it applies web technology to it in a most vigorous way.

From the home page choose a country (anywhere in Europe plus the US and Canada) and a city or address. Do a ‘proximity search’ to find restaurants, hotels or places to visit. Here, for free, you will find text taken from the different Michelin guides, as well as a map, a route planner and even a device for transferring the address to your ViaMichelin GPS navigation device. Perhaps this is the rationale for providing so much for nothing – to boost sales of these devices? Or maybe it is simply to build the brand and make us all think how wonderful Michelin and its tyres must be – good old fashioned brandbuilding by being useful, just like the Shell Guides of the old days? Whatever, may we see more like it please.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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