What happens when there is nothing left to mine?

1) I read last night about a travel start-up launching, in this case to become “the most current and trusted travel information provider on the planet”. They seem to be doing this in part by “sifting through” around a dozen other travel websites.

2) A week or so ago there was a somewhat unusual exchange on Travelfish.org regarding a new member who wanted to “mine” our information to produce their own PDF guides (which they would then sell).

3) A few months ago I was in Bangkok, talking to a writer for a top tier travel guide publisher who boasted that they love Travelfish.org because they just mine our site for all the places their publisher doesn’t pay them enough to visit in person.

In all three cases the focus is less on “putting feet on the ground” and gathering their own information — instead it is all about partnerships and reusing or, mining, existing data.

I think this is a badly missed opportunity.

We live in a time when travel has never been easier and more affordable yet there appears to be little interest in actually investing in improving the information that people use on the ground. There’s nothing wrong with user-generated content if it rocks your boat, but I’m talking about expert-generated content.

Online travel start-ups have raised millions in funding but I’m truly at a loss as to what they spend it on.

Words from Wikitravel, wCities, Footprint or Frommers, free photos from Flickr, free maps from Google and, of course, the great stub-filler, reviews from the general public.

Is it really that expensive to create your own content? To cover much of Southeast Asia you’d probably need a couple of hundred thousand dollars for good, conscientious writers to do a solid first run. When you’re raising eight figure sums I’d have thought that was doable. While information on Travelfish.org is far from perfect, we built what we did with far less than a single million and we’ve always paid our writers.

Perhaps it isn’t doable because, in the eyes of the founders, this information isn’t actually seen as being all that important. The words are there really just to funnel a Google search through to an adclick or a hotel reservation. Just enough words to dodge a Google Panda penalty (or, in some cases, not).

As for the guidebook publishers who no longer require their writers to actually visit all destinations (or in some cases, the country at all – no I’m not talking about Colombia Columbia!) then you fully deserve to be in the dire situation you are — you took your readers for granted and not surprisingly, they stopped buying your books.

Information is everything and if you haven’t been there, you haven’t been there.

What I’d love to see is a new travel start-up with the funding to really double down on the content and the people who research and create it rather than the technology that presents it. You don’t need a Pinterest mashup to find the post office — you just need an address.

There are more ways, and it is easier, to make money out of online travel content than it has ever been before. I say that with one caveat: you need to own the content to reap the full benefits.

Invest in your writers and the content, build something original that doesn’t solve a non-existent problem and be in it for the long term.

This is an exciting time to be in online travel — I just wish there were more new ideas and concepts to get excited about.