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Read all about it! Richard Branson! Michael Gove! Former Times travel editor Cath Urquhart tells all

Cath Urquhart was travel editor of The Times for ten years from 1997 before leaving to retrain as a barrister. She chatted with me last week to reminisce about her time at the newspaper, which included covering the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

The title “travel editor” seems very glamorous – was it?

It certainly had its moments. I went to Necker Island in 2006 with some other journalists to interview Richard Branson. It really is a billionaire’s playground, the most extraordinary place. There was a beautiful swimming pool with a swim-up bar and a sushi-covered canoe that got pushed around if you were feeling a bit peckish.

It was absurdly decadent and we could choose to go windsurfing or water skiing and there were lots of staff there to cater to your every whim. There was a big house where they would set up a casino and the most amazing food.

When we left, we took a boat to a larger island from where you fly onwards and just when he was sure we were out of camera range, Branson went onto his balcony and mooned us all! I suspect we weren’t the first journalists he’s done that to.

That obviously is not what I was doing most days. Three-quarters of the time I was in the office commissioning and editing copy, dealing with advertising, keeping the editor happy, dealing with admin, planning budgets, accounts, marketing meetings, general bureaucracy and so on.

How did you choose what went in the paper every week and how far in advance did you plan?

I had to think about the balance of content each week to get a mix of long-haul, short-haul, UK, consumer pieces, news, “how-to” and roundups so you’ve got a different pace across the section. Some weeks we’d have up to 60 pages including adverts.

I had to think seasonally and in advance too, so for example for skiing we’d start coverage around October, but to get copy in before that season started I’d have had to commission it the year before. Then in the upcoming ski season, I’d be sending people out not just to report on things for a quick turnaround but for the following year as well.

It was the same for villa holidays too. January/February is the obvious time to be running “book your villa for summer” pieces, so I would commission them well in advance to run them then. But then in May or June, I’d get those above telling me to run articles on villas in Tuscany because that’s when they thought people were thinking about getting away… the only trouble being that by then all the good villas were gone and anything left was a bit rubbish!

Did you ever send any celebs away on trips? Were there ever any disasters?

There are several memorable ones! There was one household name who was upset when it rained in the rainforest and there was more trouble when he didn’t get upgraded at the airport. I think he was just trying to impress a new girlfriend.

And another who was a complete arse when we sent him to the Med. He wanted his nanny included along with his family and he didn’t pay parts of the bill we’d agreed in advance that he would take care of. His PA was mortified so it did get resolved in the end but I do seem to remember there was a bit of ‘I’m so marvellous you should pay for everything.’

To be honest I remember more vividly the ones who were an absolute pleasure. For example, the author Joanne Harris who wrote the novel Chocolat and other books, she was extremely nice to deal with and wrote lovely copy. Michael Palin was unsurprisingly nice as was BBC correspondent John Simpson.

And the late Howard Marks – the drug dealer and author – was memorable. We decided to send him to cover a literary festival in Colombia, which was perhaps a bit cheeky given his previous career connected with that country. We organised his flights via Miami but he rang up very apologetically and said he couldn’t transit there or he’d get arrested and could he route through Madrid instead?

I know one travel editor elsewhere who had a sign that said: “travel editor, not travel agent”. Were you expected to arrange trips for the great and the good at The Times?

One thing I used to say to people is that ‘a destination is not an idea’. People would come up and say ‘ooh do you want anything on the Bahamas?’ and I’d reply ‘yes, good ideas please’ and they’d look a bit crestfallen.

But The Times has lots of good writers on its books – they have to be, or they wouldn’t be there. So, we got lots of good pieces internally.

I think before my time press trips abroad were sometimes handed out like Smarties with no real thought to the result. I did have one old-fashioned hack who sent in some copy for a trip to India that was commissioned before I joined the desk and which contained some rather painful clichés about Indians so I just thought, no, there has to be a change.

When I joined I was quite young and there was a definite feeling in the newsroom that the job of travel editor should have come from elsewhere internally as a bit of a reward for long service, a nice perk till retirement.

It wasn’t seen as a proper part of the newspaper and I was keen to make it one. We brought in the travel news page and lots of consumer stories, which, to me, is really the most important thing you can do on that sort of newspaper because people spend a lot of money on their holidays. I think we had an obligation to help readers spend their money wisely whether that was by introducing them to interesting new companies or destinations or helping them if it went wrong.

You were a colleague of Michael Gove, now a member of the cabinet when he was Assistant Editor at The Times. How was he to work with?

Michael Gove was absolutely fine to work with. He was very straightforward, he would listen to arguments and he would change his mind if he thought you’d presented a good point. So, I might not agree with his politics but we got on fine and he was pleasant and courteous.

Apart from actually travelling, what was your favourite part of the job?

Getting results for readers when they were having difficulties with their rights. As travel editor at The Times I had a lot of power in that I’d be able to meet the CEOs of travel firms and airlines at conferences and elsewhere, and I’d have their mobile numbers in my phone, so I had that short-cut to the top. So, getting results for readers from them or press officers when the public couldn’t really get past the switchboard was a very satisfying part of the job.

What parts of your travel editor job stood you in good stead for being a barrister?

There’s more crossover than you might think – with both you’ll often get a lot of information last minute that you have to make sense of and produce something coherent. So, with a late-breaking news story, you have to turn that around quickly, marshall the information and present it, get the pictures, do the headline and keep the editor happy, keep the readers happy.

As a barrister, particularly when you’re a junior barrister, you often get cases when you’re given your instructions the night before, you may have a lot of paperwork to get through, you’ve got to make sense of the arguments, work out what your best points are to present in front of the judge, you’ve got to keep the judge happy, and your clients, who are like your readers, to follow through with that comparison. So, you need to be able to ingest that information and produce something articulate quickly is very much a transferable skill.

In terms of travel, that still happens - I now go to the glamorous environs of Romford Country Court and Watford Employment Tribunal!

You were the travel editor at the time of 9/11 and the Boxing Day Tsunami. How did they impact travel and how did you respond to the events?

Those two events had the most astonishing effects on the travel industry and I suspect that Coronavirus will possibly have an even bigger one because it’s worldwide.

But those first two stood out for me during my time at the paper as being huge, huge stories with massive implications. The repercussions from 9/11 have stayed with us far longer, such as the increased security checks and limits on what you can carry onboard planes.

The tsunami, when around 250,000 died, was the most appalling natural disaster and the travel industry cranking into action to deal with it was a very impressive industry story.

After both those awful events you’ve got a large number of issues readers have to deal with if they’ve either booked holidays, are about to go on them or their insurance isn’t covering them, etc.

I remember on September 11th I came back from lunch around 2pm and the foreign editor was sprinting from a taxi into the building. On our floor, everyone was standing around the twelve sports desk TVs that were turned to news for the first time ever, and we all just stood there open-mouthed for the rest of the day. It happened on a Tuesday and we tore up that weekend’s edition and redid the whole thing. We ran articles on all your rights, trying to think about what travel would be like in the future. I was very proud of our team because everyone worked extremely hard.

Those are two examples of when travel journalism can really help out, and you can see the same thing now with the likes of Which? Travel on Twitter, and Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent, who is on the TV all the time explaining how we can navigate our way through this.

I think Coronavirus will make people fly less and less. I’ve become more of a nervous flyer anyway but I’m planning on going on a Swimtrek trip in Greece next year and part of the holiday will now be getting there and back overland by rail and ferry, whereas before I’d just have thought about going from Gatwick.

Any travel stories that never made the paper?

I once flew from Barbuda to Antigua on a small plane, in the front seat next to the pilot. I think it had been provided by a hotel called The K Club, which back in the day was a favourite of Princess Diana.

We were taxiing for take-off, scattering goats as we went when the pilot asked me if I’d like to fly the plane, to which I responded something like ‘ho ho, very funny, you’re having a laugh.’

But he wasn’t.

He showed me some of the controls and the plane’s joystick so I just humoured him and did as I was told and the next thing I knew we were 300ft in the air. Then he told me I was going to fly it the whole way.

It turned out he was a Vietnam war vet with mental health problems but I flew the plane all the way to Antigua including landing it, which I was rather proud of, even if those in the back were rather ashen by the time we landed.

As we taxied up in front of a BA 777 from London, a ground handler came up to me and looked at us, all in a state of shock, and asked ‘have you just flown this plane?’ When I replied yes, she tutted loudly, rolled her eyes and said ‘not again’!

I think that pilot lost his job fairly soon afterwards, although I’m not sure how he’d been allowed to keep it in the first place.

Can you pinpoint a couple of favourite travel pieces you wrote or commissioned?

I went to Burma in the early 2000s, Myanmar as we call it now. There was a lot of opposition in the travel industry and media to going at all because Aung San Suu Kyi had called for tourists not to visit.

But I’ve always been keen to do things that people tell me not to, and when I got there I discovered no one had really heard about her call for a boycott. The French and Germans were going, lots of expats from Hong Kong and Bali too and it seemed to be only Brits that were staying away. So, I didn’t feel that this trope that we mustn’t go because otherwise, you’re supporting the generals had much to it. And these days Aung San Suu Kyi’s halo isn’t shining so brightly anyway.

So, I went and spoke to lots of people there and took the view that if you travel courteously and carefully that you could do as much good as anybody else by staying in local guesthouses and using local transport.

The second thing was a piece I commissioned on hotels called Hotel California – cough cough, written by a certain Will Hide, ed – which still makes me laugh like a drain.

We rang round Hotel Californias all over the world and asked if they had mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne on ice, and can you check out anytime you like?

It was great at that time because we had the space to do those slightly eccentric stories whereas now it’s all ‘ten villas in Umbria’, rather unimaginative in my opinion. Everything’s a straight destination piece without much of a twist. We were one of the first papers to send someone to Chernobyl, for example, and now it’s a fairly mainstream tourist destination.

We had the space but also, we had the freedom which I don’t think is the case now. The travel section in my day made a lot of money for the paper. The sports section and obituaries certainly didn’t pull in advertising in the way we did.

Where are some of your favourite cities and countries you visited while travel editor?

I was happy going pretty much anywhere but the exotic highlight would be Antarctica. But equally, I loved Mallorca, especially the north and west coasts, and Greece. India is another favourite and I had a gap year there where I was 18. Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos too.

It’s easier to ask where I didn’t like, so step forward Caracas (Venezuela) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan). I wouldn’t rush back to either city.

No one has a crystal ball but what are your thoughts on the current (Coronavirus) crisis and how the travel industry can bounce back?

I’ve been out of the travel industry for about a decade, apart from as a consumer. But from my experience of big disruptive events that I’ve already talked about, like 9-11, it’s remarkable how clever and successful the travel industry is at coming back, how inventive they are and how quick to adapt.

I’ve got no doubt most of the good companies will be able to come back and thrive but I think it will go further in the direction that it has already started to, such as not flying so much which I know is not so much comfort for the airlines.

I think people will go by train or ferry more, which will be part of the adventure. We’re not going to have a situation where no one ever flies again and I think there’ll be a good amount of pent-up demand, it will come back, it just may be very different for the next few years.

(c) Will Hide 2020

Photos (top) Cath Urquhart; Ski = Emma Paillex; Cartagena = Ricardo Gomez Angel; Antigua = Rick Jamison; Burma = Road Trip With Raj; Taj Mahal = Slywia Bartyzel ; train station = Mateo Broquedis

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