A chat with Donna McSherry, founder of The Guide to Sleeping in Airports

Earlier this week, I told of spending the night in a Brazilian airport. (It’s what I do best: things that very few probably consider doing, and many probably consider bizarre. Whatever. I’m cool with it.) I knew what to expect thanks to The Guide to Sleeping in Airports.

I felt a strange affinity with The Guide. For one, it’s a niche site done as a hobby. For another, it’s a unique (and somewhat amusing) concept. I figured whoever runs it has gone through some of the same frustrations and fulfillments that The Weekly Nabe has given me.

I caught up with its founder, Donna McSherry, who has managed the site for 16 years. After visiting Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Switzerland on the cheap, and having “nothing but time on her hands” after, she started The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Sleeping in Airports and the now-defunct Cheap Like Me Travel Society. The former today has nearly 8,000 places covered. And it’s no longer limited to airports – there’s even a page devoted to sleeping in police stations. (You will not read about any such experiences here.)

You started the site in 1996 with three reviews, and had to “beg” people to visit. Were there times when you thought about throwing in the towel? How did you handle that?
The Internet was different when I started the site. Having a personal web site was still a very new idea, so I really didn’t expect any attention or invest much time promoting the site other than in a few travel forums that existed. There was simply not enough places to promote a site back then. As soon as people started visiting I relied entirely on word of mouth, as I do still to this day. If I were to start a site today I think it would be a lot easier with all the social networking platforms out there now.

What’s the story of your first outside review? Did you celebrate?
The story itself was not strange and particularly hilarious. For me, it was more of a validation of not being the only cheap person out there who was willing to sleep in the airport to save a few dollars.

You’re now a travel agent. How has the site informed your business, and vice versa?
I was actually a travel agent before I started the site. The agency I work at specializes in luxury trips to South America, so I don’t really talk about the site to my clients. They are not definitely not airport sleepers if they can help it. Although there have been a few times when planning their flights that I suggested they stay in the airport overnight instead of going to a hotel for 4 hours. I’ll look at the reviews beforehand and tell them what its like and they think I’m super clever for knowing such things. I don’t tell them I run the site though.  :-)

How do you balance the demands of your “real job” with maintaining the site?
I won’t lie, it is very difficult and I haven’t done a good job at it so far. I basically have two full time jobs at the moment. When I’m busy with the site, the agency work falls short and vice versa. A few years I had considered shutting down the site as I just couldn’t cope. I’m glad I changed my mind. Fortunately I have an excellent boss at the agency who allows me to take time off whenever I want so that I can do updates and my best and worst list.

Have you considered wrangling volunteers to help?
I’ve had a few guest bloggers do a few posts. I’ll probably have more of this in the future. Updating the airport guides takes the most amount of work and I prefer to do this on my own to ensure accuracy. Maybe I am bit of a control freak in that respect.

I was learning HTML in 1996, and remember being amazed by Adobe PageMaker. How has the site changed technically and in appearance since then? Have you kept up your programming knowledge, or do you have a designer?
I taught myself HTML and CSS. The site is all by me, which is why is doesn’t look particularly great. I’m definitely not a designer, but I just figure things out.

I started coding with Notepad and Incontext Spider before moving to Frontpage and now Dreamweaver. In 2007, I had programmers develop the review database. It’s flawed and the site has outgrown this, so I’m looking at alternative platforms now. It’s overwhelming what options are out there now and then the added stress of maintaining search engine ranking with the move. Ugh!

Do you have any big plans for the site? Right now you’re soliciting nominations for the best and worst airports, as you have for a while.
The Best & Worst Airports list is an annual thing. I’m always begging for votes. Ha! [Ed. note: last year's survey got 18,190 responses - not quite the same level of "begging" as at first!] As I mentioned before, I am looking to move the site to a new platform so that I can offer new features. It’s exciting, but stressful working with developers as you want to make sure they have the same vision as you!

Do you still sleep in airports by choice, or are you more likely to spring for a hotel room?
I still sleep in airports when it is required or even just for fun as I did a few years ago in Paris. I wanted to see what was so bad about the airport that made people hate it so much. It was actually my best airport sleep, at least until the permanent homeless people started hovering around me.

Big thanks to Donna for her time!

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One Response to A chat with Donna McSherry, founder of The Guide to Sleeping in Airports

  1. airportsleeper says:

    Thank you Keith! Nice “chatting” to you! :-)

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