Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How the Travel Channel missed the train with the media launch of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains.

The very first media and press event I was invited to and attended in 2014 as a TV critic and a journalist covering television - Travel Channel's (DStv 179) media launch of Jonathan Phang's new TV show Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains - also turned out to be terrible and one of the worst things I've gone to in a really long time.

It remains to be seen if anything that's going to be done by any TV channel, broadcaster, production company or PR agency in 2014 when it comes to a media launch for a new TV show or channel, will be more thoughtless, more badly conceptualised or feel more of a let-down than Travel Channel's press event for Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains.

To be clear - Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains is a great-looking TV show on MultiChoice's Travel Channel on DStv. Jonathan Phang himself is wonderful, was so generous with his time to do interviews, and was very open, funny and amazing.

I like the show and I will watch it and I hope viewers who love travelling, food or trains will watch it too. It is filmed beautifully.

To be clear - Travel Channel who jetted in Travel Channel executives from Scripps as well as star talent Jonathan Phang from London did two press launches - one in Johannesburg where those invited went to Rovos Rail and actually had a train journey.

However, Travel Channel executives and Jonathan Phang also flew further to Cape Town for a similar press launch - in unbearable heat for an event which felt total junk.

People sat in sweltering heat in an Atlantic Rail Steam train saloon carriage - in a train which never went anywhere, on a Friday afternoon, remaining stationary next to one of the Cape Town station's platforms.

It's baffling to me as to why Travel Channel would see it fit to have a press launch for a show about a train journey in a train which isn't actually going to go anywhere, especially if so much money is spent to actually fly in the talent and executives from overseas.

In 2013 Travel Channel launched Rob Bell's excellent Man vs World with a boat journey from the Cape Town harbour to Clifton and back.

When the Travel Channel invited people to a new programme launch on a train on a hot Friday afternoon, Travel Channel should assume that people will think the train is actually going to go somewhere. As in ... be moving. On train tracks.

The food? Not good. It wasn't just me who passed when waiters brought out trays of snacks. As a TV critic my job is to actually watch shows. It's what I do and like. I was a bit baffled when Travel Channel showed only half of the first episode of Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains and then switched the television off.

To find the place and actual entrance was another huge challenge. I popped in at 5 different places at the Cape Town train station trying to find the place to enter to the platform.

I happened to walk into the Blue Train luxury lounge to also ask there as I was on my way. Aircon. Beautiful. Understated luxurious look.

Why have a media launch in extreme heat and a fan in the corner if its on a train that's going to go nowhere, if there's something like a cool, beautiful luxury railway lounge in the actual building?

Or ever heard of the Cape Town landmark restaurant, the Atlantic Express Cake &Coffee Train - an actual train carriage in Sea Point which doesn't move and actually serves food?

Because if you're not actually taking people somewhere, just because its a train - and one that's stationary - it isn't a good enough reason to not move an event to a better stationary place like a lounge or a restaurant. And it could even have been done on that very day by just directing people elsewhere.

Afterwards I didn't quite know what to make of the Travel Channel. I spoke to several other TV critics and journalists the past weeks since that media launch. I didn't quite know if I should say anything about it but after long conversations and thought felt I need to.

Travel Channel media launches have always been great. Events fit the TV show, feeling and ambience and its been held at places that make sense. The Jonathan Phang Gourmet Trains was a Travel Channel fail and it needs to be stated. It wasn't good; difficult to concentrate, a let-down and just not a nice experience.

When I got back to my car and drove home as rivers of sweat (I'm not over exaggerating) were pouring out of me, I thought: What really just happened?

Why would a TV channel's executives fly halfway around the world, to do an extremely lame and almost amateurish presentation and media launch in extremely uncomfortable circumstances? Especially when they've done it before, and much better?

I applaud Travel Channel's intent and even effort to do something for a show, but the execution sucked. The Jonathan Phang Gourmet Trains media launch in Cape Town felt like a badly done SABC event and I can compare it.

Almost a decade ago the public broadcaster did fly national TV critics and press to Rovos Rail in Pretoria and did a short train journey. At least then the train moved but it was disastrous for many reasons - including a completely drunk publicist and other things.

This felt like that. Not sophisticated at all and below par compared to everything the Travel Channel has done before.

I like the Travel Channel, I watch the channel's shows but this was a disappointment and a bad surprise and not what I expected.

Travel Channel missed the train on this one. And it never even left the station.

ALSO READ: New series, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains, on Tuesdays on Travel Channel at 21:00.
ALSO READ: Jonathan Phang on his new show, Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains on Travel Channel: "Every production comes with challenges".