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I do a fair amount of traveling - in fact, as I write this I am still suffering jet lag from my most recent overseas excursion. The internet is the traveler's dream tool - type in a few key words and you are treated to a wealth of information about your destination: lists of restaurants categorized by cuisine; rooms to suit every budget; and glossy on-line brochures featuring local attractions - all fully illustrated with inviting photos and flowery text, designed to make you yell to your significant other "Hey Hon? THIS is where I think we should go for our vacation!"

With just a few clicks, you can easily find out everything a destination wants you to know about local businesses and attractions. But this is a one-sided picture. Travelers who know there is no such thing as "too much information" may be just as interested - perhaps even moreso - in learning what the marketing folks DON'T want them to know. Unsolicited testimonial - both positive and negative - can be of infinite value when deciding where to spend those hard-earned vacation bucks.

Right after I make my flight reservations, I immediately go to my favorite search engine and type in my destination plus words like "alternative" and "underground." I try to get beyond the pablum cranked out by the slick marketing suits and delve down deep into the nitty gritty. If someone got a stomach ache from eating at a particular restaurant, I want to know. If a customer received exceptional service, good enough to write about it without the benefit of monetary compensation, I might make a special effort to patronize that establishment.

What are they saying when they leave my shop?

On the other side of the coin, if I owned or worked at a place where someone had a spectacularly awful - or wonderful - experience, I would want to know about that, too. Discovering that one of my employees - the one who smiles so sweetly when I am around - has been rude or pushy to a customer in my absence might make me cringe, but would also give me some valuable insight into how to improve my bottom line.

Right about now you may be wondering where I am going with all of this. The inspiration for this column comes from my message boards at www.SPIonline.com. The boards have recently become very active - taken on a life of their own - and I for one find it fascinating to be that "fly on the wall." A young woman who recently paid a visit to SPI took the time to post a thoughtful and well written report on both the positive and negative experiences she had here. Local businesses that received her praise included Blackbeards', Ted's, the Massage and Healing Arts Center, Ship Shape, and Island Hair Designers -- while certain other businesses did not fare so well. (Curious about who got the unfavorable reviews? You will just have to go look it up yourself!)

One of the big benefits of this type of public forum is that everyone with net access is welcomed to post his/her 2 cents worth. There may have been extenuating cirumstances that caused a customer to have a bad experience at your establishment, and the message board is just the right place to tell the other side of the story.... you can be the fly on the wall that talks back.

Of course, there are some people who are never happy -- but chronic moaners are easy to recognize and ignore. As board moderator, I have the authority to remove any particularly rude or tasteless messages, but constructive and honest criticism will always be welcomed on my site. Fortunately, I have had to do very little censoring (the spring break board being one notable exception.)

Whether you are a past or future visitor, a resident and/or a business owner, you are very likely to find something of interest here. Consider this your personal invitation to stop by and hang out on the wall for a while...

There are five (5) ways to submit your questions/comments for future Ask Sandy columns: In person; by phone (761-6222) or fax (761-8930); the US Postal System (box 2694,spi,78597) and E-mail: (sandyfeet@unlitter.com). Visit my web-site (http://spionline.com/) for tips on sandcastling, contest info, recent Ask Sandy columns, and my reviews of local businesses.

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