It's always exciting to hear that the Visit London website has updated. It's especially exciting when that's a major, fundamental upgrade, one that's "cleaner, more inspirational and engaging". And it's almost too good to be true when that means "search and data have been reorganised to make it straightforward to find what you want." Improved search on the Visit London website? My dreams have been answered.
I have one question I regularly want to ask the Visit London website, and that's "What's on this weekend?" I'm interested in special, one-off things - like festivals, openings and events - which otherwise it's easy to overlook. It's quite an important question too, because every weekend there are scores of special one-off things happening all over the capital which rely on people noticing them in order to thrive. But it's a question that the Visit London website has always been really rubbish at answering, preferring to point out that Billy Elliot's on at the theatre, or that the Boat Race is happening next April.
I know that the Visit London website's not really aimed at Londoners. There's a clue in the name, in that nobody needs to visit London if they already live there. But with a database of thousands of upcoming events at hand, you'd think that someone would make a better job of presenting that information in as widely useful a way as possible. Not yet they haven't. Maybe this revamped website will make all the difference.
So, "what's on this weekend?" Best look in the category called 'Special Events', I think, rather than all the longer term stuff in Film and Theatre and Art. Aha, so it's Chocolate Week this week, apparently, which is exactly the sort of thing I'd hope to find listed here. But Special Event number two is the Lord Mayor's Show, which isn't on for another month, number three is Walking With Dinosaurs, which starts on Boxing Day, and number four is Bonfire Night, which is you know when. Only one headline event is in the immediate future, and that's not so useful, not unless you're planning seriously ahead.
Scroll down and there are further feature categories, like the London Events Calendar. This runs from this month's Restaurant Festival to next year's Notting Hill Carnival, but is disappointingly high-level/low-res throughout. Then there's More London Events, which is almost all expensive things that tourists like, not fun stuff in Brixton. And, sorry, but when the "Top 10 Special Events" includes Changing The Guard, Easter and Open House 2013, you know this is a rubbish generic list designed for minimal updating.
Looks like we're stuck with Visit London's search engine, then. "Browse all 3,996 Special Events", the link says, so let's. Ah, it's a list of 3,996 special events, unsullied by human hand, spread across 199 separate pages. You can click through page by page, or you can choose from one of four pre-selected orders. There's "Popularity" order, which starts with Christmas in London, then rates the Relentless Energy Drink Freeze Festival above Chinese New Year. There's "Our Favourites" order, which suggests that Visit London really hates Sunbury's Riverside Arts Centre. There's "Price" order, which seems to strip out anything costing more than 50p, and begins with an event taking place in 50 weeks time. And there's "Name" order, which must be some IT geek's idea of an A-Z listing, but good luck finding the page where the Ms start.
Which leaves the "Show Search Options" button as our last chance. By narrowing down these 3,996 events, surely we'll finally be able to discover what's on this weekend. Except no, this is the reverse of a search engine, because it only allows you to select incredibly broad categories. Search for "Things To Do" and "What's On" and those 3,996 events suddenly broaden to 22,057, and quite frankly you needn't have bothered.
Most amazingly of all, in the grand trumpeted website relaunch, the ability to search the website by date has been withdrawn. You used to be able to select a day, a week, a time period of your choice, and now you can't! All that's left is a useless automated sinkhole into which thousands of pre-formatted events have been entered, and retrieving anything appropriate is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It may be cheaper to get robots to power your website, but only a human can truly recommend the cream of what's worth seeing.
There is a well-hidden Visit London blog, updated regularly, where you will still find details of more upmarket upcoming events. But, like I said, the Visit London website isn't aimed at Londoners. It's a honeytrap for those from elsewhere, especially abroad, to discover that London is so bursting with fantastic and great things to do that they'll want to book a trip here. The site has plenty of seasonal treats and general highlights, but try focusing on the week you're in town and the search engine falls apart. The new website design no doubt looks much better on an iPad, but alas it's even more rubbish at answering the question "What's on this weekend?" than ever before. Shame.