Years ago, when I began writing travel stories, I figured I’d simply turn my vacations into research trips. It never occurred to me that editors might decide to send me somewhere. But then it happened!
And, like me, you might receive a call someday asking you to represent a publication on a press trip. Similar to the “fam” or familiarization trips that travel agents take, a press trip involves traveling with a group of writers or media people. Such trips are usually sponsored by government tourist boards, hotel properties or their public relations firms. Such a group will have a product to promote–whether it’s a city, an island or an elegant high-rise hotel–and you’re that group’s link to the public.
When it comes to making arrangements for these trips, you usually don’t have to do more than open a suitcase. Someone representing the client will call you, forward your airline tickets, and send you press kits and perhaps a few tips on what to pack. But before you dash to the airport, there are a few common courtesies, inherent responsibilities and even drawbacks that you should be aware of.
Above all else, as glamorous as these trips might sound, they are indeed work, not merely free vacations. I contribute honeymoon-travel articles to a bridal magazine, and you won’t catch me complaining about a job that sends me to some of the world’s most romantic destinations. But I can also remember seeing more hotel rooms than I needed to know about and walking over beaches of pure white sand taking notes while others soaked up the rays.
Traveling on a press trip means traveling as a group. And the group is escorted by a guide–usually a public relations official from the agency or company sponsoring the trip. Some trip organizers schedule activities every minute, from early one morning to the wee hours of the next.
Of course, each writer’s requirements will differ according to the needs of his or her readers. Writers on assignment for travel agent publications need to tour all those hotel rooms, just as food critics need to sample restaurants. Photographers stop at every point to snap the right shot.
It all takes time–and sometimes your needs won’t be met. Because I write for newlyweds, I usually have to visit a location’s shopping scene for a few hours. (My readers are looking for mementos and items for their new households.) But on one four-day press tour of Acapulco, none of the writers was “allowed” to shop by the trip organizer.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson. Now I specify my needs ahead of time, beginning with the first phone call I receive. I say, “I’d really appreciate a few hours to explore some local shops, but I don’t want to inconvenience the group. Do you think that will be a problem?” By asserting my needs that way, I’ve found that I can break away from the group occasionally and get a lot more accomplished.
Never be shy. If there’s a photo opportunity you need, an interview you’d like or a copy of the menu you want to keep, speak up. Pick up literature along the way. Approach that stranger for a photograph. The worst that can happen is that your request will be denied.
Traveling with other writers has an up side, too: It gives you the chance to learn, build important contacts, and commiserate. My best press trips have brought me not only published features, but also such benefits as tips on photography, the name of an agent, an “in” at a new publication, and plenty of encouragement.
Invitations to join press trips nearly always go to writers whose bylines appear regularly in magazines and newspapers read by the tour sponsor’s target audience. My first invitations were funneled through the bridal magazine I was already writing for. As you become established, many will come to you directly.
If your editorial contacts aren’t yet established, you might try approaching agencies directly and asking to be included on future trips. You’ll also find a few opportunities listed each month in Travelwriter Marketletter (at the Waldorf Astoria, Suite 1850, New York City 10022). Most tour organizers will want to see an assignment letter (or at least an editor’s statement of strong interest) that says who you’re writing the article for.
When you accept the invitation to join the group, you are indirectly agreeing to attend dinners, meet with tourist board officials and hotel managers, and basically go with the flow. That’s the payback. The better organized trips do have free time built in. But if your assignment is so specialized that it requires a totally independent experience, perhaps the PR firm can arrange an individual trip. However, traveling with a press group is usually a lot less expensive for you and your publication.
On press trips, most of your expenses are picked up by the sponsor, including (typically) your airfare, room, meals and admissions to area attractions. Good organizers will outline what is and isn’t complimentary. Some meals, taxi fares, beverages, in-room minibar and room service charges, as well as tipping, are often left up to you. Check with your editor to see if the magazine will cover these expenses. If so, save your receipts and try to keep the expenses reasonable. Your editor will appreciate your concern for the publication’s budget.
When preparing for a trip, I always pack a carryon with plenty of reading material, business cards, a travel office kit and my camera equipment. (No one likes to get behind me at airport security. I always request a hand inspection of my photo bag, believing that multiple exposures to X rays can destory film, and this is my livelihood we’re talking about.)
I also try to stock up on film in the US, as foreign prices can be outrageous. No matter where I travel, I’m always stocked with aspirin and upset stomach medicine, and when visiting countries with questionable water treatment, I pack even stronger medications. For sea travel, I carry prescription seasickness patches, and for tropical locales, plenty of sunscreen. If you’re laid up with any kind of ailment, you miss valuable research time. It’s better to pack that ounce of prevention.
While part of a tour, remember that you are representing your publication. Some of my tour comrades have been unpleasant, even downright rude. (I know plenty of PR reps with stocks of horror stories about writers.) I’ve seen writers show off and drink too much; I even knew one who stashed a local woman in his hotel room. Word of such behavior can get back to editors, who won’t be impressed.
Following your press trip, keep in touch with your hosts. Always send a thank you, and be sure to send them copies of your published stories that follow. Ask if they have other clients or contacts who might sponsor trips to destinations suited to your readers. As I’ve been told, finding writers to take these trips is never a problem. Finding the right group of writers often is. So make your interests known and, most importantly, produce. With the proper blend of assertiveness, good manners and sales ability, you’ll be able to generate more invitations.
The Cost of Being Pampered
While press trips may seem like a godsend to the average freelancer, not all editors agree. Some newspapers and magazines make it an ironclad rule not to accept stories written as by-products of sponsored travel.
It’s generally pointless to argue this policy with editors; it’s their rule, period. (What’s galling is that many of the publications that take this stand don’t sufficiently reimburse writers’ travel expenses.)
What’s important, I think, is the individual writer’s integrity–not who paid the bill. A sponsored trip isn’t accepted in exchange for a rave review. It’s simply a means of facilitating a writer’s research.
If I spot a problem with a product, I won’t lie to my readers. I’ve seen children’s facilities that weren’t safe, and attractions that were a waste of money. I share these findings with the audiences I write for, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Honesty to the reader is every writer’s ultimate responsibility.
If you want to sell to a publication with policies against sponsored travel, negotiate with the PR firm for a press rate (if that’s acceptable), or ask if the publication can pick up your expenses. Barring these solutions, write the expenses off your business income (after consulting with your tax adviser).
On the Road … and Loving It
On my press trips I’m usually required to travel without a companion. But, despite all the hustle evident in my preparations, it’s tough to convince the folks back in Pittsburgh that my week in Aruba was work.
And even I must admit that, while I’ve worked, I’ve also stayed in some of the world’s finest hotels and eaten delicious, multicourse meals. And been helped by a number of extremely accommodating hosts. Take that morning on Peter Island, for instance.
As usual, I had a ferry departure and four flights to look forward to on my return home. I had to rise at an obnoxious hour, and to my surprise, the general manager of the resort joined me to have coffee, say good-bye, and see that I left without a hitch. That was typical of the service there. I’ll always remember it–and so will my readers.