Working With Travel Writers

by Daniel J. Marengo,
Editorial Director, The Fontayne Group

Introduction

Working with travel journalists is, in some ways, like working with a journalist covering any subject. They cover their beat, observe and report their observations, maybe throw in some interpretation, and bring stories back to their editors.

Only a travel writer is not going to the school board meeting at the local middle school's multi-use rooms, he or she is going to Bora Bora...or Prague...or (fill in the exciting locale). And your primary PR role isn't spin control, it's building a newsworthy itinerary that tracks with your client's marketing goals.

On the surface this looks like one great gig, being a travel journalist. And oft times it is, much as any job has its perks, and peaks. But there ain't no mountain high enough that doesn't have a valley on the other side, and travel writers can also regale you with tales of missed connections, horrible meals, foreign creepy crawlies and more.

So, first and foremost, the travel journalist deserves your undivided attention and respect, no matter if they are working for the Good Food & Wine Times or the New York Times.

Which brings up a key point in working with the travel media. Check their credentials. Find out if they are "writers" or "riders." There are professionals and there are hobbyists. Beware the hobbyist. Usually he is the one screaming the loudest about getting that upgrade to first class. Do your homework and find out as much about the journalist as you can, whether it's reading his/her clips, or calling friends at other agencies and tourist offices to get references.

Follow the rules of engagement and tenets of good media relations: return phone calls or e-mails the same day, respect their deadlines, provide them with the information they need in a timely manner, consider anything you say to them to be on the record.

Finding the Producers

The key secret to working with writers is finding them. They are everywhere and nowhere. Read the travel magazines, everything from in-flight magazines to Islands Magazine. If a journalist specializes in luxury cruises don't try to push bush camping in the outback. If someone prefers off the beaten track don't push the casino or theme park. Know his or her niche and respect it. That's not to say, you can't offer some odd angle or interesting spin on the casino or the mall or the theme park, but be sensitive to responses and know when to let go.

Keep track of bylines in magazines and newspapers and see who is writing about your type of product. Sometimes you can call publications and ask for the writer's contact information or you can call 411 in cities where you think they might live. Often in the front of the book, there's a blurb on the writer, where they live and what their dog is named.

Editors are an excellent source of tracking prolific and effective journalists. As a PR pro, networking with editors is a main staple of the job. They often know writers who freelance or contribute regularly to their publications. Pick your editor-pal's brains and get the choice list of journalists to contact. These referrals are golden.

Peruse the Society of American Travel Writers directory and see their specialties. And you can subscribe to Partyline, Lifestyle Reporter and Contacts. These essential supplements for PR practitioners keep you up to date with who is doing what at any given time.

Once you get names and numbers, it's time for you to become the reporter. Always ask them if they are on deadline when you call. Get as much information about their interests, always looking to see how they dovetail with your client products (including upcoming press trips). Your goal, first and foremost to establish a professional relationship with the person on the line, so be a very interested listener. Eschew hard sell. Writers get enough flack from PR people; be different! Feel out their mood and work style. Make the call an investment, and for goodness' sake don't telemarket to the media - this is inappropriate and ultimately damaging to our profession.

Close the call by finding out what if anything they need from you in terms of written information, press kits and news releases, and send the information exactly as they request.

The Press Trip

Let's face it, sending a writer to your client's property or destination is a major investment. It's one of the reasons why press trips are nowhere as common today as they were five or 10 years ago. Another reason is the policy (some freelancers I know call it a travesty) of not accepting work from "sponsored" press trips.

You're not sending them to a screening or a restaurant or some other inexpensive event. They get to fly around the world, stay at some of the finest five-star hotels and get treated like royalty - all on your client's dime. A writer's credibility and performance is crucial and as the publicist you are the gateway to this relationship.

Group v. Individual Press Trips

The decision to send independent writers, usually unescorted, to a client destination or whether to bundle five or six writers, usually escorted, into one press trip is one of the classic decisions. Sometimes this decision is made for you (e.g., an airline's gateway inaugural, a hotel's grand opening, a convention or event), but other times you must weigh pros and cons and make a judgment call.

Some people just travel in groups better than others. You can tell if a writer is a potential group buster by the questions they ask when you are planning a trip. (See Hobbyist above.) In general, if someone asks more questions about what the accommodations are going to be like and less about what kinds of stories the trip will focus on, it's time to beat a swift retreat.

Perhaps the best press trips we have run were escorted by a staffer, but had significant chunks of free time built in for independent story development. Convince your client that giving responsible journalists some freedom is very smart. Don't try to skew their experience too much or you won't get enthusiastic stories. If there are a few must-sees, fine...then let them choose. They will love you for it, produce more and be willing to travel on other trips you wish to include them in.

Travel Tips for the Savvy Guide

  • Have plenty of small bills handy to pay for cabs, tipping, other odds and ends.
  • Photocopy all participant tickets and passports before departure.
  • Confirm reservations and departure times, all along the way. Know the itinerary like the back of your hand; "I don't know" is not in the successful guide's vocabulary.
  • Don't play favorites, no matter who represents the glossy monthly and who is stringing for the community fishwrap (hey, how'd that guy sneak on your trip anyway?!).
  • Thank the hosts in your destinations profusely while you're there and after you return home, too. Produce detailed reports for your clients. Learn from each trip.
  • Stay focused! This may be the hardest thing to do. You are usually in an exciting. wonderful destination, and dearly want to quit your job and strike out on your own. Resist this temptation! Consider this an inspection visit for when you come back with your significant other, but for this trip, remember that a press trip guide is on duty 24-7 from the moment you meet at the airport to the moment you bid farewell at the airport.

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