Travel journalism: 'Even those who pay get a deal'

Feature: Jan Newby is a pseudonym

It’s never too late for a welcome party. Despite a delayed flight that landed well after 9pm our ground handler, driver and tourist board representative had turned out to welcome us to Berlin.

This being a press trip we headed straight out to dinner – where the splash of vintage grape on balloon glass proved too much for one magazine hack. ‘The holiday starts here,’he declared, rubbing his hands.

Rule one of the press trip: your hosts have day jobs (and lives) too. I looked at the tourist board host, who’d left two children with a sitter and had a 70-minute drive home and the same back tomorrow to meet us for breakfast. If she’d heard she wasn’t letting on.

There are two camps on press trips: the increasingly rare (some might say, foolhardy) reporter who has made a career of travel journalism, and who regards a press trip as seriously as any other assignment, and those who see travel as a sweetener for all the unpaid overtime and job insecurity that goes hand-in-hand with a staff job. What better recourse for downsizing than a travel jolly?

With budgets slashed and travel desks diminished desk editors are tossing Cuba, the Cayman Islands and luxury cruises around like confetti. At what point does a press trip become a junket? When the representatives they send have to take their ‘work’ trips as holiday.

Factor in the stable of writers prepared to trot around the globe for free – as Singeon will tell you, through a snowstorm of (free) vol-au-vent flakes, a trust fund goes a long way in a recession – and it’s little wonder those trying to scrape a living from travel journalism find their craft undermined and degraded.

‘Too many desks don’t give a group trip the respect it deserves,’said one independent PR. ‘People say yes with no real intention of going, or wait for something better to come along. ‘I tend to work a lot more with freelancers, or desks I know won’t mess me around.’

One former (downsized) travel editor of a high-profile weekly glossy told me her editor would rather send the office cleaner on a trip than pay a freelance. Unlike health, sport or education, context and specialist knowledge aren’t important in travel, right? Try telling that to the tourist board or PR that has spent months organising an itinerary and securing hotels and flights.

One PR told me: ‘I took a trip a couple of years ago and felt very embarrassed in front of the client. One ‘journalist’, a picture editor, was clearly on holiday and did nothing to disguise the fact. She really didn’t get that there was a certain level of decorum expected on a trip. Everyone has their own research methods but I would like to see some interest in what the host/client is trying to achieve.”

In the journalists’ defence press trips can be exhausting, with little, if any down time. Equally frustrating, particularly for freelances looking to maximise their earning potential, are the group trips used as a vehicle to keep clients happy.

‘For a busy agency it’s an action they can cross off the list,’said one former agency PR. ‘They are often not thought through, from whom they are targeting, the conversion rate and positioning… even the itinerary. I get frustrated when I can’t entice the press I want because they’ve been burnt by the poorly organised group trips they’ve had to endure.’

Press trips are generally fun and harmonious but miscreant behaviour goes with the territory. Tight wads love a press trip and journalists who are problematic and offensive or shirk their ‘extras’ bill could find themselves blacklisted.

Dreadful prima donnas

Travel journalists can be dreadful prima donnas, demanding better rooms, seats at booked-out restaurants or impossible flights off far-flung islands. ‘One high-profile editor took me a for a ride on a boating holiday once,’said one PR. ‘I would never deal with her again.’

Worse still are the staff writers commandeering freebies for their own ends. ‘We had a funeral to go to in Sussex so I contacted the tourist board and made a weekend of it,’boasted the representative of a well-known listings magazine on a recent press trip. ‘Of course we had to stay in three different hotels. My wife was a bit annoyed.”

Individual trips carry their own caveat. Journalists – not least the desk staff seeking ‘holiday perks’ – often want to travel with a partner or family for whom they pay the airfare.

‘The overall rule is to ensure they have a good time. If this is the way they wish to travel, this is what we do,’said one major tourist board PR. And if they don’t have a good time? ‘Generally nothing appears. That’s preferable to a rotten piece.’

Travel articles are there to inspire, not drone on about how awful a place is, but blur the line and your role as public guardian is compromised. Travel writers, by default, love travelling. Terrible experiences are rare. But when it comes to the ethical dilemma – there is no dilemma.

While a complimentary trip to familiarise oneself with a destination is deemed acceptable, a party of six lapping up five-star luxury is not.

At least two travel publications claim to get round the ethics of free travel by adopting a ‘no-freebies’ policy. The thing about press trips is that you get the inside track on such smokescreens from their own well-oiled freelances. As one PR put it: ‘Those who don’t take freebies still get a deal.’

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