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Some friends, even other writers, seem to think I started out by one day waking up and deciding I’d go on a two-week press trip to Switzerland. Not so.
One of my first press trips was to a small town in Ohio. We’re talking so close to where I live in Cleveland that I actually enjoyed the Greyhound ride. I’m not trying to belittle that trip in any way. I was and remain incredibly grateful for that opportunity. That was followed up rather quickly with a press trip with Matador up in northern Lake Superior. Definitely not the first place people think of traveling, but it remains one of my favorite travel experiences. I’ll still promote that trip occasionally when it comes up on Twitter or in conversation, and the DMO responsible for that trip likes that and remembers me for it.
Point is, start local and try to treat every opportunity like it’s two weeks in Switzerland.
In travel, the people putting together press trips want their email in the hands of people who can help them. That’s you, right? It’s just a matter of finding those emails. More often than not, they’re actually right under your nose in the form of a press release. So if you’re interested in a destination or working with a specific group, look up press releases from that organization and send them an introduction.
“Hey, hi! I’d like a free trip, please! Attached, please see picture of me with hand out and puppy eyes.”
Your email introduction cannot read anything like the above. Just as you would pitch your Matador editor, you need to let your contact know — concisely — what you do and how you can both benefit from working together. Remember, this is a job — not a perpetual vacation.
Know what a FAM trip or DMO is? Well, you should because that’s what you’re trying to get on and who you’re trying to work with. FAM is short for “familiarization” and is the shorthand tourism representatives use when putting together an itinerary for a destination, typically for a new attraction. You’re familiarizing yourself, get it?
If you want a prayer of getting sent anywhere, you need to have something professional to show off and seal the deal. Unfortunately, a Geocities template won’t exactly cut it anymore, but it doesn’t need to be an incredibly labor intensive ordeal either. Many writers don’t maintain a personal blog, and simply have a static page with information on themselves and their work. Having your work, background, and contact information easily accessible are the essentials.
Few things anger me more than someone on a press trip acting as if they deserve to be there like some kind of birthright passed onto them from on High. Once, I was on a press trip when one of our hotels overbooked, so myself and a few other journalists got sent to another hotel. This was an extravagant five-star place.
While being shown the hotel, our host noted that the spa was just down the hall. Before he could spit out the hours, one journalist complained we wouldn’t have time.
“Trust me, we’d love to. But they just have us on this ridiculous schedule.”
Yes, we were moving constantly and busy for a good 12 hours of the day. But unless your health or safety are for some reason put in jeopardy, there is never any reason to complain while on a press trip. You don’t necessarily deserve this and it’s important to keep that in the forefront of your mind. The second you start feeling like you’re owed these trips, you’ll be the journalist others are laughing at and the one tourism brands don’t want to work with. On that same trip, another guide complained of a journalist who struck him as completely unengaged and merely interested in the free food. Needless to say, they won’t be working together again.
Again, this isn’t a vacation. Remember, the top tourism brands will spend up to thousands of dollars per journalist. You’ll likely experience the extravagances of a destination many locals will never see. Be humble, dammit.
I’ve traveled more by asking than by waiting for someone to invite me. As I’ve moved along in my career, the latter does happen with more frequency. But asking is still the way to go.
For example, some time ago I had an assignment to cover a certain destination. It had been a while since I last visited, so I thought I’d reach out to the local tourist board and see if there were any coinciding trips. They ended up doing me one better. I was called the next day to see if I’d like to join on a FAM trip unrelated to my story (but still within my areas of interest), followed by an extra two days in the destination I needed for my story. This leads nicely to the next point.
You’ll be loved more by your contacts for the number of stories you can create from a single trip. Any destination will likely have multiple angles that can be tackled even if you just think of food, culture, and timely events. After getting tacked onto that aforementioned FAM trip, I used it as an opportunity to research more story opportunities. I never thought of it as merely a bonus to my primary assignment.
Not every press trip is made for you, and you’re not made for every press trip. I, for example, hate cars and everything to do with them. So why would I try to get on a press trip if I had to do a bunch of driving? The free flight or any other potential perks are not worth it when you come back with uninspired work. You won’t be happy and your partners won’t be happy, which is doubly bad if you were working with a public relations agency that represents other brands you’d be more interested in.
Once I had a contact who was adamant that I rent a car. I explained that I hadn’t owned a car in years, and that I despise them. Think of sending a staunch vegan into a slaughter house — that’s how I feel about cars.
I was assured that Greyhound was impossible (and later discovered it actually was not). I tried phrasing my wanting to take public transit as a positive, money-saving maneuver for them and a way to cover the destination differently, which usually works. But it didn’t this time.
However, I really wanted this story, so I begrudgingly gave into renting the car. Suffice it to say, that was the last time I drove a car. I was cranky, nervous, agitated, and angry throughout having to navigate roads I was unfamiliar with, an ungodly number of lanes of highway traffic, and vehicles that might make someone think we were at war and actively being invaded. Nothing about it was fun, and I should have said no.
There’s an ongoing debate on whether or not stories should be used from press trips. My feeling on this is that if freelancers can’t produce work from press trips, then we’re saying we only want to publish voices from writers who come from certain financial backgrounds where they can afford to spend thousands of dollars to produce a story that pays maybe $200.
Ultimately I don’t think a tourism board picking up the tab should impact your work any more than a staff writer who has their newspaper or magazine reimbursing from receipts. I’ve never had a tourism board or sponsor ask for final approval or to review any work beforehand.
Another misconception is that DMOs only want their destinations portrayed as some utopia with rainbows and unicorns. To the contrary, I’ve worked with many partners who have appreciated my honesty in depicting destinations, especially those that have seen tough times stretched over decades. We’re beyond the age where travel is exclusive to walled-off resorts. More and more people want to experience real life when they travel, and DMOs know that. Don’t be afraid to be honest. In my experience, you’ll be respected for it from you travel reps to your sources alike.
Not all of my work comes from press trips. You never want to limit yourself or the stories that you’re interested in pursuing. Plus, if you don’t remember what it’s like to pursue stories without assistance, then you might forget how to stay honest in your work. Keep finding stories in your region or make something out of that cheap flight deal you were going to buy anyway. Keep your work diverse.
Love it or hate it, social media is essential. DMOs want to see that you’re active on social media. Some will look for a magic number of followers, especially for Instagram-focused press trips, but in general I’ve found that they just want to see you being engaged. My numbers aren’t particularly impressive. Maybe if I played more into the #TeamFollowBack game, they would be. Instead, I focus on quality. Someone with 50,000 followers who also follows 50,000 people on Twitter doesn’t necessarily have great social media influence, and I think DMOs know that. Their entire feed is full of people who are connected solely to boost numbers. There’s very little engagement.
Yet despite my humble numbers, DMOs are able to retweet the content I create during a trip and know I’ll engage people who show interest in the images I’m producing. This is going to be more valuable than someone with 50,000 followers whose work will just get lost amidst their followers who aren’t following out of genuine interest. So if you don’t have a particularly high follower count, at least make sure that you’re engaged and use that as a selling point.
Since this isn’t vacation, you can’t just show up to a destination without doing any research. For me, I run through literature, film, and music of any destination if it’s my first time traveling there. If it’s a foreign country with a different language, I do my best to learn at least pleasantries.
Before one destination, I was able to get down handling hotel reservations, basic pleasantries, and restaurants even though English was prevalent. Not only did sources and hosts appreciate the effort, studying the language revealed aspects of that culture I would have never discovered if I ignored the language completely.
I’m constantly trying to find new ways to improve my work to make me more appealing to work with. Something I’ve just started is sending postcards and thank you notes to folks I’ve worked with. Another is that I started a new travel podcast called Without A Path (shameless plug). Just the other day, I had a phone call with an organization representing a destination, interested in working with me primarily because of the podcast. Ultimately, you never know what will stick out to a potential partner, so you have to find your strengths and continually improve.