The Ambidextrous Travel Writer

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The Ambidextrous Travel Writer is a monthly advice column for travel writers & bloggers, written by author Susan Farewell.

Are Press Trips REALLY ‘Traveling’?

travel writer on a press trip
11 June 2012 Post Author:
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I recently asked my friend and colleague, Ed Wetschler, if he was traveling much these days.

It was a fair question for Ed, who is the Executive Editor of Tripatini and chair of the Northeast Chapter of SATW. But his answer baffled me.

No,” he said. “I’m not. I’ve taken some press trips, but I’m not traveling.

Ed shined a spotlight on something I’ve known since I’ve started in this profession but somehow hadn’t identified.

Let me rewind a bit…to one of my early press trips. I had just arrived on a Caribbean island, in my role as a travel editor at BRIDE’S magazine. I went to change money in the airport and was told, it wasn’t necessary.

I enjoy the VIP comfort of a press trip, but always keep in mind it’s not like traveling on your own.

You won’t need any cash.” said the public relations representative who was leading our small group around the island. Even though I was just in my early 20s, I had already logged in a great deal of international travel. Part of the travel experience for me was learning about the local currency. In some countries, a 10,000 note might be worth 80 cents while in another, a heavy coin could be worth $10. I loved examining it and I always saved a bit to take home (and still do this).

What about tips?” I asked.

The host is taking care of it,” the PR woman replied. “Come on, we have to go now.

I climbed into the van and as we started rolling through sugarcane fields, I asked for a map. No one had one. Not the PR person, the tourism woman who joined us, nor the driver.

I felt foolish. I should have brought a guidebook.

You don’t need a map,” the cheery tourism woman replied. “We know how to get there!

I sat silently—pit in stomach. Where were we though? Which coast? I couldn’t stand not having that orientation, not knowing whether I was going north or south. How does a traveler get from point A to point B?

As we careened through a small village, I asked the PR woman what the name of it was. She, who had visited her client’s property two or three times before, told me she’d have to get back to me.

When we arrived at our hotel, which was literally inches from the water’s edge, we were all handed our keys and told we would reassemble in the lobby for cocktail hour. My room was the honeymoon suite (which I was always given when I traveled). This is some time now, so I don’t recall many of the details, but I do remember thinking that it looked exactly as it did on the ad pages of the magazine I worked for.

At the cocktail hour, I asked what the room rate was.

You don’t need to know,” said the PR woman. “It’s taken care of and besides…on a honeymoon, who thinks about the price of a room?

I had the feeling that I didn’t even need to know about the country. As long as I was happy with the hotel room, the service and the transportation to and from the airport, everything was fine.

Now fast-forward to my role as the editor of FarewellTravels.com which is designed to provide a service to readers.

My readers are largely independent travelers, not relying on the guidance of a group leader. The first thing they are likely to do upon arriving in a country, is change money and get a map. From there, they’ll want to figure out the most interesting way to get around and spend their time stopping at any place that strikes their fancy. And as for money, they may want to stay in a beautiful room, but they also want to know how much it cost.

Fortunately, not all public relations people with whom I’ve traveled have been as indifferent to the need for me to orient travelers and to give people a sense of what this costs. Still, as much as I enjoy the VIP comfort of a press trip, I always need to keep in mind, it’s not like traveling on your own. It has its advantages but it also has its drawbacks.

~ Susan

How would you deal with this? Share your press trip experiences!


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21 Responses to “Are Press Trips REALLY ‘Traveling’?”

  1. Hilarye
    Twitter:
    says:

    I agree. As much as I love press trips it’s not an authentic experience. It’s meant to highlight key components of the destination and familiarize a journalist so they can write about it. Group press trips are hard because you have a set itinerary and a lot of time there are aspects that you aren’t interested in but out of respect you tag along. Individual trips are nicer because they are based off your editorial needs.

  2. Thanks Susan – a good reminder for all writers.

    Although I want to believe that few press trips are as abysmally conducted as this one you remember, I know from personal experience that there are quite a few PR folks, and even trip sponsors (CVBs, etc.) that still don’t “get it”……in their mind, the writer should only be concerned with the ‘experience’, believing that this will spawn articles placing their client (the destination) in the most positive light, when what readers (aka ‘travelers’) really want is the details and an honest review. Sigh.

    Thankfully there are many that do get it, but it’s definitely an issue that all travel writers should keep in mind when on a press trip.

    • Indeed, Trisha. A good reminder for writers.I recommend that if you do take press trips, you discuss in advance the possibility of having some time to explore on your own (and not just the spa). If it doesn’t work into the itinerary, extend the trip if you can. Yes…you may have to pay a bit, but you’ll get more meat for your stories and if you’re going off on your own, you’ll see the place as your readers will.

  3. Dick Jordan
    Twitter:
    says:

    Susan,

    I’m a relatively “new” (but fairly “wisened,” Geezer-aged travel writer) whose first published story (in the SF Chronicle Travel section) was in May of 2009.

    I’ve been offered a few press trips, and in a couple of weeks will be taking my first one.

    I’m amazed the PR reps seem a bit clueless about: 1) Whether publications, particularly U.S. newspapers, will even accept a story that came out of a press trip; 2) Don’t understand that writers need some “free time” to explore the area rather than being herded from place to place for the entire duration of the press trip;3) readers need to know practical information, especially the cost of travel, regarding destinations.

    Your Caribbean trip illustrates these problems. Do “Brides” (as well as other travelers) only go to this destination on an pre-packaged tour? Even, so, the “Devil’s in the Details,” so even if you were to write a “quid pro quo” promotional piece that ran only on your own site, how could you do so if “The Devil” wouldn’t give you any “details” to pass on to your readers?

    Mad Dogs, Englishmen, and apparently some PR reps, spend too much time out in the noon-day sun.

    • Thanks Dick. Not all press trips are like the one I took in the Caribbean. Many PR people really know how to provide opportunities for journalists to get their stories. However, I think the pressure should fall on the writer before he/she accepts a trip. He/she should not just say “yes” to all invites, but ask questions. I also find it’s important to extend trips if there is not enough independent research time in the itinerary.

  4. I go on several press trips each year (and was lucky enough to travel with Ed and Nancy – Hi guys!) – and agree they are not the same as traveling on your own. But I find them to be a very positive experience. I always ask questions about whether an experience we are enjoying is available to a regular visitor and follow up all my trips with lots of research to verify any information we are given.

  5. Beth Blair
    Twitter:
    says:

    I agree with all of the assessments above. Press trips are not like traveling on your own. There’s no comparison. One of the main benefits of press trips is always having someone available to expand on information and answer questions. I’m always grateful for that!

    ~Beth Blair

    • An excellent point, Beth! Even when I’m traveling alone, and not part of a group or press trip, I will generally ask ahead of time if someone from the destination (whomever is appropriate, such as a sales manager, hotel manager or assistant manager, or someone from the local CVB) can make some time for me to answer questions or provide more info….it’s very rare that I’m ever turned down. But it’s a wise writer who takes full advantage of whatever resources are available on press trips, including the knowledge afforded by trip hosts!

  6. Chris Owen
    Twitter:
    says:

    To me, its all a matter of perspective. Some points:

    -Are they putting their best foot forward? You bet. A writer’s experience on them should be the benchmark to compare any other traveler’s experience to. Handy stuff for someone who takes questions/fields complaints from readers.

    -If we agree that they are putting their best foot forward and the only way we travel is via press trips, it makes for great content, fairly comparing the “best” of one travel option over another.

    -Something easier to define: Doing the same thing on your own can be costly. For what it costs to go on these, I can take the time to look through the rose-colored glasses the host provides and clearly see what is before me.

    -Why would you NOT want to see a travel destination with an expert along for the ride? Sure, fact checking is key to weed out the nonsense but hosts on trips I have been on are usually life-long natives of the destination.

    -Personally, I think there is a huge difference between press trips and fam trips like travel agents do. Those fams are whirlwind tours that can leave us exhausted without writing a word.

    -I feel like many in the writing world want to demonize public relations people but in their position, what would you do differently?

    Something I learned years ago as a travel agent was the value of having contacts with cruise lines. Not to play games with and try to get things out of,but to have an open channel of communication with the cruise line. Doing press trips does that and gives us a good feel for what is going on (or coming up) in travel.

    • An interesting perspective, Chris…..I know a number of writers who would argue that press trips keep a writer from having a ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ experience, but who’s to say that a typical traveler would not have the same experience that the writer on a press trip had? Any experience is a ‘real’ one for the person having it.

      One of the things I like to do while on a press trip, to counteract the perception that I’m being afforded something not every traveler would experience, is to take informal surveys of other travelers who are not part of our press group – I’ll ask them if they’re enjoying themselves, the destination, the food, etc. I like to include quotes from others so that readers will know what other travelers experience.

  7. Hal Peat
    Twitter:
    says:

    I’ve been going on press trips since the mid-90s and over the years since come to realize that both the better quality and quantity of what I accomplish more often than not occur on the solo format press trip. In fact, I actually prefer putting on the PR hat as far as sitting down and stitching together that daily itinerary, and just working with tourism boards and PR people as far as the on-the-ground transport, accommodation and activities. That way, the day is built around me and me alone. That’s not to say that there haven’t been group press trips where I came away not only with some strong experiential material, but more often than not it was something I managed to fit into the day’s itinerary, or that happened in some kind of random and spontaneous way that really ignited my interest. While I truly value the few enduring friends I’ve made over the years in the group trips, I personally prefer the solitary journey and the additional space and choice that it allows to interract with people, places and events. It always seems to bring along more opportunity for something wonderful to ignite my imagination besides what I’ve scripted for that day.

    • Hi Hal – thanks for stopping by! I know a lot of writers who agree with you, and who prefer to travel that way whenever possible (I count myself among them).

      While I do believe that there are some benefits to an organized group press trip, I firmly agree that one can often get much more from a solo itinerary than from being herded through someone else’s agenda, the written output from which may or may not match up well with a writer’s typical genre and/or readers’ needs.

  8. I’ve been on some very productive press trips and some downright horrible ones. In Egypt, we were herded across the desert in a military-led convoy to the Red Sea arriving after sundown and leaving the next morning at sunrise—needless to say, we didn’t see the Red Sea. Our leader abandoned us for our flight to Abu Simbel where our onward flight was delayed 8 hours—a common occurrence, I later learned. The trip that takes the cake, however, was actually a post-trip from a travel writers’ conference in a Southwestern state that shall remain nameless. Instead of seeing the major sights and participating in the main activities our readers would be interested in, we were herded to every little town in the region for a meet and greet with the chamber of commerce as the local press looked on—a real dog and pony show. Having gotten that off my chest, let me say I prefer individual press trips or group press trips with a schedule flexible enough for individual research.

    • Hi Katherine – thanks for stopping by!

      If there were a contest for “worst press trip ever”, I think you would win, easily. Those two would definitely make me gun-shy about taking future press trips, but I do think writers should take advantage of every opportunity to educate themselves, so that they can pass that education on to readers, and often that does mean an organized group press trip…..no doubt you’ve learned what to ask ahead of time, as has anyone who has had a negative experience.

      Thank you for sharing yours – hopefully some of the newbie writers who read this will learn from it as well.

  9. Ayngelina
    Twitter:
    says:

    You are right it`s not the same, but it is neither better nor worse. I tend to think of them like tour group travel. You aren`t traveling independently but you still experience the place you are in and in some cases experience things you could not afford on your own.

    Whenever I go on a press trip I don`t fly home with the group but stay another week to experience the place on my own.

  10. Ava Roxanne
    Twitter:
    says:

    When on a group press trip, I just make sure to ask all the questions that a true traveller may need to know. I always ask to see the menu and check out the prices. Sometimes we are served items off the menu, but I try to think about how the hotel, spa, & other aspects of my trip will come into play for different types of travelers.

  11. Mike says:

    I agree. They should have orient you as a visitor. You must have felt some odd feelings that you did not know where you all were heading to.

  12. Kathryn says:

    I agree with Trisha’s comment that PR people need to think beyond soley focusing on the blogger portraying their client in a positive light. Bloggers can provide so much value in helping shape PR campaigns but PR people are still pretty old school.

Trackbacks & Tweetbacks

  1. [...] think no; others say yes (see “Press trips aren’t for the press”). Yet others simply question the merits of all press trips.Turning back to ethics: Just because a writer can’t afford to make a trip, [...]

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