Equipping Writers for Success
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by Kathryn Lemmon
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Don't be fooled, travel writing is a tough, frustrating and highly competitive career. After a year or two of trying, most people give up, unable to handle the harsh realities and low pay. But if you stick it out, the rewards are wonderful.
One goal for many would-be travel writers is the opportunity to take press trips, both domestic and international.
What is a press trip? It's a method for the city, resort, state or country to get positive publicity. It's entirely a business arrangement. The entity invests time and money to bring journalists and/or photographers to visit. Once back home, the participants are expected to sell their stories and/or images about the destination.
Is a fam trip the same thing? Yes, "fam" stands for familiarization trip and it's the same as a press trip. They're also called media visits.
How are press trips organized? Press trips generally fall into two categories: 1) organized group trips and 2) individual trips. Organized trips are comprised of anywhere from 2 to 20 people. I once heard of a fam to Turkey with 350 writers! But that's not typical. The itinerary, including meals, accommodations and schedules are arranged in advance by the organization sponsoring the trip. Writers and photographers are flown in, unless they live close enough to drive. Then the participants are escorted around to the attractions by van or bus. On the plus side, all the details are handled once you arrive. On the downside, you rarely get any free time and must endure the feeling of being "herded" like cattle.
For an individual Fam, the writer/photographer must contact the city, PR firm, resort and request "comps," or complimentary arrangements. The rules for individual trips are wide open. For example, travel companions, may or may not be included. Getting airfare covered may be nearly impossible at some destinations, especially now when the airlines are struggling. If you can at least get to the destination yourself, then most CVB or PR firms will assist with media passes to attractions, some meals, press kits, etc. The up front work is time consuming, but the trip itinerary is up to you.
Who sponsors press trips? Most often it's either a public relations firm, the state/country tourism office or the local CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) It's the job of these entities to get "good ink" about their location. Good ink brings more tourism and that's the primary goal.
Who gets invited on press trips? Those with firm assignment letters and/or those who have shown a good record of placements from past trips. In other words if you traveled to San Antonio on a press trip and a year later have sold three stories about the trip, the sponsors will likely feel you were a good investment. By the same token, if you only sold one story, but the outlet had a circulation of one million readers, they will be very happy. If you sold no stories, the sponsors will hesitate before asking you to any of their other destinations. Even though most invitations say you must have an assignment letter in advance, there is some flexibility on that criteria.
Where do writers/photographers learn about upcoming press trips? They arrive by email, snail mail and some are posted on the Internet. You can also learn about some from other travel writers trading and sharing information. Writers in organizations such as (ASJA), the American Society of Journalists and Authors, or (SATW), The Society of American Travel Writers, often get on mailing lists, just by being a member.
Is a press trip like a vacation? Definitely not. You'll be on the go from early morning until late in the evening, at least on organized group trips. While vacationers would spend all day at Busch Gardens for example, you'll be there for two hours and then on the road again. You'll be taking notes and hitting the highlights only. You're at the destination to work, by that I mean to collect material, find article angles, or to interview local people.
What does the term "press trip etiquette" mean? It refers to how you conduct yourself while on a press trip. First, never be late for meeting times or you'll make the other writers and escorts upset. Organized trips run on rigid time schedules, so don't be the one to foul it up. Always tip drivers, chambermaids, and others as appropriate. Don't complain about every little problem or hitch. Be friendly with your follow writers. Once the trip is over, send thank-you notes (via snail mail) to the sponsors. Once your stories are printed, send copies to the sponsors immediately.
How do I get started in travel writing and get invited on press trips? Begin by working diligently to sell some travel articles about your own area or state. Or, select a location you're already familiar with and get some sales locked in, even if they're small markets. Gradually build up your credentials with more sales. Don't underestimate the difficulty of selling travel articles. Everyone and his brother wants to write travel and the competition is fierce. Major city newspapers get hundreds of travel articles every week for their Sunday travel section and in the end they may only use one or two stories. Persistence is the key.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Kathryn Lemmon has been writing about money, health and travel topics since 1990. She is currently a member of ASJA, the American Society of Journalists & Authors and has 485 published credits.