Press trips are one of the most sought-after perks of travel writing. Having spent several years fighting my way up the freelance food chain, I was delighted when I scored my first all-expenses paid tour.
Once the plane tickets arrived in the post, my initial excitement gave way to anxiety. This wasn't a free vacation. What essential tools should I pack in order to do my job properly? Would the other writers look down on someone with less prestigious bylines? How could I ensure that I came across as an experienced professional?
In order to prevent you from stressing out in a similar fashion, here are some practical tips on how to survive your first press trip.
If you want to maximise your chances of getting an article in print based on the tour, research the destination meticulously before you arrive. See what angles have already been covered in the media and be on the alert for any fresh or quirky approaches. As an editor I work with is fond of saying, what makes this place now and wow?
Get a copy of the itinerary in advance. Study it carefully and don't be afraid to ask if there's anything additional you'd like to do or see. Great quotes can make all the difference between a flat feature and a fantastic one, so if there's someone specific you want to interview, see if your hosts can set that up for you. After all, it's in their interests to give you all the support they can.
When you arrive, you should receive a media pack with press releases and background information on the destination. Read through this at the earliest opportunity as it might be a source of potential feature angles worth exploring – and will at the very least, give you something to talk about with your hosts.
It's well worth investing in having a set of business cards printed, as you'll be doing plenty of meeting and greeting.
Most attendees will have a decent digital camera – these days most publications expect freelancers to provide images and they may even request shots of you doing some of the activities you describe in your feature – so make sure you squeeze one in your suitcase. An SLR is best if you're hoping to place work with a glossy print publication, as the editors will require top quality high-resolution images.
A digital dictaphone is another must, although an IPhone with a voice recorder app will do the job just as well. A small notebook is essential too. I'm a fan of the Moleskine brand because of that handy paper pocket inside the back cover where you can stash any business cards you collect.
I wasn't sure whether to take my laptop, didn't bother, and ended up regretting it – especially as I didn't have Internet access on my phone. It would have been helpful to be able to get online during our rare downtimes and look up more information on some of the bars and cafes we'd passed on our orientation tour to see whether they’d be worth a solo visit. I took notes while on our excursions, but these were obviously hurried: I would have appreciated the chance to type up my impressions immediately in a more organised form while they were fresh. If you're a travel blogger, then there'll be no debate, especially if you've agreed with your hosts that you'll be posting during the trip itself.
Don't forget to take a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Your hosts will want you to see as much as possible during your stay, so expect to be covering a lot of ground - literally. Rather obviously, you should also make sure you have some cash in the local currency even if the trip is all-expenses-paid. You might want to do some solo exploring once the official itinerary is finished – indeed, if you have any energy left, investigating off the beaten track is an excellent use of your limited free time. Although it can't be stressed enough that this isn't a classic vacation, you'll still be allowed to buy yourself a souvenir or two. A mouthwatering description of that local artisanal plum jelly you bought at the Sunday farmer’s market could even add colour to your copy!
It goes without saying that you should never lie about your credentials to secure a place on a press trip. Make sure it's clear exactly what's expected of you in return for your participation, and that you keep to your side of the deal. If you're a journalist and you don't have a definite commission, who exactly will you pitch to?
As for bloggers, how many posts will you write about the press tour? Do you plan to write updates during the trip itself? Keeping your online audience informed about what you're up to in real time via Twitter and Instagram is a simple way of giving your hosts some additional publicity.
It's hard to be objective about the quality of the food if someone else is paying for your lunch. Still, don't feel obliged to write gushing copy about every single part of the programme. Try to view your experiences through the eyes of your readers and keep their interests in mind at all times.
Having said that, trashing everything in print goes against the spirit of a sponsored tour. As far as possible, strike a balance between making your copy an honest appraisal of what you've seen and done, and not sounding so overly enthusiastic that you might as well have cut and pasted from the tourism board's PR materials.
Don't forget that you'll need to inform any editors you pitch to that the piece will be based on a press tour, as some publications do not accept any material based on sponsored travel of any kind.
Cover every angle: Remember that from the moment you arrive, every aspect of the trip, however apparently mundane, might serve as a worthwhile point to include in your feature. For example, if your airport transfer was by local bus, was it inexpensive and convenient enough for you to recommend it to readers? If you have positive experience of navigating a city by public transport – especially if it's particularly iconic like Prague's trams or London’s buses -- then that could be something to mention too.
What about your accommodation? Press guests are usually given the best rooms, but what is your overall impression of the hotel? How would you rate the service and facilities? Find out what the typical cost of a room is – if you're given a separate hotel press pack, the information will be included there – and decide whether you think it would be good value for money for the market you're catering to. Consider also pitching a hotel review to a publication that runs that particular feature section: in-flight magazines often do so, for example.
It's not often that you end up in the same room with a dozen or more fellow freelance writers. While making the current trip into a feature article is obviously your first priority, don't overlook the opportunity to make it a springboard for future assignments by networking with other journalists, bloggers and PRs. Hand out plenty of those business cards you brought along and collect those of others too. Send an email to people you connected with when you get home; after all, you never know when that freelancer you once met might land an editorial post at a major newspaper or magazine.
I found it helpful to check out the websites of my peers when I returned home to see what I could do to improve my own profile. It was also useful to find out which markets other travel journalists had tapped into and to exchange tips on how to promote my work through blogging and social media.
Don't reveal too much: It's the job of PRs to be friendly and approachable, but beware of letting your guard down. A journalist friend was once on a press trip sponsored by a major luxury brand. An apparently charming PR, obviously keen to discover whether her company should bother buying any advertising space in the publication, plied her with alcohol to try and get her to reveal its current circulation figures – sensitive information her editor expected to keep top secret. She made her excuses and hit the sack early without giving anything away; make sure you're equally discreet!
Once you're back home, be sure to send your hosts an email thanking you for inviting you along. As soon as your article or blog post is published, let the organisers know, while reminding them that you'd be more than happy to come along on any future press trips, especially if – as often happens – someone drops out at short notice. Show that you can deliver the goods and you'll soon be invited along on your next sponsored tour!
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