Travel writing is not all about sipping cocktails on sun-drenched beaches. Simon Whaley packs his bags to explore the business etiquette of the press trip.
With the English Tourist Board celebrating English Tourism Week during March, you can be sure they’ll be organising plenty of press trips. PR agencies and businesses are still keen to get their message across in print format, and freelance writers can help them achieve this. However, when it comes to the business of writing, getting the most out of a press trip means having a business-like attitude at all times.
A press trip is not a holiday. There may be an opportunity to grab ten minutes to sit, relax and enjoy the scenery, but that’s either because the person you’ve lined up to interview is running late or you were running late and another journalist has stepped in and grabbed your time slot.
Press trips tend to fall into two categories: organised events hosting a group of writers and journalists from a variety of publications, or individually tailored affairs, built around a commission. Either way, the commission is important. Tourist boards and businesses will be covering most, if not all, of the costs of your trip, so they need to know their product is definitely getting the right exposure. That means the right market with the right readership.
The first ever press trip Jane Keightley, a freelance travel writer from Lincolnshire, had was a personalised one. “It was to Lake Orta, a beautiful lake near Lake Maggiore, in Italy,” she says. “I had read a novel set there and it sounded wonderful. I wrote to the Italian Tourist board in London and they organised it with the local tourist board.” They did all of this because Jane had secured the commission for an article on the area from a relevant magazine. “I had a commission from Italia! magazine, although I had to organise my journey there and back myself, but I did get some money off a Ryanair flight. I stayed at the five-star Villa Crespi, and it was like sleeping in a palace. I thought I have finally found a job I love!”
My first press trip was for a local magazine for which I wrote a monthly column. Like many press trips, it was the PR agency that approached the magazine offering them a place to one of their writers if they were interested in running a feature about the destination. The trip was to a five-star luxury country house hotel in Wales that was offering bespoke walking breaks. I had the opportunity to partake in a two-night stay, five-course evening meal on both nights, with a day of walking around the local countryside. I jumped at the opportunity.
The accommodation was wonderful. My triple-aspect luxury bathroom had uninterrupted views of the Brecon Beacons, and the head chef personally delivered all of my meals to the dining table. The little walk around the Welsh countryside turned out to be an eight-hour yomp up Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons, in driving rain and thick fog. I was drenched and shattered.
Sometimes, getting the commission is about being in the right place at the right time. This happened to travel writer Solange Hando, author of Be A Travel Writer, Live Your Dreams, Sell Your Features. “I was at a travel show in London,” she says, “meeting the travel editor of Take a Break, just as he was being offered a press trip to Gibraltar. But he couldn’t manage it, so he asked me if I’d like to go in his place. I just had to accept, didn’t I?”
If you go on a trip organised for several writers and journalists remember to act professionally at all times. Not only is it polite and common sense, but it’s good business sense too. At a recent press trip to a stately home, I found myself sat at the same table for afternoon tea as three magazine editors, two of whom I’d pitched ideas to earlier in the week, and three travel writers from the national newspapers, who were happy to share advice and contact names. A press trip isn’t just about the end article for the market you’ve been commissioned. It can also be a useful networking opportunity.
Solange agrees. “Mind what you say about other writers and editors. You could be sitting next to their best friend. Be prepared to compromise on a group trip. Join in gracefully and don’t criticise.”
Be flexible on such trips. You’re not the only writer the PR agency is trying to accommodate. As Jane says, “Organised press trips, although great fun, are very hectic and you don’t have a moment to call your own. I do like planned press trips with other journalists as it’s fun to compare notes with people who do the same job as you and a lot of networking gets done.”
Be prepared for schedules to change. On one trip I’d been commissioned to interview the Head Butler and the Head Chef. The Head Butler interview was scheduled for 3.15pm, but because another element of the press trip took longer than anticipated I ended up doing the interview two hours later, while the Head Butler was busy preparing the dining table for the evening meal. Due to a problem in the kitchens, the Head Chef interview fell through. I managed to get an interview with the Head Gardener instead. This gave me a whole new section of magazines to approach with ideas to pitch. On press trips, nothing is ever a disaster: just a new opportunity waiting to be exploited.
Maximise the potential of any press trip you go on. Although we only need one commission from a market to get us on the trip, as freelance writers that doesn’t stop us pitching differently-angled ideas to other markets. Organised press trips can be a one-day event or last anything up to three days. Due to their frantic pace, there’s a tendency for any prepared timetable to over-run, and there are moments of unexpected opportunities, which means there is often little time to get any writing done. Snatch any moments to write up notes, transcribe interviews while they’re fresh in your mind, and jot down any further ideas. But don’t expect the afternoon free to write up your piece. A press trip is time away from your writing desk.
There’s another reason for obtaining commissions from other markets. If you’re organising your own trip and asking a tourist board or company to provide you with accommodation, meals, travel or free entry into tourist attractions, having some back up plans can prove useful. Things can go wrong, as Solange once experienced. “Have a suitable commission before you accept a place on a trip and get at least two others in the pipe line, in case the first one falls through. This happened to me when I returned from a trip. The original commissioning magazine had gone into liquidation. I approached a dozen markets in total panic and ended up with nine commissions. Not easy, but I had to do it.”
Many PR agencies and tourist boards ask to see copies of published pieces. If you don’t supply this copy they’re less likely to want to help you out with similar trips in the future.
Your professionalism should extend to those who have helped with your trip. When you get back home, send a note to the PR agency, businesses and tourist boards that organised the event, thanking them for their help and everything they’ve done to help you. If you interviewed people, thank them for their time too.
Despite such events being frenetic and exhausting, do try to enjoy yourself. Make the most of the experience. “I’ve had a lot of wonderful trips,” says Solange, “many of them exotic. In India I was treated like royalty for the first time in my life. I just couldn’t believe my luck and had to pinch myself all day long to make sure it was real.”
Jane prefers press trips that are part of an actual holiday, rather than something organised specially for the press. “The best trip I have been on was a Voyage Jules Verne trip to Assisi for a week. I was a guest on a proper holiday, so it was a lot more relaxing.”
Exploit the business opportunity as best you can. When I stayed overnight at a stately home, I had permission to take photographs anywhere I liked. Paying members of the public who visit that stately property are not allowed to take photographs, so this was an opportunity that few others had. And it also meant that I could do this when the property was closed to the public, so I had the rooms all to myself.
Press trips can be manic, exhausting and competitive, particularly when several journalists want to interview the same person and there’s insufficient time. But they are also amazing opportunities to see and do things you might not ordinarily get the chance to. Treat them like freebies and you won’t be invited to attend many others. However, be business-like in your approach, and you’ll find them rewarding opportunities that can spark a wealth of ideas that become a useful income stream for your writing business.
Business Directory – Top Press Trip Tips
“Have a list of press trip essentials, to ensure you don’t forget anything. I have a drawer in my bedroom with all of this stuff ready, including any euros left over from previous trips. Take a bag of over-the-counter medicines in case you need them. It saves seeking out a pharmacy.”
“Make sure you know what’s covered in a press trip and what isn’t. Ask if you’re not sure. I remember turning down dinner in a five-star hotel thinking I couldn’t afford it. I realised later everything was included.”
“Have a spare of everything on you: pen, notebook, batteries for camera and dictation machines. Equipment always stops working at the worst possible moment.”
© Simon Whaley