The taste of truth: Honesty, press trips and travel writing

Gifts from a tourism board

Gifts from a tourism board

The travel world was abuzz a few weeks ago with news that Conde Nast Traveler will now permit writers to accept media rates. This is serious news for the revered publication, which, along with big names like National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure, has been famed (and alternately praised and criticized depending on which side of the fence you sit) for refusing to accept stories that included any kind of compensation in kind from airlines, hotels, restaurants, tour operators, tourism boards, etc.

To make matters even more interesting, Conde Nast also chose that time, coincidentally or not, to change its tagline from “Truth in Travel” to “Taste in Travel.” Savvy travel reporters jumped on it, discussing the “truth” of Conde Nast and the new permissions. But was the change needed? Why are press trips and truth mutually exclusive?

Many publications—most notably many newspapers—have long permitted sponsored or subsidized trips to be included in with their editorial, so long as a disclaimer is provided (although this is hardly universal practice). And the current travel blogging industry is largely based entirely on sponsored trips.

It’s a debate that fires up people on both sides. On the one hand, publication rates are dwindling so low that writers have no choice but to accept freebies where they can get them. Unless publications can cough up the dough for writers’ travel expenses as well as the story, travel writing will be limited to the few who can afford to pay their way. And while I may not know the internal budget for Conde Nast, I’m fairly certain that paying thousands of dollars for a single story in order to cover a writer’s travel costs is just not feasible in today’s media industry—even for CN Traveler.

And on the other hand, there are the purists, who (understandably) believe that there can only be bias in sponsored writing. How do you give a bad review to the hotel that gave you a free night’s stay? Or to the airline that flew you ’round the world for free? You can promise to report honestly, but what’s more troublesome is the fact that it’s nearly impossible to even have a bad experience on a sponsored trip. Press trips, by their very nature, are designed to give media the best impression of a destination. The odds of staying at a sketchy hotel or seeing the less-than-beautiful side of a city are severely limited once a tourism board is footing the bill.

It’s a lose-lose situation for traditionalists in the travel media industry. But, obviously, a big win when it comes to tourism brand marketing. And it’s up to those of us left somewhere in the middle to toe the line of journalist versus sell-out.

I confess: I’ve taken and written about press trips, just as I’ve also written stories about trips that I fully funded on my own dime. And as a travel editor, I regularly accept pitches based on content created from press trips. I like to think that I maintain the same journalistic integrity regardless of who’s paying, and as an editor, I push my writers to do the same. But of course I know the “truth” still gets muddled.

I’m hardly the first person to write about this dilemma. BootsnAll put the debate to its followers recently, calling the practice of press trips the “Dark Side of Pro Travel Blogging.” Long-time travel editor and writer Adrian Brijbassi, of Vacay.ca, wrote a thoughtful piece for The Huffington Post on the controversy, comparing it to concert and movie reviewers and sports reporters, who are all handed free tickets to their respective events, without criticism. I say both articles are equally right.

There is no easy answer. Taking an extreme position means either turning travel writing into strictly a marketing effort, or bumping up the pay rates to levels far above today’s publishing allowances. And so, we, in order to stay true to ourselves and our audiences, have to balance that line.

For me, as a writer, that means never taking press trips at face value. Even when I’m on a sponsored tour, I venture away for at least a few hours, to wander, to get lost, to find things that aren’t censored behind the wall of a tourism rep. (Besides allowing for honest finds, that’s the greatest part of travel: finding the places you didn’t expect to find.) And when I write, I aim to be a storyteller rather than a reviewer, because I’m still old-school enough to believe that true reviews should be written without the restaurant or hotel paying, and with the writer remaining anonymous. And I never make the sponsor the star. The star of the story is the hook, the news angle, the theme, or even just the mood of the destination—and those are things that can’t, and shouldn’t, be controlled by a sponsor.

As an editor, I don’t accept reviews on a single hotel or restaurant or tour company, lest it comes across as an advertorial for that business. I do permit themed round-ups of such places, written with material from press trips, but again, I want the pieces to be more than just ads with a cringe-worthy boastfulness of, “It’s nice and I stayed for free.” I expect my writers to sample multiple places and write about the ones that resonated the most with them, not just the ones that paid the bill.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that gives me the most comfort in the complicated world of travel writing today. Because even when a trip is sponsored, whether it’s the full deal or just a meal or a hotel stay, there must be room for real journalism with opinion and research and authentic storytelling. We owe it to our readers, who make up the audience that trusts us in a world of non-stop ads, and we owe it to ourselves as professionals in an industry that at its very heart remains journalism.

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7 thoughts on “The taste of truth: Honesty, press trips and travel writing

  1. Great post, Tammy. But I disagree that you’re guaranteed to have a good experience on a press trip. I have been on many where various aspects of the trip – restaurants, accommodations, hotels – were just not up to par, or even actually bad. I choose to frame my stories around the positive aspects of the trip and I will try to diplomatically let the destination/agency know why other aspects didn’t make it into the story – so they can avoid hosting journalists there again.

    • Good point, Kat. I guess I’ve just so rarely heard about bad experiences on press trips that it seems impossible to me. I’ve certainly never had one, but I’m sure they’re out there. And yes, like you, I try to focus on the positive with travel stories, even if it’s not from a press trip. I just don’t enjoy writing about negative experiences, and I don’t view that as the purpose of travel writing – unless there’s some sort of learning opportunity or something that gives it an angle above just “this sucked.” And I think your advice to notify (diplomatically) the organizers if something is wrong is bang-on. I see some people just heading straight to social media about things like that and it just makes me cringe.

    • Hey, Bani. Tough times for sure, but I do think it’s possible to work within the current state of things – it’s all balance and clearly separating whether we want to be a marketing mouthpiece or an impartial writer. There’s a middle ground in there, too, and that’s where we need to be. It just requires being very aware of what we’re experiencing and writing.

      • That’s how I feel, and it’s tougher for those of us that have no backing financial support who want to write non-commercial stuff, so I like to be aware of all sides. This piece helped!

      • I agree, case in point was a recent trip to Rotorua (I live in New Zealand) I have been on several press junkets to Rotorua over the years and while I appreciate the need for carefully sanitized cultural experiences for the masses of tourists that visit daily, as a travel writer and photographer it quickly became hard to write and photograph something new and refreshing. Solution, I took the middle ground and went there at my own expense and wandered about with the intention of not spending a cent but coming away with a wealth of experiences and new and absorbing photographs of such a well known travel destination.
        Two such experiences stand out: in front of Pouhutu Geyser in Te Puia at 5am (4 hours before the hordes of tourists arrive) totally alone with the rising sun colouring the eruptions and in a natural hot water thermal creek deep in the bush, again, totally alone, as snowflakes fell around me. This is what travel, travel writing and photography should be about, experiences discovered at no cost rather than experiences carefully packaged at considerable cost. The impartial writer/photographer approach is much more empowering than a marketing guru I think.

      • Hey James, you raise such good points. And I think it would benefit those organizing junkets to realize this. Writers will get much more material, and editors will be much more likely to accept pitches, if it’s not the same sanitized trip over and over again that everybody writes and does. Those impartial stories will resonate with readers — and therefore then have a positive impact for the tourism board — when it doesn’t come across as marketing copy. Also, your story of snowflakes at Pouhutu Geyser sounds magical.

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