An entrepreneurial model for travel writers working in an evolving media
I was asked by a Tnooz reader and editor to respond to the post Why do travel advertisers continue to avoid bloggers? by travel blogger Gary Arndt.
That discursive piece looked at the disconnect the author sees between the amount of time people spend using new media versus the amount of money companies spend on print advertising, the opportunities for advertisers to work with travel bloggers, and some recent examples of projects and relationships being forged between travel companies and bloggers.
I was asked to comment because in mid 2009 my writer-photographer husband Terence Carter and I began working directly with UK travel company HomeAway Holiday-Rentals on an innovative project called Grantourismo that exemplifies the new models of collaboration in the travel industry that are possible between travel companies and writers/bloggers.
Arndt’s exhaustive piece is littered with many interesting ideas, so you’ll need to imagine I’m holding a highlighter pen.
Why a travel writer?
It’s helpful to begin with a definition and explanation as to why I’m using the term “travel writer” and not “travel journalist” or “travel blogger”, which Gary uses, when Grantourismo is clearly a travel blog, and when Terence and I have been getting paid by HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to blog for the last 12 months.
A bit about me by way of an explanation: I’ve been writing since I worked for my university newspaper in 1986, I’ve been getting paid to write since 1988, and I’ve worked full-time as a travel writer since 2006, part-time from 2002, and casually/on and off since the 1990s.
I’ve written in many genres and forms, journalism and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, corporate and creative, long and short-form narratives. I wrote film reviews and film scripts, published a teen fiction novel with HarperCollins, and for the government day job that financed for my university education I wrote everything from press releases to research papers. I’ve written and edited content for as many formats as genres: print, film, video, live television, radio, and multimedia.
As a travel writer, I’ve written guidebooks and feature stories for print, created walking tours for the Sony PSP, and presented videos for the web for Lonely Planet TV. Writing and producing content for blogs is simply writing in yet another genre for yet another format.
I could call myself a travel blogger just as easily as I could at various times have called myself a feature writer, scriptwriter, PR writer, novelist, and travel journalist. I prefer to simply call myself a writer.
“Old” and “new” media versus an evolving media
I don’t buy into the old versus new media debate. The media didn’t change from ‘old’ to ‘new’ overnight, in the last five years, or even in the last decade. The media has constantly been evolving since its birth, and my husband and I have witnessed and been part of that ongoing transformation since we both began studying and working in various media, arts and entertainment industries from the late 1980s onwards, including publishing, film, music, PR, the arts, media education, web design, multimedia, and publishing again.
Over the years I’ve ignored arguments between those reluctant to make the shift from film to video, from video to computer, and from tape to data, just as I now try to ignore the writer versus blogger and “old” versus “new” media arguments.
They’re pointless, tiresome, and counter-productive. There will always be some in the media (like any industry) who are slow to change, and there will be others who are continually adapting. As a writer I put myself, and many of the people I’ve worked with over the years, in the latter category.
Earning a living as a writer
“…old media is dying. Ad revenues are drying up, journalists are getting laid off, ad pages are shrinking…,” writes Arndt in the opening to his post. “Most bloggers have to fight tooth and nail to earn a living for themselves…,” he later writes.
It’s taken me two months to get around to responding to Gary’s post because I’ve been so busy working: travelling and blogging for Grantourismo; reconnecting with publishers with whom we were collaborating on books before Grantourismo (projects Terence and I initiated and developed); writing city guides for mobile applications and a website; following up on a place branding project we consulted on; and pitching and writing stories for magazines, newspapers and websites.
We’ve just arrived in Bangkok where we’re working on city guides for two companies, for a mobile application and book, and a website. We’re continuing to develop our own projects, some related to Grantourismo, including projects for print, the iPad, and mobile applications, and we’re discussing future Grantourismo trips with potential travel company partners.
We’re paid industry or above-industry rates for the work we do. We don’t work for free. The glossy magazines still pay the most handsomely, usually $1-2 a word. Ad revenues may well be drying up, but we’re not “fighting tooth and nail to earn a living”, nor do I think other writers should be.
Writer as small business owner versus writer as entrepreneur
Freelance writers are small business owners. They don’t only sit at a computer all day dreaming about far away places and tapping out travel tales, although that’s a big part of their work. They’re multi-taskers and project managers, administering an office, taking care of accounts, scrutinizing contracts, pitching stories, writing and responding to briefs, answering emails, forging new contacts, nurturing old relationships, doing research, planning trips, maintaining websites/blogs, editing photos/video, reading, and of course, writing, on everything from the history and politics to the cuisine and culture of a place.
Travel writers must be, at times, historians and social scientists, food critics and wine experts, self-promoters and trip planners. On a daily basis, writers are dealing with editors, PRs, hotel managers, chefs, sommeliers, curators, business owners, guides, travellers, and more.
When they’re not running businesses from a home office (sitting in their pyjamas all day, it’s true), they’re doing it from a hotel room or holiday rental. My husband and I currently fall into that category, having lived out of our suitcases since January 2006 as we’ve bounced continuously around the planet from one commission to another.
The most successful writers are also entrepreneurs. These are the writers who spend as much time writing pitches as responding to them, developing story ideas as writing them, and initiating almost as many project concepts as they’re working on.
Who are these writer-entrepreneurs? Some of them are probably reading this post. They’re the writers who have stayed abreast of technological change and have evolved with the media. The writers who probably started blogs in the last five years (I started my personal blog http://cooltravelguide.blogspot.com/ four years ago). The writers who’ve been doing as much work for the web as they have for print. The writers who are working directly with travel companies such as Round the World Flights and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals.
New models of working: Grantourismo, a case study
Terence and I started developing Grantourismo a few years ago, as a personal travel experiment aimed at exploring more enriching ways to travel. The project grew out of frustrations with our work as travel writers, as much as with how we observed people travel, speeding through places ticking off sights.
A year-long contemporary grand tour, we aimed to travel more slowly and sustainably, to live like locals, do and learn things, and give something back whenever possible. We intended to chronicle our experiences along the way on a blog and at the end of the trip to write a book.
It may have been a personal project – a dream project, in fact – but it was always going to be a paid project. We’re professionals, which simply means that writing and photography are how we make our living.
Since 2002 we’d been earning terrific money as a writer-photographer team and we didn’t intend that should change.
The question was which companies to approach to present our project. I was fine-tuning our proposal in July 2009 when I spotted HomeAway Holiday-Rentals’ advertisement on TravMedia calling for a writer-photographer team to work on a similar but more ambitious marketing project. We responded and over the course of a few months persuaded HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to go with our project instead.
First we agreed on the form of the project: a round-the-world trip in keeping with our original aims and themes, chronicled in a minimum of five blog posts a week on the Grantourismo blog that we would create and maintain, and supported by social media activity. We were required to run a monthly competition, and there would be bonus payments for content published in traditional media, such as a series of stories I wrote for Marie Claire’s website.
Next, we negotiated the contract and fee. Having worked on some 50 guidebooks, I knew how to plan trips and schedule and budget projects. We based our asking fee on industry rates and word counts, a standard method of calculating fees in publishing. HomeAway Holiday-Rentals would provide our accommodation and flights, and pay communications and transport expenses. We’d pay day-to-day living expenses and organize complimentary ground transport, tours and activities.
We invited two companies we’d done tours with, Context and Viator, to partner up. They provided us with tours as well as prizes for the monthly competition. We placed their logos, blurbs and links on Grantourismo, and wrote up stories on their tours with links. We also formed partnerships with other travel businesses, including Our Explorer and Rail Europe, and at various times persuaded other companies to donate competition prizes.
What makes Grantourismo innovative and unique?
Aside from the fact that this was probably the first time a couple did a contemporary grand tour of the world, living like locals, learning and doing things along the way – from learning to play in a gamelan orchestra in Ubud to making handmade pasta in the kitchen of our trullo in Puglia – the structure of the arrangement with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals was unique.
Freelance travel writers work on short-term commissions with contracts, the longest generally lasting 3-6 months if it’s a major guidebook commission. The security of a one-year contract for a freelance writer is rare. While freelancers typically secure complimentary accommodation and transport, such as free flights or car hire, it’s unusual for a freelancer to have a whole year’s worth of accommodation and flights provided. Communication expenses are rarely paid to freelancers but were necessary in this case as fast Internet access and phone calls were vital.
The nature of the partnership was unique. There was no middleman, no editor, through whom HomeAway Holiday-Rentals had to submit press releases, story ideas, and press trip offers, and keep their fingers crossed that a review of their property would make it into the story. In the early days of the project, we asked questions about their marketing strategy, audience and messages they wanted to communicate.
They wanted us to raise awareness of the advantages of holiday rentals over hotels, the range of holiday rentals, from beach houses to penthouses, and their reach around the world, everywhere from Kenya to Bali.
It was an easy task. We had been using holiday rentals for years (many booked through HomeAway Holiday-Rentals and VRBO) and had decided long ago that staying in a place for a while, living like locals, shopping the markets, and cooking ‘at home’ was the way we preferred to travel. An active couple in our early-mid 40s, foodies and wine buffs, we were typical holiday rental travellers. Brand-wise, it was a perfect fit.
Advertising, advertorial and editorial control
Although we placed a HomeAway Holiday-Rentals widget on our site so if readers were sufficiently inspired by our experiences at living like locals they could click through to browse and book accommodation, there was no other advertising on the site.
Indeed, from the outset we made it clear to HomeAway Holiday-Rentals that we had to have complete editorial control so that the content would not be construed as advertorial. If it was, then their credibility, as much as ours, would be on the line. As travel writers who had established reputations as guidebook authors writing opinionated content for Lonely Planet, we were not about to destroy our careers by becoming copywriters.
We agreed to write a detailed review of every property we stayed in, one review every two weeks. Other than that, we were free to choose what we wanted to write about. There was no pre-posting approval process – HomeAway Holiday-Rentals would see the stories once they were live on the site – and we would write honestly and critically.
This meant that if we loved a place, as we did our Bali villa set among rice paddies, we could gush about it, but if we found faults with the property, as we did with our cottage in Kenya, with broken fan/toilet, power cuts, and no promised internet access, we could be as critical as warranted in our review. This, we believed, was essential to establishing our readers’ trust and maintaining the integrity of the project.
A future model
For travel writers such as us, Arndt’s advertising sales-based model hasn’t been necessary nor has it been desirable. We’ve been able to cut out the middlemen, i.e. the publisher and editor, and work directly with a travel company to achieve mutually desirable goals, while still continuing to earn industry standard fees.
After our recent presentation at the International Wine Tourism Conference in Oporto, Portugal, where we presented Grantourismo as a case study, we were approached by four tourism and wine bodies, which indicated they’d like to work with us in the future. They want us to keep doing what we’ve been doing with Grantourismo in their destinations.
Rather than worry about advertising dollars, I’d encourage travel writers to do two things:
- Continue to focus on fine-tuning your writing craft and develop your skills at creating high quality content – evocative writing, inspiring images, compelling videos, engaging podcasts etc
- Develop your entrepreneurial skills and the ability to conceive and plan innovative projects, understand marketing and PR, produce persuasive proposals, and present slick presentations. A unique idea, executed at a high creative level, matched to the right travel business and brand, with get you the kind of fees and packages the very best travel writers dream about.
NB: This is a guest article by Lara Dunston, a travel writer and one half of the Gran Tourismo project alongside partner Terence Carter.
Special Nodes is the byline under which Tnooz publishes articles by guest authors from around the industry.