Get 3 Assignments to Make Travel Writing Worthwhile, says Amy Sherman

May 282013
 

Travel writer and food blogger Amy Sherman (middle) with a translator and guide (left) and Chef Amina (right) at a cooking class in Marrakech.

Soon after San Francisco’s Amy Sherman started her food blog Cooking with Amy in 2003, she wrote about vacations, which — being a food obsessed person like the rest of us — focused on eating the local specialties. That led to writing travel stories for websites, publications, and blogs, and now Amy goes on trips once or twice a month. (Here’s a list of recent stories she’s written for Fodor’s, CitySearch and others, using clipping.me, a free website that showcases writers’ work.)

I asked Amy about who invites her on trips, how to be taken seriously, and how to make travel writing work as part of a food writing career:

Q. You’ve been comped to take some amazing trips, like a food truck festival in San Antonio and cooking classes in Morocco. How do trips like this come about?

People contact me, especially the convention and visitor’s bureaus. Sometimes I’m invited on trips because I’m a food blogger, like going to Avery Island to visit the Tabasco factory. Sometimes I’m invited on trips aimed at travel writers, food writers, wine writers and adventure travelers.

Q. What’s covered, typically, on a sponsored trip?

A. I have to get to the airport, but the rest is covered. That’s activities, meals, transportation and hotels. I’ll spend money on tipping housekeepers and I’ll try to venture out on my own for a meal, snack or drink, or to buy food. Sometimes the schedule is packed, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and I have no time on my own. People think it’s glamorous but it can be grueling!

When I was in Bermuda, one day there was a hotel box lunch. I couldn’t write about that! I bought lunch at a seafood restaurant so I could taste the local specialties. A taxi driver told me about an ice cream place, so I snuck out to talk to the proprietor.

Q. What does a sponsor expect from you?

A. If I’m invited as a blogger, there’s no specific request, but it’s expected that I’ll write a post. Typically they give you enough experiences so you can pick and choose. Some bloggers write the “And then we went there” post, but I find those dull. Usually Facebook posts and tweets are not required, but encouraged, on the blogger trips.

Amy at one of her favorite dining destinations: an Asian restaurant in Richmond, B.C.

There are Fam (familiarization) trips, to get to know a place.

Some people ask beforehand about what assignments I have, and sometimes they require an assignment in advance from a publication.

Q. What kind of trips do you turn down (besides this one)?

A. Trips where they require an assignment ahead of time. I don’t want to be locked into a story if I don’t find the trip worthwhile.

Q. Who is most likely to invite you?

A. Convention and visitors bureaus are usually the sponsoring agencies. They hold group Fam trips and individual trips, where they put together an itinerary for me and the outlets I write for. They can help facilitate what interests me.

Q. How do you get the word out that you’re interested in invitations?

A. As I got more involved in travel writing, I joined the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, and I find it really worthwhile. I got on a press trip to Switzerland that was only available to members, and I’ve made good contacts and connections. They have a fantastic newsletter that lists which editors to pitch on travel stories. There’s also SATW, BATW and tons of other travel writer associations. For travel bloggers, there’s TBEX , with expos around the world where people court travel bloggers.

Q. What advice do you have for writers who want to write about culinary travel?

A. Start out by writing about your vacations, or about your own town, because editors want writers who are familiar with their subjects. Think about what you know really well, from a travel perspective.

Then push it further. There are lots of opportunities for travel writers, but you need to write more than what’s on your blog to be taken seriously. Use your blog to get your foot in the door, but then start pitching publications. Make culinary travel a specialty if you want to do it professionally.

Q. How do you decide which trips to take?

A. If I can’t find three outlets for my stories, I’m losing money. I’m taking time away from my work for three to four days and I need more than one story that pays $250 to make it worthwhile. I’m always looking for editorial outlets.

Q. What are publications looking for now?

A. It seems that websites and print publications want just “listsicles” to drive traffic. That’s a combination of lists and an article, like San Francisco’s 5 Best Cult Classic Restaurants.

There’s also a big trend for “experiential travel,” like taking a cooking class, going on a foodie walking tour, shopping at a farmer’s market, or eating in someone’s home. Afar magazine is a great example of that.

Q. Do you make Facebook and Twitter comments, or post on Instagram about your trips?

A. I do. Travel is exciting and fun and I’m experiencing things that are compelling. I want to share them. I do not disclose when I’m using social media because I’m not being paid to do so. Sometimes I use a hash tag from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, if they have an official one.

Q. Hmm. I don’t know. Payment for your expenses qualifies as payment in kind. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk about the place or take photos.

A. Sure, but I’m not accepting cash for it. I’m accepting cash when I get an assignment from a publication or website. Some outlets require me to disclose, some don’t, and I always disclose on my blog.

It all comes down to trust. People have to decide whether I’m trustworthy. There are some travel writers who don’t accept comps, and I don’t trust what they have to say.

Q. Do you ever travel now where you’re paying all the bills?

A. Oh yeah. My husband and I try to take a major trip every year. We just went on a trip where I paid a media rate at a hotel and paid for all the meals. I didn’t expect or ask for a comp anywhere. It’s hard to completely turn it off, though. I found a new bar and interviewed the owner. I’m hoping to pitch the story.

Got a question or comment for Amy? Comment below.

  35 Responses to “Get 3 Assignments to Make Travel Writing Worthwhile, says Amy Sherman”

  1. This post is an absolute gold mine of information – thanks for sharing. Also appreciate your incisive questions Dianne especially the bit about disclosure at the end.
    This is a rather specific question I know, but perhaps Amy could answer – is $250 the benchmark rate for an article (and does this include using her photographs)? Just putting my toe in the water so this couldn’t have come at a better time.

    • The most I’ve ever been paid was $1 a word and that was when I wrote for a print magazine. Another magazine I write for pays only 50 cents a word. Unfortunately blogs and online outlets generally pay much less. I’ve never written for newspapers but they don’t pay very well either. My blog posts and articles generally pay somewhere in the range from $100 to $300. These days everyone expects photos and no one pays extra for them.

    • Thanks Sally. This whole disclosure thing is quite discomfiting, as it doesn’t apply to print but only to the web. And no one wants to put “spon” on the end of a Twitter feed, let alone mention it on Facebook. I’m not sure I agree with Amy, but it can get tiresome.

  2. Great piece Dianne, and very relevant to me right now as I’m sitting in a very nice hotel in Montreal, half way through a 2 1/2 week familiarization trip to Canada.
    I am finding Instagram to be very popular – people really do prefer a more visual record of a trip. Amy’s comments about gruelling schedules couldn’t be more correct. Our first week here was quite hectic, but the pace has eased a little now – and I’m headed to my first ever TBEX on the weekend!

    • I use Instagram a lot while I travel. It’s a fun way to share the experiences you’re having when you don’t have the time to write. You can also cross post to Twitter or Facebook if you like. Do be careful though, my apartment was once robbed while I was on a trip. Did the burglars know I was away? I’ll never know. Now I generally only use social media on a trip when my husband is home.

    • Good timing, Amanda! How wonderful to be on a Fam trip in Montreal. And now to TBEX, where I hope you get some good nibbles for future trips.

  3. Great interview Dianne and Amy! Good to hear the culinary travel industry from an insider’s pov. I am starting to do a lot more restaurant and chef interviews and stories and photo shoots for the NYS Restaurant Association around NY state and NYC but would love to start pitching culinary travel stories to magazines and other media outlets. Do you normally have to write a pitch about the story you want to do first or do you contact the mags and travel companies about freelancing in general first? I usually charge a half day or day rate that includes both my research, writing and photography and charge for OOP expenses such as hotel, car rental, food, etc. which my clients are normally more than willing to pay for.

    Thanks again for the insights and appreciate your seasoned advice!

    Cheers
    Kristen

    • The best thing is to contact a publisher after thoroughly reading their publication, and asking for writer’s guidelines. After that, you can decide if you want to pitch story ideas. I have not had any publishers pay for any expenses on a travel story, ever. That’s why it’s so crucial to have multiple assignments or you will end up in the hole, even if the trip is free.

  4. A wealth of useful information here Dianne and Amy thank you! I have often wondered whether to join the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, but my concern is it may be too US-centric given my home is Dubai and most of my travel is in Europe or Asia. I often get invited on international press trips when tourism boards/ hotels are looking to engage Dubai-based media/ bloggers, so am not sure there’s any additional value in joining but would welcome your thoughts. Thanks for the tip on clipping.me – a project for the summer :) The going rate here is anything from $.50 to $1 per word – with good negotiation!

    • I know IFWTWA has made some inroads in “Australasia” but at this point there are no members in Dubai. The leads for pitching in the newsletter are certainly applicable for anyone.

  5. Exactly the answers that I’ve been looking for – thank you Dianne for the writeup on Amy. I want to establish myself as a Culinary Travel writer and these are exactly the questions that have been nagging me. I recently went to Thailand on a Fam trip on Tourism Authorities of Thailand’s invite and have gathered a lifetime of experiences to write on. I have been publishing them so far as blog posts and have approached a few publications locally who want me to ‘contribute’. In fact a very very popular international Travel magazine wants me to share my experiences on Thai food, but I have been requested to ‘understand’ that they don’t have any ‘freelancing’ budget. Hence the links that Amy has shared is going to be the ones that I hope to seek out for.

    One last question to Amy, when you go for a trip, do you pitch your travel stories to different publications and then publish them on your blog or it’s okay to keep on writing your blog posts and then try to pitch these stories? I’ll be following your blog journey:)

    Thank you Dianne!

    • I pitch different stories to different publications. I try never to duplicate what’s on my blog with what I write for other outlets. But you can have many angles and write many different stories about the same place. You might write a round up of restaurants or local specialties for one, a review of a specific restaurant for another and an in depth interview with a chef or story about an ingredient possibly including a recipe for a third.

  6. This was a very helpful article. I hadn’t thought about this as an option but it could play well into my wine post that are starting to get some notoriety. Thank again for some great tips. :-)

  7. Wine is such a reflection of place, if you’re comfortable as a wine writer, it should be an easy transition to write about wine as it relates to travel.

  8. Great post. Very informative.

    I am a big confused about some of the finer points regarding disclosure. If you pay for a trip yourself but get a discount, do you have to disclose this?

    Thanks again for such an informative post.

    • I abide by the guidelines stipulated by the publication. Some require disclosure only when something is “free” as opposed to a media rate and some do not require any disclosure. I always disclose on my own blog, but ultimately I hope people trust my judgement! I also don’t accept any cash for posting on my blog, though I do accept freebies and media rates, just as many (though not all) journalists do.

    • That’s a good question, Charmian. I think the answer depends on endorsement. If you endorse the trip or the hotel, you may feel it’s best to disclose your discount. But technically, I am not sure that it is required.

  9. Thank you Dianne and Amy for the great interview, overflowing with good tips. This is the path that is calling to me. And Amy, you make it seem so approachable. Also, reading your pieces, I like how they are short and focused, while delivering spot-on content. I think I tend to go on too long. Or maybe I’m writing enough for those 3 articles in just one.

    (By the way, I wanted to read your clips on Montreal and Calistoga, but it seemed that the Fodor links were not working.)

    Embarrassed to admit that I don’t know exactly how a “Fam trip” works. I imagine it’s to familiarize yourself with an area, but that does that mean you pay for it yourself or what?
    Thanks!!

  10. Sorry for the broken links, the Frommer’s brand was bought back from Google by Arthur Frommer recently and content seems to be in flux.

    Fam stands for familiarization, and it’s a trip that is sponsored by an organization like a tour company or convention and visitors bureau. It’s intended to familiarize you with a destination, in hopes that you will write about it. You do not pay to go on a fam trip.

    I wouldn’t worry about the length of your pieces. It all depends on the outlet. Some want long form, others want short “service” pieces.

  11. Great information & insight. Amy, what is the etiquette on approaching organizations about touring?

    • I’m not sure I know what you mean, which organizations would you be contacting? I have reached out to visitor’s bureaus when I had assignments to ask for support and have been able to get media rates at hotels, suggestions for itineraries, etc.

      • Thanks for following up, Amy. Sorry I wasn’t clearer. Exactly, what is the etiquette when contacting visitor’s bureaus? I can probably figure this out, but wondered what worked for you.

        • Usually visitor’s bureaus have a link or contacts for media. If you are planning a trip, it’s fine to contact them and let them know what you need–help planning an itinerary, guides, photography, etc.

  12. Morning Dianne and Amy,

    I read this yesterday and bookmarked it to read again today. Wow. Great stuff here ladies. Thank you. The comments include so much more!

    Amy, my question has to do with what tools and logistics. For instance, do you bring your professional camera and laptop? or do you use an iPhone, iPad combo? Seems silly to ask, but having just returned from a trip that I was invited (more food, then travel), I took my Nikon, but never took it out of the room safe and used my iPhone camera and a Canon p & s. There was so little time (the days were packed) to do anything else. I guess sneaking off would have worked, but then I’d miss the daily events. I imagine with a culinary travel trip, it would be different. Do you use one big bag for your equipment, or carry them separately? Also, do you travel with your tripod? Thanks for your helpful tips.

    • It can be difficult to juggle a lot of equipment! Even a camera and a notebook can be tricky, in some circumstances. I don’t take a DSLR with me on trips, but some people certainly do. I have one bag for my iphone, p&s camera, notepad and pens.

  13. I know a couple of food bloggers who are invited on trips all the time – and deservedly so, as they are wonderful writers as well as specializing in travel posts (culinary travel mostly, but cultural travel as well). But sometimes I am baffled when I see groups of bloggers that have been invited on one of these culinary junkets because there is no apparent link at all between the type of trip and the bloggers’ profiles, audience or focus, so how does this happen when there are so many more appropriate bloggers out there to invite?

    I have been invited on two trips – one I went on, one I didn’t – both in Europe, which makes sense. I am now also taking steps towards organizing culinary and wine trips for bloggers/journalists in my own area of France and have approached the appropriate organizations, but I would love to be invited on more as well as helping organize more but have just never have had the gumption yet to approach tourism boards, companies, etc. Amy makes it sound so…doable! But then my blog is not my outlet as I have yet done very few travel posts; I am more interested in writing magazine articles so I guess I need more of this type article published before I would be considered a sensible, viable choice.

    But Amy is right, that these trips are a valuable source of writing material and this, too, is a direction that I would like to go in. Thanks for a great interview, and thanks to Amy for sharing her experience with us.

    • Maybe the people who organize these trips are not always strategic about it. I have had those same thoughts sometimes. Even I have been invited on trips, and obviously, I’m not going to write about them on my blog. And of course, just because someone thinks they fit the bill, doesn’t mean they do.

      You are thinking in the right direction. If you write about trips on your blog, you might get invited on some, if that is your goal. You are showing that it is your area of expertise.

  14. “There are some travel writers who don’t accept comps, and I don’t trust what they have to say.”

    I’m late to this post Dianne but I would love to know, from Amy, why this is so. I’ve never heard anyone say it before — it’s usually the opposite. (Yes, I’m a food/travel writer who doesn’t accept comps.)

    • There was a scandal in 2008 in which a Lonely Planet travel guidebook writer admitted to not having to travelled to many of the destinations he wrote about. Personally I think it’s not that uncommon, especially when a writer is not accepting freebies AND isn’t being paid for their expenses, which is typical.

      It’s the same with restaurant reviewers, or even movie reviewers. Some opinions you trust and others you don’t. Freebies don’t necessarily taint a review and a lack of freebies doesn’t ensure a valid one.

  15. […] how to be taken seriously, and how to make travel writing work as part of a food writing career in this article – a must […]

  16. Thanks for this informative discussion
    Alex

  17. Greetings from Jakarta, Indonesia.
    Hi Dianne, I was googling about “culinary travel writing” and your post came on top.
    Thanks for the interview, also for Amy Sherman who responded in detail to Qs.
    I am a member of the IFWTWA Australasia and enjoy the benefits.
    TBEX has monthly travel blogging challenge and this month it’s on food. Glad to inform you that we have our post approved for sharing there.
    Cheers.

 Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>