A guest post by Pam Mandel
“Oh, I want to go on press trips!”
I hear this frequently from newer bloggers. I get it. It’s so appealing to have someone else pick up the tab for your hotel, your meals, entrances fees, all the stuff of travel. When you’re writing for your own blog, there’s the added benefit of working without an editor who has veto power. You go on an all expenses paid trip, you write what you want, everyone’s happy. Right? Not always.
1. What’s a press trip anyway?
Let’s define “press trip” — sometimes called a junket or a FAM, short for familiarization — first. For this discussion, I mean a trip where media travels under the guidance of a public relations wrangler. Everything is arranged in advance. It’s usually a group tour at an accelerated pace. The days are long and your full participation is expected.
At its worst a press trip is what a journalist I once traveled with called “a bus full of ladies looking at jam.” I didn’t agree with a lot of things this guy said, but in this case, I get what he was saying. You travel with a large group and stop at a places that offer things that don’t interest you.
At its best, a press trip is you, alone, with an custom agenda that you’ve created in advance and plenty of free time between appointments. A PR person makes themselves available as a contact, should you need anything, but they’re not your guide, they’re just a contact who facilitates the trip. This is the holy grail of press trips, but it’s rare.
2. Where’d those press trip invites come from?
I’ve been invited on press trips for a number of reasons. I’ve done desk research for a story and the PR folks I contacted added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve traveled on assignment and the PR group that helped me arrange the travel has added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve met PR folks at conferences and events, and they’ve added me to their list of potential invitees. I’ve signed up for a mailing list and… you guessed it.
I suspect I’m on a few mystery lists, too, lists of “influential bloggers” or “qualified media.” This means that some random algorithm has been applied to my insignificant blog traffic, cross referenced with my intermittent bylines, and multiplied by the number of times I’ve spoken at blogger conferences. That math ends up in my inbox — “We’re putting together a trip to Omaha this November wonder if you’d be interested in joining. Nebraska’s about more than cows, you know.”
3. What’s it like to be on one?
Most of my press trips have been somewhere between the hellish busload of media and the solo junket. There’s me, four to eight writers plus a wrangler for four or five days, plus a minivan and an agenda. I’ve been lucky in that most of my press trips have been a good time, though I once watched a fellow writer snap “READ A DAMN BOOK!” at another traveler in my group. And once, the wrangler was a sexist alcoholic and I spent the entire trip vacillating between outrage and fear that he would kill us all with his driving. I have also been frustrated, more than once, by PR reps actively blocking me from following a story lead because I was expected to be seated at a group dinner. “Yeah, sorry, you can’t talk to those locals any longer, you’re expected at my client’s restaurant.”
A group press trip, while it should intersect with your interests, does not necessarily follow your agenda. The organization planning the trip wants you to see specific things. Your hosts — the hotel, the restaurant, the museum, the high end gallery boutique — expect that you will write nice things about them. The PR person may email you after the trip, repeatedly, “Are you planning to cover the hotel?” Never mind that you write about food or art or music, where is the coverage of the hotel? “Can we get a mention of the hotel in that post you put on your blog?”
For a while, I covered Hawaii fairly regularly. It was great, I’m not going to lie, and I went to Hawaii two or three times a year on press trips. I ate in a lot of nice hotels or high end shopping center restaurants in the company of a PR rep and a half a dozen or so writers. I like macadamia nut encrusted halibut and fluffy umbrella drinks and the company of my fellow travelers, and the PR people I worked with during those years were great.
But it’s not my first choice. You know what I like better? Ethnic joints where I don’t recognize everything on the menu. Food courts at crowded local shopping malls. Drive-ins, roadside stands, and deli counters that offer 26 kinds of poke, a marinated raw tuna salad that I’m crazy for. I like to get take out poke and tortilla chips and beer and eat it alone in my hotel room while taking notes and flipping through my photos. But this isn’t my trip, remember, it’s one planned by PR, and I am beholden to an agenda not my own. So I will shower, if there’s time, and join my group for the prearranged dinner.
Forward thinking PR folks have revised the press trip template since my first junket, maybe ten years ago, maybe more. A group may all stay in the same hotel, but be sent in different directions during the day. Or there will be a much tighter focus on a subject — if the trip is about food, it’s really about food, it’s not about hotels, or shopping, or art. This makes it easier to produce stories that align with a writer’s interests and it’s change for the better.
4. What’s tricky about press trips?
Press trips can be a great way to get interesting stories, to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to –but they’re not without an ethical cost. What price do we pay for being too honest about our experiences when junkets are bad? Will we be flagged by PR people as a bad investment and never invited on a junket again? What about the reverse? If everything is awesome because we travel like VIPs, do we deliver anything of value to our readers, or are we just parroting a PR message? Are we nothing more than advertisers? Are we a reliable source if we go from sponsored experience to sponsored experience to sponsored experience?
Some folks don’t care if they’re advertising mouthpieces, as long as they get to do cool things. Some folks err on the side of no press trips ever — that means they’re able to write for publications with strict ethical guidelines like the New York Times. I err on the side of being transparent and honest, even if it means I sometimes bite the hand that feeds me a nice meal in a hotel restaurant.
What’s your take on press trips and sponsored experiences? Do you find there’s a way to write about them gracefully? If you’ve never been on a press trip, does this post make you want to go?
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Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer. She blogs at Nerd’s Eye View. Read these posts of hers for more:
- Self-Editing Checklist for Aspiring (Travel) Writers
- What does “Blogging” Mean Anymore?
- The First Rule of Write Club is Don’t Talk About Write Club
- Why I’m Not a Full Time Travel Writer
Janet Mendel says
I loved getting invited on press trips, even before I was a blogger. Great background for cookbooks and I produced some newspaper stories as well. It was easy to stay “on message”, because my message usually coincided with the sponsor’s (olive oil). If there was any downside, it was that everybody in the group was likely to write about the same places, experiences.
That was initially a concern for me — whether everyone was going after the same markets with the same topics, though time taught me I didn’t really need to worry about that so much.
Regan @ The Healthy Aperture Blog says
My press trip experiences have been a mix of much of what you describe — both good and bad. I often enjoy most aspects of them, but I also know that there is a trade-off of my in-office time vs my travel time if what I’m seeing/learning isn’t something I can bring back to my audience.
Specifically, though, I want to get your take on a specific aspect of disclosure you think is required when posting to social media (and blogs, etc.) from a press trip IF what you’re posting isn’t affiliated with the trip OR if you choose to perhaps go early/stay late to experience extra parts of the city, etc.
So let’s say for example you attend “The Harvest Festival” where 5 different fruit and veggie growers host you and 10 other bloggers in California to learn about their fruits/veggies. They pay for coach fare airfare and your hotel for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But you decide “Hey… I think I’ll pay for an upgraded ticket” and then decide “Hey… I think I’ll stay Friday and Saturday and go tour local hispanic food markets.”
So in this case, your hotel is paid for by you for Friday and Sat and your airfare is only partially paid for by the Sponsors of the Festival since you paid at least as much if not more for the upgrade.
You video/take pictures of the hispanic food markets and get ready to post/publish. But then you think “Hmmmm… this isn’t completely ‘my’ trip. I wouldn’t be here in this city if it weren’t for the Fruit/Veggie folks”. In this case, what disclosure is required? There’s definitely a material connection. You’re getting to post from an experience that was initially arranged through the Sponsors of the festival, but you’ve paid a huge portion of the bill… and even more confusing is that what you’re wanting to post (the hispanic markets) may not have anything to do with the 5 fruit/veggie growers who have been your hosts.
Interesting connundrum. I struggle with this too — and I nearly ALWAYS bake in extra time. So I often go for a blanket disclosure that says “My travel to X was paid for by Y. Most — but not all — of my travel expenses were covered by Y.”
It the story is truly outside of the scope of what was paid for, I mention the transit, only, and don’t worry about the other stuff.
I have yet to experience one but a press trip is definitely on my what’s happening list.
Roberta @MizChef says
When I worked for a travel agent magazine, I got to go on a press trip to Provence that was one of the best experiences of my life. By the end of it, I was thoroughly exhausted and I came home sick as a dog with some French version of the flu (I joke, but I was very ill), but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
However, I had a guaranteed venue for my articles. My concern when I stopped working at the magazine was that I wouldn’t be able to sell my articles if I went on press trips. This was especially true because I was laid off in 2009, at the very worst time of the economy and F/L work was extremely difficult to find. I wish I had been more aggressive about it.
My point is, press trips are a lot of work, but worth it in the end.
I’m seeing a lot more “you have to have an assignment before you come on this trip..” I get it. With so many of my markets not allowing press support, well… nope. No can do.
If only Nora Ephron was still with us! What great fodder..er..I mean food for poignant comedic adventures. Ok all you fiction writers out there, get to work. Those of us who never have, nor ever will be on a press sponsored trip eagerly await the book followed by the movie. Thanks Pam for a peek into this world.
Elizabeth Minchlili says
Another great post Diane!
I’ve generally had great experiences on press trips. But I get invited on many, and only rarely accept. When I do, it has to be a) something that I know I will want to cover somehow in my blog; b) not attended by 12 other bloggers covering the same thing and c) at a level I know will appeal to both me and my readers.
I’m also VERY clear from the outset about the fact that I never cover a pre- packaged story. While I may be invited to stay at a hotel, rarely will I write a straightforward story about the hotel itself. Things must be in context and make sense in terms of my blog, and I never know what that will be until the trip is finished. It could be a recipe from a restaurant in the same town or a ceramic factory nearby. While the story will not be about the hotel, per se, I always credit them with having brought me to this part of the world.
I also try to establish how I can and can’t promote the trip/sponsor. If they expect a certain level of coverage on social media, that has to be discussed before hand.
It’s all very tricky, and certainly changing constantly. 15 years ago a press trip meant that a magazine would pay for me to go to Lisbon for a week by myself, all expenses paid. Those days are long gone. These days it’s all a work in progress, but press trips are still an essential way to see and learn about new places and things.
With the decline of the expense account, they’re essential. But I wish that was not so.
I was booted off a guest list once for stating the kinds of terms you mention — no prior promised coverage, essentially. It made me wonder what other writers are promising.
Susan Cooper says
I have yet to participate in a press trip. I can see how each invite would have an up and down side. I do look forward to being invited at some point in time. I can only hope that the first one would be relevant to my blog, more importantly my readers.
I’ve been on plenty of pressers and the one thing I insist on is having free time to explore my own angles. Who wants to write tge same story as next journo? Also if there are parts of the trip, say, a visit to the local stamp museum or something eye-glazing, it’s likely I will have let our host know ahead of time (and away from goup ears) that I will NOT be attending. If I’m not going to write about it, why waste time? I don’t think taking a press trip means you automatically give up your soul to a PR person’s agenda. But this is also why I’m more inclined to piece together an individual, tailored-to-me trip, than go with a group.
Katie @ Mom's Kitchen Handbook says
Great post, Pam and Dianne. I just wanted to mention one other potential upside for sponsored trips: networking. I went on a trip last fall with a group of fellow registered dietitians and it was a terrific way to connect with my colleagues in a fairly intimate setting.
Stephanie Jaworski says
Thank you Pam for a thoughtful, insightful, and well written article. When this trend started quite a few years ago on food blogs, I found that I enjoyed the whole novelty of it. Just like a travel magazine, when an article is well written, and the pictures are beautiful, it can be very interesting. However, as with anything, when too many people start doing it, it can become old. Nowadays when some of my favorite food bloggers are writing long meandering posts, with way too many pictures, talking about every little detail, from their hotel to products to meals, I think “Oh no, not you too”. So while I can see the value of taking these free trips, from both a professional and personal standpoint, as always, you have to think about how your audience will react.
I’m as guilty as anyone of “Oooh, shiny!” thinking when it comes to the discovery of press trips and their perks. And then, coming to the “Oh, not you too,” way of reacting to others’ writings.
I ask myself if I’ll really get a good story out of it. Does it make sense for me to be doing this trip? Would I do it on my own? And like you, I think about my audience. Will they think I’ve been snatched by aliens if I’m on a shopping junket in Dallas? (Yes.)
I have read blogs that have gone on these kind of trips sponsored by the “corn industry” or some giant like that, and the stories are a commercial for them. With losts of fawning and misinformation. It’s horrible as an educated reader to hear such one sided view of industires that are not without issues.
But I get it. Some of the blogs I read are young moms who love the attention, getting a free trip and the swag. I just think they should educate themselves first and not be spoonfed the party line.
I used to go on a bunch of them when I wrote for many years about travel for Frommers. Many trips had a strong food focus. The caveat was that Frommer’s would not guarantee coverage but it would disclose the association whenever the story was published. However, the organizers were usually so happy to have someone connected to such a strong travel brand that no one ever really gave me a hard time about how we ended up covering the trip. I still get invited to them sometimes, but wonder if now that I am not writing for Frommers anymore, if I would still be approved as a solo entity who blogs a couple times a week and writes about food and travel.
You might be. I am super candid about my credentials — I have a respected blog that doesn’t have big traffic and I freelance. That’s it. Some folks say they’re fine with rolling the dice on my inclusion, others say they must have a guaranteed assignment. Whatever, it’s their dime.
But being a small fry hasn’t, in my experience, led to automatic exclusion.
Amanda (@lambsearshoney) says
Great post, but I can’t say that my experiences of media famils have been similar. I’ve done quite a few overseas trips, a couple with the same tourism body, but not all.
I’ve found that the itineraries are invariably packed, often with little or no free time, especially considering the distance I’ve had to travel from Australia to get to the northern hemisphere.
I’ve done about half of my trips in a group and half that have been specifically tailored to my needs. The group trips can be “interesting”, but I guess I’ve been lucky as I’ve always been able to buddy up with someone. The solo trips are, of course, much more focused, but can get a little lonely sometimes.
I’ve also been fortunate in that I’ve never been asked to write specifically on any experience. I work hard to make sure my hosts have had value for money out of me, but it is always what I want to write.
I’ve yet to have a bad experience on any famil, so have been able to share some pretty interesting experiences with my readers that, otherwise, I would not have been able to.
Unless there’s a really compelling reason for me to skip something on a trip agenda, I have tried to go all in on everything when invited. I’m a guest and they’ve chosen this stuff — supposedly — because they think I might find a story there. For me, it would have to be more than “not gonna write about it” because “not gonna write about it” is often a temporary state, and who knows what I’ll see, who I’ll meet, what kind of conversation I’ll have.
That said, if it’s openly communicated in advance that I’m morally opposed to stamp museums, ditching parts of the trip in advance seems fine. But it’s so rare I get a full itinerary prior to being on the ground, and I try not to be the person making last minute special requests.
And yeah, this is very much why the solo personal trip is better.
One thing that press trips offer is “access.” It’s often close to impossible to go visit a factory or go behind-the-scenes in a restaurant, hotel, bakery, cheese-making facility, etc without prior permission. And if you want to go somewhere, and press trip makes it possible for you to see and experience a lot of things in a limited amount of time, without having to worry about transportation and getting around, and so forth.
In my experience the best trips are organized by very professional press people who take the time to include people that they know will benefit and enjoy the experience. (The press people that I know often invite people that don’t necessarily have a lot of traffic or readers, but would fit nicely into the niche with their destination.) I’ve been fortunate to go on good trip and in the best cases, have ended up becoming personal friends with the publicists.
The biggest downside, that was mentioned elsewhere here, is that you often have a very tight agenda and no time for exploring on your own – or writing while you’re on the trip, which I prefer to do rather than one long post when I get home. And of course, you always want to give readers an accurate assessment of the place, not just a whitewashed view with glowing reviews about how luxurious your hotel room was.
Angela Roberts says
I’ve been on two press trips. One was glorious. I learned something a city I initially had no interest in (that it had a lot to offer), and I was able to find my own angle on how I wrote about it. I felt like it was a win/win for everyone.
The other press trip was miserable. The contact person ate with us (she let my husband come along and I offered to pay his part). She was obnoxious and would order all these fried appetizers at an upscale restaurant, then say she wasn’t ordering anything else to eat and we didn’t know what to do next. Write about fried aps? She insisted we eat dinner at 5:00 so she could go to a party. We enjoyed the daytime when we could ditch her. She also took us to two restaurants where we were the only people eating there. I couldn’t wait to get back to Nashville! She never honored the travel mileage she had promised, and I decided not to write about anything. lose/lose
Sally - My Custard Pie says
Firstly, thank you Diane for hosting Pam as a guest poster. I’ve signed up for email updates from a nerd’s eye view and delighted to have been introduced to such erudite and witty writing.
While my inbox is bursting with press invites for meals and kitchen tours I have only been on one travel FAM trip. This was one of the best experiences of my life and a complete eye opener at the same time. Going as a group introduced me to some amazing people who I still keep in touch with and some that I never want to see again EVER. One guy hogged every single photo opportunity taking a million different angles of each thing meaning that it was hard to get a good shot without him in it.
I was with a group of traditional media and bloggers and I think that PRs don’t always understand that bloggers have specific needs. Help with internet access and time to write up the trip as it happens would give the client more coverage in the long run.
I’d love to do a few more of these trips but get the feeling that getting places on them is now very competitive.
First, thanks for the kind words. ((Shucks.)) Now, a sticking point…
” PRs don’t always understand that bloggers have specific needs….”
I’m not sure bloggers do have different needs. We apply these real time constraints to ourselves, when really, no lives will be lost if we don’t blog our dinner for a few days. When I’m traveling on assignment — NOT writing for my blog — I am so grateful to have time in the agenda to sit and take notes and think about what I’ve seen earlier that day.
I think we ALL want the trips to slow down and give us air — and I think we forget, the PR rep is being paid to make sure we see all this STUFF, so our desire to sit at a table with coffee flipping through the days photos so we can remember is at direct conflict with the PRs goal, which is to make sure we see the restaurant/stamp collection/spectacular view from the suite which we will never ourselves be able to afford before it gets dark, oh, god time’s a wastin’ we’re expected in 20 minutes no, sorry, there’s no time for a shower.
I’ve met great people too, on both sides of the border, PR and fellow writers, and that is always a really nice bonus.
I’m a journalist by day with a reputed publication and a food blogger by passion, I live in Asia. I’ve only been on junkets, about 5-6, that my day job has brought me, and they have nothing to do with food. (I don’t do sponsored posts/host ads/reviews/recipe development or anything else on my blog, so I may never be invited for a bloggie junket and may never accept either, as long as I have my day job. I’ve kept blogging purely as a hobby.)
I follow a lot of what fellow bloggers in my country say on social media about PR’s treatment of them and I have to say I think that members of traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and TV are treated better and more deferentially than bloggers. And your post seems to bear this out. Most of our hosts have given us free time, if not escorted us around themselves. It’s only after the recession that I see some hosts become really tight with the purse strings. I have done leisure pieces on food for my publication based on these junkets, apart from the official stuff that is expected. From what I see, my colleagues in the media will not stand to be bullied by PR. In fact, one journalist did’t even do a single report after going all the way to Europe and back and the PR agency couldn’t do anything.
We have never been asked to write about anything (hotel, etc) other than the reason we were taken on the trip for. I have written both ordinary, status reports as well as ones where the hosts’ business strategy was criticised by experts commenting for my article. On some trips, I have wondered about the purpose of those trips and struggled to find something useful/solid to write about.
I have also been invited to several restaurants for food reviews for my publication’s leisure pages. While I don’t get sarcastic or nasty if I don’t like some of the food, I do say it was bad in polite language.
If I ever took up a trip as a blogger, I would not like to be treated shabbily and owned by the host/PR – after what I am used to, this seems outrageous to me. 🙂
I’m not sure I said that I’ve been treated badly, and that’s certainly not the case. I did do one trip where I was terrified by the PR reps toxic drinking and language and was relieved to learn that said rep was removed from that job. I’ve always been treated really well, though I have been on a few junkets that just wear me right out because there are Too Many Things Happening.
The only thing that’s happened to me that caused me to really raise my eyebrows is when I refused to commit to specific coverage on my blog prior to the trip and was booted from the guest list. I don’t like to promise anything in advance because hey, things go south, it happens, it really does. That was a weird turn of events, because what I said was, “Here’s some stuff I’ve published prior in similar circumstances, but I reserve the right to kill the coverage if it’s not worthy.” Seems legit, but hey, live and learn.
I’ve had a mixed bag with press trips.
My first overseas one was super. The group size was very small, the focus was on food (which is my area of blogging) and there were not only relevant trips to producers organised, but superb meals featuring those ingredients plus — a really nice touch — an afternoon walking tour of the city which gave us a rounder impression of the place even though our focus was food. The pace was good, not too much packed in but enough. And I had a fabulous time. I wrote my main pieces about the two food producers — their consortiums were sponsoring the trip — but I also did a short secondary piece about the restaurants. There was no pressure to cover hotel, since it was not the focus of the trip and the press team had, wisely, not promised the hotel any coverage. Oddly, I’m not sure one of the two other journalists created any coverage at all.
But not all my trips have been like that. On one recent one, the schedule was so unrealistic that even a pared down version was slightly hellish, being whipped from one client to the next. Everything overran so that lunch was incredibly late, by which time hunger was definitely making some of us tetchy, myself included. Huge late lunches made the equally huge dinners awkward since we were still stuffed full from lunch, but the next restaurant wanted us to eat just as much again. We had zero time to explore the destinations themselves, not even ten minutes, which I found a serious lack as it made it difficult to get any sense of the area. In fact, that meant that a piece I had hoped to pitch proved impossible. Of course I covered the core producers we visited, but found myself frustrated by the rest. That said, on a social level, it was a fun experience.
Manjulika Pramod says
I have been on press trips and honestly I am yet not bored of them. In other words I quite enjoy the all sponsored trips because they are well planned.
I blog about the good part first and ignore the not so good thing till its not too bad. But sometimes its important to bring out the reality.
You answered all of my questions. I value the honesty in your writing. I’m a new blogger and cautiously reading as much information as possible, in terms of ethics on this business. I want to enjoy the journey, explore and share my experiences with readers. However, I don’t want to agree on everything just in exchange of free perks. Down the road, it would be a high price to pay.
Thanks for this article,
It is a tough thing for many writers, who want the perks but then have to write about them in exchange. Pam walks the line carefully.
I’ve had mostly good experiences to great experiences. I had one very bad. The “host” of the city took my husband and I around and watched us eat. She let me bring him because she didn’t invite any other writers and expected me to go to the touring things by myself. Boring. She insisted on being with us for dinners which had to take place at 5:00 because “she had plans.” She was annoying, overbearing. She took us to two brunch places where we were the only people eating there. It was a terrible experience. She refused to keep her commitment to pay our gas money, as earlier promised. Guess what? I never wrote one single word. To this day, I don’t even want to go back to that city!
It sounds like her heart really wasn’t in it. I hope you hadn’t made any commitments about what you were going to write.
One more thing about our experience above. She ordered deep fried appetizers for the table at each place. We don’t eat like that. Then she didn’t order anything else. Said, “you order, I’m done.” We didn’t know if we were supposed to have entrees, how to talk about the food, etc. It was awkward. To that I couldn’t write anything.
It sounds like she had not spelled out how it was all going to work — or not work — in this case.