Press Trip Conundrum: What do we owe in return?

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I love a good press trip. Some hold up their noses to it. Others see them as their sole means for travel. I am neither extreme. I appreciate a good press trip for the same reasons I appreciate any opportunity to obtain content for work. Over the years I have gotten better in the press trip, or “fam” trip, practices. I am more selective, more inquisitive, and more conservative with the asks in the contracts I am often required to sign ahead of time.

I’ve learned to “calm down” when it comes to press trip invitations, meaning, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t immediately say yes, no questions asked, and actually take a day or two to respond to an invite.

I use that day or two to figure out where and if, there is another publication where I can sell my story because though I still consider my blog to be a reputable enough publication, I love making money from my press trips too, and that requires a bit more leg work. I also really think about the trip and how valuable it is for my brand and future stories. Lastly, I like to think long and hard about how the time in a press trip will impact my work flow, deadlines, and family life. This last bit is a luxury few have.

Though many of my hosts invite me based on what they see on this blog, others are attracted to work I have done as a freelancer too, and approach me with the hope that any story I write will find placement on different platforms, though it isn’t always something I can promise.

There’s really no way for me to afford to travel as much as I do and get as much content as I do and as many work opportunities as I do as a freelance travel writer, were it not for the press trip. While some might find this beneath them…and I suspect those people have an endless supply of cash of their own for travel, going on press trips for content is nothing new.

Travel journalists have done it forever, on the request and dime of the publications whom they work for (which is a major difference for bloggers – we don’t have an editorial piggy bank who pays us a salary, reimburses our expenses, or funds our travels).

So, press trips are great and being invited on them is something I am appreciative of, truly, especially in this over saturated world of travel blogging.

The question then is, what do I owe my hosts for the privilege of being on one of their media excursions?

The Investment

I’ve often spoken on what it takes to put together a press trip, the pressure the agency organizing it all is on, and the expectations, but it bears repeating.

Putting together a press trip is no easy task. There are a lot of components involved, a lot of meetings, plenty of negotiation, and many promises.

Of course there are promises, otherwise why would anyone, be it the destination or their vendors, pay money to a firm or agency for their public relations and marketing services where it not for the promises they make in return?

Someone won a bid and got the contract, based on promises. And at some point the time comes to deliver on the goods, which in part involves the selling of the client. One way to do that is through travel stories, and no one can do that better than travel media.

Suffice to say that we, the travel media, are part of the pitching process. Someone sold us to the destination long before we ever got the invitation to be on the trip.

How did they do that? Well, the best of them offered up examples of our work, our reputation in the space, and our affiliations. It involved a high expectation of deliverables on our part. Why? Because that is our job.

Now, some might not like that – to hear that there are expectations attached to what we do and that’s OK. Not all of us are doing this as a form of income or as a profession. But for those of us who are, being known as a professional who delivers on quality content is not a bad thing.

That being said, there is a lot of money thrown into these trips. Though it may feel “free” to some, there is absolutely nothing free about it. The loss of income is high for our hosts. It’s a hotel room that wasn’t sold. A profit that wasn’t made. It’s an investment, and one can even say an investment based solely on faith for return.

But our hosts aren’t the only ones making an investment. I invest a lot in these trips too, for my business and my professional growth. Like with any job, sometimes it requires the cost of a babysitter. Often times the investment is the car service to and from the airport, food, baggage costs, and time (with no one to reimburse me for those expenses). Each day that I am away on a press trip is time away from getting and pursuing other work, which for a freelancer is crucial. It’s also time away from my kids and my husband, which for me is crucial.

They too are making an investment. My children often settle to sharing significant moments in their life through brief conversations via Skype. My husband sometimes has to work from home or take entire days off to manage scheduling conflicts with school or sick days. We are all in this together. And there is absolutely nothing that feels “free” about it.

The Ask

Some agencies will ask for an assignment letter in advance to somewhat guarantee their return on investment. This is not often done with bloggers because our blogs are our publication. But, we may be asked if we have an intention to publish, which we should decide on long before we agree to go on the trip.

The ask will sometimes include the use of a hashtag or simply sharing of content through the social media. This is where it starts to get tricky because it is where bloggers and writers start crossing into the realm of marketing and campaign promotions – which is a more significant ask than just writing an article or blog post.

What the hosts ask for depends on the experience they have with how social media works and how knowledgeable they are in working with bloggers. Those least familiar with either of these tend to over promise deliverables to their clients because they overestimate how bloggers use their platforms, without compensation for promotional efforts, and underestimate a blogger’s ability to control the content they put out.

There are hosts who equate a press trip (and the money spent on them) to compensation or payment for work from the media attending. These are not in any way the same thing. A press trip does not equal actual compensation in exchange for work. Yes, people looking for covered expenses for a trip will barter coverage/services for a discounted or comped amenity, and that’s a personal choice, but that in no way means that it is a standard form of payment in the industry. It never was before blogging and it isn’t now.

So, what do we owe?

I use the word “owing” because it is one I hear often among bloggers who find themselves in a situation where hosts and agencies start asking for a lot more than the standard expectation of a travel story. I have actually heard bloggers say things like, “They invited me and gave me a chance, so I feel like I owe them” and I have had hosts tell me, “We’re covering all of your expenses to be here, so we feel like our requests are fair”.

Never, ever, never should we enter into a press trip agreement with a sense that we are so indebted to our hosts that we relinquish our ability and right to negotiate or simply say no to unexpected asks and never discussed expectations during or after the trip. We should never accept a media invite where the conditions aren’t ones we feel completely comfortable with, where we don’t feel we can deliver, or where the ask is more than we feel is appropriate.

For some, social media seems to blur the lines, so I’ll try to make it clearer.

What our hosts should expect from bloggers/writers

Our hosts have every right to expect that our acceptance to an invitation to travel to their destination is done with the intention to create content around our experiences. There’s nothing to argue here. You don’t plan on writing the story? Destination so and so isn’t really your cup of tea? It doesn’t fit your angle, niche, diet, lifestyle, image, or brand? DON’T SAY YES. Because when you say yes, you are also saying that you are doing so with every intention to develop content from it. Really, there’s nothing confusing about this.

Let’s say you are a journalist – like, for a newspaper or magazine, and your editor sends you on assignment, and you go, then you come back and you don’t write the story. Chances are 1) you won’t get paid 2) you won’t get another assignment or 3) you’ll lose your job altogether. Sure, it’s your personal choice, but it’s not one without its consequences.

What is beautiful about blogging and why it’s difficult even for me to promise my hosts placement outside of my blog, is that editors and outside publications can be fickle. They might agree to a story, then decide they don’t want it anymore. Or another advertiser paid more for the placement, or they didn’t like the angle and dropped it last-minute. As bloggers, we have editorial control and if we decide we want to write about something, and say we will, then we just do. Which is why we are so loved. Except when we waste everyone’s time and money and don’t ever write anything at all. Then, not so much.

Our hosts, from the destination to the agency level should expect to be treated with respect, consideration, and courtesy. They are not the hired help. Our hosts, the PR reps, our tour guides, and other staff are not there to run errands for us, or get us headache pills in the middle of the night, or act as our drug suppliers, or bedmates. They shouldn’t be expected to hold back our hair while we vomit, or have to apologize or lie for our indiscretions, or make excuses for our lack of professionalism.

Our hosts should also expect that we will behave like the true professionals they promised their clients we would be. That we will show up to scheduled events and outings. That we will stay with our group and be gracious guests and mature adults. That we won’t empty the mini bar or act like drunken fools or the cast from Jersey Shore or Girls Gone Wild. They should expect that we won’t humiliate them, or jeopardize their contractual commitments, that we won’t behave like divas and treat anyone with disrespect, and that we will know what the itinerary is and expectations are beforehand and adhere to them.

They should expect and trust that we are there to work, not make their jobs harder.

What we should expect from our hosts

We should expect and ask to have a full itinerary of events with advance notice, so that we may ask any questions, determine any conflicts, and/or point out any issues ahead of time (requesting changes to an itinerary is not something we should expect to be honored, however).

We should expect to receive any and all asks ahead of time, so that we can negotiate, discuss, and decide. So, for example, getting requests during and post trips for more content, sharing, stats, or other deliverables is not OK.

Press trips are not the answer to every marketing and promotional need – unless this has been discussed beforehand…and hopefully being paid (like, money cash) for. Thus, expectations should be made clear in advance so that the blogger/writer can make an informed decision around this information.

We should expect to be treated with respect, consideration, and courtesy. We are not the hired help. We shouldn’t be dragged around from spot to spot to spot, with no rest or break in sight. We should be fed at appropriate times, and allowed to go to the bathroom without having to beg for it and given the opportunity to sleep, or check our emails. And WiFi would be nice when possible as well as opportunities to pursue our story without pressure to focus on a singular angle.

I have no problem with using a hashtag when I travel. I often even create my own. Though the brand sees this as a bonus for them, and it is, it is also of great benefit to me because it helps my readers following along on my journey and engages them in the process. Some bloggers will argue only on the fact that hashtags are “free promotional tools for brands by bloggers”. I can only say that we must be using social media differently and have a different audience, because my readers enjoy keeping track of my trips with these tags, and are pretty active online with questions, comments, and even tips, when I travel because of them. So before you let someone convince you that hashtags are the devil, figure out your own space and audience first and determine what approach is right for you. Does the brand benefit from it all? Absolutely. Do I? No doubt about it.

However, I do draw the line on excessive asks and demands for social shares, especially those that require far more work than just doing what is standard for me. I like using my social media authentically, not in a way that is manipulated and controlled. If it is required to do so in a way that I wouldn’t normally, than I am entering the realm of marketing campaign, and that requires further conversation.

In short, the minute there are specific demands for content, social media share, collection and deliverable of data and statistics, and other exclusive content from your hosts, you are no longer functioning as a writer or independent blogger. You are now taking part in a controlled publicity campaign and should ask about payment, or ask that those demands be reconsidered.

Final note

There are times when you go on a trip and something happens that affects your ability or desire to write the story. It has happened to me, and it sucks. The best thing to do is have that conversation with your host. Explain to them what went wrong.

Never write for your host. Always write for the reader. This may mean that the host won’t see every single activity or vendor mentioned in your piece. The truth is, they shouldn’t expect it. Unless you are under paid contract with set guidelines for content, the story is yours to write.

Our hosts may be lovely, and incredibly generous, which inspire us to want to please them. As long as you never lose sight of what matters most (again, your readers) and you remain honest in your message, there is never anything wrong with going a bit above and beyond to show appreciation. But remember, that is not the same as giving away your skill and talent for free. And a true professional would never think to ask another to do so.

And let’s stop feeling like we owe people so much for being recognized as valuable media professionals. Wanna make them happy? Just do your job to the best of your abilities and don’t be a pain in ass in the process.

That alone goes a long way.

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Carol Cain

Carol is her happiest when on an adventure, either close to home or farther away. She's the mom to three fun boys and wife to a handsome Irish/Scot. She lives in New Jersey with her happy crew, but will always be a girl from Brooklyn. You can read her full profile here.

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4 Responses to Press Trip Conundrum: What do we owe in return?

  1. All so thoughtful, and well put. These trips can get muddy on both ends if expectations are not clear. You do a fantastic job spelling it all out, as you always do my friend!

  2. kristengill says:

    Thank you for this article! I really enjoyed reading it. Thoughtful, honest, and showing both sides of the PR/media story. Cheers, and many happy adventures!

    Kristen Gill
    http://www.kristengill.com

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