A rented Renault Twingo on a Rough Guides research trip in France

A rented Renault Twingo on a Rough Guides research trip in France

In the travel business we all need each other. PRs, Tourism Offices and journalists live in a symbiotic relationship, which should be equal so that no one feels cheated. PRs get upset if no articles come out of a press trip; Tourism Offices are surprised that their offer for a town tour is not accepted; and journalists with commissions are surprised to find ‘they are not good enough’ for a particular trip.

This is my slant on things and how I work. I wrote this to make things easier for PRs and Tourism Offices I haven’t worked for.

When I’m on a trip, I’m not on holiday. My time is not my own. Of course being on safari is better work than working in an assembly line – but, I repeat, the time is not my own. I’m there to complete some work. Sometimes more than  one commission. Sometimes I’m getting ideas for a future pitch. In the publishing business, it all takes time. Sometimes articles don’t get published until 18 months later. Books maybe a year. Some articles commissioned for one magazine may end up in another; one Swiss hotel feature instead of a UK-based low circulation magazine ended up with a description and a link on Yahoo Travel, the world’s #25 website.

So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not in for a jolly. If I am, you will know in advance. I’ll probably be paying.

For this reason, I approach PRs and Tourist Boards as an equal. We are doing business together. Of course. I’m grateful for your hospitality as long as you are also appreciative for the coverage you will get (whatever the size –  it costs virtually nothing to offer hospitality to a travel writer, whereas advertising space has to be paid for). And, please, start evaluating coverage in the social media which I also provide. If you don’t believe in social media consider this: would Trip Advisor end up in such a deified state among travel businesses if Web 2.0 didn’t matter? Do you know that hotels have asked me to stay for free, as long as I write a good review for Trip Advisor? I don’t write reviews there, by the way. They don’t pay. I don’t review for free.

One thing many tourist boards and PRs ask me about is lodgings.

Personally I don’t care where I stay, as long as the room is quiet (I’ve been put up in a hotel next to a main airport runway), clean of bedbugs (I’ve stayed in a four-star hotel where my body seems to have fed several vampires) and I need wi-fi reception in my room – if anything, because all my work is in the Cloud nowadays. I’ve heard all kinds of excuses for lack of wi-fi. Yes, I know how my computer works. And no, I don’t want access at reception (because I work every night, sometimes late at night when in the field) in the same way I don’t want to have an outside toilet. One hundred years ago hotel clients asked for electricity. Fifty years ago for hot water. Wi-fi is as indispensible as those things in the second decade of the 21st century. Especially for journalists and for people with a strong online presence like myself.

As for location: if you’re driving me around, then you can put me up anywhere you like. But if I’m driving (as often happens in guidebook research) then please don’t book me in an unsignposted B&B 5 kms inside the forest from the nearest village of 20 souls which even the GPS can’t find. (It’s happened.) Even if you do that, I won’t include it in my guide, as I can’t possibly advise readers to get lost like Snow White and Red Riding Hood, unless I’m writing an article about a Grandma with big teeth or I’ve specifically asked for a Blair Witch project scenario. Also, if you put me up in village A, please don’t book me for dinner in Village B, 15kms away. Firstly, I will have been driving all day and the last thing I want is put my bum back on the driving seat. Secondly, I don’t drink and drive, so I won’t be able to drink and relax. Thirdly, I don’t like driving a rental car at night in a foreign place, especially if I have to return to that wonderful out-of-the-way B&B in the forest. I would rather have a kebab and unwind with a beer, thank you.

If I accept a press trip (PT), please don’t design special adventures for me, which readers cannot replicate. It’s pointless giving me a English-speaking guide for a whaling tour which is offered only in Spanish. I can’t write about it, and everyone is wasting their time. I’m there to make a living. Please remember that.

Outside PTs, there are two kinds of individual trips I undertake. Guidebook research (GR) is different from a specific article trip (AT). GR involves ticking off many places during the day. That means I may have to eschew some guided tours (they take too long and I may not have time; I’d rather stop by the next castle down); or meeting someone at a specific time (because many things happen en route and I have no control over them). ATs are different. I need local expertise, people I can quote with local knowledge, so give me as many locals as you like. Some GRs are combined with ATs (or possible ATs for future reference). We will both know which is which in advance. So, if on a GR trip, don’t feel obliged to fill my day with visits and tours. If I refuse them, you might get upset (it’s happened) and if I accept them, I might stay up until 2am working because of the delay (it’s happened). It really all depends on how much time I have.

On the other hand, on an AT, give me as many tours and guides as you can afford. Note that if I ask you or the guide something, please don’t refer me to a brochure, unless it’s timetables or prices. I need to hear the story from you because that’s how I will write it and prove to the editor that I’m not of the Johann Hari school of journalism. Also please don’t ask me to copy or paraphrase a story which you’ve written in a brochure. I won’t do that. I need you to say it so that I can quote you and write it in my own way. I will, of course, double-check any facts you are giving.

Finally a personal request: please let me rest after a long haul flight. I can’t sleep in airplanes. Let me at least freshen up and hang up my clothes before a tour starts. After a seven-hour flight, don’t take me directly from the airport to a tour bus and only have me reach the hotel six hours later. (It’s happened.)

Now for the thorny question: will an establishment that will put me up get a mention in the guidebook or be recommended? In an AT/PT article 100% yes. Journalistic ethics impose on me to mention any freebies I’ve had: “JM was the guest of such-and-such and travelled with such-and-such”. In a GR trip: very likely yes, because if I’ve stayed somewhere, I can describe it better, check the service and soak up the ambience. Also, a tourist office or PR will not put me up in a terrible hotel.

However, there have been a good number of occasions when I have not included a hotel I’ve stayed in. That hotel near the airport runway for instance or another hotel with cockroaches in the bathroom, or that three-star hotel with an ant infestation where I woke up covered with them.

Or the one with the bedbugs.

whatever the size – do not forget that it costs you virtually nothing to offer hospitality to a travel writer, if you want an ad, you’ll just have to pay for it….