Saturday, 10 October 2009

Anyone round here want to hire a travel writer?

Going a bit off radar this week. I've been down south - no, not Stoke - but that there London for a discussion about the future of travel writing organised by the British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW).
I realise this isn't a Northwest issue per se, but the event highlighted the way we gather our inspiration and information about tourism in our region, and every other region, is changing.
Put simply, the future of travel writing in under threat. I'm in this game because I love the craft of writing. And the best travel writing is about people and not places anyway.
But, as a professional writer (captured on assignment in Belfast, above), the way I work and the way people consume travel writing is moving into uncharted territory. I'm a writer not a salesman, but I'm going to have to adapt to a changing world - as is everyone working in travel.
Food for thought, so please do post your comments below. Normal service resumes next week ...
Question for you: what is the future of travel writing? More D-list gimps on an all-exes week in the sun? Yet another creeping-brain-death round up? Or a tag-laden top ten list peppered with SEO (that's Search Engine Optimisation, folks) keywords that makes my shopping list for Tesco look like the latest William Dalrymple?
As PRs and members of the BGTW gathered for the October meeting, the real question seemed to be thus: does the future of travel involve any actual, well, writing?
The BGTW, with its 260-strong, freelance heavy membership, takes pride in the breadth of knowledge amongst its ranks. But this year has been torrid for members. Fewer commissions, reduced rates, let alone the insulting ntion we would actually offer our expertise for no renumeration. Even Sir Cliff Richard is muscling in our patch - as if Mistletoe and Wine wasn't heinous enough.
Guild PR Co-ordinator Sarah Monaghan captured the spirit of the times in her opening address. "Print is dying, so to keep travelling and writing we have to adapt," she says. "Writers need to set up a niche website or blog."
Fair enough, and some PR companies are now experimenting with bloggers on press trips, but, according to David Ezra, Director of Saltmarsh and Surf PR, the industry still wants to support meaty commissions and well-informed comment. "The job of the travel writers isn't dead," he says. "There's still a thirst for expert travel knowledge."
Saltmarsh have launched spin-off agency, Surf, to handle online travel content. "Clients want to steer traffic back to their websites. They are asking us to watch the blogs - they're like word of mouth on a global scale," he adds.
One of the major concerns aired on the night was the way that some titles are increasingly sending inexperienced staffers on press to reduce freelance budgets. Having read the weekend papers recently, the effect on quality is already all too manifest.
From the world of glossy magazines, Guild member Amanda Statham (travel editor of Nat Mags' Cosmopolitan and You & Your Wedding) confirmed this. "The editor Cosmo told me she is 'unlikely to pay freelancers for travel copy as staff are still taking trips', while the editor You & Your Wedding has 'no money for travel copy unless very unique'," she says.
If there's salvation out there, she argues, again it's online. "A good website is driving magazine sales. I can see a time, maybe two years from now, when I will need a budget to keep content up to date, so get involved in the web," she advises.
Jacqueline Mirtelli, Director of PR for the French Government Tourist Office, concluded the discussion with a few statistics. Their busy press office generates 400 travel cuttings per month of which 25% are from national papers, 50% from regional papers, 20% consumer magazines and 15% online. "I'm convinced that, in ten years time, the majority will be online," she says.
So, conclusions then. Guild Membership Secretary Ron Toft advises members to re-invent ourselves. "Adapt or die," he says, citing the four key calls to action as adapt, specialise, market yourself aggressively and sell words-and photos packages.
BGTW elder statesman John Carter adds: Think about travel content. It's a moving medium so think in terms of pictures and sound."
For my own part, I'd add another message for the PRs in the room: be more proactive and less reactive with your approaches. I barely get past the headline of mass-mailing press release before hitting delete. A targeted email saying, "I saw you wrote about this. Did you ever consider following up this angle? Or did you know that this is happening in three months time" will get my full attention and an enthusiastic personal response.
Yes, I know we're all busy. But direct message me on Twitter and it'll only cost you the effort to generate 140 characters. And it could lead to those increasingly rare 1,000 words of in-depth, informed copy that helps to feed my family and keep you in your clients' good books.


  1. It's all very interesting - thanks for summing up a meeting I missed, David. What's exercising me at the moment is whether the idea of splitting outside payment to journalists away from control over what they write has any viability. It would, essentially, break the model of sponsored advertorial and instead - as Nathan Midgley of 'Travel Weekly' commented on my post at - return to a reliance on the calibre of journalist and editor working together, regardless of who pays who...

    Pie in the sky perhaps, but it's hard to see else how good writing (that is, writing which is published for its own sake, not for how much advertising income it might draw) will survive...

  2. Good to hear from you, Matthew. I've just caught up on your blog and it's a really interesting idea. Certainly from the mood of last week's meeting and the subsequent posts around the blogs, something has got to give. Maybe you can forge a new model from the debris of the current climate.

  3. I think most of us probably need to think around this a lot, until many of the ideas on how to use the net stop seeming novel and start seeming like common sense. It's a matter of getting out of the comfort zone.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Jenny. Yes, it's turmoil right now and many Guild members must be baffled by it all. We're all second guessing right now but nobody knows the final answer. D

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