Something to write home about - What are travel journalists looking for in a press junket? A four-star meal? A massage? A little pampering, sure. But mostly a strong story. Diane Clehane reports

Give journalists something to write home about and they will. That’s what PR pros say about dealing with travel writers. Sure, an exotic locale helps. But even an outing to the most mundane motel can yield a worthwhile experience for journalists - and publicists - when all the elements are there. According to execs who plan the trips and journalists who take them, those necessary elements range from complete press kits delivered before the journey to screening out ’hacks’ who seriously impair the credibility of the trip.

Give journalists something to write home about and they will. That’s what PR pros say about dealing with travel writers. Sure, an exotic locale helps. But even an outing to the most mundane motel can yield a worthwhile experience for journalists - and publicists - when all the elements are there. According to execs who plan the trips and journalists who take them, those necessary elements range from complete press kits delivered before the journey to screening out ’hacks’ who seriously impair the credibility of the trip.

Give journalists something to write home about and they will.

That’s what PR pros say about dealing with travel writers. Sure, an

exotic locale helps. But even an outing to the most mundane motel can

yield a worthwhile experience for journalists - and publicists - when

all the elements are there. According to execs who plan the trips and

journalists who take them, those necessary elements range from complete

press kits delivered before the journey to screening out ’hacks’ who

seriously impair the credibility of the trip.



Both sides agree that PR pros have to be willing to play multiple roles

if they want to pull off a trip that leaves everybody satisfied with the

experience. Tour guide, camp counselor, sociologist, psychologist - and

even referee - are all part of the job description of the publicist who

sets off with a group of writers looking for (and expecting to find) a

story. One travel-weary writer put it this way: ’Planning a successful

press trip is like a good party. A little alchemy and a whole lot of

luck is needed for everything to fall into place.’



But that doesn’t mean anything should be left to chance. ’For a trip to

live up to expectations, you have to give journalists a diverse program,

lots of story ideas and enough free time to explore a destination on

their own,’ says Lou Hammond, president of Lou Hammond & Associates, a

New York-based PR firm that handles over 50 press trips a year.



Hammond, whose clients include The Waldorf Astoria and Mandarin Oriental

Hotel Group in Hong Kong, says trying to entice journalists deluged with

offers often requires some creativity. ’We had a day trip to Spa La

Quinta in Palm Springs and we had to figure out a way to get West Coast

editors to attend,’ she says. ’So we came up with a ’Beauty Bus’ where

editors got massages and heard from a guest speaker on the drive from

LA. When we got there they each had their own treatment schedule.’ The

trip resulted in placements in Los Angeles, InStyle and Variety.



Razzle-dazzle is fine, but Carrie Zimmerman, president of

Tallahassee-based The Zimmerman Agency, says style can’t take the place

of substance.



’Doing glitzy trips is easy - but what it really comes down to is

matching the right journalists to the right trip.’



Zimmerman and her staff were put to the test when they were charged with

orchestrating a junket to Residence Inns by Marriot, a moderately priced

extended-stay property.



’Typically we don’t take fam (familiarization) trips to moderate-tier

properties,’ says Zimmerman, whose agency also represents Peter’s Island

in the British Virgin Islands. ’But we had a good product in Phoenix and

we arranged for a roundtable discussion for the media with executives

from various areas to learn about all facets of the operation. The

journalists loved it. They got to ask serious marketing questions and

not just hear from people spinning the business.’



In the end, Zimmerman did decide to round out the trip with a weekend

stay at the five-star Camelback Resort. ’We did have a bit of fluff at

the end - they still got their massages and gourmet dinners,’ she

says.



Mixing business with pleasure paid off handsomely for Zimmerman, who as

a direct result of the trip racked up four stories in Travel Weekly

alone, as well as hits in other industry trades.



Solid guest list



A solid guest list is another important element that will help ensure a

trip’s success. ’You’re only as good as the weakest person on your

trip,’ says Mary Jane Kolassa, senior account manager at Orlando-based

Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, whose clients include Fiesta Americana

Hotels and Resorts. ’It’s a publicist’s job to know who is a good

producer. We keep very comprehensive lists of who goes on press trips -

and who writes what.’ Often that means selecting magazine staffers over

freelancers to attend trips. ’But we do take freelancers with specific

assignments,’ Kolassa says.



Journalists appreciate the scrutiny for entirely different reasons. ’I

know PR people have to fill a trip, but traveling with someone who has

questionable credentials can detract from the experience,’ says one

editor.



And just because you’ve spent days wining and dining a journalist, don’t

assume a story will miraculously appear in next month’s issue. ’We have

a really long lead time,’ warns one travel editor. ’I went to Aruba in

April and I only just wrote about it.’



Ironically, the most sought-after publications, including Travel &

Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, USA Today and The New York Times’s

Sophisticated Traveler, are among those outlets whose editorial policy

does not allow staffers to accept free trips. ’It’s hard to have your

own experience when you’re traveling with a pack of journalists being

lead around by a PR person,’ says Erik Torkells, senior editor of Travel

& Leisure.While many magazine writers will go on press trips and pay

their own way, Travel & Leisure’s writers travel incognito whenever

possible and try to view destinations through the eyes of the

locals.



Katie Hottinger, associate travel editor of Bride’s, says the magazine

takes as many as 10 PR-sponsored press trips a year but wishes PR execs

would not schedule every minute of every day with activities.

’Publicists have their own ideas of what they want you to see and

sometimes there’s some reluctance to let you go off on your own - that

can be frustrating,’ she says.



Michael Frenkel, director of the travel and hospitality division of New

York-based Evins Communications, agrees that giving journalists freedom

to explore is the key to every trip. ’You’ve got to know when to

disappear and let the property take over,’ he says. ’You can be an

information provider but when the curtain goes up, it’s the hotel’s

show.’ That’s why Frenkel is planning unescorted individual press trips

when Fifteen Beacon, a new 63-room luxury hotel, opens its doors in

Boston this fall. ’We’ll send press kits in advance, arrange a formal

tour and a meeting with Paul Roiff, the owner, offer some off-property

activities and let the hotel speak for itself,’ he says.



But there is a way, says Frenkel, to bypass press trips and still get

the coverage needed. Since the agency began promoting Fifteen Beacon

well before the hotel would open, trips were out of the question.

Instead, Frenkel says, this past April, top execs from the property went

to the offices of publications like Fortune and Travel & Leisure with

renderings, photos and a PowerPoint presentation. An article in Fortune

and a mention in The Wall Street Journal’s Take Off and Landing column

appeared within a week of the meeting.



Evins Communications is using this strategy even when there is a

property to visit. Rather than schedule expensive and time-consuming

trips to Hawaii to see Halekulani, Frenkel and his team set up meetings

for the property’s management team at key magazines in New York. The

group also made the rounds in Chicago and San Francisco. Although,

Frenkel says, ’you can never replace the hands-on look and feel

experience of a press trip,’ the agency is planning to extend the use of

alternate methods, like videoconferencing, to promote their travel

clients.



Trails of woe: travel and tourism PR pros recount 10 nightmare stories

of working with travel writers



Most PR pros admit that taking journalists on press junkets can be a

trip. Here (ranked from downright astonishing to simply annoying) are

the top 10 terrible tales from those who reveal (many wishing to remain

anonymous) what turned their best intentions into their worst press-trip

nightmare.



1. The ultimate freebie Margaret Vodopia reports this story from her

days working at an airline, before her current job as director of

advertising & public relations for hotelier The Luxury Collection: ’A

consumer travel monthly sent a (quite) junior member of its staff along

on a press trip I led to Israel. This young lady had a tremendous amount

of luggage, which should have been my first clue. She also had some

friends traveling in the economy section of our flight, which should

have been my second clue.’ At the first stop, in Tel Aviv, the woman

asked Vodopia to ’store three of her four large suitcases in our hotel

for the remainder of the week - even though we were scheduled to depart

from Jerusalem five days later. She announced to me on the last day of

the tour that she would not be returning with us, as she was going to

live on a kibbutz!!! She had resigned from the magazine and used the

press trip as a one-way ticket to relocate to another country.’



Months later Vodopia got a call at 4 am. ’It was the airline’s station

manager in Israel, asking if I had ever heard of this young lady - she

had turned up at the airport wanting to use the unused portion of her

ticket to return home that day! He wanted to know what to do, since her

ticket had expired the previous year. She gave him my home number and

told him to ring me despite the early hour since it was an emergency and

she needed to be home for the holiday. She also wanted an upgrade.’



2. Suicide note



One pro recalls: ’On the first day of a press trip, the general manager

from a small bed and breakfast asked to speak with me privately - and

then told me the maid had found a suicide note in the room of one of the

journalists. Not knowing whether this particular reporter was a closet

prankster meant I was graced with the additional job responsibilities of

’social worker’ and ’psychologist’ for the remainder of the trip. (I’m

happy to report the reporter is still alive and well.)’



3. Ticket to ride



’A writer from the West Coast who was on a fly/drive holiday in the UK

turned the car in to someone who looked official at the end of the

week.



The ’official’ took the keys and took off with the car. It finally

reappeared after a week-long joy ride - and a bill for an extra week’s

rental.’



4. The mother of all trips ’Two days before a four-day, cross-state fam,

one of the writers called to tell me that she couldn’t make it and asked

if her mom could fill in for her. I asked her if her mother was a

journalist. ’No,’ she replied, ’but she’ll take really good notes.’ The

group I was coordinating the tour for allowed this woman’s mom to come.

Then, during the welcoming dinner, this woman proceeded to tell

offensive, racial jokes.’



5. A family affair Continuing with family-minded journalists, a PR pro

who organizes a steeplechase events says: ’The first year I was here I

received two forms from different (media) outlets but noticed it was in

the same handwriting. Turns out the publication will use different

variations of the same name and the staff is all family members.

Standing in the infield of the event I noticed all these people wearing

the special nametags they requested. Turns out I had found a mother who

worked at the pub with a ton of teenagers having a good time and eating

my food!’



6. Taken for a ride One PR pro still marvels at the nerve of one errant

editor. ’She was driving herself back from a trip and offered a ride to

another writer.



A month later we got a bill from her as if she were a limousine

service.



We never paid it - but she’s off our guest list for good.’



7. Scotch and cake Martha W. Steger, director of public relations for

the Viriginia Tourism Corp., remembers one journalist’s thirst. ’The

gentleman who ordered a bottle of Scotch at his hotel for dollars 60 and

charged it to his room (which we were comping) took the cake. We

followed up with a bill to him, reminding him of our policy (stated on

every travel itinerary we do) that we cover only alcoholic beverages

provided at meals - and then he reimbursed us.’



8. A real rib-tickler ’An ex-husband and wife writer/photographer

convinced the local PR person to drop them off at Stag’s Night at the

local Elk’s Lodge,’ says one exec on the trip. ’That night they tipped a

few too many and the wife fell off the bar stool. The next day we could

see she was in pain as we were on a tour on a bumpy, unpaved road. But

it wasn’t until much later that we learned she had actually broken her

ribs! We never did see a story from them.’



9. A tale of two lobsters



Brenda Farrell, now senior publicist at Johnson & Wales University,

worked for the Rhode Island Tourism Division. ’A husband and wife team

came to our state on a custom food and travel fam of Providence, Newport

and Block Island. Within an hour of their arrival, I knew they were

going to be trouble. Presented with a beautiful two-pound lobster at

lunch, he flipped it over, poked at the tail and screamed at the waiter

to take it back and bring him a female lobster (he wanted the roe). From

that point on, he insisted on ordering ’off the menu,’ then complained

about the preparation of each and every meal. And, no, they didn’t write

a single word.’



10. Loggerheads A Florida exec recalls taking two photographers - an

amateur and a renowned professional - on one trip. ’The amateur didn’t

know what he was doing and kept getting in the pro’s shot. By the second

day they were screaming at each other and by the end of the trip I

literally had to come between them to prevent bodily harm to either

party.’



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