Travel PR: Damage Limitation

Press trips can go badly wrong. Simon Ellery asks travel PROs how to cope with missed flights, drunk journalists and broken limbs - and still get positive coverage

It's every travel PRO's worst nightmare. The plane's delayed, the hotel isn't finished, and the journalists come down with food poisoning while on a press trip. The chances of a good write-up for the client are rapidly disappearing.

While this is a rare occurrence, mid-trip disasters - ranging from erratic weather to transport breakdown - often happen and are unpredictable. But what can the travel PRO do to amend the situation? The key is to stay cool and quickly implement plan B.

One of the more common problems is missing a flight, either due to the inevitable complications of bad traffic or delays from connecting flights.

Brighter PR managing director Steve Dunne experienced the latter. He was forced to take action when a press trip missed a plane connection in Johannesburg, and he was stuck with journalists en route to a safari via Cape Town.

Dunne gave the journalists drinks in the business class lounge while he liaised with his client, South African Airways, in both the London and South Africa offices to divert a New York-bound plane to drop the party off in Cape Town. Not the easiest of tasks to accomplish.

'We had to get the chief executive out of bed to sanction all this, as well as getting clearance from the country's equivalent of the Civil Aviation Authority,' he says. 'It was the "swan" thing - you look calm but are peddling like hell. But if you are not calm in these situations, the whole thing can fall apart.'

Dunne believes the more experience PROs have of organising press trips, the more adept they become at ensuring the 'chemistry' of the group is right. But on occasions the group doesn't gel; the PRO needs to step in if it looks like a party member is being isolated by the others.

'You can often get factions on a press trip,' he adds. 'You get situations where journalists cold-shoulder other journalists. The experienced PR will ensure that nobody is edged out and factions are diffused.'

Dunne points to various techniques such as tapping into sympathetic journalists to bring the marginalised person back into the fold, and, in some cases, it is necessary to take journalists aside to have a word with them.

Alcoholic allure

On top of the usual personality problems and missed flights, the next biggest obstacle is alcohol and its unquestionable appeal to hacks. The night before an early morning white-water rafting trip in Uganda, Dunne had to intervene after spotting several journalists - including some from the Daily Star and the Daily Express - poised to get stuck into what looked like a heavy drinking session.

'That took a diplomatic, but quite assertive, warning that they should not hammer the scotch,' he says.

It was demon alcohol that proved too much of a lure for another journalist on a trip organised by the Saltmarsh Partnership. Account director Donna Lewis says: 'While under the influence, the journalist not only loudly insulted whoever was hosting him, but also tried to set fire to the tablecloth in any restaurant that we visited. Fortunately, all the other media on the trip viewed him as a disaster waiting to happen, and pounced on him if he requested matches at the end of an evening.'

As with any consumer-targeted sector, a key objective for travel PROs is to obtain widespread media coverage for their clients. And despite past experience with inebriated journalists, Lewis believes good results in terms of coverage come from striking a balance between professionalism and allowing the journalists to let their hair down. She points to a trip for a client to show off the unique culture of a remote island where she managed to send the journalists to 'gatecrash' a 21st birthday party.

'It turned into a very big night and that then featured in a number of articles,' Lewis adds.

On a serious note, top of a travel PRO's priority list is to ensure the journalists' safety. While working in a previous job at Marketeer, SRF account director Nicki Glancey took eight national newspaper journalists to the Caspian sea town of Baku, in the newly oil-rich country of Azerbaijan, for its client the Online Travel Company.

The trip was designed to give a rare insight into a relatively undiscovered tourist spot that is bordered by the states of Georgia and Iran, and which now offers five-star hotels and European-style bars.

During the trip, one journalist asked to be exempted from a tour of a carpet museum to go and do her own thing. Glancey says: 'She was an experienced travel journalist, so I let her go. There were others that wanted to do the same, but as they were not as press-trip savvy, I wouldn't let them.'

Pre-empting potentially fatal situations is one skill, but dealing with disasters is another. Weber Shandwick account director Fenella Grey oversaw a press trip skiing in the Italian Alps when, on day two, a journalist slipped and broke his ankle before even reaching the slopes.

'The journalist was obviously in distress, but as we worked closely with the in-house team back in the office, and the representative in the resort, the journalist felt he was being taken care of - that's important,' she says.

Grey adds that the incident became the talking point of the trip with the journalist taken to hospital, flown back to the UK and then given another holiday to recuperate.

'The journalist felt he had travelled with a trustworthy and established tour operator and that was precisely the message communicated in his subsequent article - the client takes care of you whatever the adventure.'

This is the type of positive message travel PROs need to get across for their clients. But can they always promise favourable coverage?

The first thing you have to identify, advises BGB director Fiona Reece, is whether a group press trip is actually needed, or whether it is a case of taking journalists away individually. Never force journalists to spend time with other journalists if that's the last thing they want.

'More and more journalists want their own itinerary, especially those from the broadsheets,' she says. 'You have to ensure it is not a press trip for its own sake and we're certainly sending more journalists away on individual itineraries than before.'

Yet new holiday activities, hotels or airlines arguably lend themselves much better to the group press trip. Reece points to a recently launched 'Learn-to-Garden' holiday package from Greek tour operator Laskarina, where five journalists, including reporters from The Guardian and the Express, were taken to the island of Symi.

'In this case it was more useful to take a group because it was an activity where they would learn something new by being in that group,' she says.

Understanding how a newspaper works is a significant factor when organising a press trip. An excursion can be painful if journalists are surprised to discover at the airport that their closest rival is also on the trip, so Reece advises transparency about attendees. 'The Sunday Times does not want to go away with the same angle as The Sunday Telegraph,' she adds.

Triumph from disaster

Occasionally, a disaster can have occurred before the press trip has even taken place. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods often prompt in-house PR executives to organise press trips.

Back in August, Kempinski Hotels and Resorts organised a press trip to show how its Dresden hotel has been revamped and restored following last summer's floods in central Europe.

Group director of communications Louise Hounsell says the hotel group has almost doubled the number of press trips over the last two years, organising up to ten a year.

'The objective was to show that Dresden was a city you could go back to as a weekend break for the consumer press, and as an incentive destination for business and group meetings. We wanted to show off our "new" hotel,' she says.

For Hounsell, concise planning and preparation are key. She would never authorise a press trip eight to 12 weeks before the planned date, as there is a risk of failing to get the right press. 'If you do not send out the invitation in good time, the diaries of editors and the good freelancers are booked out,' she adds.

Hounsell recommends a lead-time of up to six months, a carefully planned itinerary to attract the journalist, collaboration with a good airline that will not bump the seats, and hotels fully briefed on journalists' bed preferences and dietary requirements.

There is, however, no real preparation for dealing with difficult hacks.

Tact has to play a large part of the PROs job on site, if they come across a 'high maintenance' journalist.

Reece, for example, took a group to Turkey for the now disbanded company Accommodation Turkey, on a camping trip. She was forced literally to go the extra mile with a journalist from a health and fitness magazine.

'First, he insisted on me accompanying him on a five-mile run down a mountain - as this apparently was "part of my job as the PRO", which I did, although it nearly killed me. Then he waited till we got to the most remote part of the trip and announced he had to go back to England that night because of important business.'

A three-hour taxi ride was organised by a very understanding client, but later Reece found out from other group members why he left. 'The "important business" was his girlfriend's birthday that he had just remembered had been the day before, and he needed to make peace with her,' she adds.

And despite the obvious perks - travelling to exotic destinations and staying in the most luxurious hotels - you have to avoid slipping into the holiday mode. Dunne emphasises how the travel PRO is on duty 19 to 20 hours a day. 'I have had journalists ringing me in the middle of the night to say that there is a lizard in their shower,' he says.

Such frustrations are familiar situations to the seasoned travel PRO, and they will always be. But quick thinking, tact, and preparing well in advance for possible disaster scenarios will go some way to perfecting the press trip - and, consequently seeing your client written about positively by demanding journalists.

Press trip checklist

1. Choose the chemistry of the media party carefully. Be aware of rivalry between journalists and publications and be clear to all invitees about who is on the trip.

2. Don't leave anything to chance. No matter how well-travelled they are, journalists often forget passports, tickets/visas and inoculations.

Never send the journalists the flight/boat/train tickets by post as they risk forgetting them.

3. Always remember you are never off duty, as journalists will look to you to sort it out if something isn't going well - at all times of the day and night.

4. Build in some spare time for the journalists to indulge themselves, whether it be shopping or relaxing. That way they will be more attentive to the inevitable hotel room tour. Nothing exasperates journalists more than rushing from place to place, leaving barely more than a few moments to enjoy important elements of the trip.

5. Think ahead. Check everything is in place for the next day and the day after that - and continue to check as the trip unfolds.

6. Freelance journalists, especially those who work for the nationals, are good to have on board as they will write a number of stories, whereas staffers are only tasked with producing one. Having said that, attempt to sift out the 'freelance blaggers' by insisting on a firm commission with a publication.

7. Get the balance right - don't roll out too much of the red carpet.

If a journalist travels with you the last thing they want is back-to-back meetings with hoteliers, tourism chiefs and dignitaries. But do acknowledge that you're travelling with an important group of people - a welcome cocktail evening, for example, can work well. Journalists want the customer experience but also want to be acknowledged professionally.

8. Don't oversell the itinerary or the company. It's far better to surprise a journalist than disappoint them by over promising.

Generally, by managing expectations, the trip will be written from a much more balanced perspective.

9. Don't be the last to stagger down in the morning. Be organised. Highlight the plan for the next day and avoid issues such as waiting for journalists who are late, losing time and getting lost. An efficient trip reflects well on the company you are representing.

10. Be prepared to take some form of first aid kit eg plasters (for blisters), paracetamol (for hangovers) and Arret (for any dodgy tummies).

11. Ensure you have the correct form of currency for the destination.

If you're travelling to areas such as Azerbaijan US dollars are used in most restaurants and bars. And remember, not all places take credit cards.

12. Check dietary requirements. Some countries are not as well versed in vegetarian recipes as they are in the UK, and vegetarian journalists could end up having the same meal night after night.

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