MEDIA ROUNDUP: Travel reporters still on the move during tough times

It may be tough for the travel market now, but many editors still have space to fill. And with war in Iraq and a weak economy, there's more focus on cheap destinations that are closer to home, finds David Ward.

It may be tough for the travel market now, but many editors still have space to fill. And with war in Iraq and a weak economy, there's more focus on cheap destinations that are closer to home, finds David Ward.

It may be hard to find an industry that's gone through more tumult in the past two years than the travel business. The combination of a soft economy, uncertainty over the future of many airlines, concerns over the safety of destinations both in the US and abroad, and even the cost of gasoline have many Americans thinking long and hard about how far to travel on their next vacation. Yet even with a war raging in Iraq and continued worries over terrorists targeting tourists as they did last year in Bali, PR people say most travel journalists are still hard at work looking to find that perfect vacation spot. "Travel editors want to feel it's business as usual, and they have space to fill," says Lou Hammond, president and founder of Lou Hammond & Associates. "They tend to be covering more domestic locations than international, but the long leads continue to look at international destinations because they feel the current turmoil will be over and they've got to have stories in place for after." A shift away from adventure There's no doubt, however, that the tone of coverage is changing, most notably less emphasis on the daring and/or adventurous vacations and more focus on domestic locations. "The first trend we're seeing is that editors are responding to their readers' desire for domestic and North American holidays - trips that are close to home yet somehow exotic," says Joan Brower, who along with Joan Bloom heads up the travel practice at M. Booth & Associates. "The second trend is a focus on more service information - reporting on ways to make the travel experience safer, easier, and less stressful. We're seeing a lot of stories on things like no-risk cancellation policies." Most PR people say the soft economy is impacting travel journalism in many ways, including a decrease in the amount of staff travel writers and a corresponding increase in the use of freelancers. But Adele Malott, current president of the Society of American Travel Writers and the author of The Mature Traveler column distributed by The New York Times news syndicate, suggests that's nothing new. "The freelancer has long carried the travel-writing market. There's no way an editor can go everywhere in the world to satisfy a reader's need." But, Malott adds, "freelancers have had a harder time marketing this year because some of the travel sections have diminished in size. We see a smaller news hole, so they've had to look at new outlets. Instead of writing a piece for Conde Nast Traveler, they may be writing for The Rotarian. That makes the job more exacting because you have to research the readership of that publication." Also, there are simply fewer opportunities for many travel writers, at least in the short term. "A lot of magazines are using stories that they've had 'banked' in reserve, rather than soliciting new stories from freelancers," says Laura Davidson, president of Laura Davidson Public Relations. "Travel editors have more of a backlog," agrees Karen Weiner Escalera, president of the Coral Gables, FL-based KWE Group. "From a public relations perspective, it means that instead of a story appearing in 2003, it might not appear until 2004." Journalists go their own way It also means that there are fewer journalists looking to go on destination-sponsored press trips, although Davidson notes this reduction in junkets can't all be blamed on the economy or the international uncertainty. "Most journalists want to go on their own with their own story angles, and a lot of them can't take free trips anymore," she says. "So that entire press-junket thing has really changed. Most of the time, we're setting up customized itineraries and the journalists are traveling on their own." The other new trend, even with high-end travel outlets, is that price and value are becoming increasingly important. "The travel media is definitely looking for deals because the readers are looking for deals," says Weiner Escalera. "Consumers are much more sophisticated. They know the economy is soft and the travel industry is hurting, so they're looking for even better deals." But Brower cautions that while price is important, "the anxiety level that exists in the public is not strictly economic, it's psychological." She urges that PR pitches to travel writers emphasize comfort level and safety above any financial deal being offered. Despite the troubles of the travel industry overall, the current climate has been beneficial for some, as travel writers are now taking a second look at domestic locations they may have overlooked before. Nancy Marshall Communications VP Charlene Williams, who represents the Maine Office of Tourism, says, "We're pitching a lot of drive-market states with the message that Maine is a safe destination." Not only has that outreach been well received, but Marshall adds, "Some travel writers are coming to us with that story idea, looking for more information on Maine being a safe destination." Davidson, who notes that three of her agency's four new accounts are domestic locations, says, "The sophisticated travelers are always willing to go abroad, and so our Caribbean clients are doing well and Australia is doing well. But domestic hotels and resorts are realizing that now more than ever they should be promoting because a lot of people now just want to stay close to home." Other outlets turn to travel Even though the amount of travel-related editorial in many newspapers - and even some dedicated magazines - may be down, Weiner Escalera notes that travel coverage in other types of outlets seems to be on the rise. She cites bridal magazines and health and fitness outlets as examples, adding, "Fewer people want to lay on a beach or by the pool for a week. They want to do something active." Davidson cites programming such as the Conde Nast Traveler show on PBS, as well as the continued success of the Travel Channel, Odyssey, and the Discovery Network as proof of the increasing opportunities for travel coverage on TV. The internet is also playing a key role in travel. Consumers are not only booking their trips online, they're also doing more of the preliminary research on dedicated editorial sites such as Theindependenttraveler.com and Wheretogonext.com, as well as linked sites such as the Conde Nast-owned Concierge.com. "Even though some of the online outlets are partnered with print publications, the editors are different and the editorial content is different," says Bloom. When it comes to pitching travel stories, The Mature Traveler columnist Malott offers the simple advice of taking the time to know not just who the writer is, but also which audience that journalist is writing for. "So often I get materials talking about traveling with infants," she says. "Well, the mature traveler is not likely to travel with infants, so they don't care about information on bassinets." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; USA Today; New York Post; The Washington Post; The Boston Globe; Chicago Tribune Magazines Travel + Leisure; Conde Nast Traveler; Travel Holiday; National Geographic Traveler; Business Traveler; Bride; Modern Bride; Men's Health; Men's Journal; Worth; The Robb Report; Sunset; Outside Traveler; Caribbean Travel Planner; T+L Family; Travel 50 & Beyond; Islands Trade Titles Cruise Industry News; Travel Week; Travel Agent Magazine; Meetings and Conventions; Successful Meetings; Airport Revenue News TV & Radio The Travel Channel; The Discovery Channel; Conde Nast Traveler (PBS); E!; CNN; NPR Web Wheretogonext.com; Theindependenttraveler.com; Concierge.com; Twcrossroads.com; 15minutesmagazine.com

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