News analysis: Travel PR events battle for journos

Travel trade shows are a popular forum for PR practitioners to network, tout for business and boost clients' profiles. Ian Hall reports from Madrid on how PROs and journalists can get what they want from such events

Amid colourful stands offering glass blowing and wood carving at Madrid's Feria Internacional de Turismo (Fitur) tourism fair last month, PR professionals were busy directing journalists towards clients with stories to tell.

Fitur, an annual event, is the Spanish leg of the globe trotting travel fair season, which this year also takes in Berlin (the ITB every March) and Orlando (ABTA convention in November).

The World Travel Market is still widely acknowledged to be the most important event in the calendar and it is a fair bet that the folksy displays so ubiquitous in Madrid will descend on Docklands's ExCeL venue for the next WTM in November.

Rising popularity

Despite the downturn in the industry triggered by events such as 9/11 and Sars, the popularity of travel shows continues to rise, with an increasing number of events on offer, particularly those targeted directly at consumers.

Tourist boards, hotels, cruise companies, airlines and product suppliers are among the groups that vie for attention from - among other groups - journalists.

Independent travel editor Simon Calder says that, for him, the major advantage of shows is that 'it's easier to meet people in Docklands (ExCeL venue) or in Spain (at last year's ABTA) than trudging round the UK'.

'There are usually a dozen or so people I want to grab some time with,' he says, but cautions: 'When the PR people offer me a chance to meet some under-minister for tourism over a glass of warm Riesling, that doesn't appeal.'

Calder adds: 'At these events a travel PR person has to go through the motions and be seen to be glad-handing and sending out press releases,' sympathising with the PRO's lot in the face of increasingly demanding clients.

McCluskey International MD David Rose says PROs need to contain clients' expectations as to what coverage they can expect as some, such as the smaller tourist boards, fail to understand journalists' demands for exclusive, timely and relevant news.

Debbie Hindle, MD of rival agency BGB & Associates, says PR groundwork must start months before shows that are being targeted.

As an example, Hindle says BGB has already met Travel Channel representatives to talk about a piece to coincide with this year's WTM, still some nine months away.

She cautions, however, against launching a product or service at a trade show, given the difficulty in achieving effective 'cut-through' amid the many distractions of the periphery entertainment.

The launch of a fresh PR campaign - such as a bid to reposition a country or brand - is regarded as more likely to secure media coverage if unveiled at a bespoke event and not at the major trade shows, where brands can drown each other out.

'If you have a major announcement, I'd recommend waiting until another time of year,' concurs Travel Weekly news editor Louise Longman.

Travel Weekly produces a daily WTM edition and has devised a novel way of regulating what Longman describes as the 'bombardment' of PR calls.

Three months in advance of the event, the magazine sends guidelines out to PROs which spell out its journalists' terms of engagement.

These include such assertions as 'stories such as refurbishments of individual hotels are not worthy of an interview but may be used if submitted by press release'. But the warning that 'reporters will not wait while clients are collected from the bar' provides a reminder of the over-excessive networking that can occur at such events.

BGB adheres to Travel Weekly's guidelines. For instance, the agency sent a journalist to Cyprus on behalf of sustainable charity The Travel Foundation three months before last year's WTM, with the piece targeted at the 'Environmental Awareness Day' edition.

From a broadcast perspective, the advice from one PRO is that travel shows can be useful to target researchers for popular consumer shows such as ITV1's Wish You Were Here...?

'They are researching for shows that might not screen until the following spring, but they're the people you need to speak to - not (presenter) Judith Chalmers,' she adds.

Questioning value

However, in the face of the increasing number of events and relative return on investment from each, VisitBritain director of communications Sandie Dawe advises tourist boards to pay more attention to selecting the most appropriate events at which to exhibit.

Indeed, one agency PRO says his clients are beginning to question the value of attending the larger shows, such as WTM, given the cost of exhibiting, the growth in the number of exhibitors - and the consequent difficulty in achieving brand stand-out.

For PROs, however, contact building and new business opportunities mean such shows remain core to travel schedules. The trick is to ensure corporate hospitality - and glass-blowing demonstrations - don't lead clients astray.

Tourcom - first world conference on tourism communcations

Billed as the 'first world conference on tourism communications', Tourcom, which took place on the fringe of Fitur, attracted almost 1,000 delegates to Spain on 29-30 January.

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) used the event to launch a global awareness campaign called 'Tourism Enriches'.

WTO secretary-general Francesco Frangialli said the aim of the campaign was to highlight the importance of tourism to all sectors of society and is 'intended to be used by the tourism ministries in (WTO) member countries as they see fit'.

Crisis comms was also high on the agenda. Dexter Koehl, V-P PR and comms for the Travel Industry Association of America, spelt out US tourism communicators' reaction to 9/11.

Other speakers included Sandra Lee, permanent secretary for economic development and labour of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, who spoke on the PR response to Sars.

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