FOCUS: TRAVEL PR - Expiry of passports to column inches/Even at the most luxurious end of the travel spectrum, the days of freeloading travel journalists are long gone. Henry Sutton reports

The Wednesday Club meets once a month in, say, the Regents Plaza, or Claridge’s, or, even, the Conde Nast boardroom. Some 100 people usually turn out - PR people like Victoria Fuller, managing director of ZFL, Elizabeth Martin, PR manager at Leading Hotels of the World and Wolfgang Winter, group press and PR director at the Savoy Group. There’s a smattering of journalists, too - maybe Sue Ward Davies from Elle, Catherine Fairweather from Harpers and Queen and Philip Watson from GQ, but they’re mostly freelancers like Paddy Burt, Nigel Tisdall, or David Churchill.

The Wednesday Club meets once a month in, say, the Regents Plaza,

or Claridge’s, or, even, the Conde Nast boardroom. Some 100 people

usually turn out - PR people like Victoria Fuller, managing director of

ZFL, Elizabeth Martin, PR manager at Leading Hotels of the World and

Wolfgang Winter, group press and PR director at the Savoy Group. There’s

a smattering of journalists, too - maybe Sue Ward Davies from Elle,

Catherine Fairweather from Harpers and Queen and Philip Watson from GQ,

but they’re mostly freelancers like Paddy Burt, Nigel Tisdall, or David


Champagne and canapes are consumed and people chat about how stingy some

airlines are in not giving upgrades (and in some cases not giving away

flights at all), how wonderful the new Four Seasons in Berlin is, how

frustrating Conde Nast Traveller is in not accepting freebies. Business

cards are swapped. Lunches organised. Cheeks kissed.

The Wednesday Club is the inner sanctum of the luxury travel and hotel

PR world, where champagne and canapes are not so much taken for granted,

as ruthlessly graded.

Founded in 1990, the idea behind the club was for like-minded PR people

to get together periodically to discuss mutual problems and issues,

while also bringing along useful journalistic contacts. Being travel and

hotel PR people the venues are never a problem, neither the sponsors.

Sue Lowry, the current chairperson and managing director of Columbus

Communications, describes it as a ’network club’.

The relationship between PR people and travel editors and writers might

be chummy, but it’s also increasingly professional. Despite the

temptations, few abuse the system. The days of serial freeloading ended

almost a decade ago.

’The travel industry is much more sophisticated now,’ says Lowry, whose

clients include Four Seasons/Regent Hotels and Resorts and Chris

Blackwell’s Island Outpost hotel chain. ’Clients and the public are more


We’ve had to become more specialist and journalists are certainly more

knowledgeable and discerning.’

Lowry says not only do you have to understand your client intrinsically

but you also have to know where the travel editors are coming from and

what story to pitch to whom.

’I don’t agree with the scattergun approach,’ she says. Still most

travel editors’ desks get pretty much sprayed every morning, with

everything from press releases and press trip offers to tour operator

brochures and Club Med VIP cards. And a sort of inverse politeness is

assumed - rather than write thank you letters, travel editors receive

letters thanking them for attending trips and lunches. (I once got a

letter thanking me for a lunch I never even went to.)

Conde Nast Traveller recently launched with a no-freebie policy. Editor

Sarah Miller says that her magazine is: ’on the side of the


’Readers are naturally sceptical when they see that line ’X travelled

courtesy of travel company or airline Y’. There’s an inevitable

incentive to write a nice piece.’

No experienced travel PR operator expects glowing coverage all the time,

anymore than newspaper executives will put up with one critical travel

story after another. In fact rather than run a harshly critical piece,

most travel editors will run something else.

The biggest problem PR people face seems to be trying to explain to

clients why a certain story hasn’t appeared after a journalist has spent

a weekend in their hotel. ’We have to tell clients that nothing is

guaranteed,’ says Victoria Fuller, managing director of ZFL PR,

Columbus’ sister company, whose roster of clients include the Hotel de

Crillon in Paris and Dublin’s The Clarence.

PR practitioners also have to explain to clients (particularly if they

are hotels or airlines as opposed to resorts or tourist boards) that

most journalists are there primarily to write about the destination and

that the hotel/airline etc. has to come within that context. ’Airline

tickets are now extremely difficult to get,’ says Jane Parritt of Jane

Parritt Media Contacts, ’and nobody’s going to just write about how

lovely the flight was.’

A few travel editors say yes to every trip offered, knowing full well

the piece will never get in. ’It can take a year for an article to

appear,’ says Jim Dunn, executive director of BGB and Associates - whose

client portfolio includes the Australian Tourist Commission and the St

Lucia Tourist Board - and the former head of TPS.

’But if an article doesn’t get in I research why thoroughly.’ Dunn

maintains that taking a group of six or so journalists abroad is really

hard work, especially if any of the writers are either young or

inexperienced travellers.

’It’s a 24-hour job,’ he says. Dunn once had to deal with a journalist

who went berserk in one of his client’s hotels, but claims that, on the

whole, he’s always found journalists reassuringly well behaved if

slightly scruffy.

’We do occasionally have trouble on trips,’ says Shelley-Anne

Claircourt, managing director of the Press Office, whose clients include

Orient-Express, ’usually when personalities don’t mix too well. But I’ve

had the most wonderful experiences.’

Claircourt spent six years working in-house at the Savoy Group, the

breeding ground for a surprising number of leading travel PR

professionals, and even one travel journalist. Other former Savoy Group

employees include Sarah Manser, also of the Press Office, Judith

Dagworthy of Payne and Dagworthy, Lucinda Buxton, now trading under her

own name, and Catherine Fairweather of Harpers and Queen.

’I don’t know how anyone can work in this sector and not have worked

in-house for a hotel,’ says Buxton, now looking after One Aldwych and

the Merrion in Dublin. Her replacement, Wolfgang Winter - who was

recently headhunted from the marketing department of Relais and Chateaux

in New York - has the back-up of three in-house executives as well as

using Piers Pottinger at Lowe Bell Financial for corporate and City PR

and Lowry at Columbus for help on the group’s Lygon Arms and

Simpson’s-on-the-Strand business.

’It’s a pretty good mix,’ says Winter. ’But I’ve made the effort to meet

most travel editors and relevant journalists.’

As Nigel Massey of the Massey Partnership, responsible for launching

London’s ultra chic Metropolitan hotel earlier this year, says simply:

’Good PR practitioners and travel writers need each other.’

Henry Sutton is a travel writer and former travel editor of the



Cyprus has consistently hit the headlines this year. There have been

negative stories about attacks on tourists by British soldiers and the

Janette Pink HIV case - so prompt action was necessary to counteract

this negative publicity.

As tourism makes up 21 per cent of Cyprus’ gross domestic product, and

the Cyprus Tourist Organisation in London decided that a boost in the

promotion of the island’s good points was timely.

British tourists account for over one third of the total visitors to

Cyprus and the CTO’s aim, in appointing WT Associates for a six-month

campaign, was to highlight the island’s cultural and environmental


WT was appointed in January 1997 with a budget of pounds 20,000, hot on

the heels of another ’situation’ - the government’s decision to purchase

missiles from Russia.

WT tried to get as much positive coverage as possible between January

and the end of June. As well as highlighting the traditional sea, sand

and year-round sun message in early trade and consumers travel

supplements, the agency disseminated information on the Cyprus

government’s pounds 80 million investment plan, to include

archaeological parks, golf courses, marinas, all-inclusive resorts,

building improvement loans and new coastal roads.

Cultural delights, such as the Othello Opera in Paphos, were unveiled

and specialist themes were explored, for example, St Valentine’s breaks

around the legend of Aphrodite - Cyprus is said to be the birthplace of

the Greek goddess of love - were featured in wedding magazines.

Outdoor types were targeted with information about activities on offer

for golfers, cyclists, walkers, anglers and even bird watchers.

To date, stories on Cyprus have featured in more than 50 national and

regional consumer titles and radio/TV programmes, with 18 stories in the

trade press.

However, the six months of the campaign have been peppered with

incidents. ’Every month something seems to pop up,’ says WT managing

director MarlenTaffarello, ’but crises were dealt with and the effects

were short-lived. Tourists are too important and Cyprus will do anything

to protect them.’ It was announced in August that soldiers from the

King’s Regiment were banned from the resort of Ayia Napa following

attacks on two British tourists.

WT’s efforts appear to have paid off. UK visitor numbers for summer 1997

rose by about five per cent, according to CTO figures. And Cyprus has

held its place in Lunn Poly’s top ten destinations.

’We’re aiming for steady growth of five per cent year on year,’ says

Lillian Panayi, assistant to the CTO’s director. ’We’ve been working on

cultural alternatives to the traditional beach holiday and WT has helped

to get this message across very well.’

Kate Langmuir


Thomson takes more people on holiday than any other UK tour operator,

and plans to keep it that way. It has invested millions of pounds into

building its brand and ensuring customer loyalty.

But several factors led to the launch last year of Thomson’s ’tell it

like it is’ brochures. Legislation on brochure descriptions had been

tightening, but the new approach was largely inspired by customer

research indicating that, where honesty was concerned, the reputation of

the tour operator was virtually rock bottom.

And with research showing that the annual holiday was second only to

Christmas in terms of importance: ’We wanted to ensure that our

customers had a holiday that was as described,’ says Thomson’s

communications director Russell Amerasekera.

He says that the travel industry had become so competitive that there

was little difference between one operator and the next. ’Thomson wanted

to stand out with this approach,’ says Amerasekera. ’It was a statement

of leadership and we put a lot of focus into creating what we could be

sure was a good product.’

Thomson’s summer 1997 brochures had to be completely rewritten to the

’warts-and-all’ specification, with hotels and resort descriptions taken

from questionnaires filled in by customers as they returned home. If a

resort or hotel was condemned outright, the company pledged to drop it

from the programme.

The August 1996 launch was a combination of advertising, PR and direct

communication to the UK’s 7,000 travel agents. For press releases,

Thomson’s communication team adopted a quirky approach, incorporating

original phrases from the brochure, which was picked up by all the

national newspapers.

A press conference was also held for travel editors and consumer


The PR element of the launch is difficult to quantify but, according to

Amerasekera, ’it had not been designed as a one-off promotion, more a

long-term measure to drive the brand forward’.

The money-back guarantee - promising customers who felt misled by the

brochure a flight home and a full refund - was introduced a year later

in August 1997 with the launch of the summer 1998 programme. This has

been aggressively marketed via a national poster and six-week TV

advertising campaign, as well as what Amerasekera describes as

’hard-driving PR on an ongoing basis’.

With the majority of bookings made through travel agents, the money-back

guarantee is a good selling point. Thomson says its market share for

summer 1998 bookings has risen from 36 to 41 per cent during the


Kate Langmuir


Our leisure future could be caravan shaped, if the Tourer Marketing

Bureau has anything to do with it. Concerned about declining sales, the

UK’s major touring caravan manufacturers formed the bureau in May 1996

to raise the profile and update the image of touring. Sales of tourers

have been hit by package holidays, dropping to around 20,000 a year.

Socio-economic changes have also made touring a less viable and

attractive leisure option.

Leeds agency Brahm PR was appointed in August 1996 and, with a budget of

pounds 500,000, set about propelling the image of the tourer into the

21st century. ’Initial research among existing users uncovered the USP

that was to become the core message of the promotional activity,’

explains Brahm account director Malcolm Cowing, ’that you could ’enjoy

the freedom’ with a tourer.’

However, touring was unlikely to appeal to the younger market with the

average tourer costing around pounds 9,000. But phase one of the

campaign identified key markets, such as affluent professionals in their

40s and 50s.

Brahm combined PR with advertising in its approach. A total of 20

tailored advertorials were scheduled in the national and specialist

press between January and August 1997. New markets were targeted via

lifestyle magazines.

Modern tourer features such as central heating and air conditioning were

also trumpeted. It is these mod cons, as well as the sense of freedom

enjoyed, that the bureau believes will help to reverse negative

perceptions of touring. For example, to show off modern facilities,

Brahm arranged for chef Brian Turner to cook a budget family meal inside

a touring caravan for Carlton TV’s Chef on a Shoestring programme.

For responses to enquiries generated by the campaign, Brahm created an

’Enjoy the Freedom’ information brochure, and 5,000 were sent out.

Follow up research showed 35 per cent of respondents visited a


Press trips selected ’open-minded’ non-caravanning journalists for

visits to tourers based at a choice of sites. A programme of activities

tailored to the journalists’ interests was organised, and each received

a gentle introduction to caravan towing.

A quarterly newsletter was distributed to give members of the bureau

feedback on its investment, and to inform dealerships on the progress of

the campaign.

Brahm estimates that the PR and advertorial campaign has reached a

readership of over 20 million, resulting in an increase in new tourer

sales for the first time in ten years. A growth of 12 per cent has been

projected for the year of the campaign.

Brahm has been appointed for another year with a budget of pounds

600,000, to incorporate a touring exhibition at outdoor shows and to

implement initiatives arising from Millennium 2000, a major research

survey into the future of the touring experience.

Kate Langmuir.

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