Freelance Travel Writers and Famils Trips: Is Pay for Play Okay?

Freelance Travel Writers and Famils Trips: Is Pay for Play Okay?

Ah, the life of a freelance travel writer. Fun, free and fulfilling – maybe not right now, but post-COVID-19? You’ll get to venture out into the world again, and get paid for doing so. Pretty cool. Right? Yes and no.

If you are travelling on your own, and writing about it, you may be able to recoup much and maybe most of your travel expenses. If you can wrangle “comped” hotel stays, or better yet, comped “famils” or “FAMs” (familiarisation trips), influencer, marketing or press trips, you’ll have fewer expenses to recoup.  The fly-in-the-comped-press-trip ointment is that many travel magazines won’t accept articles specifically sourced from such trips. But your mind doesn’t stop generating story ideas, and your camera doesn’t stop snapping just because you’re not paying for your flight, tour or hotel.

Even with all the perks in the world, making a living as a freelancer is tough. Just think about it. How many articles would you have to sell every month to earn, say, $2000? Two? Four? Ten? Twenty? It can be done, but still. That’s an annual income of only $24,000 – below the poverty line in many developed nations.

On the other hand, if you have a “real job,” and freelance sales are over and above your primary income, profits can go to discretionary travel. When you can travel again. Freelance sales allow you to accumulate a portfolio of work, which you can use to apply for a “real job” in the travel industry. If you want one. Think staff writer or editor of a travel magazine either print, online, or both. Or promoting and teaching workshops for budding travel writers. Or rewriting industry press releases to market resorts, cruises, and corporate travel packages. Or all of the above.

I am not sneering. The global travel industry is a trillion-dollar one, and many of its moving parts are essential to facilitating safe, assessable, affordable travel. But if COVID-19 has grounded travel writers, it has really done a number on the publishers that they depend upon. No one is paying for ad copy to promote resorts, cruises, hotels, tours, festivals and exotic destinations that may still be closed down two, three or four months from now. Luggage, travel fashions, rucksacks, tents, shoes, and boots are tough sells with stay-at-home orders in place. No one is paying for comped press trips right now.

Magazines associated with travel universities, writing workshops and travel expos face a triple whammy – reduced advertising income, cancelled workshops and a dearth of prospective students.

So what does this all mean for the freelance travel journalist?

Freelancers tend to travel on their own hook – full or even partially funded marketing and press trips are usually reserved for travel agents, staff writers, and “influencers” in a position to guarantee quid pro quo exposure. When these subsidised junkets rebound, they’ll probably rebound with a vengeance as their promoters scramble to regain lost market share.  Publishers who have gutted full-time editorial staff for the duration of COVID lockdowns may be more likely to reach out to freelancers, who, as “hired guns,” are by definition available for “piece work”.

So how can a freelancer land these “pay for play” gigs? First you need to be able to demonstrate that you are a credible player – that’s where your portfolio comes in. A useful set of tear sheets and links to published work is essential when circulating letters of introduction to prospective gatekeepers. What do you do if you don’t have a portfolio? Some “Travel Universities” offer shortcuts for establishing travel journalist bona fides.  Many publish your student work in their associated online magazines. If you have actually applied yourself, and have a knack for the trade, and if your coaches were “up to it”, you may well be “on your way.”

Or you can try to do it the old-fashioned way. Travel, write, pitch, and (eventually) publish – all of which are increasingly difficult but not impossible during COVID shutdowns.

In the interim? Target hotels. I believe we are past the tipping point with COVID-driven travel bans. Luxury hotel, spa, restaurant and shopping arcade complexes are getting ready to pull out the stops to earn post-COVID confidence. Zero-in on the three and four-star hotels in your own back yard. Call them, write them, e-mail them. Try for a comped overnight or weekend stay as soon as they reopen their doors. Request half-hour interviews with their general manager, chef, bartender, and concierge – maybe even cosmetologist or bellhop. Write like the wind and reach back to your host(s) as needed for quote approval or photo captions. Produce three, four (or more) stand-alone articles and pitch the heck out of them. Once you’ve proven that you can indeed deliver, parley the sold articles into comped stays at other hotels – reaching as far afield as travel restrictions (and resources) allow. Use your burgeoning portfolio to validate your letters of introduction to those aforementioned gatekeepers.

FAMs and press trips can be group events or individual junkets, and sponsors range from public relations firms, tourism offices, and visitors bureaus, to cruise lines, theme parks and resorts. They in turn reach out to the travel industry – agents, brokers, travel writer associations, and magazines, to increase traffic and get “good ink” about their location.

Don’t be too fast to dismiss these coveted comped trips if you are lucky enough to land one. Yes – they tend to be cookie-cutter, scripted and controlled. Yes – you will be expected to sing for your supper with reasonably glowing write-ups of your “experiences.” On the other hand, the price is right, and if you can’t find something positive to write about a given travel experience, you probably shouldn’t be writing about travel.  In situ travel expos, travel journalism conventions, and travel writing workshops are out for now, and for the near future. This creates a serious vacuum for networking opportunities. On group press trips, you’ll be networking with kindred spirits – collecting business cards, emails, and quotes from tour guides, concierges, hoteliers, chefs, waiters, and guides – invaluable resources for future use, and all on someone else’s dime.

Writers write, and travellers travel, and travel writers travel and then write about it.  If the oft-maligned press trip makes those things happen? I am all for them.

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