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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The travel journalists’ junket: why we don’t do them

By Terry and Lara
When we were in Milan recently we had drinks with some hotel executives we’d met in Istanbul while attending the W opening. The PR person of the Milan hotel where we’d met for aperitivi told us how impressed she was that we’d had several story commissions on the hotel, its restaurant and Chef Jean-Georges, and that those had been published already, and she asked if we wanted to be included the next time she was coordinating a press trip. We very politely declined and she understood exactly why. If we’d been on a journalist’s junket in Istanbul we wouldn’t have had the freedom to pursue the stories that we did. And she agreed.
But it was our recent visit to Venice where we got to observe the behaviour of one too many tour groups, and a story we read on spas in Thailand (more on that little gem soon), that brought home one of the reasons why we really don’t like the organised press trip. It’s because of its complete disconnect with the kind of travel that ‘normal’ travellers do. In a nutshell, junket journalists are treated like a cross between pampered pooches, 80-somethings on a shore-leave guided tour from a cruise ship, and package tourists whose last independent thought for the duration of their holiday was figuring out how they managed to get their name tag on upside down at the airport. We write for independent travellers, and by travelling independently ourselves we gain a better understanding of the logistical challenges that independent travellers face. Junket journalists don’t have to worry about finding that carpark in Venice, deciding how best to lug those bags to the hotel (do we walk, pay a porter or take a water taxi?), decide whether the exorbitant cost of the parking and ludicrously expensive Internet access means we should be changing hotels, and so on. These decisions are taken away from the junket journalist, who can just concentrate on gushing about how fabulous it is to be on a junket and to be a travel writer. While publications will sometimes state that the writer stayed courtesy of such and such a hotel or was flown in by a certain airline, and that’s great to see, we also believe that travel journalists should declare whether they were on a junket or not, so the reader can judge for themselves how much salt to sprinkle on the tale. We’ve read so many of these gushy stories, we can usually tell by the end of the second paragraph. But can you? And would knowing that the writer had been on a free package tour to the destination affect your reading of the story? What are your expectations of a writer and their travel experience when reading a travel story?

*Terry Carter is my husband, co-author, and a travel photographer


Travel Muse said...

Well that explains why the same travel stories appear in 7 different magazines.

I think I can tell when a journalist is writing from a junket. Their praise of the hotel and staff alway becomes effusive. Also, they write about doing things mere mortals can't afford like taking a privately chartered boat to an island for a day of diving and a beach lunch.

I prefer traveling on my own and figuring things out like you both do. I've never liked packaged tours, too restrictive. I expect a realistic assessment of the destination, and an opinion from the travel writer. You guys are our scouts.

laradunston said...

Hi travel muse

You're dead right that's why the same kind of piece appears everywhere! And just today we read in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald another junket story where the writer was on a privately chartered boat and every paragraph involved champagne-sipping.

Thanks so much for your feedback!

Wendy said...

I work full time as a journalist covering an industry not related to travel. My employer has a strict policy of no one is allowed to accept anything valued over $50. It's an ethics issue. One of my reporters, a major sports fan, was offered box seat tickets to a major game, and I told him to turn it down. We are in the business of breaking news and no one would take us seriously if they thought we were in bed with the people and firms we write about.

laradunston said...

Hi Wendy - thanks for the comments. Apologies for taking so long to get to you.

I totally agree with you re 'gifts' over $50. We've been given some beautiful coffee table books by directors of art galleries, chefs, and even a violin-maker - often autographed, they make wonderful mementos of fascinating interviews and meetings with people we admire. But if it was more than that I'd have to refuse. Totally agree it's an ethics issue.

But I see 'news' and 'criticism' to be very different. News journalists need to be objective, by its very nature criticism must be subjective. And I see travel writers as critics - we're food/restaurant critics, hotel critics, entertainment critics, and so on - what we're valued for is our opinion, which is based on our very personal experience. We're not interested in reporting on what people generally think of the such-and-such hotel, we're writing a review based on our personal experience.

Therefore, I don't see press trips as 'gifts', however, although it's clear that some unethical writers treat them as such. And I don't have anything against an individual travel writer (who is a critic) being invited to a hotel for a stay or on a tour to assess the property or tour (or whatever) for a story, as long as there are no restrictions on content and they can be as critical as they normally would be if they were paying for it. My thinking is book reviewers are sent free books to assess, music reviewers are sent free CDs, film critics are invited to film screenings for free, car reviewers are loaned cars...

I don't have a problem with this as long as the writer can be honest in their appraisal and criticism. The problem is that writers often aren't.

We accept complimentary stays where the publisher allows it (because not all publishers do), however, we expect to be able to be honest. We've only ever had a few experiences that were so bad we couldn't include the property or restaurant in the guidebook, and in those situations, rather than write a bad review (nobody wants to read bad reviews in guidebooks), we gave the hotel/restaurant PR detailed feedback and said "Thanks for your hospitality, we really appreciate it, but we cannot include this place in the book and this is why..." In all cases they've appreciated the way we handled it. In one case the F&B manager of what is a global luxury franchise told us it was a real wake-up call.

Some writers would see the way we handle these situations as a risk - they might not get invited for free again anywhere by that PR - but that's the price we're willing to pay to retain our credibility.

Gosh, this could almost be a post in itself couldn't it? Thanks for raising this.

Fly Girl said...

I'm with you, Lara, press junkets rarely allow journalists to see beyond what publicists want you to see. The perspective offered is very stifled and narrow. That being said, I'm a travel writer who goes on 3-4 junkets a year because it's the only way that I can afford to travel as frequently as I do. There are ways to get around those overly pampered and one-sided itineraries, however. As an arts critic, I specialize in writing about arts and culture. I don't review hotels or high-end shops and the rest of what's popular in a lot of glossy travel mags. Because of this, I often tell publicists exactly what I want to see,which typically involves art galleries, authentic diners popular with locals and native dance and music performances. I'm lucky enough to usually be on a solo press trip where I can explore the essence of the culture without visits to mass tourist sites. A lot of publications won't even accept stories based on press junkets and there's good reasons why. Sometimes it's hard to see beyond the veil that publicists present and they often do their best to prevent you from seeing behind it. But any good journalist can if they really want to. I had to trash a mjor cruise line because I think they are horribly disorganized. Did they send me on an all expenses paid press junket for 5 days? Yes. Did they do their best to ensconce me in VIP areas so that I wouldn't see how regular people were treated? Yes. But it didn't work because I write for the average traveler and I'm obligated to write from that viewpoint. I wrote about the dangerous crowds and long lines, the late departures and ridculous prices. Will they ask me on another junket? probaly not. Junkets aren't supposed to be guarantees for positive press, although that's how many in the industry regard them.

laradunston said...

Hi Fly Girl

Thanks for such detailed comments! Much appreciated. You make some fantastic points.

I don't see the solo trip coordinated with a PR rep as being a junket as such...

A 'junket' is really an all expenses paid, highly organized package tour, where the group of journalists is hand-held by the PR person as they're taken from place to place, and are extravagantly spoilt in the process.

From the sounds of it, what you're doing is quite different. And, look, we've worked with tourism PRs as well to coordinate and get support for aspects of a trip.

But I usually coordinate the whole trip myself, because i think this is part of my job, part of how I accumulate knowledge about the industry, about flights and hotels, how prices fluctuate, when the high, low and shoulder seasons really are in different destinations, and figuring out how hard or easy certain trips are to organize. By doing it myself I think I'm in a much better position to understand what travellers need to do and should do.

And then when we're at a place, making contacts, getting tips on people and places, and identifying interviewees for me is also part of the process. I don't mind if PR people can suggest and help with that, but I want to be able to say "no, that person is not right" or "no, I'm not interested" and I've heard of too many people who've wasted time interviewing some hotel CEO that they didn't really need to because the PR person organized it.

I also don't want to spend time with other journalists and PR people when I'm travelling. For me, they get in the way (in much the same way as a travel guide does). I want to experience travel and destinations as travellers experience them, and focus on how I am feeling, thinking and reacting to a place, its culture and people. How can you do that when you're always with other journos and you're on a tour bus being shuffled from place to place?

We fund all our travel from our work - whether it's from the initial fee or expenses received from editors or by negotiating media rates (and the occasional comp), or from sales of stories, so thankfully we don't need to do junkets to pay for our trips.

Tim said...

What's the difference between a freelancer going on a luxury press junket and a freelancer writing for Departures or Travel & Leisure and having all expenses covered? At that end of the scale, there's no difference and the latter articles sound far more gushing to me than what you read in say,, where it's hard to tell which are from junkets and which are not. A lot of it depends on the skill of the writer and the kind of trip it is. While we like to admit it or not, a whole lot of people, if not the majority, travel in groups, not independently.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Tim

You're dead right it depends on the skill of the writer - the Sydney Morning Herald travel section, once highly respected, seems to survive only on junkets and every story is sickeningly gushy, it's unreadable.

But I also think it depends on the ethics and standards of a writer. Not all writers who are fully comp'ed a trip are willing to be critical if the destination or hotels or tour or whatever, don't turn out to be as good as they were meant to be.

While I don't do group press junkets, I do accept comps and media rates and occasionally (but rarely) support from tourist offices, and I make it clear to the PR people I reserve the right to be critical and I am. I know other writers like this too. However, I have also had writers admit to me that they can't afford to be critical, that they'll always write nice things, because they want to keep getting invited on trips. I don't think that's fair on travellers considering those destinations, tours, hotels, etc, after reading rave reviews by writers about a place or experience they didn't particularly enjoy.

I admit that a lot of people travel by organized tour groups, I just don't personally like that kind of travel so I won't write about it. I personally get more out of independent travel myself, and I believe independent travel is better for us, so that's what I prescribe, and that's what I choose to cover. Having said that, I'd rather see people travel in groups than not travel at all.

Thanks for dropping by!