Nick Gallo is a grizzled veteran in the sink-or-swim business of travel writing. A contributing editor to Travel & Life and a regular writer for AAA magazines and in-flights, he's twice won the Pluma de Plata (Silver Quill), Mexico's annual award for the best foreign travel coverage of the country. But he wasn't prepared for the response of a travel editor at The New York Times when he pitched the paper's Sophisticated Traveler column with what he calls a love letter to Puerto Vallarta.
"Did you use any comped travel to gather information for this story?" the editor asked.
"No," he said.
The editor pressed. "Have you ever taken any comped travel?"
"Ever?" Gallo could see his sales opportunity slipping away, though he didn't see what one had to do with the other. "Well, yes."
The exchange quickly broke down as the editor dismissed the story and ushered him off the phone.
Travel writing has never been a lucrative pursuit. For many it can be more a matter of defraying travel expenses than turning a profit. A midmarket newspaper might pay $200 for a straight-ahead travel story, and then only after seeing the finished piece. Depending on the time, effort and cost involved, a writer had better be prepared to sell it a dozen times. Even with magazines, the economics are dicey unless the contract covers expenses and the editor offers a pretrip assignment.
UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD
The New York Times may have the strictest standards in the business, but it isn't alone in its stand against assignment-specific trips that are comped (costs covered by a sponsor, such as a resort or cruise line). Among newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and many others forbid sponsored travel. Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure have similar published policies. As the travel business has matured in the past 10 years, and readers have become increasingly aware of the assistance writers often receive, many publications have sworn off free travel.
"It's hard to be totally honest about a destination that's paying your way," says Budget Travel senior editor Brad Tuttle. "If we lose our readers' trust, we've got nothing."
But without assistance, can travel writers survive?
Milton Fullman, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, sees freelancers edging into peripheral markets or sometimes just dropping out of the travel writing field altogether as a result. "Until newspapers are willing to pay full freight for a writer's expenses or to pay a decent wage for the work resulting from writers' independent travels, the playing field will never be level," he says.
COVERAGE OF THE JUNKET
More frustrating for some writers is the implication that they're eager to parrot the corporate line in exchange for a one-off press junket. Editor & Publisher's Allan Wolper suggested as much in an Ethics Corner column last year: "When a writer takes a trip, his patron often gets the kind of positive coverage that's hard to buy even in a full-page ad." But in reality, sponsored trips can be hectic, heavily scheduled events that offer all the hassles and inconveniences of travel with few of the rewards.
"I don't function well on those things," Gallo says. "You spend three-quarters of the time eating and waiting on the bus for the people who get up late." In any case, he says, "I don't think a $300-a-night hotel is going to buy my soul."
Those on the PR side of the equation understand that these trips represent opportunities whose results are beyond their control. "There are never any guarantees," says Julie Wordell, media manager for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, one of the largest in the country. "You're always going to take a risk."
Less likely to take risks are the publications themselves, which tend to run flattering stories regardless of whether or not the writer pays her own way. At its root, the travel industry is built on selling a glamorous, exotic or adventurous lifestyle to the public, and that includes the writing, photography and design, as well as the advertising. And readers want to buy.
HAVING IT BOTH WAYS
Fortunately, there is a way to avoid these issues. Bob Bittner, a freelance writer in Charlotte, Mich., uses travel primarily as a backdrop to enrich stories. The technique works on a couple of levels. Nontravel magazines generally don't care about press junkets because the focus is on telling a story rather than selling a destination. And the broader focus frees Bittner to pitch several unrelated articles from one trip without as much concern for competing markets. A press trip to the Texas hill country, for example, yielded a Q&A with the owner of a butterfly ranch for Working Mother, a profile of her for Ladies' Home Journal and a story on Texas wines for Texas Co-op Power.
Not incidentally, branching out of the travel genre also opens the door to higher-paying pubs that wouldn't be interested in a destination-oriented piece. And a little extra money never hurts when it comes time to take a real vacation. It seems travel writing, like travel, itself, is what you make of it.