Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
This time last week, I was in Chile, sitting at the base of the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen in my life, marveling at the fact that the clouds that had been hanging around for the preceding two weeks had disappeared as my colleagues and I rolled into town.
“Life is SO good,” I thought to myself. “I have the best job in the world!”
“I dunno; I kinda feel guilty,” one of my colleagues said about the trip after we polished off another pricey, hours-long, multi-course dinner in an upscale restaurant in Santiago. “Don’t,” I said, relishing the lemon sorbet palate cleanser that had been set before me. He looked at me dubiously.
“First of all,” I continued, “a press trip–as amazing as it is–actually is WORK. And don’t forget that. It’s not mucking port-a-potties or paper pushing, that’s for sure, but it IS work.”
I paused for another mouthful of lemon sorbet.
“You get up at 6 AM each morning, you’re on the road until midnight at least, and you need to be gathering article material all day long.” Pause. “Second,” I said, swirling the last bite of sorbet around on my spoon, “the sponsor really wants you here. And they expect something out of it. Don’t forget that either,” I concluded, as I laid the spoon down.
What is a press trip?
As the name suggests, a press trip is a trip–usually two to seven days in length–that is sponsored by a tourism bureau, a hospitality industry provider, or an advertising agency and which is arranged specifically for writers and journalists. The goal of the trip is to inform writers about the destination and its attractions by giving them first-hand experience of a place. The sponsor or host of the trip typically expects that the writer will produce one or more feature-length articles about the destination in order to increase exposure and stimulate tourism in that area.
The nature of press trips varies considerably. Many press trip sponsors pay all expenses for the trip: roundtrip airfare to and from the destination, lodging, meals, activities, and gratuities. Other press trip hosts pay for all expenses except airfare. Clearly, the intention of the sponsor is to show the media who are on the trip the best facets of their country or city, and they will go out of their way to impress writers and journalists, putting them up in 5 star hotels, taking them to luxurious restaurants, and offering them activities that most writers would find impossible to enjoy on their meager salaries.
I know plenty of writers who are opposed to press trips. They feel that press trips are artificial. They argue that writers can’t possibly get an objective sense of a place–be it a restaurant or a hotel–if someone else is footing the gasp-inducing bill. They contend that hospitality providers are on their best behavior for press trip participants, and that writers are gently coerced to write favorable articles in return for the incredible free experiences they enjoy.
But having participated in several press trips, hosted by very different sponsors and in very different places, I have to say that those arguments are not only weak; they’re untenable.
First, if you’re a writer with integrity, you will write articles that convey your actual experiences, not some glowing, polished, barely concealed sales pitch that is at odds with what you saw and learned.
In Chile, we were toured around a resort that boasts the largest manmade pool in the world… right on the ocean (which, by the way, you couldn’t see). As we tooled around the pool on a motorized boat and stepped out onto an artificial beach, en route to an underwater bar with an exotic fish aquarium, I could barely conceal how appalled I was. In my mind, it was an environmental, social, and cultural monstrosity, and there’s no way I’ll write anything positive about it.
Second, if you’re a responsible writer, you won’t rely only on the programmed elements of the trip itself to provide you with information and insight into the destination. In fact, you’ll use the contacts you make (you ARE making contacts, right?) to gather more information on the ground than you ever could have gathered from afar. For example, while I was in Chile, I had questions about safety for travelers. I mentioned this to my sponsor, who was able to arrange an interview with the Sub-Secretary of the Interior of Chile. It was a contact I would have been unlikely to have made on my own, and the Sub-Secretary provided me with vital information and insight that will enhance some of the articles I write about the country.
Third, hospitality providers are rarely even aware that you are a writer or journalist being sported about the country, and even if they are, line staff rarely recognize the implications of treating you with the same surly attitude that characterizes their interaction with any other guest. The service at our all-inclusive resort in Torres del Paine was pretty atrocious, especially for the price, and there’s no way I could or would squeeze some glowing review out of my experience there. Even when your sponsors give hospitality providers a heads-up that their incoming guests are VIPs, it’s impossible for them to control hotel desk agent or waiter behavior. True colors will eventually shine through. If you’re an astute observer, you’ll see them and take note. But if you’re punch drunk on your third free cocktail, you’re not going to see them. That’s not the sponsor’s fault; it’s yours.
Press trips give you first-hand experience and knowledge of a place. They give you the opportunity to meet people who can answer questions you’d otherwise be tempted to just Google. They give you, if YOU are responsible and resourceful, contacts that you can leverage over the course of your career.
Press trips also give you boundless opportunities to write about a destination based on your experiences. Those articles don’t need to be positive–and shouldn’t be– unless your experiences were positive. But the outcome of your experiences largely depends upon you. Are you a good listener? Do you ask questions that help you see the place for the complex, nuanced country that it is? Are you able to collect the stories that even your sponsors may not see, the human interest stories that really tell about the place you’re visiting? You owe it to the sponsor–and to yourself–to sit down at the end of the trip or within a specified timeframe afterwards, to talk about your experiences, the sponsor’s expectations, and the articles you expect to write and publish based on the trip.
Press trips don’t need to be sleazy. They’re only uncomfortable if you’re viewing the trip as an all-expenses paid vacation rather than part of your job. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your cocktail consumption to a respectable minimum, and don’t check your critical sensibilities at immigration. Press trips can be incredible experiences for you and the sponsor. Both of you share the responsibility for making sure that’s the case.