Sheila Guides You to the Good Stuff

June 9, 2009

Are blogger fam trips a good idea or are they Jurassic PR?

Sue the T-Rex at Chicago's Field Museum (courtesy a2gemma at Flickr CC)The familiarization trip/press trip or “fam tour” (I’ll use the terms interchangeably here) is a warhorse staple in the tourism public relations and marketing arsenal. It means that you bring writers to your destination, pay their expenses, show them your highlights and then wait and hope for positive future coverage in their magazines and newspapers.

Many publications do not accept articles based on such trips, but many others do.  I have written for both. Some pubs are more transparent than others about freebies.  A whole industry supports this matchmaking – I attended a conference about a lot of it, Travel Media Showcase, in September 2008.

Fam Tour Pros – Efficient use of time and assets for tourism organizations and Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus (CVBs.)  Allows writers to travel to places that they otherwise might not afford since travel writing pay is notoriously low, especially in today’s tough economy, including pay for guidebooks.

Fam Tour Cons – The journalistic ethics “sniff test.”  Can writers be truly objective about a destination when it’s handed to them, however sincerely, in a nice package with a bow? Can writers find original, unique stories and hidden nuggets about a place when they spend all day marched on and off a bus and their nights at nice hotels/resorts courtesy of the local Visitor’s Bureau?

Now, let’s make the discussion even more interesting and throw in the question of bloggers taking fam trips.  Are they considered journalists? Do ethics rules apply?  If bloggers clearly disclose that posts are based on a free trip, is it up to the blog’s readers to decide the value of the content, or has a line been irrevocably crossed?

Is the blogger press trip the right vehicle to gain social media presence for a tourism organization?  Is it a good vehicle at all?

My Personal Experiences

I wade into these fractious waters after returning from my third press trip….the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) dipped toes into social media waters with the So Much More Hawaii bloggers tour, to which I was invited to blog primarily about family travel. I went because I know and appreciate the islands and wanted to support HTA’s efforts to use social media in reaching out to new potential visitors.

I’ve taken face shots in this area before. When I wrote about a Virginia fam trip on the Write to Travel blog (The Press Trip: Great Deal or Big Hassle?) and then posted the link for discussion on the mediabistro.com Bulletin Board, one commenter said, “I hope you never expect to be taken seriously as a travel writer after a post like that.”

Well, alrighty, then!

My second fam tour was to Hutchinson, Kansas – my expenses were paid once I got there but I paid my own airfare to/from Texas.  (As an aside, a “free trip” to Kansas did not seem to raise much interest or ire from the ethics watchdogs.) I participated in the Hutch trip because I wanted to support one of the tour organizers, Cody Heitschmidt, in his efforts to use social media to step up awareness of his town.

My third fam tour, the one to Hawaii, garnered positive press reaction in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and KHON 2 News, but David Shapiro, a journalist blogging for the Honolulu Advertiser, wrote that “the new media folks accepting the freebies were a throwback to the bad old days of journalism when favorable coverage was for sale at the right price” in his post Junketing gets wired.

(Read the comments on Shapiro’s post – they’re lively. This time I get to be “scum” and some other unmentionables.)

I Tell Tourism To Reach Out To Bloggers, So They Do. Now What?

A UK public relations person with McCluskey International, Ian McKee, asked the question “Blogger FAM trips – are we nearly there yet?” and I responded with some thoughts on the whole fam trip issue:

“Yeah, we’re already there for blogger-focused fam trips, at least in the US.

The material that I gather from these trips goes into many different blogs (not just my travel ones) and is also pitched to those publications that accept material from “comped” [complimentary] travel. So many people don’t even realize that US national-level glossies like National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler and Budget Travel do not allow comped travel. The idea is that their pay rates (US$1/word and up) make it worth the writer’s while to pay for everything up front and reimburse oneself later when the check comes in.

I will come right out and say that Darren Cronian [the Travel Rants blogger who left a critical comment on Ian’s post] is right; you cannot say you are totally, totally objective when your destination is handed to you on a platter.  I would LOVE to have the funds to do it “right” – completely anonymous, paid out of my own pocket, researched on my own and not supported by local tourism PR any more than any other traveler who calls/rings up the office and asks for help.

The fact is, I cannot always operate that way, and it does bother me. So, I try to use the freedom offered by my blog outlets to be as objective and fair as I can possibly be, given my own ethics compass, and ALWAYS disclose that my material is coming from a sponsored press trip. I even blog about my discomfiture, as other writers….have done.

Thank you for bringing up the “days of lost income” issue. People think, ooh, Hawaii, what a deal she’s getting. No, in the basic sense, it is 10 days when I am writing free content for the Hawaii state tourism board. I have lived in Hawaii and other beautiful places; I am not impressed by “paradise.” My 9-year-old son will accompany me since I’m covering family travel and want to test all this on an actual human child. I love my kid, but he ain’t a vacation.

So why am I doing it? Ah, there is method in my madness. There are stories that I can write from Hawaii that have nothing to do with travel, per se, so the comped travel problem won’t be a factor (I have a story idea for WIRED magazine out of the Kansas trip, believe it or not.)  More importantly, I am beginning to focus my social media consulting business on what I call “Tourism 2.0” – teaching CVBs/tourism organizations how to use the social Web to reach potential visitors and help with economic development. I will gather ROI data and other things from the Hawaii trip to help build my business.

My plan is that someday soon, I’ll make enough money from this sort of consulting that I WILL be able to travel my way – independently, unfettered and able to pitch to any publication. The only reason I’ll contact a destination’s tourism/PR folks will be as “Joe/Jane Six-Pack” regular traveler, to test how responsive they are to visitor requests.

In sum, I think tourism organizations are missing the boat if they are not reaching out to bloggers. I coach/advise/consult and tell them to do it. What’s tough is when they DO reach out to a blogger, but it’s ME.  I’ll play, but I’m not particularly comfortable with it.”

That last paragraph block is the core of this blog post. Fam trips make me feel rather funky, as a print writer OR a blogger. How do you mitigate “funky?” Can you? A lot of others don’t seem to have a problem with press trips. Who am I to judge them? (but I must consider what is best for me and for my work.)

Do Bloggers Have A Place On Press Trips?

From my point of view – Yes – within limitations.

There’s no question in my mind that you cannot beat a well-connected blogger’s impact compared to “one and done” print media. I do not question whether we are a good deal – we are. That’s the problem. Social media is now “Today’s Special” on the PR/marketing menu. My concern is blogger credibility in the face of these freebie handouts that have implications that may not be clear to the non-journalist.

Bloggers can take the disclosure problem right into their own hands. They should fully disclose in EVERY post that the trip (or product or hotel stay) was provided free of charge or was substantially discounted.

But is that enough?

Video podcaster and social media consultant Roxanne Darling goes so far as to say that to avoid Google penalities for paid or “comped” blog posts, every link to the company giving the freebie should be “no follow” so as to avoid giving that company the benefit of your blog’s PageRank or Google “juice”/authority through your links to them.

Disclosing on just the blog posts isn’t really enough,either. As I said in a comment on Roxanne’s blog:

“I put a disclosure of my [Hawaii blogger’s tour] paid sponsorship at the bottom of every Family Travel blog post, but for space reasons I had a harder time doing that for my tweets, Stumbles, Delicious bookmarks, Facebook comments & photos, Flickr photos, LinkedIn status items…. we know how to reach out all over the place and full disclosure is still very important, but not always easy to do on every publishing platform.”

Roxanne is toying with the idea of a standard “sponsored item” button for paid content, similar to an orange RSS button; I think it’s an intriguing concept.

And by the way, who’s in charge of blogger ethics?

The answer is….nobody, but the reality is that currently, the driving constraint is probably the blog’s readers. Readers vote with their eyeballs. Lie to readers and you lose them, you lose credibility and your blog goes down with you.

Some see a blogger fam tour as an experiment in social media and therefore exempt from knotty ethics questions, but that’s only if you see social media itself as some sort of newly jumped-up experiment. I do not. I’ve been blogging since February 2006 and I thought I was late by not starting until then. It is not “new media.”

I doubt any tourism organization is going to stop hosting fam tours because of anything I’ve said here, but I would caution them that a lot of writers are perhaps more uncomfortable with the whole thing than we may admit, even to the many cheery, hardworking PR people who are trying to do a good job as destination promoters.

Local Blogger Hosts As A Fam Tour Alternative

I think a destination’s local bloggers, acting as hosts, may be part of the answer.

On the So Much More Hawaii tour, I had family-focused “host bloggers” in Maui (Liza of A Maui Blog) and Oahu (Russ from ParkRat’s Playground) who tied into my family travel topic. The hosting logistics were put together quickly, but my understanding was that their expenses were somewhat defrayed through a partnership with Hawaii-based Pono Media and the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

For example, Pono Media paid for my Maui host family to rent a large van for a day so we could all drive up to the Haleakala National Park summit and then eat lunch together at a place that we chose, the Paia Fish Market. I didn’t feel like such a mooch under such a setup, and I liked knowing that my host family’s time and effort were somewhat compensated.

No one set our schedules with the locals, so on Oahu, Russ took me to Waiola Shave Ice and Rainbow Drive-In because that’s what his family likes, not because anyone official told him to go there (I don’t think compensation for Russ was quite as well organized, so I kept offering to pay for things including gas, but Russ politely declined.)  One evening’s entertainment was watching our kids chase crabs by flashlight at a local beach park.  The Visitor’s Bureau would not have put that on a fam tour schedule, but it was one of my best memories of the trip.

This hosting alternative would require local bloggers to work almost as freelance contractors to the Visitor’s Bureau (they wouldn’t be volunteers like, for example, the Big Apple Greeters in New York City.)  I’m not so naive as to think that problems might not arise on both sides, but I still think the idea has merit based on my experience in Hawaii (and my fellow tour bloggers also loved their time with local bloggers on Kauai, Maui, the Big Island and Oahu.)

It also requires tourism organizations to get to know and then vet those bloggers who wish to participate.  CVBs already vet hotels, restaurants, etc., and they SHOULD know their local bloggers, who can be outstanding destination advocates.

This isn’t the whole answer, by a long shot. A host blogger compensated by a CVB is still a “freebie,” unless the CVB offers the host option to any visitor, not just press, and/or charges everyone a nominal fee for such host blogger services.  I don’t claim that this is the ideal solution, but I want to explore a better way than the fam tour, and this seems promising to me.

In sum, no one has given me rules to follow here in the bloggy Wild West, but I’ve ended up making my own (what others do is their business, of course.)

For myself; I am willing to consider going on future blogger fam trips, but I won’t seek them out. I will still produce content (print/online articles, blog posts, photos, videos) from the Virginia, Kansas and Hawaii trips, and I will still clearly disclose when my travel was paid for, but I now plan to redouble my efforts to make enough money through my consulting and freelance work so that I can pay for my travel on my own.

I’m more than happy to advise on “Tourism 2.0” and how to interact on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.,  but there is no social media magic bullet served by any headlong rush to include bloggers in a tourism marketing model that has some serious flaws.

The fam tour needs alternatives, and I hope to help create them.

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June 7, 2009

Bloggers hit the Pacific Business News front page

Pacific Business News front page featuring the HTA blogger's tourI’ve just returned from a 10-day “fam tour” (familiarization tour,  sometimes called a press trip) to the Hawaiian Islands with a diverse group of bloggers who were sponsored by the state’s Hawaii Tourism Authority and organized by Cilantro Media.

Our trip made the front page of the Pacific Business News, and in the fight for the legitimacy of bloggers and wired writers/photographers/videographers as information sources, that’s kind of a big deal.

More thoughts to follow, but the bottom line is that I see our “So Much More Hawaii” tour as a breakthrough in the use of social media for tourism and travel organizations.

It shows that bloggers can provide legitimate insights into a destination.

We can also reach an audience that might not be swayed by glossy brochures, advertorials in newspapers that we don’t read or TV ads on programs that we don’t watch (because we watch TV on Hulu.com instead.)

Seems a little strange that economic desperation is largely driving this interest in social media, but we’ll take what we can get.

Just So You Know Disclaimer:  The state Hawaii Tourism Authority through Cilantro Media paid my way to Hawaii for the So Much More Hawaii bloggers tour, and also paid most of my expenses while I was there.

May 24, 2009

So Much More Hawaii – talking travel story with blogs

Beach Office (courtesy Scott Ableman on Flickr CC)Next week, my 9-year-old son and I are heading west from Texas to spend 10 full days in the Hawaiian islands, all because of blogging and Twitter.

Through my tweets, writing and particularly my travel blogs, I’ve gotten to know Christine Lu of Cilantro Media and several people who work in tourism for the state of Hawaii.  They’ve gotten to know me and my enthusiasm for social media in tourism.

To connect digital creatives with a beautiful place, the Hawaii Tourism Authority is bringing a group of prominent bloggers to Hawaii to “talk story” about what we find on Kauai, Maui, the Big Island and Oahu. I’ll be the blogger who mostly covers family travel.

The tour is called So Much More Hawaii (full Web site up in the next day or so. Meantime, add your best pics to our Flickr pool.)  (Update – here is the So Much More Hawaii blog/microsite that includes our content plus that of local bloggers.)

I was on Christine Lu’s China 2.0 tour in November 2008,  and social media is a common theme in her life for creating those connections.  She writes:

“The upcoming ‘So Much More Hawaii’ tour is meant as a proof of concept that through social media, first-hand insight of Hawaii can create content and outreach that influences those to understand Hawaii better and want to visit the islands…key bloggers in different vertical niche markets [will] experience the islands as a group, with separate sector focuses. Each one has a sector they are known for covering and their visit to Hawaii is meant to share this with their audience.”

Other bloggers on the tour include:

As we all know, the economy is down around the world. The Hawaii tourism industry is in crisis right now and the outlook is grim.  I applaud Christine and others for seeking new, more effective ways to use social media to showcase the islands for potential visitors.

Here are some of the blog posts already online about So Much More Hawaii:

Keep an eye not only on this blog but also on the Perceptive Travel Blog, my Twitter stream and the @HawaiiHTA stream (we’re using hashtag #HawaiiHTA.)

Just So You Know Disclaimer:  The Hawaii Tourism Authority through Cilantro Media is paying my way to Hawaii, and also paying most of my expenses while I am there including lodging.  I am contributing to my son’s expenses. The point of the trip is to bring experienced bloggers and communicators to the islands to talk about what we see; my primary focus will be on travel with kids. No one has told me that I cannot post negative information. No one has told me that I must say positive things.  I will be as objective as I can possibly be.

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