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.

Update:  The Advertiser closed down in June 2010, and the post seems to have disappeared. I’m sorry the paper’s gone. I’m still here.

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

We discuss and recommend highly-focused, individualized blogger fam tours/press trips over at Tourism Currents, so I feel as though I recommend them with one hand and push them away with the other.

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 actively 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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53 Responses to Are blogger fam trips a good idea or are they Jurassic PR?

  1. Peter says:

    Hi Sheila-

    You have consistently provided positive and constructive dialogue on several issues related to the travel industry.

    In an earlier dialog – you reminded your readers about the importance of getting paid as a travel writer and not to undervalue writing skills to the lowest paycheque. I dont think everyone is aware of the various editorial guidelines for travel writer. In this case, as you correctly point out, the fam trip can actually distract you from the paid writing.

    I think in this article you found the balance between a whole hearted endorsement of paid trips and a full on rejection.

    I caught the @travelrants discussion on paid trips. Putting it on the line that they have no time for these kind of trips isn’t realistic nor does it serve the blogging community to be so negative to these type of invites.

    In some ways, these invites are a recognition of the impact that the travel blogging community has on potential travelers to an area. On the other side, I like the alternative of having local hosts because the trend in travel writing seems to be showing a more local experience.

    Lastly, I guess it comes back to the transparency of it all. The most respected writers maybe able to pull of a fam trip simply due to the recognition in the writing. Some readers would simply balance the article as long as they knew the context.

    Peter

  2. Deb says:

    Sheila,
    I’m hardly ever going to be on the other side of an argument from you. (disclosure: I know Sheila from the Hutch Fam Tour, I was one of those bloggers). It’s my humble opinion that as long as I’m giving an honest review/appraisal/story, there should be no problem with allowing the CVB (or whomever) to pick up the tab. You also have to consider what your writing is worth – and in the long run, I think you are way underpaid and picking up the tab does not equal the writing you create from the trip. Just saying.

    Keep up the amazing work you do.

    @debworks

  3. Hi Deb,

    Thanks for your response, and I’m happy to have you on the other side of the fence. I’m sorta straddling it myself, as you can see.

    I don’t have a quick, clean answer but feel compelled to talk about where my head’s going, semi-muddled as it may be. I am also very grateful for blogging – it lets me talk to readers like you in an honest exchange of ideas. We are truly “making it up as we go along.”

    For those who seem to have all the answers….well, good luck with that.

    Deb, we need a good Kansas steak right about now!

  4. kimba says:

    I for one have worked and paid for all of my travel, which means that I don’t get to travel nearly as much as someone who goes on press trip after press trip and fills their year with sponsored travel. I’m not in the business of PR and instead write about my personal experiences, things I like and dislike, frustrations and the rewards of travel. I also like to travel alone. If I was going on press trips, I wouldn’t feel able to do that, write about my experiences, because I wouldn’t really be having any and then I would have to ask myself, what’s the point?

    As an experiment I went on one independent press trip sponsored by a boutique hotel. I was given room and board for a whole week, but my time was my own to go explore and I paid for everything else. It was a lovely time – and I stayed somewhere that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford on my budget. They got a lot of good PR from me through my personal experiences, not because I was expected to write about them, not because I felt indebted to them, but because they treated me well and gave me a lot of space to do my own thing.

    I guess I’m split on the issue and I guess it really has to do with all of the variables of the trip.

  5. pam says:

    Like you, I’d love to have the deep pockets to finance my own trips. Like you, I’ve been a guest of CVBs and tourism providers. Like you, I disclose the relationship as I blog it.

    I make the effort to be an honest critic, as best I can given the circumstances. But I’ve had editors scrub my work for negative commentary — I once stayed in a place where the room I received on a comp looked out over the back patio where the kitchen staff went to smoke — in the practical advice section of the piece I mentioned that you should avoid the rooms over the kitchen and my editor cut it. I also once reviewed a movie that I really did not like. When I asked the PR person if it was okay if I pass it along, they told me to please give it to someone who “would write a good review.” An editor I respect tremendously told me that his publication never prints negative commentary at all, if a place is a bust it never makes it to print. I reckon we’re all scum, in these scenarios. A provider once blasted me for asking to clarify if he was offering a comp, attacking my “journalistic integrity” — that EXACT same provider offered a friend of mine a comp for the exact same service when she was researching a similar story. Editors withholding useful information, PR hacks controlling what goes to print, writers on junkets, providers picking and choosing who they’ll comp, we’re all on the take, no?

    I’m not sure anyone is served by a bunch of bloggers staying home, though. At my blogging “income” I’m good for about three days of camping a year. If I don’t get a hotel comped in, say, Vancouver, I’m not going to accidentally meet that incredible Aboriginal artist and I won’t have a story that captures a place. Logistics support helps me find stories. If I’m just writing shiny hotel reviews, well, uh, okay, maybe I’m not an honest critic. But how does this play out if the story I’m writing is about natural history attractions, deep cultural explorations, expressions of place? Am I a shill and a fake and scum because I took a few nights in a hotel so I could write a good story about something other than the hotel?

    Loads and loads of food for thought here. Thank you, Sheila.

  6. Hi Peter,

    It’s nice to hear from “Our Man in Shanghai.” Your comment is very important: “these invites are a recognition of the impact that the travel blogging community has on potential travelers to an area.”

    Yes, bloggers are the new 800 lb gorillas. As long as we’re here and currently of interest, I see this as an opportunity to examine “the way we’ve always done it” in tourism marketing and maybe do better.

    The fact that I’m even taking a poke at this issue means someone cares what I might think. We’ve come a long way (in the US and in China!)

  7. David McRee says:

    Lots of food for thought here, Sheila. By the way, I chose not to comment on David Shapiro’s article. I don’t mind participating in thoughtful and respectful discussions, but those characteristics were lacking in the comments on that opinion piece.

    I’ve been on one “fam” trip, as you call it. I’m relatively new to travel writing, so that terminology is new to me. I’ve also received a few complimentary hotel rooms on other trips. I’ve never been told what I could or could not write about my experience. I write what I want to (responsibly). They accept that.

    I’ve chosen to decline to participate in several other fam trips because I refuse to go out-of-pocket to promote someone else’s business. In other words, I’m not going to spend $400 in gas to drive to the other end of the state just because I’m getting a free hotel and a couple of free meals. Not to mention the fact that I’m not getting paid for my efforts. (There’s nothing “wrong” with doing so, except that it isn’t a sustainable business model).I don’t mind doing trips that are closer because it gives me more material to work with and more photographs. That means more content, more page views, and more advertising dollars. I don’t lose money on my travel writing. I make money. Which brings me to my next point.

    I am not a journalist and I don’t pretend to be. I am an entrepreneur. An infopreneur. I provide information about places that I know a lot about. I write about Florida beaches. I write about sharks, and stingrays, and jellyfish–all the things that the official tourism folks would rather not have mentioned–in addition to writing about sunsets and birds and sand and water. Ethics? If what I write isn’t true, or is exaggerated, how long will my blog and my website have credibility? Not long. Unlike a huge newspaper or magazine (with “real” journalists), my little blog would be eviscerated in the social media space if I were being unethical. I pride myself on providing accurate “inside” information to visitors to help them avoid the bad, and find the good. I’ve built a following that trusts what I write and I would never do anything to hurt that.

    Are real “journalists” more ethical? Show me an article in Nat Geo or Conde Nast Traveler that discusses the warts of any of the hotels / resorts it writes about.

    Ms. Darling (who I think is wonderful, I subscribe to her video podcasts, BeachWalks With Rox) may have good advice about paid posts and Google, but I find it hypocritical of Google to discount paid links on my website when paid links are Google’s only source of income.

    Can you maintain “independence” when getting compensation of some type? Well, CPA’s do it. They get paid by their clients to do an “independent” audit. Sometimes you end up with an Enron, but most of the time professional ethics wins out.

    I do agree that fam trips are hectic and may not be the best way to see a city. But they do give me a whirlwind tour of the best parts of a city and provide me with great ideas for my next trip, on my own dime and on my own time. Some CVB folks are great resources and they really work hard. I enjoy working with them. Same for the private PR firms. But ultimately my best writing always comes from trips I take at my leisure.

    On a final, and slightly cynical note (sorry), I learned all I need to know about journalistic ethics in the last presidential campaign cycle.

    I’m happy to know that the travel blogging profession has someone like you, Sheila, out front breaking new ground and confronting the tough issues in an intelligent way. I look forward to more of your intelligent commentary and analysis.

  8. Thanks for adding to the discussion on this Sheila. The issues are complex – if this were a math equation the formulas would have a lot of “conditionals” in them. There is a lot of good news in that bloggers are getting the attention they deserve for DOING THE HEAVY LIFTING of going out and cultivating loyal topic-centered audiences by creating valuable content.

    But the fact that we have to go through the seemingly same evolution as traditional journalism I find boring. To me, fam trips are a 1.0 idea that has been mostly rejected by travel professionals; adding bloggers doesn’t mitigate the deficiencies. There are too many bloggers not as transparent as you are and there is no system in place for readers to know who’s straight up and who isn’t. To gain legitimacy, we bloggers are the ones to set and adhere to our standards, to understand our value, and to be compensated appropriately. That is part of the role of the Social Media Club, it’s why I am a member, and why I started the Hawaii chapter.

    I chose not to participate in the tour for a couple of reasons. Though I love and respect Christine Lu, I don’t think people should be working for free for a business entity. I donate a lot of my time and expertise to numerous groups – both NFP and professional. Social media may be new to some people, but it has actually been around for years now and there are hundreds of successful case studies. As long as the CVB’s spend money on everything else, they can spend money to pay people to make videos of their tourist destinations or they can purchase the rights to content created for other purpose that fits with their mission. Again, there are so many creative ways to interact; copying the old ways is just more vulnerable to criticism than new models.

  9. Thanks for being a great thought-leader on travel/tourism and web 2.0!

    Personally, I love the comment about “a destination’s local bloggers, acting as hosts, may be part of the answer”. IMHO this suggestion is gold-dust. I’d be more than happy to participate in this whenever other bloggers (or writers) were passing through Seattle (or Dublin or anywhere else I happen to be situated at that moment in time). In fact, I think there’s room there for CVBs to partner up with local bloggers to create this environment?

    Anyway, I’ll be following your development of this idea (and, I’m sure many more).

    Michelle

  10. I have to show how much of a newb I am to the whole thing when I saw “FAM” as some sort of mix up thinking I was the family guy. I had no idea what it meant or how it was perceived by some. I had never been to Hawaii before and I was in awe of its beauty, its world class resorts and most of all wonder of its culture and people. I was welcomed into their homes their lives and to their story. I can remember being choked up at the first time I saw a show there that described the plight of coming from Tahiti to the islands and the way that happened. I felt blessed that I had been given this opportunity. I wrote blog posts from my heart and from what I was actually feeling. I wrote to the people that read me and know me. I truly wanted to bring them with me. I wanted them to experience what I was and more. After reading the piece by Mr. Shapiro, I have for the first time since landing on Hawaiian soil felt like a Haole.

  11. A Maui Blog says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for discussing this issue further here.

    First, I just want to clarify that the van reimbursement was in not a compensation that “benefited” us but just a reimbursement of an expense incurred by us when I volunteered to be a host. A couple days prior to our trip to Haleakala I called Neenz to tell her of my 2 scenarios for the Haleakala: 1) use our truck which can comfortably accommodate 5. If my kids were to go with us, we would be six. So I said we can leave the kids with a sitter since they’ve already been to Haleakala many times, and my husband and I will tour you there. Neenz of Pono Media knows that family is very important to me, and being a working mom weekends with the family are very important time for me to spend with my kids. I am doing the tour as a volunteer so taking time away from my family to do this is not what she would want to happen. She said for me to take option 2 which is to rent a van and bring the whole family and I will be reimbursed. Pono media believes in family time so they reimbursed the van rental. For that I was thankful.

    All these to say that I participated in this tour because I believe in the model you were hoping to attain (the Tourism 2.0) I was very pleased to see blogging being used as a platform to promote Hawaii’s tourism industry at So Much More Hawaii. I agree that there has to be a disclosure, but from all that I read, the bloggers brought in disclosed this full well. All the tweets were hashtagged #HawaiiHTA which is a given that it’s part of that paid trip.

    I can understand why Hawaii HTA chose to use non-local blogger on this initial trial of using Social Media to promote Hawaii. I hope that they move to using local bloggers eventually but it’s good to get a headstart using experienced bloggers like you.

    We are new at this and there’s so much to learn. Again I would say that I am saddened to see the name calling that happened on the D. Shapiro’s post and I hope the discussion here shed more light to others who seems to disagree with the fam tour.

    I am a blogger, not a journalist, so I won’t join in this discussion any further. But I sure will follow this thread :)

  12. Jeremy Head on (http://www.travelblather.com/2009/05/blog-travel-press-trips.html) wrote a good piece on this topic about 6 weeks ago and is well worth checking out.

    As someone who has been on famils as a blogger, as well as a freelance writer and photographer, its always good to read others views and we can all pick over each others experience to help ensure our own work is improved.

    cheers Heather Hapeta

  13. Mary Jo says:

    I think there are a variety of things that one can get from a FAM trip (whether group or personal), and I don’t think any of that is inherently bad. It’s what we as bloggers (or journalists, or whatever hat you are wearing) choose to do with the info that could be categorized as good or bad.

    Ultimately, any pay for any writing has the potential to compromise one’s opinion and work — whether it’s the blogger getting a free room, or the editor looking at a negative review of their largest advertiser. That’s why I don’t think it’s the “system” that’s broken, so much as people who cut corners or choose to act in what I consider an unethical manner. And for many bloggers, who don’t have that editor/boss, we at least have a few of the editing/censoring layers removed.

    I get a lot of free travel stuff — from flights to hotels to products. Most of it is as a result of my “day” job and is something that I am prohibited from revealing publicly. Does it compromise my opinion — HELL NO!

    Maybe it’s because of that side of my life, that the issue of comps for blogging has never been such a thorny issue. For me it’s simple, and is about negotiating what works in the given situation. I’m free to accept or decline any offer or request, I can make requests of my own, I can pay my own way, or any combination thereof.

    What has never been up for negotiations is my opinion. CVB’s (etc.) can try to influence all they wish (I understand it’s their job), but my opinion is not for sale. Can’t it just be as simple as that?!

  14. Metalchick says:

    Being new to the travel writing industry, I found this article particularly compelling. While I can see your position regarding Fam Trip, for me personally I just would have a hard time remaining authentic to the readers. The most amazing part about travel is the whole discovery process. I love meeting local people and developing relationships to discover new, hidden treasures of the place I’m visiting. While the local tourism bureau may have compiled the most accurate list of highlights, I find that the time spent getting to know people and discover new worlds is not wasted at all. I’m always learning and even with bad trips or even poorly planned trips, I find that there’s a lot more to learn about travel in those cases than with the fam trip. That and I guess I’m much more into inspiring my readers that they too can afford these trips by providing methods to my madness. I would never say never though but full disclosure is an absolute must for any paid or compensated package. Thank goodness that I have a job that accommodates my travel hobby.

  15. Mary Jo says:

    Yeah, I think it’s easy for me, too.

    I think impartiality is easy for me because over the years, I’ve gotten perks and discounts coming my way just because of being a Flight Attendant. So some of the perks that bloggers may recently be experiencing are part of what I’ve always had as a result of my day job.

    I discover lots of things on my layovers, sometimes in cities that I might never have gone to but for a layover. While I may not disclose that I was on a layover (security issues), and am prohibited from disclosing some other travel discounts that I receive because of my job, I’ve never thought that compromised my opinions or impartiality.

  16. Fascinating piece Sheila. To me it’s not really about whether bloggers should go on the fam trips, but whether the people hosting the fam trips properly tailor the trips to the participants.

    Part of the reason that I’m very reluctant to go on fam trips is that they’re often organised just to prove to the members of the tourist board and the local media that the PR people are actually doing something. They just want to be able to say “we had writers from publications X and Y out here”.

    It’s far better when the trip is tailored to getting as much coverage as possible – and good coverage at that. If they decide to target bloggers, they need to ask what the bloggers want.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your kind words; I’m trying to make good decisions as issues are presented to me. I am honestly fine with those like you and Deb who are OK with the current system. I can only speak for myself. The point of my post is not “The fam trip is dead!” but I am trying to say that “The fam trip may not be the best marketing tool available, including for bloggers.”

      Happy to be out front breaking ground; hope my machete doesn’t wear out. :)

  17. Hi David,

    Anytime you question how things are done or suggest changes, you’re breaking someone’s rice bowl, and so I doubt the press trip/fam tour concept is going away any time soon. For a number of people on a number of different levels, it works, just not for me.

    A tailored trip is much more useful, but still begs ethics questions. It’s a tough call.

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    • Hi Roxanne, Ironic that so many hope they can get the “good deals” under the current marketing model, and now I’m expending effort to deflate those expectations. Such a killjoy.

      Yes, appropriate compensation is so central to media issues today. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t (but I do know for sure that not talking about it is NOT the right approach.)

      This post has been in draft for awhile – it started out as “How To Do A Blogger Fam Tour” and the more I worked it, the more it morphed into “Whether You Should Do A Blogger Fam Tour.”

      The experience with local bloggers in Hawaii finally gave me some ideas, for which I’m grateful.

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  20. Interesting discussion. As I”m coming in late, much has been covered, but I wanted to share that I’ve also been TOO honest with some of my editors. I visited several spots for a story for a major American company with tickets comped (not an entire fam trip, but many expenses were covered). I was disappointed with one place and told my editor so, and left it out of my story. She chose to ignore my firsthand experience and write a review herself to include in the piece, simply because she felt it should be included. Happily, this piece does not carry my byline.

    So, while in that particular case the comps weren’t disclosed, I chose to use my own journalistic integrity and NOT include a destination, only to have that integrity shot down by the higher ups. Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth, I suppose.

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  24. Tim L. says:

    Two travel writers visit a fancy new resort within a week of each other. The first is comped by the resort because he is writing a review and a related story for online media that does not pay enough to even cover a massage at the spa. Writer two is on assignment from a glossy magazine that is paying the $3,000 tab for the stay and meals. Writer 1’s review and story are not any more fawning than writer number 2’s and neither one has paid out of pocket for anything. Both are treated well because every guest there is treated well. So where’s the “truth in travel” in all this?

    I’ve personally won multiple writing awards from great stories that came out of press trips where someone else was paying the tab, with warts showing and all. I’ve never understood why I would be more honest when a magazine is paying expenses (or I’m paying them myself even) than when someone else is picking up the tab. What would I be worried about—that a PR person might send me a rude e-mail afterwards? That’s supposed to make writers cower and be dishonest? Seems like a big stretch. And don’t even get me started on writers who cover autos, golf, music concerts, restaurants, yada yada. None of them get paid enough to do it all on their own dime, so its freebietown for them to, with no disclosure in any print mag I’ve ever seen. The readers couldn’t care less—it’s just us media people having this discussion.
    .-= Tim L.´s last [post] ..The Real Europe: Crowds, Tourists, and Money =-.

    • Hi Tim,

      I’d particularly note one of your last sentences, about disclosure in print magazines. I’d say the disclosure bar is a lot higher online, frankly. The print world has way too much “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” for my taste, mostly because “that’s the way it’s done.” Sorry, it’s a new world.

      Thanks very much for your thoughts!

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  33. Chris Gamby says:

    Aloha Sheila,
    I was sent your way by Tim Leffel. I was going to pitch you on the whole “come to Hawaii and try all of our services” deal. I do marketing for a bunch of Hawaii tourism websites and we are always looking for qualified exposure. I understand your ethics about doing so and we are not just looking for mouthpieces to spew our “good word”. Some of our clients do offer some interesting stories and angles on their specific offerings.
    If you are coming back to Hawaii any time soon, please let me know. We would love to have you check out some of our services, or places to stay, and offer up your true candid experiences. If you have issues with what they offer, we want to hear it.
    Hope this finds you well. Congrats on the SXSWi award last year.

    Cheers,
    Chris Gamby
    Wasabi Marketing Elements

    • Sheila says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for getting in touch. No plans to head out to Hawaii anytime soon, but I’ve been in touch with Nathan Kam out there several times recently, so something may come up. The islands are beautiful, for sure!

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  36. Thanks, Michelle, be assured that my brain gears are WORKIN’ it!

  37. Hi Pam,

    Thanks for stopping by; I’m all for the “glass houses” theory of operating in this world, and some of Mr. Shapiro’s commenters are rather deluded that they’re somehow swimming in journalistic holy water.

    I wish them well and Gosh! I wish I could be perfect, too.

  38. Hi Kimba,

    Thanks for your honesty – I’m split, too. I’ve taken 3 press trips in 3 years since I retired from the Navy (it just happened that Hutchinson and Hawaii were within a month of each other this spring.) For those writers who pack in tons of them, well, that’s great for them but it’s not my style.

  39. Jim, that was exactly my concern – that many bloggers aren’t even aware of what’s involved in a fam trip or that anyone would have ethical issues with them. I do know about fams, but only because I learned about them in my travel writer “hat.” I’m almost grateful that a bunch of writers on mediabistro.com ripped my head off about it a couple of years ago – they were wrong, but at least it showed me what a minefield the topic can be.

    None of Shapiro’s words or the sometimes nasty comments on his site should detract from the many positive things that you experienced in Hawaii and wrote about so honestly. As long as disclosure is clear, your readers can decide if they like your content or not.

    It would be good if someone in PR who worked the “So Much More Hawaii” tour would weigh in on Shapiro’s post. Sources tell me they know about it. If they don’t think the tour was defensible, then why did we go? Negative stuff only gets worse with time; you must step up and respond as best you can. We knew that truism BEFORE we started blogging, right? It’s even more true now.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  40. Jim’s comment so clearly spells out both sides of this issue. Bloggers more often than not work as a labor of love, true love, in their passion for a topic. No amount of money can be compared to this. OTOH bloggers are being read and indexed as reviewers, and consumers have a right to know the background compensation of their sources.

    It really is a bridgeable gap – and keeping our eyes focused on best practices and catching people doing something right is far more productive to me than the slurs for sake of page views. I too can tend to be critical – I understand the urge to say, “Geez, don’t they know about this and this and this?” But most people make honest mistakes when things are new, and no, they didn’t know about this and this.

    Being willing to be open, to share, to learn – this is what matters and helps us all develop better practices.

  41. Greetings to Maui – No offense intended; you should certainly be compensated for your weekend time and I’m glad that HTA recognized that….thanks again to your husband for driving up and down that winding road to Haleakala, and I know we’re all glad that my occasionally-carsick son didn’t seem to be worse for the wear.

    I think we’ve both disclosed very clearly who received what and why, but for some who question the whole HTA blogger’s tour, it’s never enough. That’s fine. I wish them well.

    Meantime, my experience with you and my Oahu host @ParkRat may lead to a different, better way to host people at a destination. I’m forever grateful for my visit with you!

  42. kimba says:

    Ah! I wasn’t implying you lived via press trips. But I do know travel writers who seem to! And I don’t read their stuff. Because I always wonder what they would really be saying if their trip hadn’t been planned and comped.

    I think I would think differently about press trips if CVBs, PR peeps, and Tourist Bureaus realized that funding independent travel would not be such a bad thing – that a quirky story about a small off the beaten path bistro in Paris is still going to attract the travelers to go there … I’m waiting for a day that they quietly realize that taking a writer/blogger/photographer whose work that they really like and inviting them as a guest – and letting them be a guest and do their own thing and write wonderful things – would be good for everyone.

    Now, don’t get me started on “contests” – the new destination PR.

  43. ohanakai says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for the reply. I wasn’t offended – just wanted to make sure I clarified that because I posted on the other discussion that I was not paid so I wanted to make that clear.

    It was a pleasure meeting you and your son. Hoping someday you come visit again with your whole family and we’ll host (not officially from HTA but as a friend :)

    Aloha!

  44. Hi kiwitravelwriter, thanks for the link, this seems to be a topic that is drawing more and more discussion, which can only be a good thing….

  45. Thanks for your comment – everyone needs to make their own decisions on fam trips, and I’m honestly fine with that, I just think disclosure is absolutely key for the blogger to retain trust.

  46. Hi Metalchick Yes, authenticity is essential – and one of the difficulties with famils is the whole trip is contrived and mostly they are about things the host wants pushed, not what i would do, visit, eat etc in a particular place.

    there is also a difference in blogging and in the print media and hopefully readers can see that … often the blogs seem to be advertorial with links to many places.

    I like to tell a story – not where I ate, where I stayed, what I bought etc. see my webpages and blogs for tips on travel writing.

  47. Hi Mary Jo,

    To me, it IS fairly simple – accept or decline fam trips, but know what they entail, know what the agendas are, and disclose, disclose. Just because I am personally skeptical of my own ability to be impartial on fams doesn’t mean that others don’t feel just as strongly that they are capable of impartiality.

    The issue for me is not that I won’t say negative things – what I find is that I self-censor and don’t say anything at all about things that bother me on a fam. That’s what I hate when I feel myself doing it, and that’s why I want to avoid fams if possible in the future.

  48. i think its unfair to readers for them not to know when you ( we) have been given ‘free travel stuff’. they need the opportunity to piece as much, or as little, weight as they like to the piece.

    All it requires is a statement/sentence at the end of the piece.

  49. Yeah, but you can look at yourself in the mirror every day – the only point of reference needed, I think.

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