To comp or not to comp: Travel pros debate, Part 2

travel comps

This is the second part of an email conversation about press trips and junkets that started on Edie Jarolim’s blog here.

Edie, like myself, has spent many years as both a freelance writer and an editor. She was an in-house guidebook editor at Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) and Fodor’s (Random House) in New York and at Rough Guides in London. She writes about being on both sides of the travel editor’s desk in her new memoir, Getting Naked For Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. I ran an excerpt from it — Horrible Editors: Recall and Regret – a few weeks ago.

Let’s crack on.

JD: Let me throw a ‘suggestion’ your way. You, as a freelance writer, wield the real power in the press trip scenario, and as we know, with that comes responsibility. That means writers need to step up and take on the role of integrity managers. Discuss!

EJ: I love the idea of mighty, power-wielding writers. I’m afraid they are mythical beasts, however, with the exception of a few famous authors. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve submitted a piece that was accurate, based on my expertise, but the editor — or, often, editors — changed it in such a way as to render it inaccurate (sometimes unintelligible) because it didn’t fit his preconceived notions of the subject. Or because there were advertisers to be placated. Writers do not get the advertising revenues. Publishers do.

I have had great editors who asked me questions designed to clarify my writing rather than fit it into an editorial vise. But as you know, editors are under the wire more often than not and find it easier to just change things without querying the author. If — as is increasingly rare — the writer gets to see copy before publication, the struggle is often just to divest a piece of statements that aren’t true. I know of writers who have thrown up their hands and asked to have their bylines removed.

So you’re basically suggesting that in addition to writing well-crafted articles for lousy pay, we try to wrest editorial control from the editor? Good luck with that.

JD: True enough, the ‘writer as powermonger’ idea is a bit of a stretch. However, one of my experiences in this area does illustrate how writers can wield at least a little power if they choose to. My writer had been to an eco-resort in Asia and had written one of the usual eco-resort review types of pieces you can find scattered through inflight mags and other ‘celebratory’ publications like rabbit droppings. It gushed positivity and affirmation and made a great deal of things like hiring from the local population (don’t most hotels?). As the editor I could tone down this language, but I couldn’t add any balancing facts or any observations that could provide at least some context and more considered evaluation, as I hadn’t been myself. All that had to come from the writer. And he refused. It was galling because in the brief, when he made it clear it would be sourced via a press trip, I made a point of making sure there would be balance and this wouldn’t be a PR gush piece. Needless to say we didn’t publish the piece and I didn’t use that writer again. So your central point is correct.

Proceeding from the above, how do you manage your writing when including experiences that have been comped? How do you ensure you never ‘sell out’?

EJ: How do you know I never sell out? I’ve always said that I’d love to, if only people were buying.

Seriously, there are two basic ways to do this. You mentioned in Part 1 that readers expect articles to be pre-curated. If an experience is not up to snuff, I leave it out. Our word counts in articles and number of guidebook pages are limited so eliminating the negative is a natural part of the process. I also try to avoid adjectives and just report on the experience by providing details of it, letting readers draw their own conclusions. In the end, I’m not going to let anything appear under my byline that will undermine my credibility.

JD: “… avoid adjectives and just report on the experience…” Every travel writer should have these words stamped on the insides of their eyelids. I’ve said essentially the same thing elsewhere on this blog, and it really gets to the crux of what a travel writer’s aims should be – to provide relevant information, no more, no less.

Have you ever drawn a line, when you thought you were being treated TOO well by the vendor, in ways that would not realistically be replicated for a paying customer? If you haven’t, and this happened, what do you think you would do?

EJ: This happens all the time and when it does I talk to other guests at a hotel, say, and read reviews in other guidebooks and even on TripAdvisor to get a reality check. Or I ask the PR person who arranged the stay; the good ones are honest. I’m savvy enough to know by now that not everyone who arrives at even the poshest hotel gets a bottle of wine and a gift basket with Macadamia nuts.

The more difficult to me is the converse. I’ve had the experience where, because I’ve been comped, I’m not treated very well. The attitude is, you expect friendliness in addition to a free stay? That’s something I’ve struggled with and discussed with travel writer friends. The consensus: if you can’t figure out that it might be smart to be nice to the press, there’s a good chance you’re not going to be good at the hospitality business in general. I’m not saying you should trash a place for that reason but that you can extrapolate that bad service is a possibility.

JD: I too have come closer to your converse example. At more than one hotel I’ve stayed at under a comp, I’ve been eyed suspiciously by front desk staff, asked for several forms of ID as verification of who I was etc. The experience was fine, and I didn’t feel like I was being treated differently to other guests (once they were happy I was a real journo) but it was an odd start to the stay.  

I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on where this line is. You mentioned bribery in Part 1: at what point do you think that happens? Where does ‘logistical wheel-greasing’ become deceit?

EJ: I was talking about literal bribery, getting paid to include a restaurant or hotel in a guidebook or article. It’s advertising – or advertorial, that odd hybrid – disguised as an honest endorsement. That has never happened to me but it did happened to a friend who was offered money, drugs, and women for listings in his guidebook. He didn’t bite. Most guidebooks are simply not sufficiently popular and inclusion in a magazine article not sufficiently valuable for such offers or exchanges to occur. I have heard of writers trying to solicit payment for listing or writing about a place. That’s blackmail and it’s shameful but I don’t think it’s common.

Again, I give writers more credit, especially those of us who have been in the business a while and know the score. We’re working journalists; just because the topic we write about is travel, that doesn’t mean we’re on vacation and put our brains on hold. You can’t fake a great sunset, a quirky historic monument, or a knowledgeable guide. Wheel greasing, as you call it, allows us to experience what other people experience in a way that more closely resembles reality.

Relatedly, if you expect all vendors to go above and beyond for a known writer in ways they would not for customers, what responsibility do you have as a writer to make this clear?

EJ: In most cases – especially for journalists whose trips are paid for by the publication — it’s too subtle to rise to the level of needing to make this clear. My point was only that there is no purity and it’s a bit hypocritical for these writers to look down on other writers for taking comps when they can’t claim to have an absolutely unadulterated experience either. I’ve been on both sides – i.e., getting my trips entirely paid for and getting fully or partially comped – and think that it’s just a question of degree, and of individual integrity.

Only a writer who pays her own way and goes incognito can claim complete objectivity – if there is such a thing.

This leads us into disclosure. You heard my views in Part 1 – what are yours? Is disclosure important in every piece, for every magazine, that might have had comped elements?

EJ: I don’t think disclosure is important for every piece for every magazine. What Travel & Leisure has begun doing, i.e., saying “content was produced with the assistance of ” goes a long way towards acknowledging that comps are often a part of doing business in travel journalism. But why not post such statements as “the writer was given assistance by the X tourism board” when it’s relevant? That puts the relationship up front.

Of course there are lots of different types of “assistance.” We haven’t really discussed individual itineraries as opposed to press trips – but maybe that’s a question for our next segment, when we talk to PR people.

JD: I can feel myself wanting to argue that “assistance” is a bit vague. True, most readers are savvy enough these days to know what it means in a general sense. But it is rather imprecise, isn’t it? I’m a big proponent of transparency in all sorts of areas, and if adding one quick line to the end of a piece or in a sidebar helps cover your back, they sure, why not.

Thanks Edie, informative and fun, as ever.

Look out for the press relations side of the conversation, coming soon on this blog and also on ediejarolim.com/.

4 thoughts on “To comp or not to comp: Travel pros debate, Part 2

  1. Excellent discussion! re: “If an experience is not up to snuff, I leave it out” has been my mantra my entire writing career – unless it’s to warn of something dangerous. But, unfortunately, in my capacity of being a Board member of a large international travel writers association & a full-time travel writer, I have to spend too much time on social media where re: “I have heard of writers trying to solicit payment for listing or writing about a place” is exactly what the new wave of “blogger/influencer” not only expect but demand – and unfortunately get. They have replaced ad agencies. It has become much more difficult for a journalist to compete with these new masters of the selfie.

  2. Thanks for commenting Marc, and giving some more insight into this business. What you describe is exactly why I’m a big proponent of transparency. It falls into the domain of describing rather than selling the experience, reporting on it accurately, and letting readers decide what to take away. I know in some countries (I think the US is one) it’s now a legal requirement for ‘influencers’ to declare when they’ve been paid or sponsored to promote a product, say on Instagram. That’s something the travel industry should abide by too.

  3. As a first point, unless you’re stinking rich there is no way to do travel writing assignments without some assistance (tourist board, airline, hotel, whoever) on anything other than a very occasional basis i.e. you’re writing about your personal holiday rather than being a professional travel writer.

    Re being positive, I ONLY go to places I have researched as thoroughly as I can before pitching and have a pretty strong idea I am going to find a lot of interesting and good things to write about. So if I write a positive piece that’s why – not because of any comp element.

    Finally, if I have an experience on a trip that isn’t any good, I usually do one of two things. If it is something many visitors to that place might think of doing, I will mention that I thought it was disappointing and say why because that’s important. If it was something ‘laid on’ for my experience to try and butter me up, and it isn’t any good then I just won’t mention it!

    So I once got offered a one-night stay at one of the world’s most expensive hotels at the end of a European trip. Never having a hope in hell of experiencing this world-famous hotel if I was paying I said I’d be happy to have a night there. I stayed my one night, thought the hotel was vastly over-rated and didn’t say a word about it in my feature for a major national title. Neither the hotel or PR ever complained, and I didn’t plug something I thought was a total waste of money.

    1. Good points Norman, though did you not tell the hotel/PR your super-expensive hotel was disappointing? If not, do you not contradict your third par? I guess many writers would worry that accepting a comp like that, and not writing about it, may deter that PR from offering similar benefits in the future. Though, as ever, as long as the reader is not being misled, all is good.

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