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Tips for breaking into travel writing
Monday, August 24, 2015 (All day)

It might be the most glamorous title in the writing world (perhaps just behind “The next J.K. Rowling”). And for good reason — “travel writer” sounds pretty spectacular: free trips, fancy hotels, wine-fuelled dinners, and reason to expense new luggage on your income tax. Yes, these perks do exist, but it can also be a difficult media to break into. There’s high competition, often low rates but high expenses, and frequent controversies surrounding press trip advertorials. However, if you approach a travel assignment as you would any other writing assignment — with a concrete theme and point, accurate research, and a unique story — your chances of entering this rewarding field are all the better.

Here are seven tips for pitching, researching, and writing your first travel article.

Have a point

It might seem obvious, but it’s a common mistake to make, even for experienced writers. It’s easy to get caught up in profiling the destination, only to forget that a good travel narrative tells a story — about people, about culture — that’s influenced by the destination. Even travel service journalism (hotel reviews, restaurant reviews) requires a specific hook to carry it through and give it more oomph than just a description of what to expect should you go. Perhaps it’s that a certain resort is new, is newsworthy right now, features something not found in other resorts, etc.  

Strip it down

Picture this: you come home from a great travel experience, and you’re so eager to sit at your laptop and sum up the entire thing into an epic tale. Before you know it, you’ve written 3,000 words spanning two weeks, peppered with scenes that are only loosely connected. But a travel article isn’t a diary entry. Instead, pick out one single experience that you want to profile. That could be an encounter you had with a local you met, or the emotion you felt while climbing a mountain, or the one great meal at an out-of-the-way diner. Going small will make finding the story that much easier.

Multi-task

Another reason to focus on one aspect of your trip rather than a sweeping odyssey is practical: you can then repurpose the same destination into multiple stories. The sad fact is that very few publishers have the budget to pay high rates for travel stories. Most newspapers will pay about $300 or $400 for a piece with photos, while websites are likely to pay less substantial rates — anywhere from $50 to $200. Magazines may have higher budgets, but still, it’s unlikely you’ll make enough from one story to cover the cost of your time away. However, seeking out multiple angles to the same trip will help you boost your income. To avoid conflicts of interest (or irritating an editor by selling a similar story to their direct competition), aim to reach a variety of genres rather than just travel — food and drink, outdoor living, nature, fitness, art, and history publications are all great possibilities for travel content.

Be willing to spend money to make money

Be aware that very few writers land their first travel assignment from a press trip — or even their second or third travel assignment. Similarly, you’re unlikely to secure media rates on airfare, hotels, or other costs without at least a few travel pieces under your belt. The vast majority of travel writers have had to build up their portfolio first, basing stories on vacations, or turning vacations into story-hunting missions. And with current industry rates, it’s unlikely you’ll make back the money you spent on that vacation. However, building up that portfolio of work is what will put you on the radar of PR organizations, tourism boards, and other groups that organize press trips — and by travel editors who are coping with a heavily saturated market of aspiring travel writers.

Go against the grain

Being invited on a press trip is, for many, the holy grail of travel writing. It means that a tourism board (or whoever is hosting the trip) values your ability to share the story of their destination. The problem is that editors know when a press trip is in the works or has just happened because their inbox will suddenly be filled with pitches for X destination. Want to stand out among the mob? Prove you’re willing to go beyond the itinerary that’s fed to you on a press trip and seek out a unique angle that can fit within the schedule you’re given.  

Don’t be a marketing mouthpiece

More and more travel writing is turning into disguised advertorial. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is that, since publishing budgets can’t accommodate sending journalists on trips, those trips are instead being funded by tourism boards, airlines, and hotel chains. And these hosts have a vested interest in what you see and do while you’re in the destination. Many writers struggle with this grey area where you’re essentially being “paid” (via travel expenses) by the very organization you’re profiling. It’s easy to try to thank the organization for inviting you by writing a play-by-play of the exact itinerary and give rave reviews to any businesses you met on the tour — don’t do it. Take the bits of the press tour that fit into your overall story angle, and don’t feel obligated to write good reviews for bad experiences. Also, it should be noted that some publications have policies against stories based on press trips — check out the travel submission guidelines before you send in your query.

Get involved in the community

Lastly, take part in travel industry events happening within your area. Toronto is fortunate to have a thriving travel community, who meet regularly to network and share industry news:

  • Toronto Travel Massive (TTM) is a local chapter of a global group dedicated to anyone interested in travel, from industry reps to writers. There is a heavy digital focus, with a large portion of members working in the travel blogging world. They have free meet-ups once a month, frequently with guest speakers from various industry sponsors.
  • Young Travel Professionals (YTP) is targeted at those working within the trade (airlines, hotels, tourism boards, tour operators, etc.); however, writers are also welcome to attend. They meet once a month for unstructured, mingling-focused, free networking nights.
  • Travel Media Association of Canada has long been the country’s definitive group for those working in travel media. There’s a yearly fee for membership, but joining grants you invitations to members-only events hosted by tourism boards, hotels, and other travel brands.

In addition to these groups, there are also numerous one-off travel industry events happening around the city year-round, typically hosted by international tourism boards. These events, as well as the ones by the groups listed above, offer a great opportunity to meet with other travel writers and to discuss story ideas with representatives from those destinations. Landing a spot on guest lists for special events often doesn’t come right away — similarly to securing your first press trip, you need to have established yourself within travel media. But to start the ball rolling, get on the mailing list for PR agencies that represent travel brands, and attend open events such as TTM and YTP to meet others within the community.

Travel writing is one of the most enjoyable forms of writing there is. It incorporates history, geography, culture, art, architecture, food and more, offering something for all tastes — so long as you know to seek out that specific story angle that belongs just to you. 

Tammy Burns has worked in travel media for over five years, holding both in-house and freelance positions. She currently works full-time as the content marketing specialist for Urban Adventures.

- Tammy Burns

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