The delicate art of asking for free crap

You may be surprised to hear that travel writing has a seedy underside. Quite often, almost routinely in fact (when you’re not working for Lonely Planet), travel writers are given a free room, meal or service, with an accompanying wink, on the condition that they compose glowing praise for whatever the free thing was, no matter how much ass it sucked.

The nadir of this ritual is called a ‘press trip’. This is where some tourism bureau organizes an all-expenses paid trip for a pack of travel writers (with assignment letters in hand, obviously, we gotta keep out the riffraff), arranging for flights, hotel rooms, meals and tours, hands held for every waking second, and then the travel writer is sent home to write an article, or more preferably articles, about how great the destination was, even if it was Miami.

Mostly this is just underhanded advertising under the guise of what lay-people assume is an objective travel article. However, tourism bureaus aren’t completely to blame for the popularity of this tactic. In the defense of what may seem like greed on the part of the travel writers, the reality is that newspapers can’t find it in their hearts to pay more than $100-200 per article. So, if a professional travel writer were to pay their own way on a one week trip, even to some relatively cheap destination like Duluth, then came back and spent two days diligently writing the article for an average newspaper fee, the travel writer’s net earnings for that assignment (nine days of time, plus expenses) would be about -$500. Over the course of a calendar year, that travel writer would net between -$25,000 and -$50,000, depending on trips and expenses. The upshot is all these negative earnings would be tax free. In your face IRS!!!

Clearly, this isn’t a feasible arrangement. Tourism bureaus saw a slick, promotional opportunity that helped both them and the travel writers and press trips were born.

As if to cement their positions as blood-sucking wankers, now many newspapers won’t accept articles that were written on the strength of a press trip, meaning unless their field of hopeful travel writers is independently wealthy, none of them can afford to take a newspaper assignment that ranges further than the local zoo. Since no one is beating down their doors to work for negative money, the newspapers usually end up printing some soulless shite they bought off a syndicate that was probably written by someone who themselves wrote the piece off a press trip, or worse, wrote the piece from Internet research and thinly veiled plagiarizing off other travel articles. While the newspapers fancy this approach as being honorable and legit, in actuality everyone loses, particularly the readers.

I have never been on a press trip and probably never will until I convince someone to pay me to go undercover and write a scathing expose about press trips (editors?). That said, on rare occasions, I find myself in the position to request ad hoc free stuff, as I am now.

I’m going to Kiev next week for a juicy magazine assignment. To help offset expenses, the magazine has given me the go-ahead to ask for a free hotel room (five stars obviously, though I’ll do four stars in a pinch) in exchange for a 1/2 page review that I will write about the hotel which will appear at the front of the magazine. I might feel a little dirtier about doing this if this particular magazine didn’t allow for total honesty in their reviews. When something honestly sucks, we say it sucks with a clear conscience.

Furthermore, for the most part, I’m in the near bottom bracket of travel budgets and usually endure spirit-sapping indignities to get the job done (see blog post below about the new fragrance that I’m unintentionally manufacturing in my apartment; ‘Cat Tinkle for Men’) and as such, I feel that I am occasionally entitled to a little pampering in the form of a five star hotel room or dinner in a swanky restaurant rather than a musty 12 bunk hostel room and a dodgy looking kebap for dinner.

Which brings me to the delicate part of this arrangement; asking nicely for the free hotel room. This involves researching the top local hotels, sleuthing the email addresses of their marketing people and sending them an exquisitely worded email, detailing my assignment, how many people will read it, how I’d like to review their fine establishment and how ‘any accommodations assistance’ they could provide would be much appreciated.

In some places this is a gimmie. When I was in Cologne last year, I slept all five nights in luxury in two different willing hotels, who answered my requests almost instantly. On the flip side, when I went to Kaikoura, New Zealand only two places replied, and then only reluctantly after two emails. One said they couldn’t accommodate me, the other suggested that I might want to spontaneously skip the article on Kaikoura and instead usurp editorial control and write a 1,200 word piece dedicated to their bed and breakfast, which makes it own chowder, by the way. Sure! Why not? My editor probably won’t mind!

Kiev is proving to be the worst of all. The Ukrainians seem to have a similar approach to customer contact as good old Romania (read nonexistent). I sent emails to five hotels. Heard back from none. A week later I sent follow up emails. One hotel replied asking:

DEAR MR.,
EXPLAIN IN DETAIL, THAT YOU OFFER TO US.

Yes, that’s exactly how it read, caps and all. That particular hotel has entrusted their entire marketing strategy to a half-wit, email novice. Moreover, obviously, there’s the issue of translation. I do not speak a word of Ukrainian and English doesn’t seem to be high on the list of second languages in the Ukraine, which means all future correspondence will have to be done in unproductive caveman talk. All part of the fun!

Moreover, as I received a pathetic few additional replies, it became clear that the Ukrainians simply did not understand the Free Crap Dance – one was a flat rejection (natch) and the other missed the point entirely, gladly welcoming me and asking how many nights I’d like to stay and would I like the suite? These people have clearly never been face-to-face with a professional travel writer or they’d know the aroma of rarely laundered clothes, baggy eyes so droopy that you could put a handle on them and carry change in them and that even a couple nights on a cot in their boiler room would blow our budgets.

If this was happening during the cold war or maybe the Middle Ages, I’d understand the confusion, but seriously, it’s 2006 and we’re talking four and five star hotels, some of them international chains! I certainly can’t be the first travel writer to step foot in Kiev; what gives?

This couldn’t be more simple; give me between one and three nights complimentary accommodations and for this trifling handout – a maximum monetary value of maybe US$400 –I will guarantee that 60,000 well-strapped business people will read (or possibly skim past) about how wonderful you are, assuming you don’t stink, in which case the same people will read about how you hate customers because it means you have to put down your cell phone and cigarette for three minutes and assist them all the while shooting hate rays at them for having the audacity to want to give you money.

Oops, disregard that last statement. That’s the speech I was saving for a few choice hotels, restaurants and shops here in Romania for when I’m King of All Travel Writers and my words can instantly ruin livelihoods.

Anyway, it’s starting to look bleak. Unless the light comes on in someone’s head soon, I’ll be writing about Kiev’s swanky hotels, expensive restaurants and the all around business climate from a $20 a night, six bed hostel dorm room located at the last stop of the red metro line.

That’s all for this edition of Freelance Travel Writing: The Untold Lameness. Tune in next time when I regale you about the joys of researching a 2,600 word business-focused article in a city where English is sparse and all printed text is Cyrillic.

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