The Digital Adventures

Travel Writer-TW5A

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It might sound ideal, finding a sponsor and have someone else pay your bills. But remember, nothing is free. Travel writers are known for the freebies they get, but at the same time as it may be free, they have to be cautious. I was excited when the world famous Manila Hotel in Manila offered me a room.

The old Manila Hotel, built in 1912 by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, is a showpiece of the Philippines. It was the meeting place for Americans during the colonial period, and became General Douglas Macarthur’s headquarters in 1935. The hotel withstood the bombing of World War II, and bounced back after the war. Walking through the front door, you can feel the opulence and wealth. That’s the feeling I had when I entered the front door with my suitcase and Hermes typewriter. An added surprise came when the management gave me the Presidential Suite. What splendor, and that even included a private swimming pool. It all sounds well and good, but let’s look at the bottom line. The chambermaid, the bellhops, the doorman, the consigners, they all didn’t know I was a travel writer on a budget and not a big spender. I don’t have big tips to hand out to all those lined up at departure time. So what do I do? I tiptoe out of my room, carrying my own luggage, and look down the long hall hoping no one is in sight. No one. I managed to make it to the front desk. I am always a bit apprehensive when I ask for my bill, even when I am told beforehand that the room is complimentary. I avoided taking items from the mini bar, as the prices are outrageous, and I want to make sure when I scan the bill that I wasn’t charged for in-house movies. I scanned the channels, but I didn’t actually request a movie. I get through that hurdle, and tell them I paid cash for my meals, while in actuality I ate in a noodle shop in town. But then comes something I never expected. This can’t be. It’s the tax.

The management can give you a free room, but they cannot disavow the government tax. So I was in a hotel room that cost US$1,500 a night, and the tax is 13%. A four-star hotel in Makati would have cost me less money. But it’s too late now, and still, it’s not over. There’s the door man and the two bellboys who grab my luggage and camera bag, and the third boy who goes to open the trunk of the hotel limousine with its white embroidered doilies on the back of the seats, and I have to tell them that I don’t want the limousine. I want a taxi. No, not a hotel taxi. A public taxi, one that they have to call up from the street. It’s all very embarrassing. It’s part of the learning experience. Nothing is free.

Freebies for travel writers are hard to come by in America and Europe; but in Asia it’s very much a barter society. Hotels, air tickets, bus and train tickets, tours, cruises, rental cars and any number of services, all in exchange for write-ups in magazines and newspapers. For ten years, I had a full travel page with the Bangkok Post every Monday. Aside from the text, I had to provide photographs. My contract with the Post paid a flat fee with no travel allowances or expenses. I could, however, solicit my own transportation and accommodation. For ten years, I traveled the world, and it didn’t cost me a cent. I not only sent back weekly travel destination stories for the newspaper, I was able to gather material and photographs or magazines stories.

There’s no doubt about it, freebies are a good deal for the writer, but what are the sponsors getting? They actually are the ones who are benefiting. Advertising costs money, a great deal of money, and for giving away a hotel room, a free car or an airline ticket, they get a page in a newspaper and two or three pages in a magazine .

.Advertisements in the media-newspapers, magazines, radio and TV-can cost them many thousands of dollars. Take, for example, The Academy Awards telecast on ABC Network. The cost for a 30-second commercial in 2007 was $80.7 million.

Editors don’t want writers to mention sponsors’ names for they feel sponsors should pay for advertisements, and that’s understandable. But there are ways that I learned to getting around this. I figure out a way to work the sponsor’s name into the text, and I use photographs that how their products. It’s easy if it’s a hotel or car rental agency. Furthermore, a plus for the advertisers is that such writing is not a commercial advertisement, and people are generally more inclined to read the story with photographs than they would read an ad.

Editors will take advantage of novice writers, and there i not much the writer can do but go along with the system until he is established and has credibility as a writer. I remember an incident when I made a pitch to the editors of National Geographic for a story I had in mind. I had met a surveyor who was working for National Geodetic Survey and was mapping the Choco Jungle in Columbia. It sounded like a marvelous story for the Geographic so I went to Washington to talk to the editors. I was surprised at how well I was received. “Yes, it sounds like a good idea for a story,” the editor said. I was elated. Now let’s see what you can do.” There was no contract; no assignment; but Geographic was giving me a chance. It was up to me. What a lark. I learned later they do that with many writers who have a possible story idea. String writers along, that’s their motto. The magazine has nothing to lose. It’s their policy-don’t tum anyone down. They have their reason, which I learned later. The story told, and it’s quite reliable, is that a young Norwegian anthropologist went to the Geographic office in Washington and wanted to see the editor. The year was 1948. The man had an idea. He wanted to build a balsa wood raft and drift from South America across the Pacific to prove that the Polynesians came from South America. The editor wondered who this nut was. Float in a raft across the vast Pacific. How insane. The man was a joke, and sent from one office to another, and each time he gave his sales pitch. He eventually realized he was being made a fool by the staff. The anthropologist went back to Norway, gathered a few other scientists who had the spirit for adventure and raised enough money to sponsor the voyage himself. They named the balsa raft Kon Tiki and the voyage became the most successful adventure of the century. Their adventure appeared in magazines around the world and a documentary for both the silver screen and television became a sensation. National Geographic had lost out on the biggest story of all time.

Thereafter, the management of National Geographic issued the order that no project, no matter how outrageous it may sound, was to be turned down. I surmised after learning the facts about National Geographic that my idea about a story on mapping the Choco jungle fell into the same category. But when I look back, I can’t blame the editors. My photography with a cheap, one-lens Retina camera was hardly National Geographic stuff. I guess they just didn’t want to discourage me. But I did experience another letdown by the magazine, and this was very unethical, I had been living on Tahiti. Back in those years, ne could get a berth aboard a copra boat and voyage to II the remote islands for a fare that was a pittance. I made one voyage to the low-lying Tuamotu Islands. There, I discovered some very courageous men-pearl divers. These remarkable men could dive down to the ocean floor some 120 feet below without the aid of scuba or compressed air. They dove with nothing more than a tiny pair of homemade goggles. Some divers, I was told, reached depths farther than 120 feet. What a story for National Geographic. I didn’t have proper underwater camera equipment, but if l could get an assignment to do the story, would get the equipment. I went to Washington and got an appointment with the picture editor. With excitement! I met the editor-I won’t mention his name-in his office and told him about the pearl divers of the Tuamotus. He wasn’t interested. He probably saw me with my Retina camera. Heart fallen, I left the office and didn’t pursue the idea any further. Then, about three of four years later, the story appeared in National Geographic. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, it was a beautiful story with some very fine photography, but still, it was my story and my idea. I went back to the Geographic office but played it cool. I went to see the picture editor with the pretense that I had some other ideas for stories. He didn’t remember me from the past. On his shelf were National Geographic magazines. Casually I asked him how they get their story ideas, and before he could reply I reached up and pulled down from the shelf the issue with the pearl diver story. I turned to the story and asked him how he came about getting the story, “Oh, that,” he said, “I had a friend who had a boat and was sailing to the Pacific and I told him about the pearl divers. I thought it would make a good story.”

What do you do?

The only salvation is to move on. Forget it. As my friend Al Podell, who was the picture editor for Argosy when I began writing for the magazine, said to me, “To get a sponsor, you need a peg.” A peg, some PR gobbledygook that I didn’t understand. But Al was my teacher. He taught me how to get sponsored, and what that peg was-merely a gimmick- that you had to hitch on to. But he also taught me sponsorship can also be overdone. You can end up with more than you want or need, and then you find yourself stuck. I found this to be true when I returned to New York from Russia, with my Willys Jeep waiting in Spain for me to continue on to Southeast Asia.

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