TRAVELING WITH TRAVEL WRITERS
The Challenging Ones
Traveling with travel writers is as bad as traveling with photographers. My wife can testify to that. “Can’t we just go someplace without you wanting to write about it.” I do feel sorry for her and give in, sometimes.
“Okay, no writing,” I agree.
But after being married to me for so long, she becomes the culprit. We see something interesting and she is the one who says, “Hey, that would make a good story.” She then begins working out an outline and a theme in her mind. Sometimes she even begins scribbling notes on the edge of the road map as we drive along.
But the scenario gets quite involved and complicated when one travel writer travels with other travel writers. I have to look at the facts. I am after a story, and so is the guy I am traveling with, that is, if he is a travel writer. Imagine, then, being on a press tour with twenty other journalists who are all looking for stories. What you have is twenty journalists competing. That’s not a very pleasant thought.
The idea behind press tours is sound. It’s common for government tourism offices, hotels, tour and transportation companies, parks, resorts, and airlines to arrange press tours and invite journalists. They all want to promote their products or services and that’s the best way to do it, by inviting travel writers on press tours. It’s much cheaper and more credible for readers than advertising. A good public relations officer is worth his keep when he knows how to cater to travel writers. Take for example the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. The hotel is well known as being among the very best hotels in the world. Credit is given to its general manager Kurt Wachtveitl who took over the reins when the hotel had but a hundred rooms. That was forty years ago. What you won’t hear is that sitting in the public relations office was a very young Thai girl, Pornsri Luphaiboon, who had her own philosophy about publicity. Before Pornsri retired a few years ago, after four decades of service, I questioned her about her contribution to the overwhelming success of the Oriental. She responded without hesitation and said, “You must let the international writers do the promoting. If journalists find they are happy with the hotel, the service you provide, then they will say nice things about you.” And that she did. There wasn’t a journalist around the world who didn’t have anything but nice things to say about Pornsri and about the hotel.
Some press tours are lavish and costly, especially when government tourism offices get involved. They will go to extremes to organize an itinerary to please the media, hoping that their investment will bring more tourists to their doorsteps. The concept is fine, but there is a problem. The media often treat these offers as bonus prizes for their employees. It doesn’t matter that those whom they choose to send are not writers or journalists. Many press tours tum up with deadwood, with people who have nothing to contribute. It’s almost like Foreign Correspondents Clubs that I mentioned. FCCs have more business people in their membership than they do writers and journalists. Businessmen tum Foreign Correspondent Clubs into business opportunities.
Serious reporters who do manage to get a seat on a press tour often find themselves sitting next to people who are not writers and who care nothing about sights and history. I find being a part of such a tour is unproductive. More than once I had been on a press tour and, finding my traveling companions intolerable, I concluded I was wasting my time and left, with the excuse that I was needed immediately back at the office.
Airlines are notorious for filling their planes on their augural fights to new destinations with company executives, their families and often friends of company executives, leaving little or no room left for the press, the real purpose in publicizing an augural flight.
One journalist I know who has more experience with press tours than most is Robin Dannhorn. Robin started his writing career as public relations consultant for Thai Airways International. Robin today is a very accomplished writer and a romantic. He appeared in a chapter in my book At Home in Asia. I asked him for his comments on press tours.
“During my travel writing activities over several decades,” he wrote, “I was involved in many press trips. Usually arranged by national tourism organizations, airlines, or hotel chains, these ranged from the frankly boring to the wonderfully rewarding. Some trips were a waste of time because the press group had to attend too many official receptions, given by local chambers of commerce, or trade associations in the host country, or when too much time was taken up with hotel inspections (to make sponsors happy).
“Press groups usually consist of professionals, who are keen to learn more about any destination on which they can write and sell stories, which is especially important for freelancers. Travel journalists tend to be polite and tolerant of the boring activities and appreciate all the interesting or unusual places and events they experience. The only exceptions to the ‘politeness towards hosts’ rule were some of the “Queen Bee” travel editors of top, usually American, magazines I have known who could be very demanding and jealous over such issues as someone else getting a better view from their hotel room. Sometimes they refused to join a bus tour, demanding a private car, or required to be upgraded to a suite. Of course they had to fly first class, while the rest of us were just happy to be included, even in economy.”
Robin went on to comment that some press trips are simple and adventurous, while others can be very luxurious, with the best of everything supplied. One such tour he joined was sponsored Belgium and the Champagne region of France. They stayed in five-star hotels and enjoyed truly gourmet meals. It was a large group, with some top writers, including one of the most famous, James Michener. It wasn’t Robin’s first meeting with Michener, however. He had interviewed Michener when the author was staying at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.
In Robin’s own words he describes traveling with Michener: “He was charming and a totally professional traveler, although he did have the reputation for refusing to pay for even the smallest element on any sponsored trip. During the European tour I had the opportunity to sit next to him on bus rides and at banquets. He taught me a lot about travel and writing and was generous with his time and advice for someone as unimportant as myself. He seemed interested in who I was and what I was doing with my professional life. He even offered to write an introduction for a book I was considering writing at that time, a book which, with his endorsement, would have boosted sales considerably.”
Robin continued: “One particular event involving Michener I remember well. Our group was being shown around the main square of Brussels. While the rest of us were admiring the impressive frontages of the square’s historic buildings, I noticed that Michener was not with us. Then I spotted him, down a side street where he was examining with interest the backs of those same buildings. That was a good lesson for me – look behind the obvious while traveling.”
Robin concluded that most rewarding press trips, for him, involved visits to remote destinations, or unique festivals. Among the more memorable sponsored trips were the Pushkar Camel Fair in the remote desert of Rajasthan, the King’s Barge Procession on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River and the gruesome spectacle of Thaipusam, in Malaysia, where devotees spike their cheeks with steel rods. He remembered so well touring northern Pakistan, the Khyber Pass and almost inaccessible foothills of the Karakorums-a trip on which he was the only participant, with a Pathan guide who was well known in the region and could take him to places which might otherwise have been insecure for a foreign traveler.
Robin made several sponsored cruises aboard the four-mast barquentines Star Flyer and Star Clipper and sailed among the Greek Islands, around the Mediterranean and to remote islands of the Andaman Sea. He is a good example of what makes one travel writer stand out from the next. One voyage he remembers in particular, a sea journey aboard Royal Clipper, the largest sailing ship ever built, in which he sailed from Tower Bridge on London’s River Thames down through the Bay of Biscay to Cannes. But it wasn’t a cruise. It was a ten-day pre-delivery voyage shared with some 600 workers who frantically had to get the ship finished for her inaugural Mediterranean cruises with paying passengers. As the only writer aboard Robin was able to sell several stories including a ten-page feature published in a leading yachting magazine. Robin admitted he felt that he was following in the keel wakes of so many great sea heroes: Drake, Raleigh, Anson, Nelson, Cook and the rest who had sailed before him down London’s river to create and protect an empire. The rout included such historic locations, the English Channel Ushant, Cape Trafalgar, Gibraltar, all famed in naval history. “You do not have to be a romantic to be a travel writer,” Robin wrote, “but a strong imagination does help. As a travel correspondent for Thai Airways, I worked closely with Robin over the years, beginning in the late 1960s when he was working as a public relations consultant with the airline. His job required him to organize press trips among them to then still unspoiled Bali and Nepal which the airline was just opening up for tourism. “They were great trip”, he said. “All the writers were enthusiastic and productive for Thai Airways as sponsor, gaining massive editorial coverage worldwide. We also arranged several tours to India and took Thai cultural and fashion groups around European cities.”