EVENT REPORT: Press Trips and Language Tips for Travel Media

By Rob Goss

On March 20, 2019, twelve people, including five first-timers, attended the latest SWET Travel Writing Meetup in Tokyo at Book House Cafe, Jinbocho, for a presentation by photographer Phil Ono about the handling of style issues in place-name signage used around the country and a presentation by travel writer Rob Goss about press trips for travel writers and issues with translating and editing travel- and tourism-related Japanese into English. (Note: A report of Phil Ono’s part of the event is forthcoming.)

Rob Goss focused on the elements that make a successful press trip, what to look for when deciding whether or not to accept an invitation to go on such a trip, and the differences between press trips for people working in travel media and “monitor tours” for (largely) non-media participants. As Goss explained, a press trip—sometimes called a fam-trip or media FAM—is one on which media writers (ranging from magazine staff and freelance writers to bloggers and social media influencers) are taken on a tour paid for by the organizer on the understanding that the writers will then produce content for publications on the area. Goss then looked at the following:

1) To give a sense of how common press trips are for people working in travel media, Goss briefly outlined his travels around Japan over the previous 12 months, during which he had spent about two months on the road and visited 16 prefectures. About one quarter of this time was spent on press trips and monitor tours, while the rest were self-organized trips funded by specific clients.

2) Next, Goss looked at what he looks for when offered a press trip. This included thinking about:
• How does the schedule look? Too hectic? Too repetitive? Is it an actual press trip geared towards storytelling or a “monitor tour” designed primarily to serve someone else’s needs? If not a press trip, where the organizer’s primary focus is to help the participants find stories, it can be a waste of time attending. Goss has been on several press trips that ended up being mislabeled monitor tours, where the participants were whisked through “model courses” and didn’t have enough time to root out stories or interview subjects, and where they were treated not as media but used primarily to provide feedback on the area’s attractions and to appear in local media to highlight how the local tourism agency was trying to attract foreigners.

• Looking at the schedule, can you generate enough work from the trip to make it worth your while? What stories can you see? Do you have enough time before agreeing to the trip to secure pre-trip commissions? If you are away (say) for five days, you need to be able to sell enough work from the trip to cover not just the five days you are away, but also the time you spend working on those stories post trip. That might mean needing to cover a fortnight’s income, so, if the schedule and focus doesn’t appear designed for you to achieve that, then it’s bad business to go. For Goss, being away on a work trip also means his wife has double the parenting, dog-walking, chores and so on to do, and his son doesn’t have a dad around as normal. So, a press trip needs to result in work.

3) While monitor tours aren’t great for travel media, they aren’t all bad. These trips, where the participants go along free of charge in return for feedback on the tour and the area, do have some positives:

• Under-visited destinations can receive feedback from a non-Japanese traveler’s viewpoint and possibly a small degree of media and social media coverage.

• Good opportunity for non-media to have a free trip. Some organizers will also pay modest consultancy/attendance fees.

• Potential to find a story (or a portion of a story) even if that isn’t the organizer’s primary aim. That, however, is a gamble, so it’s best to go on one-or two-night monitor tours only, as that way you don’t risk losing much potential income (you can always work a weekend to make up for the lost time).

• Be aware that helping media writers own work isn’t the aim of a monitor tour. And what gets labelled as a “press trip” frequently turns out to be a monitor tour. That can be a waste of a participant’s time.

4) Next, Goss and the group talked about the little things press trip and monitor tour organizers could do to make a big difference in trip quality:

• Down time/privacy: Some monitor tours have ridiculous schedules. Rob recalled one where he and the other participants flew from Tokyo at 8 a.m. and were on the go until 11 p.m., then reached an inn where they all had to sleep together in one large tatami room with a shared bath and toilet for all 10 or so participants, before being up before 7 a.m. the following (equally hectic) day. Others shared similar stories. That’s not professional organization. You need time to unwind (as you would after working on a normal 9–5 work day), as well as time to write, process images, do social media posts, send emails, and keep on top of work as you travel. You also need time when you can be apart from the rest of the group.

• Photo availability: Some writers take their own photos, which is okay for some publications, but many publications require high-quality images taken by professional photographers. It can be very helpful if trip organizers have images available for media use or if they also invite a professional photographer on a trip.             

Number of people on the trip: 46 people on one trip was the largest anyone in attendance had experienced! A maximum of 10 people would allow participants to work unhindered, but two to six people would be an ideal range.

• Wi-Fi: Working media need to be able to check email, file stories, send images and more, so Internet access is a must. If the accommodation doesn’t have Wi-Fi, it can be very helpful of the organizer to provide pocket Wi-Fi during the trip.

• Interpretation/guide quality: Many Japan-based participants don’t need interpretation, but some do, as does media coming from overseas. Often, the language skills of interpreters provided by organizers is lacking. Likewise, a good guide sells an area to participants and brings them deeper into content. This is one area where a little extra investment by organizers can reap much better results.


Post-presentation discussion

After the presentation, the group spent 30 minutes sharing press trip/monitor tour experiences and discussing some of the points raised in the slides.

i. One issue that came up was “ambushing.” Several people had been on more than one trip where they had been greeted without warning by local TV film crews and photographers, and trailed throughout, leaving the impression that they were invited not as working media but to be token foreigners to highlight how local tourism was reaching out to foreign media and travelers.

ii. Related to the above, one participant asked whether it was possible to decline to be used in the organizer’s social media photos and local media coverage. The consensus of the group was that you should be able to say no, and that organizers should be upfront and seek permission from participants in advance.

iii. One person asked about the influence press trip organizers have over a writer’s text, wondering whether a writer would be free to produce negative coverage and if the organizer edits the writer’s work. In reply, Rob and several other participants said that writers are free to write whatever they want and that under no circumstances should an organizer be able to check or alter text. Organizers should not offer money to a writer working for a media outlet (whether staff of freelance) in return for coverage either, although bloggers and social media influences do accept fees for coverage (and they should state that clearly in their posts and/or coverage).