Thursday, 26 February 2009

#91 – Tie stories in with sporting events

Or why you should check the schedules.

Using events as a hook
This is repeating my previous point about using events as a hook for articles, but it’s one worth emphasising. A lot of people travel to go and watch sporting events, but even more importantly, a major sporting event puts a destination in the news.

Beijing, South Africa and Vancouver
Either way, it’s topical and will generate a lot of interest. Beijing got it last year with the Olympics, South Africa will get it next year with the 2010 World Cup, and Vancouver is already getting it with the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Other events
Other events that always generate interest about the destinations hosting them include obscure countries playing England at football, cricket and rugby tours, Superbowls and World Championships of any sport that gets a reasonable degree of television coverage.

Check the schedules
Given this, it’s always worth checking the schedules and knowing what events are on the horizon in the next year or so. Even if you know nothing about the sport, chances are you’ll be able to sell an article on the destination using that sporting event as a topical hook.

Monday, 23 February 2009

#90 – Resource: In Your Pocket guides

Or finding the local hang-outs.

Sources of information
There are many good sources for getting information on places to stay, eat and drink in a city. The people at the tourist board can usually give a few good ideas, while a guide book will often give a decent selection.

Off the tourist track
Unfortunately, however, these sources rarely veer off the usual tourist track. They’ll give plenty of suggestions for places that many visitors like going to, but not necessarily the places that give a real feel for the town or are local favourites.

Little secrets
And it’s these little secrets that editors want to know about. They make for an interesting story, and there’s a certain cachet to being able to discover a place that most visitors won’t know about.

Needle in a haystack
But how to find them? Well my preferred way is always to stumble across them randomly. I love going into somewhere on a whim. Unfortunately, this is often something of a needle in a haystack approach.

In Your Pocket
One tool that I’ve found really useful when I’ve seen it is the local In Your Pocket guide. These guides have quietly begun springing up all over Europe, and they’re generally written by locals. They give a view of the place from the standpoint of someone that lives there, and the listings are generally both comprehensive and honestly-written.

Interesting places
Amongst those listings, there are usually a few really interesting places that are not covered in the Lonely Planet or tourist board literature. They’re worth investigating.

Free online guides
Best of all, the In Your Pocket Guides are now available for free online (, so it’s possible to get a list of a few good ideas before you arrive.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

#89 – Revisit disaster scenes

Or why editors love recovery stories.

Cast iron rule?
There’s no cast iron rule about what stories editors will always accept, but the closest you can get to it is that they will always take a piece on a place that is recovering from a major setback.

Two years on...
Travel sections and magazines always have pieces along the lines of “New Orleans, two years on” or Bali, five years after the bombings”. The same applies to anywhere that suffers an earthquake, gets buried by a volcano or suffers massive hurricane damage.

Mumbai and the tsunami
It’ll happen with Mumbai soon enough, and there will be a glut of stories about the areas affected by 2004’s Boxing Day tsunami towards the end of this year.

Strong narrative
The reasons why such stories are liked by editors are fairly obvious. They’ve got a strong narrative, and already have reader recognition due to the catastrophe. Even the casual reader will know what the story is about, and is likely to have a passing interest in how the place is recovering.

Good ingredients for a travel story
These recovery stories are newsy, have strong human interest, and they’re clearly up-to-date. All are good ingredients for a travel story, even if it may seem a little ghoulish pitching it out.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Caribbean jaunt

Posts to this blog may be a little sporadic for the next fortnight - I'm off to the Caribbean for two weeks and will probably have limited internet access during that time. I'll try my best, but if there are a few days between posts, you'll know why.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

#88 – Get away from the desk

Or why being unproductive can be productive.

The guilt factor
One trap that many freelancers fall into (and I include myself in this – I’m terrible for it) is thinking they have to work as many available hours as possible. The guilt factor comes into play – surely if I’m not working, I’m selling myself short?

Hours at the desk
And, with this attitude firmly ingrained, they’ll spend as many hours at the desk as possible, staring at the computer screen. This inevitably leads to procrastination.

In fact, what happens is that, by dedicating so much time to work, you do as much in that time as you would in half the time under pressure. You plod rather than burst onto the page; you get distracted and draw the whole process out painfully.

Think counterintuitive
Sometimes it is best, therefore, to do the counterintuitive thing. Instead of hunching over the laptop trying to force some inspiration out, it can be better to stop altogether. Go out, do some shopping, go for a walk, have a swim, watch a movie – something completely detached from work.

The great recharger
That break or day off can be a great recharger. When you come back to the task, you’ll probably have a lot more enthusiasm and zest. Personally, I find that a lot of my best ideas come when I’m not working – they’ll come from nowhere while I’m doing laps at the pool or walking in the Peak District. And I know it works much the same way for other freelancers.

Monday, 16 February 2009

#87 – Send copies of your article to PR people who help you out

Or smoothing the path in less than a minute.

Why PR people assist travel writers
When PR people assist travel writers, they don’t do it out of the goodness of their own heart. They’re sorting out itineraries, organising complimentary hotels and arranging meals because they are expecting coverage.

Lack of coverage?
When they get that coverage, they have done their job. If they don’t get coverage, the clients (such as the hotel or tourist board) start questioning whether they’ve employed the right PR people. Unfortunately, these helpful PR people aren’t psychic and often they won’t know that your article has come out.

Notify the PR person
This is why it’s always good practice to notify the relevant PR people when any articles that they helped out with come out. I always try and send a weblink or notify the PR chap(ess) that the magazine is on the shelf. It doesn’t cost me anything to do so, and it helps maintain a good relationship.

Less than a minute
From their end, it’s incredibly helpful, and they’re far more likely to help you out again in future. For something that takes less than a minute, dropping a line to say “the article’s out” is an incredibly effective way of smoothing the path for future trips.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

#86 – Don’t become a blog tragic

Or don’t forsake the shop for the shop window.

Earning significant money from blogging
I am prepared to accept that there are some people out there who make a significant living wage from blogging. But compared to the number of people that have blogs, they are in such a tiny minority that they may as well not exist.

Blogging community
Yet there is a whole community out there that seems to exist for blogging. There are people that seem to spend a huge amount of time writing their blogs, commenting on other people’s blogs, discussing the nuts and bolts of blogging on forums and Twittering drivel every few minutes.

Call me a Luddite, call me a naysayer, but I think this is a horrendous waste of time. And that time could be better used doing paid work. As I have said before, there is a shop window effect to having a blog, but when you spend all your time dressing your shop window, you’re ignoring the customers that are in the shop.

Reaching the masses?
Another thing to be aware of is that most of your blog’s readers will be other bloggers. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but don’t try and kid yourself that you’re reaching the masses as a result.

Blog or Facebook?
In many respects, I see maintaining a blog as another form of procrastination. It’s the equivalent of hanging out on forums or playing Scramble on Facebook three hours a day in a vain attempt to top your best score (guilty as charged, your honour).

Better off working

Yes, it’s a potentially useful marketing tool, but you are better off working. There’s a fine line between spending a few minutes a day updating your shop window and being sucked into a world where your time is spent StumblingUpon, Digging, Twittering and constantly exchanging comments with other bloggers.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Example of previous tip

Forgive the arrogance here, but I thought I'd give an example of my point from yesterday's tip. I've pasted below what was my first major piece published in a travel publication. I still think it's one of the best I've ever written. Why? Because I've written about the people at the destination as much as the action itself.

In this instance, the people watching the dolphins were arguably more entertaining than the dolphins were. My piece starts off by focusing on those people, their behaviours and their reactions. To me (and luckily the editor in question), this elevated the piece above the bog standard write up about Monkey Mia.

I hope you agree, and can see the point I'm trying to make.

Feeding the dolphins at Monkey Mia

Amid the cooing and screeches there is, apparently, a dolphin. Yes, that's it. Look between the big man's arm and the woman with the hat's camera. You see it? That little silver flash? In the water, about eleven o'clock?

After about three minutes of tilting your head, squinting, jumping up and down on the sand it finally comes into view. Well, a bit of it does. Could be the head, could be the back, but it's definitely a dolphin, and that's what everybody is here to see.

The fundamental problem with tourist attractions, of course, is that they attract tourists. When that attraction is a couple of tiny marine mammals, there is only so much viewing space. When it's a long day's drive away from Perth and most people have come to see just one thing, then they will fight for that space as if a predator has entered their lair and is trying to eat their children.

Consequently, during the first dolphin feeding session of the morning at Monkey Mia, the main wildlife available for watching is fully clothed and armed to the teeth with photographic equipment.

This is not to say it's not entertaining, however. Where else can you see a 17-stone man with a shaved head attempting to barge his way past a couple of ten-year-olds in order to get closer to the cute little critter?

Then there's the frenetic middle-aged Japanese man, trousers rolled up, who must have completed a marathon by the end of the feeding. He's running from one side of the scrum to the other, up the pier and back again, attempting to get a better shot but too polite to ask anyone to move slightly.

The pod of bottle-nosed dolphins that call Monkey Mia home (or at least their favourite café) has been visiting since the early 1960s. They are quite accustomed to human contact and according to the feeders, actively enjoy it. They are wild and free to eat where they like, but they stop by the beach for breakfast and a frolic in the shallows 99 percent of the time.

In order to ensure that the VIP guests don't become dependent on the beach feeds, the marine biologists and merry volunteers that feed them adhere to strict rules: No feeding after 1pm, no more than three feeds per day and no more than a third of the necessary fish intake. This ensures that the dolphins spend their afternoons doing the things that dolphins have to do, rather than stalking humans.

Whilst the first feed of the day, unless you've bulldozed your way to the front and petulantly snatched the bucket off the member of staff, can be a disappointment, things get much better later on.

Most of the tour buses disappear shortly afterwards, their passengers having got what was in the contract, but perhaps not quite what they were expecting. For those that remain, the second and third feedings are far less crowded and a magical experience. Yup, it's definitely a whole dolphin out there this time.

It's impossible not to be enchanted by them. Even to the most cold-hearted cynic, Flipper is undeniably cute and graceful. To see him come up to the beach to eat from a human hand will bring out the sentimental, gooey side in anyone.

Your chances of being picked out from the crowd to handle the morning meal are in direct proportion to your chances of successfully auditioning for the lead role in Oliver Twist. Sweet, photogenic children have an automatic advantage and whilst there is obviously a bit of grudge-bearing going on amongst the weather-beaten adults, the reaction is worth being shunned for.

Holding the fish tentatively, as if the recipient is a saltwater crocodile about to savage her arm off, Little Orphan Annie begins to smile with ecstatic glee as the dolphin takes it. She looks around as if to say: "Did you see what happened there? Did you? Can we take him home, mummy?"

It's an altogether more satisfactory experience. It's shared amongst a small community rather than observed from an uncomfortable perch above the masses. It's the difference between stroking your beloved dog's tummy as it rolls over, wagging its tail, and giving a passing glance to a stranger's poodle whilst walking down a promenade. And, no matter how much you moan about how long it took to get there, that alone is enough to justify what is a joyfully unique moment.

Details:Monkey Mia is a day's drive (850km) from Perth. Alternatively Skywest Airlines fly to Monkey Mia from Perth for $196.
Accommodation is available at the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, ranging from backpacker dorms ($22 a night) to beachfront villas ($229 per night).

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

#85 – Observe your fellow travellers, not just the scenery

Or why people watching can create new angles.

Involving people
Most of the best travel articles have some sort of character in them. They involve people as well as the destination. And often the people to include are the ones that are sharing the experience with you.

Observe the people with you
A lot can be added to an article by observing the people with you. What they say, their behaviours, reactions and expressions can add invaluable colour to a story. It gives a real sense of place, and takes the reader to the scene.

A new angle on a much-covered attraction
This is particularly the case at attractions that have been covered hundreds of times before. A story about going on a tour of Westminster Abbey, for example, is probably not going to sell. A story about a tour of Westminster Abbey where tourists are behaving badly has a bit more to it.

Take note

So when taking notes, take note of what people say and do as well as what you’re supposed to be enjoying. It could pay off in the long run.

Monday, 9 February 2009

#84 – Invest in appropriate clothing

Or why you’re more productive when you’re comfortable.

Worst trip
One of the worst trips I ever did was when I went to Bratislava, Vienna and Brno in early January. The temperature was hovering around the minus six degrees Celsius mark, and I was really not prepared for it.
I had a coat, but was lacking gloves and a hat. I only had thin socks as well.

Wrong mindset
Needless to say, I was freezing. And I didn’t do nearly as much as I hoped to do, purely because I was freezing and couldn’t wait to get inside to the relative warm. And what’s worse, when I was in that relative warm, I was so happy to be warm that I wasn’t in the mindset to take notes on bars, restaurants or hotels.

Lesson learned
I didn’t sell many articles on the back of that trip (if I recall it was just one, plus a couple of snippets here and there in round-up articles). That’s not to say I won’t sell any more at some point down the line, but I did learn my lesson.

Suitable clothing for various conditions
I have since invested in suitable clothing for various conditions. I have an enormous coat, a hooded fleece jacket, hats, gloves and comically big socks for cold conditions. I also have zip-off trousers and light cotton clothing for warm conditions, including a lightweight, mosquito-proofed, long-sleeved shirt for jungle terrain.

Comfortable with surroundings
It sounds silly, but it really does help. If you’re feeling comfortable with your surroundings, you are likely to do far more and be in the right mindset for gathering stories.

January 2009
All I need to do is compare and contrast this year’s early January trip. I spent four nights in Munich and Salzburg, and got plenty done during the day even though it got down to minus 14. So far it’s six stories sold, and I think there will be more to come. This can’t all be put down to a scarf, hat and gloves, but there’s certainly something in it.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

#83 – Milk annual events for all they’re worth

Or the joys of recycling.

Time of year
Ah, it’s this time of year again. Valentines Day is in a few days’ time, then there’s St Patrick’s Day next month and Easter following along soon afterwards. To the ordinary person, these are just part of the calendar. To the travel writer, all should be goldmines.

I, for one, will be recycling a few pieces related to all three. A piece on the least romantic locations will sell for Valentines every year, a story about the St Patrick Centre in Downpatrick will always be welcome just before March 17th, and any pieces related to the Easter story are an easy pitch as soon as the chocolate eggs come out.

Travel editors love topicality
It’s not rocket science – stuff like this will always sell. As I’ve mentioned before, travel editors love something topical. The key is to make a mental note when you come across something that may fit the bill. It might not sell immediately, but it probably will later on.

Apply to all annual events
The same theory applies to Hallowe’en, Christmas, the Oscars... pretty much anything that occurs every year and gets plenty of media coverage. So if you go to a destination where an Oscar-winning film was shot, has a reputation for being haunted or has a link to St Nicholas, chances are you’ll be able to use the material again and again.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

#82 – Never quote taxi drivers

Or avoiding the man in the cab with the gift of the gab.

Taxi drivers in travel articles
Taxi drivers must be the most quoted people in travel articles. If you were to believe everything you read, it would appear as though taxi drivers across the world are overflowing fonts of useful information.

Pithy lines
Strange, isn’t it? The taxi driver manages to come up with such a pithy line; one that almost sums the destination up in a neat little bundle of humour and insight. What a stroke of good fortune for the travel writer – to get such a sage quote so unexpectedly.

Where are these taxi drivers?
Unfortunately, I have never met a taxi driver like this. In fact, 90% of the ones I have come across aren’t from the city I’m in, appear to have little more than a rudimentary knowledge of its streets and speak only tiny fragments of English. What am I doing wrong?

Making up quotes
Actually, I do know what I’m doing wrong. I’m not making up quotes from fictitious characters in order to put a bit of pep into my article. That’ll be the problem.

What do editors think?
And if I can see that 95% of all taxi driver quotes are blatantly fabricated, then chances are that most editors will think the same way. Seeing a taxi driver quote, therefore, is likely to raise a red flag and set the alarm bells ringing. If the writer has made that up, what else has he or she made up?

Bad reputations
It doesn’t take a genius to work out where the train of thought goes from there – and it’s not good for any writer to get a reputation for passing off fiction as fact.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

#81 – Initial research into markets for travel writing

Or raiding the newsagent.

Lists of web publications
For those just starting out on the freelance travel writing journey, there is a temptation to shun common sense when it comes to finding outlets for your work. Many will trawl the web for lists of publications, or sign up for ridiculous sites that pay a feeble pittance.

Ignoring the most obvious source
This is really ignoring the most obvious source of potential outlets. I would advise anyone looking to break into travel writing to get out of the house and head to the biggest newsagent’s shop in the area. Once there, flick through any magazine and newspaper that has a travel section, and buy it.

Expensive initial outlay
Yes, this is an expensive initial outlay, but it’s worth it. You instantly have a library that you can refer to. It’s possible to see what sort of articles the publications print and how long the articles are. You can also see individual sections that may be good to initially pitch for – these are often not as well defined on the web.
Sometimes it is best to start with the obvious rather than scouring for needles in a haystack online.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

#80 – Read the press kit

Or take something in before it goes in the bin.

Half a rainforest
I often say that I hate press kits. This isn’t quite true – what I hate is the amount of them that I am given and expected to carry around with me. On some trips, it will feel like every place I visit is intent on giving me half a rainforest (plus cap, pen, T-shirt and DVD) to fit in my already burgeoning bag.

What is a press kit?

For the uninitiated, an explanation is perhaps in order. A press kit is material given to a journalist by a tourist board/ attraction/ hotel. It is supposedly filled with lots of useful information about said destination/ attraction/ hotel, but they vary dramatically in quality.

Good press kits
The most useful ones are tailored to journalists and cover new angles, openings, potential storylines and lists of interesting information. They’ll also have a map. Some editing will have gone on, and it will be merely a reasonably large pile of paper.

Bad press kits

The least useful ones pack in every glossy brochure that has ever been printed about the destination – all clearly aimed at the tourist rather than the journalist. They feature lots of nice pictures and next to no useful information. Oh, and they also come with gifts such as items of clothing you’ll never wear, bulky local delicacies that will never be allowed through customs and something ridiculously inappropriate like a paperweight.

The hotel bin
At least 90% of these kits, both the good and bad ones, will end up in a hotel bin. Sorry chaps, but there’s no way I’m lugging that lot around with me. If I really want it, I shall ask you to e-mail the document over when I get back home. This isn’t to say I don’t read what’s in them, however.

A job for the evening
I always try and make a point of looking through the press kit, usually in the evening before dinner or when I get back in at night. This is partly because I’m a bit weird and find it quite relaxing, and partly it’s because it’s worth it. There are almost always two or three good story angles to be found within them.

Applied skim-reading
I won’t read through every word – it’s very much an exercise in applied skim-reading – but I’ll usually manage to glean enough inspiration for things to go and check out the next day. It’s time well spent – just ditch the t-shirts and paperweights.