Gran Tourismo: where to draw the line between travel journalism and PR
comment 11 Written by on February 5, 2010 – 1:48 pm

homeaway

Does PR sponsorship undermine the honesty of a travel piece?

Ah yes, that old chestnut. The subject of whether professional travel journalists should accept press trips or complimentary hotel stays has been debated endlessly. (To save me covering old ground, see this piece from the Matador Network.)

What’s interesting is the role bloggers have played in this argument up until now and how that is changing. For a long time, people argued that travel bloggers were the ones really telling readers how it is. They funded their trips entirely from their own pockets and stood far apart from the PR machine.

Now things are changing. Established travel bloggers have such big voices on the net that they are being invited on the the press trips too. Last year a group of bloggers was invited on a cruise in return for coverage on blogs and Twitter. (Although that coverage didn’t go exactly as planned.)

Do these offers undermine the objectivity of travel blogs? It depends, of course, on the blogger. They make their own rules after all. And the same goes for the pros. The pros may have to answer to their bosses, but it is down to them to be honest and to choose what to accept and what not to accept.

And let’s not forget that readers aren’t daft. Whether they are reading a newspaper or a blog, they soon work out which voices they trust and which they don’t. So do the editors. When I was a commissioning editor, it was easy to see which pitches were blindly motivated by the prospect of a glitzy (but often soulless) press trip and which writers actually had a story to tell that readers would want to hear. The latter category may have had PR assistance too, but the difference was I knew they were putting the story first.  

And that brings me to the Gran Tourismo project. Experienced travel writers Lara Dunston and Terry Carter have teamed up with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to take a year-long trip staying in the company’s properties. Along the way they will be blogging reviews of the houses and the destinations and, no doubt, starting some interesting state-of-modern-travel debates.

lara

Here’s the mission statement:

They’ll be travelling slowly, living like locals, doing and learning things, and giving something back at each destination they visit. Their mission is to explore more enriching and authentic ways of travelling, and make travel more meaningful and more memorable.

Sounds like my kind of travel. However, with HomeAway picking up the tab, one question needs to be answered: could this end up being one big press release for HomeAway?

I’d probably be skeptical of the idea if I didn’t already know Lara and Terry and their work. Although we have never met in person, I’ve corresponded with them both a lot over the past couple of years, particularly Lara, and I regularly read their blogs. They take their trade very, very seriously are are also highly aware of the relationship between the travel press and PRs, so have laid down some strict ground rules.

I’ve been reading their first few entries this week and they have been very transparent. More so than most print journalism. They have even mentioned other home exchange sites.

We’ll have to stay tuned to see how it’s going a year down the line. But the point is Lara and Terry have something to say. Yes, they’ve landed a great gig and yes they’re going to have an amazing time, but there is going to be a lot of good, practical advice and interesting travel debates to come out of this too.

This is definitely one to watch. And also potentially a landmark example, setting standards for  transparency, which other bloggers, PRs and pros could follow.

Photo:  HomeAway Property 87092 in Marrakech. Middle: Lara & Terry. PR shots from HomeAway on Flickr.

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11 Responses to “Gran Tourismo: where to draw the line between travel journalism and PR”

  1. Thanks, Vicky. Very nicely put. Agree with you that it will be an interesting project to watch (as much as it will be for us to participate in) in terms of the working model as much as the travel themes we’re exploring.

    But for us though the chance to explore the themes, and inspire people to travel in a more enriching and authentic way is what is really driving us. Terry and I have both been frustrated by some aspects of our work as travel writers and in recent years have been most engaged by the experiential aspect of travel and the chance to live like locals when we’ve rented apartments in cities, and this project gives us the opportunity to do that.

    It was serendipitous that HomeAway Holiday Rentals had a similar marketing project in mind and wanted to send a couple of travel writers around the world, and that they believed our project would fit and we could make it work. We’ve been using the site for years and loved being able to rent homes straight from owners and the opportunities that afforded, so loving the company and the product made the project a no-brainer.

    As writers who take our work very seriously – as you’ve pointed out, thank you – it was really important for us to negotiate editorial control so that what we were doing wasn’t seen as advertorial. Frankly, we have no interest in being copywriters. We respect critical and opinionated travel writing, we love the craft of journalism and the journalistic profession, as much as blogging, and one of the other things that has frustrated us about our work as writers is how many times we’ve been censored or had to self-censor – in guidebooks, magazines and newspapers. So for us to do this, we had to have control over the content and the right to tell it like it is, and that’s something HomeAway really appreciated, and it’s in our contract, and we’re thrilled about that.

    Another point that’s worth making is that HomeAway are paying us industry word rates (as well as covering our accommodation and flights). Rates have been dropping in this industry and we’ve refused to work for anyone that hasn’t paid industry standard rates. That HomeAway met our fees says something, that they respect writers and what it takes to produce quality content – as does the fact that we have a 12-month contract, a kind of security that’s next to impossible to find in this industry these days.

    And lastly, your readers might be interested to know that our brief is to blog – and write. So while our main job is to chronicle our journey and experiences on the Grantourismo blog http://www.grantourismotravels.com/ and tweet about the trip, it’s also hoped we’ll sell on other content related to our travel experiences, and we’re getting paid bonuses to do that, so… print is certainly not considered dead yet!

    (Sorry for the novel!)

  2. So long as they are upfront about who is paying the bills and disclose everything (and they seem to be) then it is up to the reader to judge for themselves if they are honest in their reviews.

    I don’t think there is anything more they, or anyone else, can do.

    I really don’t know why this is all that controversial. They should be applauded for finding such a great sponsor.

  3. Hi Lara,
    first of all let me tell you that I love reading about your adventure, and I am really interesting in see how it goes!
    Then, I have a question, if I may ask: how did you choose the properties? Did you choose them yourselves or did HomeAway offer some?
    Thank!
    Have fun and keep us posted!
    Gloria

  4. Hi Vicky,

    Great post – for me, you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say “Yes, they’ve landed a great gig and yes they’re going to have an amazing time, but there is going to be a lot of good, practical advice and interesting travel debates to come out of this too.” – For us, this is exactly the point of the project, to provide useful, engaging content for travellers that shows them a new way to travel and exemplifies how renting a holiday home is one way to do this. Something I believe many travellers are yet to discover. Holiday homes are already hugely popular with a large and growing number of people, but there is still a long way to go too. There is very limited ‘top of mind’ awareness about this way of holidaying, and yet there is such a huge range of properties to choose from now, catering for so many different types of holiday and experience.

    So this is the objective of Grantourismo; to address that lack of knowledge and awareness. And for me, the creation of interesting and informative content that inspires people is the way forward. Who better to provide that than seasoned, experienced travel writers who can tell travel stories in a compelling and moving way? As I said in a recent chat with Kevin May of Tnooz, ‘advertorial fluff’ will simply not cut it, and that is absolutely not what we want; hence why Lara & Terry have complete editorial control. Yes, there is of course a marketing objective for this, but for all of us involved there are very personal ones too. For me, it’s about sharing a great way to travel with those who have not yet discovered it, as I myself had certainly never holidayed in this way before joining HomeAway, and for Lara & Terry, as she says above, it’s about having the chance to slow down and explore some of themes they have been unable to before.

    I, for one, can’t wait to see what they’ll discover on their journey.

    Sarah

    Link to article on Tnooz: http://www.tnooz.com/2010/02/02/news/homeaway-puts-faith-in-objectivity-with-gran-tourismo-project/

  5. Thanks for the comments. It’s good to have a positive story for once, especially as we are constantly hearing about how the travel-writing profession is doomed.

    And that’s a good article by Kevin May about HomeAway ‘putting faith in objectivity’.

    And, besides all this, I do think it’s great to be opening up more travellers to the idea of renting a house and ‘going local’. Just the other day I was talking to a traveller who always used to spend extended periods in hotels, and then he discovered short-term apartment lets. He hasn’t looked back.

    I’m sure this sector will continue to grow and grow.

    By Vicky Baker on Feb 9, 2010 | Reply
  6. Hi Gloria,

    It’s actually been a bit of a joint effort. We have been reaching out to owners in the destinations we wanted to cover ask who would be interested in hosting Lara & Terry, and then Lara & Terry have been looking through the selections and choosing the ones they felt were right fit. The idea was not just to cover a variety of destinations, but also a good variety of homes too – to give a good view of the choice available, so it has been quite a time-consuming, but very interesting and exciting task!

    Best regards,

    Sarah

  7. I think that most bloggers and journalists will be madly jealous of Terry & Lara for landing this project and it’s because of their track record, professionalism & objectivity that they were able to win what seems to me to be a dream job for those in their line of work.

    I doubt if many journalists or bloggers would turn down this kind of opportunity saying ‘ Sorry, but I have to obtain my independence & objectivity’. It’s always a balancing act.

    I think it’s a sign that blogging is coming of age & moving into the mainstream.

  8. Thanks Heather. I think it’s a sign of blogging ‘coming of age’ too. The thing is I think Lara and Terry *would* have turned it down if their objectivity was threatened. Lara said so above. And this is the best thing about it.

    What’s so hard about saying “Sorry, but I have to obtain my objectivity”? Any blogger that wants to be taken seriously should be saying that.

    I doesn’t mean turning down all sponsorship – as I say above – but it means managing it and negotiating for better terms. And yes, sometimes it may mean turning certain trips down (Not Grantourismo though. Never suggested that!)

    Let me get this straight – I’m not criticising Grantourismo. Quite the opposite.

    My point is: companies want/need bloggers voices now so bloggers have more bargaining chips than they realise.

    By Vicky Baker on Feb 18, 2010 | Reply
  9. Nice post – something I’ve been thinking about in similar vein a lot of late. I agree with your comments about Lara and Terry too. The blog is totally their own – as can be clearly seen from the posts – there’s nothing promotional about the day to day content at all.
    I’ve referenced them in a post about the new skills a travel writer needs to succeed on line which people might find interesting in the context of your post:
    http://www.travelblather.com/2010/03/travel-writer-blogging-skills.html

  10. Thanks for stopping by Jeremy and sharing that link. Very good tips in there.

    By Vicky Baker on Mar 4, 2010 | Reply

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