The trials of travel writing

Think it’s all free flights and goodies? Think again. Travel writing is difficult and competitive.

By Megan Rudson

Visiting beautiful places like Peggy's Cove is work, not mere leisure, for travel writers. (Photo: Megan Rudson)
Visiting beautiful places like Peggy’s Cove is work, not mere leisure, for travel writers. (Photo: Megan Rudson)

Think it’s all free flights and goodies? Think again. Travel writing is difficult and competitive.

By Megan Rudson

Mariellen Ward crawled into the shower, replaying the day’s events in her head. It was June 2009. She’d come to MagNet, a publishing industry conference in Toronto, hoping to recharge her freelance career. Instead, a Globe and Mail editor announced the paper would no longer pay writers to produce its back page essay, a section Ward saw as major reason for the Globe’s popularity. This news confirmed her fear that writers were becoming completely devalued.

Ward attempted freelancing amidst a decade-long depression, which was eventually cured by yoga and a six-month trip to India in 2005. The trip had introduced her to travel writing, encouraging Ward to document her physical and spiritual journeys.

It hadn’t been easy; she encountered endless rejection and was ignored by most outlets. She realized writers were “the lowest man on the totem pole.”

“I saw all my dreams of being a writer and travel writer just dying in front of my eyes,” Ward says.

But as sorrow washed over her, Ward had an epiphany. Under the rejuvenation of beading drops, she decided to stop trying to sell herself to a collapsing industry; instead she’d create her own platform. Create a blog.

“That was it, that was the day my life changed…”

With dripping hair, Ward raced to the computer and searched for the phrase that suddenly came to her — “breathe dream go.” It was available. Minutes later, she’d created a Facebook page and Twitter name. Two months later, on Aug. 23, 2009, breathedreamgo.com, her travel writing blog, was launched.

One of the many small inconveniences of travel writing: washing your own clothes. (Photo: Meghan Rudson)
One of the many small inconveniences of travel writing: washing your own clothes. (Photo: Megan Rudson)

Nora Dunn was a Toronto financial advisor. “What do you want to do with your life?” she asked clients, eventually realizing her own answer was different from what she was doing. “There was always a little voice inside my head saying, ‘Nora, there’s something out there in the world for you.’”

So in 2006, Dunn sold her belongings and exchanged her advisor’s lifestyle for that of a nomad. As her adventures became more elaborate, she decided to start a blog to keep family and friends up to date. Soon, she realized there were other opportunities for writing online.

She became The Professional Hobo.

After 18 years as an organic farmer, Sandra Phinney needed a new career path. “I can sling a sentence together,” she thought and decided to become a writer. At first, she struggled: “I didn’t know what a pitch meant or how to find an angle for a story.” Then one day, she saw an ad for a travel writing seminar and knew it was made for her. After scoring an $89 flight, she attended the workshop in Montreal.

Then reality set in.

As the speaker emphasized how difficult the profession of travel writing was, Phinney went into shock, “Initially I was disappointed that my little, silly dream … wasn’t going to happen.”

But that didn’t deter her. At 53 and with no experience, Sandra Phinney became a travel writer.
Ward, Dunn and Phinney are far from the only ones to fall for the glorious myths of travel writing — free vacations in exchange for stories — who eventually find the reality more complex.

Although anyone can say they are a travel writer, and many people do, the most serious Canadian writers join the Travel Writers Association of Canada (TMAC). Joining, though, isn’t easy. Writers must prove to TMAC they are consistently writing travel content and are not amateurs looking for a hobby. TMAC President Michele Sponagle says, “I feel strongly about keeping the quality of members very high.”

To join, writers must have a number of stories targeting legitimate markets from the past 24 months that earn over 50 points. A story in a 5-10,000-circulation magazine is worth five points plus one point per photo, drawing or map. The same piece in a newspaper receives two points and only half a point for each photo, drawing or map.

Anatomy of a travel writing assignmentThe conference room resembled a gymnasium during exams but felt more like speed dating. Tables rested in rows, each fitted with one TMAC industry member and an empty chair for an eager journalist. TMAC’s annual media marketplace is a watering hole for members, where those in the industry can discuss upcoming press trips with journalists they’re interested in hosting.Every 15 minutes, a bell signaled writers to quickly shuffle from one appointment to the next. For Sandra Phinney, that meant finding Kayla Shubert, the Canadian Representative for Thailand Tourism Authority.Shubert was curious to see if Phinney, a food columnist for the Atlantic Cooperator, would be interested in a Thailand food tour she was putting together.The following fall, Shubert emailed Phinney the details. But her dream press trip was about to lose an all-star member. Phinney was getting ready to undergo hip surgery and, with other commitments, had to regretfully decline.

But four years later, as Phinney prepared for a personal trip to Southeast Asia with her sister, she remembered Shubert’s offer. Seeing the opportunity for an individual press trip, Phinney contacted Shubert asking to be hosted in Thailand. Shubert quickly agreed to cover activities such as a visit to a hill tribe lodge, an elephant ride, a Thai cooking class, a visit to a Royal Project and temple visits if Phinney could ensure Canadian outlets would be interested in publishing their stories. The arrangements were made.

On Oct. 29, 2012, Phinney and her sister ended their personal trip in Vietnam and made their way to Thailand for the press portion. From then until November 6, Phinney’s days were full from morning until well into the night.

Since returning to Canada in November, Phinney and her sister have collectively published five stories in Travel and Escape – earning them a total of $150. Phinney also pitched to the Toronto based travel and lifestyle magazine Dreamscapes, but says it takes up to two years for them to place a story. If the magazine accepts her pitch, Phinney assumes she will receive $300. In the future, she also plans to write a more serious piece about Thailand’s elephant culture, which she says could take between one to two years to complete.

While Shubert’s Tourism Authority hosted her in Thailand, Phinney estimates she spent $600 of her own money on guide tips, food and gifts. She and her sister were responsible for their own flights.

Travel writing is competitive. The Globe and Mail, for example, Canada’s national newspaper, only publishes two travel features a week and pays just $3-400 for 800-1,200 words. To make it even less lucrative, the paper doesn’t cover any travel costs for the writer.

According to the Globe’s editorial code of conduct, travel writers can accept press or media rates for certain features, as long as an editor approves. Similar treatment is shown for other sections; writers are allowed to accept free admissions to sports, entertainment or professional events as long as it’s for review purposes. They can also keep product samples for reference.

Although these ethical guidelines may seem lenient, getting published in such a prestigious paper requires effort. The Globe’s Travel Editor Domini Clark said in an email she only accepts 20 to 30 percent of the pitches she receives, “That’s the grim reality.”

Thanks to the rise of online and other lower paying media, newspaper travel sections are declining and many of those remaining, says Sponagle, are filled with cheap wire service copy.

Magazine travel writing is in decline as well. In 2010, the federal government’s Publication Assistance Program, which subsidized mailing for magazines, was canceled. As a result, postal bills skyrocketed and publishers felt the financial wrath, ultimately causing them to cut corners elsewhere in an attempt to save money. As quoted in an article for CBC, Mark Quinlan says, “Experts say that the change put a great financial burden on publishers, encouraging them to change business models.” Consequentially, magazines like Chatelaine and Maclean’s – both of which have travel sections – lost over a million dollars.

In the last year, Homemakers and the print edition of Newsweek – common outlets for travel stories – ceased publication. As well, a 2011 survey done by Project for Excellence in Journalism proves only 4.3 percent of newspapers and 3.2 percent of overall media coverage revolves around lifestyle, which usually includes travel.
This may explain why writers like Mariellen Ward and Nora Dunn decided to create their own publications by becoming bloggers. “I went into debt to build up my blog,” Ward admits, adding, “For my future career it’s worth it. I see it as an investment.”

Dunn’s blog, The Professional Hobo, has been called one of the country’s best by Canada.com. It’s unique because it discusses life as a traveler and outlines how Dunn sustains travel financially, rather than focusing strictly on destinations. After her blog launched, Dunn was contacted by the backpacker-oriented website Vagabondish to write a column, which introduced her to steady work. The owner of Vagabondish later referred to her articles as the “Dunn effect,” due to their popularity.

When Dunn started building her name as a writer, she dedicated nights to researching travel blogs in order to learn how other writers monetized their work: press trips, advertisements, freelance. She studied publication guidelines and learned what editors wanted, eventually pitching ideas in hopes of finding a nibble of interest.  “I got rejected a lot and I pitched a lot. I worked very hard and I rarely saw any income from it,” she says.

In 2012 Dunn’s total income was $39,457. But it cost her $28,032 to travel full time. Her modest profit was earned largely because of sponsorships. For Dunn, the key to sponsorships is creating a business with influence, which appeals to a target audience. But to interest hosts, journalists must guarantee publishing space for the stories they write following the trip.

In her article, All Expenses Paid, Elizabeth Austin says that while in Bali for a press trip, spa treatments were complimentary and nightly gifts were left on her pillow. As quoted in the article, “To me, the greatest hazard of the press junket isn’t the implicit quid pro quo. It’s the controlled and sanitized travel experience it presents to the writers.” She says writers know they are expected to write positively, but that is not the problem. Instead, the issue lies in how the trip is planned – tailored to ensure only a pleasant experience can be had.

Although it’s rarely explicit, travel writers know if their stories are negative, it will become difficult for them to find future sponsors. To keep promotional content discreet and ensure readers remain invested in the story, Dunn tries to contextualize: “Better than actually reviewing anything is incorporating it contextually, writing something that somebody wants to read, not just satisfying the sponsor obligation.” When a trip turns out poorly, Dunn chooses to write nothing instead of something negative – especially if the negative experience is not translatable to future customers.

There are other issues too. On sponsored trips, the itinerary is rarely in the hands of the journalist. “You’re running sometimes from seven in the morning until midnight,” says Sponagle.

Press trips usually include more than half a dozen writers, so hosts can get more publicity bang for their sponsorship buck. Schedules typically run from sunset to beyond sundown, forcing participants to see every attraction and left with little, if any, free time. After each day’s events, writers then must transcribe their notes – a tedious task repeated every day of the so-called ‘free vacation.’ Suddenly, it’s not so glamorous. “How many people say, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a dream job, it must be so much fun travelling,’ and yeah, it is fun but it’s more hard work than it is fun,” says Phinney.

Ward agrees. “Be prepared for bloody hard work. If you think it’s glamorous you’re totally wrong.” Still, Ward keeps at it. “I’m obsessed…I have a passion to write.”

So does Phinney, who considers travel journalism to be worth the bumpy journey. “As a travel writer you experience a lot,” she says. “Like, I went zip lining last year! My God, I’m 68 years old, zip lining across a gorge, how great is that?”