A Model of Travel Writing: Lara Dunston Spills on GranTourismo

by Keith Savage · 28 comments


Lara Dunston in Puglia

Today’s post offers a peek into the future of the shifting travel writing industry. A couple of months ago I read an article on Travel Blather that cast light on the inner workings of the GranTourismo project: a year long grand tour of the world coordinated in partnership with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals. Not only did it inspire me to contact Lara Dunston, half of the duo behind GranTourismo, it also compelled me to reach out to HomeAway Holiday-Rentals on behalf of Traveling Savage (see the first fruits of this union in the contest that runs until February 24).

Despite her hectic schedule – which included a recent stop in Edinburgh – Lara kindly agreed to answer some nuts and bolts questions about the process of setting up GranTourismo. Aspiring travel writers will find her responses candid and immensely helpful. Enjoy!

Traveling Savage: You were interviewed several months ago by Travel Blather about the unique partnership you struck with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals for your GranTourismo project. Can you explain the arrangement?

Lara Dunston: Essentially we got paid to do our dream project! GranTourismo was a personal project we’d been developing for a few years – a travel experiment aimed at exploring more enriching ways to travel that grew out of frustrations we had with how we travelled as travel writers, and how we observed people travel, flitting through places ticking off sights and not engaging with locals. Our aim was to travel like the original grand tourists, learning and doing things. We wanted to travel more slowly, more sustainably, and more experientially, to live like locals and engage more with people on the way. We planned to chronicle our experiences on a blog and write a book about the project. HomeAway Holiday-Rentals had a similar marketing project planned, a wonderful idea in theory that was too ambitious in practice. We managed to persuade them to go with our project instead so they hired us as freelancer contractors for a year. We were paid a fee, had our accommodation and flights provided, and were paid transport and communication expenses.

TS: What were they paying you for and did it cover your expenses?

LD: They were paying us to create evocative and inspiring content on GranTourismo about our experiences staying in holiday rentals; to create awareness about the type of properties there are around the world – from palazzo apartments in Venice to trulli in Puglia, from beach houses in Costa Rica to riads in Marrakech; and to show that holiday rentals can be better than hotels, for instance, you can go to the markets, buy local produce, bring it back home and cook it, things you can’t do in hotels. None of that was hard for us because we were already fans of holiday rentals – we’d been renting properties for years when we were writing guidebooks in places for a month or two – but it was hard work; we were moving house and sometimes countries every two weeks and we were blogging every day except travelling days. And, yes, it absolutely covered our expenses. Terence and I are professional travel writers and he’s also a pro-photographer, so this is how we make our living. We don’t do projects to break even (let alone for free!) – even ones we’re passionate about!

Lara Dunston and Terence Carter, of GranTourismo

TS: What makes the project unique?

LD: As a travel experiment, it was the first time a couple of travellers did a contemporary grand tour of the world focused on slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel. As far as we know, it was also the first time a team of writers was hired directly by a travel company for a year to produce content for them. What normally happens is the travel company sends out a press release and hopes a writer picks up the story, the travel company gets requests from writers and editors to provide accommodation (or flights or tours etc) to include in a story, or a company sends writers and photographers on press trips. The results aren’t always satisfactory for a whole lot of reasons. Maybe the writer only included 50 words on the property in a 700-word story or maybe they didn’t include it at all! With GranTourismo, HomeAway Holiday-Rentals knew they were going to get a detailed property review once every two weeks, and that every day they were going to get stories that in some way made travellers appreciate how wonderful staying in holiday rentals can be and the kinds of things you can do when you live like locals that you can’t do in hotels.

TS: What made the project successful?

LD: The key to success was editorial control. We decide what we were going to write about and how we were going to cover it when we arrived in each place, which ensured that the writing was fresh and authentic. It’s clear that it’s our creative writing, in our own words, that it’s not advertorial. It hasn’t been edited or approved by a PR person. In fact, our subscribers probably saw our stories before HomeAway Holiday-Rentals did! We wrote honestly about our experiences and we were critical and opinionated, and our readers respected that and it gave the project integrity. For instance, if we loved a property, such as this Austin one, our readers would be the first to know, but if we felt a property didn’t live up to its promises and had some problems, such as this Kenyan one, then we told them so.

TS: What were your first steps as you tried to arrange this with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals?

LD: HomeAway Holiday-Rentals put out a call for a writer-photographer team on one of the travel journalist sites I subscribe to and I responded as I would to any editor looking for a writer for a story, in the most persuasive way I could, while addressing their brief. Once we agreed to work together, we began to negotiate the contract and fee. Terence and I had worked on some 50 travel guidebooks, so we knew how to determine how much work was involved, how to schedule projects and trips, and we know the value of our work. We weren’t prepared to work for less than industry rates. I calculated the fee based on word counts, but of course we over-delivered. Next we started presenting our ideas for the blog. Terence, who had worked as a multimedia/web/book designer, designed it, and together we developed categories in line with our themes. HomeAway Holiday-Rentals liked everything we presented. At the same time, we started working with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to plan the itinerary and flights, to consider and select accommodation… it was a massive job!

Lara in Venice
View Across Venice

TS: Do you have any tips or advice for writers looking to pursue a similar arrangement who might be unfamiliar with negotiating contracts and fees?

LD:

  1. Know how long it takes you to write, how many words you can write in an hour/day/week, how to schedule your time, and how to assess the number of hours needed to complete tasks.
  2. Know the value of your work and don’t work for less than what you’re worth, and know what industry rates are for digital, print, etc, and don’t work for less than standard rates.
  3. Read the contract carefully and if you’re not familiar with contracts, consult someone who is. Travel writer/journalist organizations/unions around the world have people you can consult and sample contracts to look at. Don’t hesitate to request changes to the contract if you think it’s unfair.
  4. Maintain creative control over your work – while you may agree to share the rights of the content you’re creating, and perhaps even allow the travel company to repurpose the content, and even help them do that, don’t give up your ownership of those rights.
  5. Negotiate editorial control so that your work has integrity and you don’t lose credibility. Don’t be afraid to be honest, critical and opinionated. Don’t write advertorial unless you want to be an advertising copywriter.

TS: Knowing the value of your work and industry rates, can you provide a resource for new writers who many not know the answer to this?

LD: We write for publications in the US, UK, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia, and I find that rates vary dramatically depending on the publication and the country. They can vary from $1-2 a word for magazines and some corporate publications; in-flight and hi-end hotel magazines can pay more and also less than this; newspapers might pay anything from 30c-$1 a word; while websites and digital (eg. mobile app guides) can pay from 10-50 cents a word. In terms of a resource, when you pitch a story to a publication the editor will come back to you if they want to commission you to write the story with the offer which will include the fee, along with word count, contract terms, and deadline. One resource I always recommend new writers sign up for is Media Bistro (www.mediabistro.com) and their AvantGuild newsletter. They publish stories on pitching every week, which include the rates that publications pay.

TS: What are your lessons learned from this process? Is there anything you would have done differently knowing what you know now?

LD: We would have taken a day off each week! We worked ridiculously hard on this project – seven days a week, from the time we woke until when we went to sleep. We should have built in at least one day off a week. We had wanted to spend one month in each place but compromised and did two weeks – the project would have benefited and we would have come away from it less exhausted had we have had at least three weeks in each place. The lesson there is to be practical, not be too ambitious, and don’t kill yourself! The project also would have benefited by having one full-time staffer at HomeAway Holiday-Rentals dedicated to it 100% of the time – even the marketing/PR team there were surprised at the time and resources required, just for the logistics alone! So ask your partner company about resources and make sure they’re also prepared for what they’re taking on!

TS: What role do you see partnerships between independent travel writers/bloggers and companies like HomeAway Holiday-Rentals playing in the future?

LD: Travel companies will increasingly be exploring direct partnerships with writers/bloggers in order to develop innovative, attention-grabbing projects and cut out the middle man (the editor) so the company knows what kind of coverage they’re going to get. Freelance writers will be increasingly seeking to work directly with companies as the industry becomes even more competitive, as will bloggers, because they’re always looking for ways to monetize their sites. These partnerships can be tricky things to negotiate, however, so writers/bloggers need to take care to ensure that they maintain their credibility, especially if they want to continue to work in the media: professionalism and ethics are everything. If anything, it’s even more important to retain a sense of independence and transparency when engaging in these projects in order to maintain integrity – for all parties involved.

Travel writer Lara Dunston has authored, contributed to, and updated some 50+ guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Dorling Kindersley, Footprint, AA Guides, Fodors, Insight, Thomas Cook and Hedonist’s Guides, and published hundreds of travel articles in magazines, newspapers and websites around the globe, from Wanderlust to Get Lost. A perpetual globetrotter, Lara has experienced over 60 countries since she and her photographer husband started travelling together in the late 1980s. Based out of the Middle East since 1998, the couple have literally lived out of their suitcases since 2006. They chronicle their travels on their blog http://grantourismotravels.com/. For even more backstory on the GranTourismo project, read her recent post on Tnooz.


AdamNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 10:05 AM

Wow, great interview Keith. Thanks to Lara for her candidness in this interview. As an aspiring travel writer who is less than a year into this whole venture, this is a really helpful interview. The one thing I have really learned these past 9 months is that there are SO many ways to try to make some money doing this. I think the best way for someone new like me is to get creative and think of new and innovative ideas like this one. I really hope you’re right in the way the industry is moving. We travel bloggers really can be a very valuable asset to travel companies around the world, but we’re all just now figuring out how to utilize one another.

Thanks again for a great interview! Awesome stuff in here.

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 11:39 AM

Hi Adam – you are absolutely right that creativity is the key. Travel bloggers/writers know travellers and they know how to travel, and they know more about these things than the marketeers/PRs at travel companies. They really need to start to take on more of a lead and come up with innovative projects for companies and products that they believe in and show them how they can work together in ways that are mutually beneficial.

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Kyle EllisonNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 11:23 AM

Thanks for the inspiring interview by an industry expert. Great tips and
way to stoke the wanderlust flame. Keep up the blogging, and never stop traveling

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GrayNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 11:32 AM

Excellent interview, Keith and Lara! This really explains a lot about how partnerships between travel companies and travel bloggers/writers can work. I think those of us on the “outside looking in” at these kinds of arrangements always think “how lucky!” or imagine how fabulous and romantic it would be to do something similar, so it’s nice to get a reality check about the work involved. Because anything worth doing well is going to be a lot of work. Nice job.

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 11:41 AM

Thanks, Gray. I didn’t intend to put anybody off, though – it *is* a lot of hard work, but it’s an enriching way to earn a living. I quite often have to remind myself that people are actually paying me to do these things.

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Camels & ChocolateNo Gravatar February 17, 2011 at 3:17 PM

“We don’t do projects to break even (let alone for free!) – even ones we’re passionate about!”

YES. Yes, yes, yes. As someone who earns her living as a travel writer, this is what I’ve found so frustrating about the blogosphere. So many people just starting out are willing and eager to do something in exchange for their expenses covered, which in turn, drives down the market rates for those of us who get paid to do this. Travel writing is a job; you should never write a piece of work that is published in a well-known media outlet or agree to promote a company, even on your personal blog, in exchange for “fun” or merely to break even.

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 4:16 AM

Totally agree with you. Unfortunately some companies will try to exploit so many bloggers’ and aspiring writers’ willingness to work for free. HomeAway Holiday-Rentals valued our skills and ability to promote their brand/product and paid fairly and we were appreciative of that. I’m confident there are more companies out there like them.

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Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 6:42 AM

A very in-depth and inspiring interview! It’s reassuring to know creative control is something viable as I delve further into this world.

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 11:15 AM

I think creative control and particularly editorial control should be something that writers/bloggers insist upon when developing these kinds of projects for travel companies. Yet it’s obviously important that before that the writer/blogger works closely with their client to understand their marketing/PR needs and goals and ensure that they share a vision on the concept and form of the project. These kinds of projects should be a collaboration of mutual benefit after all.

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Andi of My Beautiful AdventuresNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 8:52 AM

Excellent interview with a couple I have come to admire so much!

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 11:17 AM

Thank you, Andi, that’s very sweet of you. Humbled. :)

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wandering educatorsNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 10:37 AM

i love grantourismo – it’s been such an incredible year, following their journeys and being inspired. it’s great to learn more of the back story – and bravo to L&T, for enhancing travel journalism with this project!

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 11:18 AM

Thanks, Jessie. It’s been so nice to have you along for the ride. So glad you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have! More travel adventures to come on Grantourismo, so don’t go anywhere yet!

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Spencer SpellmanNo Gravatar February 18, 2011 at 9:51 PM

Can’t say enough about this project and what Lara and Terence are doing. I really believe there is going to be more similar projects like this in the future. Travel companies are starting to see the value of web savvy travel writers and connect with the ones that are actually on the road, rather than using office staff and other resources that don’t quite capture the essence of it. I write content for a couple different travel companies and do some guest posting elsewhere and am finding that some of these places have a bigger budget to pay than even travel magazines. To highlight something Lara said, editorial control is a big thing to hone in. That’s something I really hone in on with potential companies because it can be easy for companies to try to manipulate the situation and it become a question of ethics, where it’s more of an advertorial. Great interview!

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar March 2, 2011 at 1:05 AM

Thanks, Spencer! You’ve made some excellent points.

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Marcy GordonNo Gravatar February 20, 2011 at 4:35 PM

Point number 1- -know how to manage your time– can not be underestimated. I recently spent a few days in the company of the GranTourismo duo and the work ethic on Lara and Terence was mammoth. I don’t doubt for a second that “they worked ridiculously hard” on the project. But they make it look so effortless. Lesser mortals beware. Know your limits before you enter into a project of this magnitude.

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar March 2, 2011 at 1:07 AM

Thanks so much, Marcy. I think the key word there is “duo”. We’re lucky we can work together as a team, that our skills both complement each other’s and overlap so we can share the load.

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DaleneNo Gravatar February 23, 2011 at 8:13 AM

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this interview, and every other piece of info I’ve been able to gobble up on the GranTurismo project. Lara and Terence – you have *truly* inspired the industry, and have generated some nuggets of ideas in my head! Thanks so much for being so candid on how you do it, what you’ve earned, etc.

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CamNo Gravatar February 24, 2011 at 10:23 PM

Wow – great interview and GREAT project!
Enjoyed this, thanks for putting this together. My wheels are now spinning! ;-)

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AyngelinaNo Gravatar February 27, 2011 at 2:14 PM

Awesome interview Keith, it´s given me a lot to think about as I plan my next steps.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 27, 2011 at 3:26 PM

Ditto, Laura basically dumped a bag of gold on the table for all of us travel writer types.

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GlobetrotterGirlsNo Gravatar February 28, 2011 at 12:47 PM

This article was super informative and also very inspiring, plus what a relief to read such a high-quality discussion about the travel writing industry. For a while there was quite a divide between newspaper and magazine journalists and online writers – GranTourismo has proven that the whether you write for offline publications, online travel websites or work directly with travel partners, it’s about the quality of your content, how hard you work, and your experience that you bring to the table. Most travel writer/bloggers (present company included) are relative newbies and should respect the hard work and determination required to get to this level. All of us should take away the lesson about valuing your writing and your work enough to accept no less pay than necessary to earn a quality living. Thanks so much Keith and Lara for the inspiring article!

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 28, 2011 at 1:35 PM

I found the GranTourismo project just as inspiring, and it’s why I reached out to Lara to learn more about it. This interview is simply meant to share the goods. I’m happy you found it useful!

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lara dunstonNo Gravatar March 2, 2011 at 1:16 AM

@Dalene @Cam @Ayngelina & @GlobetrotterGirls thanks for the kind comments.

@GlobetrotterGirls I have to say that I’ve never experienced that divide you talk about between newspaper and magazine journalist and online writers. Primarily because, as I talk about more on the TNOOZ post that I wrote that Keith links to above, I have *always* written for all forms and formats since I started writing professionally in the mid- to late-80s – film, video, print, audio, multimedia, etc – and for me they’re all different formats boasting different (and multiple) genres of writing within each form. Simple as that. I also know a lot of journalists, especially travel journalists, who might have started out in print, but started publishing online writing as well as writing their own blogs many years ago. It was no big deal for them either to write across different mediums. Sure there are always going to be journalists who don’t feel they can write for the web, just as in any industry where you have people who won’t develop new skills.
I think that if there is and was a ‘divide’ – or, rather, a perception of one – that it mainly exists in the minds of those who haven’t worked as journalists and don’t understand how journalists work, i.e. the Gary Arndts of the world. That’s my perception anyway! :)

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Jessica | GlobetrottergirlsNo Gravatar March 2, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Really good points, and it’s refreshing to hear that you’ve not experienced any sort of divide. I’ve been on both sides working as a writer/blogger and in Travel PR, and a few years ago, there was a major divide in the eyes of Travel PR companies between ‘real journalists’, ie print/broadcast media, and ‘online/bloggers’. The former were coveted, the latter, no so much. Now as a travel writer, I understand that for the journalist, writing for offline and online publications make very little difference, as you say. I think that is what I find so inspiring about the work you did with HomeAway. That the travel company so clearly understood the benefits of working with you to produce content in an ongoing online space is encouraging for new partnerships between business and bloggers moving forward. It sounds like a helluva lot of work, but a win-win situation for both parties! Thanks again for the inspiration!

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Gareth LeonardNo Gravatar March 2, 2011 at 7:16 PM

Love it… “We wanted to travel more slowly, more sustainably, and more experientially, to live like locals and engage more with people on the way.”

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ACNo Gravatar March 3, 2011 at 6:49 PM

Great! Exactly what I need to know, am sure all us new bloggers/writers will be re-reading this time and again.

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Flights to NigeriaNo Gravatar March 10, 2011 at 5:26 AM

Your article is awesome as usual.

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