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!
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!
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.