For most of the public, it’s the trip of a lifetime – the grand prize on a game show or in a sweepstakes. All expenses paid to an exotic location! Airfare, five-star hotels, gourmet meals – everything taken care of for you and your every need met!
For many travel writers and freelancers, though, it can be just another day at the office…or, actually, not at the office. Referred to as FAM trips, short for “familiarization,” these junkets with all of the expenses covered by a host city, lodgings, restaurants or other involved parties (and often all of the above) can make a freelancer’s career lucrative by turning one trip into multiple stories.
These days, it’s tough to find publications willing to pay your way, although it does still happen. What’s more likely is that you will be able to get a steady stream of FAM trips paid for or what is called a “media rate” – a significantly reduced fee – once an editor has vetted you, usually by sending an e-mail or a confirmation on letterhead indicating that you have been given the go-ahead to write the story for the publication. Then the public relations firm working the trip or other entity offering the FAM will welcome you aboard.
Visitor’s bureaus and chambers of commerce often sponsor FAM trips, as do larger public relations firms that specialize in travel. Travel agencies and airlines also occasionally offer them, and larger festivals and big events (“Taste of XX” and music fests, for instance) in major cities are known to offer a limited number of free passes. It’s worthwhile to check into the policies, first – do they require clips or editor approval for stories? What are the requirements for bloggers? Usually this information is available online, and you are welcome to arrange your own FAM through those channels.
The most important thing to keep in mind about FAM trips is this: If you’re getting a free ride, chances are that other writers are, too – in fact, it’s likely that you’ll actually be guided around a city or taken on a trek with a group of fellow freelancers. That means everyone gets the same dining, cultural and lodging experiences, and when it comes time to pitch the story, it’s entirely possible that editors are receiving other pitches or queries with approaches that are just as familiar as the trip you took.
Another consideration is that some publications – and many larger daily newspapers would be in this category – do not accept freelance that has been written from a primarily FAM-sponsored trip. They simply have a no-freebies policy. Some publications will accept a story about an individual component that was paid for – say, you went on a FAM trip and paid to get into the museum, and then wrote about that. This is a case where getting the guidelines will be invaluable in ascertaining the policy so there are no misunderstandings.
With those things in mind, here are three things you can do to keep your FAM trip as unfamiliar as possible to editors looking for a fresh perspective.
1. Do as much research ahead as possible. Going into the trip armed with as much knowledge as you can discover about the location and the activities will inform your questions for guides, sponsors and locals, and it will help you target your story approach and potential sidebars. It will also give you ideas for more stories.
2. Go off on your own. Find out where your breaks are and use them to the best advantage. Being on the same trip with multiple writers will put all of you in the same spots at the same time, and that means many eyes on the same things. Get a new view by going elsewhere, as far off the beaten path as you can manage in the limited timeframe.
3. Treat this as a competition – because it is. Keep your questions to the guides, your interviews and your excursions as private as you can without being anti-social. Remember that everything others overhear is fair game for their stories, and so whatever you can glean on your own is all yours. May the best story win the contract with an editor!
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]