Accepting Freebies: Will You Accept This Free Meal?
Last week, we talked about many of the perks that travel writers enjoy. One reader wrote in to ask whether accepting these freebies could pose an ethical dilemma… When does accepting free meals, hotel stays, and vacation invites cross the line and make your writing biased?
Freelance travel writer Steenie Harvey’s opinion is below…
Director, Great Escape Publishing
GORGE YOURSELF ON FREE SUSHI — BUT DON’T TRY SELLING YOUR STORY TO THE DENVER POST
Travel writers. We’re corrupt… our work is tainted… readers shouldn’t trust our recommendations.
That’s what Miami Herald readers probably believe after seeing the following headline in the business section of their paper last year:
“When visiting South Beach, be sure to try the free sushi, nightclubs, cocktails and hotel rooms. But only if you’re a travel writer.”
The five writers who found themselves in the spotlight were Brits. And the journalist who penned the article could barely hide his outrage.
He made my compatriots sound like the most loathsome bunch of freeloaders ever to roam the earth.
The article pointed out they’d gotten free round-trip airfare from London, complimentary rooms in South Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and six days of gratis meals. But that wasn’t all…
Our writers lolled around in a “boudoir-themed hotspot.” They sipped an “amuse-bouche of lobster bisque.” They stuffed their faces with dulce de leche soufflés and molten chocolate cakes.
Thing is, press trips (that is, the types of trips travel writers can take where most — if not all — of your expenses are covered by resorts, hotels, and restaurants hoping to score a little free press when you include them in your travel article) can be hard work… and that wasn’t mentioned. After a 10-hour daily slog of non-stop sightseeing, what’s wrong with a $750 night out where somebody else picks up the tab? In my view, nothing.
But according to the travel editors of some U.S. newspapers, there’s plenty wrong with it. Many won’t use articles about destinations where a writer has accepted complimentary or subsidized travel. And as a freelancer, that’s something you need to be aware of.
At AWAI’s Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop, Kyle Wagner, travel editor of the Denver Post, makes this point very clear even though she realizes that without “comps,” most freelancers need to sell many, many articles to make a trip pay for itself.
Still…her newspaper’s policy is to accept no pieces where complimentary travel or accommodations are involved.
The thinking is that by going on junkets, writers are compromised.
”If you’re recommending a place because you’ve been led by the nose by a publicist to the place, to me that sounds fishy,” said Chicago Tribune travel editor Randy Curwen.
It seems unfair. Sports writers get free tickets (and the best seats in the stadium). Music and book reviewers get free CDs and books. And contributors to car and driver magazines do not buy a brand-new Porsche before they test-drive it. Yet nobody calls their judgment into question.
Are travel writers compromised? Can you keep your writing trustworthy?
Personally I think it depends on the individual.
It’s not obligatory to gush because a hotel gives you a free or a subsidized rate. I wrote this for International Living about a hotel in Vilnius (Lithuania), which gave me a press rate of $40 a night:
“Near the Gates of Dawn, the 3-star City Gate Hotel isn’t exactly luxurious. Not only was the room poky, a curtain pole fell down and almost took my eye out. But given Vilnius’ grossly overpriced rates for better hotels, it’s one to consider. Doubles 300 litas ($109) nightly. Breakfast is included.”
Even leaving aside press trips, most freelancers need complimentary or reduced-rate accommodation to make an out-of-town trip pay well. So you may wonder how can you accept hospitality when the host (hotel, restaurant, Convention Bureau, etc) expects a mention.
Well, here are three ways to keep on the straight and narrow:
1) Most magazines don’t have problems with comps. So avoid pitching stories to places that do. You’ll find a publication’s policy in the Writers’ Guidelines. If comps aren’t mentioned, you can presume it’s OK.
My editor at International Living passes on “invites.” And most British newspapers are fine about them, too — the Daily Telegraph actually sent me on a British Airways Press Trip to Borneo. (No boudoir-themed hotspots there, unfortunately.)
Publications that prefer writers to sleep in alleyways and faint from hunger carry guidelines something like these:
“The Travel Section will not publish articles that grow out of trips paid for or in any way subsidized by an airline, hotel, tourist board or other organization with an interest, direct or indirect, in the subject of an article.” — New York Times.
“We do not accept material produced by journalists receiving benefits (such as free travel) from any entity or person who could be perceived as an interested party to the story.” — Christian Science Monitor.
(And yes, Christian Science Monitor does publish travel stories.)
2) Take a Press Trip or Fam Tour, and have stories lined up for editors who have no problem with comps. Then stay on for a day or two extra at your own expense. Move out of the flashy hotel and into a cheap B&B — one you have a receipt for and can mention in another article for the likes of the Denver Post.
3) Produce additional stories that have nothing to do with restaurants or accommodations. I wrote a piece for The Washington Post — which also bans freebies — about a pilgrimage climb up one of Ireland’s holy mountains. In other words, do something beyond the press-trip itinerary.
[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.]