Interview with Santa Monica Workshop Attendee Bob Kelley
Just five months ago, reader Bob Kelley was new to travel writing.
Today, he’s had two stories published (one of them a multi-page magazine spread with pictures)… He has an editor in his pocket ready to publish more of his work… He’s working on a third story for the Travel section of The Denver Post… And, he’s scored a free pass to Universal Studios to work on a travel story about the new Harry Potter attraction.
We interviewed him to find out how he did it.
Santa Monica Workshop Attendee Lands Extra By-lines and a Free Pass to Universal Studios: Interview with Bob Kelley
CHRISTINA: Hi Bob. You’ve had quite a lot of success with your travel writing in the past few months. What sparked your recent interest in travel writing?
BOB: For the past 30 years, I have traveled extensively — taking in nearly 30 countries and 45 states, visiting some of them more than once. I LOVE to travel and have taken a slew of pretty good photos so I thought, “Why not give it a go!”
I’ve actually been writing in some capacity most of my adult life. My first “travel” story was written when, at 17, I went on a high-school trip to Mexico and wrote a feature when we returned home that was published in my hometown newspaper.
After being downsized from my former employer last April, I felt it was “now or never” if I wanted to seriously get into travel writing.
CHRISTINA: What were the first steps you took to get started?
BOB: Initially, I knew that I needed to get some “clips” for anyone to take me seriously. I decided the quickest way to start a portfolio was to do some Internet writing. I sought out venues like Associated Content and several online travel sites willing to take my first attempts at writing. For content, I reached into the recesses of my mind to recall memories from some of my favorite places I had visited and from where I had some decent photos. My first story was the one that was ultimately printed in Travel Post Monthly about Cobh, Ireland, the last port of call for Titanic.
And, of course, I joined the ITWPA (International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance), realizing that it would be good to get involved with other travel writers. It was from ITWPA library literature that someone noted a good starting point was to approach local publications. I made regular visits to bookstores to explore the different publications that I might want to target.
CHRISTINA: And you found one, right? Wasn’t your first article published in the local magazine, Georgia Backroads? Can you tell us a little bit about that article? What was it about, did it include photos, and how did you pitch it?
BOB: Living in Georgia for almost 30 years, I had heard of some of the more famous public gardens like Calloway Gardens, but going to a visitor’s bureau to look for story ideas, I happened upon some brochures for three gardens: Dunaway, Lockerly, and Massee Lane. I polled friends and neighbors to see if they were familiar with the gardens and when no one seemed to know anything about them, I thought they might be a good idea for a major story.
Now, at this point I was not very keen on writing pitch letters and felt, since I didn’t have much of a travel writing portfolio, it would be better to submit completed stories in an e-mail to the editor. I did just that and the Georgia Backroads editor expressed an interest in running the story! I was quick to tell him that I had photos and that sealed the deal. He paid me a little under $200 for the story, including the photos. I’m happy to report he has purchased another story for the Spring issue and I’m finishing another story this week that he’s interested in for the Spring or Summer issue. Needless to say this editor is my new best friend!
CHRISTINA: What was it like to see your article and by-line in print in the magazine?
BOB: Although circumstances from my past have allowed me to have by-lines before, I never grow tired of seeing my name in print. There is just a matter of pride and accomplishment involved in feeling someone liked your work enough to publish it, and even pay for it! But more than anything, I feel it validates what you are doing, makes the effort worthwhile and fulfilling and lets people know that, hey, this person is published and may actually be on the verge of making a career out of this. Plus….it’s fun!
CHRISTINA: You mentioned that you joined the ITWPA when you were getting started with your travel writing. How has the ITWPA helped you on your travel writing journey?
BOB: The vast library of resources the ITWPA offers lets me pick and choose those topics that I feel are most important to me at any given time without having to sort through a lot of unrelated collateral. The newsletters that Kyle Wagner puts out each month are treasure troves of information. I even save and file information provided to members that, even though it may not be relevant to me right now, I know will be of value later on. Everything is well-conceived, presented with thought, and absolutely invaluable to those working in this profession.
CHRISTINA: You ended up landing an assignment with the Denver Post, through the ITWPA newsletter. Can you tell me a little bit about that assignment?
BOB: I have always been interested in large ships, and while reading a Porthole magazine article on the largest cruise ship in the world, the Oasis of the Seas, there was a single sentence mentioning the ship’s $10 million art collection. That one sentence made a bell go off in my head: what a great story idea! It also mentioned how eco-friendly the ship was…ding! Another bell! Then and there I decided to cruise on the biggest and best ship on the seas and write about it.
Timing is everything, and, right after returning from the cruise, Kyle Wagner (the Travel Editor at the Denver Post and the Dispatch Editor at the ITWPA) was offering readers the challenge of writing pitch letters and possibly printing the story she deemed most interesting. So, I decided to kill two birds with one stone: try out my pitching skills and hopefully find a buyer for the art story.
As luck would have it, she liked my pitch and we have been working back and forth on the story for the past month. Hopefully, it will run very soon. The Denver Post art designer requested eight of my photos to choose from to illustrate the story.
CHRISTINA: That’s great! Are you working on anything else?
BOB: Well, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Harry Potter fan, so I got this idea to do a story on the adult appeal of Harry Potter.
When the new venue, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, opened at Universal in June, I fired off an e-mail to the Universal PR folks asking if they would be willing to let me visit for free since I was working on a story idea.
They said they would, if I had a letter of assignment. So I sent Tom Schueneman a note (another editor I met at The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in Santa Monica) and asked if he’d be interested in a story like that and if he could write me a letter of assignment. He was. And he did. And Universal gave me a free pass to the park while I worked on the story.
CHRISTINA: That sounds like a pretty good perk if you ask me. What is your favorite thing about being a published travel writer?
BOB: I believe my favorite part is the pride and gratification it gives me to see my work accepted. It has also made me so much more aware of my world around me and my mind is constantly deciphering ways I can write about it.
CHRISTINA: Any last advice for our readers who might be on the fence about attending this year’s Ultimate Travel Writer’s Workshop in Chicago?
BOB: I can’t say enough good things about my experience in Santa Monica. To mix and mingle for three or four days with others at different levels of expertise, to attend the sessions for insight and sharing of information that would prevent me from making common mistakes, was definitely worth it.
I have no regrets whatsoever. Listening to people like Jen Stevens, Kyle Wagner, Shelly Perry, Al Bonowitz, Steenie Harvey, and Tom Schueuneman, to name a few, answered so many questions and opened my eyes to so many opportunities that once I came home it took a week to just digest and filter all of the information. I sat side-by-side with seasoned travel writing professionals and newbies like me and I didn’t feel so lost, alone or doubtful about making this career move.
CHRISTINA: Thanks Bob.
[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.]