I've blogged in the past about a new model for online travel writers - working directly with a tour operator or travel agent to create genuinely compelling content for them. Perhaps the most groundbreaking example of this new model for travel writing is the very excellent Granturismo blog. Travel writers Lara Dunston and Terence Carter are working with HomeAway Holiday-Rentals. They are travelling the world for a whole year, staying in HomeAway rental properties in every location and writing, photographing, videoing and tweeting as they go.

That's a serious undertaking for both the writers and the operator - a big commitment from both parties. I'm fascinated by the idea. So I figured it was time to find out more. Here's a truly fascinating look at both sides of the relationship. The same questions answered by Lara and by Sarah Chambers who is the PR manager for Homeaway UK. Very interesting stuff!

How did the idea come about?
Lara Dunston: Terence and I were having coffee with my aunt in Australia, where we spend time writing each year. We were working on books and articles and whining about the downsides of guidebook writing (i.e. tedious tasks like checking bus times and dotting banks on maps) and magazine work (spending only a few days in places). We were also complaining about how some travellers travel: how they rush through places, only staying a day or two, seeing sights mainly, using guidebooks obsessively, and in the process miss out on amazing experiences.

Sarah Chambers: I was thinking about how best we could communicate not only the benefits of staying in a holiday home rental, but also the huge range available in terms of destinations and property types. Sending two journalists on an ‘around the world’ discovery-type trip seemed like an engaging and adventurous way to do this. Luckily, and coincidentally, Lara and Terry were already considering a similar idea.

Why did you do it?
LD: Selfish reasons and lofty goals: we wanted a more enriching project that would give us the best of both worlds, i.e. a month or so in a place as we have when we work on guidebooks, but to get to know the place deeply through its people, culture, food, music, etc, as we do researching magazine stories. Plus we sincerely want to see travellers overcome their shyness, not rely solely on guidebooks, connect more with locals, stay longer, do and learn things, travel more slowly and sustainably, and travel in more enriching ways. Although obviously we appreciate sometimes people just need to lie on a beach! Ah, that would be nice…

SC: We wanted to do something that would really inspire people to try this different way of travelling and show them that ‘holiday rentals’ = much more than just apartments and villas with pools. I love travelling myself and often stay in rentals now too, so I’m committed to spreading the word!

What have been the big successes so far?
LD: We’re halfway through the project so Terence and I have just been reflecting on these actually. We’ve concluded our experiment a success: this is definitely the best way to travel! We can now confidently say that staying in apartments and houses enables you to have so many more meaningful experiences and allows so many more opportunities to connect with locals in ways that staying in hotels do not. This has truly been the most memorable 6 months of travel of our lives. We’re also proud of the content we’re generating. We’re working hard to create compelling stories, do engaging interviews, and Terence in particular is making beautiful photos and videos.

SC: The blog is beautiful and really seems to have captured people’s imagination. They are getting great traffic and involvement via social media, plus we can see there is some good conversion in terms of visits and property enquiries on our site. For me, their writing also really captures and eloquently conveys the type of experience you can enjoy in a holiday home.

What have been the things that haven't worked so well?
LD: We don’t have enough time and we’re spending too much money! It’s always time and money, isn’t it? We compromised on two weeks per place, though we understand why HomeAwayUK needed us to do that. We’re working harder than ever: on top of connecting with locals, having experiences, writing, editing photos, and maintaining the site, we’re constantly planning ahead, running a monthly competition, doing social media, tweeting, and so on. It’s also been frustrating that we haven’t had as good Internet access as promised in many properties we’ve stayed at, as that’s crucial obviously – in one place the best access was from an olive grove! Not fun in the rain.

SC: We had hoped that other publishers and media would be interested in featuring content from Lara and Terry, as they have complete editorial control over everything they produce. However it seems that publications are still hesitant to engage with this kind of innovative hybrid projects presenting independent content sponsored by a brand. 'Though essentially this is no different to one very long press trip.'

Would you do it again?
LD: Absolutely! After a period of recovery of course! But in our original form, i.e. one month in each destination, so we could really get beneath the skin of places and do and learn more things. For instance, Terence is a brilliant musician as well as a great cook. Our original plan involved him learning instruments and working in kitchens. I’d hoped to take language lessons, other classes, and volunteer. We haven’t exploited as many opportunities as we could have, or slept as much as we’d like. If we did it again, we’d ask the partner company to handle more research and planning tasks, more social media, do more PR, and run any competitions they might want. Projects like this need in-house staff dedicated to it full-time for better results. My advice to writers embarking on similar projects would be to clarify the amount of resources being allocated to the project.

SC: I’m not sure, but only as it seems a lot of other companies are jumping on the bandwagon now, doing similar things. So I think we have to set ourselves the challenge of finding a slightly different angle for our next project!

If you did, what would you change?
LD: We negotiated a fee based on industry rates, but agreed to part of it in bonuses attached to securing additional print coverage. We’re widely published so didn’t envisage that being a challenge, but we didn’t expect editors to see this as advertorial. We thought we’d negotiated things to circumvent that, like editorial control (HomeAwayUK doesn’t see our content until you do), only reviewing a property (critically and honestly!) every two weeks, and promoting the travel lifestyle rather than company. However, some editors still see it as advertorial because HomeAwayUK are paying us. That will be the main challenge for writers working directly with travel companies who want traditional media coverage in addition to social media content. My advice is to negotiate a fair and realistic fee and don’t agree to bonuses based on anything, because – just like travel – there are some things you just can’t predict.

SC: I imagine the answer is the same for lots of projects; Plan more in advance about how we could fully integrate our PR and marketing activities. I think this is an ongoing challenge for many companies. We are doing this, but we have also taken a lot of learnings from this project so I think we could do it a lot better next time.


This idea was actually Lara's and a very good one at that! Thanks to both Lara and Sarah for contributing as I know both of you are very busy!

Lots to take away for travel writers and for PR people too. What's the single most useful insight here for you and why? I'd be interested to know.

18 thoughts on “PR and Journalists in perfect harmony!? A groundbreaking travel blog

  1. Interesting stuff. And food for thought for other freelancers looking to try out new models of work. I admire the commitment on both sides. But it's telling that, if I read this right, Lara and Terence are not getting many spin-off commissions from the project. Change clearly moves slower than we all think sometimes.

  2. You should contact me about the great relationship I have worked out with Brendan Vacations and Gordon Dirker, their vice-president. They have sent me to Ireland and Hawaii; Australia is in the planning stages. They sponsor the trip and, in return, I blog about it and write in several magazines. It has been great!

    1. Hi Jan
      Would love to know more. Feel free to provide a few links to stuff you have written for them!

  3. Thanks for this opportunity, Jeremy. Hope the interview proves helpful to both writers and companies considering embarking on similarly innovative projects in the future. Just read it and I think what you've got above are two very honest perspectives on the project and partnership.

    @David - re spin-off commissions, yes, and it's frustrating sometimes, because I'll pitch editors on destinations we're covering for this project and will get a response back saying "no, thanks, but have you been to Singapore/Mallorca/wherever recently" but that's just the way it works isn't it? Or I'll be contacted by an editor for a tip or advice for a story related to pre-Grantourismo work. OR, as I said above, the editor will perceive whatever we're pitching as advertorial because of the nature of the project, never mind the fact that their own writers go on press trips themselves, which is the point Sarah made.

    Having said that, we've just written five travel stories based on the Grantourismo destinations for a new IPC Media site for Marie Claire, LOOK, InStyle & NOW.

    1. @Lara Great to hear it's generating work for you. I'm all for getting to know destinations in depth and old-skool press trips rarely yield anything more than a hangover and a bundle of brochures for the recycling, so good on you for breaking away from the brain-dead norm. Sounds like some people in commissioning roles need to do the same and accept that the way we work has changed and will continue to do so. We're all looking for new revenue streams these days.

  4. Great to see this playing out to the benefit of both sides (mostly).

    I now keep pushing back to PRs when they offer press trips to ask if they would consider sending a blogger, because writing for trad media has become a bit of a disaster area for freelance travel journalists. But it's slow going. Granturismo is a great example to show.

    One thing I would like to ask is why chase to get stuff in traditional media?

    The majority of travel content I read now is published elsewhere online, not in trad outlets.

    You can always let them know but if Granturismo is doing that well, they should take a leaf out of Jeremy's book and contact you rather than the other way round. It seems to me that you are the story here.

    1. Hello
      I reckon the trad media bit is because the client (ie the operator - in this case HomeAway) still really values it and it's not hard to see why. Trad media still has huge reach and huge exposure value. And, you'll still derive extra income from it too. (Well for now at least anyway!)
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Very interesting to read this - and thanks to both parties for being so frank and honest. As I've mentioned on this site before (and thus won't go into it again), I've got blogging arrangements with Roundtheworldflights.com and Viator. What seems to be different here is that HomeAway has become the primary employer for the year. For me, the 'corporate' blogging gigs have been a handy bit on the side. I've been hosted on the tours, which have been written about in one way or another for Viator, and had flights incorporated in the package with RTW.

    But, the real reason I went to Fiji/ New Zealand etc was for commissions elsewhere - the blog posts padded out the work and income, and worked for all parties. I've been under no pressure (either self or company imposed) to write about either company in the other articles (though I have incorporated some of the Viator products in other pieces and mentioned them as I would do with any other hosting for a relevant commissioned piece*).

    I think the bonus for coverage elsewhere is where it becomes an ethical grey area. It's the difference between being paid to do a job by a company while you're also doing other jobs for mags/ newspapers and starting to become a representative of that company. I can understand why editors would be a little jumpy about it, even though I know personally that Lara would be frank and unbiased.

    *And by that, I don't mean shoehorning it in or mentioning it just because I was hosted. I'm currently researching a city guide, and unfortunately the place I'm being hosted at isn't good enough, so it's not going in. If that leads to an awkward e-mail or two, so be it.

    1. We've been writing for Viator for years under the same arrangement and for Grantourismo formed a partnership to continue that, plus they donate monthly prizes for our travel writing/blogging/photo contest. Ditto re Context and Our Explorer. They give us guides/tours which allow us to dig deeper, we write those into stories, so it's a win-win situation.

      You're right in that how things differ with HomeAwayUK is they've contracted us for a year and pay our fees, expenses, provide accommodation and air fares - it's more security than we've had in four years and more than most freelancers ever get. They should be applauded for that. It's a win-win because they get a team who are 100% committed to the project. But we're clearly *not* company representatives. We're not promoting the company, we're promoting a travel lifestyle and the opportunities holiday rentals afford.

      Sarah makes the point it's no different to an extended press trip. What she means is HomeAwayUK have always sent travel journalists on comp stays in holiday rentals, including full-time staff writers. So how is their ability to be objective any different to ours, writers who've written over 40 guidebooks and 100s stories and stayed in 1000s hotels. Do they think we suddenly drop our ethics and standards?

      In fact, our Grantourismo property reviews are much more critical than the "top 10 villas/apartments in France/Italy/Spain" type stories you see in papers. Ours are also based on actual stays whereas staff writers simply pick those off the web. It raises interesting questions.

  6. This is a fascinating interview, reading the different perspectives. I can relate to what Lara is saying about not having time to do all the things they want to do in an destination in 2 weeks (especially if they've to write posts, upload photos/videos and promote them on social media, do interviews, run competitions) and that 4 weeks in each destination would've worked better for this type of project. Also having an excellent internet connection is crucial to the project. Personally I would find a continuous 26 x 2 weeks stints absolutely exhausting, surely at least 4 weeks of holiday could have been factored in?

    As a blog editor, I was wary of hosting an interview with Lara & Terry on Europe a la Carte as I though that having a link to HomeAway would be required but a link to Grantourismo sufficed. I see their monthly competition as a cheap way for HomeAway and Grantourimso to get links, as entrants have to link to both sites in the competition entry post. However I'm sure this is what is at bottom of print publications running pieces about the trip, they don't want to give HomeAway free advertising, which is of course what HomeAway was hoping and incentivising for.

    I think the project running with the same writers for 12 months, can lead to reader fatigue, never mind Lara and Terry wilting. I think it would have been more interesting to have different writers/bloggers working on the project e.g one team covering say6 properties in one country or at least adjacent countries, where there wouldn't be any long flights (and jet lag) to get to different destinations. Then there would be more of a variety of content, angles and perspectives.

  7. Karen, we were aware of the possibility of reader fatigue – and aware of people perhaps not being interested in certain destinations. But it’s not that kind of blog – otherwise we’d be writing more ‘immediate’ shorter posts, that we would not be happy with in retrospect. We have had people tweet that they ‘just caught up’ with where we were after not visiting the blog for a while. That’s ok. And when new readers come to the blog because they’re interested in a destination, we’ve found they stick around to look at the other content. By the way, our stats don’t indicate reader fatigue, returning visitors are growing. And we’re having the best month of visitors so far.
    Having different teams as you mentioned would not have worked for us. See question 6 of your interview with me. In terms of broader content, the destination and the season determines the content, you’ll see very different kinds of experiences going up on the blog in a week or two. In terms of angles and perspectives, sorry, but you’re missing the point of the blog. What you would consider to be different voices, we consider to be dilution. This a personal project for us that has the backing of a holiday rental company – that’s why we retain the copyright to our work.
    As far as Lara and Terry fatigue goes, we were already living out of suitcases for four years before we started the project. We're both loving the project. Arriving at each new destination is energizing. We just arrived at perhaps the most unique property of the year so far, it's mind-blowing. And we get to unpack our suitcases at each destination – and for travel writers, it doesn’t get much better than that.

  8. As a professional travel writer I have to say I admire the Granturismo Blog and find it groundbreaking in what it has achieved- well beyond the shallow blogging that seems to have dominated the travel web so far. There really is so much junk getting pushed onto the web out there that it has been refreshing to see destinations covered with such a enthusiastic, genuine and professional approach.

    Lara and Terence have managed to strike a balance between meeting the needs of their business relationship with HomeAway while maintaining their critical integrity. The core of the blog's success lies in that you have two professional journalists and authors behind the project who have worked in the media for years. The blog has an incredible depth to it's content and I'm still blown away by how much quality work the duo produce each fortnight.

    Understandably, there's jealousy over the project (myself included!), and I believe that is why they have not got as much support from the Blogosphere as normally is given to projects like this. But I believe the content on the website speaks for itself and as Terence mentioned, the growing online traffic reflect the project's success.

    Best of luck to both of you- can't wait to hopefully see you by the end of the year in Holland!

  9. Interesting discussion...

    I'm intrigued in a few things. HomeAway told Tnooz earlier this year that a review would take place after a month.

    What do the parties feel has and hasn't worked in the seven months since it launch?

    Particularly interesting about the concept of fatigue. I wonder how traffic has stood up (or not) in the intervening months.

    My reference point is the Reef Island campaign.

    [Sorry, Jeremy, link ok? http://www.tnooz.com/2010/01/22/news/best-job-in-the-world-pr-campaign-one-year-on-for-the-blogging-brief/%5D

    It had very obvious traffic spikes during key points in the campaign, but otherwise was very flat and almost non-existent.

    Some consider this to be a result of it 1) just not being that interesting or 2) who wants to read THAT much content from someone lording it up for a year while others are stuck at home.

    So, are you happy to share some trends on the traffic to the blog an how you have managed to maintain the interest.

    BTW: I think you've done a grand job and kudos to HomeAway for trying something different.

  10. Lara - I agree that Grantourismo is an extended press trip but I disagree with you when you say that you are not promoting HomeAway, I think that's part of the bargain. I don't think anyone who goes on a press trip can say that they are not promoting their host. You're not company representatives and your posts are not subject to editorial control but you are staying at HomeAway properties and being paid by them. HomeAway aren't sponsoring this project to allow you and Terry to fulfil an ambition, they are doing it to promote their brand.

    Terence - Of course having different teams wouldn't have worked for you and Lara, I understand why you wanted to do the year long project yourselves and you would perceive other writers/bloggers being involved as dilution. Whereas perhaps from the readers and HomeAway's perspective, it could be viewed as enrichment by having a variety of contributors. As an example, I see my travel blog, Europe a la Carte, as being so much better having a team of contributors, as opposed to just me writing for it because these contributors all have their own personalities and style and increase the breadth of topics and destinations. I admire your energy and fortitude, as I could not undertake a project like yours. I have a need to touch base and enjoy my home comforts, much as a I enjoy travelling in Europe. Yes it is a an amazing opportunity that Lara and you have seized as freelancers to be paid for 12 months for a project and you are both working really hard.

    Shaney - Do you really think that most bloggers are jealous of Lara and Terry? Lara and Terry are a great team, very professional and dedicated to their craft and it seems like their work is a huge part of their lives. As I said above I couldn't move on to a new destination every 2 weeks for a year. I explained that my only doubt about hosting an interview with them on the Europe a la Carte Blog was that I would be giving free publicity to HomeAway, when as a commercial blog, the only way for me to earn a living is from advertising. Obviously I'd rather that HomeAway paid to advertise on my blog or at least offered me a (short) press trip. I don't say this motivated by envy but by pragmatism, that if a brand want exposure on my blog, there has to be a benefit to me too.

  11. My only reaction is that the whole enterprise by Lara and Terence again splendidly disproves the whole insistence by some that only doing your own blog is the *only* way to travel blog, that internet is the only medium, and that journalists - yup, good old journalists - will always find a way to survive that doesn't necessarily conform at all to the way some incessantly preach it has to be.

  12. It's an interesting article alight, and well put together from both sides.

    Of particular note is Sarah Chambers observations that many others are jumping on the band wagon. And, it's true. There are many writers / bloggers taking sponsored trips and blogging about it.

    The main issue I see is reader burnout. If a blogger is not capable of producing content in a way that engages the reader. Then, you'll start to see some very disappointing turnarounds in the near future.

    Having full editorial control over your content is vital, but so too is the marketing of the end product or service that is sponsoring you. A fine line.

  13. Hi Everyone,

    Firstly thanks to Jeremy for giving us the chance to share our experiences on this blog and secondly thanks to everyone else for your kind comments, insights and thoughts. There is some good food for further thought here and it’s very interesting to read what others out there make of the project and to see it’s stirred up some debate!

    To address the couple of further questions from Kevin, the main things that haven’t quite worked as envisaged were, as mentioned, working with ‘traditional’ media, and also simply having enough time to do everything exactly how we would like! I had never done anything like this before and although I knew social media projects, although reasonably cost-effective, are time-intensive, as Lara said ideally we could have done with more resource from our side.

    In terms of reader fatigue, we definitely don’t feel that is happening as we have had the best month yet in terms of page views and visits, and traffic has been growing since launch. In terms of how we’ve done it, well a lot of that is down to Lara and Terry’s expertise in producing and optimising online content and engaging in social media, which is exactly why we wanted to use experienced writers. We have also been promoting the project via our own Facebook and Twitter pages, on site and in our traveller newsletters.

    In addition, we believe the blog has more longevity than other similar projects (past and present!) as the aim, which we feel is being achieved, was to create content that would continue to inspire travellers over time, and that HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, Lara & Terry could all continue to re-purpose. For example on the IPC Media portal that Lara mentioned (http://www.lastofthesummervibes.com/travel), and other projects… watch this space! ;0)

    Finally, in terms of comparing the project to the Best Job in the World, we don’t really feel the two can be compared as 1) We had different aims – ours wasn’t so much to do something ‘wild and wacky’ to grab 5 minutes of fame and a huge coverage book (although of course, that would be nice!) – but rather, as mentioned above, to create compelling content with more longevity, and which really told a story and inspired people about a different way to travel. This isn't the first time I've heard that in the end, the Best Job in the World blog didn't really achieve that. And 2) A slight difference in budget! :0)


  14. Great post, Jeremy. I think the whole industry is trying to find ways to do something new, think outside the box, all that good stuff. This is a really interesting concept, and also one I had considered last year (the company decided against using their budget in this way). Thanks Lara and Sarah for the insight into the project and for everyone's comments- this is a great discussion!

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