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.