Endemic corruption or just a travel press trip?

Content farm crap written by a student or potentially biassed editorial written by a hosted travel writer? You choose.

Twitter on a Sunday afternoon. I shouldn’t do it. But I did and found this tweet from @rafat (Rafat Ali) the guy who set up Paidcontent.

“Corruption endemic in travel industry, free travel junkets that FTC should *really* crack down on: http://bit.ly/rVlIah

The link is to a page on Keith Jenkin’s Velvet Escape blog about a new program he has launched called iambassador.

Quoting from this page:

“The iambassador model involves a collaboration between travel bloggers and the tourism industry. The product can be utilised by tourism boards, tour operators, cruise companies, airlines and/or hotel chains to market a specific destination or travel theme (adventure, cruises, gastronomy, safaris, city trips or beach holidays to name a few).”

The benefits to the tourist board etc:
“iambassador maximises the value generated by blog trips by turning the bloggers into digital ambassadors…. The model involves a collaboration between influential travel bloggers and their blog trip sponsors and is designed to generate a social media ‘blitz’ centred on the destination as well as increase brand visibility of the sponsors.”

I pointed out to Rafat on twitter that press trips (‘junkets’ in his parlance) happen in many industries (the motoring writer gets loaned the new Porsche for a weekend, he doesn’t have to buy one to write his review – is this corrupt?). And that in travel, the cost of actually experiencing a destination is so much that if a travel writer or travel publisher paid for the trips that got covered in their publication they would run at a huge loss.

Rafat pointed to the first example of the iambassador trip – a sponsored blog trip with Visit Jordan.

I pointed out that if the bloggers disclose that their trip is hosted by Visit Jordan what’s the problem. The reader can make up their own mind.

Frankly for those of us who write about travel for a living (bloggers, travel writers whatever) this is a very old debate. If we didn’t have press trips there’d be very little good quality travel content at all anywhere. (I’m not condoning the current situation by saying this. I just don’t really see another way right now.)

But Rafat went on to say (and here I really part company with him):

“I am saying even disclosure isn't enough. corruption disclosed isn't corruption corrected”

I just don’t see corruption here. Corruption implies that the bloggers will intentionally mislead their readers – by for example saying positive things about stuff that’s actually not that good.

But then again… Keith talks explicitly about this as a ‘marketing exercise’. Here’s the text of his tweet back to Rafat:

“i appreciate your comments. However, this is a fully disclosed sponsored marketing campaign, not a free junket.”

To me as a writer employed several days a week by a marketing agency I completely get this language and approach. I can see straight away how for a tourist board like Visit Jordan it has real value.

But as someone who still thinks of himself as a travel writer I'm less sure. It’s incredibly overt. I think Keith should be applauded for his openness. But if I was a reader of Velvet Escape… how would I feel if I read that page? Maybe I'm just being an old travel writer here? Perhaps people who read blogs like Keith's (which is full of genuinely useful, quality travel features and advice) couldn't care less.

For me though this more overtly commercial approach is perhaps the final outcome for free travel content online. Reader… you come a long way down the list of priorities these days. (But what do you expect? You’re getting free content!)

This more overt commercial focus is not unique to travel bloggers. I know of at least one major UK national newspaper that is actively looking to tie sale of product (flights, hotels etc) more directly to its travel editorial – because ad revenue alone just doesn’t stack up.

So… expect to see a more ‘buy this now’ calls to action around travel content in the future.

And expect to see the divide between promotion and editorial become ever thinner.

And consider… would you prefer content farm crap written by a student who has never visited a destination (but who is of course 'impartial'!) or content written by a potentially ‘corrupt’ travel writer who got a free trip to the place?

Pic by Flickr user: Mike Licht

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