From pitch to published article - a behind the scenes look at travel writing
I recently received an email from a fellow writer saying they would love to see a post about freelance travel writing. More specifically, they wondered if I could share a timeline for what goes into getting a travel story commissioned. So I thought that rather than giving you an arbitrary timeline of what it generally looks like as a freelance travel writer, I’d pick a trip that I did last year to give you a sense of the time (and level of communication with editors and PRs) it takes from pitch to published article.
From pitch to published article - a behind the scenes look at travel writing
Just a warning - this is quite a lengthy post simply because I wanted to give you an in-depth look at the ins and outs of getting a sponsored travel trip off the ground and the time involved.
So if you don’t have the time (or inclination) to read the full post, I’ve pulled together an abbreviated timeline at the end of this post.
Let’s jump in.
It was the end of 2016 and I was about to go full time as a freelance writer.
I had had an article commissioned with one of my favourite food and travel magazines, and wanted to become a regular contributor.
I had broken in to the specific magazine and freelance travel writing by pitching to a particular section in the publication that explored a specific town or region through the eyes of a local chef.
I didn’t have any particular travel plans and knew from my previous story that the editor liked to ensure they had good coverage of all the Australian states.
My plan was to pitch to the editor and if she wasn’t keen on my story ask if there were particular destinations she was looking to cover.
Just as I went to pitch again, the editor changed.
So in January 2017 I touched base with the new editor to ask if she was looking for pitches about particular places.
The editor said her schedule was reasonably booked up but that she was looking to fill a few spots for the back end of the year.
She told me to let her know if I was heading anywhere.
Immediately you get a sense of just how far out print publications work.
This was January and she was telling me that she had a few spots for an article in November or December.
Still, I knew it took time to get a trip sorted and all the details bedded down so I pitched a couple of local (Victorian) ideas to her.
The editor replied a few days later saying they had done quite a lot on Victoria lately, so if I had other suggestions she’d be keen to hear those.
I wanted to put feelers out about potential interstate trips so I contacted a tourism body in Queensland.
Contacting the tourism body
I already had been in touch with this tourism body about another story a few months earlier, so I reached out to them again to see if they would be interested in supporting/hosting me if I was commissioned.
I know lots of you are keen to see sample pitch letters to PRs and editors so I’ve included my parts of the correspondence below:
I hope you are well and have had a great start to the new year.
I just wanted to touch base with you - I've been in touch with [editor] at [publication] and she has a couple of openings for articles toward the end of this year.
I’d love to work with you on a story for them for the section of their magazine that highlights a chef and their restaurant, along with 12 - 15 of the chef’s favourite places to eat and drink.
I'd like to pitch [editor] a QLD idea, but I wanted to check in with you to see whether there were any new chefs on the scene who you thought would be great to anchor a 4 - 5 page spread (1400 words) around a particular food and wine town/destination.
If the story is commissioned, I wonder if we may be able to work together for airfares and on ground support?
I have attached a similar article I wrote for [magazine] a few months ago.
Thanks - happy to chat over the phone if that's easier,
I received a cautious reply saying that food and food tourism on its own was not currently a huge focus for them.
But, the PR went on to say that if we could unearth a chef, a producer, or someone with “a hearts and minds food-related story” that linked in with the tourism body’s content focus for the year (which was reef, island or beach destinations) then she’d be happy to work with me on getting an individual press trip and running.
The PR went on to say that with the Commonwealth Games coming up on the Gold Coast in April 2018, there may be a possibility to tap into the ‘undiscovered’ neighbourhoods of the Gold Coast.
Pitching the editor
At the very end of January 2017 I contacted the editor again.
Here’s part of my pitch:
I hope you had a lovely weekend.
I just wanted to touch base with you about an idea for a QLD article.
Gold Coast – Daniel Ridgeway of Little Truffle Dining Room (Mermaid Beach)
I think Daniel would be great for this section of the magazine because he has such a passion for food - he used to cook alongside his Thai aunty preparing banquets and he also helped in his family’s traditional pizza restaurant after school. He started work in his first professional kitchen when he was 14 years old and began his apprenticeship at 15. He has worked in London, Vancouver and Melbourne before settling on the Gold Coast. He owns Little Truffle Dining Room at Mermaid Beach, and a tapas bar, BIN 12 in Burleigh.
The Gold Coast has a reputation as very glitzy with little in the way of good food and drink offerings, but there is a burgeoning sense of ‘neighbourly-ness’ along the 57km strip and heaps of great new restaurants, cafes, food trucks and farmers’ markets are popping up in Mermaid Beach and Broadbeach. With the Commonwealth Games in April 2018, it might be a good time to explore the region?
[And just a note: if you’re after more article pitch examples you can grab a copy of my ‘10 successful pitches to magazines and newspapers’. It has pitches that were commissioned by The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, inflight magazines and more]
The reply from the editor
I’ll skip over numerous follow ups with the editor but it wasn’t until May that I received this email:
My sincere apologies for going so quiet on you. I'm keen to lock in a QLD story for the back end of this year. Can you tell me if you have travel plans yet so I can work out timings?
At this point I think Gold Coast could be a good angle – I think we'd be telling a foodie story people haven't necessarily heard yet, which is always good!
Do you think my reply hinted at my delight?
Thanks for your email - lovely to hear from you.
Please don't apologise for your silence - I know you've had heaps of things on!
That's great that you're interested in the Gold Coast angle. I haven't organised any travel yet, so am happy to be guided by you in terms of timing. Let me know what you're thinking?
The practicalities of freelance travel writing and organising the trip
The editor was looking to run a Queensland story in the November or December issue, so ideally she wanted the trip to take place by July with my article and shoot list for a photographer filed by the end of July.
It’s important to note that during the four months when I was following up with the editor, I was also keeping the PR in the loop.
I emailed the PR with the good news and while you may think it was pretty much all settled, she replied with something that gave me pause for thought.
She told me that she needed to schedule some time with her director to see what was available in their budget. Coming into the end of the financial year (EOFY), most of their funds had already been put into a planned activity, so she suggested that my trip may have to be something they arranged for early July.
The timing wasn’t something that I had considered in terms of EOFY, but it’s something that I’m definitely aware of now.
There were a lot (a LOT) of emails back and forth with the PR about what this story involved (usually 2-3 days to get around to all the venues and an opportunity to meet most if not all of the owners/chefs of the venues to be featured).
I also mentioned to the PR that I’d love to get a couple more articles from the trip, so it would be great if they were open to adding another night’s accommodation.
The PR got back to me:
If we can lock this in for the very start of July, that would be wonderful, and we could definitely support. We can cover flights, three nights accommodation, meals and car hire.
So, by this time it’s May.
At this stage I confirmed with the editor that I’d be travelling in early July and I could file the article by the end of that month. She was happy with that and commissioned the story.
I’ll save you all the back and forth correspondence, but between May and July I had numerous conversations with the PR about the kind of information from the chef that I needed (given the majority of places were going to be his recommendations of where to eat and drink on the Gold Coast).
I prepared a document, which I sent to the PRs detailing the kind of information I was after (new restaurant openings, cool hole-in-the-walls, food trucks breweries, cafes, best places for coffee, bakeries and so forth).
I then had an hour long conversation with the chef over the phone and he gave me his thoughts about all the best places to eat and drink. I passed on the list to the PRs and they came up with an itinerary for me.
I know this sounds very straightforward, but there was hours and hours spent on this part.
I received a draft itinerary at the end of June and the final itinerary the day before I travelled.
This isn’t that unusual to receive your itinerary so late in the process. And while I know that it makes travel writers incredibly nervous, I can understand the logistics from a PR perspective. Just imagine the difficulty of pulling together a trip where I visited 21 different cafes, restaurants, bars and met each of the owners/chefs over four days.
I travelled in early July 2017 and filed the story (and the shot list for the photographer) in late July.
I won’t spend much time on the itinerary here, but this should give you a sense of the break-neck speed of most press trips, regardless of if they are individual or group famils.
My plane landed at 11.20am on the first day and by 12 noon I had picked up a hire car and driven 20 minutes to meet my first interviewee. The schedule continued at that pace for the four full days, but I did get into the swing of it. The days were long too (7am - 10.30pm).
As I mentioned earlier, I was super keen to get more stories out of this trip than just the one that had been commissioned, so I was also thinking all the time about other possible articles I could pitch.
Gabi Logan from the wonderful Travel Magazine Database (affiliate link) has great advice about preparing a cheat sheet of particular sections in publications that you can easily pitch to for travel stories.
For instance, one print magazine that I had written for a couple of times has a ‘neighbourhood’ section so I was mindful that when I visited each venue I would also ask the owners if there were other great places to eat, drink or shop in the area to get a feel for whether there was another angle and story there.
For this trip, I aimed to get one story out of each day that I was away.
I figured that’s the only way I could make travel writing work for me.
Since this trip, I’ve realised that’s not always possible - at the recent Australian Society of Travel Writers conference I heard an award-winning travel writer say she tried to get one story for every two days she was away.
That seems a bit more do-able.
But I was so determined to show my work and build a strong relationship with this tourism body that I really pitched my little heart out.
At every step I kept the PR informed about what I had pitched, what had been commissioned and when I was expecting the articles to be published.
I now have a wonderful relationship with that PR and the tourism body, and they have supported me since. They even recommended me to a regional tourism body in Queensland and I went on two famils off the back of that recommendation.
So I think it’s important to take the long view and not just think about your travel writing trip as a once-off.
It’s really an opportunity for you to build relationships with the people you meet and with the people who are hosting you.
I ended up getting four articles out of my trip. Six if you include short front of book piees that came about more than 12 months after my famil.
I had so much material after spending half an hour to an hour with each of the chefs or venue owners that I wanted to pitch their stories too.
I also had a piece published about Mick Fanning’s new brewery on an online travel site and I loved the story behind the two sisters who opened a unique gelateria so I pitched and wrote an article about them too for a beautiful print magazine called Peppermint.
And lastly, remember I asked for an extra night’s accommodation? Well, once I had done the bulk of meeting and greeting for the original article, I headed to Summer Land Camel Farm, the biggest camel farm in Australia where they produce all kinds of culinary delights made from camel’s milk (and meat).
I wrote this article for an inflight magazine and later the editor emailed me to say it was one of her favourite stories ever. I think what she loved about it was that it was a quirky idea and the images (which obviously I didn’t take!) are just incredible.
So there you go.
A potted history of one hosted travel trip and what it took to get there.
A brief history of a travel article
Have you done any freelance travel writing? I realise that this post is a quick summary, so feel free to ask any questions you may have.