"If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."
— Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz
We were recently invited to sit in on a friend's travel writing seminar. He began with a warning to the audience: "Stop! Get out while there's still time — that is, unless you already have a good retirement income or you're a trust-fund baby."
Acquaintances tell us what a thrilling career we've chosen, that they, too, love to travel, can write well and have taken some nice shots with their digital cameras. They want to know how to make money by writing about their travels.
As all professional travel writers and photographers know, although our jobs may appear to be glamorous, they're not all fun and games. By now, we've developed a standard response for these well meaning folks. We explain that freelance travel writing boils down to about 20 percent travel. The other 80 percent of our time is spent writing and editing, scanning and filing photos, attending to a plethora of administrative details, developing relationships with editors (a revolving door) and relentlessly hustling to sell ourselves to new markets in an ever-changing industry.
Even when offered trips that are subsidized by various tourism development agencies, cruise ships or airlines, we must stop, think and evaluate: Will the trip generate enough income to justify the time away from home? We believe that integrity is vital to our reputation, and we don't need to take a trip just for the sake of traveling. If we don't think we will be able to create stories and photos as a result of an invitation, we politely turn it down.
In the three years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the travel world has turned topsy-turvy. Fuel costs have skyrocketed, the economy took a nosedive, a few major airlines have disappeared and several others are struggling to survive. Many international destinations have slashed their advertising and PR budgets.
Today, our niche market is the western United States. Tightening our focus has helped our income and reduced our worldwide competition.
As a result, travel has become much more expensive. Newspaper travel sections, for the most part, have lost their integrity and become pretty boring as they print canned or staff-written features at minimal cost. Also, many newspapers now require photographers to sign contracts that gobble up all future rights in the universe, in exchange for a fraction of what they once paid. As these traditional travel markets decrease, however, new Internet opportunities are arising as writers create e-zines and pay sites.
At one point, before the Internet gained its electronic sales ability, photographers could count on a significant amount of income through stock sales. Today, that side of the business has deteriorated significantly as royalty-free CDs, stock agency procedures and pay scales have reduced income significantly. The percentage of images purchased that are not in digital databases is shrinking, so photographers should expect to spend lots of hours scanning old slides. On the up side, digital has made travel much easier. Because digital cameras are lighter in weight, lesser photos can be eliminated on the spot, and media cards can survive airport X-rays unscathed.
Travelers have changed too. Industry gurus claim that tourists in 2005 will discover and clamor for trendy destinations such as India, South Africa, Croatia, Libya and New Zealand. This may be true for adventurous and seasoned travelers, but we feel that the vast majority of Americans will continue to seek out destinations perceived as safe and comfortable. Mexican, Alaskan and Caribbean cruises from coastal ports are being booked more than ever, and despite high gasoline prices, automobile travel has regained popularity. The December tsunami tragedy in South Asia no doubt will have a negative impact on travel this year, as will the probable demise of two or more major airlines.
We've all noticed the near-disappearance of neighborhood travel agents. Just a few years ago, these folks not only were selling travel but also assembling and blending complex itineraries and modes of transportation. Then, along came the Internet and direct sales by the airlines and resorts, as well as a number of websites offering low-cost travel incentives. The travel agencies that are still alive have found their own specialized niches, such as cruises, corporate travel or working with small, exclusive tour operators.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? We think so. Travel writers and travel photographers of the world, it's time to refocus our talents, reinvent ourselves and rethink our relationships.
There's an old piece of advice for "wannabe" travel writers: Start by writing about where you live, because it's cheap and easy to do the research. That includes your city, your state and the local events of interest. Get to know the folks at your local tourism agency and attend their functions. They are good conduits to travel industry buyers. Let them know you exist; you might create a new market for your skills.
In today's marketplace, we're continually marketing and reinventing ourselves, and keeping our eyes open for the next paradigm shift. Just a few years ago, our market was the world, but after Sept. 11, 2001, we needed to change to be able to pay the rent. How true it is that new and creative ideas often are the brainchild of necessity.
Today, our niche market is the western United States. Tightening our focus has helped our income and reduced our worldwide competition. In our case, we divide the labor: Bob looks at stories and photos from a historic viewpoint, and Gloria from the destination and event angle. It has worked well in that our niche is comfortable for travelers and located in a region that often has been overlooked in lieu of destinations that are considered sexier and more exotic.
Lots of travel pieces become more interesting when they're wrapped around the people who live there.
Looking in our own backyard, we've found good markets for soft adventure stories: a wagon train trip along the Oregon Trail; cruising on the Sea of Cortez with a marine biologist; a buffalo roundup in Custer, S.D. We've also found that travel is just as much about the people as it is about the destinations themselves. For example, Jerry Croft has become a good friend of ours. Jerry's a top-notch saddle maker in Deadwood, S.D. He makes saddles for Tom Selleck's movies, owns a buffalo ranch and is one hell of a fun and interesting guy. We've found that it's much easier to sell a feature on Jerry and Deadwood than it is to sell one on Deadwood itself, even though it's a delightful destination. Lots of travel pieces become more interesting when they're wrapped around the people who live there.
More and more possibilities present themselves as we spend more time getting to know our niche market. While covering the annual Governor's Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park, for instance, we seized the opportunity to meet and spend time with the folks who live and work in the historic town of Custer. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, story after story unfolded as we spent time listening to the yarns of the town's colorful and friendly residents.
We've learned to maintain good personal relationships with our clients and editors. That's not to say that we're in their faces, but as freelancers we have lots of ideas, stories and photos to sell, and none of them will see the light of day if we don't present them in a way that meets the needs of our regular editors and publications. Plus, we like to stay in touch with folks on a personal level and get to know them as people. Some of our relationships go back a dozen years or so, and are far more important to us than selling a photo or story. Trends change, styles change and so do reading habits. People are looking for faster, crisper and more tightly written pieces, with good photos. That's what we provide: the whole package.
Because Bob is always shooting images for stock photography, as well as to accompany our travel features, we've been selling photo rights to various tourism agencies. As often as not, the smaller agencies have no photographers on staff and constantly are seeking fresh, new images to represent their areas. Also, having our images appear in tourism brochures with large production runs doesn't hurt. Often, we develop new clients from credited images that we've sold to travel publications.
In this rapidly changing world, travel writers and photographers need to continually examine new ways to present themselves and market their skills. Many opportunities remain for those of us who refocus our talents, reinvent ourselves and rethink the value of creating meaningful and lasting relationships.