The business case for blog trips: a bloggers’ dilemma

Last night’s debate in London, organised by FourBGB and TravelBloggersUnite, brought together bloggers and travel companies and (as far as I am aware) set a precedent in this respect. Both sides listened attentively and I think most in the room would agree that not enough is known about what one side might want or need from the other. Hopefully similar events in the future will eventually help address this.

Travel companies and tourism organisations often talk about the ROI (return on investment) associated with working with bloggers. Those who have invited bloggers on hosted trips will often go to great lengths to argue the merits of the returns that their organisation has enjoyed as a result of their efforts. Others cite their concerns about not getting a measurable ROI as a reason not to get involved with bloggers in the first place.

But what about the bloggers themselves? Shouldn’t they also be considering their ROI when weighing up the offer of a trip? If it is not to be taken as a free jolly then surely it should make financial sense to both sides. This is something I’m struggling to comprehend despite being involved in this murky world for over two years.

Let’s look at it from the blogger’s side. We’ll assume for now that bloggers are not reimbursed with hard cash for attending a blog trip (another topic for debate but let’s leave that aside here).

With no ability to raise an invoice for the time spent on a trip the return for the blogger must be realised in increased revenue from elsewhere. There is a cost in taking a week away from potential money-generating activities at home to spend that time doing whatever fabulous activities are on offer on a trip. If a blog is being managed as a serious business then a blogger must consider their time as one of their most precious resources;  for any trip to be financially viable there should be a measurable return on the time invested in the trip.

Can a blogger point to a trip and claim increased ad revenues, higher levels of affiliate sales, more lucrative sponsored posts or greater sales of e-books as a result of their trip? Perhaps blogging photographers have an opportunity to sell their work from such trips and reap a financial return. I’m yet to be convinced that anyone can show a return on a trip that makes attendance on that trip a sound business decision, but I willingly stand to be corrected.

So if it’s not for the money then what’s the point? Well of course there are many good reasons for taking a blog trip; most trips combine great destinations with once-in-a-lifetime activities while the hotels and culinary treats on offer are completely out of reach on a self-funded trip. For many it’s also the chance to hang out with friends they’ve met online or on previous trips.

There is clearly an ROI on a blog trip for bloggers in terms of the experience at least. And that’s no small return; a life of fulfillment surely involves a rich variety of experiences. But for those who are trying to make a living from their blog and for those who see the main thrust of their relationship with the travel industry as one of trying to secure funded travel, I’ve yet to see the viability of such a business model.

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29 Responses to “The business case for blog trips: a bloggers’ dilemma”

  1. Matt #

    Interesting approach to the subject. I suppose a press trip really becomes a vacation/time off work when there is no time to write and limited WiFi. This is probably inevitable with some destinations that would be traveled to solo, though on a press trip it’s getting funded – so, I suppose ‘free’ content is the return.

    -sent from an iPhone with a broken screen, please excuse
    any typos :)

    July 22, 2011 at 8:47 am
  2. It goes back to the elephant in the room – that most bloggers don’t make anything like significant money from their blog. Until they do, it’s really a hobby not a business. And while I’m sure PR agencies see the value in getting coverage on said blogs, they’re hardly likely to pay bloggers to come on the trip. And neither should they have to.

    I see the future business model being one of bloggers being bought up/ hired by companies to write on their website. (ie. Company X buys 501places or Grumpytraveller and pays to have Andy/ me write it under that brand on Company X’s site). It doesn’t matter whether that company is AOL, the Times, Thomas Cook or Buymyflightandhotel.com.

    Then, when the blog brings in a steady stream of income, there’s the imperative to go out, travel and update with consistently good copy – the sort that can be got from a blog trip.

    July 22, 2011 at 11:53 am
  3. Andy Jarosz #

    Thanks Matt for sharing your thoughts. I guess that’s my point – if ‘free’ content is considered a fair exchange for going on a trip then where is the business? I know it’s not very exciting to discuss but eventually people have bills to pay, mortgages to fund and, dare I say it, holidays to save up for. Or maybe us old-timers are not the type of people the blog trip model is suited for… keen to hear more; always a good topic.

    July 22, 2011 at 11:54 am
  4. Hi Andy – It is so great that you keep bringing up these conversations that most in the industry keep wanting to avoid, ignore or lose in the jet stream! While I have no suggestions to offer I do appreciate the conversation. Thanks for helping to enlighten me and helping me understand what I need to pay attention to as I move forward.

    July 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm
  5. I’m far from an expert in this, but aren’t you underplaying the experiential angle, Andy? For a travel blogger to rise above the status of glorified postcard-jotter and be taken seriously, they need to be able to demonstrate knowledge of (i.e. write about) lots of places and lots of stuff. They need to know a bit about how the travel industry works. They need to be able to see both (all?) sides of tourism. They need to view destinations not as holidaymakers, but as ‘professional’ travellers who have something to say.

    And they need to be able to compare different kinds of travel. Paid-for, as against self-funded, is a viable and very widely practised form of travel, most notably by business people on expenses. A paid-for press trip could be a goldmine for gathering important insight and writing very carefully targeted posts – if bloggers kept their eyes open, their brain engaged and asked questions, that is. Rather like journalists do, in fact.

    I’d like to see more bloggers use their trip experience to better effect, shaping the resulting material more thoughtfully. All anybody ever seems to write is first-person I-did-this-isn’t-it-great stuff. Very boring. And, ultimately, does their hosts no favours, merely adding to the general travel noise online.

    Does this happen because most travel bloggers aren’t journalists, and lots of them don’t even really know how to write? Well, who can say?

    It’s time travel bloggers began to see the travel industry more as ‘professional’ travel writers do – not as a source of limitless freebies and junkets, to be exploited whenever the opportunity arises, but as a means to an end… that end being, ultimately, contributing to greater global understanding (while also putting bread on the table). Newspapers don’t print general “I went here” destination pieces for a reason: they don’t generate bookings, and therefore don’t please advertisers. Hooks generate bookings, especially timely ones. Angles generate bookings. They also make for interesting reading – and, therefore, in an online context, increased exposure.

    Bloggers who get invited on trips should be doing more interesting stuff with their (invaluable!) primary source material. They should be learning how to see, and how to write, more like journalists. That way ROI lies.

    July 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm
    • Andy Jarosz #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Matthew. I guess what we’re really crying out for is professionalism on all sides. Bloggers should take their writing seriously and trip organisers (as Jack suggests below) to provide an itinerary that will give the bloggers the type of material from which they can derive some benefit.
      However, do all bloggers want to write like journalists or are some more focussed on honing their SEO skills so that each post is as attractive as possible to their advertiser clients? Undoubtedly. Can a post succeed in that regard with the ‘I did this, I did that’ format? Yes it can – it might not appeal to you or me but we’re not the intended audience. Does the trip sponsor care? Not if their metrics have been met (all of which are typically focussed on quantity and not quality of output).

      To reiterate my initial point, it falls upon each blogger to know his business model, know who his clients are and are likely to be, and to produce the content that will sell (as David says) to whoever it is who will pay, whether it is a travel co, a publication or sponsors. And it’s up to the blogger to decide if his time spent taking the trip and writing it up is justified by the returns from those efforts.

      July 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm
    • You don’t need to “write like a journalist” to write a good blog

      July 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm
  6. That should make you popular, Matthew :)

    Agreed though. If you’re not making money from the content you write, then you should be looking at the sort of content that will make money – that involves plenty of useful information as well as I Did This tedium.

    July 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm
  7. Interesting! ROI is constantly being measured in my day job as a marketeer in the pharmaceutical industry, but where blogging and trips are concerned, it’s true there is not clear cut black and white. However, if enough people are singing the same song about a destination/hotel etc, then surely people who value their opinion will buy into the story? But, yeah, it’s not the be all and end all for either party if you ask me – because in the long run, either side might eventually get burnt.

    July 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm
  8. Andy, I’ve looked at the issue of press trips for travel bloggers in my post “Where are travel bloggers heading beyond the next free trip?”
    http://www.europealacarte.co.uk/blog/2011/03/29/blogging-business/

    As a full time travel blog editor, I appreciate press trips as way of getting content for the Blog. However I have to carefully consider if I can afford the time to go on a press trip. There’s also the issue of all the other travel bloggers on trip writing about virtually the same thing, which, isn’t very interesting for readers. The argument that a good writer can put their own spin on things is always trotted out but I’ve seen very similar posts on many blogs after press trips.

    I’d rather concentrate on making more money from my Blog and then I can pay for my own trips to destinations I want to visit and choose what I do there, versus the packed, set itinerary of a press trip.

    July 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm
  9. I don’t wish to participate in the discussion – it has been discussed until the cows come home, but, I think Travel BlogCamp was one of the first (if not the first?) to bring bloggers and travel companies together in 2008 :)

    July 22, 2011 at 4:39 pm
    • Andy Jarosz #

      Very true Darren – and TBC has been a pioneer in bringing the two together. I think the format yesterday, a small group of bloggers and travel cos. was different (no speakers but a debate between panelists and audience) and one that brought out many interesting viewpoints. Looking forward to TBC this year again :-)

      July 22, 2011 at 6:40 pm
  10. I both agree and disagree with a lot of the comments here, sometimes within the same comment :)

    I’ve heard the question of payments to bloggers on trips before and personally don’t agree with the idea. The material is the payment and blog trips can provide lots of it; some which can be stored and used as and when it benefits the blogger. Problem is there can be pressure to see blogs/articles online immediately and that clearly leads to duplication and even the potential lack of quality in the short term. But for web writing does the duplication matter? Six months down the line, punters won’t know a host of similar posts came out at the same time

    An issue regarding ROI is that the trip organiser has to have a clear and quantifiable idea of what their objectives are; this isn’t always the case. If the trip organiser doesn’t set objectives, then bloggers can’t achieve them.

    As far as privately organised trips are concerned, they can add value and credibility to travel company’s blogs, most of which still read like churned out copy and are riddled with misinformation. But there’s definitely the potential for a win-win situation in that relationship.

    Matthew’s comments about ‘professional’ travel writers made me smile. I more or less gave up on travel sections a few years ago after they became filled with lists written by staffers, celebrity ‘what I did on holiday’ reports and reviews of hotels that most holidaymakers couldn’t afford to stay in.

    Ultimately isn’t it the case that to be of value to the mainstream tourist industry, whether you’re a travel writer or blogger, you should be writing articles that are of interest to mainstream tourists?

    July 22, 2011 at 6:36 pm
  11. I wonder why know one has this discussion about print advertising.

    I’ve talked to many hotel managers who told me of 5 and 6 figure ad buys that generated sales they could count on their hands. Print has a click through rate of zero. No one is questioning the ROI of the biggest part of their marketing budget.

    A newspaper or magazine can tout a large subscriber base, but has no clue how many people will actually read a given article, let alone act on it. The vast majority of people do not buy newspapers for the travel section. They do it for crossword puzzles, sports, news and page 3 boobie photos.

    No one is asking questions about the ROI for the millions of dollars that keeps getting shoveled into traditional media, because they are used to doing it.

    In the big scheme of things, working with a blogger is peanuts compared to an ad buy in a major newspaper, magazine or television. It is almost an rounding error compared to what else is being spent and wasted.

    In many cases companies probably shouldn’t work with bloggers, but that really is picking nits compared to the giant elephant in the room.

    July 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm
    • pam #

      This is quite a broad set of statements; I’d love to see an industry response. I also suspect that the increasing lightness of travel mags is a direct result of advertisers questioning that ROI and pulling their ads.T+L and CN Traveler have been looking decidedly slimmer over the past five years….and we all know there’s no shortage of potential contributors.

      July 23, 2011 at 9:51 am
  12. pam #

    Matthew, David, Andy, I really enjoy reading what you have to say about the industry. Always, even when I may not agree.

    I’m EXTREMELY wary of the idea of being paid to participate in a trip with the product being that I write work for my own blog. This is VERY different than being paid by the host to participate in a trip and then, write for THEIR blog, something I did earlier this year. I also wrote about the trip on my blog, indeed, my client hoped I would, but they had nothing to say about that content, it was mine.

    Some time back I put the brakes on negotiations about “wrapping” my blog in a brand because early on in the conversation I realized it would confuse my readers about who was responsible for the content. I’m not sure I’d go for the “buy my blog” model I think David is suggesting above. I would happily be hired to be a regular contributor/columnist/some third out of date metaphor for a corporate entity to write travel content, though.If they’d pay me enough for internet and groceries, that is.

    Forgive me for the me me me that’s about to follow. My blog has worked quite well as a portfolio of my work, giving me speaking opportunities (some day they’ll pay,right?), paid writing gigs, and really insane travel possibilities. I use those to write as best I can about places in ways that I hope transcend the “I went here and did this” crap that we all love to hate.

    I’d LOVE a cash ROI, sure. I’ll ultimately make only a tiny bit of money on my Antarctica trip, but also, I GOT TO SEE PENGUINS. What’s the ROI on singing with penguins while watching the icebergs reshape themselves? Immeasurable.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:04 pm
    • Andy Jarosz #

      I think we’re very much on the same lines Pam. I much prefer to make my living writing on other people’s blogs and leave this one as my own (although if that ‘buy my blog’ offer came along that was too good to refuse…)
      Ok, back to reality. No disputing the point that Gary makes and makes well – advertisers are still failing to see the potential value of a highly targeted audience and are preferring to stick to the tried and tested methods, even if those have never actually been tested in any sensible way.
      My post is more pointed at the bloggers than the advertisers. When do economics of a trip stack up in your favour, and if they never do (as some suggest) do trips then have only an experiential value?

      I prefer to travel with my wife and to travel on our own terms. The attraction of taking a week away from home therefore has to be more than just a very cool itinerary, when I could be at home writing about far less exciting things but making the money to take the two of us something we choose together. That’s why blog trips don’t work for me, but that’s an entirely personal perspective.

      July 23, 2011 at 7:51 am
    • I’m not advocating paying bloggers for trips, but I would like to point out something…

      With a traditional magazine, the editorial and advertising is separate. There is no question of paying a writer because someone else is paying them with revenue earned from the other side of the company which might be selling ads space to the very people who are providing the trips.

      The problem with blogs is that there is no other side. No one is buying ads. They only think in terms of “earned media” and no one is thinking to pay blogs anything for their audience.

      This issue of paying bloggers is coming up because no one is willing buy advertising or have any other sort of relationship with them other than dealing with them as a source of free publicity. That isn’t how the print media world works.

      Much of the interaction with bloggers is happening through the world of PR which isn’t used to paying for anything. Ad agencies did that. PR is supposed to get exposure for free.

      So, while I’m not advocating bloggers get paid for trips, I do understand why people at talking about it. It is our primary contact with the industry.

      Bloggers do need to be VERY firm about working with DMO’s and companies for free. I’ve recently seen a ton of posts promoting San Antonio tourism. They contacted me but weren’t willing to pay anything for my promotion. I turned them down and a few weeks later I see a ton of bloggers giving them free advertising by running their contest.

      July 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm
  13. Great discussion Andy! I think for many bloggers, it’s as much about the experience as it is the trip. However, as Karen stated, for those whose blog is a business for which they make a living, these questions must be asked. Is ROI measured in terms of money or experience. I guess that depends on where you are with blogging.

    Jokingly, I was talking with my wife last night about how much I have made this year (not a lot) and while it’s a nice little supplement to my job, I never, ever want to look at what I actually make per hour. I think I would cry. I like the idea of press trips but I know for me it’s not about the money right now and I am honest with that. Heck, I am not a serious enough blogger yet (business wise, not passion or effort wise) to make enough money to consider ROI.

    However, to expand on what Gary said – I think he actually makes the case for bloggers in his argument. Unlike print media, we actually know how many people actually see what we write online. We can see how many people shared it and liked it and can even point people to fan pages of businesses. Those who follow and read online tend to be much more loyal and more likely to tell a business where they heard about them. So while most people aren’t big enough to get their product in front of as many people as print media, we definitely have a better idea of who is reading than they do.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:39 pm
  14. I don’t think I can say it much better than everyone else has. I really agree with Jeremy — and am in the same boat. I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with blogging (in fact, I work in print media), so my travel blog is just a hobby that makes me a tiny bit of extra money. I’ve never even been invited on a press trip, so, for me, this is a moot point. I would love to try out a press trip, and see after that what my opinions are on the positives/negatives.

    But, until then, I’ll add something to Gary’s comment — he’s totally right that nobody questions the millions (okay, probably billions) of dollars of advertising that’s poured into magazines and newspapers each year. And, let’s be honest — don’t most people flip right past those full-page hotel or destination ads? With a travel blog, though, the majority of the people coming across it are actually seeking out that information, will read it, and are more likely to be influenced by it.

    Unfortunately, most advertisers haven’t grasped this yet.

    July 23, 2011 at 7:15 am
  15. really interesting conversation about what has now turned into the “age old question.”

    July 23, 2011 at 7:20 am
  16. Excellent article, Andy. I take fewer ad fewer press trips. The only time I accept one is when it is to a place I WANT to go. Any other offer will take me off my schedule and basically cost me money and time, especially since the PR firms and CVB’s that arrange them want to cram every second with activity. When that happens, I can’t write, much less develop story ideas, and it takes me a couple of weeks to recover. I’ve started making some rules – no one night stays to begin with, and at least 25% of the time unscheduled.

    July 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm
  17. Very thoughtful post. I have not yet been in a position to think about the ROI of a hosted trip, but I will definitely think back on this post when I am.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:43 am
  18. Andy, you really raised a great point and I’ve read lots of additional interesting inputs.
    Before becoming a ‘Travel Blogger’ (as English is not my native speaking language I would never dare calling myself a ‘Writer’, seriously) I worked for many years in a large multinational PR firm. Indeed, ROI is not an issue. It is THE issue. And measurement tools are still far to be precise.
    Each one of the parties involved is implicitly thinking at ROI. No matter if Investment stands for money or time.

    I really appreciated you raising the point of Travel Bloggers/Writers thinking about their personal ROI. I might be wrong, but my feeling is that too often Travel Bloggers/Writers are not really focusing on that point before deciding if they will accept or not an invitation to a Blog Trip.
    As long as Travel Bloggers/Writers won’t be fully aware of their value, they won’t be able to get it fully recognized by PR agencies, Tourism Boards or whoever.

    Last but not least, it’s all a matter of positioning. In a professional environment, ‘free’ is never an option. I know, and I’m sorry, that this might sound cynical. But truth is that what comes for free, or just ‘pocket money’, isn’t worth that much.

    In the long term, only win-win situation can lead to really effective and measurable results. For all the parties involved.

    July 24, 2011 at 9:16 am
  19. Kat #

    It is an interesting dilemma, and it needs to come to the forefront more often. I see the other side of it — locations that aren’t interested in coverage I might provide because the word “blogger” is listed in my job description, despite the fact that most of my paychecks come from traditional publishing houses.

    Then again, my model is a little different. I have a two-prong approach — selling article ideas up, writing them and then posting them to my blog (magazines and newspapers receive first print and web rights only) or having a publisher contact me and purchasing an article from my website I approach blogging as a full time business, and while I appreciate the locations that are willing to put me up for a few nights here and there I have to justify being in that area with article sales ahead of that particular trip.

    As far as accepting payment for attending a “blogger trip?” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. I guess it’s the old school journalist in me (I was in TV for 12 years and radio for 4 years before this particular journey in life) and that just sounds like purchasing influence. I would suggest in any case like this that the requesting property or business purchase advertising on my website, but said company would have no editorial say in what I write.

    And that, I see, is a problem for others. Yes, the blogosphere has allowed those with a penchant for writing who might lack a journalistic background to have their voices heard far and wide, but how do you separate the wheat from the chaff of truth in said blogs? On any particular search of a location, property or such — how is one to know whether the blog put out in the ether is written by a professional, be it a journalist or writer or blogger — or whether it’s put out there by someone handling advertising or public relations for the company represented in said article?

    We walk a thin and mostly undefined line here. In a world where most of our potential employers (I am referring to bloggers who are paid for their work by a separate entity) never see us face to face, all we have to back us up is our name and experience. I fear if we muddy the editorial waters with pay from destinations, we erode our credibility.

    August 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm
    • Andy Jarosz #

      Hi Kat, thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts. Re: payment for blog trips, I think we should differentiate between those trips where organisers want trip attendees to produce content for the travel company/tourist board blog (payment ok as it’s fundamentally no different from traditional journalist model) and those where content is to be produced for blogger’s own site (not ok). Most arrangement work along the latter model, but it’s not always the case.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm

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