To Comp or Not to Comp? Travel Pros Debate, Part 1

Today I’d like to introduce a conversation between two far-flung colleagues about the role that comps play in the travel industry. We’re using the term “comp” — noun, verb, and adjective — to cover press trips/junkets, free or discounted meals and accommodations…anything that gets travel writers and editors a rate that’s different from that of the general traveling public.

In Part 1, I posed the questions and followed up on the answers. In Part 2, my esteemed colleague will get the last word.

We also plan to ask a few PR professionals to get involved in the discussion. Stay tuned. It should be interesting.

The Players

James Durston is a UK-born writer, managing editor, and journalist of 15 years. He has spent much of the last decade traveling through Asia and is now settled in Hong Kong. He has been producing travel content for CNN Travel and other high profile online publications for a decade.

In the first part of this multi-part post, James shares his insights as an editor who has assigned articles both under a junket ban, and without.  Having spent a few weeks in the freelancer’s chair he is now back in an editor’s role launching Cathay Pacific’s inflight mags online. He runs his Travel. Write. Earn blog on random weekends and recently published an e-book: How To Pitch Travel Stories: An Editor’s Advice

Brooklyn-born Edie Jarolim spent some 25 years in travel publishing, first as an in-house guidebook editor at Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) and Fodor’s (Random House) in New York and at Rough Guides in London. As a freelancer in Tucson, she wrote three guidebooks and contributed travel articles to a variety of newspapers and magazines, some fairly hoo-hah; her short stint as the Food and Travel editor of the Arizona Daily Star has been expunged from her resume but is relevant to this discussion. She writes about being on both sides of the travel editor’s desk in her new memoir, Getting Naked For Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. James ran an excerpt from it — Horrible Editors: Recall and Regret — on his blog.

She has completely gone over to labor side of the labor-management divide, taking the freelance writer’s position in the ensuing discussion.

Q & A

What was the policy at the publications you worked for as an editor with respect to comps? Did you follow it strictly? Try to get around it? Why?

JD: At CNN there was an explicitly stated rule in the writer guidelines that absolutely forbade any kind of comp or junket. So the official line was that freebies, in return for coverage, were the Devil’s work. The reality of trying to produce high-value travel content on a daily basis meant our working practices were more lenient.

On one hand, there was a kind of “what we don’t know we can’t complain about” line of thought, so having told new freelancers what the rules were at initial engagement, I wouldn’t bring the topic up again. In other cases, I was given quite obvious leeway to ignore or at least flex this rule as far as required in order to hit targets. One example was a series of “Elite Escapes” — 15 articles on the world’s most luxurious travel experiences. Obviously no freelancer is going to pay up the thousands of dollars needed to swim with whales, say, in return for a $300 or $400 fee. And CNN isn’t going to stump up the costs either. So if we wanted to run that series, which we did because it was a sponsored series, we had to flex this rule.

We had a constant battle to try to get rid of this policy. It was just a rod for our backs and while we could see the reasoning, the practicalities, for us at least, outweighed the corporate moralism.

EJ: I just looked back at some of my contracts for writing/updating guidebooks. Comps are not explicitly forbidden but one clause reads, “You shall not solicit and/or accept any compensation from any third parties in exchange for promises to include and/or exclude any material from the Work, or in exchange for unduly favorable reviews of establishments and offering.”

What that’s describing is bribery – not taking freebies for research purposes. Along with this contract for the book, I got a letter of assignment from the publisher that reads: “This letter introduces Edie Jarolim, who is researching and writing [X travel guide]. We appreciate an assistance you may be able to extend to her.”

For “assistance” (wink, nod), read comps.

I’ve read interviews where guidebook editors/publishers denied that their writers took comps. This was simply not true in the case of the companies I worked for.

At the relatively small newspaper at which I was briefly employed, the policy was no comps, period. But there were no contracts for writers of original pieces to sign; I didn’t ask whether the writers had taken comps and they didn’t volunteer that information. I also pulled lots of stories for my travel section off news wires. In those cases, I had no idea whether the pieces were based on hosted travel – and I didn’t want to know.

You’ve worked at publications in several different countries. Are attitudes towards comps different in different places?

JD: I’ve heard publications in the States are real sticklers for this. You’re no doubt better placed than I am to comment on that. What I can say is in India, where I worked for three years, “extracurricular” payments are such an embedded part of the business culture there, people would look at you odd if you didn’t accept or ask for comps occasionally. People look on places like India and China as incorrigibly corrupt, but you have to realize they don’t see it as corruption. Backhanders and hidden fees are just how you do business. So something as tame as a junket for a travel mag is absolutely kosher.

The UK falls somewhere between India and the US I think. Certainly not as hardline about it as you Yanks, nor as liberal as the sub-continent, but dependent probably more on historical precedent. Even the BBC states in its writer guidelines that junkets can be allowed if there’s no other logistical way to get the story.

Hong Kong is harder to generalize for — more dependent on the provenance of the company I think. So CNN’s official policy is in line with many US publications, though the staff here are mostly non-American, which may be why the rules are occasionally bent.

EJ: In my experience, rules are bent all the time in the U.S., though we may profess more strictness here. As I said, they were definitely flexible at the guidebook companies and newspaper where I was an editor. Mostly the “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” was in effect, but sometimes the policy for taking comps was out front; one high-end magazine for which I wrote regularly paid my expenses if necessary but preferred to send me on press trips.

Related to that: Do you think the attitude towards comps depends on the type of publication, even within genres – e.g., Lonely Planet and Rough Guides vs Fodor’s and Frommer’s or a tell-it-like it is blog vs. one that’s fluffier?

JD:  You can certainly understand why functional, review-based publications would have a different stance to inspiration-oriented platforms — there’s a distinctly different business proposition being offered by each side, a different takeaway for the reader. And that’s really what the whole comp debate boils down to: if you accept or publish a comp, who are you serving by doing so? If the answer is the reader, then there should be no real problem. If the answer is anyone else (advertisers, compers, yourself) then there possibly is a problem. The surest way to get around the murkiness is to be transparent. If a feature is based on or includes comped or discounted experiences, then say so. The reader must be made aware of any potential conflicts of interest.

That said, I don’t believe in treating readers like idiots — not all, anyway — and we must assume some common sense on their part. So we should assume that someone who picks up a glossy inspiration-oriented magazine knows what they’re getting, that the content is “pre-curated,” i.e., it is by default going to exclude anywhere that’s crap, that there will be agreements between the publisher and places reviewed regarding costs, and that in a magazine like this, it doesn’t matter that much. On the other side, for a Lonely Planet reader, they can also probably assume a certain level of pre-curation, but they will also be expecting highly accurate information on which they will base many of their travel decisions. So there’s a greater onus here to be accurate, objective and verifiable.

EJ: Your definition in the first part of your answer about “who does it serve” is probably the best I’ve heard as a summation of the comps discussion. We’ll get to the question of how to provide transparency – “the reader must be aware of any potential conflicts of interest” – later.

But while readers may expect highly accurate information from guidebooks like Lonely Planet, they’re not always going to get it. For one thing, there’s simply no time for a guidebook writer to personally visit every place he or she recommends every time the book is updated – and some don’t try very hard. I know of two guidebook writers who didn’t bother going to many of the restaurants or hotels they listed. One didn’t want to go leave his hotel room in Scandinavia because it was too cold outside; another sat holed up in his room in Phoenix making phone calls while eating cold SpaghettiOs (not who you want recommending your restaurants in any case) because it was too hot.

The bottom line is the bottom line: Most guidebook writers simply don’t get paid enough to stay in the higher end places or eat in the better restaurants without getting comped and even Lonely Planet is no longer geared solely to backpackers these days. If you don’t experience a place first hand – preferably by staying there but at minimum by visiting — how are you going to review it accurately?

Let’s say a newspaper or magazine pays for everything – but the destination knows that the writer is from the New York Times, say. Don’t you think that he or she will be treated differently than the average Joe? And don’t we filter/censor ourselves anyway to cater to a publication, no matter who pays?

JD:  To your first question, I don’t imagine a NYT writer would be treated A LOT differently to a paying customer. I’m guessing if they are, it would be in circumstantial ways rather than anything that would be experience-changing. The NYT is not going to send a writer and pay his or her way to some shitty 2- or 3-star property or experience. These places will be curated already to fit the NYT tone and readership. They’re inevitably going to be pretty decent experiences. And also, again something I touched on above, we have to look beyond the first layer of these interactions. Given how savvy hospitality and travel companies are these days, would it really be in their favor to go above and beyond for a single someone who’s going to write a review in a top-flight publication?

I’m an AirBnB host, and while I provide nice touches like free Nespresso pods, snacks, wine etc to guests, I’d really prefer they didn’t write about that in their reviews, in case I forget or don’t have time for a subsequent guest and their expectations aren’t reached. Similarly it wouldn’t make sense for a hotel to bring out all the bells, whistles and frills to a writer if they weren’t going to replicate that for all guests anyway.

To your second point — filtering/censoring ourselves depending on the client — I can’t say I ever have. As long as you think of yourself as a journalist rather than a “travel writer,” most of your dilemmas will be resolved.

EJ: Well, that’s a good theory, i.e., don’t be nicer to the NYT reporter than to your regular customers. I don’t buy that it happens in practice. Sure, high end hotels are going to try to treat all their clients well, but service in a place that may be spotty for your typical hotel guest is going to be really, really good for the journalist at a large circulation newspaper unless that person goes incognito. And that doesn’t often happen.

And, really, how many of us get free reign to write what we like as “journalists”? I’ll use the example of a women’s magazine that sent me to a nudist resort – the assignment that gave my memoir its name. All my expenses were covered, and the editor claimed she wanted an honest report on my experience, but I knew that she didn’t really want to hear about my naked friend and me drinking gin and tonics poolside at 10am with a nude Walmart manager who talked about shaving his scrotum. This is no doubt a gender issue too. You might be able to get away with gonzo journalism for the publications you write for. But Maxim, say, doesn’t tend to send women out on assignments – especially those over 40.

By the way, I was thinking of doing an AirBnB – I advertise my guest house on Craigslist –but you’ve made it clear I’m not classy enough for that business. Nespresso pods and wine indeed!

How do you think we should resolve the issue of comps? Full disclosure of who hosted the trip? Can you think of any examples of places that tried to do it well?

JD: The single greatest resolution would be for all publications everywhere to pay expenses for every feature they commission, i.e., eradicate the need for comps and thereby eradicate conflicts of interest. That ain’t going to happen, so the question really is whose responsibility is it to try to resolve this? If we take publishers out of the question (due to their commercial interests) that leaves the writers and the compers. 

EJ: Should we take publishers out of the question? I just saw on a forum that Travel & Leisure has started to cop to taking sponsored travel. Spotted in the April 2016 issue: “Stories in this issue were produced with assistance from the Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism Board and Tuckamore Lodge.” And in the latest: Content in this issue was produced with assistance from Imperial Tours, North Star Cruises, Ponant, Sofitel and WhaleSwim Adventures.”

About damn time.

***

For Part 2, see Travel. Write. Earn.

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About the Author

ejarolim@mac.com'
Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. dan@danleeth.com' Dan Leeth says:

    The argument has always been that if the destination is paying for the travel writer’s stay, the experience will be enhanced. Sometimes it is.

    I’ve occasionally been bumped up to club level quarters and presidential suites, and I almost always find a bottle of wine or some other welcome gift waiting in my room. I’ve also been handed bottom-of-the-line rooms with murphy beds, beach resort rooms with Dumpster, not ocean views, and I can’t tell you how many times housekeepers have failed to clean my quarters because it shows on their records as a non-revenue sale. A decent travel writer learns to separate the fluff from the usual and report the truth.

    Years ago, I went on a comped, around-the-world cruise. The itinerary and the crew were delightful, but the vessel, a 1944 Army troop ship which previously served as floating accommodations at the Lisbon world’s fair, was a well past it’s prime. Heating and air conditioning barely worked, pipes leaked, beds sagged, paint peeled, upholstery bore holes and the carpet was totally worn through.

    Another writer onboard sent back glowing reports about how great everything was going, never once mentioning the ship’s deteriorated condition. When I asked why, he said because, “I want to be invited back.” I took a different approach, which you can see at http://www.lookingfortheworld.com/…/girdingpart1.html.

    I’d love it if I could travel totally non-comped, but my parents didn’t hand me a trust fund and the pay provided by most publications would barely buy the beer. Over the years, I’ve had 51 articles published in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, and the most I received for any of them was $165. That’s hardly enough to cover a week’s stay at the Jamaican all-inclusive resort (http://www.lookingfortheworld.com/caribbean/midlife/midlife.html) Edie tried to run during her brief time as travel editor at the Star.

  2. Marcia@pwta.com' Marcia Frost says:

    I don’t see it as a question. Writers should be expected to earn a living and, as mentioned, you can’t spend thousands for a story you are making $300 on. You just must keep your integrity. I always tell everyone in advance that (for comps) they will get the publicity if I like the place. If I don’t, you’ll get a letter explaining why I didn’t.

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