Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Grantourismo: a business model for travel journalism?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 14, 2011

Alright for some. Image credit: Sarah_Ackerman on Flickr

[NOTE: Lara Dunston, mentioned below, has added some thoughts/corrections to this post & comments – click here to read]

Hold the plane! Someone might just have found a way to make travel journalism pay.

If so, it’s big news for wannabe travel writers the world over, pursuing that elusive dream: to travel the world and get paid to write about it. It’s an area of professional journalism that has declined in the digital age: cheap air travel combined with Flickr, blogs and Youtube, has removed the exclusivity (and therefore value) of being somewhere exotic. Meanwhile, struggling publications have found it harder to justify the flights, visas and travel costs for writers.

Last summer it certainly had a few of us stumped. I held a Future of News bootcamp on travel journalism back in July 2010, where we tried to come up with new approaches to the idea. We came close to something, I feel, focusing on creating a community around a location or travel niche, and selling ‘actionable’ products around our journalism.

But a couple from Australia have come up with another approach, which has been successful a lot more quickly.

The brainchild of writer and photographer duo Lara Dunston and Terence Carter, GranTourismo is a 12 month global journey around the world. According to the blurb on the official website:

They’ll be travelling slowly, living like locals, doing and learning things and giving something back at each destination they visit. Their mission is to explore more authentic ways of travelling and make travel more meaningful and more memorable.

How’s it being funded? Well, they’ve secured a ‘partnership’ with London based travel company HomeAway Holiday Rentals, who are paying for fees and expenses for the trip, and putting Lara and Terence up in their rental properties wherever they go. It’s probably one of the first times professional travel writers have been paid directly by a travel company.

Lara & Terence of GranTourismo

In an in-depth account on the tnooz blog, Lara describes how the idea came about:

Terence and I started developing Grantourismo a few years ago, as a personal travel experiment aimed at exploring more enriching ways to travel. The project grew out of frustrations with our work as travel writers, as much as with how we observed people travel, speeding through places ticking off sights…

…The question was which companies to approach to present our project. I was fine-tuning our proposal in July 2009 when I spotted HomeAway Holiday-Rentals’ advertisement on TravMedia calling for a writer-photographer team to work on a similar but more ambitious marketing project. We responded and over the course of a few months persuaded HomeAway Holiday-Rentals to go with our project instead.

A few enterprising themes are revealed here: it’s a project that’s been developed for a long time, born out of a frustration (or pain) about something; and even once HomeAway Holiday-Rentals were approached, the deal took a few months to broker.

So far, so good. But what about editorial independence?

…from the outset we made it clear to HomeAway Holiday-Rentals that we had to have complete editorial control so that the content would not be construed as advertorial. If it was, then their credibility, as much as ours, would be on the line…This, we believed, was essential to establishing our readers’ trust and maintaining the integrity of the project.

A model for the future?

What’s quite promising about Lara and Terence’s model is that it is replicable: it can be used by journalists and photographers (and even film makers) in a near infinite number of ways, in an unlimited number of places. Lara says they’ve already been approached by wine producers who want to use their skills for a wine-specific campaign.

In an interview with Traveling Savage, Lara says it’s a growing trend:

Travel companies will increasingly be exploring direct partnerships with writers/bloggers in order to develop innovative, attention-grabbing projects and cut out the middle man (the editor) so the company knows what kind of coverage they’re going to get. Freelance writers will be increasingly seeking to work directly with companies as the industry becomes even more competitive, as will bloggers, because they’re always looking for ways to monetize their sites. These partnerships can be tricky things to negotiate, however, so writers/bloggers need to take care to ensure that they maintain their credibility, especially if they want to continue to work in the media: professionalism and ethics are everything.

It’s only one way to do it

On the flip-side however, it’s one that’s very dependent upon other people. If you can’t get a ‘partner’ to back you, you might as well put the passport back in the drawer. Lara says there’s no other advertising on the site, which takes away much growth potential if the audience grows.

It also means there’s little benefit for the pair in growing an active, vibrant community around their content. That was the breakthrough with our London bootcamp in 2010. We figured if you’re creating valuable content inside a specific niche within travel journalism (gay/children/eco-friendly are the first three which spring to mind) you can build up a small, but loyal base of readers. From there you can develop sponsored newsletters, sell products (photographs, ebooks etc) and wrangle affiliate deals with all sorts of travel firms. (See Lara’s comments for more on this.)

If you aim to become a thought-leader in your niche, rather than just ‘the water here’s lovely’ type writing then you can really make an impact, change lives and develop a sustainable brand.

That, of course, takes time; and if  there’s one thing to be said for the GranTourismo model, it got them travelling pretty quickly.

So what do you think? Is this a new way to do travel journalism in the digital age? Is it worth cutting out the middle-man? Or is it a lucky luxury the new media age just can’t support? Leave your comments below!

Hattip: Craig McGinty on Twitter