Burmese Days - The Road to Mandalay - A tradition revived

Years in the making, Rod gets aboard the smaller boutique RV Katha Pandaw at Mandalay for an exploration of the upper Irrawaddy River and the historic colonial-era port of Katha, the spiritual home of the once great Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.
Editorial and pictorial will be available from mid-October 2013

Images on Flickr

Freelancer or Freeloader: the quest for the 'free lunch'.

"The Travel Writer" (stolen from the Internet, source unknown)
It’s one of those things all professional travel writers have to endure.

“You’re always going on free trips!”

“So, who’s paying for this?”

Continually being interrogated by fellow travellers, family members and other office-bound journalists is something I always dread. While there is always varying financial participation by all parties in any given familiarisation trip, there is an old truism that always holds.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Now legend has it, that once upon a time all a journalist had to do was call their mate at the airline and a First Class ticket came by courier with a bottle of French Champagne. Now, there might be one or two esteemed scribes still alive who can command that kind of worship, but let me assure you, my dear reader, those days are OVER.

Even getting an upgrade on a fully paid ticket is a chore. Lounge admission, check-in queue jumping or an amenity pack is the best we can often hope for. While some airlines may be marginally more generous than others, every carrier is now constrained by this new austerity.

Hotels, depending on seasonal demand or other commercial imperatives, vary in their largesse, but even these pleasure palaces are now tightening their belts and scrutinising media guests more closely, both pre- and post-stay. Included breakfast is often a bonus and dinner, well, you must know someone!

But the moral of this story is a three-letter-word: ROI (Return On Investment). Put simply, it is the dividend obtained by any party after making a capital (or other) investment in a project.

And it’s not just an airline, hotel, cruise line or destination that makes such a calculation. A professional writer must also determine whether it is worth their while to accept any particular offer. My measurement criteria are similar, I’m confident, to my colleagues in this respect.
  • Exclusivity. How often has this product been featured? Will I be travelling with similar hungry freelancers all pummeling the same outlets? This directly relates to ...
  • Saleability. How many stories can I reasonably expect to sell from this single exercise? This often depends on stuff you won’t discover until you’re in the middle of the trip eg how rigid is the itinerary, how much free time to explore your own story leads, how fertile is the trip with regards to multiple story angles?
  • How much is it going to cost me? There’s no point forking out $3000 on airfares if you’re only going to sell two stories at a few hundred bucks each. Some hosts think they’re offering you this irresistible opportunity to travel to the other side of the country or overseas to stay at their to-die-for villa. No, sorry, that’s not such a good deal.
Public relations reps, CVB managers, and hotel GMs will measure the resultant publicity using a formula that multiplies the cost of taking an ad in the media by a factor that can vary from three to eight times. So, for example, if you stay in a 5-star hotel with dinner and niceties at a rack rate of $500 and the story runs over one page in a magazine that charges $5000 for a full page, that is conservatively $15,000 in equivalent value. An ROI any host should be delighted with.

In recent times, this whole scenario has been shaken up with the arrival of online media and the ‘blogger’. Measuring penetration in this new media has left many PR and media folks groping for traction on this slippery, muddy playing field. Bloggers can come from any part of the media sphere. Some are seasoned journalists and talented writers exploring or creating new outlets, while others are idle opportunists looking for that ‘free lunch’ with no concept of ROI, conflict-of-interest or even basic journalistic ethics.

There are lots of tricks used by bloggers, tweeters and Instagrammers to inflate their penetration and ‘engagement’ ranging from buying bulk ‘likes’ and followers to automatic click-bots. But that expose is for a whole different discussion.

But whether blogging or not, freelance journalists can suffer varying degrees of financial stress. Some can cheerfully rely on a well-heeled spouse to underwrite their exploits or have their own financial security through retirement funds or other canny investment.

When I bemoaned this to one respected PR host, my argument was quickly deflated with the retort “we don’t care”. And why should they? Their reports do not consider the individual financial status of the media guests and how hard they need to work to reach break-even or make a small profit. But maybe they could?

Let me make this point in conclusion. Any media guest who has in the back of his/her mind a mortgage, car payment or credit card inferno is more likely to go the extra length to sell just one more story that won’t cost the host an extra dime.

So, PRs, hosts, inquisitive colleagues and cousins let me make the case for the hungry freelance writer who, while sometimes enjoying the titillating byproducts of the job, is forgoing irretrievable family time and spending every waking (and many sleeping) moments wondering where they can sell your story and quell the cash advance flameout in their pocket.

I’ll close with another pearl passed to me by a much-loved PR host which pleads less brutality when calculating the ROI dividend.

“You pay for advertising, but pray for publicity.”


See related story: How to be a good travel media guest

It's all just a SeaDream

* travel completed, stories available *

In early December 2013, Rod will board this much-lauded vessel for a week sampling what the respected Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships describe as the “Best Specialist Cruise Line”, achieving the top rating in the 'Boutique Ships' category (50 – 250 passengers).

Give your readers an intimate, very personal opinion on this luxurious vessel.

The writer will supply his own high quality images, supplemented by PR images. [email enquiry]

Derelict Tourism: exploring deserted and abandoned places

Sometimes it's just a little building on street corner, other times a vast complex or even a city. What is the attraction we have with the empty and cast off? We wonder about the history, the stories of those who once lived (and died) within. Some are centuries old, others look like the inhabitants left just yesterday.
The deserted whaling station at Grytviken, South Georgia (Roderick Eime)

In this story I share my own fascination with the crumbling urban decay and mysterious emptiness of these forlorn structures. From sprawling whaling stations in the sub-Antarcitc to massive buildings in the middle of huge cities, let's investigate. [Email me]

West Africa: Voodoo Town

“You will travel far and the spirits will guide you safely through many perils,” Anthony whispers into his hands cupping the tiny object. And with that short and sweet blessing, he inserts a tiny wooden pin into the little shaft and presents me with my travelling talisman. Anthony, not his real name I’m certain, looks at me with the satisfaction that reminds me of a triumphant used car salesman.

In his tiny, darkened back room, Dr David Conrad (a PhD in African studies) and I survey the bizarre assortment of fetish idols arranged on the little table. “You won’t find these legba (vodun idols) out in the market,” he says to me through barely moving lips, “these are the real deal.”

David accepts one of the idols with all the solemnity of a holy treasure, only this macabre, roughly carved figure about the size of a premature foetus has none of the beauty associated with divine objects. Its blank gnarly body is covered in coarse dust, cobwebs and lumpy red stains which need no further description. He inspects it briefly and raises his thick wiry eyebrows in my direction. “This one.”

Anthony and I complete the transaction and for about 20 dollars, I have a genuine West African voodoo doll and a couple of sundry talisman in the bargain.

Here in Togo’s Akodessewa Fetish Market hidden away in the backstreets of the capital Lomé, a small contingent of our tour group have ventured inside the compound to examine the piles of desiccated animal remains, withered heads and amputated parts on sale for vodun practitioners and curious tourists alike.

Like in any African market, hopeful young hucksters bound up to us with trinkets and baubles to thrust in our faces. Only here in Lomé, these souvenirs and forget-me-nots are tiny figurines impaled with nails or incomprehensible amalgams of animal parts.

“These are just for the tourists,” Dr David tells me, waving the clambering horde away in broken French. In the secret booths in the rear of the market, you can engage your own witch doctor or clairvoyant to seek a remedy for your ills - or revenge.

Despite centuries of Christian influence all the Gulf of Guinea from Nigeria to Ghana, the art of vodun is practicised in some shape or form in both the cities and villages. When the West African slaves were transported in their thousands from these shores to the Caribbean and Americas, it became ‘voodoo’ – and something else again.

The poignant slave history is the other predominant cultural experience available to visitors to the many sites, now UNESCO recognised, in Ghana, Gambia and Senegal.

Our ship, the MS Expedition, is tracing the western coast of the continent of Africa from Cape Town to Dakar, Senegal, over 24 days. Already we’ve gazed from the dizzying heights of Table Mountain in Cape Town, trudged the abandoned structures of Kolmanskop on the edge of the Namib Desert and investigated the Portuguese colonial remnants of the once worn-torn nation of Angola. Ahead of us are the grisly Ghanaian slave ports of Elmina and Cape Coast where visitors report hearing the ghostly whispers of long departed slaves in the pitch black dungeons.

The coast of West Africa is one of the last remaining parts of the world unexplored by the planet’s inquisitive fleet of adventure vessels. While the larger ships of Cunard and Crystal are comfortable stopping by the safe Namibian ports of Luderitz and Walvis Bay, it’s only recently that adventure cruise operators have deemed Angola, Congo, Sao Tome and the Gulf nations sufficiently crisis-free to allow tourist ship visits.

Even so, all precautions are taken and from Point Noire in Congo until Accra in Ghana, we are joined by three very businesslike ex-Royal Marines who stand vigil while MS Expedition passes through the region where their presence is deemed necessary.

Who else goes there?

Hapag-Lloyd is sending MS Bremen in October for 23 days and while Saga Cruises, Silversea, Lindblad and Zegrahm list the West Coast of Africa as an itinerary, none have scheduled departures at time of writing. Freighter voyages are available too. 40 days return from Amsterdam to Lagos.

Bill Peach Journeys Classic Australian Aircruise

Around Australia by private jet. Sounds like a dream, but it's for real and Bill Peach Journeys have been doing it for 30 years. Jump aboard for the Classic Australian Air Cruise. [contact]

Travel Lines - 2012 flipbook

37 pages of editorial and pictorial offerings from the latest destinations and locations

Look who's talking

12 Do's and Don'ts of Pitching Freelance Travel Journalists

 This is something I've been meaning to write myself, but this blogger has done a fine job, so I'll share it here instead.  Lavanya’...