An aside about press trips and comps before beginning
For those unfamiliar with press trips, let me explain that they are one of the joys of journalism. Although many publications refuse to participate, or even to publish features that result from such trips, I have always found them to be invaluable. Not only do they provide the best of food, accommodations, attractions, and entertainment, but they do so with the expertise that only local tourism professionals can bring to the equation. At no cost to notoriously underpaid journalists.
And therein lies the ethical dilemma: Isn’t free travel and accommodation a bribe? Doesn’t it ensure a favorable article?
Yes, of course, but no.
Perhaps I should explain. If I am whisked away to a location, whether it is a heritage festival in central Mexico or a visit to Niagara Falls or an oyster festival in Norfolk, Virginia, and my whisker (!) puts me up in the best available accommodations, wines me and dines me in the best restaurants and bars, and takes me to the best tourist attractions in the area, then I will write an article describing the experience. If it is an exceptional experience, then, I hope, I will write an article that makes the venue attractive and alluring, resulting in additional tourist activity.
Is that fair?
I think it is fair and appropriate.
The writer enjoys the best of everything, all expenses paid, and in return is expected to publish an account of the experience and readers decide whether it sounds good to them.
Now, I submit that that is the way it should be: describe the best a venue has to offer. The reader wins, the venue wins, the writer wins. Wherein lies the problem?
There is one and it is legitimate. Some publications with which I have worked refused to accept articles written as a result of such junkets because they were literally bought and paid for by the subject. I do not criticize them for that decision. It is, it seems to me, a stand for unquestioned integrity.
However, I love press trips and the resulting stories, both as a writer and editor. My opinion is that readers want to hear about the best experiences a place has to offer. Only when the writer is dishonest, that is, writing glowingly about an experience that was mediocre or worse, or hired to write glowingly in the guise of journalism when it is in fact advertising (Advertorial is the term for this real practice.) do I fault the process. Even when the latter is labled advertorial, I object because so many readers skip over the slug that it is an ad in the guise of a legitimate, objective article.
The word “objective” is both central and misleading. I use it here to mean that the writer is giving his honest subjective opinion of an experience. When the writer is hired to promote rather than critique it becomes fraudulent. So integrity remains the pivotal characteristic.
It isn’t only travel.
One publication for which I wrote theater reviews refused even to accept complimentary (free) tickets, insisting on paying my way. While I respect the paper’s integrity, I know that my review would be the same whether I pay, the publication pays or the theater provides free tickets. In fact, when one theater stopped providing complimentary tickets because they considered some of my reviews harsh, I paid for my own. That is not the way complimentary tickets should work and it is wrong for theater staff to think otherwise. Providing “comps” only to favorable reviewers taints the process and undermines integrity. And perhaps that is the fear that motivates the publications that refuse the comps.
Some publications I wrote for were fine with the complimentary tickets and the venues would be quick to tell you that I did not give the theaters a pass because of it.
So, I have attended and reviewed performances under all three conditions and can firmly state without fear of contradiction that I worked equally hard to produce reviews that were fair and honest and provided information that would help readers decide whether they wanted to attend.
One such theater just outside of Washington, D.C., typically offered original and creative productions that drew raves-even from me. But one production did not measure up and my review reflected my disappointment.
Admittedly, the public relations representative made some wry remarks about it, but she never hinted that I was wrong to write it. I even was amused by the theater employee who saw me entering the theater for another a performance and began to hum Darth Vader’s entrance music.
I looked at her and said, “Really, one bad review and…”
My favorite experience as a reviewer—and delightfully off-topic—was when an actor I had panned in reviewing a musical theater production emailed me to say that I was absolutely correct. He explained that he had been suffering from a cold that adversely affected his range and vocal quality. He invited me to see the production again.
In the ensuing exchange of emails, I accepted his proposal and found his observations literate, perceptive and well-written. Not only did I write a fresh-and favorable-review after seeing him perform healthy, but I also offered him a position as music critic for my newspaper.
I also have written some harsh words about places I visited on press trips. Not the whole trip, but parts that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate.
Isn’t that what travel writers-any critic-should do? Describe the good and the bad?
All that said, economics have reduced such opportunities significantly. What used to be a full (free) experience from leaving home to return is now more likely to be an invitation to visit for a specific attraction event or attraction…if you are in the area. Alas.
But let me tell you about a press trip to Ireland.
Roy Rogers Never Wore Wellies
A number of years ago, a colleague accosted me in the newsroom at the newspaper where I was then employed. She said that she was unable to participate in a press trip to Ireland and asked whether I would mind filling in for her. As it happens, I didn’t-not a bit-and for that, I thank my lucky charms (and Mary Linda and Tourism Ireland).
I have no qualms about press trips, so I gladly accepted the Irish tourist board’s invitation to join them for a week or so horseback riding in the Emerald Isle. The beginning was inauspicious.
Bad weather-vile weather-delayed and then canceled my flight to Boston. That caused me to miss my connection with Aer Lingus. When I arrived at Logan Airport, long after my flight to Dublin had departed, weather had delayed and disrupted dozens of flights. Re-booking a flight that had been arranged and paid for by an absent third party was itself a nightmare.
As Tourism Ireland was footing the bill, I did not have the option of hopping on another carrier, so I had to wait for the next Aer Lingus flight, which was 24 hours after the one I missed.
As you might guess, travel writers are not unaccustomed to travel, and of all my trips, this was one of the top two horror shows of my experience. Not only did I arrive in Dublin a day late, after much uncertainty and confusion (particularly as the people who had arranged the trip were already accompanying the writers who arrived on time), but also, despite their assurances, the airline people had not conveyed the information about my delay to the tour leaders who had reasonably gone on without me.
I didn’t know that, and I confess that one becomes spoiled by always being met at the airport and whisked away without pedestrian concerns such as transportation and luggage collection. In this case, I arrived and no one was there to meet me…and it was a Sunday morning in Ireland so my calls to the office went unanswered.
After extensive investigation guided by my printed itinerary and an investment in a local SIM card, however, I was able to get a message to the next scheduled stop for the tour group and was told to meet them at an inn outside of Dublin.
A very long and expensive (but reimbursed) taxi ride later (during which I learned a great deal about the accelerated deterioration of Irish culture resulting from open borders within the European Union) I found my group and we continued on our way to enjoy horseback riding in western Ireland.
One of the biggest surprises on the trip was the astonishing variety or excellent food in a country not necessarily celebrated for its cuisine. But exploring this beautiful country on horseback was refreshing for the soul. Maybe with one exception:
I spent a wonderful week horseback riding in north-western Ireland, mostly County Donegal, with several days in the comfortable and hospitable family-owned Arnold Hotel in the village of Dunfanaghy on Sheephaven Bay. In a country not renowned for its cuisine, the Arnold Hotel provided some of the most delicious and visually-appealing dishes I have enjoyed anywhere. The riding stables behind the hotel provided (large) horses, and guides, and the bay, its estuary and the surrounding mountains, cliffs and quaint homes provided the milieu and soul-satisfying landscape.
“Don’t bring riding boots,” the tourist board representative said. “We have them.” And the first two stables did. The third had boots, but….
I have calves, you see, thick, muscular calves. Truth be told, my calves are the only muscles in my body that don’t jiggle when I walk, so forgive me if I take inordinate pride in them. I like to walk, and I walk briskly and with great energy. My feet, however, are dainty. I have size eight feet and size 12 calves, so it is difficult to find boots that accommodate my calves without leaving my feet to wander in the roomy wilderness below.
The Irish countryside was lush green hills strectching from ferocious seas in the far northwest at Dunfanaghy, and tall beach grass and the heart-breakingly delicate beauty of Donegal Bay farther south. But it was at Donegal Bay that I met my Waterloo. Well, Wellingtons, actually.
Donegal Equestrian Center is well-equipped and professional. The staff are expert and personable. They had everything except riding boots for robust calves and petite feet. After an extensive search what they found they did have was a pair of duck-foot Wellies that would fit over my manly, yet curvaceous calves.
Wellington boots are not high fashion. Clint Eastwood would have shot himself in both feet before trying to slip his spurs over a pair of Wellies.
If he had spurs big enough. They are the Baby Huey (an allusion for those of a certain age) of boots.
I should be clear. These are not the handsome polished calfskin Wellingtons that the Household Cavalry sports, but gum boots, green boots, rubber boots, bulbous barn boots: knee-high waders. Their singular homeliness was not the issue, nor was the gritty feel of the inner sole as my stockinged-feet skittered about, exploring the great space. It was not even the cold rubber that encircled my now humiliated robust calves.
No, the problem is that the foot of the Wellington gumboot is not significantly smaller on the outside than it is on the inside. There is a reason that one feels as if he is walking in swim fins when gumboots adorn his feet. There is a reason for the gwomp-gwomp of the rubber soles slapping pavement. There is a reason that Cinderella did not wear Wellies to the ball.
If walking in Wellies is clumsy and unattractive, then trying to slip those bad boys into stirrups is a nightmare. Stirrups are no more made for gumboot Wellies than gumboot Wellies are made for stirrups. And they aren’t. These boots are made for walking-and mucking out stalls-not mounting a steed to race across the Irish landscape.
So I was wearing gumboots that were as roomy at the top as they were in the foot. Apparently there is some sense of proportionality about them. In order to have an upper boot that would accommodate my bull-calves, the foot space was sized to accommodate hulk feet.
When I walked, I had difficulty keeping them on, but never mind; I would be sitting handsomely in a saddle, not treading the winding paths.
Not until I tried to mount the horse did I realize the problem. I could not fit the toe of my boot into the stirrup to hoist myself into the saddle.
Not to worry, said the trail boss, or whoever he was. (His crew cut showed about an eighth of an inch of gray bristle, but I called him “Curley.” In my head. Certainly not out load.) The growing crowd of jocular riders around me found my predicament much funnier than I.
With the help of an overturned pail, a team of people more stable than I manhandled me into the saddle and unsuccessfully (I would have said bootless, but even for me….) tried to help me jam my bubble-toes into the stirrups. I was decidedly unamused, and feeling remarkably like a clumsy Humpty Dumpty being hoisted onto a wall-with the promise of similar results.
I worked at being a good sport. If ever there is an opportunity to avoid appearing to be a poor sport, it is while traveling with a group of international travel writers. They carry cameras and they are as quick as I to pounce on a humiliating story to increase circulation. They are the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” if I may quote a late Danish prince. And the opportunity of humiliating a colleague is a classic passive-aggressive tactic for those who pretend to not be rivals.
So, with a brave smile frozen in place-unlike my boots-I sat astride my steed, a burly Irish Hunter, sufficiently broad that I as if someone were trying to make a wish with my legs while I was mounted on her.
My toe tips delicately touched the edges of the stirrups like a virgin filled with hope that his status was about to change.
Off we went in single file. I began to relax a bit, as walking did not require great dexterity-or stability, although if I did not tilt my legs at a certain angle, the boots began slipping off. Then we began to climb a narrow trail, bordered closely by a barbed wire fence.
It was the fence that did me in.
I listed slightly to port to keep clear of the barbs. Doing so meant that my starboard boot lost its tenuous purchase on the stirrup, and the boot dangled perilously close to the aforementioned barbed wire. To counter the new, clear and present danger, I leaned farther, and that is when I realized that the boot was slipping off my foot. I curled my toes and tightened the foot muscles in an attempt to fill the boot more fully and raised my leg to keep the boot from yielding to the siren song of gravity, but the barbs of wire began to snatch at it, hurrying its departure. So I leaned a little more….You see the problem.
My body was rigid; sweat poured off me. I wanted to cry-in a manly way, of course, because Curly was squinting at me.
As we neared the top of the hill, Curly finally conceded that I was listing heavily to port, starboard leg extended almost straight out, boot dangling from my cramping foot at the end of my cramping leg. The cramp in my side was invisible.
“You all right?” he asked with lightly. Although his face remained fixed, I believe I noted the whisper of a twinkle in his eye and I was not imagining that a smirk was beginning to mature before my widened eyes.
“Fine,” I grunted from clenched jaw. (Writers in front of me; writers behind me. There was no other response.) I wished that I were carrying a couple of six-shooters. Or a Gatling gun.
We crested the hill and the fence fell away from us at last. I heaved a sigh of relief that the tension of the ascension was a thing of the past. Before us extended a band of tall, course beach grass, beyond which marvelously blue, marvelously placid water stretched to the horizon. Crisis past, I heaved a great sigh of relief, realigned myself in the saddle and jiggled my boot back onto my foot.
We rode lazily through the tall grass to the sandy expanse along the water’s edge and I began to enjoy the gentle shifting of the muscles of the beast beneath me. We looked off to the horizon, admiring the serenity and the beauty of the water that stretched out before us, lapping gently at the beach, until Curly shifted into a trot along the beach.
Ordinarily, trotting is fun. In this case, trotting was not fun. Trotting requires boots in stirrups, which is where I struggled desperately to keep them, not under the misapprehension that I would be able to actually fit them in, but only to keep them from falling off.
As our pace increased, I realized that the field was not mine. I saw Curly note my discomfort, just before he urged his mount to a gallop. Frustration clenched those muscles that had already been called into service to keep me upright and seated. I recalled Jingles’ (Well, Andy Devine, again age will serve to recognize the allusion.) arms flapping as he galloped behind Bill Hickok (Guy Madison in a cowboy suit) calling his raspy “Hey, Wild Bill, Wait for me!”
I did not want to be Jingles.
Once more I wished that I had six-guns. It was the only manly way to stop the torture.
Other challenges ensued, including fording a brook with which I came awfully close to having a close and wet encounter, when my horse stumbled on its rocky bank. At least we saw a corral at the edge of town and tied up our horses while we headed to a pub, my gum boots flopping along the sidewalk.
After draining a few quick pints, I realized that, although the stirrups might not be especially comfortable with stocking feet, if I removed the boots, my feet would fit.
And that is how I made the return ride, stockinged feet resting easily in the stirrups. It wasn’t without its own challenges, but it made the ride home far more relaxed and enjoyable, so I could concentrate on glaring at Curly and muttering imprecations under my breath.