JAMES SIDDALL knows “freebie” travel invitations come with a hefty price tag. Free lunch? Don’t make him laugh!
Tell people you’re a travel journalist and the reaction is invariably “lucky bugger” or “want to switch jobs?” But like most good things, there’s a dark side to it. Travel as a journalist usually comes in the form of press junkets – “freebies” – as most publications lack the resources to send their hacks abroad, let alone in five-star splendour.
Freebie invitations are issued when an airline, tourism board or hotel wants to promote itself. The invitation lands in the editor’s lap. If egalitarian, the editor will then dispense it to his worthiest staff members in much the same way that Santa dispenses his shiniest presents to the most deserving little boys and girls. Indeed, dispensing these freebies often causes much bitterness among less experienced members of staff.
Older hacks know they come with a price tag, which generally entails having as much of one destination rammed down your throat in as short a time as possible.
So when visiting Mauritius, as I did, you will not be left to laze around the pool or on the beach. Instead, a dozen of you will be crammed into a mini-bus with faulty air-con to see what your hosts fondly imagine are “points of interest” you’re just aching to write about. On my Mauritian sojourn, I got to spend just 20 minutes on the beach, away from my colleagues.
Speaking of colleagues, your little group will be a microcosm of society. In addition to the tour leader – who often plays a parental role– there’s also the bore, the rebel, the merry japester, the flirty floozy, the “asshole of the trip” as my well-seasoned journalist friend Chris Marais puts it, and the drunk who empties his mini-bar fridge in the hope that his hosts will pick up the tab.
In the same group you’re also likely to find the cynic – who mutters unprintable things not quite under his breath – and the suck-up or schloop.
The last is usually a relative newcomer to freebies, and will be glued to the tour guide’s side, making toadying observations. After visiting Mauritius, the schloop will write a piece called “Magical Mauritius,” replete with terms such as “languorously swaying palms,” “tropical paradise” and “buffets groaning with seafood delights.”
Everyone hates the schloop after a few hours, and even the hosts can look a little hard-pushed accommodating them, especially if they’re not from a publication major enough to warrant a substantial time investment.
Conversely, the rebel is despised by the host or tour guide – and covertly admired by the rest of the group, as they’ll airily announce that they won’t be sticking to the itinerary. Instead of viewing a mind-numbing assortment of old tombs, churches and crafts stores, they will do their own thing which might include sleeping in, drinking cocktails all day on the beach (it’s possible to be a drunk and a rebel) or just taking in the local colour. And should they need background for their articles, there are always websites and brochures, right?
I’ve been lucky. Over the years I’ve been hosted on dozens of international trips, usually turning left when entering the aircraft. Many have been ultra-brief affairs in my capacity as a motoring writer, with the host car manufacturers not particularly caring what you do with your spare time once you’ve attended an obligatory press conference or two, and driven the new car.
For instance, the junket we went on to Bangkok was for the launch of a new version of the BMW Seven Series. I have no idea why BMW chose the East as a launching pad for an international contingent of writers. But I was glad they did, and I had ample time to explore the night markets (“Diesel” cargo pants for $5 anyone?), the feely-feely bars (depressingly over-rated) and to lounge by the pool of the Mandarin Oriental (wonderful, especially as the hotel is consistently rated among the best in the world).
Far more fearsome are the trips organised by airlines and tourism authorities where they try to show you the country in five minutes, instead of just handing you a glossy press release and letting you doze by the poolside.
One of the worst I’ve been on was to Turkey. For a start, I emerged in Istanbul from a plane reeking of cigarette smoke and eggs, almost blinded with jet lag as only two days before I had been having a magnificent time in Miami with a behemoth of a Lincoln Town Car courtesy of Ford, and my own itinerary. No matter, we were dragged off to an Intercontinental and before I could even unpack, crammed into a minibus taking in “the wonders” of Istanbul. A day later, we were on a series of domestic flights, visiting other parts of Turkey, like Cappadocia, Ephesus and Izmir.
Our group comprised the usual cross-section of characters. I probably occupied neutral ground somewhere between the cynic and the drunk. Anyway, with a few thousand years of history rammed down my throat, I returned home and wrote a six-page story for the national magazine that had sent me. My story began: “I landed in Turkey in a high old state of xenophobia…”
I then went on to cite the Shylockian greed of its merchants and several other points. Of course I added that the place reeked of history, among other positive points but too late, I realised I’d broken the most cardinal rule of freebies: never, ever criticize. Gushing is mandatory.
The tour company leader that had hosted the jaunt got a copy of the magazine and fired off an e-mail to the editor, demanding that the publication be pulled from the shelves since the article was “clearly the work of a young man trying to be funny”.
With more than just a hint of Orwellian overtones, she also offered to show the editor pictures “of James Siddall smiling and having a good time.”
Happily, the editor was less than beguiled with PR types telling him how to run his magazine, and the mag stayed on the shelves. Of course, I never got invited to anything again by that tour company. And when I got around to reading the schloop’s piece called “Terrific Turkey”, I couldn’t believe we’d even been on the same tour …