Media: The Trouble with Travel in Freebieland ; These Days, Virtually All Newspaper and Magazine Travel Pages Are Filled with Features by Journalists Who Have Been on All-Expenses- Paid Press Trips, So How Objective, Let Alone Useful Are They? the Independent's Travel Editor, Simon Calder, Exposes Some Tricks of the Travel-Writing Trade

Article excerpt

Yesterday, being a bank holiday, was a quiet day on the travel desk; only a couple of invitations to press trips came in, compared with a dozen or more on a typical day.

There are two good reasons why the travel industry is so free with its favours. One is purely practical: often, the journalist will be filling an aircraft seat and hotel room that would otherwise be empty. The other is the concept of "equivalent advertising spend". This is the amount that each freebie is calculated to be worth compared with buying, in the conventional sense, the same impact in press, radio or TV advertisements.

Travel companies are reluctant to discuss the subject, not least because it upsets advertising sales teams. But the Scottish Tourist Board estimates that the average value of the hundreds of free trips it organises for journalists each year is over pounds 10,000 each in equivalent advertising spend.

Coverage in a newspaper or magazine also buys something that advertising cannot: the appearance of objectivity. As a marketing executive from Australia's biggest airline once told me bluntly: "If a journalist recommends Qantas, the consumer is going to believe that more than our advertising."

Freebieland can be threatening territory for people who believe that the role of the travel journalist is to provide straightforward consumer advice for readers, which is one reason this newspaper refused, for over a decade, to accept free facilities, and why Conde Nast Traveller has never taken them. The Independent's policy was relaxed last summer when travel became a "stand alone" section, and our coverage greatly expanded. The only way the figures could add up was to accept some free facilities from the travel industry.

But the portion of the travel section headed The Independent Traveller continues to be a no-freebies zone. I am still more likely to be found sleeping in a field rather than a five-star hotel, while other travel editors enjoy a jolly good laugh at my expense - and insist that neither they, nor their writers, are swayed by the free facilities provided by the travel industry.

The British Guild of Travel Writers concurs. Its code of conduct says members will "accept facilities necessary for work offered to the press only on the understanding that they are in no way obliged to publicise any or all of the operation concerned and that the provision of such facilities will not influence their judgement". …