The Proud Junketeer: From Jamaica to China and Back

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I just spent five opulent days — all expenses paid — in China, courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton, Cathay Pacific, and Dragon Air. Because I blog. With traditional media outlets disappearing, luxury brands are retooling their PR strategies to target online writers. While the timing was a coincidence, the connection is real: the Ritz-Carlton’s first online-only press trip departed the day after Conde Nast announced it was folding Gourmet. And new media outlets, like, oh, say, Thrillist, are sponsoring junkets of their own, putting more media types in the air but drawing more attention to the practice: a mini-scandal broke last week when it was reported that two freelance writers who attended the e-mail newsletter’s recent JetMystery trip were contractually barred by their clients from accepting such freebies. As always, a media scandal begets media introspection.

Last month I received an e-mail from a Ritz-Carlton PR person, subject: “China?”

I resisted responding “Yes! OMFG YES!!!” without reading the e-mail, bloggers not being much for research and all. The Ritz-Carlton was planning its first “online only press group”: Cathay Pacific was flying four online writers from New York to Hong Kong in business class, then Dragon Air would fly the group to Guangzhou on its new service between those cities, then it was three nights at the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou and one in its new Shenzhen hotel before returning. Did I have any interest?

“Yes! OMFG YES!!!”

The first full night in China was, well, dinner: while most meals featured exotic Cantonese cuisine, this evening’s meal was a delicious five-course affair with wine pairings at the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou’s Italian restaurant, Limoni. Afterwards I returned to my room and found my worn underwear, which I’d dropped on the closet floor, folded for me. Too stuffed to sleep, I retreated to the hotel’s Churchill Bar intending to write postcards, sip Perrier, and digest. As I saddled up, the bartender, whom I’d been introduced to briefly, approached. “Mr. Everson, I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk. Do you like Scotch?”

Apparently I do.

Bruce, who grew up in a rural Hunan village but is now a Scotch aficionado, then guided me through a tasting of the rarer offerings of the bar’s 100 malt whiskies and cognacs.

How’d that compare to the JetMystery extravaganza, which took place six days later?

Thrillist, JetBlue and other sponsors invited 150 media types to “the most colossally mind-melting three-day destination party ever conceived” at an undisclosed location, instructing them only to “arrive At JFK’s Terminal 5 at 6 AM and bring your passport.”

According to Guest of a Guest’s Carson Griffith, who went on the junket, once the travelers got to the gate, a large banner and a steel drum band made it clear they were going to Jamaica.

Some highlights from Griffith’s recap of the first day on the JetMystery trip:

● Thrillist’s CEO kicked off the excursion by yelling “Let’s get weird!” ● The gift bags guests received on the flight to Jamaica included condoms from Trojan, one of JetMystery’s sponsors, which “more than a few” recipients tested out that weekend. ● Several JetMystery attendees ended night one of the trip by skinny dipping.

“Other than the basics of travel — airports, airlines, hotel, etc. — and the fact that they were both junkets, the two trips felt completely different,” said Ami Kealoha, managing editor of Cool Hunting, who went on both the trip to China and Jamaica. “Everything about China was more personal and more focused on culture. JetMystery felt more like summer camp with activities like going on zip lines, buffet meals, and riding in big buses.”

Griffith summed up the JetMystery as “A bona fide shitshow, but in the absolute best way possible.”

Apparently the trips had one other similarity — both stayed true to their sponsors’ brands.

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The Ritz-Carlton, Cathay Pacific, and Dragon Air let the hotels, restaurants, and flights sell themselves on my trip to China.

Kealoha agreed. “Any promotion took the form of genuine pride about the brand.”

On a few occasions, good topics for articles were pointed out to us, but those suggestions often focused on Guangzhou and Shenzhen as worthy travel destinations rather than on the companies’ products.

“For the most part, the Thrillist trip was sales pitch-free too,” Kealoha said. “We heard a couple group addresses that dropped a ‘we’ll hope you’ll write about it,’ but nothing was pushy or forced. I think the basic premise was to show us all a good time, which was more or less what the Ritz was up to but with a more cultural bent rather than a party vibe.”

The most bizarre expectation pertaining to press trips come from the New York Times. According to a copy of its freelancer agreement that was given to Gawker: “No travel writer, whether on assignment or not, may accept free or discounted services of any sort from any element of the travel industry…It is our policy not to give Travel assignments to freelance writers who have previously accepted free services.”

Not hiring freelancers who previously have accepted a freebie, even if it’s unrelated to the story he or she is writing for the Times, limits the paper’s talent pool to writers who work for publications with rich travel budgets or trust fund babies on the Upper East Side. And with media outlets cutting back (the Times itself announced last week it was eliminating 100 newsroom jobs), it’s going to be the latter.

As writer Tom Johansmeyer Tweeted, “No press trips means #travelwriters have to pay to go to work.” Press trips give travel writers the experience they need that media outlets can’t afford to provide. When I write about the China trip’s sponsors, it’s not hard to differentiate between what’s standard for all Ritz-Carlton guests (attentive service, delicious meals, luxurious accommodations) and what was given to me because I was on a press trip (silk tai chi pajamas, clay figure of myself, private performance by the Chinese Olympic synchronized swim team).

Travel writers have hearts, minds, stomachs, eyes, and curiosities that enable them to see past the fluff and swag,” wrote Melanie Renzulli at Miss Adventures.

“When you consider all of the back scratching, nepotism, politics, etc. that’s part of the media landscape anyway, the whole issue seems kind of silly,” Kealoha said. “In some ways, press trips are more straightforward; it’s all part of the game.”

To quote Chris Mohney, BlackBook’s vice president of content management, “How awesome a win is this for Thrillist and JetBlue? Huge buckets of free publicity and major outlets lining up to pay for the trip after the fact?” With websites like Gawker, Gothamist, New York Magazine, Mediabistro and now BlackBook covering the trip, Thrillist and JetBlue didn’t even have to rely on attendees to do so.

As for my trip to China, a slideshow I posted after the first day was praised as the fastest mention from a media trip they’ve seen. My post’s irreverent voice — a staple of blogging — is probably what led Cathay Pacific’s communications manager to explain to his colleagues that online media coverage has a different tone than what they’re accustomed to.

I’ve also posted about the trip several other times and am working on a pitch about Bruce the bartender in Guangzhou — ironically, to a print publication. And then there’s this article you’re reading now.

Last week an agency rep that “handles PR for luxury travel clientele worldwide” e-mailed me. She’d received my info from the Ritz-Carlton. Her company plans several press trips a year and she was interested in talking about how we might work together.

I called her the next morning. Maybe another Conde Nast publication will fall soon.

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