August 2017: In our years of blogging we have been offered countless opportunities blogger media trips, aka FAM Trips (Familiarisation trips), which are a bit like paid junkets pitched by tourism authorities and DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations) to bloggers and influencers. But these are always opportunities we have snubbed in the past due to a complete lack of interest. And this is because we will forever prefer independent travel on our own terms and itineraries rather than being bussed along packed itineraries alongside a bunch of other bloggers.
But the past few months have been set in somewhat of a limbo, as we planned to be in the U.K. in April, and then again in July, but now in September we are still twiddling our thumbs in Thailand. And this is to do with an ongoing visa saga, which we ironically applied for to avoid the complications of travel to-and-from the U.K. on back-to-back tourist VISAs.
So given the situation, we really cannot plan any worthwhile travel ahead, and we have instead been hopping around Thailand a bit, living in Chiang Mai for a month, and just doing random road trips to keep us active. But with the uncertainty of our futures, we have to look ahead at the potential obstacles of our unlikely lifestyle, e.g. “what if we have to get actual jobs?”
Anyway, if we were ever to work the nine-to-five, I would rather it was in the travel industry, as it’s pretty much all I’ve known over the past 5 years. And I am fortunate that there is an easy introduction for us to the industry, through travel blogger media trips aka press trips or fam trips (familiarisation trips), which are opportunities that we’ve continually snubbed in the past years due to a complete lack of interest. We will always prefer independent travel.
In the past we have pretty much avoided all group tours, and I can only think of 3 non-independent tours we’ve taken in the past 5 years including a bus tour in Puerto Princesa (Philippines, Nov. 2012), something similar at the Terracotta Warriors in Xian (China, Dec. 2013) and an overnight cruise at Halong Bay (Vietnam, Oct 2013). Group tours which reminded me of tedious field trips at school. Only now we are adults. It’s just weird.
But it never helped that we really are not “people people”. We’re probably the least social people you will ever meet, almost reclusive even, and the thought of feigning interest in other’s feels is just excruciating to me. I just can’t do it.
So our travels have otherwise been independent before now, which goes the same for media trips, where we’d choose the destinations and experiences that we desire, before approaching hotels and travel brands to collaborate with along the way. And by doing this we can normally half our overall cost of travel, maybe more, while scoring some unlikely luxury along the way. It works well.
A good example of this would be our 10 days of winter train travel in Japan earlier this year makes for a good example. However, these travels do take a lot of organisation, time, and planning ahead, which are luxuries we really do not have right now as our life sits in this annoying limbo.
An Easy Introduction
So the ideal introduction came when I entered and won a travel blogger competition with the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand), which was something I entered thinking I’d be in the U.K. at the time, and could really have used the free flights. But obviously we’re still stuck here, and I inevitably found myself with a five-day tour of Bangkok and Isaan, which to me was like winning a tour of my own home town. So I obviously passed on the prize, but did join for one night to touch base with TAT, and many positives came from this.
But having now stepped out from our comfort zone, we thought ‘why not join an actual travel blogger fam trip’, which brought me to my emails to see what offers were on the table. And three quickly stood out. One, a blogging partnership with Centara including complimentary flights, luxury hotel stays, dining etc. throughout Thailand and Vietnam, although we could not pick and choose our hotels, and we can easily do similar with varying brands.
Then there was a paid opportunity offered by a collaboration of hotels in Taiwan, which included flights, hotels, transport, and daily spending allowances. But again this is independent travel, and it defeats the entire purpose of this nine-to-five, character building, social experiment.
Next Stop Malaysia
Arguably (obviously) the lesser of the three, was a four-day blogger media trip to Malaysia, run by a big hotel and resorts brand, where we’d be bussed around with a bunch of other bloggers, to write about the resort’s experiences.
So, in for a penny, in for a pound, we’re off to Malaysia. But we of course regret this immediately, where the thought of 4 days in close quarters to travel bloggers, is nothing short of a nightmare.
“Why are we even doing this?”
So we dreaded it from the first instance, and were near backing out on every other day, praying that maybe they’ll forget about us, or ditch us. Which just made the dissonance worse. As we were never quite certain on whether or not we’d actually follow through.
But we both were determined to follow through, it’s just a job after all, and if we just follow the itinerary, do the work, and keep our distance from others, then we’ll be back home soon again.
When it comes to jobs as well, it really is not a bad one, where we’d stay in high-end accommodation, eat fantastic food, and there’s all the travel and experiences in between. But it wasn’t a paid job, and while there may have been room to negotiate payment earlier, we were ultimately joining for the learning and research.
First Day Jitters
The taxi through Bangkok to the airport felt like the first day of school, or work, or boot camp. At the same time we were focussed and positive and there really was no turning back. At least that’s what I thought. So we boarded the plane and were ready to take of when Fanfan turned to me and said “I need to get off this flight. I can’t do this. I need to get off”.
I won’t go into her reasoning in much detail, but there were early annoyances when bunched together with a bunch of in-your-face influencers, and already we were way outside of our comfort zone. But, to be honest, I was relieved that it was Fanfan who backed out, and not myself, so I am happy to follow her towards the exit.
But, before reaching the doors, she turned to take a breath, and approached a flight attendant to ask for new seats. On boarding we had been split in seating in the flights, and fanfan was put in with the fashion bloggers, while I was sat in the row behind. But we are given new seats, and the job is back on. Although we had already abandoned the fam trip group within the first minutes of meeting them.
Fortunately this media trip was well-diversified, as normally we with these pitches we would be bunched in with backpackers and cookie-cutter travel blogs. Hence why we don’t bother with them. But this was a mixed bunch of travel, lifestyle, food, and fashion bloggers, each working to their own skill sets as web bloggers, microbloggers, vloggers etc. Diversity which I highlighted as lacking when I originally vowed to never join a travel blogger fam trip ever (eating my own words now).
An Amiable Bunch
This wasn’t so much a travel blogger media trip, and instead it was a familiarisation (FAM) trip for various media influencers from Bangkok. And I was somewhat happy to find I was the only “farang” (foreigner) on the trip through 14 varied influencers. Because I am always more interested in learning local and Asian cultures and backgrounds than your usual traveller tales.
We were always set to keep our distance anyway, hoping to blend into the background, and this proved to be the right call given the early drama and gossip between factions of local bloggers. It’s always good to be watching in from the outside on these things.
But, against our original adamant assurances, we did end up mingling, and giving into peer pressure, as we already knew a couple on the fam trip. We actually met on a separate fam trip by TAT in Thailand (apparently the blogging world is a small world) which we turned down. But we offered to join a night for a drink.
Anyway, they were relatively similar to us, only they were at least big city Bangkokians, just infinitely more social and outgoing than we are. So they roped us into a drink on the second night, which I’m fairly sure was the first I’ve given in to peer pressure since leaving grammar school. But otherwise I met an interesting bunch, and, while I do cringe when people say things like “we met some great people” and “made new friends”. We did a bit on this trip.
I may have found a new appreciation for people on this trip, thinking people really aren’t as annoying and unlikable as I usually suspect. At least from the industry I’m in. But the most memorable character was a Thai photographer, working for a magazine or something, who would sleep pretty much anywhere. We would be standing in a packed elevator once, eating at a busy table etc, then his eyes would close and… snores… then he would always disappear to the casinos resorts at night. It’s really a bit like a superpower.
It’s Not a Bad Job
So we did approach this blogger media trip as work, because any experienced travel blogger will know that your bed back home is where the holiday’s at. At least we find this with independent travel when chasing schedules, budgets and packed itineraries. But this blogger media trip proved less strenuous than expected, as we are shuttled from one attraction to the next, with next to no thinking or involvement. It really was overall easy.
The blog work can also wait until later as snippets and notes suffice along the way, only to be put together at a later date. Although this perk only really applies to bloggers, like us, who don’t rely on real-time or a social media following.
However I did push myself on the first day’s article, in a test of sorts, to see whether it is possible to actually publish articles along the way. As, technically, travel bloggers can live hopping from one media trip to the next, and it’s often a great way for new bloggers to create content and travel experience. Anyway, I pulled together my notes from the first day, Fanfan edited the images, and we published an article by breakfast the next morning. But it was a scrappy first draft, with no work on keywords or SEO, and I would have to return to fix it later.
The days are otherwise excruciatingly long, with our first day, for example, we started out in Bangkok at roughly 04:00AM. From then we had little more than 20 minutes break at the hotel, before a straight itinerary through to 09:00PM and later. It was quite possibly the longest day I’ve worked in my life.
But this was my major concern before setting out, where I’m otherwise set to a routine of waking early, sleeping early, and enjoying a nap or two in between. I’m like an elderly man. But I miraculously did adapt almost immediately to the new long hours and routine.
Then there’s other major worry, my love for booze, which is pricy in Malaysia, but we managed to stock up on wine at Bangkok’s duty-free on the way there. So each night, while the other cliques of influencers socialised on the resorts, we’d enjoy the limited free time with romance, relaxation and wine. As we were ultimately there for work, and our only finish line was Bangkok airport, and home.
So we did make it to the finish line, and despite finding only overwhelming positives from this experience, I am fairly certain that this will be our last (unpaid) blogger media trip.
The Grey Areas
Bloggers are often taken as pawns in the travel industry, cheap promotion, and fake corporate shills when out on media trips. Which is generally baloney, as there is absolutely no expectation to sugar-coat any of the experiences. And everything I shared was completely balanced and honest, whether they liked it or not.
The purpose of these blogger media trips is more to raise brand awareness, than to force spineless influencers to write shining reviews for them. And, in fact, I could probably have walked away having written nothing, and they really don’t check-up or hassle us to share coverage.
There are also no signed contracts, no legal obligations, and we were basically just sent an itinerary, and asked if we wanted to join. A set of bloggers even dropped out last-minute despite flights and everything having already been organised and paid for. Without any repercussions.
But I otherwise have no real qualms in sharing sponsored experiences, and while I often hear “we pay our own way” worn as a badge of honour, it really makes no difference to me. Partly because I feel no obligation to my audience (sorry audience), but also I feel payment method has nothing to do with the experience.
Media trips, or not, We are just independent bloggers sharing our own personal and honest experiences. If readers feel there is value in these experiences, then they should be able to weigh up their own value. And I really don’t care how other people spend their time and money, at the same time, I don’t take them as being idiots either, who can’t think for themselves.