ou don’t have to hop on a plane and travel halfway around the world in order to find a good idea for a travel article. This summer, grab your notebook, camera, day pack, and maybe even your best friend and hop into your car for an adventure in your very own town, city, or state. It is packed with hidden gems you probably didn’t even know existed. By keeping your eyes open and enlisting the support from your local organizations, you will uncover a treasure chest full of article ideas right from your own “backyard.”
On more than one occasion, while driving back from the airport with a visiting family member, I heard, “Oh, wow! Those are amazing!”
“What’s amazing?” I asked.
A finger pointed west. “The mountains!”
I had become so accustomed to the incredible view that I forgot people from all around the world travel to Colorado each year to see the Rocky Mountains. It wasn’t until I took my blinders off and started looking at my state through a visitor’s eyes that I noticed all the great places to see, the unique people to talk to, and the fun things to do.
My freelance career began over a decade ago. Many of my early articles were travel pieces about my own amazing state, Colorado, where I have lived for the past thirty-five years. My first travel article, “Think Wine, Think Colorado,” featured Colorado wineries. Up until then, I had no idea that some of the highest vineyards in the world could be found here. For an article about outdoor winter activities (excluding downhill skiing/snowboarding), I learned that there are dog-sledding tours in various mountain towns. When researching my own city for an article, I found out that Old Town Fort Collins was the inspiration for the Disneyland Main Street in California. I now know that I have only scratched the surface on all the great travel ideas in my own state.
“Look at your city through the eyes of a visitor.”
If you are hanging out in your hometown, try to find those places you never made time for in the past. Look at your city through the eyes of a visitor. A writer friend of mine, Jenny Sundstedt, lives in Fort Collins, too, and has for her whole life. Last August, she decided to rediscover our city and do one new thing each week and blog about it on her Choice City Native blog. While normally a quiet, reserved person, Sundstedt has come out of her shell for this task. She has found plenty to write about and is enjoying the chance to see our city in a different light.
When immersing yourself into a new location, find where the locals hang out (a local bar, coffee shop, restaurant) and go talk with them. Ask them questions about their city and get some insight from them.
Visit tourist spots and look for a new angle. There is no shortage of articles about Colorado ski towns in the winter, but what about the other seasons? Is there anything to do in Breckenridge in the summer? Are there events going on? What do the locals do in the off-season? Even if a city has been covered a lot, there are always fresh angles if you look for them.
Loren Mooney, travel editor with Sunset Magazine, said there are a few key components to getting the attention of a publication. “First, if you can tie your area to a current large trend—three microbreweries opened this spring or your small town has a budding food truck scene. Second, a surprising twist on a well-known place can work well—Palm Springs on the cheap, say. The third is to take advantage of your local knowledge with details to make your story unique. People want to know not only about the best bar/café in your town, but also the Saturday bartender’s name or the story behind the farm that supplies the chicken.”
“...take advantage of your local knowledge with details to make your story unique.”
(Photo: Loren Mooney, Sunset Magazine travel editor)
Regardless of whether you are writing about your hometown or other areas in your state, there are organizations available to assist you and put you in contact with the correct people. The local convention and visitors bureau and the chamber of commerce are two that should be at the top of your list. Some smaller towns like Glenwood Springs, CO and Escondido, CA combine these two entities into one.
A local convention and visitors bureau (CVB) can be found in most cities. A CVB focuses on tourism, meetings, conventions, and events in an area and are incredibly helpful to travel writers. Their goal is to bring visitors to the area, who, in turn, shop in the local stores, eat at the restaurants, visit the attractions, and stay in the hotels. This helps to keep the local economy strong. Because of this, CVBs enjoy working with travel writers who plan to give their city coverage in print or online.
“...the role of CVBs working with journalists is to provide information on the destination and photography, and to suggest itineraries based on the interest of the writers and their audience.”
Jim Clark, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau, shared that the role of CVBs working with journalists is to provide information on the destination and photography, and to suggest itineraries based on the interest of the writers and their audience. He added that they can also help make travel arrangements, host some meals, set up appointments, conduct tours, and be your guide and resource for the visit.
To contact a CVB, visit the website, where you will typically find a press or media page with basic information about the city. In addition, you will find the PR or marketing person’s phone number and e-mail.
“Normally, we’ll jump at the opportunity and help as much as we can,” said Clark, “But CVBs will respond differently to a well-known writer versus an unknown one, so the journalist may need some ‘cred’ in terms of providing clips of previous stories or authentication of assignment.”
With so many travel bloggers on the Internet these days, CVBs are paying more attention to the credentials of the journalists that approach them. They are always available to answer questions; but if they are going to invest time and money on a writer, they want to know that the article is going to be in a reputable magazine or on a website with a big readership.
If you have an assignment, it is important to check with the magazine to find out the policy on receiving free or “comped” items. Some publications have no problems if a writer gets a free hotel room or meal from the CVB while working on an article; other publications have strict policies against this and will pay the expenses of the writer.
Regardless, CVBs can be incredible resources for a travel writer; and as a thank you, be sure to include their phone numbers and websites somewhere in your article.
Most cities also have a local chamber of commerce. This organization provides information about the businesses in the area and is great for getting statistics, like population, education level, average income, housing, and basic information about the city. If you need facts or contact information with the business community, the chamber is a great resource.
“...if you are seriously interested in being a travel writer, then consider investing in a decent digital camera and learn how to take your own photos.”
Capturing the Story
CVBs and chambers have quality photos they will grant permission to you to use for your article. But, if you are seriously interested in being a travel writer, then consider investing in a decent digital camera and learn how to take your own photos. This will add value to your article; and many times, you will get paid extra for the photos.
Tom Bol, editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado, shared some advice on taking good photos. “First of all, don’t hold sentimental value on your images. If they aren’t sharp, exposed properly, and subject relevant, you are just wasting the editor’s time. Include many different angles, wide shots, telephoto shots, horizontal and vertical, a variety of subject matter. I think about what a graphic designer might need for a layout when taking photographs for an article.”
“Finally, work on capturing the emotion and mood. Think about a story on the Georgetown train, chugging through the scenic Colorado mountains. A close-up shot of a child smiling, having the time of her life will really draw people into the article; we all like happy kids. Imagine the same shot except taken from a distant perspective or just of tourists sitting on the train. You lose a lot of that warm feeling, and the image isn’t as effective for the story.” Finding the story is important not only for the photos but the article as well.
Before heading out to a city, Andrew McCarthy, contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler and the SATW Foundation 2010 Travel Journalist of the Year, researches the place he is going to visit.
“I find my idea before I go and hunt for evidence of the story I want to tell,” said McCarthy. “I don’t just show up and say, ‘This is a cool place. I think I’ll write about it.’ That said, be open to surprises, and follow your nose. And know a good quote when you hear one.”
“...be open to surprises, and follow your nose. And know a good quote when you hear one.”
Once you have researched and visited the area, it is time to write the article. Tom Hess, editor for AAA Encompass, looks for an article that gets his attention, draws him into an adventure, and gets him dreaming about a trip to the destination or activity described. He looks for more than a list of available attractions, lodgings, restaurants, business hours, admission prices, and other details.
“A good article engages all my senses—not just sights and tastes—but also the sounds, smells, touch, quality of light, and people,” said Hess. “The article should help me get to know the locals: how they talk, how they think, what they value, how they recreate, how they celebrate. Help me as a reader understand why I should care.”
It doesn’t matter if you live in California, Colorado, or Kansas, there are places, people, and events to write about. Carry with you a spirit of exploration, and stay open to all the possibilities. You will soon discover an abundance of ideas and be able to write about your own “backyard.”
Kerrie Flanagan is a freelance writer and director of Northern Colorado Writers. Her 130+ articles can be found in various national and regional publications. You can read her blog at http://www.the-writing-bug.blogspot.com or visit her website at http://www.kerrieflanagan.com.
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