This year, I’ve participated in two trips spearheaded by Arantxa Ros, who collaborates with regional tourism boards in Spain to plan “blog trips” for travel writers who are deeply engaged with digital and social media.
During the first of these trips, I wasn’t entirely sure what a blog trip was and how it differed, if at all, from a traditional press trip (also called a FAM trip, such a dumb and ugly term). I soon learned that it was quite different, and in important ways. During the second trip, while on a bus transfer through the Pyrenees, Arantxa and I spoke at length about the distinguishing characteristics of a blog trip.
Julie: What is a blog trip, and how is it different from a traditional press trip?
Arantxa: A blog trip is a different, unusual, and modern initiative to promote destinations or a brand [within the] tourism industry. The first thing is the high tech component; we want to focus on digital users. That’s why we need digital magazines, applications [apps], and blogs–to approach those users who are more into the Internet world than into traditional media. But [we don't want to] forget about traditional media, especially nowadays. The wisest thing is not to think only about bloggers; I believe in communicators.
Julie: In terms of the actual outcomes on a traditional press trip, often the PR firm or the DMO [destination management organization] is looking for coverage in a print magazine. What are the products or outcomes you’re looking for on a blog trip?
Arantxa: We want to promote [the destination and its stakeholders] but we are not focused only on media [outlets]; we’re focused on the people who are representing those media. [With blogs], the interests and reach of these people are wider; they have different readers and users with different interests. The real-time factor is also important. By using social networks such as twitter, flickr, instagram, or facebook, [these bloggers reach more people through diverse media].
Julie: Talk a little bit about those applications and the real-time effect of the #inPyrenees trip, both in terms of the reach that you’re seeing during a trip and the impact after a trip. How key are the social media platforms for real-time dissemination of what’s happening on the trip?
Arantxa: The real-time impact is something we like and we’re experimenting with, but these actions are not just for the moment. If that were the case, we could just organize a tweetup or a facebook meeting, or whatever- have an event, select a group of participants, and and as soon as the event is over, you measure and that’s it. With the blog trip [it's different]; it takes seven days; it’s a very [diverse] group of people. I expect immediate results, but also long-term results.
Julie: How do you choose the people who come on the blog trip? When you look at people who are “travel blogging influencers,” how do you make those determinations about who to invite on trips?
Arantxa: Well, first of all, I’ve been following all of them for three years… not just the people on this particular trip, but [travel bloggers in general]. You get to know the person in this way. I have done my best to meet most of them personally, not just me [face-to-face], but attending meetings or conferences, seeing how they interact [with others]. You also investigate the interactions they have with other bloggers and their own audience. I do this by looking at several sites, not just their own blogs. There’s also an interest in their market– the adventure market, for example–and languages. I’m looking for bloggers who are from or who reach readers in countries that produce actual visitors for Spain. Someone in New Zealand, for example isn’t very, very important for us; they might be very cool, but we can’t expect many visitors from there. [I have a] meeting [with the tourism board] and we decide what languages we need, what topics we need–gastronomy, adventure, culture–, and then we start to find the digital ambassadors.
An important part of the decision-making involves [making an assessment about] quality. You can’t determine quality by reading just one post. You have to be following for a long time. The technical tools available on the market also give me a lot of information about [readership/statistical] data. I also request information [from prospective bloggers] to get the data I can’t collect with my tools. If someone does not want to give [that information], then they’re not invited.
Julie: The activities we’ve had on this trip have been top-shelf experiences, and it seems like a massive amount of planning and coordination goes into the blog trip. How far out do you start planning them and what are some of the behind-the-scenes challenges and tasks involved in planning a blog trip of this magnitude?
Arantxa: It is a lot, because as I said before, we’re not planning an itinerary for a particular media [outlet], but for the people who are coming… the things they like, the things they don’t like, the things they are willing to do, and the things they’ve already done. We want the trip to have a “wow factor”– an element of surprise. And that’s something that we’re giving to a person. We’re not giving it to a magazine or a newspaper, but to the person. We’re looking at their interests, their dreams, their expectations. The itinerary is built up around all these considerations.
It’s quite complicated [planning the trip], because it’s not just the tourism board doing it alone. They involve a lot of people, a lot of brands and other [local] tourism boards, to create a collaborative team. That is very nice because everyone feels like they’re a part of the promotion or at least they had the chance to participate. It’s up to them. There are people [in the tourism industry] who are very willing to try new things [like the blog trip]. There are others who are more conservative, but they are all given the chance.
To do things properly and get everything coordinated–the hotels, the providers of meals, and all the activities–takes a minimum of four months. Six months are ideal. There are always things you want to get–something important you don’t want to miss–and you depend upon the agenda of other people, so that has to be factored into the planning process. When nature is involved, you have to take weather into account and you have to have a Plan B. So you can have a great itinerary, but you have to have a side itinerary too.
Julie: It also seems that a key factor in planning for a blog trip versus a traditional press trip is making sure that you have the technological connection. Having the MiFis on this trip, for example, is really critical. If the tourism board is going to get maximum return on its investment on a blog trip, then the bloggers have to be connected.
Arantxa: Of course. Without it, there’s no real-time element. We’re aware that [the participants] are working on these trips. It’s not just have the experience, take the photo, and you’re done. You’re [all] editing, uploading, writing blog posts, and communicating with your followers. Some of you are managing [online] communities; we understand you can’t just disappear for a week.
Julie: You have really been the forerunner in establishing a blog trip model but I think that, as with any promotion, you can’t just pick up the model and import it to another destination and expect the same efficacy. If other people are looking at your efforts as a model for blog trips, what are some of the things you think are key that they could adapt for their own market?
Arantxa: These initiatives have to be inside a frame, aligned with a marketing and communications strategy. You can try to do one to see if it works, if you feel comfortable [doing this sort of initiative], and see if brands [and industry stakeholders] are willing to get involved. You have to experiment. There’s not a magic formula. Within [a tourism board's] marketing plan, there has to be a digital marketing plan. Do your first blog trip as a test to see what works. Then, develop a long-term plan. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the maximum value.
Julie: How do you measure the return on investment of a trip like this? This is a massive investment.
Arantxa: I prefer to talk about “return of engagement.” Obviously, this is not cost-free, but when you get [industry stakeholders] involved, the costs are not as high as other [marketing] actions… if the brands really want to work with you. This is key. Working together, we spend less, we get more, we go farther. I think collaboration is a must.
Julie: Anything else you want to say about blog trips or about what you’ve learned after having planned several blog trips?
Arantxa: I think we have to keep exploring. We have to lose fear. We have to be wise, have wide expectations, think about the future and the new generations and the digital world and its continual evolution. There are many opportunities. The ones who try and test will get results. I don’t think you can maintain your brand simply by doing the same thing you’ve been doing for the past 50 years because it’s not enough. Communication for me is a must and focusing on the people is everything; the bloggers who come here become part of a project, a collaboration that continues beyond the trip.