Media tours key part of tourism strategy

The snow started falling hard at Squaw Valley on a night in 2005 while Ronele Klingensmith, the president of Reno's RKPR Inc., was escorting a group of travel journalists on a tour of Sierra ski resorts.

By the time journalists from around the nation awoke to resume their tour, the snow was so deep that workers spent two hours digging out the front wheels of the bus and the journalists got plenty of first-hand material for articles about the snow that falls on Sierra resorts.

While no one is hoping for buses of snowed-in journalists, tourism executives in northern Nevada these days place a lot of importance on tours to familiarize travel writers with the region's attractions.

In fact, the Nevada Commission on Tourism lists media familiarization tours "fam tours" for short as a priority in its strategic planning.

The reason: "You get credible stories in travel magazines," says Chris Chrystal, media relations manager for the state travel agency. "People tend to believe what they read. We feel that it's very influential."

And tourism executives believe the tours are highly cost-effective.

When seven South Korean travel journalists toured Reno, Lake Tahoe and Virginia City in early 2009, for instance, the state's out-of-pocket cost was about $5,000 as the travel and hospitality industry picked up much of the tab.

When the journalists returned home, they wrote articles that produced publicity valued at nearly $207,000, Chrystal says.

"You get returns many, many times your investment," she says.

Results, however, can be slow to arrive. Articles often are published more than six months after a media fam event. For some seasonal articles skiing at Lake Tahoe, for instance a year may pass between tour and publication.

Dozens of travel journalists are squired around the region every year.

The Nevada Commission on Tourism organizes about a half dozen media fam tours a year, most of them for writers in international markets, and invites six to 12 journalists for each.

Some bigger opportunities also present themselves.

When the North American Travel Journalists Association met in Reno in May for its annual conference, more than 60 participants were hosted for a two-day fam tour organized by Jill Stockton, communications director of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

Using a formula that's proven successful with other groups of journalists, Stockton sought to combine a glimpse into the region's colorful history and a sample of high-end amenities such as a session at a hotel spa and dining at fine restaurants.

That sort of treatment occasionally draws freeloaders who want nothing more than a free vacation.

"All kinds of people say they are travel writers," says Chrystal. "But these aren't vacations we're handing out."

Stockton says RSCVA asks writers for their credentials, including details about the publications for which they write if they're freelancers, and sometimes cross-checks references with other travel organizations across the nation.

On the other hand, Klingensmith says organizers need to be careful that they don't invite and potentially offend journalists from media organizations that forbid employees from accepting free travel.

Plans for a fam tour typically are spelled out minute-by-minute, Chrystal says, and state tourism staff members often spend a month organizing a single tour.

"We try to give them a well-rounded view of what we have to offer," she says.

Klingensmith, who figures she's organized 14 fam tours that involved 10 or more journalists during her career along with at least 285 tours that involved smaller groups of writers, says there's nothing like experience when it's time to organize a tour.

She's learned that television and print journalists, for instance, often don't travel well together Television crews need time to set up their shots, but magazine and newspaper writers don't want to wait around.

Organizers need to walk a tightrope, too, as they provide the information that travel journalists need while avoiding any sort of hard sale.

"You want to build relationships," says Klingensmith. "That's priceless."

But even while organizers spell out the itinerary for media fam trips in minute-by-minute deal, they also know that something will happen to upset the schedule. Snowstorms trash the schedule for ski trips. Journalists get sick. They get tired. They want to spend extra time at an activity or skip one entirely.

"More so than anything, planning and being able to adjust at the drop of a hat are critical skills," says Klingensmith.


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