Coronavirus update: the inside view from the UK’s travel desks

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Today James Stewart talks exclusively about how the Covid-19 crisis is affecting the UK’s top travel desks and publications, and the stories they are looking to run right now.

If a week is a long time in politics, a month feels like an epoch during a pandemic.

When Roxhill Media reported on travel editors’ responses to Covid-19 on 6 March, desks were reeling but only cruise, Asia and Italy were off-limits. You don’t need me to identify what has changed.

The crises has also claimed its first titles. RIP Lonely Planet Magazine and Ethiad’s Atlas. Au revoir to other in-flights and the Sunday Times’s standalone travel section, “temporarily cohabiting with Home (while adhering to social distancing rules) until the travel advertising market picks up again”, says the Times/Sunday Times’s Duncan Craig.

With advertising hit across all titles, pagination has been squeezed on broadsheets and magazines. Only the tabloids buck the trend as classified shares unfilled ad’ space. The Sun’s Lisa Minot was offered 12 pages last weekend: “Absolute insanity. We went with five.” Nigel Thompson had 23 pages to fill across six sections in the Express, Mirror and Star: “An interesting challenge.”

Tough times, then. Yet empty pages mean opportunities.

Given ongoing uncertainty over lockdowns worldwide, planning remains short-term: weekly on tabloids and the Telegraph (“We read the ether each week to understand where are readers’ heads are at before we finalise,” says Claire Irvin), otherwise fortnightly.

The initial enthusiasm for virtual experiences has waned. Armchair travel – films, books, food – remains a handy filler plus a straightforward opening for clients. For instance, The Sun’s Sofa Escapes featured Florida last week because the Visit Florida team presented a tight package. Topical content remains an easy sell too. Minot names recent pieces hooked on the tenth anniversary of the Icelandic ash cloud and Netflix hit Tiger King.

What has returned since mid-March is the hunger for inspirational content. The good news is readers are still dreaming of travel, why the Sunday Mirror has launched a “Dreaming of…” section featuring an inspirational hotel, mini-slots for three hotels or products plus long-lead deals.

The Financial Times’s Tom Robbins explains: “Listicles with direct call to actions, price info etc feel out of sync with the moment. People want escapism, entertainment and general inspiration for trips they might be toying with but aren’t actively booking. That requires a shift in thinking from the PR industry, for whom the ‘book right now’ message has become the gold standard of coverage.”

Craig agrees, adding that so long as the badging is correct his sections can run any story they would have beforehand: “I’d love to hear from PRs about trips for 2021 or those to plan now, go later.”

He says shares and saves on Times digital platforms are very high – evidence that readers are looking ahead. The caveat? “I want to hear what readers want to hear: trips that offer risk-free travel. A lot of travellers will have been stung by cancelled trips. I’d like to know how companies are offering people peace of mind.”

Subscription-led models are up across the board. Most titles are upping digital content to balance reduced pages, the Telegraph especially so: “Good news for PRs and advertisers,” Irvin says.

New features in response to C-19 also present new opportunities. Be prepared to pivot to human-interest sections like the Telegraph’s Brave New World on community heroes or Sunday Times’ My Story. Both are a hit with readers. Robbins speaks for all when he says he’s after “exceptional stories about people doing unusual things to save the business or whatever, not a hotel GM about the wonderful new spa”.

For example, the Sunday Times’s first-person piece on an epic repatriation from Antarctica last week simultaneously delivered a cracking read and takeaway messages about host Steppes Travel’s interesting itinerary and exemplary customer support despite no call to action. As the old news-desk adage runs, one personal story is worth ten policy stories. You don’t have to be relentlessly upbeat (“it’s fine to talk about problems happening now,” Robbins says). And, as ever, counter-intuitive takes are potentially interesting; Duncan Craig cites a future feature examining the surge in cruise bookings. But think positive. No grim reads, thanks.

Faced with a glut of breaking stories, sharp analysis is in high demand, with many sections running Q&As and consumer advice as news unfolds, especially on digital platforms. The Telegraph has led the charge here. Claire Irvin says: “From PRs I want insight into what is going on with their clients. I want real-time news-lines. One off-the-cuff remark about an upturn in bookings turned into a feature.”

On the long-leads, Wanderlust’s Lyn Hughes and Maria Pieri, editorial director of National Geographic Traveller, have temporary commissioning freezes on print as they run backlogged features. However, both require content for social media campaigns – #WishIWasThere and #StayInspired respectively – plus digital platforms.

Hughes says: “We’re doing lots of types of round-ups, so there are opportunities to mention clients.” Pieri suggests ideas about chefs or recipes, anniversaries, photo-stories, access to brand ambassadors or client interviewees. Think laterally, she advises: “Rather than a guide on how to see Barcelona, we might run a story on how a cocktail was founded there and how to make it at home.”

Across all titles, punchy images help place ideas.

Even if not actively commissioning, editors are looking ahead, noting post-lockdown stories, looking for green shoots. They tell me they want to hear about deep discounting on future trips. UK coverage is likely to be the big winner. “When we come out of lockdown I don’t think there will be many other places to go,” Lisa Minot explains. “Also, I don’t think people will have the money to start going abroad.”

The single take-home message for PRs is keep talking. As the industry struggles to recalibrate, Minot says PRs represent just 3 per cent of her Inbox: “If you feel you have something to say, I definitely want to hear from you.”

As Craig puts it: “PRs should continue to do their job and we’ll continue to do ours. We’ll ride this out together.”