This is a guest post from TBS member Julie Smith of Drive on the Left. Views expressed through guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Travel Blog Success.
Six months ago, a friend gave me this advice: ‘Starting today, you need to stop paying for your travel.’
I sat in shocked silence. My blog was clearly amateurish, and that’s generous. I created the header for the site the first time I ever opened Photoshop. While I officially had a Facebook and Twitter account for the blog, I had never actually used them. Until that point, the blog had been the way my husband and I shared stories with our families and friends home in America, while we lived our expat life in London.
I knew that other blogs were capitalizing on the business side of travel. But those blogs were clearly run by tech geniuses, who were professional photographers on the side, were trained as journalists, and had best friends that were the CEOs of National Geographic and Intrepid Travels.
How else could business seemingly materialize from a one-man show run from a laptop in Thailand?
But that advice…
It stuck with me. My friend happens to be a prominent blogger, and she was certain that even with my ugly website and loyal following of 50 people, we could start generating sponsors and travel perks immediately. And she told me how to do it.
My husband and I had a weekend trip planned to Amsterdam, six weeks in the future. We had booked our flights but that was it. With a few simple tips and tricks, we were able to land three different partners for the trip, which covered our lodging, transportation, and sightseeing.
Here’s how we scored our first travel blog sponsorship…
Step 1: Google ‘all opinions are my own’ ‘Amsterdam’ ‘blog’
Travel bloggers typically credit sponsors and partners with some version of the statement, ‘Thanks to Hotel xx for supporting me on my visit to Amsterdam. As always, all opinions are my own.’
If you look up this phrase through a simple online search, you will pull up blog posts from other writers who have stayed in a specific hotel or participated in a specific activity. More importantly, you also know that this property or company has worked with bloggers before and is open to it. Critical information.
Step 2: Look up each company and locate contacts
Once you have a list of properties and companies that have worked with bloggers before, look around each website to find a PR or Marketing contact person. These people typically manage blogger relationships.
If you can’t find any individual’s name, no worries. Just find the general Contact@ or Info@ email.
(Bonus tip: If you’re really persistent, go to LinkedIn and search for individuals, using a search like, ‘Hotel x Marketing’ or ‘Hotel x PR’. Once you have a name, go back to the hotel website and try and figure out the email naming scheme for the company, for example email@example.com.)
Step 3: Email each and every property
For our trip to Amsterdam, I emailed roughly 20 companies. This was primarily hotels (about 15), and the rest were canal cruise companies and the city marketing association, which according to my research, partners `with bloggers frequently.
The content of your email will depend heavily on your experience level and credentials. In my case, our blog had no impressive statistics, so I didn’t mention them at all. Instead, I included a sentence about our professional backgrounds (marketing and hospitality management). I also briefly described our site, and who we are. We didn’t have a media kit or any supporting documentation, so again, I just didn’t include it.
Here is the email in full that I sent to every company on our list:
I’m writing to you about my upcoming visit to Amsterdam. My husband and I are American expats living in London, and we document our European experiences on our blog, www.driveontheleft.com. We like to highlight the ease of travel around Europe for visitors and expats alike, and our audience is based primarily in the Americas and Europe.
For our upcoming weekend in Amsterdam, we plan to document, via articles and photography, how best to experience the city in a short time. Given our professional backgrounds (I am a marketing research executive and my husband has been in the hospitality industry for 10+ years), we like to focus on cultural highlights, hotels and restaurants.
Given this project, I am reaching out to inquire if you provide support to bloggers. Our visit is the weekend of the 30th of January 2015. Thank you in advance for your consideration.
A few notes about my word choices. My blogger friend who started this whole thing told me to use the specific phrase, ‘provide support to bloggers.’ This allows the company to offer up what they will (a press rate, free entrance, etc.) but it is purposely vague.
Also note that I didn’t include my Twitter feed. We weren’t really using Twitter at the time, and I didn’t want to highlight it, so again, I just left it off. For this email I didn’t have a contact person, but when I was able to find someone, I would lead with their name (‘Dear Ms. Koenig’).
You’ll also note that I gave some idea about what we were planning to write about (how to see Amsterdam in a short time). I’ve found that a specific focus tends to get better results, and the more focused the project is, the higher the response rate.
Step 4: Wait for responses
Patience is a virtue when it comes to email. In the case of our Amsterdam trip, any replies we received came within three business days. We sent the emails early in the business week (Monday/Tuesday) to allow for several days of responses without reaching the weekend. We’ve had the worst response rate with emails sent on Friday.
For this project, we heard back from 5 hotels, iamsterdam (city marketing), and one canal cruise company.
Step 5: Follow-up/Confirmation
The responses we received were varied. Two of the hotels asked for more information about our site traffic, and once we informed them of our meagre statistics, they were no longer interested in hosting us. Another two hotels offered us press rates. A final hotel offered us free accommodation immediately. Interestingly, this hotel was small and new, and they were specifically looking for partnerships with blogs to increase awareness without a lot of out-of-pocket expense.
Iamsterdam offered free public transport and entrance into all of the major museums we were hoping to visit. The canal cruise company offered a free cruise.
None of the companies we worked with asked for any specific output from our trip. We proactively assured them that we would credit them in our posts and gave them a time frame for when we would be writing about the visit. But this was not formally requested – we were just eager to be seen as enthusiastic and professional.
Step 6: Post-partnership Etiquette
We followed up with our partner companies a few ways over the next month. While we were in Amsterdam, we Tweeted and published Facebook posts that included a shout-out or two to our partners. This was fun for us, and it was nice to see the companies liking and sharing our comments with their audiences.
After we returned, we wrote follow-up emails to each of our partners, thanking them again for their support and reminding them when we would be writing about the trip.
Finally, upon publishing actual content, we tagged and linked to the companies on our social media platforms, and sent the final links back to the companies. We’ve been able to use some of the quotes from the email responses in testimonials on our now vastly improved website and in our media kit.
The small, new hotel that I mentioned earlier has since reached out again, asking us to provide a testimonial for their new website, which we were happy to do. We still chat with them over Twitter and I’m sure they would be happy to partner with us again if we return.
And that’s that. Simple, but not easy.
This process is time intensive and can be thankless, but it is thrilling and affirming to receive that first positive response.
Since January, we have used similar techniques to plan three other trips. We’ve had some level of success with each endeavour but it has varied. The main takeaway is that we never would have had any level of success had we not put ourselves out there and actively sought sponsorships.
Before you ask, we’re not yet travelling 100% for free, and I’m not sure we ever will. We’re still testing the waters and learning as we go. Which reminds me – I have some hotels in Romania to email.