How To Run a Top-Notch Press Trip or Wine Junket

On occasion, I write posts here that are specifically for the world of wine marketing and PR. Reactions to these posts are strangely polarized. The folks in the PR world love them, but consumers somehow tend to read them as the complaints of an entitled, arrogant boor.

I guess that some people seem to think that by offering suggestions to wine marketing professionals on how to do their jobs better, including examples of less than ideal experiences that I’ve had with such professionals, I’m either looking for special treatment or whining about not having gotten it.

The important thing for people to remember is that the job I actually get paid for (as founder and CEO of HYDRANT) involves helping companies define and design great experiences for their customers. I know a thing or two about how companies can use their culture, business processes, products and services to create highly differentiated relationships that trump their competition. Large companies regularly trust me and my staff to completely overhaul every interaction they have with their customers, for fun and profit.

Regardless, if you’re a general wine consumer, you may want to skip this post.

Today I’m turning my attention to press trips or junkets: the all-expense-paid excursions that wine regions or wine organizations use to educate journalists and members of the trade on their particular place, producers, and wines. I’ve now been on more than a few of these such trips, and some have been much better than others.

The suggestions that follow below are a combination of some of the best practices that I’ve experienced as a journalist on these trips, and some suggestions based on my own thinking about what makes for an exceptional experience, which is what all such trips should aspire towards.

The biggest mistakes that I see most organizations make come in the planning stages of the process, and the most frequent and most fatal of these mistakes is simply not planning the trip far enough in advance. I kid you not, I’ve actually gotten press trip invites to far away international locations as close as two weeks before the scheduled departure.

Now all journalists are different, and some have much more flexible schedules than others, but they all have lives, and when it comes to picking up for a week and heading out of the country, most people require a little advance notice.

I recommend that trips be planned and announced no less than 4 months in advance. This level of advance notice makes life easier for everyone. It maximizes the likelihood that the invited journalists will be able to attend; it allows the trip sponsors to get the lowest price airfares and generally minimize their expenses; and it provides plenty of time to arrange a quality trip, including fielding requests from the attending journalists.

It is a good idea, in my opinion, when soliciting a journalist to come on a press trip, to provide a rough sample itinerary as part of the invitation. This of course, requires the sponsoring body to have at least some idea of what the general thrust of the trip will be, unless they are producing a truly custom trip for the journalist(s).

The invitation should provide the following information to the journalist:
– the dates and duration of the trip
– the focus or objectives of the trip
– the destination and sub regions to be visited
– the rough itinerary or likely activities of the trip
– the class of travel and accommodation (see below)
– how many people are anticipated / planned to attend
– language requirements or availability of translators (as necessary)
– how much flexibility there is in the itinerary
– who the sponsoring body is / who is paying for it
– when the sponsoring body needs a commitment to attend

Ideally the invitation should also be enticing. Include photos of the region to be visited, and generally get the invited party excited about the prospect of a visit.

Finally, the best invitation is a personalized one that addresses the journalist directly, and makes it clear why you want them (as opposed to any ‘body with a pen’) on the trip. Like any decent PR or marketing pitch, having read the journalist’s work and appealing to their interests or experience (even, politely, their lack thereof) is always effective.

Once journalists have expressed interest or even committed to attend the trip, a number of key things must be done.

Ideally, you should ask the attendees what they are interested in seeing/doing while on the trip. Every organizing body is different, and the circumstances of a press trip being put together vary greatly, but the more customized the trip can be to the interests of the journalists the better. Why? Because people are more likely to write about things that interest them, and they are more likely to look favorably on a trip that seems geared to their interests, needs, or even just their editorial calendar.

Ask the journalists to provide lists of wineries that they would like to visit, or failing individual wineries, their general interests in certain types (e.g. Biodynamic/Organic producers, smaller producers, historical producers, benchmark producers, women-run wineries, etc. etc).

Soliciting additional interests or things that the journalists want to do in a region or a specific place is also a good idea.

Finally, sponsors should find out if the journalists have any specific needs or requirements for the trip, including:
– dietary restrictions
– medical conditions or other health considerations, including physical stamina levels
– family members traveling with them
– etc.

The journalists should also be asked early on to provide all the necessary details for booking travel and accommodations, including:
– frequent flyer numbers
– passport numbers
– personal deals
– airline seating preferences
– smoking or non-smoking accommodation preferences
– any other hospitality preferences that might exist

The specific and complete itinerary for the trip should be finalized at least 4 weeks before departure. This means all travel arrangements have been made; all of the winery visits and appointments have been planned; and the sponsor is able to communicate the following information to the traveling journalists:

– the names and e-mail addresses of the other people traveling on the trip
– flight numbers and times and seating assignments
– how / when / by whom the journalist will be met at the airport (if applicable, see below)
– transport details to the hotel
– the daily, detailed itinerary for the trip including for each day:
– start times in the morning
– names of guides / translators / drivers
– means of transport
– locations and timing of visits / activities
– meal times and locations
– target return time to accommodations
– planned evening activities (if any)
– suggested dress code for all activities

If the itinerary, region, or climate requires any specific supplies, clothing, or other preparations, these should be communicated as well, such as sunscreen, sturdy shoes for walking or hiking, bathing suits, formal clothing for certain events, etc.

Behind the scenes the organizer of the trip should be working with all the individual wineries to determine which wines will be poured. This data should be collected, and provided to the journalists electronically, and on paper (see below for more information).

As the departure date approaches, the sponsor should communicate any changes to the itinerary along with a few other key bits of information, including:
– the expense policy for the trip and what expenses journalists will be expected to incur, and what documentation is required (e.g. saving of boarding passes, etc.)
– any known fees that will be due at airports with any special instructions (ideally these fees should be paid in advance by the sponsor if possible).
– contact names and numbers should anything go awry during travel such as missed / cancelled flights, etc.

The airfare provided should be a business class fare if the flight is longer than 5 hours, and as long as there aren’t specific financial incentives otherwise, the journalist should be given their choice of available carriers.

Why business class airfare? For several reasons:
– This is a business trip that is being taken by a professional
– Journalists will be happier and more productive having actually gotten some rest on long flights
– You want your guests to feel taken care of, even pampered if possible

It goes without saying that you should purchase the airfare on behalf of the journalist. I recently expressed interest in a press trip that I had been invited to, and was later informed that I would have to cover all the expenses myself, to be reimbursed at a later date by the sponsor. Given that it can sometimes take months for such reimbursement, especially at the hands of foreign government organizations, that was pretty much a non-starter.

Whenever possible, someone should meet the arriving journalists at the airport, and assist them in getting to their first point of accommodation. This is both a question of logistical assistance as much as it is a courtesy.

The itinerary should be set up so that the journalist can go from the airport to their first point of accommodation to drop their bags, shower, and relax for a while. The itinerary for the day of arrival should ideally be light on commitments to give people a chance to deal with jet lag.

Like airfare, accommodations should be business class, but in addition, accommodations may also be an opportunity to showcase aspects of the unique hospitality that a place can offer. Like so many aspects of a trip like this, choosing where people stay is an opportunity to begin to create stories for them, that hopefully they will turn around and tell to the world. This doesn’t mean that you have to put journalists up in six-star luxury everywhere. You should certainly make them comfortable, but if there are interesting, even exotic places that they can stay, so much the better for you.

All accommodations should have decent internet connections. In this day and age, this is a non-negotiable requirement for any journalist.

Ideally you should arrange to have all fees and incidentals for the journalist’s stay covered by a credit card on file, so that the journalist is not forced to pay for things like their internet connection or a bottle of water in the room out of their own pocket (even if they could get that reimbursed later).

Ideally the place of accommodation should have dining facilities. This will make breakfast easier to take care of on the trip, and will also be useful if someone gets sick or exhausted and needs to stay at the hotel and skip any of the trips activities.

Obviously, the person or persons who will serve as guides, translators, and/or drivers on the trip play a huge role in the quality of the experience for visiting journalists. Getting the right person can be the difference between a trip that is a triumph and a disaster. Language skills are important, as well as knowledge of both the region and of the wine industry.

Guides should be given briefings on who they will be traveling with, as well as the level of knowledge that those visitors have about the region and its wines, so they can focus on augmenting that knowledge, rather than covering unnecessary ground.

While it is theoretically possible to find someone who can fill the role of both driver, guide, and translator, such individuals are exceedingly rare.

Most press junkets are primarily structured around getting journalists and members of the trade out to visit wine producers. These visits should be structured according to the following guidelines:

Journalists should meet only the winemaker or owner at each location. If they’re going to travel across the world to visit the winery, and actually feel like they want to write about the experience, they are going to need to talk with the person in charge, not just some peon from the marketing department.

Winery visits should not exceed four in a single day unless the wineries are exceedingly close together, and generally should not exceed three if there is driving time between them. While it is important to maximize the time available on a short trip, there’s nothing to be gained by a grueling schedule.

Lunch should be scheduled for a reasonable hour of the day, and generally should be an opportunity to take a break from all the wine tasting. Except under special circumstances, it’s not a good idea to serve 12 wines at lunch.

Every winery that will be hosting a tasting should have Wi-Fi. If necessary, install it just for the tasting.

Ideally at the beginning of the trip, and at the very least at each winery, the journalists should be provided a tasting sheet which lists the wines that they will be tasting, including their full geographic indication or appellation classification, as well as ideal their:
– alcohol level
– suggested retail price
– case production
– importer in the journalist’s home country (if appropriate)

These sheets should also be provided in electronic / excel format.

Wineries should showcase the breadth of their offering, and whenever possible, highlight the best they have to offer. If possible, at least one library wine should be offered for tasting to provide some context for a sense of age worthiness.

In addition to tasting wine, of course, wineries should be prepared to offer journalists “the full tour.” This can be tricky, of course, as most professional wine writers have seen hundreds if not thousands of wineries and wine cellars and vineyards. The best way to approach things is to showcase the aspects of the winery or the vineyard that are truly unique, and ask what features of the production the group of journalists would like to experience. In my opinion, time spent in the vineyard(s) is more rewarding than time spent in the winery. Except, of course, if it is pouring rain or freezing.

Wineries should be encouraged to provide their literature in electronic form only, and should generally refrain from offering piles of brochures, data sheets, catalogs, etc, unless they are specifically requested by journalists. Huge piles of such literature always accumulate over the course of a press trip, and they are the first thing to go in the garbage when the luggage gets too full or too heavy.

Wineries should also be discouraged from offering gifts of wine, foodstuffs, or other souvenirs and knick-knacks for the same reason.

If winery principals require language assistance to communicate to the visiting journalists, this should be provided, and at a professional level. A bus driver that happens to speak some English is not a suitable translator. Ideally anyone employed as a translator in these kinds of situations should have some background in wine as well.

While the primary currency of the press trip is the visit to and tasting at an individual wine producer, it can be extremely valuable to organize larger tastings that expose journalists to various different categories of wines. On my recent press trip to Greece, the organizers put together a tasting of wines made from indigenous grape varieties that were from many different regions that we were not visiting on our trip. This tasting was incredibly instructive, and offered fantastic breadth of perspective that would have been impossible on a press trip focused only on one winery visit after another.

Likewise on my trip to Chile a couple of years ago, we got the opportunity to have a walk-around tasting of many of the country’s “icon wines” — the top bottlings from most of the major producers.

Often such tastings are among the highlights of my press trips.

While the focus of such press trips should primarily be wine, day after day of winery visits can begin to feel monotonous over time. And there’s more to any wine region than simply wineries.

Finding opportunities in the itinerary to engage journalists in other activities that are culturally, geographically, or seasonally appropriate can often be a source of both great relief to the journalists, as well as provide excellent story material.

One of the things I highly recommend is providing some means for journalists to get a sense of the broader geography of the region. The most ideal way to do this is through a plane or a helicopter flight over the region, but it could also easily be accomplished through a train ride, a cable car ride, or a drive to a vista point.

Other activities that could be relevant include:
– visits to culturally, historically, or archeologically important sites in the area
– visits to farmer’s markets or other markets
– visits to renowned wine purveyors in the region if they have a long history
– visits to renowned foodstuff purveyors or producers in the region

On one press trip, my hosts arranged for a brief casual lecture from one of the country’s top viticulturists about the general geology and viticultural history of the region. It was extremely informative and quite welcome, though I suppose with the wrong presenter it could equally have been a yawn-inducer.

Constructing the day-to-day itinerary for a wine press trip is truly an art. It needs to balance the brevity of the trip and the need to accomplish a lot in a short period of time with the human stamina of the journalists, as well as their professional needs.

Perhaps the second biggest mistake that I see organizers of such press trips making is failing to give journalists time to actually do any writing. Not only is being scheduled from 8 AM breakfasts to 9 PM dinners day after day completely exhausting, it doesn’t allow journalists to begin crafting their thoughts on what to write. And that’s not even considering that many of them will be on deadline during the trip itself. I don’t think I’ve been on a single press trip where one of my fellow journalists hasn’t had a story due in the midst of a trip.

Every two or three days journalists should be provided with a free morning, afternoon or evening to allow them to relax, write, or just explore the local area at their pace. Likewise, not every dinner should be set up to be a long affair with lots of wine to taste and many winemakers in attendance. All to often such dinners drag on late into the evening, and seven straight days of such affairs can be brutal.

If the trip includes travel within a wine region by air, or significant travel by car or rail, such travel days are easy opportunities to provide a chunk of free time either before departure or at the destination.

Speaking of such travel, there’s a fine line between showcasing a few regions and a seemingly never-ending succession of hotels and new destinations. A seven day trip with five different hotels to stay at is a recipe for disaster.

The post trip experience matters more than you think, especially since your overall goal is to create a favorable impression on journalists that will generally leave them predisposed to think fondly of your wine region.

On a press trip I took last year I ended up incurring about $70 in expenses for cab fares and other miscellaneous things that were supposed to be reimbursable. It took literally seven months of painful communications and queries for me to be paid back. That’s hardly the last emotional impression that the organizers would want me to have of my trip.

Needless to say, dealing with trip expenses is an easy way to leave a good impression.

Likewise, providing informational resources to the journalists about what they tasted, who they visited, etc. can be quite helpful and can make the difference between getting press coverage and not.

Finally, it’s quite important to find out how the experience could be improved next time. Creating an online survey for feedback from journalists is an excellent way to both potentially address any outstanding issues before they flare up (like my expense report), as well as gather good ideas for how to improve any and all aspects of the trip for the next time. It also makes it clear that you care about the quality of the experience you deliver, and have the desire to improve it.

* * *

The above is not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult to create an exceptional experience.

So provided you made it this far, do you have any additional suggestions? If you’re a journalist, do you have any best practices or horror stories to share? If you’re a PR professional, do you have any things that you think have worked particularly well on trips you’ve run? Let me know.

Now back to your normal consumer focused programming.