An Exclusive Interview with Jen Stevens, Travel Industry Expert
CI: Tell us a little about how you got started in copywriting.
JS: My first piece of copy masqueraded as a thank-you note to my grandmother, and I was seven when I wrote it. She died a few years ago, and my folks found the note when they were going through her papers. It included lines like, “But wait, I haven’t even told you what I liked most about your gift!”
Really, I climbed through an open window from editorial writing to copywriting. After working for some years as a business reporter and editor, I landed in the editor’s chair at International Living, an Agora publication.
There, in addition to writing and editing lots of articles, I also found myself editing reams of sales copy – to sell IL’s tours, conferences, special reports, books, newsletters, and more, all travel-related. It was my first introduction to direct-mail copy, and eventually I made the shift from editing it into writing it.
It was a natural shift. To a large extent, my articles read like copy. I always felt I should convince my reader that my argument was sound, that he should heed my advice whether it was to buy in Honduras or travel to Mexico.
And I was lucky, because back when I was at Agora, the company was still relatively small. And so I learned about copy from the likes of Bill Bonner and Michael Masterson. That was before AWAI’s copywriting program existed.
CI: How did you break into copywriting for the travel industry?
JS: As I said, I got my foot in the door at International Living, and so travel copy was a natural niche for me to pursue. Travel interests me, and it’s something I’m enthusiastic about. I find it easy to transfer that enthusiasm to the page.
Plus, my experiences as a traveler (I’ve lived overseas several times and traveled through much of the world) give me credibility in the eyes of clients, because I can write about many destinations from firsthand experience.
CI: What is your favorite part of writing for this industry?
JS: I like writing about travel because it allows me to write about something enjoyable and romantic. Plus, I’m often selling a dream that’s immediately accessible – and I like that, too.
I suppose with lots of copy – travel or not – you’re selling a dream (at some level, anyway). With health copy, maybe your reader dreams of being pain-free. With financial copy, maybe he dreams of being financially independent.
With travel copy, the dream might be of the perfect two-week vacation. Not so grandiose, perhaps. But fun.
That said, a lot of the travel copy I write is what I think of as “lifestyle” copy. I’m not just selling a dream vacation, but a way of living that incorporates travel.
For instance, I just wrote a promotion to sell a conference about International Business Opportunities – careers you can pursue overseas that will provide you with the flexibility, income, and freedom you need to live anywhere in the world you choose. So there, as you can see, the dream is bigger. And I love that it holds such promise of a good life, such romance.
CI: What is the first thing you do when starting a new package for a travel-oriented product or service?
JS: The first thing I worry about is the Big Idea. I can’t really write until I’ve nailed down that unique position. It’s something I think is best done with the client. So I like to have a brainstorming call to talk about their vision for the product. That way, I’m sure I’m off in the right direction from the start.
On that call, I also ask for promotions that have worked best for them recently (always useful) as well as any promotions for similar products that have worked in the past. Say I’m writing a promo for a tour to China. In that case, I’d like to read what the client ran last year for their tour to India.
I take detailed notes during those calls, and often I’ll find that some bit of my headline or a story for a lead comes right from what somebody says.
The first thing I write, then, is the headline and lead. For me, that’s always the hardest part. Once I have that figured out, the rest usually comes pretty quickly.
CI: How do you connect with your audience when writing copy for the travel industry?
JS: I think the most important way to connect with an audience of travelers is to take your reader on a little trip – to illustrate the promise of your product by painting a picture of it for the reader.
Good travel copy is descriptive. That does not mean it’s full of adjectives and prose that gushes. Instead, it relies on specific details to paint pictures a reader can see in his mind.
“Imagine yourself on a beautiful tropical island” is not as strong as, say, “On this island, the warm water, bath-tub calm, laps quietly on sand as fine as talcum powder.”
CI: Can you give us a little snapshot of your writing process?
As I said, I like to write the headline and lead first, since that’s always the hardest part for me to nail. I’ll usually write a headline 15 or 20 times before I get it right. Sometimes more. I just write pages and pages of headlines until I’ve cooked the idea down to the core promise I want to make.
(I usually keep my list of headlines, by the way, since I sometimes find great subheads in there.)
Because I think stories and descriptions are so effective in leads – particularly in travel copy – I try to find an image that best illustrates my promise and begin with that.
Sometimes, if I know I need to get started and I just haven’t quite figured out what the Big Idea for my piece is going to be – or how to frame it for my reader – I’ll start by typing in all the boring stuff. Like how much this product costs and how to order. I’ll just get something on the page.
That gives me some momentum – and a page that’s no longer blank. And then I find it easier to get started working on the beginning of the promotion.
CI: How involved are you with the design process? Do you think the design plays a more important role in travel copywriting than in other copywriting niches?
JS: I always offer suggestions for layout with my copy – where sidebars should go, where pull-quotes should go, where testimonials should go.
But I’m not usually that involved with the final layout. Certainly, if I have a vision for how I think it should look, I include notes about that. And if I have a strong opinion about what sorts of photos should be where, then I would even include some samples to show the designer what I mean.
(And, in fact, I’m beginning to think I should be more specific in my instructions than I usually am. I just wrote a promo that’s up online now – and I think the designer went nuts. It’s so broken up by illustrations that go all the way across the page, it’s impossible to read.)
Do I think design is more important with travel than with other niches? No. With travel, you’re lucky because the photos of the places you’re writing about can make your copy look great. I think that’s an advantage. A good designer will capitalize on that.
But to my mind, the copy is always king. And so while great photos can certainly help catch a reader’s eye – get somebody to pick up your piece – it’s the copy that will sell him on the destination.
CI: What’s the hardest part of writing copy for the travel industry?
JS: The most difficult part is writing descriptions that really transport a reader. In truth, it’s not that hard to do. But most folks have no idea how to go about it.
They fill their copy with “travel speak” – words like, “beautiful,” “lovely,” “pretty,” “idyllic” that don’t really say anything about the place they’re describing. Those are generic terms.
Instead, the key is to come up with a few well-chosen specifics that will immediately give your reader a concrete sense of what this place you’re “selling” has to offer. Say you’re writing a website for a resort. Instead of saying “It’s remote and laid-back,” tell your reader “You’ll fly in on a six-seater plane and Bob (usually with no shoes on) will meet you at the airstrip, toss your bags into his pickup, and drive you the five minutes on sandy roads to the resort.”
CI: Is there one thing that you always do when writing copy for the travel industry?
JS: I think about the dream I’m selling and try to capture it immediately in the copy with a story or a description that transports my reader.
CI: What advice do you have for copywriters wishing to break into this niche?
JS: I think it’s important to learn something about writing travel articles if you’re to be a good travel copywriter.
(To my mind, good travel stories prompt a reader to take action – to put his paper down and say to his wife, “We really should take this trip, you’d love it.” And that’s exactly what travel sales copy is meant to do as well.)
So, first, read travel articles. You can read online the travel content of most major newspapers for free (even if you must pay to access their news archives). And you should subscribe to a travel magazine – they go for $10 or $12 a year. Money well spent.
Second, travel more. The more experience you have as a traveler, the more (and better) perspective and judgment you bring to your copy. The more of the world you’ve seen, the better able you are to identify what makes a particular place special.
And, third, learn some travel-writing tricks. I write regular articles about travel writing for “The Right Way to Travel,” AWAI’s free e-letter for travel writers.
In addition, I wrote AWAI’s home-study program on travel writing, and in it I talk quite a bit about what makes for good travel stories and how to produce them. I think you’ll find that the lessons I include there transfer directly to travel copy.
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