Stay in fab hotels for free – how to get sponsored stays through your travel blog

by Heather Cowper on August 19, 2012

Travel the world and stay in top hotels for free? Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? Well yes and no. My travel blog at Heatheronhertravels.com has enabled me to stay in some wonderful hotels, apartments and holiday homes in the last 2 years, either paying nothing or a much reduced rate, but I’ve had to work hard for the privilege. You’ve heard the saying ”There’s no such thing as a free lunch?” … well there’s no such thing as a free hotel stay either.

The reality is that if  hotels, tourism boards or accommodation providers agree to host your stay it is because they are expecting something in return. You are now entering a business transaction in which you trade something that you can provide (publicity through coverage on your blog) for something the sponsor can provide (a room for a night or two with no charge)

Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, San Antonio Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, San Antonio – click to read the article

You will be an attractive prospect for someone to provide a free accommodation stay if you can offer some or all of the following;

  • A well established, well written and attractive looking blog that targets the same type of customer as your accommodation
  • A presence in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Google +, Pinterest
  • An engaged audience who trust what you’ve got to say
  • You’re an established freelance writer with an assignment to write for a well known publication

There are some ways of getting free accommodation that come with minimal strings attatched and they include; staying with family or friends; staying at home and doing a day trip; or finding a host through an organisation such as Couchsurfing or Hospitality Club.

Laswern Fawr, Nr Crickhowell, Brecon Beacons, Wales Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Laswern Fawr, Nr Crickhowell, Brecon Beacons, Wales Click to read the article

Accepting sponsored accommodation in return for coverage on your travel blog may not cost you any money but it definitely does have strings attached.

Why you might not want to seek sponsored accommodation;

  • You prefer not to plan ahead – you are the sort of traveller that will go where and when the fancy takes you.
  • The places you’re travelling to aren’t that expensive anyway – in some countries a modest outlay might get you a lovely place to stay, so you’re not saving much by getting it sponsored.
  • You’re going off the beaten track where there aren’t many places to stay anyway – maybe you should pack your tent
  • It doesn’t work for your blog to write about accommodation – perhaps you cover consumer travel issues so a hotel review would be out of place
  • You don’t want to feel obliged to write about accommodation that wasn’t that great
  • You’re not too fussed about where you stay so long as you have somewhere to rest your head.

Why you might look for sponsored accommodation;

  • You want to reduce your travel expenses, which means you can live on less or can travel more
  • You enjoy staying in accommodation that’s a bit nicer than you could normally afford
  • You’re happy to trade time making notes, speaking to hotel staff, shooting photos and video in return for the benefits above.
  • You plan your travels in advance and visit places where there is a wide choice of accommodation
Restaurant at Elite Plaza Hotel, Gothenburg, Sweden Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Restaurant at Elite Plaza Hotel, Gothenburg, Sweden. Click to read the article

Still interested? If you are a travel blogger who’d like to reduce your costs by getting some of your accommodation covered when you travel here are my tips for how to go about it;

Who should you approach about sponsored accommodation?

Tourism boards or Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs)

Typically they will have to cover the cost of the hotels from their limited promotional budget so they will be most interested in providing accommodation as part of a visit to promote their city or region. They will typically pay a reduced media rate directly to the hotel and may fund a room for 2-3 nights as part of a press or blogging visit, which could be an individual or group trip. They will probably accommodate you and a partner but not the whole family.

Individual hotels or hotel groups

They will be most interested in the promotion that you can offer for their individual hotel, especially if it is a new opening or recent renovation. They will be looking for positive articles with photographs and possibly video and will normally offer a 1-2 night stay, sometimes including breakfast or dinner and sometime extras such as a spa treatment if you will cover it as part of the story. Typically medium or large size hotels with plenty of rooms to fill will be more open to a sponsored stay than smaller, family owned hotels.

Websites that market a wide range of accommodation such as city apartments, holiday cottages, B & Bs

These are useful to contact if you want to stay in an individually owned apartment or B&B where the owner can’t afford to give you a sponsored stay. They will be looking for promotion of their website and the travel experience through your blog. They may offer you sponsorship up to a certain value and sometimes the owner may contribute with an additional discount. Sometimes they could offer you accommodation at a reduced rate to cover the costs of cleaning and electricity. This is a good option if you are travelling with the family or friends and need more space or want to stay for more than a night.

In all of the cases above, you may be able to secure a complimentary stay for 1 or possibly 2 nights but for a longer stay it may be more realistic to request a discounted media rate.

Our rental house through HomeAway.com Photo: MybloggingJourney.com Our rental house through HomeAway.com. Click to read the article

Here is my step by step guide to approaching sponsors for accommodation. This approach works well for contacting  accommodation providers directly but you can tailor the approach if you are approaching tourism boards;

Step 1 – What can your blog offer?

First consider what you can offer your potential sponsor. Ideally you will have a well established and presented blog that has some reasonable levels of traffic, audience engagement and a social media presence. I probably wouldn’t start pitching for sponsored accommodation in the first month of launching my blog but on the other hand if you are on the road to building up your blog you may still be able to present an attractive proposition to a potential sponsor. You are some things that you could offer;

  • An article on your blog with photos and possible a video covering your stay at the hotel
  • A mention of the hotel in other articles you write about different aspects of the trip, for instance in a fact box at the end of an article
  • If you are a professional or semi-professional photographer, smaller accommodation providers may appreciate copies of your photos and you can also post them on your photo hosting site such as Flickr or Picasa where them may be found through an image search.
  • If you can make a video or slide show about the accommodation to post on Youtube or other video hosting sites, this will be an added benefit
  • If you are a podcaster you can mention the accommodation in your podcast about the trip and in the accompanying show notes
  • If you are strong in social media you can provide coverage on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, in the build-up to your visit, during your stay and as promotion for articles you write following your stay.
  • You could offer to help promote future publicity or news campaigns that the sponsor is running through your social media channels
  • You can offer links within your article back to the sponsor website that use the keywords or anchor text that they are promoting in their SEO efforts
  • You could offer a guest article to another travel blog where you know the blogger – this is a good option if your own blog is quite new or isn’t suitable for accommodation reviews
  • You could provide an article to appear on the accommodation provider’s own website, blog or news page

Step 2 – Prepare your media pack or information sheet

In order to support your proposal it is a good idea to compile a media pack that gives the potential sponsor all the information they might need to make a decision. This could be a colourful PDF with plenty of photos from your travels or a 1-2 page word document. It’s good to convey your enthusiasm and inspiration for travel in pictures but the sponsor is making a business decision so they need some key facts too. You’ll need to share information like;

  • Who you are and your style of travel
  • Who your blog is aimed at
  • Types of travel that you cover e.g. family travel, citybreaks, outdoor adventure,
  • Your blog traffic in Unique visitors/month and Page Views/month (Google Analytics is most accurate but other traffic sources may be more flattering)
  • Audience breakdown by country/region – from Google Analytics
  • Any other available demographic information e.g. male/female ratio, age range – you can use Quantcast for this or YouTube Analytics also give this information for your videos
  • Social Media stats e.g. Klout score, Twitter followers, Facebook Page likes, YouTube monthly views or subscribers
  • Any places your work is published other than your blog
  • Prizes or awards for your work
  • Links to where you can be found online
  • Links to previous articles written for similar accommodation types

This information needs to be easily accessible to your sponsor when you send your proposal; either you could attach it to an e-mail, paste it into the body of the e-mail or send a link to a page on your blog where you have this information.

Laystall Apartments from staymanchester.com Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Laystall Apartments from StayManchester.com. Click to read the article

Step 3 – Research your ideal accommodation

Assuming you know the locations you are planning to visit you can start researching possible accommodation. If you are visiting a major city, hotels or serviced apartments are good options. If you will be in the countryside then you could look at holiday cottages, B&Bs, villas or resorts. Things to consider are;

  • Medium or large size hotel groups are more likely to have rooms to fill and budget to cover PR so are a better bet than approaching small, family run businesses
  • If companies are working with a limited PR budget then you are more likely to get their support in the first half of the year, or before their peak season starts
  • You are more likely to get a sponsored stay in low season or on the least busy days of the week (often Sunday and Monday) than in high season and at weekends when the hotel is full
  • You should avoid requesting to stay when there is a major festival or sporting event happening in the area
  • You should target the type of accommodation that suits your style of travel and will appeal to your audience – if you are 20-something backpacker who normally stays in hostels then targeting a luxury hotel may not be the most successful approach.
  • Research whether the accommodation you have in mind will suit your needs – read the Tripadvisor reviews – research as if you were planning to spend your own money
  • Check whether the accommodation you have in mind has plenty of availability at the time you plan to visit.
  • You will get a better response if you give specific details of the date you would like to stay.
  • Does the accommodation have a presence in social media such as Twitter, Facebook , or a blog on their site – if so they will be more positive about the idea of working with bloggers
  • Have you noticed that the accommodation provider has been working with any other bloggers – do a Google search and see if any blog articles come up – normally any sponsorship would be disclosed at the bottom.
  • Only approach accommodation that you would love to stay in – it’s better to be able to write a genuinely positive article than be put in an embarrassing position of highlighting shortcomings that could have been forseen if you’d done your homework.

I’ve found that if accommodation is the main thing you need help with then it’s better to go directly to hotel or accommodation providers. However, if you are visiting a city or region and will be writing a number of articles about it then you could approach the tourism board. However, be aware that they receive many requests and have to be selective who they support, so in this case it’s better to pitch your request in terms of a blogger’s or press trip covering the area rather than a pure accommodation request.

Step 4 – Send your request to the right person

It’s always better to ensure that your request hits the mailbox of the correct person who deals with journalist & blogger media enquiries. They may not be able to give an instant answer but at least your request won’t be stuck in a generic mailbox waiting for someone to pass it on. There are several ways that you can identify the best place to send your proposal;

  • Research the company website, look for a press or media page and try and identify a named press officer or person that deals with media enquiries
  • If there’s no obvious Press or PR contact given on a hotel website, then look on the contact page for the most senior person that seems appropriate to deal with your enquiry
  • Do a Google search for Press or PR together with the company name and see what you come up with – sometimes you’ll find press releases that have a contact at the bottom but make sure they are current and not 5 years old.
  • Contact the company via their Twitter or Facebook page – a DM or private message is best, and ask who is the correct contact to approach
  • If you are an established blogger most likely you will receive plenty of random Press releases in your inbox – instead of instantly pressing delete you may spend 30 seconds considering whether it’s a contact worth keeping for the future – for instance if it’s a PR agency or hotel group that has places where you might want to stay in the future. I keep a folder in my e-mail to store these for future reference.
  • If you find an article about the accommodation written by another blogger, you could contact them and ask for any contact details they have
Avenue Hotel in Copenhagen Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Avenue Hotel in Copenhagen. Click to read the article

Step 5 – Send your proposal

Your proposal is your sales letter so it’s worth spending some time to get it right. The first paragraph should contain the essential information, so that the reader can take in your request at a quick scan. Include things such as;

  • A short introduction to yourself and your blog (highlighting any previous connection with them)
  • An outline of why you are contacting them and what you are requesting
  • Specific details of what help you need e.g. 1 rooms on X dates and on what basis (complimentary stay, media rate)
  • Overview of what you can offer them in return
  • Examples of similar articles you have previously written

Here’s an example that I might write;

Dear Jane

I’d like to introduce myself as Heather Cowper, a travel blogger at Heatheronhertravels.com, a well established UK based blog with traffic of 30K page views per month. I’m contacting you as I plan to be in Budapest in October and am looking for somewhere to stay and write about on my blog. I would love to stay at the X hotel as it seems the perfect base for exploring the city and I enjoy staying in boutique hotels like yours that have a unique style. I am looking for a double room for 2 nights bed and breakfast on Friday X October and Sat X October, on a complimentary basis. In return I would be able to offer an in depth article with photos on my blog, a video that would be included in the article and posted on Youtube, and mentions on Twitter and Facebook and other Social media during my stay. As an example of previous articles that I have written about hotels similar to your own please see the links below

Later in the e-mail you could cover the request in more detail

  • Why you would love to stay in their accommodation and why it would interest your readers.
  • More detail of what you can offer in terms of articles, photo, videos, podcasts, social media
  • Your blog credentials, stats etc – these can be backed up by attaching a separate information or media pack to the e-mail
  • Finish by restating your desire to stay at this particular accommodation and your appreciation of them considering your proposal

I would recommend that you initially send a tailored request (beware of too much cut and pasting) to your 5 top choices for accommodation and if you have not had any positive responses within a week, target another 5, and keep going. If the initial responses indicate that you’re not likely to be successful, for instance you discover that all hotels are booked up due to a major local festival, then adjust your approach. Maybe you will be more successful with a different type of accommodation, or perhaps you can adjust the dates of your stay, or target accommodation in a different part of town that is less likely to be full, or look at accommodation that is less centrally located.

Step 6 – Keep in touch before, during and after you stay

Once you have received a positive response to your request for a sponsored stay, it’s good to stay in touch and demonstrate your professional approach. For instance you may like to;

  • Confirm your plans by e-mail closer to the time, assuming the initial approach has been made well in advance
  • Check you have all the information you need about the accommodation, is there a press information page or photo gallery on the website? have you a note of the twitter or facebook page? is there a contact person that can help you at the hotel or accommodation in case of any issues?
  • Do some social media prior to your visit to the accommodation – a Tweet or Facebook mention using their tags
  • Social media during your stay – Instagram is great for this to post pictures of your room, meals, quirky details and generally show you’re having a great time
  • If appropriate speak to the manager or PR contact during your stay – they will want to make sure you have everything that you need or give you a tour of the accommodation
  • Follow up with an email after your visit thanking your contact for your stay, and indicating what coverage you expect to give and by when
  • If there were any issues with your stay that you couldn’t address at the time, you should cover them immediately after your stay rather than waiting until you write your review to drop any bombshells
  • Follow up by sending links to articles, videos etc that you publish
Hotel Weissen Rössl at St Wolfgang in Austria Photo: Mybloggingjourney.com Hotel Weissen Rössl at St Wolfgang in Austria. Click to read the article

Step 7 – Deliver on your promises

It’s a good idea to set expectations and restate what you plan to deliver in return for your sponsored stay immediately after your visit. If the trip is a long one and it will be some time before you publish anything, most people won’t mind so long as they know in advance. However, I think that you probably should aim to get your promised article out in a reasonable timeframe, say within 3 months. Once an article is published you can send a link and also request any social media mentions they are able to do to promote it.

If you want to enter the world of sponsored accommodation and trips then you need to be professional in your approach, just as a mainstream journalist would be. If you deliver on your promises then you are likely to get a positive response from that company in the future, you are establishing a track record that you can use to secure other accommodation stays and you will be smoothing the path for other travel bloggers.

Step 8 – Demonstrate Return on Investment

As a blogger you are normally your own boss and answerable only to yourself for what goes into your blog. However when seeking sponsorship you are now dealing with people who work in the business world and need to demonstrate value, results and Return on Investment (ROI). PR companies will need to show added value to the travel providers they represent and in-house marketers need to also demonstrate results and effective use of their company’s PR budget. In the world of old media there are established ways of measuring value but things are not so clear cut in the world of blogs and social media. Therefore the companies that have supported you will normally be appreciative of any facts and figures you can give that demonstrate tangible results.

At the very least you should send links to articles that you have published on your blog, but you can go further and send details of social media activity, Tweets, Instagram, Facebook mentions and any statistics associated with them. You can also use Google Analytics to extract data on unique visitors and page views of each article that you publish on your blog, or YouTube stats for your video views. Some sponsors may give you links that include tracking codes to use within your articles. Putting all your links and stats into a neat report or e-mail that you send to a sponsor a few months after your visit will set you apart from most other bloggers and give you an excellent case study to use in your future proposals.

What if there were problems during my stay?

Occasionally a blogger may find that there were problems during their stay and be unsure how to manage this. On the one hand you want to be honest to your readership but on the other your sponsor may be justifyably be upset if the free accommodation they offered is repaid with a very negative review. The ways that I would try and avoid being put into this difficult position;

  • Research the accommodation carefully before you request sponsorship – If you read any customer comments or Tripadvisor reviews you should get a good flavour of problems that might arise. Similarly you could do an internet search for the accommodation name and see what comes up.
  • Only accept sponsored accommodation that suits your needs and tastes – just because a place isn’t your style doesn’t mean that others might not love it.
  • If working with tourism boards who will allocate your accommodation it’s worth being fairly specific about the type of accommodation where you would like to stay – I would sometimes give them a list of hotels I would love to stay, as examples of what would be ideal for me.
  • If there are issues on your arrival, try to address them immediately with the management – if your room is noisy or something’s not working then ask to be moved to a different one.
  • It’s fair to mention minor things that weren’t quite right as part of your overall review, in the spirit of constructive criticism. It’s also fair to say within your article who the accommodation would be suitable for and who it would not – for instance it may be wonderful for honeymooners but not suitable for those with young children.
  • If there were major issues that you couldn’t resolve during your stay then you should take them up with your contact immediately after the stay. If you really feel your review is likely to be highly critical, you may want to give them the option that you don’t write anything at all.
  • Personally I’m a glass half full person and using the approach above I’ve never stayed in any accommodation where I had major problems and always found plenty of positive things to say about the places I’ve stayed.

Is it worth it?

If you’re already feeling exhausted at the thought of all this work just to get a free night in a nice hotel, then you may be better to stick to paying for your own accommodation.

Your time has a value and you should weigh up whether the work you will need to put in to get sponsored accommodation is worth what you receive in return. If you are travelling with friends, family or a partner, will they be understanding of the work you’ll need to put in so that you can later write your article?

All the photos that I’ve featured in this article are of places where I’ve stayed either on a sponsored basis or at a reduced media rate. Because of my blog I’ve been able to stay in some fantastic accommodation that I couldn’t otherwise afford but I always put the work in to ‘pay’ for my stay, even if the payment wasn’t in money.

Here are some of the articles I’ve written based on sponsored stays

Hotels

Exploring San Antonio from Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
May Day at the White Horse in at St Wolfgang, Austria

Country Cottages

Our winter weekend on the Gower in Wales – Langland and Caswell Bay
Staying at Laswern Fawr Holiday Cottage in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

City Houses and Apartments

Living like a local – our Home from Home in Austin, Texas
Apartment living on Laystall St with StayManchester

More blog monetisation tips

Is now the time to take sponsored posts on your blog?
How to attract advertisers for your travel blog
How Travel Bloggers make money from their blogs

How to Create a Custom Press Trip – Presentation by Kate McCulley at Travel Bloggers Unite 2012

This article is originally published at My Blogging Journey. You’ll also find lots of great travel stories, videos and podcasts at our travel blog at Heather on her travels

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