News & Views

The Future of SATW: Q and A with President Barbara Ramsay Orr

Barbara Ramsay Orr, President of SATW

This month marked the 62nd Annual Convention of the Society of American Travel Writers. DCI took the opportunity to connect with the incoming president, Barbara Ramsay Orr, to discuss the challenges facing today’s travel content creators and what SATW is doing to help them succeed in this ever-changing industry.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the organization, the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) is a professional association comprised of 1,100 writers, photographers, editors, broadcast/video/film producers, bloggers, website owners, public relations experts and hospitality industry representatives from the United States and Canada. Founded in 1955, the society’s members represent some of the most influential content producers in the travel industry with work that can be seen throughout all print, digital and broadcast platforms.

Q: Congratulations! The SATW presidential gavel was recently passed to you from Catharine Hamm, Travel Editor for the Los Angeles Times. What excites you about this new role?

I think this is the perfect time for SATW – at no point since our beginning, over sixty years ago, has the need for an organization dedicated to responsible travel journalism been more important. There’s information overload out there, and some of it is trustworthy but a lot of it is suspect. Our members are regularly vetted professionals who know the world of travel and whose voices can be trusted. I am eager to refresh the society’s brand and to promote our members as the reliable source for travel news and inspiration. That’s what we have always been, but I’m hoping to raise our profile internationally. I’m also excited about raising the level and amount of professional development for our members – they need the newest and sharpest tools to succeed in the rapidly evolving journalism world of today.

Q: You’ve been a travel writer for many years and also have your finger on the pulse of the SATW membership. What are the top two challenges faced by SATW’s journalist members and how does membership in SATW help journalists to address them?

The eternal challenge has always been to make a living and to find an audience. Making a living these days involves embracing all sorts of other avenues that weren’t there before, and it’s a minefield. Do you accept sponsored ads and brand ambassadorships or does that mean you compromise your authenticity? And the audience today is massive but how do you best reach them, and get paid for doing so? Managing the digital shift is the tricky challenge for all of us.

How are we helping? Our professional development programs are teaching our members the newest and best ways to communicate, by iPhone, video, podcasting, live streaming… and whatever is next. But I think the most valuable thing we provide is networking with others in our profession, sharing what we do and how we do it, telling the stories of our successes and failures, and helping to connect writers with destinations and PR professionals who can help each other.

Q: The needs of Canadian travel media and American travel media can differ. How should travel PR professionals best serve the needs of media in both markets?

We share much, obviously, but the Canadian travel market is smaller. Canadians are big international travelers while I think Americans travel more within their own country. Canadians like outdoorsy, adventure-themed travel and are comfortable in countries where the language is different – especially French speaking countries, of course – and are fiercely independent journeyers. I think most American tourists like a more fully planned experience, with a bit more luxury. Those are broad generalizations, I realize, but might help to calibrate approaches.

Q: In today’s changing media landscape, what is SATW doing to attract digital content creators/influencers and to best support them within the organization?

We have redesigned our membership qualifications to fit digital producers but we are still careful to make sure that those who join are qualified and professional. We have also created a sub-council, with the umbrella title of Independent Publishers, that is working to tailor professional development and networking to online editors and creators. Society-wide we are looking for the best and most advanced professional development for our members. In Portland, James DeRuvo gave a highly instructive session on the newest ideas in videography, and Krista Rossow from National Geographic revealed the potential of iPhone photography. There were sessions on how to fine tune your social media presence, how to maximize your ROI from social media and influence marketing, and how to best monetize your website and social media. We’re giving our members the tools to master the new age of travel journalism.

Q: This convention has met in destinations around the world which is exciting for membership, but I’ve also heard that it can be an expensive investment for destination hosts. Given that destination marketing organization budgets aren’t what they used to be, what changes has the society made to ensure that destination hosts receive a strong return on their investment?

That’s an important question. First, we are redesigning our conference bidding format, and even the conference itself, to make it financially less onerous to host. But the number of eyeballs that a conference directs to a destination has never been greater. Our members publish in the best print outlets and some of the largest and most influential digital spaces. For three or four days, the attention of some of the world’s best and most prolific generators of travel coverage are focused on your destination, and the international exposure can keep coming for years after the event. Our New Zealand convention, for example, generated 179.6 million total media impressions, with a combined print value of $2.5 million, and our members are still returning to the destination to follow up on stories.

Q: What makes the meeting of a particular chapter (Western, Eastern, etc.) or council (editors, freelance) a better fit for a destination than the national convention? Can you offer any insight into the difference in terms of attendance numbers, investment, and ROI?

Certainly, the chapter and council meetings are smaller and more intimate, and admittedly less expensive and less complicated to host. I think they are the perfect place to try out the hosting experience. For smaller destinations, a chapter or council meeting may be a better fit, both financially and logistically. Hosting a chapter can allow you to focus on a geographical area while hosting something like the Freelance Council means you are meeting with only creators (writers, bloggers, videographers, photographers, etc.). One of those options could be the single most effective outreach a destination could achieve. The coverage may be smaller as the number of members attending a chapter or council meeting are less, but it could be very targeted coverage.

Q: Having spent a week with your media colleagues, what trends in editorial coverage are you seeing in the North American marketplace?

The trend I see strengthening is travel with a purpose.  Journeys that involve immersion in a community, constructive contribution to a local project, or to volunteer components of a trip – these are elements that seem to be becoming more important to travelers. They seek meaning and connection as they visit different areas of the world. Even cruise lines are incorporating outreach programs in their itineraries.

Traveling small is also big – I wrote a trend piece for the Globe and Mail (When Less Is More) about this move.  People want to be able to experience focused, less-frantic itineraries that concentrate on limited locales and activities to find a deeper, more rewarding appreciation of each destination.

Q: If you have a platform now to provide one piece of advice to North America’s leading tourism PR representatives – what will it be?

Trust your good responsible writers – and respond to them quickly when they need more information, a name, a detail clarified. They will repay you with the best ink on the market.


Development Counsellors International has found it valuable to be a member of SATW for more than 30 years. We’re happy to provide you with the good, bad and beauty of participating in this journalist/publicist organization. Want to learn more about our membership with SATW? Send us a Tweet at @aboutdci.

Written By

Karyl Leigh Barnes

Karyl Leigh Barnes is President of DCI’s Tourism Practice. Since joining the firm in 1998, Karyl Leigh has led destination strategy and created marketing communication programs for destinations on every continent except Antarctica.

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