Travel Writing About
Festivals and Special Events:
What Sells and What Doesn't

As travel writers we’re always seeking out story ideas, and looking around our own hometown is a good place to start.

Every city worth its salt has a food & wine festival.  Every town has a music festival and an arts & crafts festival.  Many cities host film festivals, cultural festivals, boat shows, home & garden shows, and numerous other events.

I’ve been covering the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) every year since 2007 for a movie magazine.  My press pass enables me to attend 150+ feature films if I really want to abuse myself.  (Fortunately, I don’t have enough spare time to do this.)

I’ll usually watch 25-35 movies each year.  And, as a travel writer I enjoy saving money on the price of tickets and getting VIP treatment—like attending special advance press screenings and getting screener DVDs.  I also get early entry to the movies and have access to the film stars and directors if I need to interview them.  These are nice perks.

So, festivals and special events are a lot of fun, and every beginning travel writer thinks of pitching these stories editors.  But most festivals and special events are a hard sell, especially to travel and lifestyle magazines.

The acceptance rate for festival pitches is much lower than for general travel story pitches.  Here’s why …

While they may be exciting, most festivals and special events aren’t so special after all.  No matter how much we enjoy them, they’re not news unless the festival is in its first year.

Since most festivals happen every year, editors aren’t particularly interested in running a story about it year after year.   It’s possible that your local newspaper might be interested in a story, but this will only earn you a small sum of money - or nothing at all.  But if you really want to attend the event, it should get you a press pass - and that may be enough for you.

The Big Travel Writing Mistake

There’s one mistake that beginning travel writers make when pitching festival and special event stories:  they wait until the last minute to pitch the story idea - just before the event is happening.

If you do this, it will cost you any chance of getting your story into print.  Here’s why:  editors work on their editorial calendar four to twelve months in advance.  That means you need to get your story pitch to an editor far in advance of the event.

A query for a festival that’s happening right now doesn’t have a chance of being accepted simply because by the time it will be published, it’s old news.  A reader doesn’t want to read about a mid-summer wine festival in November when it’s cold and snowing.  They want to read about it before it happens - a month of two before!  That way they can read about it and make plans to attend.

When you hear about a festival that you want to attend and write about, you need to send your query letters out at least 4-6 months before the event.  This gives the editor time to slot your story in a month or two before the festival.

But keep in mind, these local festivals and special events aren’t worth pitching unless you’re okay with a small payment (or none at all) and a press pass.  Often, complimentary entry to the event is a satisfactory payout,  If so, go for it!

The exception is if you have a ‘regular’ magazine that wants coverage of an event or festival.  That’s what I do for the SIFF. 

That’s my take on the usual festivals that occur everywhere.  But there are some types of festivals and special events that are well received by magazine editors. 

The Most Marketable Kinds of Festivals

Recently I tallied my bylines for festivals and special events and found 21 of these features published over my travel writing career.

Festival assignments have taken me to Belgium, Edinburgh, and England, and Washington State, Oregon, and Nevada.  My festival stories have been published in 14 different print magazines and on four websites, and I’ve made a tidy income from them, plus press passes to the festivals themselves.  And I’ve had an absolute blast attending these events.

The fact is some festivals are more marketable than others.

Pitching festival and special event stories to general travel and lifestyle magazines is usually a losing proposition and you won’t meet with much success.  The reason is because festivals are a dime-a-dozen and travel and lifestyle magazines are always looking for something new and different to keep their readers entertained.

Most festivals just don’t cut it because they’re everywhere and commonplace.

But, some festivals are a perfect fit for travel writing for specialty magazines.  Most of my festival stories were published in specialty magazines and websites.

So, if you want to get your festival stories into print, you really need to research and know your target magazines before you pitch them.

What do I mean by specialty magazines?  It’s easiest to explain by showing you some examples. 

Here’s a list of some of my festival and special event stories and the magazines they were published in to give you a better idea:

•    The Top Ten Belgian Beer Festivals -- Beers of the World Magazine
•    The Tacoma Schooner Rendezvous -- Blue Water Sailing, 48 Degrees North, Classic Boat magazines
•    Grand Opening of Tacoma LeMay Americas Car Museum -- Classic Automobile Magazine
•    The Battle of Tewkesbury Re-enactment (England) -- International Living Magazine
•    The Pendleton RoundupNorthwest Travel Magazine
•    The War & Peace Military Vehicle Event (England) – Off Road Adventure & Jeep Action magazines
•    McMinnville UFO Festival -- Open Minds UFO Magazine
•    Sequim Lavender Festival -- Pacific Horticulture Magazine
•    The Tewkesbury Renaissance Faire & Battle Re-enactment (England) – Renaissance
•    England’s Military OdysseyRenaissance
•    England’s Medieval Festival Herstmonceaux CastleRenaissance
•    Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film -- Videoscope
•    The Edinburgh Military TattooEuropeUpClose.com
•    The Prefontaine Classic & U.S. Champs (Track & Field) – RunBlogRun.com
•    Auburn Veterans Day ParadeMilitary Magazine

The Main Points to Consider Before Pitching

Here are the main points of this list:

These are diverse events.  A UFO festival, living history re-enactments, military vehicle events, film festivals, track & field meets, beer festivals, a car museum opening, a rodeo, and yachting events - all different than the typical food and wine festivals.

Every article, except for one, was published in a specialty magazine.  Only one ‘pure’ travel magazine published a special event story.  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Specialty magazines are fertile ground for publishing your special event articles.  In some cases I was able to sell the same story to one or two other specialty magazines simultaneously.  In these cases, you need to make sure the magazine circulations don’t overlap, or you need to sell them to magazines in different countries.

Selling to specialty magazines can be lucrative.  Coverage of the War & Peace event in Kent, England, reaped me $1300 in two publications - one in the U.S. and one in Australia.  Plus my press pass gained me free entry for two days.

A schooner rendezvous in Tacoma, Washington, garnered more than $1000 for three different variations of this story in a U.K., U.S., and a regional magazine.

For the Renaissance magazine festival events I gained entry into some of England’s best living history re-enactments - events I was planning to attend anyway.  Getting paid to attend was a great bonus!

My marketing messages for travel writing about festivals and special events are simple: 

1.  Pitch your festival and special event stories well in advance of the event - at least 4-6 months ahead of the event (consult the writers guidelines for each publication to be sure about the lead time).

2.  Realize that pitching run-of-the-mill local or regional festivals are not particularly successful or lucrative.  You might find a small newspaper to sponsor you so you can request a press pass, but better paying travel magazines have little interest in ‘home town’ events.

3.  Put some thought and research into specialty magazines that might be interested in your favorite “unusual” festivals.  You are more likely to score assignments that open the door to press passes and VIP treatment.  They are also likely to have a better payout for your travel writing.

Try using these tips and find out what new and unusual festivals you can uncover and get paid to write about.  It’s a fun genre to add to your travel writing portfolio.

Related articles that will interest you:

Presell Your Travel Stories
The Complete Guide to Query Letters for Travel Writers eBook
How to Target Specialty Magazines


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