$22,785 is how much the New Mexico Tourism Department spent on press tours and “fam trips” for travel writers in 2009, according to spokesman Mike Stauffer.
"It’s called a familiarization trip: Every once in a while, Tourism will bring in a group of travel writers. They figure out a way to put them up, they get a gratis room in a hotel. I wouldn’t say they wine ’em and dine ’em: They throw ’em in a tourism van and show them around"—New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs spokesman Doug Svetnicka
Ever read a travel magazine and wonder why it singles out that particular restaurant in that particular city and quotes that particular person? Sometimes, it's because the writer got a freebie.
"Fam trips" are the payola of travel writing. Journalists get free or discounted airfare, accommodations and meals. In return, they're expected to produce an enticing story.
SFR looked into state-sponsored fam trips after spotting a Jan. 16 Toronto Star article about Santa Fe in which the Star notes that freelance travel writer Sharon McDonnell had her trip "subsidized by New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the Inn of the Five Graces." DCA spokesman Svetnicka says his department contributed money toward a fam trip the Tourism Department organized for the opening weekend of the new New Mexico History Museum.
That DCA sponsorship appears to have been an exception. Most state-funded fam trips are organized by Ballantines PR for the Tourism Department. A General Services Department database shows Ballantines has three professional services contracts with the state worth a combined $257,000.
Although a January 2010 state budget document claims the Tourism Department's "external efforts" placed 820 media stories last year, Ballantines New Mexico Director Rachel Silva lists only 11 media outlets for "highlights" of the coverage its fam trips secured for the state last year. They are: Telemundo Network's Ritmo Deportivo, The Weather Channel's Great Escapes, Transworld Snowboarding magazine, Snowboarder Magazine, powdermag.com, Organic Spa Magazine, Highways Magazine, Frommer's Travel Guide, Fodor's Travel Guide, Genre Magazine (defunct) and traveltowellness.com.
"I am not at liberty to send our entire distribution lists," Silva tells SFR in an email.
In 2007, Ballantines employees contributed $4,850 to Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential campaign.