A Conversation with Kara Williams

Kara Williams‘ eclectic reportage includes everything from family travel and romantic escapes to girlfriend getaways, outdoor adventures and hotel reviews. With a focus on destinations in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean and over 20 years of editorial expertise, Williams is the go-to gal for getaways. A self-proclaimed social-media junkie, she spends lots of time blogging about her trips at The Vacation Gals, which she co-owns along with two other professional travel writers. Learn more about Kara’s work at her online portfolio site.

You just got back from covering the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show for Practical Travel Gear. How did that go and was it useful to you as a writer to attend a trade show that had almost nothing to do with writers?

Going to Outdoor Retailer (“OR”) was really, really great. I’ve been reviewing gear and travel clothing – with a focus on outdoorsy, sporty, adventure stuff — for a couple years now, so it was such a treat to be able to set meetings with some of the public-relations and marketing folks that I’d only “met” via email. It’s a whirlwind of meetings; in 2.5 days, I met with more than 40 companies at their booths on a massive trade-show floor. Most brands are unveiling their products for Spring 2011 (retailers go to OR select merchandise to sell in their stores and catalogs months from now), so many of the nifty things I saw at OR won’t be available to the general public for months. It’s a little frustrating that I can’t cover the items right now, but since we want Practical Travel Gear readers to be able to click and buy items when they read reviews, we’ll just all have to be a little patient. (Just know the stuff is cool!)

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I broke into travel writing by “covering my own backyard,” and writing 800 words for $25 for GoColorado.com. I also wrote for free for BellaOnline.com covering honeymoon travel. I took my travel writing career up a notch by taking an online course on Writers.com from Amanda Castleman called “From Press Trips to Punctured Tires.” Soon after, I landed a piece in the Dallas Morning News travel section. Later came more lucrative web and print assignments, and they keep rolling in. My key to ongoing success is networking with other travel writers and pitching regularly. Still more ongoing success comes from always meeting deadlines. Always.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

When I began travel writing I wanted a pretty byline in glossy magazines and Sunday travel sections (okay, I still do). But it is much harder to land those assignments as staffs shrink and more assignments that formerly went to freelancers are now handled “in house.” I’m definitely less concerned about getting those “high profile” bylines these days (I’ve seen my name in print enough after 20 years in the editorial industry; 4 specifically in travel writing). So, I’m going where the paychecks are, and increasingly that’s working for companies/corporations — blogging and writing for websites, as well as print custom publishing (i.e. brochures for tourist boards or travel-agent magazines). It’s not strict travel editorial, for sure, but I still consider myself a “travel writer.” I envision continuing the same mix of income streams I have now — a combo of print editorial and custom advertorial or corporate gigs, with plenty of online writing jobs as well.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

I’d highly recommend a travel-writing class (such as Writers.com’s taught by Amanda Castleman). Start following travel writers on Twitter and reading their blogs to find out what they do, what they read, what conferences they attend. Network, network — it’s the key to getting “in” with other travel writers who might share contacts, offer you work and give you advice. (Don’t expect anyone to hand over their Rolodex to a stranger, but it never ever hurts to befriend others in the field.) If someone I met at a conference or in social-media circles said to me, “I admire your work and your career path. Do you have any advice for someone starting out?” I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend some sites where he/she might be able to get some clips.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Start very small — hyperlocal travel stories: best attractions for kids in your hometown, 10 most romantic restaurants, etc. and sell to your community newspaper or parenting magazine (or online site) to garner clips. Learn SEO and keyword writing to make yourself more attractive to online websites.

You’ve gotten your imprint on a lot of different kinds of writing projects, some lucrative, some probably not so much. What do you make the most income from, and also what work do you find the most gratifying—either personally or professionally?

I don’t have one, main top-paying client, though editing two travel-agency brochures a year is quite lucrative, as is writing feature stories for a state tourism board’s annual vacation guide and editing a state travel guide for a UK publisher. Another lucrative gig: writing the occasional piece for a glossy consumer magazines, though sometimes these can be the most difficult — to write in the “voice” of the magazine and go back and forth on revisions. I definitely earn my paycheck writing for the glossies. These pieces, too, are the most gratifying because they are hard work. And I do appreciate being edited by a demanding editor. Otherwise, just blogging without any editing does not help to improve my writing. That said, if I could spend my entire workweek (part time, while my kids are in school), simply writing for the two sites I co-own – TheVacationGals.com and TheSpaGals.com – I’d be one happy camper. I just need to figure out how to earn a decent living doing just that!

Kara Williams is an award-winning freelance writer who has covered topics ranging from business and babies to skiing and spas in her 20-year editorial career. Kara has been employed as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and corporate copyeditor. She’s freelanced since 1999, and in the past few years travel writing has been the main focus of her work. Her beats include family travel, romantic escapes, girlfriend getaways, spas, outdoor adventures and hotel reviews, with a focus on destinations in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Kara’s articles have been published in national magazines, regional publications, and local newspapers, as well as online. A social-media junkie, Kara is active on Twitter (@karasw) and blogs regularly at The Vacation Gals, which she co-owns with two other professional travel writers. This trio also recently launched the website The Spa Gals. Kara has spoken about social media and travel blogging at industry events, such as Social Media Strategies for Travel, the Type-A-Mom Conference and PRSA Travel & Tourism. Kara makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children.

Interview conducted in August, 2010 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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