James Wong, travel contributor to international editions of Vogue and Esquire, talks to Cision’s Simon Stiel about living between multiple cities, Tokyo 2020 and what he has learned from being a former PR.
What led to you pursuing a career in travel journalism?
At nine I had my own magazine, circulation four family members, and I spent my student years working towards a career in journalism. Things never took off beyond writing for my campus monthly, so I graduated and stepped into the flashing lights of entertainment PR instead.
I never gave up on my nine-year-old dream, and wrote for years until my big break came when a friend and I both moved to Asia. He was the editor of a major in-flight magazine and offered me a freelance role covering Europe and north-east Asia for the website.
From there things snowballed and I couldn’t believe that I was being published, let alone paid, for doing something I had done quietly for love all my life.
How do you decide where to go and what to write about?
My editors usually shortlist regions they need covered, and I’m often approached by PRs with interesting press trips, so from there I map out a monthly schedule.
I also get a lot of assignments on regions I’m already living in or close to; so London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, and these are often last minute quick additions to the monthly plan.
Do you think there are clichés to avoid in travel writing and, if so, how do you avoid them?
There was a trend in ‘IG features’ a couple of years back, you know, ‘10 most Instagrammable spots in Seoul’ type of thing. I would never travel somewhere just for the sake of social media, and although I’m guilty of writing one or two of those pieces, I don’t think I ever will again. Travel is best enjoyed offline.
You often write about London and the UK for a Middle-Eastern and Asian audience, which aspects are they most engaged with?
This year it’s been all about the royals. There always will be a demand for London-based travel features with my markets. Our readers are flying over for so many reasons such as fashion week, sport, festivals, fine dining and the West End…so demand for information is high year on year.We know that a London piece is pretty much a guaranteed hit, and it’s just about reporting on it in a way that will engage the audience.
You live in Tokyo, which will be hosting the Rugby World Cup next year and then the Olympics in 2020. What is happening to the city in preparation for those events?
I spend half my year in Tokyo and the excitement definitely mirrors that of London 2012. Traditionally, Tokyo is not a foreigner-friendly destination but they’re working hard on changing this; from Wifi at each subway station to companies enrolling staff in English lessons.
For visitors, there are tonnes of new hotel, restaurant and entertainment openings, plus technological developments to launch including the driverless robot taxi. I’m expecting a lot of Japan-based or Japanese-themed commissions next year.
Often, influencers are offered complimentary stays at hotels/destinations in return for producing promotional content. Do you see that as a challenge to travel journalism?
Not really, because travel journalism in reputable publications has tenfold value in comparison to influencer content, and I think both marketers and consumers are intelligent enough to understand the difference. I feel that influencers pose more of a threat to traditional advertising.
What is your relationship like with PRs? How do you like to work with them?
As a former PR myself, I definitely sympathise with agency life and managing client expectations so I do my best to provide information upfront if I am covering, or feedback if not.
The food, drink and travel PRs in London and Tokyo are my main contacts as they keep me in the loop of what’s happening even when I’m out of town.
I especially love the PRs who understand the importance of plus ones. Being on the road means I don’t spend much time with people who matter to me, so I will always prioritise them over any after-work invitation.
Finally, what are your travel plans for 2019?
I’ll be spending half of next year in the US and Canada. I have a few assignments booked around Europe this spring, and I’m hoping to cover some of Asia too.