Grant Martin is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago. Specializing in consumer travel and the airline industry, he recently worked as the editor of AOL’s Gadling.com and currently splits his time between projects at The Economist and Forbes. His favorite airline lounge is the Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul.
How did you get started traveling?
I was raised in a traveling family. We camped all over the country when I was in primary school and now that my parents have fewer commitments they occasionally join me overseas. It’s in my blood to that extent, but I suppose I’ve turned it into a bit of a science, always scouring for low fares and new destinations and deals. With the same access to the world wide web, I wonder if my parents would have done the same.
How did you get started writing?
Writing came as a function of my travels. After constantly harassing all of my friends and family to join on trips around the world, they encouraged me to start a website. That led to a blogging position at Gadling and then eventually the editorial helm. I’ll admit that I came into the industry a bit sideways, but I’ll also argue that that perspective is unique.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
It would have to be working at Gadling. With a degree in engineering I didn’t necessarily have the most robust writing skills straight out of college, but those grew as the site did. I owe a lot to those folks at AOL.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Once I have an assignment (Stockholm on a budget, new trains in Cairo) I’m usually very efficient on the road — the biggest challenge I have is in squeezing stories out of a place when I arrive cold. It takes a certain extroversion to wander into someone’s home and tell a great story about the regional cooking in Havana. I can do that if I’m on a deadline, but not if I’m on my own. To get around that I sometimes fabricate agendas to trick myself into communicating with people. Having a few drinks helps too.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Something that has been bugging me lately is how often I start a story with a point (“Apps are great for travelers…”) and then create a counterpoint (“… BUT nobody has data plans overseas”) on which to write my entire story (“Check out these new offline apps!”). Crazy concept, but after writing 1000 blog articles I often find myself returning to that same formulaic rut.
Point is, it usually takes some serious creative prodding for me to get out of the simple, newsy shack that I’ve built for myself. Reading some great writing, whether long or short form, usually helps to shake loose a few neurons.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Having looked at several models for content production and sales across the industry I’d have to say that my biggest concern is balancing widespread traffic with ad revenue. The fact of publishing is that advertisers want high traffic to their content, but any site with an editorial backbone doesn’t just want to publish lists and slideshows. Somehow we have to mix long form content and short, digestable vignettes into one site while keeping the readers from both verticals happy. I’m not sure if a travel site dedicated solely to long form can carry the burden alone.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I still work as an engineer full time. When I was working at AOL I was doing both that and engineering full time. Now I just do freelance work on the side. But I like being busy.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Short of the classic Theroux or Conrad recommendations, I was really happy with Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a bit of a roller coaster, but it’s very moving.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
By now you know that it’s not going to pay well, so we can skip that section. Beyond that, my suggestion is to produce early and often. Blogs are a good place to deposit your body of work and ancillary articles, and it’s always nice to engage with the travel community online or out at conferences. There are a few freelance gigs that will pay you enough to get by full time. Keep your quality and output high, find one of those gigs and churn out a few other softball articles each month for your savings account. Also: donate your TV to the local VFW.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Access of course. And I’m not talking about going to some bullshit resort to get your feet rubbed in exchange for a “story.” I like getting behind the scenes at DFW airport and watching bags go in circles, talking to the pilots and the crew of Virgin America and being on the very leading edge of travel and destination media. To be one of the people that helps direct the narrative of worldwide travel and trends is pretty neat.