Today I am going to Iowa for the first time in 20 years. Essentially this is my first tour of Iowa since in 1994 I simply drove a moving truck on Interstate 80 across Iowa with one stop at a rest area where I picked up a tourism brochure. We barreled cross country on I-80 in 1994 to our new home in Maine (a camping site by the sea in Rockport for two months before I started my 5th grade teaching job in a more downeasterly location).
Today I am starting a four-day, three-night sponsored tour of Iowa. Expect to learn more about Iowa on Loyalty Traveler.
In past articles I have stated that I generally do very little research about a place prior to arrival. I prefer to experience a new place without preconceptions and then research places based on what I see, read and hear from locals and local newspapers. In my travels, I have learned there is plenty to learn from reading small local newspapers.
As a teacher, one of the strategies used in lesson planning is to find out what students already know before starting a new teaching unit. Yesterday, on the flight from LAX to Chicago, I typed out what I know about Iowa. My list was very short.
1. University of Iowa is in Ames, Iowa. Wrong! Turns out Iowa State University is in Ames. University of Iowa in Iowa City.
2. Corn is a major crop in Iowa. Correct.
3. Iowa caucuses are big deal in U.S. Presidential electoral politics.
4. Football team names Cornhuskers. Wrong! Turns out Nebraska is Cornhuskers. Iowa State are the Cyclones and University of Iowa are the Hawkeyes.
5. Field of Dreams, a 1989 Kevin Costner movie had an Iowa farm cornfield setting. Correct.
6. Mississippi River forms eastern border of Iowa. Correct.
Turns out that 2 of the 6 things I thought I knew about Iowa were incorrect.
In a quick check of Iowa facts, I learned three other facts:
- Red Delicious apples, the most common apple variety in stores today, originated in Iowa.
- 20% of corn in USA is grown in Iowa.
- The Bridges of Madison County, a novel that has sold over 50 million copies, is based on Madison County, Iowa. For some reason I always thought it was a Wisconsin story. Only watched the Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film, never read the book.
In the BoardingArea community of bloggers, few people participate in sponsored tours. In the travel writing community, the majority of people seem to work through sponsored tours. Many travel writers I meet coordinate most of their travel through CVB organizations – Convention and Visitors Bureau. I have been asked several times over the past few years why I pay for any of my travel when I can travel for free through sponsored trips?
Sponsored travel is one of the main differences between travel destination writers and Points and Miles bloggers. I participate in both communities.
In real practice though, most CVB sponsored group trips provide accommodations and activities, but not the airfare to get to and from the destination.
Gary Arndt, another Gary legend in the travel writing community and author of Everything-Everywhere.com (128,000 Twitter followers) wrote an advice piece the other day about getting started as a travel blogger. 12 Things Travel Bloggers Can Do To Achieve Success In an Insanely Crowded Space. One of his points was to limit sponsored trips to less than 50% of your travel. Another one of his advice points is not to join a community of travel bloggers to post your content.
In the past eight years of Loyalty Traveler, I have participated in a handful of sponsored trips. This year I was invited by Ford Motor Company to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show in January. Two trips in 2011 and 2012 to Chicago were for media events at Radisson Blu Aqua and JW Marriott Chicago openings. These three trips had paid airfare to a destination.
I did a four day, three night sponsored tour of Costa Brava Spain after TBEX Europe 2012. TBEX is a great conference outlet for the opportunity to take sponsored trips.
And then there was the SPG Amex Stars experience in 2012 where I stayed at five Starwood Hotels on complimentary two-night stays and had airfare paid for two trips to New York and one trip to Miami.
Bloggers sometimes ask me how I get invitations for sponsored trips? I really don’t know. Several of the opportunities seem to be the whim of PR agencies. When SPG Amex invited me to be a sponsored blogger, I planned to turn the invitation down since I do not promote credit cards. Jennifer Miner of The Vacation Gals encouraged me to participate and it turned out to be a great opportunity to tour New York City.
At TBEX 2012 in Spain, I applied for the Costa Brava tour. There were tour options and the opportunity to stay for free up to one week in hotels across Costa Brava, Spain after the conference for TBEX blogger attendees.
The biggest benefit of sponsored tours has been meeting other travel bloggers and getting to spend an extended amount of time hearing and telling stories with other travel writers in a small group.
Another great benefit of sponsored tours is the opportunity to cram a lot of experiences into a short time. Group tours are not something I ever choose to do on my own as a traveler. I am content to walk the streets of a city or hike outdoors in parks on my travels.
I could be walking the streets of Chicago today. Instead, I will be traveling to Iowa. I still get a thrill about being in a new place. Today I will be on the Mississippi River. Truly. There is a Mississippi River cruise on today’s itinerary.
Iowa is not a typical vacation destination. For me, Iowa will be a different experience. In this endless winter for many across the USA, spring break is the time to hit the beach. I live most of the year surrounded by forested hills in California above the beaches of Monterey. This Iowa agricultural tour experience will be my opportunity to wear pants and a warm coat and feel the farming earth underneath my feet. Or to be more precise, since it is in the low 30s today, feel the earth beneath my shoes.