Last summer, a friend of mine and I won a contest from WOW air to travel the world and make films for them. Half a year later they abruptly cancelled all service. Coincidence?
Dear God I hope so. One thing I can say having worked closely with them is that WOW certainly did things differently, for better or worse. There were aspects of their corporate culture that were mind-blowing in how relaxed, open-minded, and forward thinking they were. They had all the flexibility and energy of a kid right out of college, and were a company that acted on passion and creativity, which is exactly what this contest embodied to me.
The question I get the most from colleagues is “why the hell would I want to win such a contest? You’re an established commercial director, and you are basically making content for a brand for free”. They have a point; this type of contest was perhaps geared toward a much younger, novice filmmaker/traveler, but fortunately for me I have a standing mentality of a 25-year-old, which comes from a serious amount of meditation and training (e.g. I still drink Car Bombs on dates). I have always been electrified by travel, with the same level of excitement as a 16-year-old Robby going to backpack through Europe for the first time, however, what I had now is the experience and skill of professional working in advertising, which was really driving my curiosity to see how this project would work.
Brands going directly to content creators is a trend that is seriously disrupting the advertising industry, and this contest was. This type of “direct to source” work is as interesting to me as it is frightening. As a content creator it’s liberating; to be able to take a vision without compromise to completion, without the sometimes sluggish weight of an agency weighing you down. At the same time the structure and machine that is an agency or creative production company is an extremely important resource in creating top quality content, as is the support you get in bringing an idea to life. Either way this trend wasn’t diminishing any time soon, so I was eager to see exactly what it could produce.
It was clear to me from the beginning that the real prize of this contest was being able to create a large body of work for a global brand without compromise. WOW gave us full autonomy, to a concerning point even. They gave us the login information to their Instagram, YouTube, and Website, and told us to post images and videos when we wanted, without review. No review? It’s like I had died and went to editor heaven, which scared the bejeezus out of me a bit. Regardless it was clear that we could make this project anything we wanted it to be, so we decided to push it right to the limit.
As a travel writer I am acutely aware of how the internet has created this echo chamber for travel experiences. As soon as something “hot” hits the scene, there are thousands of articles and videos about it, creating an unnatural surge to that destination, be it a city, restaurant or even dish on a menu (I’m looking at you Burger at the Brindle Room). This is the dark side of travel journalism, a power so great that it can destroy the very thing you wish to share with the world. So, in a conscious effort to bring something novel but equally amazing to our audience, we wanted to focus on experiences that were more enigmatic and authentic. To do so, we reached out to locals through WOW’s extensive social media network which proved to be our golden ticket.
Being able to be in direct communication with our actual audience is a dream any marketer or creative wishes to never wake from. We were able to ask actual locals where they go, eat, and see, places and experiences that you won’t find (yet) written up about on giant opinion generators like Yelp or TripAdvisor. This was the real deal, and would allow us to create a library of unique quality content so prolific that it could be the answer to any travelers query, covering must sees, must eats, must drinks, oddities and tips and not be just an echo of what was already out there.
HOW WE WON A “DREAM JOB”.
Last June, while doing research for a travel show that partner Brad Stuart and I were producing in NYC, we came across this contest from WOW Air. The prize was an apartment in Reykjavik for the summer, 140 USD per diem, and hotel accommodations in the 8 cities they would fly us to making travel films for them. I had just bought the new Sony A7rIII and wanted to field test it for the show we were working on, so we entered. 30k other people did as well. We ended up winning with this film:
To say we were surprised is an under-statement. There were so many fantastic entries, from so many fantastic hosts, many of which with Instagram and YouTube followings well beyond ours. We were so shocked that when we got the call from WOW the first question we asked was why they chose us. They said they were not looking for a large social media following, but rather for a team that had a real passion for travel with the ability to produce high quality content. Flattery will get you everywhere WOW.
While we were extremely grateful, we still had to give it a good think if we should accept; it would mean leaving our lives for three months, not being able to work on paid projects, and would leave our NYC apartments vacant while still having to pay rent. Boo hoo I know, but realistically the per diem they offered would only cover basic costs on the road, not living expenses or rent back home, so. if we were going to commit, we really had to do something special with the opportunity that would be valuable to us.
We decided we would need to produce a large catalogue of quality content that would explore places and experiences that were different from all the other travel films out there. The style and personality of this films would be unique as well; a mixture of comedy and reverence, grit and polish to keep viewers surprised and tapped in. These films would be intimate, authentic, and most importantly fun, and collectively would become a well branded showcase to model future work from.
We accepted the prize knowing that this was going to push the limits of what we had produced before, but with the electric excitement of being fueled by doing something you truly love.
SO … NOW WE LIVE IN REYKJAVIK I GUESS?
Just a week later Brad and I were living in Reykjavik, which was incredibly exciting. Packing was an interesting endeavor; squeezing items to live somewhere for 3 months and produce an entire summer campaign into two bags and a personal item really pushed my limits of economy packing. It was such a learning lesson I ended up making a short film for the travel mag I write for that goes over my absolute basics needed to get the job done:
The apartment we were given was a modern, minimalist AirBnB in the “God’s Quarter” right down the street from the outstanding Hallgrimskirkja Church. They furnished the fridge with WOW beer (do I trust an airline that makes beer? Yes, I guess I do) and something called “Hardfisker” which is fish jerky and is as disgusting as it sounds (but somehow better with butter, obviously).
Reykjavik is a fantastic city. Great food, beautiful bay, dynamic culture. Iceland as a whole is a marvelous gem, unique in the world. The locals are a bit over the tourist invasion with good reason, and can be a bit cold at first, but like any culture, with enough smiles (and buying of libations) they would shed their protective husk to reveal their true, friendly character. While we loved going to the public pools, and eating a Hlöllabátar after a night dancing at Pablo Discobar (great name), we really didn’t have much time to explore our new home as the travel itinerary was aggressive to say the least.
THERE IS NO SET IN JET-SETTING
Boston, Los Angeles, Berlin, St. Louis, Barcelona, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Edinburgh, Brussels, and Amsterdam … we would be in each city for 2-3 days, then fly back to Iceland for 3-4 to edit and plan the next one. This on repeat for nearly 3 months. We wanted to maximize the amount of content we could produce, and really cover as much as possible within that time, so this is what we did:
Our main objective was to not be an echo of what was already out there; we wanted to highlight lesser known experiences that defined a city, that actual locals enjoyed. The travel writer in me has a love-hate relationship with the craft; I want to inspire people to travel, but I don’t want to kill the very thing that does the inspiring, which a flood of tourist can easily do.
So we would research the usual suspects like Thrillist, Time Out, Conde Nast, Trip Advisor, even Atlas Obscura for the must-see attractions, but most of our focus came through WOW’s far-reaching social media platform, asking locals what their favorite places were. This got us directly in touch with our audience, giving us unique and really fresh results that hopefully separated our content from the cacophony of ordinary that was already out there.
One asset working with WOW was having a global brand to produce from. There is something very empowering to travel with purpose, meaning, experiencing a foreign culture because it is your job. Being able to call a restaurant, museum or night club and tell them that you’d like to do a travel segment on them for WOW airlines gives you greater access, allowing you to go much deeper into the experience than if we were just a tourists. Experiences like getting the VP of Media Relations to give you a private tour of the Getty Center, learning pole dancing from a world champion, or filming a Michelin Star restaurant that has a staunch no media policy, was much easier with WOW opening the door, and Brad’s confident producing skills. We would end up making hundreds of fantastic connections, and be able to talk with the minds behind the life-changing experiences that make travel magic.
Once we had our list of targets, ranging from food, to nightlife, to cultural experiences, we would plug them into a Google map like this, labelling each one in their respective category. Terribly boring I know, but this way we could see where in the city everything was, and logistically figure out how to do as much as possible in one day. I really have become my father.
RUN AND GUN WITH PURPOSE
A.B.C. Always Be Capturing …
Coming from a documentary and editorial background, I relied on his type of high energy shooting and logging to guarantee we could produce all the films we set out to. The more cities we accomplished the more streamlined our process and gear became, and ultimately the less footage we would need to capture. To give you an idea, for Boston, our first city, we captured around 350 GB of material. Our last city, Stockholm, we topped out at 160 GB. It was like being on that show “The Biggest Loser” but instead of lbs it was kbs (I really have become my father even in humor, it’s official).
The gear we relied on was a Sony A7rIII with the 24-105 lens, an a6300 with a CCTV lens, two Sony lavs, a Rode mic, Mavic drone, and Samsung 360 camera just for fun. In the end we didn’t even bring a tripod because the stabilization on the camera and in post is so friggin’ good. With this boiled down amount of gear we could still keep it fluid and fast, but be able to produce the high quality content that we were after.
Each night we would dump and back up the media, and bring it into Premiere. The camera created proxies on the fly so we could easily deliver in glorious 4k while editing on a Macbook Pro. We would then write scripts for each episode, and record them into a pillow fort/sound booth on our Reykjavik kitchen table. I would mainly be cutting any waking hour we weren’t traveling, and Brad was in charge of producing, and distributing content on-line. We had fever dreams, never knew if it was day or night (mainly because the sun doesn’t set in Iceland in the summer), and forgot where we lived many times, but really could not have been happier.
THE END RESULT
10 cities, 3,149 photos, 2.5 TB of data, 1 tattoo, and 38,675 miles later we really couldn’t be prouder of the work we completed over the summer. We successfully produced over 100 full films for WOW Air in just over 3 months. If you’re doing the math that’s around 3 films a day. Some will say #shopped but the proof lives on the website travelguide.wowair.com – and we will be launching our own YouTube channel TravelClast this year with these films and many more.
For two people who love to suck the marrow out of the world of travel, I don’t think we left a morsel on the bone to pick. It saddens up deeply to see WOW air be gone in a flash, and really cannot believe that the “happy Icelandic low-fare airline” is no longer around to shuttle bargain savvy travelers to destinations usually unobtainable at such low costs. To us they were a visionary company that for better or worse moved boldly toward novel innovation without hesitation or remorse. They were spirited, and every employee we had the opportunity to work with lived with this passionate credo, which was truly refreshing to be part of. We’re just so thankful to have had the opportunity, and hope the work lives on like personal memories that can be enjoyed by anyone with a desire and passion for travel.
Roberto Serrini is a professional filmmaker who records his adventures in word, photography and motion. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, and a licensed drone operator. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.
Follow him @serrini