How I Became a Travel Host.

 

Last summer Brad Stuart and I got the chance to travel around the world and make films for WOW Air, having won their global TravelGuide Contest. It was a surreal experience, somehow being chosen from over 30,000 incredible entries, and learning how to produce a full travel program on the road with just two people.

We produced over 110 films in just three months, all while traveling, which pushed us nearly to the limit of exhaustion. The funny thing about doing what you love, you never realize how truly spent you are until you stop.

Coming back there was a lot to process and learn from, and share as well. Lots of people have had questions like how did we win the contest, or what’s the best way to travel like a travel writerhow did we plan our travel vlog, or just how the experience was. This week I sat down with the good people at The Points Guy and answered some of these questions, which you can read on their site, or down below in an extended interview.

A TPG Reader Dishes on Winning WOW air’s ‘Dream Job’ Travel Contest

— As much as the gig was touted as a “dream job,” having to uproot your life for three months and step away from your daily paid work couldn’t have been an easy decision. Was there one particular aspect of the opportunity, or one thing you were hoping to get out of it, that ultimately led you to decide to go for it?
Accepting to do the project was definitely was a decision we had to think hard about. We realized that being gone for three months without working and still having to cover the cost of our apartments in NYC was going to eat up any per diem WOW was offering us. So from the start we realized we needed to really make this project something special, perhaps much bigger then WOW was expecting. We knew we had to create a diverse library of quality content that could really show our potential as travel content creators. The fact that WOW was letting us have complete control over what we produced and how we produced it meant we could make this project as dynamic as we wanted to, so the opportunity to do what we love the way we wanted to for a brand like WOW was definitely the main draw.
— What sort of training, if any, did you get for the “job?” Did you meet a lot of the WOW Air team in person and go over strategy, or did you just sort of get thrown in the deep end and go?
It was nothing less than freighting how much they trusted us, but also extremely liberating and rewarding. After a casual conversation on the phone with the head of their marketing department we were on a plane to go live in Reykjavik for the summer. We went to their offices, met briefly with Skuli the owner of the company who seemed really excited to have us there, and then they gave us the login information for their youtube, instagram and website and told us to go make some fun stuff. There was no review process or any real brand guidelines which, working in advertising, was absolutely petrifying, but again, liberating. Being able to fully control production from beginning to end was what made this experience exceptional for us. We worked together on what cities we wanted to cover, they set up flights and hotels, and the rest of the job was up to us. 
— How hands-on was the WOW team in terms of what you posted? In terms of determining what you wanted to cover in each city, did they have specific ideas in mind, was that all up to you, or was it somewhere in between? 
They chose 4 cities and we chose the rest, other then that they were completely open to whatever we wanted to cover, which I think was the purpose of the whole contest. They wanted real travelers to explore cities and get others excited about travel, which is exactly what we believed in. We didn’t want to make content that was just another voice in the echo of travel videos already out there online. There is this dangerous cycle that happens, where influencers and influential sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp will only send tourists to the “top 10” places in any one city, and then those people end up writing only reviews about the top 10 places, artificially inflating their importance and value. Whatever was the original experience that made it great cannot be sustained, since its just flooded continually with tourists, and it eventually loses all it’s local vibe. So we felt a responsibility to do the work and discover experiences that were lesser know but just as magical. In order to do so we would check the obvious resources like Conde Nast, Lonely Planet, Thrillist and even Atlas Obscura to see what each city had to offer, but then used WOW’s extensive social media platform to talk directly with our audience, which was the key to finding true hidden gems. We would ask locals where they go on a Thursday night to eat, or on a Monday to drink, and got some amazing suggestions that were largely unknown to foreigners and were truly local. While we covered some well known places that had a big draw, sharing these lesser known places was a way to ensure our audience could get an authentic experience that wasn’t blogged to death about online. There is nothing worse then going somewhere new and already feeling like you’ve been there because you’ve seen it so many times online. 
— What was the biggest challenge you faced in dealing with the company? What about from a personal level of having a limited amount of time to shoot a lot of footage: what was the biggest challenge there for you.
WOW was a pretty great partner; they didn’t demand anything from us that we weren’t willing to provide, and in the end got a lot more then they were expecting. For the most part they let us do our thing and manage our time as we needed. Any pressure we felt came from us driving ourselves to produce dynamic content. We ended up making well over 100 films for 10 cities around the world in just under three months, which was insane, but the experience of learning how to produce so many segments efficiently is something that will definitely benefit us in future projects. 
— In what way(s) did the experience most exceed your expectations?
What was most exceptional was being able to do what you love with a best friend. I think we often forget how lucky we are to be living at this time in history, and just being able to travel, make film, and lifelong memories with a friend is the real prize in all this, not to get to Hallmark Card or anything. I didn’t expect it to be so rewarding in that sense, even when we were exhausted from being up all night editing, or having walked 30 miles with a backpack of gear through a city all day, it was that feeling of accomplishing something difficult for something you really love doing that is the perfect recipe for honest fulfillment. 
— What about the opposite end of that question: Were there certain aspects that proved to be particularly challenging or time-consuming? Any aspect of the process that, if given a second chance, you’d try a different way?
Laundry. Do you know that there is not a single laundromat in all of Reykjavik? Not one. I live in NYC and there are TWO, read that, TWO just in my building. Where the hell do these people wash their clothes? We didn’t have one in our little apartment, so we ended up having to wash everything in the tub with a broken broom stick like it was 1926. Joking aside, it was a rough start for sure. We took too much equipment, and didn’t have a working strategy on how to plan our trips efficiently, but what was truly amazing is how streamlined the process eventually became from the experience of working through it. We realized what gear we really needed, how to plan our day efficiently, how to contact places and people to schedule our day, and how to edit everything and deliver, and still have time to throw a few back at Pablo Discobar before the sun set. That’s a joke because the sun doesn’t set in Reykjavik in the summer. 
— If rating the experience from 1 to 10, 10 being the best, where would it fall? 
26. Honestly. It was the most difficult thing I think either one of us ever tried to do, but because it was something we were really passionate about and loved doing it pushed us to the edge, and there we found nirvana. It was unlike any other experience I’ve ever had, and I wouldn’t of traded it for the world. I think what it gave us was well beyond the gift of travel, just merely visiting these cities, which was wonderful. It really taught us how to produce, and how to turn something we really love into something tangible and we can share. 
— Knowing things now that you didn’t know then: Are there questions you’d advise other people applying for similar travel dream jobs like this to ask of the  company providing the tip?
Make sure you really know what you’re getting into and what you want to get out of it, and make sure you communicate that clearly. Companies will dress up free work as a contest, which isn’t to say it can’t be mutually beneficial, but make sure you know the terms and contractual agreements before agreeing to anything. For us it was important that we could use all this work that we were doing to build off of, and banked on the exposure to do similar projects for other brands in the future. Also always ask if there is a place to do laundry nearby. 
— Would you recommend similar experiences to other people? Do you think there’s a certain personality type that’s best-suited for this kind of adventure?
Obviously anyone looking for adventure, loves to travel and make films are prime suspects for a good candidate, but being a good, self-motivated producer will definitely help you get the most out of the experience.  Knowing how to approach people and businesses so they would welcome us and our cameras was key for the success of the project, and as the summer went on we got better at opening doors. We set up private tours of museums, and got access to people and places that would be totally off limits to the average tourist, which made the experiences unique and profound, and in turn elevated the quality of the films from just average travel vlogs to actual curated segments. As an example we shot an entire film about Nobelhart & Schmutzig, a Michelin starred restaurant in Berlin that doesn’t allow cameras inside, so it was a real honor to tell their amazing story, not to mention one of the best meals we’ve ever had. We basically made these experiences happen for us, so the better you are at making your reality the more you’re going to get out of a project like this.
— Were you at all aware that the company was so close to ceasing operations? Were there any signs of strain or inklings about what was to come for the company?
Can’t really say we could, no. At the time they were a fluid, virile company that was forward thinking enough to send two travel maniacs around the world to make films for them. From an advertising standpoint the contest was a genius move. There is a trend happening now where brands will go direct to content creators and influencers to produce media for them, instead of working with a traditional agency, and for someone that works in advertising I really wanted to find out what was the potential of this type of work, and how far we could push the limits. It was a novel approach to a summer ad campaign and the idea was that they were going to keep the Travel Guide website up forever and have new guides each year go to new destinations. It was a fantastic concept, and I think really had the potential to connect with their consumers base.  
— If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you?
In a heartbeat, but in reality, we never really stopped. We may not be creating content for WOW but we’re constantly making new content to continually grow our own brand and channel. We’re just super thankful that we had the opportunity to do so much fun work with them while they were in business, and will definitely miss the fun little airline that did things a bit differently. 

How WOW Air did it different.

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.

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I’m not sure if this was meant to be ironic…

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:

1. Research

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.

2. Contact

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.

3. Strategize

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.

-Rs

About:

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

and now, a word about drones…

So I would be remiss if I didn’t mention anything about drones at this point, since, it’s basically the reason this trip is happening. Here is the internet famous film that got it all going…

When DJI first came out with the original Phantom Quadrocopter, I bought it in a heartbeat. I mean, it was basically a man toy, and I had to have it. I didn’t fully realize how much I would fall in love with flying and filming.

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When I first got it, it came with nothing. I flew it first without any camera on it. I flew it right into the wall. I really didnt expect it to be so difficult to control, I mean, I was a master flying a Ghost in Halo, how much harder can this be from a video game.

Lots.

People often say “what do those cost? Like 600 bucks? I should really get one” and you should. They are amazing. What you probably don’t realize is that like most good things, there is a bit more to it then it might seem.

First of all, flying the damn thing is unlike anything else you’ve done, unless you’ve flown quadrocopters before, then it’s just like that. Imagine that, like a car, you not only have forward, backwards, left and right to contend with, but also up and down. Now, add in the fact that the copter can rotate, so, imagine, you rotate 90º and try to fly to the right. You know which way you fly? If you guessed backwards, you are correct. And if you are confused then you are normal. Two points.

Basically it’s like controlled chaos in 3D. The damn thing goes ridiculously fast, and very high, and it is very easy to crash one, or in my case, four of them. Luckily I always travel with 2 drones, like any professional, it’s important to be ready for the worst.

Now, the price. Sure, 600 bucks gets you in the door. Then I had to add the Zenmuse gimbal, which stabilizes the camera. Then I had to upgrade the circuit board and NAZA controller. Don’t know what that is? Neither do I. I had to solder for godsake. Solder. That means buying a soldering iron. And something called flux which I still don’t fully understand. That means having to go to RADIOSHACK for the love of God. Then I then had to buy a GoPro, and upgrade the controller as well for tilt control. Batteries… each lasts about 10 minutes, which means buying about 12 of them for a shoot. Additional chargers, custom case, carbon fiber props, and of course, had to install a Fatshark RX transmitter and receiver so I can get a video feed to the director.

600.00 easily becomes 3K. Easily.

Perhaps the most “interesting” part about learning how to do all this is that there really is no “instructions”. It’s not like there is a manual that comes with the components that tell you how to put it together. Mind you at the time there were no “kits” that came with this setup already built. Any information I got was online, and usually from either a German youtube video or some half-assed comment in a message board. It was like navigating to the moon with directions your 90 year old grandfather gives you.

The good part about this is that you really learn the equipment. You learn what everything does, or can do, and you learn how to fix it, or troubleshoot issues if things go wrong, and things always go wrong. I considered it payment for all the enjoyment I was about to have.

Seriously though, soldering sucks.

Mind you, I knew nothing about RC piloting, so I’m by no means trying to tell you it’s not easy to start doing. Just maybe not as easy as you think.

In the end Ray, one of the other producers on the film here in Thailand, said it best: “At first I was just going to buy one and shoot the footage myself. Then I realized how many bad aerial videos are out there. I thought, maybe this isn’t as easy as it seems. So we called you.” Thanks Ray.

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Like anything worth doing, it has its learning curve. For your consideration; above are LiPo bags. LiPo’s are the type of batteries that go into the drone, and look like little C4 explosives. And, oh yeah, they tend to fucking explode for no reason every now and then.

So you are not allowed to put them in checked luggage, which means you take them on board with you. The idea here is that if something does happen it’s better if it’s in the cabin where you can do something about it. There is a whole TSA and FAA sheet about this, which doesn’t stop you from having a hell of a time explaining what the hell you’re doing with so many batteries at the airport security.

Finally, and perhaps the most interesting about this type of hobby, is that it is technically illegal. You may see that I wrote “hobby” instead of “job”. That’s because the FAA does not allow you to fly drones for commercial purposes. It’s not that I don’t have a license, it’s that THERE IS NO LICENSE. In fact, THERE IS NO ACTUAL LAW for or against it. It’s this weird limbo ruling that basically allows them to fine you 10K if you fly them for commercial purposes. So I obviously do not advertise myself as an aerial cinematographer, because that would be illegal. That’s why I only fly them for my enjoyment. Sometimes I do it while on set, between takes, you know, just to fill downtime. It’s a great hobby, and way better for you then smoking.

where i like to stick it.

Mind out of the gutter folks. In the last post, I told you what I was taking. Now look where it’s all going. Actually, keep your mind in the gutter, for this is a bag so goddamn sexy, you may want to make love to it.

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This little hottie is the Partner’s & Spade VSTR Nomadic pack. Just say it with me… VSTR Nomadic Pack. If that doesn’t tickle the cockles then I dont know what’s gonna get you off the couch. Sure, it’s handsome as is, with it’s boot straps, architectural wire frame, and waxed canvas dopeness. But like all dangerous women, this one holds a surprise.

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That’s right bitches. That’s a messenger bag and … what? A MOTHERFUCKING HAMMOCK.

We’re done here.

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Hammock people. I did mention I was going to Cambodia. The last piece of the puzzle is my trusty Compass, given to me by Danger Zone lover Sami Joensuu for surviving eating Balut with him in the jungle.

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