Eileen Ogintz is a leading US family travel expert
Eileen Ogintz is a leading US family travel expert. She has reported and written the nationally syndicated column “Taking The Kids™” (Tribune Content Agency) for more than three decades. Her website (www.takingthekids.com) contains a rich repository of content focused on family travel. She is also the author of the Kid’s City Guide series from Rowman & Littlefield. There are more than 12 Kid’s Guides to New York City; Washington DC; Boston; Orlando; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Diego; San Francisco; Denver and the Rocky Mountains; Maine; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Acadia National Park. Eileen holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and is a 40-year veteran of the news business, reporting for The Anniston Star, The Record in Hackensack, N.J., and Des Moines Register as well as the Chicago Tribune, where she created the paper’s family-issues beat. She has also taught journalism and writing at Northwestern University, New York University, Fairfield University and Quinnipiac University. She travels with her husband, Andy Yemma, their three children (now grown), and other friends and family who serve as Taking the Kids’ special team of experts.
How did Taking The Kids get started? What motivated you to start the business?
It started with a rambunctious preschooler, a cat and a goldfish pond. That preschooler was my son Matt, now in his 30s. I was a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune living just outside of Chicago with my husband, Matt, and my daughter Regina, a toddler.
The travel editor asked if I would do a story about a $300 weekend getaway. This was 1987. It had to be within a few hundred miles of Chicago. “Sure,” I said, thinking what could be better than a free weekend away. After a little research (before Trip Advisor or vacation rental websites!), I connected with a cottage-owner in Baraboo, WI who assured me he loved kids.
But the trip went awry as soon as we arrived. The owner looked askance at my daughter’s sticky hands and face. She was sucking a lollipop. And my son, after a few hours in the car, was running around like a banshee.
Things went from bad to worse when Matt pushed the owner’s cat into a goldfish pond. “I thought the kitty wanted to cool off,” little Matt explained.
The owner was not amused. He demanded we punish Matt by spanking him. We refused. He insisted we leave immediately. We drove home in a downpour.
The Tribune travel editor, hearing my tale of woe, encouraged me to write a story about the misadventure. At the time, a whole generation of Baby Boomers was turning leisure travel on its head as they began to travel widely with young children. This was the generation that had backpacked around the world as college students and they didn’t want to stop traveling once they had children. They were just trying to figure out how to make it work.
That story led to others. We realized there were a lot of people like me, parents who wanted help planning trips now that they had kids. At the same time, I was an experienced reporter and unlike today’s influencers, after that first story, I didn’t rely on my own experiences. I interviewed other parents, experts and locals wherever we went. I didn’t gloss over the challenges or the misadventures.
The award-winning syndicated column “Taking the Kids” and TakingtheKids.com grew out of those stories.
At first, we syndicated the column ourselves. That wasn’t easy in those days when every newspaper had a separate computer system and we had to bill each individually. But because my byline was known around the USA, we quickly had more than two dozen subscribers, all major newspapers. The Los Angeles Times Syndicate came calling and began to sell and syndicate the column.
Those were great days. I only needed to write the column and send it to them. They distributed it and billed for it. I got a check every month.
What are the challenges that your business and its market are facing?
But of course in the ensuing years the newspaper industry changed dramatically. We set up a website—at first simply to have a place where the weekly columns could be archived.
The Los Angeles Times was bought by The Chicago Tribune and my column began to be syndicated by Tribune Content Agency. Newspaper clients dwindled. But still, the column was popular, and I became known as a leading national family travel expert. I’m often quoted in major publications such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Skift and on radio and TV.
Over the years, destinations and hotel companies realized that families wanted many more options than simply going to theme parks or the beach. Rather than simply tolerating kids, they needed to cater to them and their parents and grandparents. They began to understand that happy kids meant happy adults—and return visitors. And we were there to chronicle the sea change.
Our website became key, and we partnered with another large Family Travel Site—Family Travel Forum—to do sponsored content for major companies including Carnival cruise brands, Disney, Allianz insurance, Croisi Europe and many more.
I authored the Kid’s Guide series for Rowman & Littlefield. There are more than 12 Kid’s Guides to New York City; Washington DC; Boston; Orlando; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Diego; San Francisco; Denver and the Rocky Mountains; Maine; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Acadia National Park. The Kids Guide to Camping, published in conjunction with KOA Kampgrounds in 2021. The fourth edition of The Kid’s Guide to NYC and the third edition of The Kid’s Guide to Washington DC have just been published.
But there have been many challenges along the way. We had to convince publishers who were starting to post content on the internet that they should pay for our content. It was a hard sell when so much was available for free. It took a long time before many realized their users could discern between quality content and content that really was advertisements.
We still struggle to make destinations appreciate that we are working journalists, not just looking for a free vacation. In fact, for several years we co-hosted conferences for other family travel bloggers and that was their biggest complaint. Every time they traveled—even supposedly on a “free” trip—they incurred expenses—everything from paying for child care, parking, meals and more.
When I travel, I work most of the time, interviewing people and then posting online and on social media. The never-ending changes by the social media sites is a never-ending challenge. It’s impossible for anyone to keep up with!
Also, with the 24-hour news cycle and the demands to produce content for our website and for social media, I work a lot harder than when I first began the column and simply had to file one story a week. Now we must produce web stories, videos, daily travel diaries and more.
And unlike today’s influencers, I still don’t simply rely on our experiences, though I will recount them, especially misadventures. I always make a point to interview other traveling families, experts where we are traveling and locals who can offer a unique perspective.
What kind of opportunities to you see for your business and family travel market?
I never set out to be a travel columnist or expert. I didn’t have a five-year plan or a ten-year plan. I was raising three children (my third was born four years after the column started.) My husband had a busy career. I just kept plugging along, knowing there was a market for what we were offering and at the time, no one else was doing what I did. I was lucky to already have a name known in journalism circles in the United States.
We have had wonderful adventures – Antarctica, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro; skiing across the USA and in Europe; touring our national parks; exploring major European cities, among them. We have had plenty of misadventures too. My children, now grown, say those experiences gave them the confidence to venture out of their comfort zones when they began to travel on their own.
We haven’t gotten rich. Far from it. And it is a constant struggle to woo sponsors and keep those that we have. I’m proud to say many of our sponsors have been with us for years. But just as when we began the column and had to convince newspaper editors that there was a readership eager for family travel content, we need to convince sponsors that they need to amplify their message in the family travel space and that we can help them do that.
We also now define family travel broadly as we see it can be parents traveling with out kids, LGBTQ families; those traveling with grown kids, grandkids and extended families.
What kind of advice would you give to others about getting into the family travel business?
Be passionate about your product. Be confident that you are offering something unique and true. Be prepared when things don’t go as planned. Always be honest with your readers.
When the Pandemic shut down the world and with it the travel industry, we quickly had to pivot. We covered the news—the development of vaccines and their efficacy for children; the use of masks; that children were getting sick as well as adults. We also began to cover virtual travel as museums and destinations began to offer online content when families couldn’t visit in person.
Thankfully, most of our sponsors stayed with us but we didn’t have any new ones. We muddled along, just as did travel businesses around the world. And when we could begin to travel again, we did, chronicling the way families were traveling differently—RV trips rather than hotel stays; dude ranches rather than trips abroad; car trips rather than flights.
It is important to be able to change course quickly. It is important to realize that in many cases, there are other forces at play that will impact the success of your business. You need to recognize those forces and try to stay ahead of the game—as we did when we began our website, began to seek sponsors, and partnered with another family travel provider to have a bigger footprint.
Yes today we have many competitors. But from the beginning, we have tried to help those coming up behind us. We aim to make friends, not enemies. And the more entering this world of family travel, the more powerful our voice.
There are now family travel sites that focus on travel for those with special challenges. Because of their voice, there are many more destinations that are inclusive for those with physical challenges as well as those on the Autism spectrum.
There are sites that focus on LGBTQ families, on single parent families, on grandparents traveling with grandchildren, on camping with kids and luxury family travel. If you have a niche, use it!
Most important, if you are convinced you have a good idea, don’t give up. You likely won’t get rich but you will have a lot of fun.