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By the time I was 23 I was editor of a leading car magazine.
I could pick the phone up and book a road test for a Porsche, Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes and even a Rolls-Royce or Bentley for a week. If I had a Ferrari Boxer for the weekend, or a Porsche 944 convertible I’d get on the ferry and pop down to the south of France.
Yes, okay, it was very hard work, but someone had to do it.
Just to add some icing to this particular big fat cake the car companies take motoring journalists on press trips – usually there’s one every couple of weeks. They are typically two to three days and always to exotic locations like St Moritz, Monte Carlo, Biarritz and even, on one memorable occasion, off to West Africa.
The idea was that you got whisked away to these places in a private jet or business class on a jumbo (once a car manufacturer booked a fleet of Boeing 747s to go around Europe picking up journalists before taking them to Cape Canaveral to watch some American space rocket taking off. No, I have no idea why...) and then you’d land, pick up the new cars which hadn't been launched to the public, team up with another journalist and drive to the five-star hotel where you would marvel at the grandness of the place.
And of course, some of the hacks would squeeze just about everything they could into their luggage and take it home with them. You think I’m talking about the contents of the mini-bar but it often went much further than that. There was a core of hacks who would nick everything they could get their paws on. After all, the hotel management was unlikely to complain. Far better they smiled and replaced all the nicked items than complain and never get the car company to book its horrendously expensive rooms again.
So, in went the contents of the mini-bar, and the usuals like the dressing gown with the hotel’s motif on it, and the towels too, plus all of the shampoos and soap and anything else in the bathroom, but so too would framed prints off the walls, pillows, expensive pens and stationary, and even ornate clocks. Once we were in St. Moritz and a group of us was talking about exactly this behaviour because the hotel we were staying in had its tasteful logo emblazoned on just about everything. I asked one hack if he’d had the towels away yet and he said in amazement, “The towels, old chap? I sat up most of the night unscrewing the bidet!”
Sometimes these hotels would have their own beaches or golf courses or fleet of private helicopters that would whisk you out over the bluest sea you’d ever seen. Sometimes these hotels would have been used in a James Bond film.
A friend of mine who worked for a women’s magazine told me about a trip she went on where a cosmetics company took a whole plane load of beauty journalists to Hong Kong for a week and landed them in the lap of five-star luxury. They frolicked about the hotel’s swimming pool and went shopping for days and then eventually went to an hour-long press conference about a new lipstick, before flying back.
Another friend told me about the launch of a new men’s razor. The company took them up in Concorde, flew them round the Bay of Biscay at some ludicrous speed and told them how sharp the new blade was. Then they landed back at Heathrow.
No wonder razor blades cost so much.
Of course, today’s journos will tell you it’s nothing like that now – the excesses of the ‘80s and 90s have long gone, they’ll say – but you’d be surprised at the lengths companies still go to to get decent publicity for their products.