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Travel influencers often get a bad rap. The perception that they expect free trips for little work, or live unrealistic and hyper-privileged lives without “real jobs” has defined much of the conversation over the last decade or so.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue that the travel influencer industry has not played a significant role in travel’s growth in the last 10 years. In many ways, they have replaced the traditional publications and travel magazines that once held so much sway over where people visited. However, now that travel is grounded around the world, there has been a hint of online schadenfreude at their plight.

Campaigns are all cancelled, free trips are nowhere to be found, affiliate income is nonexistent, and most of their would-be clients or partners — hotels and destinations — don’t have a marketing dollar to spare. Then there’s the high profile backlash that happened when influencers failed to live up to their responsibility as public figures during a pandemic. With all these knocks, it’s hard to conceptualize how this somewhat informal industry may adapt and survive as the travel industry undoubtedly changes.

Skift spoke to Jade Broadus, vice president and creative director of Travel Mindset, a influencer marketing agency that connects influencers with travel brands to create custom campaigns and content. She said now that people are on their phones more than ever — anxious, bored, looking for both reassurance and inspiration — influencers and brands may have something of an opportunity.

This conversation is edited for clarity and length.

Can you first explain why destinations, hotels, etc have valued working with travel influencers in the past? 

Broadus: So many of them are just amazing content creators, so the thing that we were hearing from brands and destinations a lot was “if I bring in a video crew or I bring in professional photographers to catch all these assets we need, it’s $60,000 – 75,000. But for $25,000 we could bring in a bunch of influencers and they will create what we need.” So many of them now are incredibly talented. We just truly believe in the power of influencers and the power of the trust that they have with their audience.

This is a weird time for travel influencers. Their bread and butter topic is gone. What kinds of content strategies have you seen during the pandemic that you think have worked? 

Broadus: For very niche travel influencers — where all they do is talk about travel — they are trying to be a resource for educating their followings. So it’s about changing the narrative: Don’t travel now, but this is what you can do for your local communities. So really kind of taking a shift to … how to shop at small businesses, with either curb side pickup or delivery, how to take-out at restaurants. A lot of them are taking that local focus. Others have pivoted to more creating a print shop of their old travel photos.

Now let’s talk about recovery. How might brands use influencers differently moving forward? 

Broadus: I think a lot of times with influencer marketing — especially hotels, destinations — they feel like they need to accommodate every single influencer request. I hope that this really makes people vet the influencers just as they would media. Make sure that you’re vetting their media kit, you’re looking at their insights, so you know about their audience.

All the traveler sentiment surveys are saying [recovery is] going to be local, it’s going to be extended drive market. If that’s the case then you can really just fine tune the influencer list to just the people that have those audiences at least for the next six months I would say.

That’s something that a big travel travel publication or national newspaper or even big digital sites are going to have a harder time doing. I personally think influencers are probably going to be the first people who travel again. Since they already travel so much, their comfort level with things is a lot higher. So I think they’re going to be showing audiences: “Okay I just checked into this hotel, they’ve changed their check-in process it’s completely contactless, they’ve added an Apple pay, I swipe my phone and enter the room.” They’ll be able to show that exact process on Instagram Stories and how it makes them feel.

You’re saying that would-be travelers might trust an influencer they watch every day more than a magazine or online article?

Broadus: Everyone is on their phones more than ever right now. So during this time, I think for a lot of people that trust level has gone even higher and people are just needing entertainment, they need to be inspired. And so once people are able to go back out there, they’re going to be watching to see how was it? If they were able to do this, maybe I could too?

If I watch an influencer take their kid to car pickup, and I really value knowing the makeup that they’re using, or what they’re giving their kids for lunch, I’m also going to trust them when they go travel somewhere.

Beyond initial recovery, what long term changes to the industry do you think we might see?

Broadus: A lot of specifically travel influencers that are hopping from job to job and don’t really have a home base, this is going to change that. This is really going to weed people out. The people that are amazing content creators — they’re the ones that once this is over and there is a vaccine, their ability to bring those assets to a client are going to rise. If you were just kind of a mediocre photographer with an OK audience, I think you’re going to have a really hard time. Because there’s just no way to justify that especially if budgets are slashed

A lot of these influencers live quite itinerant lives — they’re always on the go, maybe don’t even have a permanent residence. I do wonder if what’s happened will make that lifestyle feel less feasible or even appealing?

Broadus: Right. If you always posted that you were in Bali or French Polynesia or Hawaii and now you’re not able to go to all those places, does your audience still care [about you]? But I am seeing a bunch of influencers who’ve done that pivot to lifestyle, around-the-house style of content and their audience does still care. So I think when they’re out of this, they’re going to be better off, because their audience has been along for the ride during this shift and maybe appreciates that they’ve acknowledged that that endless traveling lifestyle is unattainable now.

What would you say to people who still have a dismissive attitude towards travel influencers? 

Broadus: My overall takeaway for everything is that people are watching influencers every single day. I really think that trust level should not be glossed over. Especially right now when everything is so uncertain, we’re hearing conflicting views every day. If they’re able to share “Oklahoma City sent me their reopening strategy and it makes me feel really safe,” that feeling of safety will be translated over to the audience. That is something that no impersonal travel outlet can offer. They might make people feel really good with the inspiration side of things but they don’t have that trust of a real life friend and that’s how people feel about influencers.

Photo Credit: Travel influencers are closed for business. Mesut Kaya / Unsplash