The comped influencer trip has long been a divisive idea in the travel industry, but in the context of the pandemic, some are asking if it should exist at all.
It’s not uncommon to hear people in the travel industry criticize influencer freebies. The idea of online content creators asking for free or compensated stays in destinations or at hotels in exchange for posting content from that place has become a commonplace, if uncomfortable, phenomenon in the past half decade. But the last person you might expect to hear a critique from is a blogger herself.
Ana Silva O’Reilly, who has run the travel blog Mrs. O Around the World since 2011, is calling on her peers to temporarily give it a rest. In a blog post earlier this summer, she launched the #PayingOurWay campaign, calling on travel-focused bloggers and influencers to help the travel industry recover by not asking for free or comped trips.
“When travel does reopen and it is safe for us to travel again, I am encouraging bloggers and influencers — who have benefited from many press trips, freebies and support in the past — to help out the industry by booking their own hotel stay, holiday, city tour,” she wrote. “If you love it, then creating content about the experience free of charge, without asking for any compensation or freebies.”
Silva O’Reilly’s campaign touches on a divisive issue in the travel industry: Is it worth offering free trips to influencers, bloggers, and other travel writers when the return on investment is so hard to predict? After all, anyone can call themselves an “travel influencer,” from a travel journalist with a few thousand followers to a bona fide internet celebrity with a wide, but often shallow, reach.
This question is compounded by the pandemic, a time when many travel companies both small and large are in economic survival mode. Thus, requests for compensated trips in exchange for content may not only come across as unrealistic, but insensitive — and possibly damaging to future business relationships.
Silva O’Reilly made it clear in a conversation with Skift that she is not asking people to work (create content, that is) for free. She is simply saying that now is not an appropriate time to pitch yourself in exchange for freebies or paid partnerships. Better, she said, is to travel where and when you feel comfortable and support the industry with your pocketbook.
She notes that like many other bloggers, she has multiple sources of income (she works in marketing) which means she is not without income during this time. It’s worth noting that many influencers do treat it as their sole source of income, which has thrown the future of this profession into disarray since travel was grounded in March.
The response Silva O’Reilly has heard from her contacts in the industry has been heartening, with tourism boards, hotels and brands saying, “thank you for doing this. It’s great so our time is not wasted with those requests.”
But not everyone agrees it’s the worst time imaginable for travel influencers to work with brands — and not all creators have the option to reply on other income streams. Jade Broadus, vice president and creative director of Travel Mindset, an influencer marketing agency that connects influencers with travel brands to create custom campaigns and content, said that travel destinations and hotels that are reopening can capitalize on the high level of trust influencers have with their audiences. She notes that 80 percent of influencers are reporting higher engagement with their followers since the pandemic began.
“Pre-Covid, it was sometimes difficult for hotels to offer comped stays because they could sell those rooms to paying guests. We’re in an interesting time when hotels are not selling all rooms and their restaurants and onsite amenities also are seeing fewer people,” Broadus wrote in an email. “Now, hotels can turn this negative into a positive by offering comped stays to local and drive market influencers and bloggers to get some positive press out about them quickly. The influencers can show how safe they felt at the property, what new protocols the hotels have started, and truly share the overall experience of traveling again.”
Broadus also pushed back on the idea of “free” or “comped” trips. She said if there are no clear deliverables set out between the influencer and the client, that is a recipe for unmet expectations. But it’s one that’s easily rectified with a contract and clear expectations about what the deliverables will be, whether the influencer is being paid for their work or simply offered a free trip. That’s as true during a pandemic as ever.
“This doesn’t mean hotels and destinations have to offer comped stays to every single influencer or media request,” Broadus said. “Now is the time for hotels and destinations to rely on solid relationships they’ve had and work with only the influencers they trust, have amazing content and their exact target market. Through quality vetting and relationship building, hotels and destinations can offer comped stays to only their top tiered influencers and bloggers and they’ll get so much in return.”
Nigel Glennie, vice president of global communications for Hilton, similarly said that if influencers and bloggers are going to approach a hotel brand right now, they need to do it with a high level of sensitivity and understanding.
“It goes without saying that the travel and tourism industry is experiencing an outsized impact of the global pandemic,” Glennie said “Any influencer approaching a brand or a hotel right now is wise to keep this in mind, and tailor their pitch accordingly. We’re currently offering a polite decline more often than not, and requests for a free stay are pretty quickly dismissed. It isn’t immediately obvious to people outside our industry, but there really is no such thing as a free hotel room.”
So the free influencer trip may not be dead, but it was already moving in the direction of becoming much more discerning, at the very least. Silva O’Reilly points out that for too long, “influencer” or “blogger” have been catch-all terms where a fashion blogger posting bikini photos with a hotel pool as a mere backdrop is considered as the same as someone with a cultivated focus and passion for luxury travel, for example.
“This will separate the more professional from the less professional,” Silva O’Reilly said. “Everyone that I know really who takes this seriously has a variety of income streams. You can’t have all your eggs in the same basket. Also you can’t have a life of free trips. I don’t know how people eat on that. If everything is free, who pays the Amex bill?”
Photo credit: Free trips no more? Hello Lightbulb / Unsplash