Post pandemic, brand and destination marketing dollars will favor those who get hyper-creative, hyper-local and hyper-talented in video and storytelling content. There's a boom coming — for those playing the long game.
When Covid hit, travel’s broad cross-section of content creators — bloggers on free or paid press trips, social media influencers, and multimedia storytellers — saw their revenues plummet overnight.
Some scrambled to redefine their business models with a focus on local travel, while others shifted into lifestyle, fashion, food, self-help and home decor, or exited travel content creation altogether.
As tourism gradually reopens after over a year of stops and starts, is the future as bright or will it remain laced with uncertainty on the other side of this pandemic? Content creation overall, outside of pure news, is at an all-time high particularly in the U.S., and booming in other sectors — but what about in travel?
Janicke Hansen and Lola Akerstrom, co-founders of NordicTB Collective — a group of digital storytellers based in Scandinavia — believe in the future of opportunities for local and regional travel content work, but are hesitant on how soon a boom might happen.
Hansen said smaller tourism boards in Norway, for instance, had gone bankrupt from the lack of small business tourism revenue and therefore marketing funds remained scarce.
The shift of travel influencers into lifestyle and other areas and their desire to now get back into travel — which creators came to realize was a luxury — will also have consequences, Akerstrom added.
“It’s going to affect the creator economy in the next two to three years, in that it may devalue what people produce for the destinations, because travel influencers that are really hit are going to be doing a lot of things for free such as press trips,” Akerstrom said. “It’s going to take us back to many years when we said influencers need to be paid for their time.”
Ross Borden, the founder and CEO of Matador Network, a veteran travel content creation platform and hub, is more bullish on the future.
“I think creators are going to have more opportunities than ever, I think the overall pool of dollars that’s gonna get spent on creators and influencers is going to increase,” Borden said.
“We’re already at 130 percent of total 2019 revenue, and about 150 percent of total 2020 revenue, and it’s almost the end of May, so we’re in the middle of what’s going to be a huge record year for us.”
Borden recently relaunched Matador Creators — a revamped platform or “LinkedIn for travel creators” as Borden described it, where creators can set up their profiles and apply for press trips or campaigns from brands that reach out to Matador Network.
As travel gradually reopens, travel content creators are finding their revenue is bouncing back as well, depending on their regions and audience.
“I think there will be a big boom especially because Europe is so dependent on tourism,” said Keith Jenkins, founder of Velvet Escape luxury travel blog and CEO at iambassador, a digital boutique marketing agency with a network of content creators based in Amsterdam.
“I’ve had more bookings this past month than the whole of last year,” Jenkins said about this blog.
Gabby Beckford, founder of Packs Light and a Gen-Z travel influencer who left her full time engineering job in February 2020 to travel the world just before Covid hit, has seen her monthly revenue range consistently in the five-figures every month since February 2021, from social media campaigns for destinations, study abroad companies, and tour activity companies.
As far as press trips, two of Beckford’s thus far have been paid in the U.S. and Mexico but unpaid in Europe, where tourism boards have been upfront about awaiting a wider reopening.
“I think travel is coming back in a huge way,” Beckford told Skift, while frantically searching for an available hotel room in Antalya, Turkey where tourists have returned.
It’s a while longer before a big boom manifests for travel content creators, but there’s a potential for it on the other side of the pandemic for those who get hyper creative or hyper local and up their video game, while diversifying their income streams via sectors linked to travel.
Throw in fierce competition in an industry particularly prone to geopolitics, and it’s a challenging ride ahead but filled with big income potential for those who choose to stay the course.
“Once we’ve reached a decent vaccination level where everything really opens up for people to travel freely, then we’ll see a boom where destinations will really start to compete with one another and that will only be a great thing for content creators,” said Jenkins.
Revolutionizing Creator Access and Partnerships for Bigger Opportunities
In the last five to 10 years of influencer marketing, the approach from brands was largely one-dimensional and lacked authenticity and connection – the brand would just approach an influencer with a lot of reach and followers and lay out the terms for the campaign.
“We are setting out to revolutionize changes around how the tourism promotion infrastructure interacts with creators on a global scale,” Matador’s Borden said. “So that is everything from a new look at a press trip all the way to really fancy and high dollar amount branded content and creator and influencer programs — and we’ve got ways to do pretty much touch every part of that process.”
Matador Creators currently has over 50,000 members who can self identify on it as writers, bloggers, photographers, filmmakers and producers.
It isn’t a social network and focuses on work, with communication running solely between Matador staff and the creators.
When brand requests for proposal roll in – AirBnB, Pacifico beer, Ford, Samsung, and Dominica have been a few of Matador’s recent clients in spite of the downturn – the opportunity is shared in the paid gigs section of Matador Creators, and comes with an invitation from Matador staff to also pitch ideas for the campaign.
“We’re saying, this project has landed on our desk. We want your ideas for where to shoot, what to shoot,” Borden said, adding that it leads to an outpouring of talent who love the brand. “I mean, that’s great for brands, right? What we’re doing is we’re almost like crowdsourcing creative executions.”
Borden said this year Matador creators have made anywhere between $2,000 and $20,000 per gig.
While the company’s roots are in adventure and outdoor travel, its recent campaigns show the broad linkages of tourism with other industries, signaling a huge potential for content creators who show flexibility, creative chops and connection.
“As travel comes back full force, and we really believe it’s going to, we are looking at this as an opportunity to work with hundreds of PR firms, DMOs, airlines, hotel brands, and really reinvent everything that they do with regards to talent and influencers.”
Pre-pandemic, the travel industry in Europe was already leaning towards creator collectives with close relationships and/or access to a large pool of local talent to find the ideal talent fit for a specific project or campaign. In the U.S., influencer marketing firms were widely used by tourism boards.
But the trend of seeking closer and longer-term relationships with creators is likely to grow post Covid, because of an ongoing fragmented travel ecosystem where safety has become primary and in which domestic tourism sits on a new pedestal.
Over in Europe, iambassador has continued to run paid social media and content campaigns for long-term clients such as the European Union, Spain, Germany and Emilia Romagna, aimed at keeping destinations top of mind among travelers or sharing expert tips for when travel returns.
The campaigns leveraged content that bloggers already had from prior trips, but the budgets weren’t reduced as one might expect in a downturn.
“A few years ago we shifted our focus to longer term contracts instead of one-off projects and that really helps,” Jenkins said. “When we look at the campaigns that we’re getting, and the budgets involved, it doesn’t differ very much.”
Jenkins said that for the Spain campaign, the client chose to expand the budget and involve a larger number of bloggers.
— Sarah & Terry (@LiveShareTravel) May 18, 2021
In Scandinavia, which remains largely closed off to global tourism since last year, NordicTB Collective ran up to three campaigns for past clients closer to Christmastime, though budgets for those were lower given the lack of travel element. They were set to continue until another surge surfaced.
Influencer and blogger collectives with deeper relationships and connections with the communities and destinations they cover are likely to see their opportunities expand in the future.
The same is true in terms of better access emerging, as well as increased opportunities, for content creators of color. That’s the goal of the Black Travel Alliance, as studies continue to reveal the economic power of Black and brown travelers.
Last December, the Black Travel Alliance launched Wavelength as its signature event platform, matchmaking travel brands and destinations with creators through one-on-one meetings and networking sessions. The move came in response to an industry that has been predominantly white in marketing content and claimed to want to build back in a more inclusive manner post pandemic.
Two editions of Wavelength have now taken place, with up to 30 brands and destinations attending, including a wide variety of U.S. tourism boards, such as NYC & CO, Visit Forth Worth and Explore St. Louis, as well as Switzerland Tourism.
Ursula Barzey, research committee chair for the Black Travel Alliance, said it was still early days to determine the hard data on the resulting deals from those encounters, particularly as tourism is just beginning to restart, but that a survey would soon be underway to measure the organization’s efforts in leveraging opportunities for its members. Other ongoing initiatives include a job board with staff positions in various parts of the travel industry.
Creators With Expanded Services and Skillsets Will Stand Out
As destinations and the creator economy in travel evolve towards a more authentic and conscious kind of travel, creators in the position to offer a bigger umbrella of services — whether as a kind of one-stop “agency” for brands and destinations or with a variety of skillsets to offer — will benefit long-term.
Matador Network, for instance, also runs an in-house production team of 40 known as Matador Studios, which they use for brand campaigns in addition to sourcing the talent and helping craft the campaign idea. That content is then made available to the client for use where it sees fit.
“For Samsung, for example, they’re using our video content in a big partnership with ESPN, they’re using it on Roku and connected TV, so I think that’s a big trend you’re going to see, especially with influencer created content or content that has influencers or talent in it, the brands are going to want to start waking up to the idea of using that content in other places globally,” Borden said.
NordicTB Collective is also analyzing opportunities for its next evolution on the other side of the crisis.
“Are we going to actually evolve into more of an agency working with the destinations to really help them in terms of setting their influencer marketing strategy, or are we going to still stay on the other end, helping them craft really good kind of authentic social media campaigns?” Akerstrom said. “You know, we could do both, so that is something where we need to look at.”
The Domestic Market As An Income Stream
When tourism boards and travel brands saw international crowds disappear in a flash last year and slow to return, they were confronted with the reality of having to promote their own backyard to local communities for the first time.
Selling a guided hiking trip in Norway to a Norwegian became a major conundrum for tourism businesses, Hansen said, adding that most did not even have websites in Norwegian.
But that gap and the forced shift towards domestic tourism at a global level has translated into opportunities for local and regional content creators. It’s a trend that experts either believe is likely to continue in the future.
“Last week I was up north in Norway, and did a collaboration there with the Northern Norway tourism board and one of the local areas there on a paid collaboration, creating content creating videos, photos and stories,” Hansen said. “That had been really, really hard before.” Hansen added that her fees were similar to pre-pandemic.
“Even Visit Norway has now kind of totally shifted their communication strategy towards the Norwegian audience so I think local content creators working within their own country or in their own region will have a much stronger position now than before. Opportunities would open up for those kinds of paid collaborations.”
Iambassador’s Jenkins agreed that hyperlocal content will likely rise to the top – he used the travel downtime to pump up his blog’s local Netherlands content, and it’s now paying dividends.
A host of niche regional or outdoor travel blogs and platforms have also emerged since Covid from bloggers who were once focused on international destinations, as travel creators quickly pivoted into backyard tourism where the marketing money currently lies.
This is also where having access to locally-connected content creators will prove of value. It’s something that Borden says will bring out the “smoke and mirrors” promise of some influencer marketing firms that claim having thousands of local influencer relationships.
“What really counts is authentic storytelling and connecting with talent who already have a direct and authentic connection to your brand, and I think marketers are waking up to that reality,” Borden said.
Jenkins agreed and hopes this renewed focus on local communities will become mainstream in travel content creation rather than just a trend.
“I hope that DMOs in trying to find ways to organize campaigns sustainably, will realize that for a country like the Netherlands for instance you don’t have to get a content creator from the US to reach the US market.”
The Future is Video and TikTok Does It Best
When Covid hit, Gen-Z travel influencer Beckford didn’t despair – she used the time to hone her skills and build up her travel content creation business, namely via TikTok and Instagram.
“For both I get booked pretty much the whole month for content with partnerships since February of this year,” Beckford said.
“I try to tell people in my membership community of creators that video is the future. Short form content has taken over the industry — Facebook stories have popped up, Twitter stories, YouTube stories, Twitch… and TikTok does that best right now.”
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Beckford’s TikTok posts for study abroad companies have hit a million views in less than 12 hours while tour companies have had people book within seconds. “And so that’s the power of short form video in this time, and I really enjoy it because it’s a challenge to creators.”
Borden agrees that TikTok has taken a solid position in the travel creator economy, and predicted that the platform will give Facebook and Instagram a run for their money in the next five to 10 years.
“We at Matador are extremely bullish on the platform in general, not just for Gen Z, but for Gen X, millennials, really everyone.”
TikTok’s immersive visual format default sound on feature and format are what TikTok representatives underlined at the Arabian Travel Market in May as being so effective they can accelerate a viewer’s travel plans from inspiration to going into the direct phase of booking and going.
TikTok representatives also shared survey results indicating that the short form video platform has 65 percent consumer brand recall, as well as the highest purchase intent index of any platform, including television.
Up to 61 percent of users also said they felt that advertising on the platform was unique. That makes TikTok a powerful platform for marketing destinations in a competitive post pandemic world as well as for creators.
The Digital Advertising in Travel report from Skift Research released this month confirms that the shift towards digital video advertising will continue to grow for travel brands at the expense of traditional media – 76 percent of marketing executives interviewed said they would increase ad spending on digital video, representing the highest spend of all channels.
Iambassador’s Jenkins expressed more skepticism on long term value of brands focusing on new social media platforms.
“That’s why we promote bloggers all the time because I feel that bloggers will provide the best value in terms of whether it’s short term exposure to longer term exposure – why not get a blogger who has the blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube? So that’s our premise and that’s what we try to promote all the time to our clients.”
The Boom Awaits Innovators and Forward-Looking Brands
Experts predict global travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
For most influencers and content creators who remain in the game, it will mean diversifying their content streams beyond international travel until the industry gradually returns on a global level.
But the great pause will bring with it innovation in content, in technology and in talent, while tourism boards and brands also reimagine their business models and messaging – whether it’s sustainability, safety, inclusivity or backyard tourism – and scrutinize the best use of their marketing funds.
“Brands have a ton of money, and not always the best idea. And then you’ve got a ton of creators out there who have almost no money and need money to do their things. And they’re full of good ideas,” said Borden.
That’s not something that’s likely to change, just as surely as destinations and brands will always need the right content creators to bring travelers back post-pandemic.
“A lot of influencers have popped up in every niche, including in travel and I think it’s a good thing for the industry itself,” Beckford said. “The more innovation that comes to travel content creation and leisure travel in general because of the competition, is a good thing. I hope that we can support each other to get paid fairly.”
Photo credit: iambassador ran a "Spain on my mind" travel blogger campaign for the tourism board, amid a travel downturn. Keith Jenkins / iambassador