As the social media influencer industry evolves and matures, destination marketing organizations are, in turn, taking them seriously as agents in their efforts to grow visitation.
Tourism agencies are developing more sophisticated and granular destination influencer marketing strategies as content creators hone their skills, reach, and transparency about niche audiences.
“When it comes to inspiring people and getting people excited about a destination, showing them something they didn’t know about the destination, influencers can be very powerful,” said Discover Puerto Rico Chief Marketing Officer Leah Chandler.
Influencer reach was one reason the Sedona City Council in Arizona has refused to restart destination marketing spending since 2021. City Councilman Peter Furman said overcrowding had been concentrated on five to six attractions due to influencer selfies and photos.
“Media never had that kind of spread before,” Furman said. “Some council members are asking ‘Why are we doing paid advertising when it seems everything you do there’s some hike blog or some crystal spiritual growth people talking about Sedona for free?’”
The Strong Trust Factor
What influencers say about their travels can have more sway over audiences than other types of advertising. “For a lot of people that’s more trustworthy than seeing an ad that we may buy or a TV spot that we may buy,” said San Francisco Travel President and CEO Joe D’Alessandro.
During the early decision-making process is where influencers can impact traveler choices the hardest. About 53 percent of social media users say they have purchased something after seeing an influencer or content creator they follow post about it on social media, according to a 2022 Pew Research survey.
Influencers can have a more intimate relationship with their followers compared to celebrities, although some celebrities can be influencers, as well. “You feel almost like you know an influencer more than a celebrity,” said Puerto Rico’s Chandler. “Celebrities seem so out of reach, whereas Influencers seem very approachable. You may run into them on your flight.”
It’s not just their followers they reach. Influencer content gets to social media users in other ways. Social media platforms like TikTok are now search engines, especially for Gen Z. They are used in travel discovery, a 2023 Skift megatrend found. Platforms like TikTok have become more precise in pushing personalized, authentic and original content into user feeds.
Amid Peru’s civil unrest in December, TikTok travel vlogger Will Lad posted a video about local turmoil that attracted over 10 million viewers — rivaling global news networks — warning about avoiding travel to Peru. It helped to cause the country to lose millions of dollars in tourism revenue and set back its post-pandemic recovery back.
DO NOT TRAVEL PERU NOW I didn’t want to make this video, but with the protest in Peru it has become unsafe for tourists to be in Peru, here is my story about what it is like traveling Peru at the moment. Peru has put themselves in a 30 day state of emergency, so please please don’t go until its safe . . #peru #perutravel #backpack #backpacking #travel #travelstorys #travelhorrorstory #horrorstory #peruprotests #travellife #traveltips #southamerica #southamericatravel♬ Chopin Nocturne No. 2 Piano Mono – moshimo sound design
Destination influencers are a component of direct-to-consumer marketing strategies. Destinations don’t have to be as reliant on intermediaries like travel agents to stimulate travel sales as much now thanks to influencers, said New Orleans & Company CEO and President CEO Walter Leger.
Destinations have a story, brand and message to communicate with potential visitors through their website, advertising, events and other channels. Destination influencers serve as a channel to translate these things in a way their specific audiences can often absorb. They talk about the destination to consumers in a digestible way that doesn’t sound like a paid ad, said Joseph Marinelli, CEO and president of Visit Savannah.
Amid the pandemic, to stay in the mind of South Koreans when travel was unavailable, Singapore hosted Rozy, South Korea’s number one computer-generated image Instagram influencer, to keep the destination in local minds. The trip received extensive media coverage in South Korea, said Singapore Tourism Board CEO Keith Tan at ITB Berlin.
Smarter Strategies and Destination Influencers
As influencer impact expands, destinations have become more sophisticated in their collaborations with them. For one, destinations are more proactively shopping for influencers, whereas before the latter just made pitches to the former.
San Francisco Travel’s global offices identify food influencers that can effectively tell the Golden City’s story. Discover Puerto Rico is launching its first request for proposal, or RFP, for an agency to assist them with their influencer marketing strategy, said Puerto Rico’s Chandler.
Brand USA, the U.S. national tourism marketing agency, has a program that loans out trusted and vetted international influencers to partner destinations.
The marketplace has a “much higher quality influencer” today compared to five or even 10 years ago, as more of them make it their full-time job, Chandler said.
S. Dilla Thomas quit his job as a ComEd lineman after becoming a TikTok star. He’s now a Chicago urban historian and a destination ambassador, said Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of Choose Chicago.
Chicago architecture is second to none. You can’t go wrong with a visit to Edgewater so pull up. #Chicago #chicagohistory #edgewater♬ Spongebob Tomfoolery – Dante9k Remix – David Snell
The standards for being a professional influencer are higher than before. They have to produce content consistently on platforms, maintain community engagement and be skilled at using their phones to produce vertical photography and video content while maintaining their authenticity.
“We look for someone that has strong photography skills and can provide some visual assets as part of the contract,” said Diane Medler, executive director of Montana’s Discover Kalispell . “That’s really important to us.”
This year, months after the deadly Hurricane Ian physically devastated Southwest Florida and left $165 million in negative earned media, Fort Myers worked with influencers like the Florida-based The Capturing Couple to visually communicate that some resorts were welcoming visitors amid their recovery.
Destinations are sometimes dropping large amounts of money on influencers. Fáilte Ireland spent nearly 300,000 pounds (nearly $375,000) on social media stars from 2020 to 2022. South Dakota hosted TikTok star “Corn Kid” for less than $10,000.
Some agencies don’t partner with influencers. Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau doesn’t pay or work with them, said Managing Director Corinne Menegaux. “I’m not sure of influencers in this space,” she said. “Either you love Paris so you contribute, or either you don’t, no problem with that.”
Influencer fraud, which includes activities like using fake followers, remains a concern for brands. About 64 percent of firms worry about the practice, according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s survey of 3,500 respondents from marketing, brands, press relations and other backgrounds across a variety of industries.
In the past, follower count was the key quality metric. Now, that’s one of many metrics like engagement but another big one is audience quality and fit. In fact, a micro influencer (from 10,000 to 100,000 followers) is often chosen over a macro influencer (100,000 to 1 million followers) because the former has the better fit and more engaged audience.
Influencers are offering metrics like advertising agencies do. “They’re getting much more serious about sharing key performance indicators, sharing who their audience is, providing data and that helps us make more informed decisions,” said Puerto Rico’s Chandler.
Beyond event and attractions promotion, destinations that do work with influencers often bring them to hidden gems or obscure areas, with the idea that influencers will alert their niche audiences. Kalispell contracts with influencers to attract outdoor recreation enthusiasts, like Montana native Andy Austin who is looking for a small town experience and to explore lands outside Glacier National Park, said Medler.
Destinations around the world try to entice repeat visits, spotlighting areas travelers may have missed. To fight off the “been there and done” effect, London works with influencers to show travelers that they didn’t see everything there is to see in their last visit. There’s more than Big Ben and other famous attractions, said Tracy Halliwell, director of tourism, conventions and major events at Visit London.
In the early days, in exchange for some videos and images, destinations covered their influencer trip expenses. Now, more are paid for their content for deliverables and sharing on their network. About 40 percent of brands pay influencers, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. It estimates the influencer marketing industry will grow from $16.4 billion to grow to $21 billion in 2023.
However, there are still “horror stories” where destination expectations weren’t met, said Dave Serino, Chief Strategist for TwoSix Digital.
There’s not really a way to effectively measure a direct return of investment on essential indicators like revenue. Engagement, reach and viewer numbers give a “general sense” if an influencer has been effective, said Puerto Rico’s Chandler.
“We’ve had some success,” said Kalispell’s Medler. “Some better that others, but we’ve had some good success.”
In-House Destination Influencer Teams Proliferate
Destinations are forming more long-term relationships with influencers to create brand affinity rather than just one-offs, said Mackenzie Bromley, vice president of social media and content strategy for MMGY Global, a travel and hospitality marketing agency.
There are “in-house” influencers on standby. Destination Toronto has a consistent core group of micro influencers and creators they work with regularly, said spokesperson Paula Port.
Agencies want their local influencers for their ability to craft authentic content to bring their destinations to life and create treasure troves of information that travelers will run into in their searches. Influencers craft explanatory videos down to the simplest topics for deeper engagement with the destination.
New York City has a creator squad, which is made up of local content creators in fashion, food and other categories, said Fred Dixon, President and CEO of New York City Tourism + Conventions. They provide hidden gem recommendations and tips as well as advice on how to do the everyday things like ride the subway or eat a pizza.
“It drives travelers in a way that benefits communities and it matches what travelers want, so to us it’s a win-win,” he said.
Demystifying Destination Influencer Impact
Looking ahead, influencers will continue to proliferate. There will be pressure, however, from destinations on influencers to better measure their return on investment beyond metrics like engagement and reach due to some emerging trends.
One is the proliferation of geolocation mobile data tracking technology that enables destinations to measure their visitor movements. Connecting marketing campaigns and visitation via mobile phones is becoming easier. There could soon be a day when technology that can directly connect visitor arrivals and dispersion with destination influencer posts becomes widely available.
Another is the inevitable competition for tourism marketing dollars from streaming services. Destinations are pouring money into advertising on such services because of their impressive targeting and measurement transparency.
Expedia jumped on this bandwagon with the launch of its own platform that combines streaming with shopping and booking. Brand USA is one of the first to a launch a channel on the platform.
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Photo credit: Influencers are becoming more influential in destination marketing. Source: Aishwarya Agarwal/Skift