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Fling into Sydney, Australia

Have we seen the end of travel influencers?

As my computer pointer rolled over my website stats, an uncomfortable realisation washed over me.

Visitors to my travel blog, A Globe Well Travelled, had dropped from an average of 1347 pageviews per day in January 2020 to just 353 per day in April. It was a rather drastic dive. I wondered if the change could be a normal fluctuation in my digital visitors, but this appeared to be more than just a fluke. At the same time, the commissions that I’d been making when people booked their trip experiences through my recommendations had plummeted all the way down to a big fat zero.

The domain name had been purchased excitedly back in 2014 after a multi-month backpacking trip to Europe. I’d wanted to share my travel experiences with people around the world who could use the knowledge for their own trips.

I was also aware that if you were able to get enough momentum, it was possible to transform these travel activities into a job. This was my goal. Tired of working in stale corporate offices and taking the train to work in the city with tens of thousands of other commuters every day, I wanted nothing more than to have the flexibility to work from wherever I wanted and spend all my days travelling the world and posting content via my laptop.

With a lot of research, creativity, and dedication, I did eventually manage to earn some cash from blogging. It wasn’t enough to justify giving up all my other money-making activities (of which there were plenty), but I was able to turn that passion for travel into something more tangible. The video below will give you an explanation on how influencing can become a job.

In early 2020, travel influencers like me felt the impact of the global tourism collapse as much as anyone else in the industry. 

What felt like only moments ago, it had seemed as if the opportunities for travel influencers were limitless. But there was no denying the cause of the plummet in my web traffic–nobody was planning their next vacation, so travel influencers were no longer useful resources.

On top of being deemed irrelevant, there were also few options for creating content when visiting new destinations was near impossible. Posting old trip photos to my social feeds felt rather pointless when I knew people weren’t leaving their homes, and writing articles on alluring travel spots felt equally as uninspiring. It didn’t take long to fall into a funk where I posted only occasionally, sometimes leaving months in between updates.

I contemplated how my fellow travel bloggers were faring. Did they reluctantly quit when we all couldn’t go on with our regular endeavors? Or did they quietly pay their renewal fees to keep websites online, like I did, until travel might be a possibility again? 

It was hard to decipher whether this would be the end of travel influencers altogether. Those digital spaces where we once roamed free could plausibly disappear into oblivion, to be replaced with individuals promoting athleisure fashion trends or filming choreographed dance moves for iso-friendly entertainment.

I considered myself lucky to have some ongoing freelance work that provided a base level of income while travel wasn’t an option, but that wasn’t the case for all travel influencers. Some relied more heavily on the advertising income they were getting from their website and had to reassess their entire business model. Jen Avery of Thrifty Nomads was one of the influencers who wasn’t sure whether her website would survive (watch our interview in the video below).

After speaking to Jen (who is also a friend of mine), I dug deeper into what really happened in the digital world once people stopped travelling. Ryan Jones, Founder & CEO of Refuel Creative, says that his business clients in the tourism industry had to adjust their digital marketing strategies when Australians’ future travel plans were affected.

“We saw a huge drop off in search demand for travel related things, particularly right at the start of the pandemic,” says Jones. “So you’ve got this environment where the tourism providers are pulling back on their spend, the world is not really looking for holidays for a little while, and the opportunity for those influencers to promote travel dries up reasonably quickly.”

Refuel Creative did their own research on the effects of the pandemic on web ads related to travel which they published in July 2021. It showed that customers had begun to search for travel experiences again, but conversions (where a customer purchases a product through the website) were still low. This meant that influencers would still be struggling to make money through affiliate commissions.

“I think for the tourism providers themselves, their business model won’t necessarily change. But hopefully for some of them this has reinforced in more detail how people actually buy through this process,” says Jones. “People don’t just come to their website and buy their thing, no matter how much they would like that to happen. There’s a consideration process through that.”

Shipwrecks, sand dunes, and dolphins: Tangalooma day trip from Brisbane
Tangalooma at Moreton Island, which I promoted as an influencer in 2018

Influencers usually fit into that consideration process in the digital marketing funnel. They don’t necessarily convince anyone to get out their wallet and book a product immediately, but they do let their followers know that the product exists and share their opinion on it. This is exactly what I did when I travelled to Tangalooma Island Resort in Queenslandas an influencer in 2018, and also when I did a Tasman Island Wilderness Cruise in Tasmania that same year.

When people are doing online research for travel experiences, it’s been proven that they generally tend to trust recommendations and reviews over direct advertising from brands, even if those recommendations come from influencers that they’ve never met. Those who are in the market for a product which has been shared by an influencer may then look into it in more detail and potentially make a booking.

But for tourism businesses that host influencers in the hopes of generating some positive recommendations, measuring the success of these campaigns can be a challenge. Conversions would have to happen via a link connected to the influencer and within a digital tracking period (usually a month or so) and as you might have guessed, that doesn’t always go to plan. There can be a lengthy delay from when a customer sees an influencer’s post to when they’re finally ready to purchase, so it’s not always obvious which customers arrived at a destination or attraction based on the recommendations they saw online.

To get a more solid idea of why working with travel influencers is legitimately useful for tourism businesses, I had a conversation with Captain Cook Cruises in Sydney Harbour to find out more about their digital marketing strategy.

It’s been nearly two years since my last international trip when my husband and I spent winter in Europe, all while our home country was dealing with a horrifically hot and fiery summer. We arrived back in Australia in January 2020, and since then our travels have been limited to two Australian states with an extremely rainy road trip up to Byron Bay remaining as our only proper vacation.

I did manage to visit my family in Tasmania twice between lockdowns. My arrival in Hobart happened just before the state borders closed to Sydney-siders last Christmas due to a local COVID outbreak, and in June, I managed to squeeze in another trip to attend the increasingly popular Dark MoFo festival before the borders slammed shut yet again in July.

Despite the fact that travel has been a scarcity, I haven’t given up on it. Tentative plans are being made for an international trip to attend the spring wedding of our friends in New York, and we may even attempt to reschedule some of the domestic trips–one to South Australia and another to Western Australia–that were canceled over the past two years.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge as seen seen from Hickson Road Reserve in The Rocks
Exploring my home city of Sydney between lockdowns in 2021

Without travel, I have nothing new to post, so these are the trips that I hope will inspire fresh and exciting content for this blog. Exploring destinations that I haven’t yet written about is basically the core of my existence as a travel influencer, and I can’t wait for it to fill me up with ideas again.

It’s obvious that I’m not the only one keen to pursue my online activities. Of the fifteen travel influencers that I surveyed, 100% said that they continued creating content (though some at a reduced rate) despite the fact that 86% experienced a drop in their income. When I asked if they’d restarted their travels, only one said that they hadn’t taken any local or international trips. The remainder are already discovering which destinations are willing to accept their passport.

In my efforts to discover how the travel influencing industry fared throughout the pandemic, one curious fact became evident–there are no new arrivals on the scene. A two-year period would usually allow plenty of potential influencers the opportunity to start websites and social media accounts dedicated to documenting their trips, but those of us that are around today were all solidly established before the pandemic started.

So, as you all crawl back online to start researching where you might next venture, know that the content from travel influencers is still there waiting, and we will continue to produce inspiration for you. I guarantee that as the travel industry slowly recovers from its catastrophic crash, you’ll see us popping up again in your feeds, ready to share the magic behind all the wonderful destinations of the world.

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