2021-07-03 05:25:37 These Travel Influencers Pivoted During The Pandemic

These Travel Influencers Pivoted During The Pandemic

Catarina Mello was in Finland when she realized COVID-19 could have a significant impact on her life.

Mello, a 30-year-old from San Francisco, was accustomed to her life taking unexpected turns. In 2017, she was dutifully ticking off boxes of success while working in marketing at Google, but she was restless. She started her Instagram account, @professionaltraveler, after a trip to Indonesia, determined to reignite some passion in her life.

She felt determined to turn her Instagram page into a profitable business from the first Instagram post of her Indonesia trip, she told BuzzFeed News. She drew on her marketing and technology experience, beginning with carefully edited and perfectly posed photos from trips she took to Greece and Bora Bora. She worked the algorithm and started pitching herself to brands for collaborations. When the income from her account surpassed her Google salary two and a half years later, she quit her job to travel the world. She now leads a team of five people who create online courses on growing a brand on social media and manage her account.

When Mello first learned about the virus, she reasoned that it couldn’t be as bad as some claimed. As the situation deteriorated in mid-March 2020, Mello oscillated between wanting to complete her obligations for the hotel brands she was working with for the Finland trip and becoming increasingly concerned that she would be stranded there. Finally, she decided to leave just in time.

“We were able to get out of Finland and connect in Germany just before everything shut down and all flights were canceled,” she told BuzzFeed News.

A global pandemic, it turns out, can quickly bring even digital nomads back to reality. Travel bloggers, like the rest of us, were grounded, confined to their homes, and unsure how to keep their businesses afloat in 2020. Their collaborations were dissolved, and they were forced to scramble and innovate in order to stay afloat. Many people spent long nights worrying about how they would survive. When they did, tentatively, resume their travels, some faced travel-shaming from their followers (and others faced hatred for even acknowledging the pandemic), on top of their own safety concerns.

Whitney Haldeman, 34, of the Instagram account @Blonde Atlas, was on a sailing trip in the Caribbean in March of last year when COVID-19 cases began to rise worldwide. She had started her “adult study abroad” in 2015, after being laid off from her advertising job. She turned her passion for travel into a business over the years, visiting more than 175 cities in 40 countries, sharing her experiences with her more than 60,000 Instagram followers, and launching a company that plans bespoke group travel tours.

Haldeman described herself as an optimist, so when she learned about COVID-19, she chose to hope for the best.

“I was terrified thinking about the consequences it could have, not just on my business, but also on my relationships and life in general,” she said.

Following the sailing trip, Haldeman parted ways with her boyfriend, who lived in London, and returned to the United States. They were supposed to be apart for three weeks, but they wouldn’t see each other for months.

It was difficult for her to adjust to her new reality as it gradually dawned on her.

“I watched my career go from being the busiest it had ever been to having everything screech to a halt,” she said. She estimated that “at least 95% of all my traditional income methods have completely ceased.”

Influencers expressed their terror in the early days of the pandemic, not only because of, well, everything, but also because their careers were essentially wiped out.

Carmen Sognonvi and her husband, Serge, founded Top Flight Family, a luxury family travel company, in 2016. It had become her full-time job by 2018.

Her family’s life changed in the blink of an eye. The couple and their two daughters went from traveling the world to not leaving their Brooklyn brownstone for anything other than groceries for months. Prior to the pandemic, paid travel campaigns accounted for roughly half of their revenue, but by 2020, it would only account for about 7%, she said, adding that they were able to make up the difference by increasing revenue from consumer brand deals.

Mello’s most ambitious travel year to date was supposed to be 2020. She had to cancel or postpone dozens of brand trips and ad campaigns after COVID-19 hit. The future appeared to be bleak.

“I went from having a packed year to having absolutely no plans,” she explained. She estimated that canceled campaigns and press trips cost her around $30,000 in direct losses.

Jessica Serna, 26, has been posting about her travels on the Instagram account @MyCurlyAdventures for about four years, focusing on discovering new places to visit in Texas, where she lives. 2020 was supposed to be Mello’s most active travel year yet, but she and her husband were suddenly scrambling to keep their business afloat. She estimated that her influencer income dropped by about 20% during the first three to four months of the pandemic.

“Little by little, all of our journeys vanished. “Website traffic also vanished almost overnight,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Serna and the others had no choice but to sit and wait for the world to open up. They needed to change course and think outside the box. While this was difficult at the time, the influencers say it ultimately made them stronger.

Mello believes that, while the lockdown clearly posed many challenges for the influencer industry, it also accelerated trends such as “demand for online courses, the need for more authentic and real content on social media, the social obligation to use one’s influence to speak out about social and political issues, the transition of retail to e-commerce, the transition to short-form video content.”

Mello was “forced to think of ways to future-proof my business” while stuck at home, she said, and to think outside the box. She accomplished this by focusing on new ventures such as online courses to assist people in growing their businesses on social media and creating more short-form video content.

Haldeman also tried new things and stated that she was “committed to learning as much as I could and improving my skill set to be better at my job.” She threw herself into her studies, completing a Wine & Spirit Education Trust course as well as a certification program in international tourism and events management.

“I just tried to think of as many positives as I could,” she explained.

“No matter what approach they took, someone in their comments section was always criticizing them for it.”

Mello, on the other hand, realized she had an advantage as the lockdown continued.

“Brands quickly realized that they needed to leverage creators more than ever to reach their target demographic now that no one was going to stores or looking at billboards around the city,” she said. “I went from having all of my contracts canceled to receiving a large number of new ones all at once a few months later.” Mello said that with the new brand deals and sales of her online courses, 2020 ended up being her most profitable year yet, which she called a “blessing in disguise.”

Soon after, a new question arose: When should they get back on the road? Each influencer stated that she was hesitant to re-enter the public eye. They were concerned not only about safety, but also about appearing out of touch, even though they followed all local safety ordinances and admitted to being willing to accept a level of risk that others might not be.

“It’s been fascinating to see the diverse reactions of travel creators to this epidemic,” Sognonvi observed. “Some people decided not to travel at all. Others chose to travel solely by car, with no flights. Some only traveled within the country, with no international trips. But what I noticed was that no matter what approach they took, someone in their comments section was always criticizing them for it.”

Last July, Sognonvi and her family began to venture out, first with a staycation in Manhattan, then a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. In her posts from the fall, she emphasized how important she thought it was to show people how they could travel, giving her followers advice on things like choosing a hotel with proper safety protocols and flying safely.

“Rather than pretending that no one is traveling,” she wrote in September, “it’s time to normalize conversations about how to travel safely and responsibly.” “That’s about as effective as pretending that teenagers aren’t having sex rather than teaching them how to do it safely.”

Nonetheless, her posts were heavily criticized, with some accusing her of not being cautious enough about the virus, while others chastised her for acknowledging it at all. People accused Sognonvi of “trying to bring COVID there” after she posted a video on TikTok about how she believes families could safely travel to the Maldives. Another said it was “not safe to post.” Then, she claims, people began arguing in the comments about COVID’s survival rate. “It was incredible to see how divisive the topic of travel was,” she said.

Serna had initially struggled to figure out how to keep her business running, discovering that the at-home content she was producing was underperforming. However, when she and her husband began taking local trips, primarily outdoors, over the summer, people began to notice.

“We discovered that because many people had their anniversaries, honeymoons, and so on canceled, they were looking locally, and our page and website saw a huge surge,” she explained. “Because our page focuses primarily on local travel, it became an important resource for our community, and by the end of 2020, it was one of our busiest years yet.” She claimed that by 2021, they would have tripled their previous earnings before the pandemic.

However, not all of the influencers returned to travel. Haldeman ended up moving to London during the pandemic to be with her boyfriend (her visa just happened to come through at the time) and barely traveled at all, aside from a few car trips in between the UK’s lockdowns. To stay afloat, she created online courses teaching others how to navigate immigration issues while traveling, how to be a digital nomad, and other topics. She also landed brand deals with wineries after completing her WSET certification.

“My mission has always been to help people be better travelers and really steer people away from irresponsible or insensitive travel of any kind,” she said. “Instead, I tried to focus on being optimistic about the future and making plans for future trips.”

She recently flew to Greece for the first time since COVID-19, writing on Instagram, “This one is for all my travel industry friends who spent the last year on the bench.” Here’s to getting back into the game and back to work!”

Backlash, on the other hand, loomed over any plans. Travel bloggers are already the target of much skepticism for their seemingly perfect and stress-free lives, and Mello braced herself for criticism when she decided to resume traveling after a six-month hiatus. (She stated that she took precautions such as getting tested on a regular basis, planning mostly outdoor excursions, and only staying in hotels with strict protocols.)

Her followers, however, were mostly supportive of her decision to venture out.

“I got thousands of direct messages from people saying they really needed that fresh travel content to get them through lockdown and isolation,” she said. “It gave them something to look forward to and hope that the world would return to normalcy sooner rather than later.”

Serna stated that she, too, did not receive much criticism, and that she believes that being open about the precautions she was taking aided her.

“We tried to be very transparent with our community, and because so many people were able to find trips that suited their comfort level, we generally received positive feedback with very little pushback,” she explained.

“Rather than pretending that no one is traveling, it is time to normalize conversations about how to travel safely and responsibly.”

While Sognonvi admitted to receiving criticism, she said it came from both ends of the political spectrum.

“Because our content always placed such a strong emphasis on COVID-19 safety, we actually received just as much criticism from COVID denialists as we did from travel shamers,” she explained.

People appear to be ready to board a plane again now that vaccines have made travel safer. According to the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Report, half of all American travelers “indicated they are excited about travel in the near term.” The current CDC recommendations are for travelers to wait until they are fully vaccinated before embarking on any trips and to continue wearing a face mask on public transportation.

Mello believes that travel influencers can play a significant role in demonstrating to consumers that they can travel responsibly while also helping to revitalize an industry on which many people rely.

“I genuinely believed that by getting tested and adhering to mask and social distancing guidelines, I could travel safely,” she said. “I also wanted to convey that message to my audience. Too many communities around the world rely on tourism, and the thought of them struggling to put food on the table made me very sad.”

Sognonvi agreed, saying that while travel influencers have always provided their followers with a glimpse into a jet-setting lifestyle, they can now make a significant difference by making people feel more at ease with travel.

“I think people appreciate being able to see us go through the process first so they can get a sense of what the experience is like,” she said.

The pandemic has only strengthened Haldeman’s resolve to share her passion for travel with more people and make it more accessible to all.

“I didn’t hear anyone tell me how much they learned to appreciate clothes or material things,” she said. “Instead, for the majority of us, it’s getting out in the world and connecting with one another. I doubt any of us will ever take that for granted again.”

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These Travel Influencers Pivoted During The Pandemic