292 | People of Persuasion: Travel influencers grow in sophistication and significance in COVID-19 age

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PIN THIS: A map pin is part of the marketing collateral of ‘Let’s Go There,’ a social media campaign by U.S. Travel Association designed to encourage Americans to start thinking about vacationing and planning excursions in the COVID-19 age. Influencing travel via social media channels is not new, but it’s taken on more significance as travel consumers shift their lockdown state of mind to one of safety as they venture out. The coronavirus pandemic is giving travel influencers new meaning as well, say professional travel bloggers, communications experts and brand marketers who see influencers becoming more trusted as content creators that target their messaging to specific consumer demographics.

As consumers emerge from lockdown mode, hoteliers should consider adding social-media-savvy tastemakers to their marketing schemes, say experts

The U.S. Travel Association says “with the right recovery initiatives in place” the nation’s travel industry will begin to heal from the gutting caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A major step toward bringing back 800,000 jobs and generating more than $70 billion in travel spending in 2021 is the association’s Let’s Go There social media campaign that’s all about enticing Americans to start thinking about taking vacations.

The nation’s travel industry has a long way to go.

STR last week reported hotel occupancy for the third quarter of this year averaged 48 percent, a decline of more than 32 percent in the same quarter of last year. RevPAR averaged $48.58, a decline of 48.5 percent. STR notes, “The absolute occupancy and RevPAR levels were the lowest for any Q3 in STR’s U.S. database.”

In an Oct. 23 presentation, Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights at STR, said business performance will most likely not improve in the fourth quarter. That’s mostly because of the dearth of corporate travel business.

Freitag said some significant findings emerged in the third quarter. Americans prefer limited-service hotels over full-service properties. They prefer to stay in hotels in rural markets versus urban accommodations, and they would rather drive than fly to destinations.

The current reality has the travel sales and marketing sector working to come up with new ways to encourage Americans to go on a road trip, even though COVID-19 remains a threat to health and safety.

To that end, the U.S. Travel Association recently launched Let’s Go There, a social media campaign that encourages Americans to start planning a getaway.

Let’s Go There has more than 60 partners representing hotels, resorts, destination markets and theme parks. The multi-tiered program uses multimedia content in the form of videos, photos and graphics that focus heavily on health and safety protocols adopted by hotels and travel-related businesses. It also encourages consumers to practice safety measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing.

Brian King of Washington, D.C., is global officer in charge of digital, distribution, revenue strategy and sales at Marriott International, and is co-chair of the Let’s Go There campaign.

The U.S. Travel Association and supporters began to develop the program at the beginning of summer as they watched coronavirus outbreaks surge throughout the country and the travel industry continue its nosedive into negative territory.

“What’s great about the travel community at large is we’re friendly competitors but when times are tough and our industry is under duress, we all lock arms,” King said. “None of us has faced something like this before.”

The USTA and its members formed a communications committee to decide “how do we want to start talking to consumers when the time is right,” he said.

“In May and June none of us knew what the new normal was going to be like, and we were trying to think far enough ahead of what things could look like and what consumers would want to hear or not hear.

“We did some research and we learned that consumers were desperately missing travel. They knew they couldn’t travel … but there was this void they wanted to fill.

“What we learned was if they just had something on the books – It could be six months to nine months from now – it changed their mood; it gave them something to look forward to,” he said.

The overarching message of Let’s Go There is that the travel industry will be there when Americans are ready to travel.

WATCH: TRAVEL ADVOCATES: In this video, Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, and Jennifer Zimmerman, chief of strategic officer at McGarryBowen and co-chair of the committee that created the association’s consumer marketing campaign, Let’s Go There, explain the project designed to encourage Americans to make travel plans and revive an industry that’s been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Who’s Traveling?

Digging deeper into just who is willing to travel and when, IZEA, an influencer marketing agency in Winter Park, Florida, in July surveyed more than 1,200 internet users over 18 years of age and discovered that attitudes and behaviors of travel consumers shifted over the first few months of pandemic.

In April nearly 20 percent of survey respondents were in total lockdown compared to a little more than 4 percent in July. This indicates that consumers have shifted from “lockdown mindset to a safety mindset,” reports IZEA.

By mid-summer, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were the most likely to visit a hotel, a bar and the beach. IZEA advised that marketers target this age demographic for the time being.

Across the board, respondents are using more social media platforms. The greatest increases are on YouTube and Facebook but they’re spending more time on all social media channels including Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, TikTok and Twitter.

That means the role of the digitally present commercial influencer is more alive than ever. Now is the time to connect with prospective travel consumers who, nearly eight months into the pandemic, are dreaming about their next trip.

PEOPLE OF PERSUASION: Carol Cain of GirlGoneTravel.com, a travel blog, visits the Sandals Resort in Jamaica. Cain also is a marketing and branding professional who advises travel businesses on how to strategically align influencers’ content and expertise with traditional marketing programs to target new customers. Episode 292 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Cain and other social media experts in a report about the value of travel influencers in the COVID-19 age.

Travel Blogger

Bringing joy and hope to the idea of travel is the mission of Carol Cain of New York City, creator of Girl Gone Travel, an online travel blog from the perspective of a female travel consumer who is also a wife and a mother.

Cain doesn’t only write and photograph her travel adventures domestically and abroad; she also tackles tough topics such as travel bans, personal safety, traveling as a woman of color and advice on how not to get scammed by someone who claims to be an influencer.

Cain is also founder and CEO of Brave World Media, a branding agency.

Cain started travel blogging in 2008 when she left her career in public relations to stay home with her children. Her first blogs were about her experiences as a resident of New York City where she and her children would take in attractions, parks and events. That same year, NBC named Cain as one of the city’s best bloggers. She parlayed that into a business that has taken her all over the U.S. and to 30 countries across five continents.

Though the term “influencer” is becoming overused, Cain said it’s the right description for what she does. The more modern term is “content creator,” but it’s all the same, really.

“If you think about what influence is in general anyone of us can be that,” she said. “The concept behind influencer was this idea that you could bypass the advertorial sort of forced marketing approach to branding or advertising and treat it as if you’re talking to your mother, your friend, your sister.”

When Cain writes about travel she starts by thinking about what she would want to know if she were planning this trip for herself or family. “There are a lot of different things that come into play that inform readers’ decisions in whether or not to plan a trip” to a particular destination, she said.

Cain has watched the role of brand influencer change over the past 10 years. Where brands once turned to TV and movie stars to promote their products, content creators are now everyday people who have learned how to master social media and deliver messages targeted to specific people groups.

The influencer community was small a decade ago, Cain said, as many influencers tried to figure out how to make it a sustainable business. What’s changed today, she said, is not only is the community much larger, influencers are a lot smarter. “You have a generation now that this is all they’ve done.”

Many social media influencers are not professionally trained in marketing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good at what they do, but the practice is different than what it was a few years ago.

Content creation by influencers today is “very curated, very filtered,” Cain said. “Everything is very thought out, very calculated.” And that usually means it’s a lot more expensive to hire an influencer than it was a decade ago.

Cain advises hotels and other travel businesses on how to find and recruit influencers. She encourages hotel marketers to do their homework on prospective influencers. Otherwise hiring a spokesperson can be rife with misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Working With Influencers

When it comes to finding content creators, brand ambassadors or influencers, there are many places to look.

Netanya Trimboli of Washington, D.C., is founder and CEO of Travel Influencer Expert, which encourages collaborations between influencers and brands.

For eight years, Trimboli was head of communications and public relations for Hostelling International USA until she lost her job in August as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

It’s a good thing that she kept up side gigs as a freelancer for content creation and branding agencies over the years because it allowed her to quickly shift and establish Travel Influencer Expert, which offers training for current and would-be influencers that focuses on professionalism.

She also teaches hospitality businesses how integrate social media influencers into their overall marketing strategies.

TRAINER OF INFLUENCERS: Netanya Trimboli of Washington, D.C., founded Travel Influencer Expert, an online training program for influencers that also advises hoteliers and others in the hospitality industry on how to effectively work with the social media personalities to spread the word via social media about their stay experiences. Influencers today are more professional and their content can be an effective part of a hotel’s overall marketing campaign, Trimboli said. Episode 292 of Lodging Leaders podcast features Trimboli and other social media experts in a report about the value of travel influencers in the COVID-19 age.

Trimboli agrees with Cain that roles and expectations have changed for influencers.

When considering whether to enlist an influencer, hotel owners and marketing teams should go beyond inviting someone to stay overnight and in exchange post positive reviews on social media. Even in the modern world of digital content creation, that’s an old method.

Instead, Trimboli says, hotels should know what they want out of an influencer and how the influencer’s work will complement its other marketing content.

“It certainly has grown from casual exchanges to strategic activations,” Trimboli said. Used to be, a hotel or resort would have a loose contract with a self-declared influencer, and owners and managers would cross their fingers that they’d get a good review.

“Every year that I’ve been working with influencers it’s gotten more sophisticated,” Trimboli said.

She advises that hoteliers who add influencers to their marketing schemes be “painfully specific” in what you want to have written or posted about your property, right down to the number of sentences on specific topics.

“One thing people might not realize is that influencers program their posts,” Trimboli said.  “Very few will post in the moment. Most want to think about the post, write something thoughtful and put the time into that.

“So if you contract two Tweets and two Instagram posts, make sure they’re timed with whatever you have going on at your end.”

Influencers are just as niched as traveler demographics. Hotels can create promotional campaigns specific to certain groups and hire influencers who cater to that audience.

“Think of influencers as more than the sum of their following,” Trimboli said. “Think of them as strategic consultants and if you treat them this way they will rise to the occasion.”

Influencers also can offer ideas on content hoteliers and their marketing teams may not have thought about, Trimboli said. So it’s smart to ask about their ideas and what would work best with their followers. “Just start brainstorming with them and I guarantee it will be more effective than if you just said, ‘OK, you can stay this weekend and write what you want to write.’

“If you have those strategic conversations with influencers, they’ll start to feel more like a brand advocate than just someone you paid to do to something. They’re now vested in this; they came up with the idea and they’re excited about it.”

To find the right influencer, Trimboli recommends you start with her, of course. But she also suggests such companies as IZEA, Wanderful and The Network Niche.

Influencers also can recommend other influencers. And perusing online sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with a key word or a hashtag might yield a connection.

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