Inside the complicated world of the travel influencer
Amy Seder isn't used to having the door slammed in her face. Her artfully posed Instagram posts of a glamorous life led in glamorous destinations has won her an army of online admirers that the travel industry is usually eager to embrace.
But when she recently contacted one hotel in Italy hoping for a free stay in exchange for social media exposure, she was bluntly rejected.
"Blogger infestation. Not interested," came the curt response.
So-called travel influencers such as Seder make a living by sharing their globetrotting experiences on social media and personal blogs. They get freebies, discounts or payments for promoting places, products and experiences via their accounts.
The past few years have seen a relative explosion in the number of people apparently carving careers via this route. The many travelers who now plan their vacations based on what they've seen on social media make it a viable proposition.
But it's a trend that, as Seder found, may now have reached saturation point with some hotels and other travel industry organizations growing weary of the demands placed on them by influencers and becoming increasingly doubtful of the commercial benefits.
Inspirational or loathsome?
Partly to blame for the disillusionment are a slew of recent headlines about entitled and inappropriate behavior that have exposed the fine line between inspiring the online community and incurring its unbridled wrath.
Gianluca Casaccia, a beach club owner in the Philippines, took to Facebook in April to tear into "freeloaders" he said were plaguing his establishment with requests for gratis food, drinks and accommodation.
In another case, a Czech couple traveling in Bali drew ire after apparently splashing themselves with holy water at a temple and posting images of it to an Instagram account with tens of thousands of followers.
These incidents, while unrepresentative of the many influencers who steer clear of controversy, have helped shine a spotlight on a side of the travel industry of which many people were perhaps were unaware, highlighting some of the hard-nosed reality beneath the surface of the soft-focused dreamscapes on Instagram.
They also raise questions about the sustainability of the agreements between influencers and the travel industry and the lifestyles they support in a rapidly changing industry environment.
While travel blogging is a relatively young phenomenon, it has already evolved into a mature and sophisticated business model, with participants on both sides working hard to protect and promote their brands.
A working relationship
Those on the industry side say there's tangible commercial benefit, provided influencers are carefully vetted.
"If people are actively liking and commenting on influencers' posts, it shows they're getting inspired by the destination," Keiko Mastura, PR specialist at the Japan National Tourism Organization, tells CNN Travel.
"We monitor comments and note when users tag other accounts or comment about the destination, suggesting they're adding it to their virtual travel bucket lists. Someone is influential if they have above a 3.5% engagement rate."
For some tourism outlets, bloggers offer a way to promote products that might be overlooked by more conventional channels. Even those with just 40,000 followers can make a difference.
Kimron Corion, communications manager of Grenada's Tourism Authority, says his organization has "had a lot of success engaging with micro-influencers who exposed some of our more niche offerings effectively."
Such engagement doesn't come cheap though.
All expenses paid
Trips or freebies often cover luxury experiences, meaning considerable outlay for the hotel or tourism body involved.
A night in the Serenity Club Junior Suite Ocean Front at Haven Resort in Cancun, Mexico, costs between $500 and $900 depending on the season. The Insta-famous Marina Bay Sands in Singapore can be upwards of $720 a night.
That means extra pressure in finding the right influencer to convey the relevant message -- particularly when the aim is to deliver real-time social media exposure.
"We analyze each profile to make sure they're an appropriate fit," says Florencia Grossi, director of international promotion for Visit Argentina. "We look for content with dynamic and interesting stories that invites followers to live the experience."
One challenge is weeding out genuine influencers from the fake, a job that's typically done by manually scrutinizing audience feedback for responses that betray automated followers. Bogus bloggers are another reason the market is becoming increasingly wary.
"If comments are just emojis or slightly out of context, it indicates a bot," says Anne Pedersen, the head of French travel website Atout France's public relations. "If the comments all come from the same country, they could be fake accounts."
While some businesses and organizations may be turning their back on influencers, many still find it profitable to engage.
Seder -- who fell into influencing after she and fiance Brandon Burkley quit their jobs in New York to travel full time -- soon found an alternative Italian venue willing to strike a deal, despite their rejection from the first "blogger infested" hotel.
Such hustles are part and parcel of a profession that, according to those making a living out of it, is much harder work than the sun-kissed Instagram photos would have you believe.
The most successful influencers spend the majority of their time working to grow their audience and develop content -- often with a team of dedicated employees.
They also spend a fair amount of time looking for handouts in exchange for Instagram posts, branded tweets, YouTube videos and more.
Posts are typically valued -- depending on audience location -- at about $1,000 for every 100,000 followers. Some top-tier travel influencers are also paid a per diem or per deliverable rate.
Seder makes money working with tourism brands that pay for sponsored Instagram and blog posts. Additional earnings come from her professional photography and affiliate marketing.
She says her workis often made trickier by the fact that influencers are often lumped in with traditional travel journalists on regimented press trips that fail to take into account their need to constantly connect with their audience.
"There have been times where I was forced to get up in the middle of the night to meet my contracted deliverables because there was absolutely no time to do it during the day," she says.
"The best press trips are those with a good balance of activities and shooting time, a mix of famous and local authentic destinations, and arrangements with popular sites before or after hours, to avoid crowds."
Valeria Hinojosa, a Bolivian private banker turned influencer with 129,000 Instagram followers, specializes in promoting eco hotels around the world, for which she charges upwards of $3,000.
"My goal is to show that every destination has a story," she says. "From sustainable hotels, the kindness of the locals, the exotic taste and aroma of food, and the connection with nature."
Hinojosa says she doesn't get too hung up on audience numbers.
"If I reach my readers' souls through my words, then I've succeeded," she says. "The overflow of love I receive from the people who follow me and the brands I work with is a good measurement."
San Francisco-based Dimag Ozgum (539,000 followers) says he measures his impact by how frequently his photos get replicated and how many Instagrammers use his community hashtag, #VacationWolf.
"After we visit a region and share it, a massive amount of influencers get influenced and end up traveling there," he says.
Walter DeMirci, USA country manager for the Qatar National Tourism Council, recognizes the limitations of using influencers, even if his organization is still willing to make use of them.
"While creating beautiful content is part of the requirement, having a successful partnership also means creating an organic brand ambassador that will share their positive experience with friends and families outside of social media," he says.
In other words, tourism boards try to identify good influencers who will create educational posts about their destinations that will then inspire travelers to book a trip.
This is where things can get tricky. Not all influencers are necessarily interested in what value their posts lend their audience, leading to scenes like the Bali temple incident or outbursts like those of the Philippines club owner.
Los Angeles ice cream truck owner Joe Nicchi is another who lost his cool with constant requests for handouts. Earlier this year he announced he intended to charge influencers double.
Tourism reps, meanwhile, recount dealing with tantrums when demands weren't met.
"One of our executives had an encounter with an influencer who said he 'doesn't f------- pay for anything, ever' after she informed him that some of his meals weren't going to be covered," says Grenada Tourism Authority's Corion.
Many luxury properties in the Maldives have terminated their influencer marketing programs after getting countless requests from fraudulent influencers.
For well-intentioned influencers such as Emilie Ristevski, who has over one million followers on Instagram, the rise in irresponsible "influencers" is frustrating.
"It's disappointing to hear this is happening, it has extremely negative effects on the industry," she says. "It's a shame to see self-entitlement and unethical work practices be a recurring theme for some influencers."
When the influencer and a tourism board mesh, the results can be tourism marketing gold. Influencers bring new perspectives to destinations and reach a broad, international audience.
Qatar's DeMirci says influencers have been an asset in promoting his destination.
"With social media on the rise with regards to planning travel, we're tapping into influencer partnerships which allows us to showcase Qatar from a variety of perspectives," he says.
And, says Ristevski, in an age of runaway mass tourism, where travelers are often accused of harming the places they're visiting by turning out in such large numbers, influencers can be a force for good, particularly when promoting lesser known destinations.
"Bringing sustainable tourism into remote areas supports smaller communities and their livelihoods," she adds, "along with helping to compensate overtourism due to photographic locations."