by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, June 19, 2018
It’s easy to hate travel bloggers. Their entire careers comprise of encircling the world, taking nice photos and staying in ludicrously expensive hotels for free. But now even the resorts that host them are getting fed up, it would appear.
“Them” is obviously a sweeping statement. There do exist hard-working, trusted bloggers who provide genuinely useful advice and unbiased reviews for their followers - but for every one of them, there are hundreds if not thousands of social media wannabes who deign themselves “influencers” in order to score free hotels stays, and it’s driving their owners - and legitimate bloggers - mad.
“Disgraceful would be a polite word for most travel bloggers,” says Gilbert Ott, himself a travel blogger. “The embracing of the ‘me, me me' generation has gone too far".
“I worked three jobs to try and launch my blog, then worked full time for four years before I got to the point where I’d say it was legitimate,” he says of his flight-hacker site, God Save the Points. “These people just buy followers, pose in cut-off jean shorts and strive to be famous overnight - then promise hotels all sorts of nonsense. It’s just soured the whole thing. I’ve made a point of hardly ever asking for anything, because Instagrammers and influencers have ruined it.”
What do the hotels say?
Earlier this year, an Irish hotel went so far as to ban all free stays for “social media influencers”, and publicly shamed one YouTuber who requested one by publishing the email for all to see. The vlogger, a 22-year-old with more than 80,000 followers asked for a free stay for her and her boyfriend in exchange for posts about the hotel on her social media channels. Refusing the offer, exasperated owner Paul Stenson wrote on Facebook: "It takes a lot of balls to send an email like that, if not much self-respect and dignity.
“If I let you stay here in return for a feature in a video, who is going to pay the staff who look after you? Who is going to pay the housekeepers who clean your room?” A rep for The White Moose Cafe in Dublin told us, six months after the furore: “The response was 86 per cent in my favour according to an MTV poll, and since the incident we haven’t received any more requests from freeloaders.”
Dusit Thani, a luxury resort in the Maldives, receives at least six requests per day from such individuals. “People say, I want to come to the Maldives for 10 days [all inclusive] and will do two posts on Instagram to like 2,000 followers,” the resort’s marketing manager Kate Jones told The Atlantic. Ten days comes to £6,785 at Dusit Thani.
Natasha Eldred, whose agency Shine PR handles press for Keemala Hotel Phuket in Thailand, told Telegraph Travel: “The expectations are often outrageous, things like ‘in return for a TripAdvisor review and two posts per day to my audience of 2,000, I would request two villas for four nights with free food’. Influencers have completely changed the shape of a PR’s working day.
“Now we receive 25 per cent of our daily emails from these people, and I would say one per cent of these enquiries are of value to my clients.”
Lanny Grossman, president of EM50 Communications, a New York-based hospitality PR firm, handles marketing for luxury resorts including The Singular Patagonia in Chile.
“Everybody sees themselves as an 'influencer' these days, and the requests stream in from around the world,” he says. “I don’t think this trend will go away anytime soon, so it will just be more work for people like me to filter out who can be effective and who is just looking for a free ride and a place to take selfies.”
It gets even worse. Alice Paris, co-director associate at Riad Yasmine, a boutique resort in Marrakech, says: “We receive requests for free stays every day, but that’s not even the annoying part. Some actually ask to us to pay them. It happened only last week, the blogger requested a free stay plus $250 (£190) for the photos she would post on Instagram.”
Wading through the duds, however, is more than worth it for Riad, and for all the marketing heads we talked to. “Almost 95 per cent of our guests come and stay thanks to Instagram,” Paris says. “So hosting carefully vetted bloggers - about one or two per month - is a win-win relationship both for both parties.”
What do the bloggers say?
In an effort to see things from the other side, we spoke to Kate McCulley, of Adventurous Kate, who has been a full-time professional travel blogger for nearly eight years, and were surprised to find that she very rarely requests free stays.
“The vast majority of my income comes from affiliate marketing and display advertising,” she says. “I've never had to rely on brand collaborations for money, and less than 10 per cent of my hotel stays are discounted.”
Ott, from God Save the Points, says: “If I take 125 flights in a year, between five and ten are free, and not for my leisure, but to showcase a new launch. Hotels, about the same. How can readers believe I’ll give an accurate hotel review if they flew me there in business class, gave me the biggest suite and comped my Michelin-starred dinner?”
How do hotels choose who to work with?
Caroline Blake, who runs luxury travel PR agency Shellwood Blake, says: “We do get a lot of requests and we seriously vet them before even putting them in front of the client. We are really strict with the criteria.”
For Eldred, from Keemala Hotel Phuket, this criteria takes into consideration both the influencer’s number of followers and brand image. “Do they have nearly, or more than, a million followers and reach an average of 35,000+ likes? Are they polite? Have they sent me links to their accounts? Most don’t,” she says.
“But if this influencer is sitting on an elephant, wearing fur or swimming with dolphins for example, this is definitely not the image we want to convey regardless of how many followers, so that would be a polite decline.”
What's in it for the hotels?
One of the advantages for hotels in hosting bloggers, in addition to the exposure, is that these people are often talented photographers and video producers too. For the hotel, this means free material they’d otherwise have to pay for, as many of the luxury resorts we spoke to pointed out.
Karolin Troubetzkoy, who manages Jade Mountain in St Lucia, told us: “One influencer, Lala Rebelo, shot a video which has been watched a million times because it’s been re-posted so many times.”
Grossman adds: “I have used these ‘exchanges’ to source new content for clients which can actually hold more value than the posts themselves.”
How important is your follower count?
Social media consultant Jodie Cook explains: “Engagement rates are just as important as sheer follower numbers. There’s been a huge rise in 'micro-influencer' marketing because several studies have shown accounts with fewer followers actually achieve higher engagement rates. Micro influencers are typically classified as those accounts with fewer than around 50,000 followers.
“However, for a luxury hotel it is paramount that the account has followers who are likely to go and book a visit. Whilst an account with as few as 2,000 followers could be classed as an influencer, they’d need to have a very niche audience for it to be valuable to a luxury hotel.”
“A smart person in the industry once told me it really isn’t about how many, but who,” Ott agrees. “Our site has millions of annual readers, but on Twitter I have a mere 11,000 followers. These followers, however, include hugely influential journalists, and generally people with the means or desire to actually book the things I write about or tweet about.
“So my 11,000 might be more valuable than someone with 1,000,000 - many of whom don’t actually have a pulse. If write about a new travel service, for example, and that results in a huge spike for the brand, that’s the only true way to measure success in my opinion.”
"Adventurous Kate" takes a different approach. “The problem with travel marketing is that it's not a product that people buy on impulse, unlike with fashion or beauty products,” she says. “Nobody sees a safari on Instagram and books it that same day. Travel marketing is two-fold: we plant a seed of inspiration that grows into something more over time, possibly years. And once someone is ready to book a trip, we provide the resource guides that help them plan that trip.”
So are most travel bloggers really self-entitled brats?
“I don’t think so,” says Cook. “What we're seeing is individuals realising their value and trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible. Someone’s social media profiles can effectively be their currency.
“Ultimately, we’ll see those influencers who genuinely offer value to their audience by sharing their experiences continue to be successful. Those who are being dishonest in order to get free stuff will be found out pretty quickly.”
Social media analyst Jemima Gibbons agrees. “Travel bloggers and influencers are a relatively new phenomenon but they're really no different from established travel writers and journalists who've always been offered free or subsidised hotel stays in return for writing reviews,” she said “The problem is, there are many more of them. Newspapers and magazines used to act as gatekeepers and that's no longer the case.
“But, as fashion bloggers are now beginning to be accepted in the frow, we're going to see some travel bloggers earn their place in the sector too, and gain the true respect of their peers. As with any other profession, you'll get some people who are talented, work really hard and have earned their place - and others who haven't.”