Solving the travel bloggers dilemma and why DMOs need to take the first step to fix it


“Travel bloggers’ single most important asset is trust,” said Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, a South African destination marketing executive turned consultant, at the Social Travel Summit in Inverness, Scotland.

“It’s something that destinations cannot buy.”

NB: This is a viewpoint by travel writer, author and keynote speaker Doug Lansky.

This sentiment was echoed during the conference.  Trust, they agreed, is what builds bloggers’ audiences and makes them “influencers.” It’s this truthful voice and reach that makes them especially appealing to destination marketing organizations (DMOs), which explains why there were so many DMOs in attendance at this top travel blogger conference.

It’s like seeing an abundance of guys at the bar during ladies’ night.

But here’s the rub:  Destinations may not be able to buy trust, but they can basically buy bloggers. In doing so, destinations and bloggers put that trust at risk.  That is, if the readers found out what the bloggers were receiving in exchange for those posts, it might color their view, or even turn them away.

The fee generation

Top travel bloggers typically receive about 500 euros a day for their work, plus flights, hotels, food, attractions and activity expenses that range from 1000 Euros a week up to well over 50,000 Euros a week for a luxury package. Mid- and lower-tier bloggers typically receive a fee that ranges from a few hundred euros to – more commonly – zero Euros per day, plus somewhat less expensive travel arrangements.

Imagine how this sort of transparency would look if the blogger included it at the bottom of a post:

“NOTE: This trip – valued at $20,000 – was sponsored by [Visit X] and the writer received an additional $2500 from [Visit X] for blogging about it.”

This level of truth could put a pretty big dent in the trust.

Negative reviews of cities, hotels, flights, restaurants typically do not inspire future invitations and would likely cut off the supply of this travel lifestyle.  Thus, they’re not all that common. (Plus, when they’re receiving VIP treatment or being taken to the best restaurants and hotels, what’s not to like?).

Make it snappy

Travel photographers, often left out of this discussion, have long made the case that the photos they take are not biased, just images. However, the recent New York Times piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus takes issue with this way of thinking.

“[The travel photographer’s] job is to create the ideal image against which the multitudes will inevitably find their own experiences wanting. The travel photographer is thereby caught in a bind. Either he is no better than the desultory tourist, or he is responsible for the fact that our experiences rarely resemble the advertisements or postcards.”

So, getting back to the elephant in the room: How can bloggers earn more money than the PR agents who hired them (if the price of the expensive trips they receive is included) and still be truly objective about a destination?

Before I explain a possible way forward, I should acknowledge that travel writers (and many travel editors) have faced a similar dilemma for decades. The main difference is that their modest daily fee comes from their publication instead of the destination.

This distinction is noteworthy, but in the face of a trip that may be worth as much as $3000 a day, that journalist salary only makes up a small portion of the value.

As Elizabeth Becker eloquently points out in her book Overbooked:

“Many travel writers accept free transportation, lodging, food and entertainment from the very destinations they write about. That is forbidden in nearly every other form of journalism. This adds up to a largely pliant media that has become an extension of the industry it is supposedly covering, blocking the public from seeing both the larger picture and the problems inherent in any industry, and preventing travel and tourism from being taken seriously.”

Becker’s book is filled with some insightful passages on the topic, including this one:

“With few exceptions, travel writing and travel sections share the singular goal of helping consumers spend their money pursuing the dream of a perfect trip. They seldom write critical reviews; only articles about what to do and what to buy and how to experience a destination. This ‘feel-good’ approach is rare even in lifestyle journalism, which is where to find the travel section. Other lifestyle or back-of-the-book journalists thrive on critical reviews, explaining how and why they judge movies as great or miserable; whether the food at a restaurant is mediocre or exquisite; and describe music concerts as electric or boring.”

The New York Times Travel Section, with Nancy Newhouse arriving at the helm in 1989 (having transferred from the Style section of the paper), may have set the tone for the nation with storytelling and consumer-lite pieces over any real criticism.

Becker writes: “Newhouse believes this is appropriate journalism and says that her reporters will check out 10 hotels in a city in order to commend the four best. They won’t mention the six that didn’t make the cut. ‘We didn’t give out bad report cards.’”

Melvin Boecher, a professional travel blogger with TravelDudes, puts it this way:

“Even when I get complete control of my itinerary, if I walk into a bad restaurant, that’s my fault. I don’t need to write about it. I’d rather focus on the positive.”

But is this what consumers really want? Consider how quickly the critical-review gap was filled with the overnight success of TripAdvisor.  If TripAdvisor only contained the sort of “truthiness” that travel bloggers and travel writers produce, it’s hard to imagine it would have gotten very far.

Most peer review sites, from Yelp to Google Map listings, depend on those sometimes painfully negative reviews because travelers know that’s how things are in real-life. The traveling public often needs to see some negative view points to appreciate the positive ones.

So how can bloggers and DMOs work together to bridge this divide?

The bloggers and destinations are engaged in a sort of dance. The destinations employ the services of these “digital influencers” and then provide them with some guidelines to protect their investment. Sometimes DMOs want to shepherd bloggers around on a bus and point out what they should capture or demand that bloggers post a certain amount of times during the day. Though it may never be written or spoken out loud, there’s also an understanding that the reviews of the destination will be positive.

The bloggers, for their part, try to make room for some independence and expression, like a young teen decorating their bedroom door, but being careful not to damage the wood and upset dad. Bloggers like to know what destinations are trying to achieve with the campaign (and will actually try to help), but would rather keep more creative control of their content and itinerary since they know what their audience wants and how they’d like it served up.

Constructive criticism

The bloggers are saying, in essence, my services are for sale and I’ll happily help flog just about any place that pays, fits my schedule and is easy to work with, but I’d prefer if DMOs let me say it my way and on my terms.  The DMOs are trying to squeeze out as much influence and reach as they can for their minimal investment.

What’s clearly missing are universal rules of engagement. And since it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to manage to impose any, the smart way forward is for DMOs to be clever in the way they engage bloggers.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. DMOs would do well to not just encourage the sort of freedom professional bloggers request, but to also encourage the bloggers to be playfully honest (or maybe even brutally honest) from time to time.  This may keep some stakeholders on their toes, but the bigger gain is that the bloggers can enhance their credibility for the vast majority of the posts that are positive.

It’s important to keep in mind that today’s sophisticated, TripAdvisor-using traveler is not deterred from visiting an entire destination because they read one unfavorable review of a hotel or restaurant.  Or several. They’re not even deterred from visiting a hotel or restaurant with a poor review. They understand that every restaurant or hotel or attraction – even the best ones – have some haters.

The trick is how they balance the criticism.

For example, a blogger might post a photo of a badly cracked and broken sidewalk and provide some text along the lines of: “Here’s how you know you’re on the road less traveled. Once you get out of the main part of town, the walking can get a bit treacherous, but this is the price to pay for finding the restaurants so local and remote that the city road repair planners don’t even manage to get there.”

Or the blogger might provide a photo of some nasty food dish with text like: “I’ve had some great meals here, but this isn’t one of them. This is the price to pay for eating in a conveniently located tourist trap. I was tempted to swap bowls with the dog eating beside me. I’m not going to name names here, but I will be posting an anonymous review on TripAdvisor of this place to warn other travelers.”

Note to TripAdvisor: This would be a perfect opportunity to jump in and sponsor some travel bloggers, even if they post reviews under a pseudonym, but link directly to TA with such reviews.

By encouraging some real criticism, the writers can retain more of their readers’ trust, which will add more value to the other more positive reviews of the destination.

In other words, destinations employing the services of bloggers should actually request this sort of critique, in part to let them point out ways the destination can improve, but mostly to empower bloggers with street cred.

Balancing act

“Many of the best bloggers already do this. And many of our best partner sponsors are fine with it. It is a delicate balance, which makes it another reason to work with professionals and have that personal relationship,” said Boecher.

Make no mistake: this is merely encouraging an injection of honesty – baby steps. The reality is that no destination wants to hang out all their dirty laundry and pay for that brutally honest critique in a public forum.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment and look at things from the other direction, could encouraging just some honesty be even more deceiving? Perhaps. One could certainly make that case, as anything short of full disclosure and complete brutal honesty can be interpreted as reader deception.

But at the end of the day, more honesty seems like a step in the right direction, and empowering the bloggers does as well. It’s certainly a path well worth considering.

Which leads me to this: a DMO toolkit for selecting and using travel bloggers, which offers some suggestions around what DMOs can do to maximize what they get from travel bloggers.

1.   For starters, professional bloggers will also explain how important it is for destinations to do their homework when it comes to vetting.  There are a lot of hacks out there. There are also some quality up-and-comers. It’s not always easy to tell the difference. This is why some top-tier bloggers have formed alliances like iAmbassador. They judge the value of their fellow bloggers and only let in those who will maintain the value of their group’s image. It can offer a good starting point when a DMO goes looking for bloggers.

2.   Make sure there’s a great match between the campaign and blogger. They shouldn’t get a luxury blogger to help them push rustic adventure tourism. According to the bloggers, this sort of mismatch happens all the time. DMOs should be especially wary of this when subcontracting the work out to an agency, which may not be as careful with this aspect of the work.

3.   Provide those digital influencers with online support to maximize their value. DMOs should be following the bloggers who are in their destination and retweeting their tweets, sharing their posts and even boosting a few favorite posts if there’s room in the budget for this.

“Forward it around the industry, to tour operators, airlines, hotels and encourage them to share it as well. Sometimes they don’t even know these campaigns are going on. A hashtag is a helpful way to keep all the key people in the loop,” says Boecher.

4.   Try to create long-term relationships with bloggers. If they become experts on a destination, they will end up speaking about it and writing about it more often and DMOs get more value from them even when they’re not around.

5.   Keep an eye on the changes in social media. A month ago, a blogger may have had 500,000 followers on Instagram seeing every post. The next day, who knows how many of those followers Mark Zuckerberg allows to see those posts.

6.   Use some of their photos and videos for other purposes. Many of these bloggers are excellent photographers/videographers and DMOs can get some great content from them at a reasonable price. Either make the images part of the agreement for a higher daily rate or agree on a per-photo rate to purchase some of the best images after the campaign.

7.   Don’t invite back the bloggers who can’t handle the “Big Three.” Namely:

  • doing the job they’re supposed to do
  • showing up on time for all portions of the trip
  • getting along with others in their group (if they’re traveling with a group)

Finally, some background: I worked as a travel writer/editor for many years and for personal reasons chose not to accept any freebies, media trips, etc. This made things financially challenging, but I felt it was worthwhile. It is difficult for any writer/blogger to survive this way, but that’s the reason for the article: to help find a better framework to allow more honesty in this industry while still making things work for the various parties and interests.

NB: This is a viewpoint by travel writer, author and keynote speaker Doug Lansky.

NB2: Image by RossHelen/BigStock

Related reading from Tnooz:

Tips for DMOs to solve the travel bloggers dilemmaAs bloggers adapt, so should DMOs who want to work with them (July 2016)



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