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As the value of social media influencers continues to grow and evolve, so too are the number and ways in which travel brands partner with influencers to plug their products. From blockbuster campaigns featuring influencers with millions of followers to more targeted approaches, travel suppliers are embracing influencers’ reach and sway. 

At the same time, they’re increasingly aware of tactics influencers can use to artificially inflate their followings. But despite the potential risks and complications of engaging with them, travel companies appear to believe that the rewards far outweigh the risks. Many are continuing to advance existing influencer investments, while others are just beginning to dip their toes into the influencer arena.

Moreover, while suppliers have traditionally been the segment that most often engages influencers, there are ways that agents can, and perhaps should, get in on the trend, especially if they want to reach social-media savvy generations of new clients. 

“I only see the influencer marketing getting bigger,” said Jade Broadus, creative director of Travel Mindset, a company launched in 2012 that connects travel companies with influencers. It has helped create campaigns for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Celebrity Cruises and numerous destination marketing organizations (DMOs).

Broadus said there’s no reason travel agents shouldn’t embrace influencers as well.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for travel agents,” she said, adding that influencers could play a large role in helping to tell the story of “why a travel agent is important now.”

“I’m surprised that more are not jumping on the bandwagon,” she said. People in their 30s want the services of travel agents, she asserted. “They just don’t know that they want that.” Which is where she said influencers can come into play. 

“By travel agents partnering with influencers, they can gain a level of trust. People trust influencers like they trust their best friend.” 

That was exactly the thinking behind a campaign launched by Avoya Travel this past August. In an attempt to introduce younger travelers to the idea of using agents, Avoya partnered with a number of travel bloggers in a campaign focused on highlighting the value of its agents, and it sponsored posts on blogs such as Walking On Travels and Carmen’s Luxury Travel touting the benefits of working with an Avoya agent.

Avoya’s senior vice president of marketing, Sam McCully, said that the campaign was “very successful,” having reached hundreds of thousands of consumers. 

“The marketing and advertising landscape continues to evolve at a rapid pace,” McCully said. “And with the scale that is now here with influencer programs and platforms, it was really time for us to tap into this trend and leverage it to grow our brand and really start to change the conversation around the value of a travel agent.”

McCully said that given the success of the campaign, Avoya plans to continue to work with influencers, adding that while Avoya is doing it on a larger scale, there is no reason why individual agents and agencies shouldn’t look at ways to engage influencers who reach their customer base, whether local or with a larger targeted audience.

Like others in the travel industry who have invested in influencer campaigns, McCully touted not just the potential reach that influencers have but also the quality of the content that they produce. 

“Working with influencers is a wonderful way to reach new audiences on a personal level and convey a relatable, authentic point of view,” said Carmen Roig, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Crystal Cruises, which has been engaging both “macro-influencers,” with larger followings, and “micro-influencers,” with smaller, more targeted followings, to raise awareness of its river, ocean and yacht products.

Crystal recently partnered on three social media campaigns with Kiersten Rich of The Blonde Abroad, who was named a “Top 10 Travel Influencer of 2017” by Forbes. In Rich’s case, she experienced Crystal’s ocean, river and yacht products, which Roig said made Rich “a passionate brand advocate.”

"Crystal is able to leverage influencer relationships to share real-time moments aboard the ship, giving audiences a peek at what the Crystal experience is truly like.”
– Carmen Roig, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Crystal Cruises

“Working with influencers is a wonderful way to reach new audiences on a personal level and convey a relatable, authentic point of view,” Roig said. “With the advent of new tools like Instagram Stories and Facebook Live, Crystal is able to leverage influencer relationships to share real-time moments aboard the ship, giving audiences a peek at what the Crystal experience is truly like.”


Top. a post by travel and lifestyle blogger Lisa Homsy, one of the social media influencers U by Uniworld hosted on a cruise to help spread the word about its cruises targeting millennials. Homsy has more than 225,000 Instagram followers. Bottom, a post by Petra Nemcova, whom U by Uniworld picked to serve as the brand’s representative.

Another travel supplier that recently made a big push using influencers is U by Uniworld, the river cruise line recently started by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection to target a younger demographic. U by Uniworld hosted travel agents and numerous social influencers on a preview cruise last fall in advance of officially launching the brand this spring. 

Shirnett Fleet, vice president of marketing for Uniworld, said that for U by Uniworld, which was looking to get the word out to an entirely new river cruising demographic, the strategy paid off. 

“It made sense for us because of who we think our audience is and who we think U is going to appeal to,” Fleet said.

For one, she noted that for a new brand like U, hosting all those influencers gave Uniworld instant access to a host of fresh content, high-quality images and videos that the influencers were posting to their feeds (with tags to Uniworld). Additional content was shared directly with the company as part of contracts with Uniworld. She said that the influencers’ global reach was also attractive, and it engaged audiences in numerous countries. 

Finally, being experienced travel and lifestyle influencers (Uniworld also had foodie and fashion influencers onboard, for example), their feedback on the product prior to the official launch was a big bonus, Fleet said.

Of course, numerous travel suppliers and destinations have worked with influencers in recent years on campaigns big and small, setting aside a portion of their marketing budgets for this evolving segment of the media landscape. 

A major influencer coup in the travel space recently was Lady Gaga plugging her luxurious Airbnb stay during last year’s Super Bowl to her more than 24 million followers (currently more than 28 million), a post that received more than 500,000 likes. 

Alaska Airlines, Southwest, Marriott and Hilton have also invested in influencer campaigns as they seek to engage the next generation of travelers on the platforms they hang out on the most.

Vetting influencers

The influencer market was estimated to be worth $2 billion in 2017 and is set to reach $10 billion by 2020, according to AdWeek. Clearly, this appears to be a marketing segment that isn’t going away anytime soon.

But it is not without risks. Earlier this year, an investigation by the New York Times delved into the “shadowy global marketplace” of social media fraud, where anyone who wants to boost their online presence can purchase followers in the form of automated accounts, also known as bots.

What is more, an article published last month by Ad Age cited data released by the Points North Group ranking the top 10 brands that use influencers with fake followers. Ritz-Carlton topped the list, with the report claiming that 78% of its paid influencers’ followers are fake.

"Working with influencers is a great way for us to showcase our brand to their followers and achieve our ultimate goal, which is to inspire travel."
– Ritz-Carlton

While Ritz-Carlton did not address the Points North Group data directly, a spokeswoman stated, “Ritz-Carlton has a long-standing practice of vetting influencers before engaging them, including assessing comments and looking for suspicious growth activity. These are important steps to take for any brand looking to engage influencers to help them tell their brand story.”

The spokeswoman told Travel Weekly that social media is an important way for Ritz-Carlton to engage with its guests as well as with aspiring luxury travelers.

“Working with influencers,” she said, “is a great way for us to showcase our brand to their followers, reach new audiences, create creative and engaging content and achieve our ultimate goal, which is to inspire travel.”

The background photo is a shot from the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong by photographer and influencer Trey Ratcliff, who partnered with Ritz-Carlton on the “80 Stays Around the World” campaign.

To help its travel company clients avoid investing in fraudulent influencers, Travel Mindset has a multistep vetting process that begins with analyzing influencers’ social channels. In addition to critiquing the content to decide if it is of high quality, interesting and engaging, the agency works to verify the followers by scrutinizing comments and clicking on multiple followers’ channels.

There are also several companies whose main service is to verify account followers, which Travel Mindset and others rely on as a crucial step in the vetting process. 

Travel Mindset also looks at whether or not the influencer has a strong following and engagement across multiple platforms. Broadus said a good sign that someone is a professional and is “actually influential” is if they are popular on more than one social channel, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and on their own blog or vlog (video blog).

Finally, Travel Mindset will set up an in-person or phone meeting to ensure that the influencer is the real deal and to gauge if they are the right fit with a travel brand. 

Dalene and Pete Heck, who co-founded Hecktic Travels, are both influencers themselves and also work to connect travel companies and DMOs with influencers. Dalene Heck said that the New York Times investigation and growing awareness of ways influencers can game the system are making travel brands and DMOs smarter about how they partner with influencers.

“For anyone who wasn’t aware,” Heck said, “I think that [New York Times investigation] really opened a lot of people’s eyes. Overall, everybody is getting smarter to some of the games that influencers play to look better.” 

For example, Heck said she will ask influencers for analytics of their feeds so she can track engagement. If she sees a sudden spike in followers, that can be a red flag. 

Ultimately, she said, “it’s all evolving for the better, where I think we’re eventually going to see more legitimate numbers from influencers.”

The reasons those numbers matter so much is because, just as in advertising, influencers often set their compensation based on the size of their audiences. 

It takes more than a few freebies to persuade influencers with hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of followers to showcase a product. These are often sophisticated and multiplatform entrepreneurs who can command a hefty price tag for their endorsements.

“We pay all of our influencers,” Broadus said, adding that the days of being able to get high quality influencers to post in exchange for free travel or products are long gone. 

Her company creates very detailed contracts between the influencers and travel brands so that all parties know exactly what is expected and at what price. 

“There is no guessing game in terms of how much are they going to post, when are they going to post,” Broadus said. “We lay that all out. There’s a lot of strategy that goes on behind the scenes before the influencer even arrives in the destination. If the influencer normally shares 10 Instagram stories a day, and a client wanted 20, that’s just not going to work. We craft the campaign deliverables based on what the influencers are doing for noncampaign posts.”

Both Broadus and Heck said that depending on what the travel company is hoping to achieve, a high number of followers might be much less valuable than a certain type of follower. 

For example, Heck said that some of the campaigns she has been working on more recently are much more targeted, looking to reach very specific audiences through what are commonly referred to as “micro-influencers.” She had one travel company that wanted Hecktic Travels to track down a birding influencer, for example, because the destination they were pushing is big with birders.

With growing competition, influencers are having to really produce much more and much better content, including more video content on top of photography and editorial.

More money flowing into this space has motivated more people to try to build a business on influencer marketing. That, too, presents a challenge for travel companies. 

Crystal’s Roig said, “The challenge today with influencer marketing is how big the industry has become. Crystal is contacted daily by influencers, travel bloggers and content creators who are looking to partner with the brand. It’s a good problem to have, as it shows our collaborations are resonating in the space, but it also means that Crystal has to be selective and fully research and vet each influencer to ensure they align with the brand and that their content resonates with the appropriate audiences.”



Modern-day pied pipers

One company that is taking an entirely new approach to the way the travel industry teams up with influencers is Salt Lake City-based Zaven Global and its Iconx Events division, which was founded last year by Zaven president Rob Bezdjian. Under the Zaven model, influencers don’t just publicize travel products with their blogs and other social media postings; they actually serve as hosts of trips or cruises with which they’re associated. 

Bezdjian started his career on Wall Street. When he realized he had a love for travel, he transitioned into the meetings and events space. With his experience in group travel, he started to look at how to combine the concept of themed cruises and travel with the marketing sway of influencers, and then he struck out on his own to try something new.

“I started looking at the influencer world and how some of these young individuals have millions of followers who are engaged,” Bezdjian said. “The idea we came up with is to just take that themed [cruise] concept and combine it with the marketability of an [influencer] who has a huge breadth of followers who would like to experience [a cruise] with them.”

Around the same time he was developing the business model for Zaven Global, Amadeus River Cruises was looking into ways the line could begin attracting the next generation of river cruisers. Zaven and Amadeus partnered to experiment with a new idea: river cruise sailings hosted by influencers who resonate with millennials and will consequently attract millennials onboard.

Last month on a preview river cruise, they hosted three such influencers:

CrossFit star and actress Brooke Ence, who has nearly a million followers on Instagram and whose YouTube videos get anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of views.

Fitness guru Christmas Abbott, who wrote the book “The Badass Body Diet” and starred in the reality TV show “Big Brother.”

Mike Bledsoe, who runs the Barbell Shrugged collective of fitness, health, wellness and lifestyle podcasts that have drawn a large following.

The idea was to showcase the product they would be selling, discuss ways it can be customized to each influencer’s audience and use the cruise experience to enable them and Zaven to create content and marketing material. 

Ence will be hosting two upcoming river cruises, one in 2019 and one in 2020. Abbott will be hosting one in 2019 and Bledsoe in 2020. 

Sales for Bledsoe’s cruise will open in late June, but Ence’s 2019 cruise was already about 25% sold in the first two weeks since bookings opened, and Abbott’s cruise is about 12% sold, though hers will also be on a slightly larger ship. 

“We are happy with the result, as millennials don’t tend to plan so far in advance, especially when paying for a high-dollar vacation,” Bezdjian said. “My guess is that as we get within a year of the programs, we will see these ships at 90%-plus occupancy.”

Bezdjian kicked off the concept with CrossFit and fitness influencers because he’s an avid CrossFit participant himself, so it was easy to identify legitimate influencers who would be a good fit with the product. 

For the influencers, it offers a way to spend rare quality time with fans offline. 

In an interview aboard the Amadeus Provence’s preview sailing last month, Abbott said, “I love doing events. The interaction with my fans is one of the special things about the Christmas Abbott experience.” 

For Abbott and the other influencers, the cruises will provide an opportunity to spend more time with fans than they typically get, engaging in shared activities and interests such as daily workouts in CrossFit gyms and fitness and wellness discussions. It’s an opportunity to bring their brands to life. 

Amadeus is chartering the vessels to Zaven, which is handling logistics for the influencers, from the bookings to customization. The influencers are doing the marketing, with assistance and compensation from Zaven. 

Now that the company has paved the way with this first round of hosted cruises, it plans to expand the concept to any number of different types of influencers, including athletes, musicians, lifestyle coaches, anime and gaming stars. With these other categories, the company is taking a deep dive to ensure the hosts are not just legitimate influencers with devoted followings but also the right fit for hosting cruises.

Zaven plans to continue to work with Amadeus but is also open to partnering with any number of travel suppliers that are interested in engaging in this new group-travel model.

Indeed, Zaven is essentially using influencers the same way the group travel industry has been relying on pied pipers to fill charters for years, because social media influencers are essentially modern-day pied pipers. 

Bezdjian said, “Their followers, their fans, receive something that they could not get anywhere else.”