WTM Preview: Trade show charts the rise of the travel blogger

The travel industry is starting to appreciate the value of blogging, says Oliver Gradwell, founder and chief executive at Travelbloggersunite.com

For many years, few travel organisations were fully aware of the potential benefits travel bloggers can provide, and were at best, lukewarm about investing in blogger engagement.

But the last few years have seen travel bloggers experience a rise to prominence, and the change to the schedule at WTM is just one example of this shift in attitudes.

At last year’s WTM, travel bloggers found themselves at the heart of the scheduling, with networking events, seminars and tweet-ups throughout the week.

So what happened to instigate such a change? The industry was beginning to realise the power of the travel blogger to change brand perceptions, amplify campaign messages and, to all intents and purposes, become online brand ambassadors.

Now it is understood that no two bloggers are the same; they have different interests, audiences, social media channels, different views of the world – yet one thing they all have in common is that they offer something different to traditional media.

This difference is not just the unequivocal strength of connection with their audience, but also the ability to interact immediately, everyday; if not every hour, every minute; and not just with words, but with inspirational imagery and video that connects the reader in an instant to the travel product.

Take for example an Alaskan cruise with InnerSea Discoveries undertaken by Keith Jenkins, founder of luxury travel blog, Velvet Escape.

Having created inspiring content during and after his trip, a journalist reporting from the same ship just a few weeks later found passengers who had booked the cruise as a result of Keith’s coverage, citing the level of detail and personable nature as a reason for trusting the review over more corporate outlets or the cruise website itself.

Bloggers have the benefit of being able to promote a trip before they travel, generating pre-trip excitement and anticipation among their audience, asking questions and engaging with the readers – an unlikely scenario ahead of a traditional media trip.

Once on location, bloggers generate interactive content communicated in real-time across a variety of platforms, pulling the reader into the journey immediately. Back home, post-trip reviews are likely to be created in a similar way to an article in traditional media outlets.

Since WTM 2010, the travel-blogging community has gone above and beyond negotiating the traditional ‘blog trip’.

Collaboration and innovation are generating genuine engagement and brand ‘virality’, creating insightful campaigns that are ideal for travel companies looking to capitalise on the rising importance of the internet search in consumer-purchasing decisions as well as the beneficial ‘shelf-life’ of blogger-created content that remains searchable long after a project or campaign has ended.

A number of travel brands and destinations are responding to this. In February, Proexport, the Colombian government organisation responsible for promoting tourism, exports and foreign investment, launched a campaign with 35 expat travel bloggers currently living in the country, forming an alliance that has proved vital in changing the negative perceptions of the region.

Taking a step back from the traditional ‘blog trip’ set-up, Proexport built a campaign around ‘local bloggers’, providing their readers with a far greater understanding of their experiences and a sense of what it is like being in Colombia on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, Innsbruck in Austria hosted the second Travel Bloggers Unite conference. The tourist board was keen to put the ski resort on the map for the summer season.

With 70 international travel bloggers in attendance and 30 representatives from PR, travel brands and destinations, engagement with the destination peaked as the schedule moved from city tours and photo walks to engaging seminars and post-conference exploration of Tyrol.

This large-scale thinking from Innsbruck generated 38 million Twitter impressions and reached 600,000 unique Twitter accounts.

The blogs created imagery, video and real-time engagement of the newly-created digital ambassadors. The return-on-investment (ROI)factor was calculated at 37.5 to 1, a return of £940,000 on £25,000 hosting costs.

Inevitably, it’s not only travel companies that are developing their strategies.

Travel bloggers too are evolving, with collaborative groups such as i-Ambassador and Navigate Media offering travel companies a full social media promotion package from concept to final report with the power of a team of bloggers behind it.

In this way, travel businesses and destinations can not only harness the power of an influential travel blogger, but have the assurance of campaign amplification that comes from a team of online ambassadors.

One need only glance at the #lovecapetown campaign produced by i-Ambassador to appreciate the impact and reach of a travel blogging group to put a travel concept on the map.

Yet issues persist within the industry that mean both the blogging community and travel organisations aren’t quite using each other to best effect.

The biggest problem is that the value of travel bloggers and social media is, as yet, very difficult to quantify, and in turn, the potential ROI of a blogger campaign is harder to determine – something that is often essential for a travel brand to justify initial investment.

Travel bloggers still lack credibility within the industry, and have felt they are often subject to unrealistic demands or are belittled by the perception that they are an ‘easy option’ with which to generate campaign copy.

So is it stalemate? Far from it. The professional travel blogging industry is in its infancy and so is the relationship between bloggers and travel organisations. If the social media agenda at WTM is anything to go by, the industry is certainly ready to move forwards.

From further Travel Bloggers Unite conferences to meet-ups and tweet-ups across the world for 2013, and white papers on reform being produced by travel bloggers across the community, it seems travel bloggers are keen to join the party too.

Oliver Gradwell is founder and chief executive at Travelbloggersunite.com

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