When you look at the vast majority of people who get into travel blogging or have started travel blogs in the last few years (since around 2010), you will notice a trend. They all think that sponsored travel is something that grows on trees and is given out to anyone and everyone and it is generally the sole reason that they start a travel blog: to get free travel.
What they fail to take into consideration is that the vast majority of us who are earning sponsored travel have spent years building up our reputations, our traffic, our businesses, and the personal relationships with travel industry leaders and tourism representatives.
Not to mention we understand the basic principles of professionalism, publishing and marketing that relate to running a business. So with that in mind, consider the following a guide on how to professionally work with DMOs and sponsors within the niche that you have chosen for your blog, how to build up relationships for brand ambassadorships, and how to go from the 99% into the 1% of successful travel bloggers.
Before you go any further take a listen to This Week In Travel’s podcast episode 174 from the closing keynote at TBEX Cancun 2014. It is an intense overview on professionalism within the travel blogging industry, and it takes a look at both sides of the coin: the perspective of the blogger; and the perspective of the DMO/press company/sponsor. Key takaway: 99% of travel blogs are crap, but there’s a series of paths you can take to break into the 1%.
Now that you have finished listening to that, let’s talk about some aspects of sponsored travel that relate to you. First and foremost, earning free travel is not the reason you should be blogging in the first place. It is a perk, a bonus, icing on the cake. And while it can become a full-time job for a specific group of people, those people earn it over years of hard work and brand building.
During the podcast above, one of the examples they give is of a blogger with only 3,000 a month uniques who asks a winery to host them…for an entire month. That is absolutely ludicrous, and it shows an absolute lack of professional understanding of how sponsored travel works, and the very basic nature of advertising and publicity.
One of the first things you have to understand is that we are talking about businesses here. Not every business can afford to give away tens of thousands of dollars worth of accommodations, travel, food, and adventure tours. This is especially true when you are talking about small businesses or third world/developing countries whose budget for sponsorships is incredibly limited and comes directly out of the taxpayer’s pockets.
Note that traffic and unique views per month is by no means the only indicator of success. A blog with low uniques can still crush it with their social media marketing, and can very well have a massive social presence and power without necessarily high website traffic. But we are talking about the general scope of things here. The blogger in question was a nobody (without even a social presence), and yet they were asking for the moon.
Then there is the consideration of local salaries. They mentioned that in the podcast as well. For example, let’s say that Cristina and I want to go to Bulgaria for a week. If the national tourism board (or a hotel) were to sponsor us for the week, we are talking about roughly 250 to 500 dollars per day of total costs, at the minimum, for food, accommodations, local transport and FAM trips. These are middle-of-the-road prices for an “average” tour; not a luxury tour (which can easily run into the 500-1,000 USD a day range and beyond).
Even at the lowest level, 250 dollars a day at seven days = $1,750 in costs. Double that for a more expensive trip. Want to know when the average salary is for Bulgarians? Around 500 USD a month, and they work six days a week and a hell of a lot more than 40 hours (I know this because I traveled there for six years and lived there for over 2.5; most developing countries have comparable average salaries, such as Mexico and Colombia).
Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? The cost of one week of free travel is equivalent to three times the monthly salary of a single individual working person on the low end in a developing country, and can go up to six to ten times the salary of a single person for an entire month.
If it is a high-end campaign, suddenly you are talking about a government or sponsor giving you the equivalent of a year’s worth of salary for many of the individuals working in the office. How arrogant of you to assume that you should be given this amazing honor simply because you are posting photos and writing blog posts about your adventures.
Sponsored travel is work. If I am given the honor of traveling to a destination on the dime of the government for a publicity campaign, I have a duty to respect that honor with at the very minimum an equal amount of dignity and hard work. After all, I am being given the equivalent of anywhere from several months to a full year’s worth of compensation in local currency. I sure as shit better deliver an equivalent amount of generated revenue, minimum, to guarantee their investment and make sure that I didn’t just piss away several month’s worth of salary of half a dozen people.
That is an extremely heavy burden, and it is not something that should be taken lightly. Nor is it something that should be given away to someone who has barely spent any time building up their business, much less shown any sort of professionalism in their craft, instead simply choosing to slap up photos on a whim and expecting their personal journal to somehow be worthy of journalistic quality and awards without ever going to a workshop or running the gauntlet of an editorial review process to enhance their craft.
Then there is the allure of receiving an offer that is often so overpowering that the vast majority of bloggers who currently exist in the market today cannot resist the temptation to say yes. This is when we get into a lack of professionalism on both sides of the equation; first and foremost is the simple fact that the sponsoring party should have adequately researched the blogger in question, and on the flip side of that is the travel blogger who should understand that accepting free shit just because is doing more harm than good.
Let’s say you are a budget traveler. Your style of travel is hostels and chicken buses and living on $25 a day. That’s what you know, it’s what you have been promoting the last two years, and it’s what your audience resonates with. It is also who your target audience is and what they can afford.
But let’s be honest. For the vast majority of budget travel bloggers, they are not traveling on a budget because of choice. Rather, they lack business savvy and are traveling on a budget because they don’t make enough money to travel any other way. There is a reason there are so many bloggers living in Southeast Asia and bragging about living on five dollars a day.
They are not kings of budget travel; rather, they are the kings of “I saved up money for two years and now I am traveling the world, look at me.” They actually think that they are professional bloggers, but they aren’t. They have no business plan, no actual income with their blog, and at the end of those two years they will have nothing to show for it except for some groovy life experiences. Back they go to their old jobs, working part-time or full-time in an attempt to save up money for their next trip.
Life experiences do not equal business savvy. Nor do they equal professional publicity and ability. Which is what a sponsor requires from a blogger working on a press trip or a brand ambassadorship. And finally, if you can’t afford to do it on your own, you aren’t qualified to do it for someone else.
The danger here is that the budget backpacker is often so accustomed to doing everything on the cheap because they can’t afford anything else, that when an offer comes in from a sponsor who hasn’t done the research and is offering the budget traveler an all-inclusive stay in a luxury hotel for five nights, it’s like giving heroin to a recovering junkie. They can’t resist. They can’t say no. Because the amount of money associated with that week-long stay in an all-inclusive resort is the equivalent of anywhere from three to six month’s of budget travel and living out of hostels.
The blogger in question suddenly feels as though they are being rewarded for all of their hard “work”. And for the vast majority (the 99% talked about in This Week In Travel’s final keynote at TBEX in Cancun), they are going to accept that sponsored trip out of a knee-jerk reaction, just like a heroin junkie shooting up when he hasn’t had a fix in weeks and someone leaves a syringe full of Grade-A smack for them to shoot up while no one is looking.
Which is the absolute worst thing that can happen, because now a budget traveler with no previous experience in professional publicity or luxury travel is suddenly attempting to cover the ins and outs of a luxury stay for a press tour with no media connections or know-how.
Not only do they have no fucking clue what they are doing, having never written about such an experience before and lacking any sort of professional publicity experience, but they have no target audience that relates to luxury travel. Which means any traffic that they bring in for the luxury resort is going to be empty traffic. It’s going to do absolutely nothing for the sponsor.
I’ve turned down over a dozen offers for sponsored travel in the last six months. Why? Because the companies in question obviously didn’t research who we are and what we are currently doing with our brand. And I’m only a B-level blogger; the A-level guys higher up the food chain receive dozens of requests per month.
Receiving offers from companies in Greece and Italy to come stay for a week at a hotel when I have publicly written in a blog post that Cristina and I are not traveling outside of Mexico for 2014 due to her surgery in March, shows an absolute lack of professionalism on the side of the sponsors offering us these opportunities. They simply saw my name on some worthless top 50 list somewhere and shot me an invitation.
Secondly, it would be absolutely unprofessional of me to accept these offers just so I could get free travel. Why is that? Well, this ties into what I was just talking about the other day in regards to destination selection. It doesn’t make business sense for me to spend $4,000 on round-trip tickets to spend a week at a hotel halfway around the world.
Now, if we were already going to be in Greece and Italy for three months, that would be a completely different story, because we would already be there, on the ground, and from a business perspective we wouldn’t have to worry about a several thousand dollar spend that has no form of reimbursement.
My blog is a business. I make decisions based upon the financial gains it can bring to the brand. In some cases I will sacrifice the financial gain if I know it is going to earn us something equivalent in terms of exposure or there is a long-term gain to be had, but at the end of the day it’s all about business and making money, not about scoring free shit.
That being said, we still do sponsored travel. Here’s how we do it.
If we are at a restaurant and we like the food, we talk to the manager or the owner. We show them a business card, I show them my blog and our social media channels on my tablet, and then I ask them if they want us to write a story about them and feature them on our social media channels.
Nine times out of ten we will get at least one free meal if not several free meals in exchange for the publicity. In one case, in Playa del Carmen, the owner gave us a three-hour breakfast extravaganza worth more than 200 USD in exchange for us sitting down to talk about blogging and social media and determine if they wanted to work with us or not.
Same thing with hotels and tour agencies. When we already know we are going to be going somewhere and doing something, that’s when I pitch, and I generally wait for when I can meet face-to-face with the owner or the manager. Hotels always have media rates, and if we can’t get a couple of nights of free accommodations in exchange for a blog post, we can at least get the discounted stay. Same for tours. But we are always already on-site, paying for our own way, before we pitch the business on a publicity-for-service relationship.
If I am going to be staying at destination for a longer period of time, that is when I build up a personal relationship with the owner of the business in question, and then I go into a more long-term arrangements. For example, give us a month and during that month we will manage your social media and consult you on how to build up your blogging and your business.
In this instance, I am not simply asking for free travel in exchange for a blog post or a couple of social media mentions. I am trading more than just publicity; I am helping the owner increase their income exponentially. But I also have the experience and seven years of proven credibility + a track record backing me up; I’m not just some random, newbie blogger spinning a line of bullshit about how I can get X amount of views for the business with my blog.
This is also how I have done the vast majority of my social media presentations and seminars over the past couple of years within the Riviera Maya. By building up a personal relationship with business owners, I can then partner with said businesses to host presentations regarding social media and blogging for other businesses in the local area. Ticket sales are then generally split between the host and myself, such as several events that I did with the Coworking Playa del Carmen group in 2013.
I am doing the same thing at an all-inclusive resort in Belize coming up in Feb/March of 2015. I met the resort staff at TBEX in Cancun, and originally we had talked me going there for 30 days in October/November, but we decided to hold off until after the high season/Valentine’s Day. I’ll be going down for 30 days to mentor the marketing and blogging staff in exchange for accommodations + food, and they are also organizing a 3 – 5 day social media seminar that I’ll be heading for the travel industry within Belize.
I am not just giving them a blog post and publicity. I am also trading my knowledge and my expertise in exchange for something equally valuable. If they are giving me 15,000 dollars’ worth of hospitality plus 50% of ticket sales, I need to make sure that I am giving them the equivalent in exchange. Increasing their income through on-site training, combined with press coverage through the blog, ensures that I give as good as I get, and go above and beyond.
Another type of sponsored travel to consider is building up a personal relationship with a company and receiving their sponsorship to cover your travels as a brand ambassador. Think about the Wanderers In Residence relationship that G Adventures has with certain bloggers. These types of relationships aren’t just based on traffic and numbers, but are more about personal relationships build up with the people who own the businesses, as well as what you can bring to the table in terms of matching the company’s vision.
In some ways, being a brand ambassador is less about your time in the industry and more about how well your vision matches with the vision of the person/business who will be sponsoring your travels around the world. Think of it like Christopher Columbus being sponsored by the Queen of Spain to go out and conquer/explore. He was one out of tens of thousands of potential candidates, and his business relationship was built up around a personal relationship with his sponsor, not on his stats.
If you are a blogger and you only have a few thousand views per month, you generally do not have enough value in terms of publicity to offer a destination or a sponsor the equivalent value of a sponsored trip, much less any professional publicity experience or media connections to guarantee results. That is just a simple fact. If someone is giving you five thousand dollars’ worth of accommodations and tours, you damn well better be able to deliver and generate at least that much in income for the business so that they can break even for sponsoring you in the first place.
The only way you get publicity experience, media connections, and sufficient traffic to be able to justify earning a sponsored trip is if you get out there, bust your ass, work 15 hour days, build up your brand and your blog over 2 to 3 years of time, go to conventions, take workshops, improve your craft, learn how to run a business, and take the time to build up personal working relationships necessary to work with people on a professional basis.
None of this happens overnight. None of this happens if you are unwilling to improve your craft. None of this happens if you never go to conventions, never take workshops, never learn the editorial process, never learn photography, never learn business, never build up the media relations, never learn publicity, never learn how to properly manage social media campaigns, never get out from behind your laptop and do anything else other than write a personal journal with photos.
Earning sponsored travel is like receiving an invitation from royalty. You don’t show up in flip-flops and shorts. You rent a tux. You get a haircut. You get a manicure. You practice your speech. You do everything in your power to look and behave perfectly, and you understand that you need to be as humble as fuck for being honored enough to receive the invitation above all the other tens of thousands of others out there.
If you are just starting out in the blogging industry, you are nobody. I’ve been doing this three years, I’ve spoken at 14 events, keynoted, have published 13 books, I’m successful, I’m good at what I do, I inspire others, I have a track record for success with both clients as well as students and interns, and yet I am not as good as I could be. And I’m still technically only a B-level guy. I fully expect to spend another two years before I transition fully into the A-level bracket. And even then, I’m not going to accept everything that gets thrown my way, “just because”.
I understand my limitations. So should you.
Working on a press tour a sponsored trip is responsibility. You need to give five times more than what you get, and if you are just starting out in the industry, you can’t. Period. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are, how good you think your stories are, how good you think your photographs are, how good you think your videos are…you are nothing.
Have a few years under your belt? Been busting your ass enhancing your craft, building up personal relationships by attending conventions, workshops, courses, and studying the ins and outs of marketing, publicity, social media management and have a track record that can prove it?
Welcome to the big leagues. Now get ready to work harder than you did building up your reputation, because now you are being offered big-time media responsibilities that require you to go above and beyond what ever did with your own blog just for your own audience. Now you have a duty to give as good as you get….and beyond.