Why the travel industry should “cancel” influencers

It's time for our sector to "swipe left" on internet celebrities, MYLES STEDMAN believes.

SOCIAL media influencers have certainly announced their presence in the travel sector in the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic did nothing to blunt their enthusiasm (if anything, it only sharpened it) which should lead to the question – is the impact influencers have on travel always good? Is it more often good or bad, and if it’s the latter, how earnestly should the industry review its own appetite for influencers and their audiences?

The word “influencer” entered the dictionary in 2019, and since then has made up more and more of social media year-on-year. According to statistics reported earlier this year by media company Influencer Marketing Hub, 61% of consumers trust influencer recommendations, compared to 38% who trust brand-recommended content.

That can be a tempting metric to engage with – companies using one of these well-known mouthpieces give their product almost a 25% greater chance of being trusted than those which don’t; but does that automatically mean we should?

One of the most significant powers of influencers is their ability to target a specific demographic. On average, those most commonly plugged in to an influencer’s feed are aged between 18 and 24, followed closely by 25-35-year-olds, according to creator management platform GRIN. This is a large section of those in their travelling prime, or aspiring to travel, which hands companies doing business with an influencer both an enormous amount of power and an even larger amount of responsibility.

These demographic fields plied by influencers, and harvested by travel companies, are young, willing, and impressionable. Many in this demographic have not done a lot of travelling before, and are searching for inspiration on where to go, and guidance on how to visit it – the old research of guidebooks and word-of-mouth has been replaced by Instagram and TikTok feeds. This means the travel industry – and those it does business with, such as influencers – have an immense responsibility to create progressive travellers of the future rather than orthodox tourists of the past; it’s fair to ask whether influencer content creates travellers who explore with a closed mind and firm expectations, rather than openness and understanding.

However these demographics are also highly cynical, and eager to funnel out falseness and inauthenticity – and this is where those getting into bed with an influencer must beware. When aligning yourself to an individual, their values become yours, and you become a stakeholder in them – and the phenomenon of their wholesale rejection which occasionally takes place. No-one wants the amazing itineraries they work so hard to create and sell, or the remarkable destination brand they’ve cultivated, to face apathy or scepticism due to an influencer relationship, or worse – become the victim of the “cancel culture” bugaboo.

If the jury is out on whether or not influencers are suited for the industry as it is now, it is in iron-clad deadlock on whether or not influencers should be part of the industry we want to be in the future. For a market or product which may still be recovering from the effects of COVID, it may seem to be an obvious decision to tap into this seemingly boundless source of impressions, but does this compromise its future viability? There is always a “happy medium” of tourist volume, and it is not often known what that limit is until it is surpassed.

It is also possible for the perception of a destination to become incorrectly skewed due to the effect of influencers. The industry should strive to create a realistic prospect for what a traveller can expect when they are visiting a destination or taking a tour, and it is unlikely this is going to be communicated properly through the Pollyanna offered by an influencer. After all, this is why we have engaged experts such as travel advisors to do the selling for us – they can offer the experience and knowledge through their years in the industry most can’t.

Perhaps most crucially, mining the large-scale audiences peddled by influencers works against what the entire travel industry is uniting to achieve – sustainability. By their nature, influencers promote mass tourism – a concept the industry is looking to obstruct, rather than promote. The travel industry has worked hard to both cater to and create “sustainable travellers” who understand what our customers’ footprint looks like while travelling, and how to minimise that footprint on the destinations we visit.

This means it is more important now than ever to consider what reaching another million consumers may mean for your destination, your brand, its goals, and most importantly, the planet.

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