Writing about travel will never end, but the future of the industry is certainly a topic of discussion among professionals. This is part two of Robin Catalano’s Q&A with experts across the travel writing industry.
In part 1 of this series, we looked at the evolution of travel writing, including the underrepresentation of women, the movement away from the first-person narrative and “parachute” travel, falling pay rates, and the expectation of deep reportage.
In part 2, we tackle the digital landscape, including travel blogging and influencer campaigns, as well as making travel writing more inclusive and responsible for the environment.
Editor’s Note: Given the extensive insight offered by these experts, we will simply relay the question posed to each expert and select answers, with no additional commentary.
- Jeremy Bassetti, travel writer, educator, and host of the podcast Travel Writing World
- Pauline Frommer, author, co-president of FrommerMedia, and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebook
- Rana Good, travel writer and founder of Naïra NYC, an editorial platform for women of color
- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, award-winning travel author and associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
- Amar Grover, freelance writer and photographer
- Tim Hannigan, award-winning narrative history author, guidebook author, and travel journalist
- Tracy Kaler, travel writer, blogger, and co-author of New York: 48 Hours
- Tim Leffel, author, blogger, and the North America Conference Director of TBEX
- Bianca Malata, blogger at It’s All Bee
- Laurie McMillin, professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, and editor of the literary travel journal AWAY
- Carrie Miller, award-winning travel journalist and author of 100 Dives of a Lifetime: The World’s Ultimate Underwater Destinations
- Ashley Rossi, travel writer and editor
- Lindsey Schmid, vice president of tourism and marketing at 1Berkshire
- Netanya Trimboli, director of communications and PR at Hostelling International USA
- Ketti Wilhelm, journalist and blogger at Tilted Map
- Xu Xi, author, traveler, writing teacher, and workshop leader
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Blogging & Writing About Travel
With the rise of blogging, travel publishing has been opened up—perhaps kicking and screaming—to a whole new group of content creators. How has blogging affected print travel writing?
McMillan: I don’t know if it has improved writing. It has democratized it in some ways. It’s a way to bring in more voices.
Rossi: A lot of the legacy newspapers have had great travel sections—the Toronto Star comes to mind. Those really strong editorial papers have had staying power, and that’s great. But blogging has given anyone an opportunity to share their own travel experience. It’s become a lot more interesting.
Miller: You still need to have that print credibility. There’s a feeling that anybody can be an influencer, anyone can have a blog. If you’ve passed through that gateway of somebody else assigning you a story, reviewing it, and printing it, it’s a little bit of cache next to your name.
Frommer: I feel like blogging has not influenced it as much as TripAdvisor and other user-generated reviews. It’s very hard to compete with 10,000 people sharing their experiences. We’ve had to become even more expert, offer a value that Joe Schmo might not have. Our big goal became showing the value of deep research and cultural and historical understanding that you wouldn’t necessarily from the reviewer.
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The Future of Print Travel Writing
As the pandemic has raged, many print publications have folded. This poises bloggers at the forefront of publishing as travel begins to open up again. Will blogging have a bigger influence on what gets published in print media? And what will the print landscape look like?
Grover: I assume that travel pages/space in print media will probably shrink in line with plummeting advertising. . . . This will probably mean writers competing for even less print-media work. In this scenario I’m not sure how bloggers will be more enabled to grab some or any of that limited work, or influence what gets published in the print media….unless they decide to write for peanuts. Having said that, there’re clearly some “elite” bloggers who’ve been very good at monetizing their presence, if not their writing.
Hannigan: I’m not sure about “influence,” but clearly bloggers—as “sole traders,” not bound into large and complicated publishing systems and economies—have flexibility, and should be the quickest to reactivate once things open up again.
Leffel: It seems pointless to even talk about print media in travel moving forward. They’re irrelevant now, and I don’t see that changing much. Newspaper travel sections are gone, subscriber travel magazines were already on the decline before this pandemic, and now many of the custom publications from airlines and cruise lines have suspended publication. I see this event as being the final nail in the coffin for travel print publications, at least in the USA.
The age of the gatekeeper is finally over, thankfully, and what bloggers and online magazines publish will be 99% of everything that is published, period. A few weak blogs will die too, and some bloggers will give up and move on, but thousands upon thousands will still be publishing when this is all over, continuing to dominate the landscape and the conversation.
Brand Partnerships and Influencers
Prior to the pandemic, content creators and influencers were still enjoying a range of opportunities—and rising pay rates to match. How will DMOs and brands approach working with them now? And how can influencers and digital content creators make their case to brands?
Schmid: I think influencer marketing was trending downward even before this. I’ve never paid an influencer to do a story about the Berkshires. I may have paid gas or mileage, but we don’t have the budget for compensating them for a collaboration.
I don’t think it’ll be a huge shift in how DMOs work with journalists. It’s more about stabilization of budget. The niche markets we’re going to look at are different, as are the stories. The bloggers we’ve used in the past tend to have niche storytelling and smaller numbers, but a dedicated following
Trimboli: Brands just aren’t going to have the budget they used to. They’ll be thinking about how to get more mileage out of collaborations. A lot of content marketing has been about brand awareness, but I think there will be more focus on conversions—it’s the best way to justify the cost to an organization. And messaging is going to be really important. You want people to know you’re taking all these safety precautions, but you don’t want it to sound like it’s not fun.
Rossi: We knew the influencer bubble had to burst at some point. The first thing companies cut in a crisis is their marketing budget. The good influencers will survive and still be needed, but it was an oversaturated market. The content that micro- and nanoinfluencers have been doing tends to be more niche. I think it’s smart for brands to take a second look at them.
Malata: For a long time, a lot of brands thought if you have 100,000 followers, that automatically means you’ll sell their product. But engagement matters, including for smaller accounts. There’s been too much focus on just Instagram. If you want to sell more, you need a mix of Instagram and blogging. An Instagram partnership might only last for a week, and then it sinks. A blog post might rank on the first page of Google for weeks or even years.
Travel Influencer Marketing
If influencer marketing is on the wane, what forms should content creators consider more closely? And what should brands know about collaborating with today’s influencers and content creators?
Schmid: A full magazine article with images has been what’s most helpful to us. But it’s all over the place. Sometimes when we share something like a little blog post on social media, it’s the thing that resonates with people.
Malata: I think a lot of brands underestimate the buying power of black travelers. On a press trip or in a brand ambassadorship or campaign, there are very few people of color. It’s a challenge to even look to partner with brands, because you don’t see anyone who looks like you. I think, What’s the point? I move on to brands I know are more open to working with people of color.
The Luxury Travel Niche
The luxury audience might have the means to better weather economic upheaval, but so far they’re not making many inquiries or travel plans. And promoting luxury content during such a sensitive time can seem tone-deaf. Is this the end of luxury travel and content?
Rossi: I think so. After 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash, luxury travel was the first thing to go. There are some indications, though, that the private jet industry could end up increasing, because it offers privacy that commercial airlines lack.
Frommer: There should be less of an emphasis on luxury. To me, the beauty of travel is the lessons you learn about culture and history and human nature. There’s been so much of the industry focused on the thread count of sheets and things like that. In my mind, that misses what’s potentially important about travel. It allows us to see the world as if we’re all brothers and sisters, and to bring back knowledge of the world that isn’t always negative. . . .
Our guidebooks have always been proudly middle-class, though we give info for ultra-luxurious and budget travelers. [The middle class] won’t be able to travel as much, and we’re going to have to think long and hard about how we write for those who are traveling.
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Diversity in Travel Writing
The conversation surrounding diversity and representation of minority and marginalized voices has never been more pressing. How can travel writing and publishing become more inclusive?
Griest: There are almost no Latinx people in publishing—less than 5%. There are complicated reasons for that. Travel writing is a genre born from colonialism, and has yet to be fully colonized. I feel very conflicted about it.
Xi: Women and people of color very often might have different taste in terms of where they want to go. They’re looking to do something that doesn’t fit into the most desired or best-paid travel narrative. Publishers need to be more aware of this.
Kaler: I think it starts at the top, with a more diverse editorial staff. There needs to be a commitment to hire more women and people of color as editors in chief. It’s a trickle down: women and people of color will hire more women and people.
Rossi: Diversity needs to be included in everything from photos to interview subjects—it needs to go beyond the race of the writer.
Bassetti: Publishers need to recognize that the nature and experience of travel for a white man, say, can be radically different than the nature and experience of travel for a woman of color. . . . The great promise and value of travel blogging, by the way, is that diverse voices get disseminated at a rate (if not reach) that large publishers are failing to keep up with.
Malata: I think brands and publishers need to turn it round and think of it from a customer perspective, and the buying power of a diverse group of people. There are a lot more black people traveling now than ever before. Do you want their money or not? They also need to be more diverse in who they employ.
The Travel Writing Horizon
What are the most important, and necessary, changes on the post-pandemic travel writing horizon?
Xi: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a country that’s been covered a hundred times or not at all. I look for writing that tells me something I don’t already know, that I can’t Google or find on Wikipedia. Honesty is quite important. You shouldn’t be trying hard to impress people. You want to share the wonder of travel, not the wonder of yourself.
Rossi: I’d like to see topics addressed such as how to travel if you’ve lost your job, and personal safety concerns. We also need to think about what we can do at a state and local level to promote safety. Sicily is offering vouchers for flights and accommodations—but is that safe?
Kaler: I’d like to see more accountability. Publications shouldn’t hire writers to write about places they’ve never been, and they shouldn’t have staffers or interns cranking out pieces on places they’ve never visited, based on SEO or trends. This needs to be something we take seriously.
Malata: A little more honesty, from both writers and brands. For a long time it’s been all about the perfect-looking Instagrammable part of a destination. In the future, readers will require a lot more detail. Writers and bloggers will need to be more detailed, less glossy.
McMillan: It raises real questions about the ease with which we travel. I also hope that it will make us more thoughtful about travel within our local areas. That we’ll appreciate and understand the people we live next to—many of whom are complete strangers because of race, class, and background.
Wilhem: I feel like we’re at a turning point in the conversation about climate change and sustainability. A lot of sustainability-focused travel writing right now is extreme and unsustainable—staying in a cabin in the rainforest, or eating only at vegan restaurants. There aren’t a lot of people who are interested that. Moving forward, we should focus on how to make more responsible choices within your travel plans. There are thousands of articles that will tell you the cheapest way to get to Prague, but not the most environmentally friendly way to get to Prague.
Good: I’d like to see more thoughtful pieces, less about how to party in a destination or how to see as many places as possible. More slow travel, sustainable travel. Us not moving around as much is good for the planet. We need to recognize that experiences are our modern luxury.
Miller: We have this amazing opportunity to do things better, to do things differently, to educate travelers, to put regulations in place to make sure things are truly sustainable. Is it going to happen? I don’t know. There’s always some crisis that takes our focus away from the environment. People are so much more powerful than they know. They can drive change. We need to mobilize our storytellers to keep the conversation going.
What do you think is the future of writing about travel? Share your opinion in the comments!