By JESSICA TEICHMAY 3, 2017
Yesterday she was exploring Tokyo. Today she has touched down in Southern California to design a travel-inspired office space. Tonight she is catching a flight to Iceland, where she will spend two weeks shooting videos and photos “just for fun, to reinspire content.”
The she in this case is Kiersten Rich, creator of the Blonde Abroad, a “solo female lifestyle and travel blog” with 350,000 monthly readers. But her schedule is interchangeable with those of the thousands of bloggers whose job it is to travel and look good while doing so. Their photos are stunning: They defy jet lag, flash blinding smiles over artful lattes and twirl on the edge of breathtaking landscapes. And millions watch enviously: Ms. Rich has over 380,000 Instagram followers. She also has eight employees.
These sites — a blend of a personal journal and marketing platform — have proliferated in recent years. Their typical narrative seems ripe for a romantic comedy: A 20-something woman who was unhappy in her conventional career quits to travel the world alone. But as audiences demand video, Instagram posts, Snaps and other media beyond the words and few images that used to be the stock and trade of travel blogging, many bloggers are finding that their depiction of a glamorous, jet-setting life is at odds with their daily routine. They have staffs, manage payroll and can work 18-hour days.
Somewhere between turning a dream into a job and the constant sleep deprivation that comes with a flood of work, “it’s pretty easy to almost start to hate it,” said Liz Carlson, who started her Young Adventuress blog five years ago as a means of updating her friends and family about her experience as an English teacher abroad. She said she hadn’t had a real vacation “in probably four years.”
On its face, travel blogging seems like a good deal. Many bloggers start out thinking of it as a way of being paid to travel the world and post on social media — probably what many people do on their vacations anyway. Destination or regional tourism boards often offer to cover meals, travel, activities and accommodations, in addition to a daily rate for the blogger. In exchange, they expect quick content turnaround, plenty of media exposure and testimonials. It’s a no-brainer for them.
“We realized that our content didn’t produce much trust,” said Jaume Marín, marketing director of the Costa Brava Girona Tourist Board, who has hosted over 1,200 bloggers. He said the board’s own site “was official, but that’s it.”
“People believe more in content created by other people; a blog tells a reliable story,” he said, because it is not under a third-party brand.
If it sounds like a business, it is. Often a team selects, captures, edits and posts content.
“There’s no way that you can produce the quality or amount of content that a big online magazine can without a team,” said Ms. Rich, who employs a social media manager, site director, web developer and video and copy editors. “I still travel by myself when I can; it’s just so much easier to have help with me.”
Perhaps because the general public is oblivious to its rigors, it is a growing cottage industry: A search for #travelblog on Instagram nets more than 5.7 million results, and social media’s ever-blossoming prevalence in daily life has invited virtually anyone to waltz into the market. Success in an inundated market is tough to come by.
“Most people fail because they start off with a dream of, ‘I want to travel and get paid for it,’” said Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt, a prominent budget travel site with over one million monthly readers that nets around $750,000 annually. Mr. Kepnes, who entered the market in 2006, before the rise of solo female bloggers, said there was another way to turn blogging into a sustainable career: selling something more than time. His best-selling book, commission-based site widgets and media courses are his main sources of income. He doesn’t feature sponsored content on his site or accept paid trips to avoid being, as he put it, “on the wheel.”
Sponsored trips are hectic, with packed 15-hour days that include digital brand upkeep as well as programming.
Leeann Sadler, one half of the Passport Pair, said Instagram’s new algorithmic feed made things worse. “The more you post, the more you pop up in the ‘explore’ tab,” she said. “If I don’t post for five days, the next time I do post is significantly less engagement.” To succeed is to be on constantly.
For that reason, many bloggers aspire to travel less. Ms. Rich said that after a trip to the Galápagos in November, “I’m hoping to take the rest of the year off; that’s my goal — to say no.” She quickly added with a tired laugh: “But I think we already booked something again in December. That’s how it always goes.”