Travel Blogging Today: It's Complicated

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When Keith Jenkins plans a trip, he doesn't have to cobble together vacation days, or frequent flier miles, or scour the Web for deals on big-ticket items like hotels. Mr. Jenkins, the Amsterdam-based blogger behind Velvet Escape (velvetescape.com), simply finds sponsors.

Last year, he planned a trip to Cape Town with a handful of other bloggers and pitched it to the local tourism agency, which agreed to foot the bill. He estimated that the resulting itinerary -- including a stay at a villa with ocean views, shark-cage diving, visits to wineries and spa massages -- was worth about 5,000 euros (about $6,440) but ended up costing him little beyond the nerve it took to board a ferry to Robben Island. The tourism office later told him that he and the fellow bloggers he'd invited had kicked off its most successful social media campaign to that point, featuring a Twitter hashtag -- #lovecapetown -- that is still in use.

Initially, Mr. Jenkins said of his blog's focus, "I didn't really think of it as luxury travel. I just thought this is the way I like to travel." Mr. Jenkins, who worked as an investment banker before turning to travel blogging in late 2008, added: "Backpacking is something I did as a student."

Mr. Jenkins's approach to blogging -- and travel -- speaks volumes about the state of a medium that began as intimate and creative. The paradigm has shifted across the board, in areas like food, parenting and so-called lifestyle blogs. But nowhere has the shift been as jarring as it is for travelers. "I want to travel the world" is no longer an idealistic statement, it is a transactional one.

It's impossible to estimate the number of independent travel blogs. Thousands of writers and photographers now travel the world registering their thoughts through platforms like WordPress and Blogger. But there is indication that the ranks of the bloggers whose aspirations are not just creative have grown: blogger attendance at the annual conference known as TBEX was about 1,000 this year, more than double that of last year's event in Keystone, Colo., and the "speed dating" sessions in which bloggers seek sponsors grew to 3,629 from 206 last year.

The proliferation of these blogs, and what is becoming a go-to way of financing them, would seem a boon to the daring people who want to keep logs of life on the road and the readers who want to consume them. But as travel blogging comes of age, the landscape has become vastly more complicated and more fragmented. It can all be daunting -- and increasingly difficult for both bloggers and readers to navigate.

Travel bloggers tend to be independent-minded and passionate about their areas of interest. The best of them also tend to be on the cutting edge of the travel world, making them a valuable resource for readers frustrated with out-of-date guidebooks and what is often a morass of user reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. But they also face unique challenges; for one, they have to be not just their own editors in chief, but also their own directors of marketing and Web developers. And, ideally, they need to stay objective despite all the sponsorships.

To figure out how to navigate the mountains of online content available from various bloggers, and to answer the question of how they manage to travel amid all these demands, I turned to the bloggers themselves, and found a broad spectrum of approaches and advice.

If there is a single rule of thumb for how to choose which blogs to make time for, it is to measure them on a scale of how driven they are by business concerns. The recent TBEX conference in Toronto, with its rah-rah keynote speeches and panels on "Content Strategy" and "The Intersection of Marketing and Blogging," made one thing clear: those waters are increasingly murky.

Nowhere was this more evident than the popular speed-dating sessions. Bloggers signed up for eight-minute sessions with 138 sponsors. At the end of each appointment, chimes sounded and a mellifluous female voice echoed across the sprawling convention hall: "It is now time to move to your next appointment." With that, bloggers said their goodbyes and thank-yous and scrambled to get to their next potential sponsor.

Amid the scrum was Michelle Holmes, a travel blogger (wanderingoff.ca) and writer -- her day job is as a parks manager in Toronto -- who went on about 20 speed dates in all, which led to a handful of follow-up conversations with marketers and a couple of probable sponsored trips. It put her one step closer to her goal: "to be able to balance a work-slash-writing career without selling my soul." The weekend, she said, amounted to a success.

There are more in the crowd like Ms. Holmes, for whom travel blogging is a part-time job and full-time dream, than Mr. Jenkins. But by most accounts, since TBEX was started by the blogger Kim Mance in 2009, when it drew about 125 attendees, the focus at the conference has changed, particularly since it was acquired by New Media Expo in March 2012, a few months before the Keystone event.

"To me, the shift boils down into one word: marketing," said Pam Mandel, who started her blog, Nerd's Eye View (nerdseyeview.com), way back in 1997. Ms. Mandel, for years a panelist and participant in the TBEX conference (she moderated the "Content Strategy" panel), accepts sponsored trips but is also the first to call herself a "writing snob" and believes that sponsorships have resulted in an increase in what she calls "junk content."

The posts and social media activity that result from those trips can also walk a thin legal line. In March, the Federal Trade Commission had seen enough digital content that blurred the line between editorial and advertising that it issued a clarification document stating that disclosures of free trips need to be clear, concise and toward the top of posts. Some bloggers eschew these disclosures entirely, or bury the disclosure line at the end of posts. (Policies on free trips vary across the print media landscape. The New York Times ethics policy states that writers may not accept them.)

Many successful bloggers believe that the best way to both thrive and maintain a level of professionalism is to keep the focus on the reader. Earl Baron's site, Wandering Earl (wanderingearl.com), is both very popular and justly named: Mr. Baron has, in one form or another, been on the road since 1999; he began the blog -- tagline: "the life of a permanent nomad" -- in 2009. He started by commenting on other blogs, and noticed that he received few responses.

"That became sort of my strategy," he said. "I want to help my readers, and the only way to do that is to interact with them. So I made a deal with myself: from now on, I answer every e-mail myself and I reply to every comment." That, he said, led to an increase in attention and readership, and, ultimately, two e-books that he created largely out of his responses. He estimates that he now spends three to four hours a day answering reader questions, which average 100 to 150 daily. (Though he now asks for a suggested donation for incoming questions, he refunds the donation if the answer is contained in one of his e-books and the reader buys the book.)

But outside of bloggers who have ambitious approaches to reader engagement like Mr. Baron, how do you discern if a blogger is only a small step removed from being the publicity arm of a local tourism bureau? Gary Arndt, whose blog, Everything Everywhere (everything-everywhere.com), is routinely cited as a model for success, had a simple tip: "Check the 'about' page on the blog and find out about the person," he wrote in an e-mail from the tiny Caribbean island of Saba. "How much experience and knowledge do they have about travel or their particular subject matter? How long have they been blogging? Have they gotten any recognition for their work?"

Jodi Ettenberg, a former lawyer who runs Legal Nomads (legalnomads.com), suggested checking outbound links -- that is, where a blogger's links are headed. If they tend to be to businesses that probably provided the blogger with services (for example, a site offering cheap airfares), and that relationship isn't disclosed, be skeptical of the resulting content.

Ms. Ettenberg also noted that niche travel blogs are becoming increasingly important, since readers are more likely to trust sources knowledgeable on a specific subject. "When I look for food information," she said, "I want to find a blog of someone who's obsessed with food and see what they have to say." Niche blogs can also feature more unusual approaches that can differentiate them from the crowd. (See this slide show for a few examples.)

Though Ms. Ettenberg's focus is now on food (her business card reads "author, traveler and soup expert"), like most early travel bloggers she began as a generalist and isn't sure how she would fare in today's more competitive and fragmented environment. She and others acknowledge that they benefited greatly from the so-called first-mover advantage -- that is, they began blogging in a much less complicated space. "People have asked me how have I been successful," Mr. Arndt said. "Well, one, I've been doing it longer. Second, I travel more than they do."

Most bloggers, though, are not making money hand over fist -- even those like Mr. Jenkins who do take generous perks.

"Most successful bloggers are 'successful' because they earn enough to travel on a very tight budget, an amount that would not allow them to live in North America, Western Europe or Australia," Mr. Baron wrote in an e-mail from Bucharest, Romania, adding, "I don't have expenses such as a mortgage, car payments and other monthly bills that I would have if I lived back in the U.S., so that certainly helps."

In order to make a go of it, some are branching out in ways that take them beyond the pages of their blog, including contractual partnerships with outfitters like G Adventures, which created Wanderers in Residence in 2010. The program currently includes five bloggers, who lead tours, do speaking engagements and write blog posts for the company (the bloggers are compensated monthly).

One of those Wanderers is Ms. Ettenberg, of Legal Nomads. In 2008, after five years working for a firm in New York and having saved a small nest egg, she quit, thinking she was headed out on a yearlong trip. It's been five years. For her, whatever popularity she has developed is directly related to her passion for travel and writing. "It comes down to your personality," she said. "I would be writing for myself even if no one was reading."

Another participant in the Wanderers program is Mr. Arndt, whose blog is heavier on photography than it is on narrative and is more destination-based. (His blog's "Country List" page notes that he's traveled to over 125 countries, and counting, on all seven continents.) Like Ms. Ettenberg, his background is not in travel or journalism: after years of working in Web technology (and an abbreviated trip to graduate school to study geology), in 2007 he sold his house and started traveling.

Mr. Arndt has led two tours through G Adventures -- through the American Southwest and Italy -- with an emphasis on photography. "The main benefit for me is that I get an opportunity to travel with my readers," he wrote. (Ms. Ettenberg is currently planning her own food-themed tours, which she hopes to begin in January.)

A different sort of outlet is IAmbassador, which Mr. Jenkins, of Velvet Escape, started in 2011. The program, which included the Cape Town trip, organizes bloggers and pitches campaigns to tourism boards. There are now about 40 bloggers participating in the resulting sponsored trips, Mr. Jenkins said; he has also formed partnerships with travel blogging networks in Germany and Brazil.

There are also more DIY options for bloggers, with social media platforms beyond blogs -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest -- leading the way. Mr. Arndt noted that he gets a majority of his traffic from Twitter and Facebook (as opposed to online searches) -- though he is quick to add that that is not typical.

All of this means that even the blogging process is evolving: Marketers are now often as interested in Twitter messages and Instagram photos from bloggers sent while on sponsored trips as they are in after-the-fact blog posts.

Mr. Jenkins believes that there are three phases of "creating buzz" for any travel blogging experience: announcing a campaign (often with a specific Twitter hashtag) before a trip, sending out Twitter messages and Instagram photos during the trip (again, with a consistent hashtag), and only then, after a trip has concluded, putting up blog posts.

But despite all the growth and expanded opportunities, for successful bloggers it comes back to guiding and connecting with readers. Travel can be intimidating and scary, Ms. Ettenberg said. "I see travel bloggers in many ways as the perfect conduit to allay those fears."

Dan Saltzstein is an editor of the Travel section of The Times.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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