Running A Business

The Next Generation of Travel Influencers: Tour Operators

Aug 19, 2021 • 10+ min read
Woman looking out over a small town on the coast of Italy
Table of Contents

      “When I say it’s perfect, I could not have dreamed up a better itinerary for my first group trip,” influencer Hannah Heaume (@hannahrheaume) gushed into the camera for her 53,000 followers in June 2021. “We’re going to Bali, baby!”

      She’s not alone. Scroll through social media and you’re likely to find sign-ups for swimming with whales in Tahiti with @kelsealoha, a backpacking adventure through New Zealand with @maddison.noel, or a fitness boot camp in Costa Rica with @whitneyjohns.

      Increasingly, platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok influence where people choose to go—and influencers are joining them as tour guides for once-in-a-lifetime trips.

      Americans using travel website graph

      Source: “Influencers Are the New Travel Agents for Millennials, Generation Z,” Morning Consult.

      “What we have seen specifically with travel, picking travel destinations is pretty much the end of the era of experts as we know it. We’re not going to big travel agencies or companies to get recommendations of where we are going. It’s really peer-to-peer reviews, and you see that in almost all aspects,” travel consultant Jonah Stillman told Conde Nast Traveler. 

      With social media embedded into the fabric of daily life, it’s no surprise that the way people plan and take trips has changed. Now, travel influencers—themselves small business owners—are pivoting once again to fill the gap left by travel advisors, tour operators, and other travel companies hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Running a Small Travel Business During COVID-19

      With travel shut down for months due to lockdowns and closed borders, the travel industry went into freefall. Tour guides went virtual. Museums created online lectures. Hotels, agencies, and restaurants shuttered—some for good. 

      “COVID-19 has resulted in countless setbacks, both to the travel industry and to the world at large,” Christian Wolters, managing director of TourRadar—an online marketplace for more than 40,000 different multi-day tours—told Forbes. “This is obviously an uncertain time right now and that’s tough. [But I’m hopeful that] a disaster like this breeds innovation, so I expect to see a whole new range of experiences as we get back to business.”

      Travel influencers, who build their entire brand and income through sponsored travel experiences, stays, and products, were unexpectedly left with no income. “It’s been challenging to pass from an 80% project-based income in 2019 to have almost no projects at all in 2020,” Madrid-based influencer Alvaro Rojas (@wanderreds) told USA Today.  “I never expected a pandemic would keep me grounded for so many months. It’s not just the monetary impact but the potential growth my business would’ve experienced since these were the first projects of new streams of income for me: TV travel host, a TV ad about my travels to every country, public speaking at a huge corporate event. It’s those amazing new opportunities lost that hurt the most.”

      So Rojas did what many small business owners did: he pivoted. “If you always posted that you were in Bali or French Polynesia or Hawaii and now you’re not able to go to all those places, does your audience still care [about you]?” Jade Broadus, vice president at influencer marketing agency Travel Mindset, asked Skift. “But I am seeing a bunch of influencers who’ve done that pivot to lifestyle, around-the-house style of content and their audience does still care. So I think when they’re out of this, they’re going to be better off.”

      The tour, activities, and attractions industry represents a $254 billion annual market, and 80% of that is made up of smaller tour operators. For tour companies and travel agents, the constant uncertainty of reopening and closing, along with concerns about new COVID-19 variants, means that easing restrictions feels like a life preserver thrown too late. 

      Influencers Open Up Tour Guide Services

      The pandemic didn’t slow down demand for travel. Google reported that searches for terms like “can I travel” and “travel to” were up 800% in May 2021, just in time for countries to slowly reopen borders and restaurants and ease restrictions. 57% of people are hoping to travel again when the pandemic is over, according to TravelPulse.

      Now, influencers are capitalizing on pent-up travel demand and looking to take their followers with them as they resume traveling. Some, like Rojas, founded boutique travel agencies to grow their business, capitalizing on their following built over years of traveling the world.

      Others are using a new crop of online tour platforms that connect influencers with individuals, from Airbnb Experiences to influencer-friendly Global Nomad or Trova Trip, the latter of which coordinates all of the logistics. “Hosting gives me an additional source of revenue to pursue opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have the funds to pursue,” rock climber Krissy Harclerode (@krissyclimbs) wrote on Trova Trip’s blog. “It helps me connect deeper with the people who support me. For example, a lot of people who signed up for my trips are coming from [my nutrition company] Black Iron Nutrition, or they went on a trip and now they’re Black Iron clients. It is magical to get to know all these people on a deeper level, both as travelers and as clients.” 

      View this post on Instagram

      A post shared by Krissy🏔 (@krissyclimbs)

      Becoming an influencer is no longer just about taking aesthetically pleasing pictures for Instagram, blogging about travels online, or filming funny videos for TikTok. Many influencers are expanding their purview and thinking more entrepreneurially, bringing in income from content creation and sponsorships and creating spinoff businesses of their own that relate to their brand. 

      “When I started my blog in 2016, I had no idea the journey that was ahead of me,” writes Heaume on her site, Women and the Wilderness. “Now, I’m traveling intentionally, only visiting places that resonate with me on a soul level. Capturing and sharing my adventures up mountains, through forests, and across oceans; with you.”

      About the author
      Kayla Voigt

      Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can find her at the summit of a mountain or digging in to a big bowl of pasta when she's not writing. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

      Share Article:

      Business insights right to your inbox

      Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for industry news and business strategies and tips

      Subscribe to the newsletter

      Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for industry news and business strategies and tips.