How Travel Blogs Can Win During This Crisis

The key word in the phrase “creative destruction” is the destruction part. When we’re in a massive crisis like the world is experiencing right now, there are going to be creative winners, but also losers who have to wave goodbye. My money is on the thousands of travel blogs still rolling along, not big media.

bloggers win media war

Even before travel ground to a halt in 2020, lots of big publications were in trouble. National Geographic Traveler died in 2019, after all. So did Family Circle, Private Clubs, Brides, and Glamour. The travel section of the San Francisco Chronicle faded away like so many others before it. Multiple airlines cut their in-flight magazine including KLM, Finnair, and Brussels Air.

Since March, the news has gotten worse. We’ve seen further shutdowns, restructurings, layoffs, and fire sales at big media companies, like 68 people laid off at The Atlantic. We’re seeing desperation mergers and partnerships like the one between Lonely Planet and CultureTrip. (LP closed its Melbourne and London offices and is reportedly up for sale.) The 2020 print magazine graveyard now includes Playboy, Automobile, Cruise Travel, one of Australia’s largest publishers, and two of South Africa’s largest publishers. Some airline and custom cruise magazines that are now “suspended” will never come back.

graveyard for media

This has been a year of carnage for big media and travel print publications. In the online world, SmarterTravel got rid of their entire staff and there were layoffs at Vice, Thrillist, TripAdvisor, Vox, Atlas Obscura, Skift, and BuzzFeed. When DCI surveyed media outlets for an SATW presentation, 53% said positions at their outlet had been furloughed or eliminated. Nearly a third had their budget cut by half or more.

The top travel blogs though? Most of us have no staffers to shed. No office rents to pay.

Many hundreds of travel blogs will still be around in a year, generating a full-time living for their founders. Thousands more will keep going strong on a part-time basis. Their publishers will not be laying off anyone because they are only paying themselves.

Sure, they had to pivot a bit and adjust to a lower level of earnings for a while, but they’ll weather this storm and thrive when we come out of it.

You Have a Big Advantage in Tough Times

When you see thin content from a big spender outranking you in search, it’s frustrating. When you see big media sites copy your article with just enough rewriting to get away with it, it can be downright infuriating. You may think that as a single-person blogger cranking out travel content from a cheap hotel room or Airbnb rental that you don’t have a chance against the big boys. Big magazines, booking sites, and media enterprises can outspend you day in and day out.

Keep in mind though that some travel blogs get more traffic than those sites with 100 people working behind the scenes. Some have more social media followers than publications owned by corporate conglomerates. Make the most of these advantages and we can trounce the big brands every month and outlive nearly all of them.

Here’s why.

Travel Blogs Have Much Lower Overhead

We bloggers have long had some big structural advantages over big media companies. We’re fiscally lean and nimble, for a start, which came in especially handy during this downturn. When you’ve got 100 people on your masthead page and an array of tech workers and sales reps to pay, a big loss in revenue can be deadly.  When you’re a one- or two-person operation that wears multiple hats and outsources, you can just quickly lower your expenses and ride it out.

Sure, some of the travel bloggers who were doing this half-heartedly will quietly fade away. Those who were nomadic and spent most of their time on press trips that covered their expenses will probably give up or switch to part-time. The rest will keep at it. Sure, we might have to change story angles a little and do more articles that aren’t just about flying off to some far-flung land, but we’ll just be a little more frugal with our expenses for a while to adjust to lower traffic.

travel writer working

The entire full-time staff of my media empire

Unlike most corporations, we bloggers know where every dollar of overhead is going. Since we’re not locked into many long-term contracts, we can quickly adjust our business expenses to match a new reality. Since your highest-paid employee is you, there’s no risk you’ll get rid of someone who is essential to the business.

TripAdvisor alone laid off 900 people this year. That’s the staff equivalent of 450 blogs run by couples. I don’t see 450 of those going away this year (or 900 run by solo owners going away).

The blogs that focus on a specific region are already coming back strong. From Canada to the USA to Europe to Australia, this will be the year of domestic travel. The blogs that were already focused on their own area will take away even more of the audience that once went to the local newspaper and regional magazine sites. As many regional publications owned by big companies shut down and shed staffers, savvy bloggers can grab even more of that traffic.

We Don’t Shoot Ourselves in the Foot With Search Engine Optimization

I once wrote hundreds of articles for a site called HotelChatter before it got bought by Conde Nast Traveler. After a few years, the acquiring company shut it down and deleted all of its articles from their site. In an instant, thousands of articles that were ranking top-5 in search were gone.

Later I wrote for a site called Groupon bought it, then later shut it down. Thousands of articles that were ranking in search were gone in a virtual puff of smoke.

As a paid freelancer, I produced dozens of articles for a blog run by the tour company Viator. A few years back they restructured their site and—you can guess where this is headed–they deleted their entire blog, years of content gone. Who knows how badly their traffic tanked, but they also lost a steady stream of leads for their tour business. From content they had already paid for.

I wrote an article for a major credit card brand’s site a few years ago that ranked #1 in Google for a variety of phrases. You won’t find it online anymore though. They deleted it, along with dozens of others written by freelancers they had paid hundreds of dollars per article for, just to let them die later.

corporate media

“We’re going to get rid of everything the last boss did…”

These examples would be comical if they were isolated. But the travel industry is littered with these kinds of huge blunders from some capricious decision in an office somewhere. This has been going on since the 1990s.

TripAdvisor bought and killed VirtualTourist, a site that had been around since the mid-1990s, a site that had 1.6 million opted-in members and had the kind of traffic that would make any travel content site drool. The site once sold to Expedia for $85 million. Later it became just a write-off on a corporate quarterly earnings report. The domain still exists, but all that’s on it now is this: “ ceased operations effective Feb 27th 2017.”

Back in 2005, Travelocity (now owned by Expedia) bought IgoUgo, which at the time had half a million registered users contributing content. They didn’t have to pay many writers, just techies to keep it running, but eventually they shut it down and wrote off the entire purchase. All that content disappeared.

We bloggers will never make this kind of mistake because we know our site content intimately. We’re looking at the stats on a regular basis. We know what’s resonating. We know what’s getting traffic and which articles have a high RPM from display ads. We see the value in the long tail and don’t need every article to reach huge numbers to be worth keeping and updating.

If we delete a post, we’re going to have the sense to redirect it or fold that content into something else. We’ll probably get advice from our peers too on how to do that right.

We don’t go hire a bunch of writers on the cheap to crank out SEO-ready (but boring) content that we’ll delete next time there’s a new boss. We use SEO tools to craft articles that resonate with our current and future readers.

We Pay Close Attention to Our Sites

Have you noticed how truly crappy many corporate-run content sites really are? The user experience is awful, like there’s actual contempt for visitors.

When you go on the website for a big player like Forbes, or a major newspaper site, you might get hit with six or seven pop-ups before you’ve even started reading. You’ll have to close them just to get to what you came for.

Here’s what I saw today when a search term landed me on the site for The Guardian. The two pop-ups literally cover the entire page!

pop-up ads big media

Even when I close the bottom one, half the page is still taken up with an ad.

Sure, bloggers aren’t immune to ad-cramming or bad design, but they’re more likely to strike the balance between earnings and user experience since they’re getting constant feedback. If something is not working right on their site and someone sends a message, the person receiving it is the one who can do something about it.

As a result, most blogs are fairly well-tuned these days. Links work when you click on them. Buttons do what they’re supposed to do. When you leave a comment, the person who wrote the article will probably reply.

Nothing on our sites will get “lost in the shuffle” and we never have the corporate problems of bureaucracy, staff changes, idiot bosses, shifting budgets, or “the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.”

We Can Cheaply Tweak and Experiment

If a big media company wants to launch a new initiative, they need bodies and a lot of meetings to work it out. If we want to develop a new income stream or start a second blog, we just do it.

We can take advantage of the cheap and easy tools at our disposal to publish, market, communicate, and sell. We can hire tech workers and designers on Upwork and Fiverr. We can now launch a course, sell a book, or create a private membership group with readily available tools available to everyone.

We don’t need to hire an employee, rent an office, or have weeks of meetings and sign-offs to get rolling. If we have a hunch, we can throw up a landing page and run with it–no focus groups or bosses to consult.

landing page builder

Then when we do launch a new initiative, we can be as patient as a sloth. If it takes three years to become profitable, we plug away and eventually get there. There are no bosses, shareholders, or accounting firms to answer to, so we’ve got all the time we need. For a big company though, three years is 12 quarters–an eternity. The department head and CEO may both be gone by then, so they need results now!

If that new initiative eventually fails, heads will roll in a big company. If something doesn’t work out for a blogger, no big deal. It was an experiment. There are not millions of dollars in sunk costs to worry about. Nobody is going to fire us or even reprimand us. Most of what we invested was our time and hopefully we’ve got plenty more of that.

After we’ve tried enough things, most of us end up with multiple streams of income. Some may pay hundreds per month, some may pay thousands, but we’re not relying on one income source to keep us afloat.

We Don’t Cost a Fortune to Work With

For the next six months to a year, it’s going to be very ugly in the travel industry. Bankruptcies, company closures, and massive layoffs will be common, unfortunately. At the destination level, the marketing budgets are slashed due to months of low bed taxes and strained governments.

Despite all that, in the height of a pandemic, my travel blogger agency booked three new deals. As I write this, the sales rep for it is on a phone call with a new potential client. For all the travel bloggers that are working with us or doing deals on their own, revenue is down, but not out.

travel magazine ad rates

The reason we can do that is we’re not rolling in with a proposal for $250,000. We’re showing them deals that they can fit into their reduced budget. If you’re a well-matched blogger asking for $800 for a list of deliverables reaching an ideal audience, that’s a lot easier to say yes to than a single $42K print ad with Backpacker or Afar magazines—with a dubious return on investment. Plus we solopreneurs are going to work harder to make sure the campaign succeeds.

Embrace your advantages, hang onto your life raft, and keep swimming toward the shore. When we eventually emerge out of this crisis and people can fly around the planet again, we’ll be much stronger than ever against the Goliaths we’ve been slaying year after year leading up to this point.

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