Instagram travel influencers Damon and Jo. Photo by Maxi Kuzlin.
Instagram travel influencers Damon and Jo. Photo by Maxi Kuzlin.

WATCH: What does it take to be a travel influencer?

By Elizabeth Chang Time of article published Jan 5, 2020

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A few years ago, several forces - the internet, the global population's increasing desire and ability to tour other parts of the world, and capitalism - came together to create a new kind of social media star: the travel influencer.

These intrepid wayfarers started out posting gorgeous images from popular or remote destinations to the internet, particularly Instagram, attracting legions of fans who wanted to follow in their jet streams. 

Tourism-related brands quickly recognized the advertising potential of such images and began offering top Instagrammers payment or comped visits in return for social media promotion, allowing some "content creators" to leverage their talent and followers into full-time gigs.

We reached out to a variety of influencers active on Instagram to learn more about why and how they got into the field and how they work. Below, you'll find examples of their content and their responses to some of our emailed questions. 

Damon Dominique and Jo Franco

@damonandjo

176,000 followers

Damon Dominique and Jo Franco, both 27, have been traveling and posting to social media since about 2012, when they were studying abroad in Paris. "At first, it became a way to share our experiences with our friends and family, then it quickly turned into a passion, and then we asked ourselves: Why has there never been a travel show about young people traveling?" they wrote. "After that point, we were determined to change the travel space." After a few years of working odd jobs to have the time and money to travel, they both went full time with their YouTube channel and their travel company, Shut Up and Go, in the summer of 2015. They post daily to Instagram on their shared account, their personal accounts and their company account. They also make money through projects such as clothing and e-books and, coming soon, a card game and language courses.

Q: What was your most successful post, and why?

A: Any photo where the editing is so blatantly obvious performs the best on our Instagrams (for example, a photo where we photoshopped our butts to look unnaturally large . . . in front of the Eiffel Tower). It's not for everyone, but we found it funny, and so did our audience. Travel content, for the most part, is very cookie-cutter and frankly, predictable and often, downright boring. Our generation doesn't want that - it's been seen way too many times. Seeing two friends goofing off in front of the Eiffel Tower is much more relatable and strikes this idea in their minds that "Hey, maybe I can do that too!" That's the goal behind the enlarged booty pics - we're promoting experiences and memories, not pretty places to take pictures in front of.

Q: What is your dream vacation?

A: It's difficult to travel to a new city or country and not feel like we have to document the process. If we find out something interesting about the culture, our first instinct is to share it. That being said, because we have already visited Thailand or Mexico, we could safely say we could go there and not feel the need to "work." We always say we have the best job, because our job is to literally laugh and have fun . . . but that's not to forget the "job" part. Someone has to plan the video, find the cool spots, edit the video and hope that it performs well on the internet. Additionally, there's an entire business side of being an "influencer" most people disregard completely like answering emails, doing taxes, hiring freelancers, managing different projects like the development of products, etc. Creating is fun, but when the camera is on you, it's a modified form of fun.

Instagram travel influencers Pete and Dalene Heck. Photo by Jaime Vedres.


Pete and Dalene Heck

@hecktictravels

28,900 followers

Pete and Dalene Heck, 41 and 43, have been at this a long time. The couple, based in Alberta, Canada, quit their jobs as a financial controller and sourcing manager in 2008, sold their possessions, and set off on a nomadic journey. At first they wrote on blogspot.com, then, in 2011, they began to blog at HeckticTravels.com and to post to social media. In 2014, they founded an influencer marketing company that has become their primary job. In 2016, their journey was interrupted when Dalene was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. "It was an intense battle, and in the beginning, I was very public about it. Doing so brought me tremendous support from our followers and influencer community, but since then, we have both turned a little inward," Dalene wrote. "Now that I have overcome the illness and I am regaining my stamina, we are beginning to travel more again, and will likely also share more, albeit at a slower pace."

Q: What is your dream vacation?

A: The Northwest Passage. As kids growing up in northern Canada, both of us had always dreamed of living farther south among palm trees, but once our life's travels allowed us to do that, we actually realized how Canadian we are. We missed our rugged landscapes and snow.

Q: Why did you become travel influencers?

A: We were posting about our travels far before anyone started using the word "influencer," and we did so purely because we wanted to share our stories as we embarked on a nomadic lifestyle that took us around the world for eight years. Of course, it all evolved into something much more than that, and we're grateful that this craziness has given us successful businesses and a beautiful life. But we never could have imagined this all when we started, which I think is very different from why people start today.

Instagram travel influencer Wendy Hu. Photo by Jeff Song.

Wendy Hu

@NomadicFare

61,600 followers

Wendy Hu's influencer life grew out of her career as a creative director and travel photographer. After years of working with agencies in New York, the now-34-year-old American was ready to move on, she told us. So, in 2016, she quit her agency job and bought a one-way ticket to Paris as the starting point for her initial three-month travel sabbatical. "I knew I needed structure and wanted to continue developing my photography voice, so I created an Instagram account and a blog," she wrote. "I vowed to post one original, creative photo each day to hopefully inspire others to dream big and take chances," she wrote. Less than a year in, after her photography began to draw the attention of tourism boards and travel brands, "I knew it could be possible to turn this into a career." She now posts a mix of stories and videos a few times a week. She spends time off the road in New York, Los Angeles and Taipei, Taiwan.

Q: What was your most successful post, and why?

A: Sometimes a post surprises me and does really well in terms of numbers, but maybe it's not my favorite photo. Other times I take a really artistic and creative image and write a thoughtful comment, and it doesn't get as much engagement. (Could be because of the algorithm, timing, or it's too artsy and not as mainstream.)

Some photos that I'm really proud of are ones where I've put my own spin on a familiar location, that tell a story, require extra effort to "get the shot" and promote my clients in a natural way. Two posts that stand out: Over the winter, I took a self-portrait as part of Canon's #ShootForGreatness campaign. The challenge was about perspective, so I shot it at Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan's Central Park with its symmetrical columns and ceilings. Another image was taken at the Taj Mahal while on assignment with G Adventures. Whenever I'm shooting in a familiar location, my goal is always to see it with fresh eyes and make it my own through my capture and edit.

Q: How do you try to stand out from the crowd?

A: While I'm passionate about getting off the beaten track to find hidden wonders, incredible scenery, and truly experience a culture or destination, just as important for me is being a responsible traveler. I practice sustainable travel as much as possible through supporting local communities, caring for the environment and being diligent about my day-to-day decisions. I try to reflect that in the places I visit, the companies I promote and the stories I share. My goal is to inspire others to do the same - drawing like-minded people together and connecting with my audience on a deeper level.

Oneika Raymond

@oneikatraveller

80,400 followers

Oneika Raymond, 36, is a Canadian based in New York when she's not traveling. "I have had a deep passion for travel, culture and language from a young age," she says. She grew up in multicultural Toronto and, as the child of Jamaican immigrants, traveled often to the Caribbean to visit family. She worked and studied in France, then became a serial expat as an international educator, also living in Mexico, England and Hong Kong. She started her first blog in 2005 as a hobby and in 2016, "I was able to pursue a career as a travel host, journalist and influencer full time." She posts at least three times a week on Instagram.

Q: What moments do you choose not to share?

A: While I'm mostly an open book, I typically refrain from sharing photos of the people I meet on my travels unless they are public figures and/or have given explicit consent. I refuse to show people in an undignified light on my feeds, particularly when they are already part of marginalized, disenfranchised or disadvantaged groups. I also refuse to show "slum tourism" or glorify saviourism on my travel feeds. I generally refrain from sharing images of children.

Q: How do you try to stand out from the crowd?

A: I am transparent and honest in my travel musings and often explore topics and issues in the travel space that are uncomfortable, controversial and sometimes incendiary. I post often about race and privilege and encourage my audience to examine their behavior, interactions and ideas about the world. I engage my audience in discussions and hopefully lead them to understanding themselves and the world around them better and more compassionately.

Shivya Nath

@shivya

78,800 followers

Shivya Nath, 31, who has been posting to social media since 2011 and traveling full time since 2013, hopes to encourage her audience to follow her lead in slow, solo and sustainable travel. A native of India, she worked with the Singapore Tourism Board and, after quitting that job, has been a freelance travel writer, co-founded and sold a responsible travel company (India Untravelled), and written a book about her adventures, "The Shooting Star." She blogs at the Shooting Star and posts three to four times a week to Instagram, focusing on telling stories in her captions. "I sometimes have to edit my captions to not exceed the 2,200-characters word limit - which might seem contrary to most Instagram wisdom out there but seems to work quite well for my travel style and my audience."

Q: What moments do you choose not to share?

A: Given that many places around the world are struggling with overtourism and irresponsible travel, I'm cautious about geotagging spots that are still genuine and pristine yet have the potential to become an "Instagram phenomenon." Over the years, I've also moved from 'instant gramming' to 'later grams.' That means I try to take the time to experience a place or build a real connection before choosing to share it online.

Q: Why did you become a travel influencer:

A: I cringe at being called an "influencer," but I began to write about my travels seriously when I first started traveling solo in India in 2011. There was (and still is) a lot of fear surrounding solo travel, especially in India and especially as an Indian woman. Yet I was having some of my most heartwarming experiences as a solo woman exploring remote, rural parts of my own country. I felt like these positive stories needed to be told, and that I enjoyed traveling, writing, blogging and social media enough to be able to tell them.

The Washington Post

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