In a world without travel, Instagram influencers struggle to adjust

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Influencers are frequently derided for turning travel into a spectator sport, and are often seen as frivolous, sycophantic, and superficial. But travelling to cover events as a journalist, I have watched influencers work — and it is work, performed with seriousness and care. It’s not exactly an essential service, and given the havoc COVID has wreaked on the economy, no one is mourning that Instagrammers can’t gallivant in the surf and sun. Without travel, though, there are no travel influencers. And that’s meant for many people a steady, lucrative career has had to drastically change.

As brand partnerships gradually ramp up again, the brands themselves are more sensitive — more “cognizant of our new reality,” Hwang says, as they adjust to a post-COVID world. “In our contracts now there are lots of disclaimers: don’t have lots of people in the photo with the product, make sure you’re shooting at home, or if you’re at a park, make sure you’re wearing a mask or social distancing.” Hwang believes they’re cautious about the wrong associations. “They’ve definitely padded up their contracts to ensure that our content isn’t giving off the wrong message to our audience.”

Travel, of course, will return to something like normal, perhaps sooner than expected. And for influencers such as Jeremiah Charles, that could mean a new kind of travel influencing. “I think they’re going to need content creators to show not just how great a hotel room is, but how clean it is, how safe it is, how things are being handled. Here’s how dining looks. Here’s how in-room dining looks. They can’t do any better than to have an influencer come in and say, ‘Here’s what I was worried about, and this is what brands are doing about it.’” In the near future, expect to see a lot of branded content meant to reassure, he says. “We would kind of be the guinea pigs for travel.”

Jeremiah foresees a “whole new layer” to his influence: where it “used to be about what’s a good spot to eat,” he says, it’ll soon be “that plus whether it’s safe and following guidelines.” It’s this precautionary element that Hwang worries about. “Some tourism boards have already reached out to tell us the borders are open and asking us to travel to see them,” she says. “But we’ve declined. If we’re off travelling when the government still says it isn’t safe to, what kind of message does that send to our followers? We have to be careful. We don’t want to subconsciously affect their thinking.”

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