2011 might well be looked back on as the year that travel blogging broke through to firmly establish itself as a valuable and valued part of the industry.
While debate continues concerning what actually defines a blogger as opposed to a regular travel writer or journalist, there’s no doubting the strides that have been made to professionalise the sector.
This is seeing increasing numbers of suppliers, tour operators, destination management organisations and public relations agencies looking to make use of the blogosphere.
With this in mind FTI Consulting held a roundtable discussion last month following a hugely successful blog camp at World Travel Market (WTM) run by online community Travel Bloggers Unite.
Its founder Oliver Gradwell was among the participants and he fielded a series of questions about travel blogging.
In this first of two reports from the event, Gradwell’s answers offer an insight into just how far blogging has come in the last 12 months.
Lisa Donohue – People have got very different experiences of social media, but what have you done in the area that you are most proud of?
Oliver Gradwell – A year ago I walked into WTM trying to start my business. I had an idea based on following our competitors in the US, and with my experience in the industry and event management I thought that after looking at what they were planning for their events that it could be done differently.
I was working for myself at the time trying to find my space, and I decided basically to come to WTM to see what the interest was. I found nobody wanted to work with travel bloggers, nobody had any interest.
The gatekeepers – communications mangers, PRs at the stands - weren’t interested, they just didn’t want to talk to you. But we held our first conference in Manchester four months later. It started with no interest or money; just with me paying for it myself, which wasn’t very cheap.
Going from there we moved on to Innsbruck where we had our second conference, and had 104 people generating massive exposure on Twitter - 18 million Tweet impressions in two weeks which reached 400,000 people - 50 tweets per person.
The three tourist boards who covered the costs - national, regional and local DMOs - told us that the return on their £25,000 investment was 37.5:1, which for something that was just an idea in my head a year ago I was quite proud of, generating £1 million of exposure for somebody.
After that we were asked by WTM to take part, rather than us asking to take part, and we put on an event on the Tuesday which was packed out. I’m proud of what we’ve done, because I’d like to think that we have grown and pushed the industry forward in such a short time.
Ant Moore – From having the door shut in your face to it being full-on and the huge change you’ve seen at WTM, what was the turning point that really made a difference?
Oliver Gradwell - It was probably our first conference in Manchester and all the people talking about it. The North American social media bloggers started to talk about it and I didn’t expect to hear much from them, but there was quite a bit of buzz generated.
So when we had the one in Innsbruck a number of people from the US flew over - I had only been targeting European-based bloggers.
So, that was a turning point and I think Innsbruck was probably a second and bigger turning point because of what we were able to do there - the amount of comments we generated online and the interest we generated afterwards was just phenomenal.
Before agencies didn’t want to work with us, but now every agency wants to work with us and I spent four days at WTM packed with meetings.
Lee Hayhurst – What was the key performance metric for the DMOs and agencies that backed the Innsbruck conference? What was the return on investment actually measuring?
Oliver Gradwell - It was amount of advertising or potential advertising they had, and the amount of articles, the amount of videos, the amount of impressions they received. Since the conference they have been in contact with some of the top bloggers. So they are looking at how many impressions that publication might have or the amount of impressions that site may have.
Emma Shore – Is marketing budget being taken from traditional PR or advertising to be used instead on social media activity, or is it in addition because there is an appreciation of the value or the return on investment?
Oliver Gradwell - For 2012 I would say yes to both, but for 2011 it wasn't really being budgeted for. Jordan tourist board came to our conference in Innsbruck and asked us to hold our conference in Jordan, because 2012 is the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of Petra.
I can’t tell you the exact amount but it's more than three times the budget for Innsbruck. I would say there is a small impact rather than a large impact because it’s not just across PR and marketing budgets; it affects their meetings and incentives budgets as well.
Victoria Bacon - Where do bloggers sit on the scale of professional journalism? Are they amateur writers?
Oliver Gradwell - What we’re trying to do as a company is promote professionalism, to make people entrepreneurs or businessmen, and as business people you’ve got to do the work for yourself.
A lot of travel bloggers, especially the main ones, are just people who are very good on social and decided to travel for a couple of years after university or in between jobs. There are people from all walks of life.
We have a qualified surgeon and I have just taken on one who is a pharmacist. All of the ones who are starting to make it are the ones that take it seriously or are people who have put in a tremendous amount of time. If there was to be working time directive for bloggers I guarantee every single one of them would absolutely blast through it.
The majority are people who just picked up a laptop, set up a very basic site, started selling text links and writing articles. The bloggers I work with are people who I know are very good.
Some of the criticisms come from people who have never met these bloggers. I don’t know a single blogger that would write what a PR person tells them to. Those who have been on trips always disclose that openly now because the professionalism has shot up. It’s all about people, the readers must trust them.
Emma Shore – How do you measure the success of a campaign? For people who need to justify spend or resource on social media there is that question about how do you come up with potential deliverables at the beginning of the campaign and how do you actual measure that at the end. I don’t know of anyone who’s come up with a solution to that yet.
Oliver Gradwell – Keith Jenkins (travel blogger) went to Alaska on a cruise and he wrote about it and published a few photos when he came back.
A few months later he got an email from a writer who had been on that same cruise who was interviewing people and it just so happened that three people were on that cruise as a direct result of that article.
That is valuable, hugely valuable, but how on earth can you track that? That’s just as valuable as affiliate links.
You can’t fully rely on tools that try to determine the influence of bloggers. I had a quick play on sysomos and I wasn’t that impressed. I used my conference and my hashtags as a benchmark knowing exactly how many blog posts how may hashtags going back six months and it wasn’t very accurate.