'Adapted overnight': How travel influencers' worlds were changed by COVID-19 pandemic

Morgan Hines, USA TODAY
·10 min read

Alvaro Rojas (@wanderreds) has visited every country in the world – a feat he finished last December. That's a lot of traveling.

Rojas, a 31-year-old from Spain, is a travel influencer by trade, But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, closed borders, canceled flights and shuttered parts of the global travel industry, his lifestyle changed with it.

"I never expected a pandemic would keep me grounded for so many months," Rojas told USA TODAY.

Traveling during a pandemic hasn't been easy for anyone. But for influencers, whose livelihoods depend on engaging an audience and attracting and keeping sponsorships and partnerships, it goes beyond wanderlust.

From March to July, Rojas was locked down at home in Madrid. He estimates he lost more than $35,400 due to projects that fell apart due to the pandemic.

"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 huge corporate event," he says. "It's those amazing new opportunities lost that hurt the most."

And Rojas is far from being the only travel influencer whose conditions of employment changed as a result of the pandemic.

Francesca Murray (@onegrloneworld) also traveled frequently before coronavirus.

"Towards the end of 2019, I was traveling almost monthly on paid campaigns and collaborations with tourism boards and hotels," she says.

Spanish travel influencer Alvaro Rojas says the pandemic has meant "fewer projects, meager marketing budgets, and a lot of travel restrictions."
Spanish travel influencer Alvaro Rojas says the pandemic has meant "fewer projects, meager marketing budgets, and a lot of travel restrictions."

Likewise, Ana Linares (@ananewyork) was traveling monthly – or twice or three times monthly – for client-sponsored projects. And Elona Karafin (@elona) was on the road every "two to three weeks."

"My lifestyle changed completely because virtually all my trips were either postponed or canceled, and the travel industry as a whole changed irreversibly," Karafin says, noting she went from being on the road consistently to being at home and having to slow down her fast-paced life.

And the losses went beyond not being able to travel: Some of Linares' contacts were furloughed, and she missed opportunities to meet new ones when networking events got canceled.

They're still traveling

Just as millions of other workers have learned to adapt to working from home while teaching their kids, influencers have also been navigating a new normal.

Rojas says he's still sharing the same kind of content on his Instagram account that he did pre-pandemic. He's still visiting new places, particularly those destinations that are off the beaten path, by taking road trips, which provide natural social distancing, and keep him off public transportation.

"I've just adapted overnight to the new circumstances," he says. "Fewer projects, meager marketing budgets, and a lot of travel restrictions. The latter has been particularly hard: most countries are completely shut to visitors, others impose hard quarantines and/or discriminate based on your nationality."

As part of his new normal, he's had to adapt to constantly changing restrictions and requirements and has been choosing destinations accordingly. He's visiting smaller towns and also prioritizing trips that allow him to get outdoors.

"I've visited countries with fewer restrictions, (that are) wide open to tourism, like the Balkans, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, or Mexico, to minimize the impact on my logistics," he says. "It's not a time to hop around several borders, but rather picking a big country and exploring it in depth."

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Karafin, who was living in New York – at one point the epicenter of the pandemic – during the onset of COVID-19 has begun to travel again as well.

"I was in Switzerland for a business trip over the summer and recently did a fall-foliage trip in upstate New York," she says, adding that she's "hoping to do a lot more domestic travel around the United States," as well as scoping out destinations that are reopening to U.S. citizens.

Like Rojas, Linares is focusing on road trips. With international travel still largely off-limits to Americans, Linares, who is based in Miami, has lined up domestic trips in the coming months, beginning with Charleston, South Carolina. She's also exploring other North American options.

"There are several destinations, including Mexico, which we can currently safely travel to," she says. "I am considering some of these destinations as an option."

She's also looking further into the future.

Linares is planning a fall 2021 group trip with her followers, with the destinations determined by the outcome of a survey about their favorite spots.

"The remainder of this year will be a good time to plan for future trips in hopes that next year will bring more options and destinations to visit for all U.S. residents," Linares says.

Murray, too, took a few road trips over the summer and stayed in hotels, she says.

They've adjusted their strategies

But the challenge for influencers goes well beyond trying to figure out how to travel.

"It's been challenging to pass from an 80% project-based income in 2019 to have almost no projects at all in 2020," Rojas says. "Fortunately, I had my book ('Stories: From My Travels to Every Country in the World'), which was meant to be more of a romantic closure on my travels to every country, but turned out to be a great success."

Not only did the book save him financially; it also taught him a lesson: "You can't put all your eggs in one basket," he says.

Part of Linares' job – apart from being an influencer – is to develop curated content for brands focused on location.

"I would typically partner with hotels for shoots or tourism boards during my travels, but the majority of my job is concentrated in shooting for lifestyle brands on location," she explains. "My clients include J.Crew, Ann Taylor, Google, Birdies among others who hire me to shoot during my trips."

They also send her product to use in her shoots. She'll receive products to shoot a catalog of photos, and 99% of the time, she keeps the swag on top of receiving payment.

These photos don't always show up on her Instagram, which she keeps "very curated."

"Luckily, my longtime clients continued working with me, and I adjusted my shoots to be home-based, and I had to get creative to recreate lifestyle moments for them," she says.

She also began posting behind-the-scenes content while shooting for clients and at-home moments.

"My audience responded very well to that because it is relevant to our current situation around the world," she says.

Like Rojas, Linares realized how important it was to diversify her business and to align herself with the "pace of things."

During the pandemic, Linares has built out her website and is in the process of opening a "print shop" to sell some of her photos. She's also working on long-term partnerships with clients so her business doesn't rely solely on travel.

But she was delighted to see that her travel-focused content has still performed well thanks to house-bound wanderers planning future trips.

"I have never seen my audience more engaged than they are now," she says. "I had incorporated more home moments that are relatable to our current circumstance with the lockdown, but to my surprise, I have grown my audience during the pandemic with many people wanting to plan for the future of travel and to have a sense of escape during the madness we are experiencing."

And things are looking up: Linares is seeing more collaboration projects and product placement work come back, especially with the holidays approaching.

Rojas and Murray also changed up their content and the frequency of their posts.

At the height of the pandemic, Rojas cut back on the number of posts he was publishing since he wasn't traveling, and occasionally substituted a throwback image in lieu of new content. He also adopted new tactics, like live chats and question-and-answer sessions on Instagram. He feels it brought him closer to his audience.

"For many of them, to see me embrace the four-monthlong confinement after years of traveling all over the world was very comforting," he says.

The pandemic was good for Murray in at least one sense: It gave her the chance to widen the scope of her content.

"I started producing more lifestyle content, and finally fulfilled my dream of incorporating beauty, natural hair and skin care content into my brand," she says. "I’ve been passionate about beauty for years, but again, I was afraid people wouldn’t be interested if it wasn’t travel-related. I was wrong."

Karafin added new kinds of content to her feed, too.

"I took many risks during the pandemic and tapped into many new dimensions," she says. "For some time, I had a Friday cooking show where I made simple delicious recipes that were easy to follow. I started a podcast and interviewed people from all over the world about their experiences with COVID-19. During the Black Lives Matter movement, I focused extensively on creating easily digestible posts about American politics and beyond."

Though she did her best to stay busy, Karafin also used the downtime to educate herself. In addition to experimenting with new content, she made time for personal growth offline, incorporating workout routines into her daily life and taking online classes including some online Ivy League courses on negotiation and other topics, according to her Instagram.

Some enjoyed newfound success

The cruise industry's worldwide shutdown didn't slow down Dario Cremona, although he did have to shut down his Instagram account, @cruiseexperience, for about three months.

The halt in operations actually proved serendipitous for Cremona: It gave him time to prepare for the launch of his new website. And he already had enough banked content to hold him over on Instagram until cruising restarted in Europe in late July. In fact, he sailed on TUI Cruises' first post-pandemic cruise.

"Since then, I have been on four cruises around Europe and had time to vlog, create new content and focus on my podcast," he says. "But even in the worse times, I had many beautiful chances to let CruiseExperience grow."

Being one of the first people to return to sea has also led led to more publicity and new deals with cruise companies that will pay him to take a cruise and up to $350 per photo to post about it.

"A big newspaper reported about me and my first post COVID-19 cruise, and I had many amazing PR possibilities and even interviews with different online magazines about my work, my recent cruises and traveling in times of COVID-19," he says.

Murray, who identifies herself on Instagram as an Afro Latina, struggled at the beginning of the pandemic, but says things have turned around – in a big way.

"It was tough in the beginning because it was a delicate time for everyone. Most budgets were on a freeze until brands could figure things out," she says. "Now business is great! If anything, I’ve had even more opportunities come my way than before the pandemic because finally brands have a new level of consciousness around diversity and inclusion."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Travel influencers are flourishing, in spite of COVID-19 pandemic