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Are Influencers Influencing Where Young People Travel?

Even without hard sales numbers, hospitality groups say hosting social media-savvy guests is an essential part of marketing to today's travelers.

I've never been to Bali, but if you needed me to, I could rattle off a full vacation itinerary at a moment's notice: the Ubud jungle swing, the infinity pools at the COMO Shambhala Estate, the treetop villas at Kamandalu. Going to Marrakesh? La Mamounia's lavishly tiled alcoves, the supersaturated colors of Jardin Majorelle and the carpet souk are not to be missed.

Now, mind you, I only know of these places through my Instagram feed, but they're such a frequent backdrop on influencers' photos that sometimes, that's easy to forget — especially when it seems like certain destinations are reaching Balenciaga Triple S-levels of trendiness.

Follow a few top style bloggers or Instagirl-models, and you'll start to notice the patterns: First, the pastel cliffs of the Amalfi Coast (particularly those of Positano), then the sun-bleached beaches of Ibiza and the bright-blue skies and roofs of Santorini. Even an ultra-exclusive, $2,000-per-night resort nestled in the Utah desert can start to feel like it's in your feed every other week. (Seriously, when did everyone start staying at Amangiri?) Under each post, dozens, if not hundreds of commenters tag their friends and leave heart-eye emojis: "How soon are we going here?!"; "Adding this to the bucket list"; "BRB, booking flights!!"

The enthusiasm is obvious, but what's less clear is how many of these fans actually follow through. While tools like and Instagram Stories's swipe-up function make it relatively easy to track the fashion and beauty items followers are shopping from influencers' posts — as young shoppers prefer to buy pieces after seeing them worn in context — the process for travel is significantly less straightforward. After all, most people aren't impulse-buying flights and accommodation on a late-night trawl through Instagram like they might a new Reformation dress or a pair of Le Specs statement sunglasses.

"It's a completely different customer journey from discovery to booking, compared to retail which can be an immediate discovery-to-purchase path," says Ann Marie Noell, influencer relations manager at luxury hotel club Mr. & Mrs. Smith. "Influencers at the moment serve as a top-of-the-funnel 'discovery' tool for us, as the path to purchase can take months when people are booking a trip."

To get in front of potential members and followers, the company works with popular Instagrammers to cover accommodation in hopes that they will post and blog about their stay — a fairly common arrangement that many hotels have offered to press for decades. It has also begun venturing into "influencer-led experiences," like a storytelling workshop with Atelier Doré in El Fenn in Marrakech. At $2,750 per person, the trip sold out months in advance, and led to a spike in bookings at the hotel; Noell says they plan to roll out experiences with a "wide array of tastemakers in the lifestyle industry" in 2018.

Absent such special events, other hospitality groups say they take a mostly qualitative approach to measuring the impact of influencers on their business, though even without hard numbers, they say it's an essential part of marketing to today's travelers. (Some hotels reportedly require comped influencers meet an agreed-upon quota of Instagram posts, Stories and other content over the course of their stay.) "Having them come down, [giving them] an incredible experience, having them share their experience through their reach is critical for us as we tell our story," says Adam Zilber, general manager of the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, which has hosted bloggers like Aimee Song, Andy Heart, and Simply Cyn. "As I like to tell my team, it's the old saying: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it fall, does it make any noise?" Or, to put it in 2018 terms: If you go on a vacation and don't 'gram it, did it even happen?

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Not only can an influencer's posts potentially inspire their own followers, they also often provide a steady stream of content for hotels, home-sharing apps and airlines to use in their feeds in place of impersonal marketing images. (Nicole Warne of Gary Pepper Girl signed on as the official digital consultant to Qantas in 2015.)

These days, says Zilber, travelers need to see something that feels "less structured, less corporate, more organic," and Instagram is one of the first places they look.

There's data to back this up, too: According to MMGY Global's 2017 Portrait of American Travelers, more than a third of travelers reported choosing a destination based partially or primarily on social media research, and 58 percent of millennial travelers documented their trips on social themselves.

This ripple effect might help explain how certain cities go from under-the-radar to suddenly-everywhere with seemingly little promotion. Take Lisbon, Portugal, which less than a decade ago was in the midst of a financial crisis that nearly crippled its economy. Since then, it's become a hotspot for foreigners, with tourism climbing to new record highs every year since 2011. According to Airbnb's 2018 Travel Trends report, the coastal capital — where, per MyDomaine, "every tastemaker" vacationed this past summer — landed in the 10th spot among the most-booked cities in the world, behind obvious contenders like New York City and Paris. (Mykonos, another oft-Instagrammed destination, also earned a call-out with a 173 percent increase in bookings for the first half of the year compared to 2017.)

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Within the hospitality industry, the growing role of digital is shifting the priorities for some. Ibiza's councillor for tourism, Vicente Torres, says that influencers and Instagram are playing a bigger and bigger role in promoting the country, sometimes surpassing traditional advertising in terms of impact due to the reach and engagement that comes with loyal followers. The hope, however, is that they promote the low season in winter and spring, since the island is already struggling to keep up with the influx of tourists during the summer. In fact, in early February, Ibiza announced a ban on Airbnb and other short-term rentals, saying that some locals and seasonal workers were forced to sleep in their cars because they could not find a space to lease. "The relatively recent arrival of online platforms has already created an unsustainable situation," Torres told Spanish paper El Confidencial.

The news may come as a blow to anyone hoping to recreate this past June's #FWRDtravels trip, which flooded millions of feeds with snaps of top-tier influencers (plus one editor) lounging on the outrageously luxurious deck of a private villa on the island. The trip followed a similar formula to the one parent company Revolve has perfected with its #RevolveAroundTheWorld series — picture-perfect backdrops in exotic locales like Thailand, Turks and Caicos, Peru and Croatia, designer clothes, a gaggle of bloggers with seven-figure followings — with the exception of pricier wardrobes, courtesy of the company's luxury online boutique, Forward by Elyse Walker.

"Travel encompasses the aspirational essence of both the brands," says Chief Brand Officer Raissa Gerona, adding that the content always resonates with fans. "As long as they keep liking (literally), we'll keep traveling." Whether that still holds true on the next trip remains to be seen: Revolve came under fire on social media in January after commenters called out the lack of racial and size diversity in its campaigns, particularly among the inner circle of influencers it regularly features on Instagram. But it seems unlikely, at least, that it will stray too far from the strategy that's put it on track to break $1 billion in sales this year, per WWD.

As the average consumer spends less of their income on apparel and more on experiences and technology, it makes perfect sense to set an outfit against an exotic locale that might well draw fans in faster than any crop top could on its own. The business of being an influencer is built on aspiration, and as headline after headline tells us, millennials today put more stock in doing cool stuff than in owning it.

For personal style bloggers, fashion and travel have long gone hand-in-hand, and few understand this better than Sara Escudero of Collage Vintage, whose feed circles the globe a few times over, to the delight of her million-plus followers. For every comment about a bag or a dress, there's another about the backdrop, and Escudero says she constantly gets DMs and emails asking for recommendations from fans who have booked trips to destinations she's posted about. 

The most engagement she's seen, she says, came from her trip to Cinque Terre, Italy this past summer — unsurprising, since "the beaches are so colorful and the villages are breathtaking." Unfortunately, the same factors have brought the UNESCO World Heritage sites and ruins in the city to the brink of overcrowding in the summer, leading the president to cap tourism to 1.5 million people per year in 2016, a full million fewer than it saw the year prior.

And much like within the fashion industry, certain hospitality businesses are still resistant to change and adapt to the ways the younger generations operate: One blogger named Elle Darby recently requested a free hotel room in Dublin in exchange for social media promotion, only to be publicly dragged and exposed on Facebook by the property’s owner, Paul Stenson. He quickly realized the error of his ways when his comments spread around the online travel community — angering influential bloggers in the process. 

"If each one of you is pissed off … there is a fair chance that you will all speak badly to your followers about us, which will result in a huge number of people hearing about our brand collectively,” wrote Stenson, making a point to thank Darby and her peers and asking them to “continue to spread the word about [his] business.” While Darby's commonplace request may have seemed entitled, it was essentially a pitch for some modern, youth-targeted advertising, and Stenson likely learned the hard way not to bite the millennial or Gen-Z hand that feeds him.

For all the Instagram hive-mind can do for a city's economy, it isn't without its drawbacks.

Homepage photo: Influencers Camila Coelho and Aimee Song attend the Tibi front row during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Pier 17 on February 11, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mireya Acierto/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week: The Shows)

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