Overconsumption and throw-away culture are endemic to our society. We know that addressing this two-pronged issue is essential, so I wasn’t surprised to learn about the TikTok de-influencing trend (and its sister, the anti-haul trend on YouTube).
Essentially, fashion and beauty influencers, who have made their living by promoting an incredible amount of stuff, are encouraging people to rethink the need to consume more products. They aren’t saying that people should never buy clothing or make-up, but that they think about how to use what they already have and be more intentional when buying.
With this in mind, I was asked to comment on what I think de-influencing would look like in the tourism context.
The truth is that convincing people not to travel is a hard sell. They are eager to travel after being forced to hold still for so long. There are lots of good reasons for people to travel and it is possible to have a positive impact when traveling — not to mention the fact that countless destinations and small businesses rely on it. Plus, specifically encouraging people not to travel to certain places or using alarmist language can have the opposite effect by triggering a loss aversion response.
This isn’t to say the intention behind de-influencing isn’t worth considering. Certainly the tourism industry needs to seriously adopt degrowth strategies to mitigate aviation’s carbon emissions, reduce overcrowding, protect natural wilderness areas and cultural heritage sites, and prioritize local communities’ needs and desires.
The question, then, isn’t how influencers can get people to stop traveling, but how can they encourage people to travel more mindfully, responsibly, and intentionally?
To answer this question, we need to look beyond influencers and turn our attention to the system that supports their work. And within that system is the press trip (also known as media trips or FAMs).
Press trips are trips whereby travel influencers (and other travel content creators) are invited for a quick trip to learn about and experience a place paid for by sponsoring destinations or tour operators. Invited influencers are vetted based on criteria established by the host(s), though this criteria is often tied to reach, exposure, and other quantitative analytics. Several influencers usually participate in a press trip at the same time, and on the trip, their job is to create attractive content and promote the destination or tour to followers.
Without going any further, it’s obvious there are several red flags tied to current press trip practices:
- Influencers are often “fly-by” content creators who aren’t from the local area. They receive a highly curated and brief overview of a place as defined by the hosts.
- Because they don’t live locally, influencers often fly in and out of destinations, and they don’t stay beyond the press trip. Aviation has a high environmental footprint and influencers go on several trips a year, which produces an excessive amount of carbon emissions.
- Influencers’ qualifications are often number-based. This fails to consider the qualitative impacts of influence.
- Because several influencers and content creators participate in press trips to the same places at the same time, this can result in a surge of content about a specific destination (and why it seems like “everyone is traveling to XYZ right now”). Influence works — which means a place can become overcrowded quickly as people follow in the footsteps of their favorite travel influencers.
- The desired content is “attractive,” which means it’s easy to create and comfortable to digest. It is often surface-level, isn’t controversial, and doesn’t encourage critical thinking.
- Because press trips are fully hosted (meaning influencers don’t have to pay anything, and sometimes they are paid to participate), they are hesitant to bring up anything that deviates from the desired press trip stories. No one wants to be placed on the rhetorical PR blacklist.
The tourism industry needs to acknowledge the following: People are going to travel. Influencers and content creators are legitimately influential. And the present-day press trip is riddled with problematic issues.
Therefore, contextualizing the de-influencing trend in this space requires (among other things) rethinking and hosting better press trips. Press trips are due for radical reimagination, so the opportunities of what this looks like are limitless. Here are a few ideas for sponsoring hosts.
Make the journey part of the experience.
Influencers spend countless hours flying to and from destinations, and all of these hours tend to be a “throw away” part of the trip — unless, of course, flying first-class is part of the experience. Currently, this is the way influencers reach the destination, but the journey could become part of the experience.
Think of the press trip as something that starts when influencers step out their front doors, and make the journey part of the experience. A great example of this is Malmö Tourism (Sweden) and its Make It Malmö program, which partnered with buses and ferries to launch a flight-free influencer campaign. Influencers were asked to document their journey as well as the destination as part of the campaign.
The campaign was supposed to run through 2020, and I imagine it was disrupted by the pandemic. I haven’t been able to get any additional information about the Make It Malmö campaign despite repeated attempts, but the model is still very applicable to the present day.
Build a social component into influencer campaigns.
If influencers can promote destinations, businesses, and products, why can’t they promote social good campaigns as well? Instead of encouraging influencers to tip back a beautiful cocktail by the beach, create a campaign that encourages them to leave a positive impact on that beach.
Many influencer campaigns are tied to a hashtag so hosts can measure the reach of those campaigns. In addition to traditional destination hashtags, create an tag like #CleanCaliforniasBeaches (which I made up) tied to a beach clean-up or similar social impact activity influencers participate in on the trip.
Don’t stop at the hashtag: Give influencers talking points and access to people working on this issue so they can build a story around the activity. And get travelers involved: Set a goal for the campaign beyond reach of the hashtag. Can visitors help clean up five tons of garbage over the course of the summer, led by the influencers who support the campaign?
Rethink the need to give out swag — or tie it into the campaign story.
It is common to give influencers branded swag on press trips. There’s no good reason for this, especially in the age of overconsumption. They are inundated with branded mugs, notebooks, and pens — and none of this is relevant to the destination’s story.
This isn’t to say hosts should never give gifts to their guests, but if it feels necessary, then make it highly intentional and worthy of a sharing. Don’t offer something and then walk away. Instead, offer something locally made, and introduce the maker to the influencer. Or, build a hands-on, active learning activity like a cooking class into the itinerary, and then gift a specialty food item from the experience.
This intentionality has a three-fold benefit: Influencers feel a connection to the gift, there is a story and something meaningful to share about the gift, and local makers and business owners benefit from the potential amplification of that story.
Make sustainability a natural part of press trips.
Hosts have a responsibility to conduct trips in the most ethical manner possible. This means using public transportation when possible, emphasizing plant-based meals, serving tap water at meals, and staying in locally owned accommodations. In other words, model the behavior you expect influencers and potential travelers to exhibit.
The pinnacle of this point is that influencers should not be entitled to anything, especially at the expense of local people. This may sound surprising, but I have encountered a staggering number of influencers and content creators who have demanded unrealistic accommodations and inappropriate access because of their jobs. This is not okay.
There is an uneven balance of power in relationships with influencers, because they can unlock incredible financial opportunities for hosts and their local partners. That doesn’t mean influencers should have the right to do anything they please. They must be respectful to and mindful of local residents, the community, and the environment, and hosts need to make this very clear in early communication with influencers.
Seek out influencers interested in degrowth and mindful travel.
Look beyond the numbers to find influencers who are actively interested in promoting responsible travel practices. These people may not have the most curated feeds or expansive following, but they are actively engaged in conversation with their followers and they aren’t afraid to wade into the complexity of people, places, and the planet.
UnTours, a leader in responsible travel and the world’s first B Corp, recently launched the UnTours Media Network, which will include a group of UnFluencers. According to the company’s announcement about the program, “The travel industry and the travel media industry has become infatuated with the staged visuals. … UnFluencers are UnAligned with what we’re seeing from travel media and social media personalities — leading us to launch a new media initiative among like-minded content creators who are the UnFluencers.”
The program will feature exclusive press trips with preference given to people located close to the destination so they don’t have to fly. Beyond that, the initial UnFluencers will help shape the program, so it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.
All that said, we need to normalize responsible, sustainable travel for everyone, so the presentation of press trips is just as important as the people participating in it.
Encourage more open and honest storytelling.
As UnTours noted, influence has largely focused on staged visuals. This might be what looks nice on an Instagram feed, but it is disingenuous and willfully ignorant to believe travel lives in a bubble.
We live in a tumultuous and messy world. We also live in a beautifully nuanced and complex world. Tourism hosts must acknowledge the reality of the places influencers visit and not only allow but encourage them to explore this complexity in their storytelling. Content creators need to become more transparent in their work, and the tourism industry needs to hold them accountable for their actions.
And let’s face it: While there are still a lot of travel influencers who fall back on the status quo, the world is quickly evolving and influencers can help drive the conversations and actions of where we go from here. The de-influencing trend might be a good fit for some industries, but in tourism, now is the time to take that one step further and reimagine how we work with influencers in the first place.