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'They didn't even know the capital of the country we were in' – the truth about travel influencers

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 08/11/2018 Simon Parker

Getty © Getty Getty

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to watch my plate of piping hot pancakes be nudged and bumped around a dining table before my temper would begin to flare. For the first minute I simply watched on bemused and entertained, as cappuccinos and avocados mashed on toast were carefully stage-managed beside my breakfast. By minute two, the maple syrup upon the fluffy buttermilk had oozed in, losing that delicious tasting sheen – but nevertheless, my Instagram-obsessed fellow diner was getting some “fab shots” and come on, eating food is so overrated when it looks so downright pretty.

             

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I made it roughly four minutes before I snatched back my plate and plunged a forkful of blueberry-infused golden batter into my gob, rendering the dish useless – aesthetically, at least. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a press trip with an “influencer”. The new kids on the travel content block, mingling with us fuddy-duddy travel writers from our respective dying “traditional” media outlets.   

I’m both fascinated and perplexed by this mushrooming sub-culture, and snobbery or vitriol are certainly not my intentions. Travelling in the name of “work” is nothing short of a privilege and kudos to anyone who makes that happen. My gripe with influencers, however, has always been with the lack of authenticity in their output, having now encountered a good handful over the years. From what I’ve seen and heard, much of it is an utter sham.

Getty © Getty Getty

Take, for example, the “travel and fitness blogger” with over a hundred thousand followers I once spotted in a hotel gym posing with free weights and machines, before posting a largely fictitious account of their workout. I was once also on a press trip in which an attendee solely ordered food based on its colour scheme. Once snapped, hardly any of the dishes got touched, just thrown away. Their bio also said they were “plant-based” but I’m pretty sure filet mignon doesn’t quite fall into that category.

“Everyone with a mobile phone thinks they’re an influencer these days,” I was told earlier this year by the communications manager of a hotel. “I get around 10 emails a day from people asking for free holidays in exchange for posting a few photos online. Some are very professional and have the Google Analytics to prove their credentials, but most have dodgy numbers that are hard to stand up. Even if they do have millions of followers, though, it’s impossible to know if that will result in sales.”

One of the standout findings from the World Travel Market’s annual survey released this week echoed that sentiment – revealing that despite having millions of followers on social media, “influencers” may not actually have much influence in the travel industry. 78 per cent of British travellers said that their holiday choices weren’t swayed by the content they see on platforms like Instagram. In fact, just three per cent of the 1,025 sample said they’d look to digital influencers before booking their travels. As old hat, antiquated travel writers, hopefully we can breathe a collective sigh of relief – for the time being, at least.

Inca site Machu Picchu. (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images) © Getty Inca site Machu Picchu. (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images)

Everyone in the travel industry has something to say on influencers these days – It’s a hot topic. Not least the hotel managers and PR firms being bombarded by them daily. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a 15-year-old makeup blogger with half a million followers, we don’t share the same core target audience,” I was told by a friend working for a luxury hotel brand.  

“Generally speaking, young audiences don’t have the means to visit the places they see on Instagram. So it doesn’t have any value to us, it’s just a jolly for that person. I was once shouted at down the phone by someone with 500 Instagram followers because I wouldn’t let them have a free night in a hotel.”

Travel journalists have long been criticised for sugar-coating, occasionally leaving out the dinge and desolation in order to “sell” a destination, but what some influencers are up to has pushed that to a whole new, and very concerning, level. And as visually attractive as their meticulously airbrushed depictions of our planet may be, this rapidly burgeoning industry must, surely, be scrutinised. If it’s to be taken as seriously as the mainstream media it’s now up against, there needs to be tighter regulation.  

Getty © Getty Getty

It’s annoying being asked to do the occasional rewrite, but that’s what makes it journalism – the editorial process involving several pairs of fact-checking eyes. Influencer output, however – with increasingly massive audiences – doesn’t have any of that and while those glossy images may attract the most likes, they’re doing us very few favours. There are pockets of beauty and isolation left, but they’re disappearing fast. Instagram, meanwhile, paints an ever-rosy picture that is wholly incorrect.

I’ve seen Instagram-hungry yogis at Machu Picchu holding back the crowds to give the impression of the place being empty. I once went on a trip with an influencer who had an extra suitcase solely for branded clothing – but I recall them not even knowing the capital city of the country we were in... in Western Europe! As itinerant journalists, perhaps we should be calling these people out online with a #factcheck or #influencernonsense? This is, after all, becoming many people’s principle window on the world.

Granted, now I’m drifting into the snobbery I said I’d avoid, but great swathes of the planet are largely ignored by this industry to our collective detriment. I’d even go as far to say that some influencers, with their vast online followings, are committing false advertising on such a grand global scale that it would be an open and shut case in any court of law. The majority of content isn’t a celebration of the destination, its people, sights and sounds – but glossy canvases on which to narcissistically flaunt sponsored swimsuits, sunglasses and veneers.

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