Is a Social Media Influencer a Friend, Competitor or Business Partner?

There is a new and untapped market for group stays. It is called social influencer travel. Yes, the social media influencer whose connections started virtually is now taking those relationships off social media platforms into the real world — the world of travel. They are planning group excursions related to their subject matter expertise and they are creating experiences that appeal to their constituents, particularly Millennials.

This market has naturally evolved from the early days of social media engagement where individuals, ranging from celebrities to everyday people, began experimenting with the new platforms and succeeded in becoming magnets for friends, fans and followers. Their voices, points of view, whereabouts, images and opinions attracted the like-minded, who shared posts with other like-minded connections. Their numbers and Klout scores grew, and they became acknowledged by others, and recognized themselves, as influencers.

The early days of social media were met with trepidation by many in the hotel industry who, based on content posted by others, recognized that the ability to control their brand — whether flagged or independent — could be slipping through their fingers.

Early influencers could appear to be friends to hotels — posting positive reviews enhanced with Emoji love. If the experience was less than perfect — or, worse, a perfect disaster — negativity could go viral, causing damage to the brand and setting up an adversarial relationship — influencer as foe.

Today, reported hotel experiences still run the gamut in social media, but, fortunately, best practices have been put into place. Typically, a critical review or comment can be quickly taken off line for mediation and resolution. The niggling negativity needn’t go viral when a hotel “misses” in satisfying a guest.

Travel Influencers Take Off

Throughout the current decade, travel industry influencers have evolved as a distinct market segment. They have gained confidence, flexing their muscles not only for complimentary hotel rooms and transportation, but for more. Some will negotiate payment for a certain number of positive posts on their social sites or to “take over” a hotel’s social media account(s) for a specified period.

As the genre has matured, most travel influencers have continued to work solo, gaining stature organically, and, in some cases, adding paid marketing to their business growth strategy. Others are helped by recognition from media such as Forbes, which recently provided a list of Top Travel Influencers. Digital sites collect, collate and rate travel influencers, including The Expeditioner, a consumer site that aggregates high-quality travel content and which updates The Top 50 Travel Blogs on a quarterly basis. And some influencers join networks, such as Professional Travel Bloggers Association, where they can avail themselves of educational opportunities, networking events and best practices, while accumulating business savvy geared to helping them monetize their work.

Today, the importance of influencers in social media has evolved to the point that fans and followers are not only going where they go, or where they say to go, but they are even taking trips organized by them.

So perhaps the time has come where hoteliers may be able to answer the often-asked question: “What is the return on investing time and money on social media?” Those influencers may become guests, bringing others — lots of others — with them.

Let’s look at current insights that may aid hotels in tapping into what is becoming its own distinct market segment.

Traveling with Influencers, a Millennial Thing

The new world of influencer travel is being led by fitness and wellness experts, active in social media, who have found a large new market in the Millennial generation.

In a compelling study recently conducted by Well+Good, the digital lifestyle and news publication that is devoted to the wellness scene (with a monthly following of 5.5 million people), a snapshot of a very discerning Millennial traveler emerged. The study was curious to understand this market segment’s disposition toward spas and spa-oriented vacations. What Well+Good learned through the study, and engagement with its readers, is that Millennials are traveling, planning trips, and, in many cases, opting to book custom experiences that have been organized by their favorite social media influencers. These travelers are definite about their preferences and how they choose to spend their time.

Study results and analysis revealed by Well+Good co-founders Alexia Brue and Melisse Gelula at the Global Wellness Summit last fall underscored what seems to be guiding Millennial travel decisions:

  • They already have the tools to lead a “well” life. They incorporate into their daily routine fitness studios, juice places, healthy food choices, fitness technology, meditation apps, and more. They are attracted to more than 800 lifestyle brands, many of which are less than 10 years old. They don’t “need” a spa to jump-start healthy lifestyle habits as older generations may.
  • 91% of Millennials surveyed have not yet been to a spa, yet they are “accomplished leisure travelers” with 55% taking 2-3 vacations a year and 17% taking 4-5 vacations a year. It is the fastest growing leisure travel segment and holds enormous opportunity for hotels, resorts and spas.
  • If they go to a spa, it is for an experience, not just a stay. The co-founders noted that when Well + Good launched, the site offered a traditional travel section that showcased places to go, including beautiful photos of properties, their settings and interiors. Somewhat surprisingly, it received few visitors and little engagement. When the section was refocused on travel experiences, rather than the more traditional, location-focused coverage, the section took off and continues in popularity today.
  • Millennials not only are drawn to, but are willing to travel with wellness influencers who have large followings and excellent credentials. Among the current most popular as cited by Brue and Gelula:

Taryn Toomey: Originator of The Class, billed as “a cathartic movement experience.” This trainer has a robust and loyal following with studios in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver. Her travel offering, called The Retreatment, provides six-day lifestyle retreats which combine movement, “transformational work” and deep relaxation — not to mention bonding time with constituents.

Mary Helen Bowers — Former professional ballet dancer who founded Ballet Beautiful, she teaches grace, beauty and strength of ballet to non-dancers through a ballet fitness regimen, both in studio and through travel experiences.

Heather Andersen — Using Pilates method as the core of her teaching, she offers more than 300 classes a week in addition to periodic travel experiences that center around her specialty.

These and other influencers plan and conduct retreats that in some cases, compete with spas — destination, resort and hotels. The study’s findings would indicate that these Millennials have transferred their trust from spas to fitness gurus.

Additional stats from the study:

  • 66% are planning a wellness retreat soon
  • 40% would rather go on a retreat with a fitness instructor
  • 53% have going to a spa as a goal

What Millennials seek in a spa experience:

  • 99% — quality of food
  • 96% — a nature experience
  • 94% — high-quality fitness offerings
  • 93% — spa services
  • 93% — “something innovative”
  • 70% — fitness guru

Essentially, according to the study’s findings, they seek everything they have at home and more.

Tips for Tapping into the Market

What can hoteliers learn from this? Here are a few suggestions to get started:

Know Your Travel Influencers

Make it a point to know who among the top travel influencers are ideal for your brand. Do they cover luxury experiences? Budget travel? Urban destinations? Wellness lifestyle? In doing this research, look not only at the number of fans or followers they have, but to the quality of their content and the extent to which they are engaged with the influencer.

Consider Partnering with an Influencer

Bring group travel to your property. Work with the influencer to build the package, price it and market it to this new and growing travel segment. Introducing your property through the eyes of an influencer that the guest trusts will build credibility and, potentially, repeat business for you.

Make Your Property Relevant to Millennials

Focus on creating experiences rather than placing emphasis on siloed pillars of overnight stays, services, and amenities. Given that Millennials tend to take care of themselves daily, and seem to be more successful at creating work-life balance than their parents and grandparents have, they don’t necessarily need to go on vacation or stay at a spa the way that Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers have. At the same time, they want travel experiences. Providing them with specific experiential opportunities telegraphs that you “get” what they are looking for and are worthy of their leisure time.

Surprise and Delight

With Millennials focused on high quality and innovation, what can you offer the traveler that is fresh, new, surprising, life enhancing, memory making? What is authentic and central to your property’s unique story? Stand out and prosper. The opportunity is waiting for you.

Be Social About it

Encourage guests to post images and comments about their positive experience during and after leaving your property. If you haven’t yet set up a hashtag and a page on your website to aggregate the “love,” do so, and go viral in spreading the word to your guests, regardless the source.

This article previously appeared in Hotel Business Review on February 11, 2018. HotelExecutive.com retains the copyright.