Three years ago, Lisa Linh quit her full-time job to travel the world and document it on Instagram, where she has nearly 100,000 followers; since then, she has stayed in breathtaking hotels everywhere from Mexico to Quebec to the Cook Islands. Often, she stays for free.
Linh is part of an ever-growing class of people who have leveraged their social media clout to travel the world, frequently in luxury. While Linh and other elite influencers are usually personally invited by hotel brands, an onslaught of lesser-known wannabes has left hotels scrambling to deal with a deluge of requests for all-expense-paid vacations in exchange for some social media posts.
Kate Jones, marketing and communications manager at the Dusit Thani, a five-star resort in the Maldives, said that her hotel receives at least six requests from self-described influencers per day, typically through Instagram direct message.
“Everyone with a Facebook these days is an influencer,” she said. “People say, I want to come to the Maldives for 10 days and will do two posts on Instagram to like 2,000 followers. It's people with 600 Facebook friends saying, ‘Hi, I'm an influencer, I want to stay in your hotel for 7 days,’” she said. Others send vague one-line emails, like “I want to collaborate with you,”with no further explanation. “These people are expecting five to seven nights on average, all inclusive. Maldives is not a cheap destination.” She said that only about 10 percent of the requests she receives are worth investigating.
Jack Bedwani, who runs The Projects, a brand consulting agency that works with several top hospitality brands, said that he’s close with the PR manager for a new hotel and day club in Bali. “They get five to 20 direct inquiries a day from self-titled influencers,” he said. “The net is so wide, and the term ‘influencer’ is so loose.”
“You can sort the amateurs from the pros very quickly,” Bedwani said.“The vast majority of cold-call approaches are really badly written. It sounds like when you're texting a friend inviting yourself over for dinner—it's that colloquial. They don't give reasons why anyone should invest in having them as a guest.”
Some hotels report being so overwhelmed by influencer requests that they've simply opted out. In January, a luxury boutique hotel in Ireland made headlines for banning all YouTubers and Instagram stars after a 22-year-old requested a free five-night stay in exchange for exposure.
“If I let you stay here in return for a feature in a video, who is going to pay the staff who look after you? Who is going to pay the housekeepers who clean your room? ... Who is going to pay for the light and heat you use during your stay? Maybe I should tell my staff they will be featured in your video in lieu of receiving payment for work carried out while you’re in residence?” the owner wrote on Facebook.
But to influencers themselves, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the value exchange. Instagram has ballooned to more than 800 million monthly active users, many of whom come to it for travel ideas, and influencers argue that the promotions they offer allow hotels to directly market to new audiences in an authentic way.
They're not completely wrong. Most hotels acknowledge that there's some benefit to working with influencers, it's just that determining how to work with them—and manage their requests—is a challenge.
Some hotels, like the Ace and others, have attempted to standardize the process by requiring detailed influencer application forms for discounts or free hotel stays. Others list influencer-specific contact addresses on their website. But the majority of hotels deal with influencer requests the old-fashioned way, through an email to the hotel’s primary address. Many influencers use an email template that they customize for each property when requesting a stay.
Hotels evaluate influencers on several criteria, trying to sift through an enormous amount of BS. “We have quite a strict process,” said Jones. “We look at engagement more than anything else ... We have to filter out influencers who have basically bought bots. There's a lot of those these days.”
Laurie Hobbs, director of public relations and marketing at Ocean House Management, a resort management company that operates several boutique hotels in Rhode Island, said the hotel keeps a database of trusted influencers who it has partnered with before and can rely on when launching new products—recently, a customized Lilly Pulitzer suite. When new influencers approach one of their properties, Hobbs and her team take a close look at the influencer's follower count and aesthetic to make sure it's the right fit.
Joe Miragliotta, a men's lifestyle and travel blogger who says he’s stayed in hundreds of hotels as an influencer, hates the fact that so many ham-handed wannabes are giving influencers a bad name. “You've seen the bad emails like, ‘Can you believe this influencer reaching out to me for a free stay!?’ That's a bad thing. That makes us all look bad,” he said.
Miragliotta said having a clear pitch and meaningful deliverables can make all the difference to a hotel brand manager. “Having a one-sheet is really nice,” he said. “Have your demographics on lockdown. Have an elevator pitch. Know your audience … If you don't know your audience, brands don't know you. You could have 100 million followers, but they won't know who you're marketing to.”
Linh said that while hotels are still trying to figure out the return on working with influencers, it can be helpful to provide more than just social media posting. “We can film something for their website, or provide imagery,” she said. “They can save money by hiring an influencer vs hiring professional photographers or videographers.”
Other influencers have gotten even more creative with the services they offer. Zach Benson, who owns a network of travel Instagram accounts and who says he has gotten more than 200 nights for free over the past year and a half, touts his background in digital marketing when he approaches hotels. Along with the traditional Instagram posts and Stories, Benson offers to work with a hotel's digital marketing arm to improve the brand's in-house social media accounts.
“We really want to help people and make their companies and hotels better,” he said. “We know that just doing a couple Instagram posts for them isn't really going to help them that much.” During his travels, Benson hosts boot camps for hotel social media teams, where he trains employees on things like Facebook ads and Instagram promotion.
“I just think a lot of the influencers have entitlement mentality,” Benson said. “A lot of them think about giving the bare minimum.”
Bedwani said that it's critical that hotels set explicit terms in their deals with influencers. “I know a major brand that opened up and flew in a plane full of influencers,” he said. “Three-quarters of them didn't even post. It was a major fail from their team.”
Jones, meanwhile, said the Dusit Thani Maldives has all but ceased working with fashion influencers after she discovered that many simply wanted a pretty backdrop for their swimsuit shots.
“10 different bikini pictures a day on the beach is great for the bikini company,” she said. “But you can't even tell where it's taken. It could be anywhere in the Maldives.”
Some of these issues can just be a miscommunication. Miragliotta said he’s invested in making clients happy—but hotels need to make sure they're organized and prepared for influencer stays.
“I went to one Mexico resort and three different people were giving me different hashtags and handles,” he said. “I was with five other influencers and we were excited to post, but there was limited Wi-Fi. If you don't have the simplest things ready for us, then that makes it difficult to produce the content you need, or do it correctly.”
Natalie Zfat, a social media consultant and influencer who has partnered with hotel chains like Marriott and InterContinental, said that at the end of the day most bloggers and influencers are just businesspeople.
“Could you think of any other business industry where it would be frowned upon for someone to reach out to a potential client and offer them an opportunity? You'd never see Coca Cola berate an ad salesperson at CNN for calling them up and sharing their rates.”