I recently accepted a full time job. With that acceptance I concretely closed a chapter of my life during which I came very close to pursuing full time travel blogging as my career. Make no mistake, VirtualWayfarer isn’t changing, it just isn’t going to be a platform for my full-time career either. Over the last two years many friends have expressed surprise that I chose not to pursue travel blogging as a career. Here’s a somewhat simplified explanation of why I made the decision to return to the corporate world and how I shaped that return to maximize my travel opportunities and work-life balance.
Back in early 2012 I found myself on the ground floor of the travel blogging industry’s professionalization. Between 2011 and 2013 the industry underwent significant changes as travel blogging grew up. Now, granted, there’s still major room for maturation and the industry lags behind similar blogging sectors like Fashion and Food. Still, what has been accomplished and happened to the Travel Blogging industry is extremely impressive and has been driven, in no small part, by a handful of individuals.
I’ve had the deep pleasure of knowing many of these individuals and enjoyed the opportunity for candid conversations and late night brainstorming sessions. I’ve also had the opportunity to observe as they struggled to re-shape the travel blogging industry, to stand out, and to craft their own business. These conversations and observations combined with my own first hand experiences as a fairly well-recognized travel blogger guided me to where I am today and have played a pivotal role in my ultimate decision.
It wasn’t an easy decision but looking back there were two key watershed moments.
The first realization came in 2012 and was the epiphany that press-trips, the holy grail of independent travel blogging at that time, were … well … overrated and unsustainable. The allure of free travel is great for a hobbyist on a tight budget. It’s death for a professional content producer eager to have a balanced lifestyle.
While the modern press trip is necessarily changing, many were (and still are) funded by lining up local partners. These partners covered the costs and services experienced over the course of the press trip, which is how DMOs and local organizations were able to subsidize them. Unfortunately, this also meant that each new partner needed their five minutes of face time.
This meant that most press trips ended up being a 9AM-11PM blitz of rich food, wine, hotel tours, and meetings with local business owners and politicians. Which doesn’t sound too rough – and, let’s be honest, definitely isn’t. These trips brought with them the chance to sample incredible food and wine – but they had a cost. A very real, and unexpected cost. Namely, that cost was the ability to actually pause and enjoy the destination and moment on my own terms. By my second press trip I realized it just wasn’t sustainable. Not only because it made generating quality content for my readers more difficult, but also because it was a prolific drain on my energy and ultimately wasn’t the way I like to travel. To make matters even more definite, they also didn’t make financial sense. No small factor when considering the central role that many think press trips will play in the launch of a professional blogging career.
Few provided financial compensation beyond the freebies and even where the majority of services were covered there were still numerous daily costs that slipped through the cracks and couldn’t be expensed. Thus, unless I was doing freelance work leveraging the experiences I had, which required a significant amount of additional work, I was looking at a net-loss for each “free” press trip I did.
This tied into the second realization: To build a following that was large enough and active enough to be monetized requires at least six months of full-time RTW travel OR going hyper local and becoming a destination expert (not exactly ideal for a “travel” blogger). For most, the path to making a travel blog financially viable required at least one year of self-financed, full-time audience building before they had something large enough to work with. Even then, the revenue was often sourced from ancillary projects, freelance writing, or eventually speaking gigs and key partnerships. Simply put, this build up period just didn’t make much financial sense to me and seemed like it was going to suck a lot of the joy out of travel. The hours, blood, sweat, and tears during that build up period are significant. I also felt that the impact on my travel lifestyle would be significant. Particularly as a lone traveler. That’s all well and good when you’re single and in your 20s but is it emotionally sustainable? A difficult question.
If the whole point behind making travel blogging your career is to help you travel and allow you to enjoy a career that you positively love – striking the right balance is terribly important.
As I weighed if this was something I thought I’d be able to do an old adage came to mind. “Never move to paradise, you’ll ruin it”. In short, we are incredibly adaptive creatures. The extreme becomes mundane quite quickly. People rail against the woes of being trapped in a cubicle, but what I saw many travel bloggers doing was breaking free of a cubicle only to carry around a concrete cage consisting of a heavier workload, and more extreme hours while simultaneously decreasing the time they had available to get work done. Knowing myself, and looking at what was required – I felt that the risk of burnout was severe.
Time has shown this concern to be valid, as I’ve watched friend after friend burnout right as they started to hit critical mass. By the time many of the most successful travel bloggers were finally reaching a point where they could make a healthy income from their site and brand, they got struck by fairly severe cases of burnout. Burnout that demanded, in many – but not all – cases a lifestyle shift.
When I go down the list of blogger friends with successful followings that have burned out in the last 8 months it sends a clear message that they aren’t a few limited exceptions. Traveling couples tend to fare much better – they are also able to become successful faster. I think this stems largely from the ability to connect better with both the male and female audience while also splitting responsibilities and the division of labor. The fact that they also have a mobile community that goes with them in the form of a spouse also likely plays a key role. But, even the travel blogging power couples have struggled strike a balance and drifted increasingly towards reduced travel.
Of those who have run into the burnout wall, most are still blogging and still traveling – but, they’re also finding themselves fighting to get the same richness out of it and are often torn on what to do next. I doubt you’d find a single one in the mix who would consider it a mistake or who is quite ready to give it up, but it does re-affirm my concern that while it can be a great transitional opportunity for most folks, it is only a viable career lifestyle for a very select few.
Monetizing a travel blog is a nightmare. The dirty truth is that a majority of on-blog monetization within the travel blogging community is done through gray-hat SEO link building practices and marginally disclosed sponsored content from SEOs. This may be STARTING to change, but it is still the bread and butter of the industry. For a majority of travel blogs – particularly those that are global in theme – traditional advertising and a majority of affiliate programs are absolute hogwash. 50% of my audience is from the US. The rest is global and my content/the destinations I write about are even more varied than my audience.
This means that from a targeting standpoint, it is extremely difficult – especially since many advertising and affiliate programs are country or region specific. In my case, this means that I’m only able to monetize about half my audience for the US Amazon affiliate program (and other like-kind programs). Ever traveled abroad and tried to stream video from the US? Know how you get a notice that content isn’t available in your country? That’s major broadcasters and/or YouTube running into the same problem.
Traffic numbers for most travel blogs are also too low to make impression based CPM/CPC ads make much sense and the payout for affiliate sites like Orbitz and Booking.com are a joke unless you’re hyper specific and writing content that is designed to specifically market these products. Even then the conversion prospects are quite poor since the travel research process is prolonged and convoluted while the affiliate tracking referral process is limited. Just because you were the first or last to refer someone to a site, doesn’t mean you should actually be the one getting compensated. Which doesn’t even begin to get to the whole influence aspect of it – you may see a photo or read a post on my site that makes you want to use a product or visit a destination, but capturing and recording that influence is a tricky task. Especially since months (or years) may pass before you actually buy or book and you may not actively realize my content was highly influential until months later. That’s one of the advantages of bloggers specializing in FMCGs like makeup and clothing.
This is also why many travel bloggers have specialized and focused on specific types of electronic gear. In my case that’s why what little monetization you’ll see on the site is tailored to camera gear. Still, it doesn’t come close to the content->purchase relationship you see in other segments like fashion, mommy blogging, and electronics review sites.
This leaves most financially successful travel bloggers monetizing through outside sources. The value of their blog is that it increases their audience and personal brand. Once they have that audience, then it is speaking engagements, paid sponsorship opportunities, and company collaborations that they make money off of. Not the blog. This also means that in addition to traveling, researching, and writing content you also have to have another full-time job going through and marketing, promoting, and arranging these events. Can it be done? You bet. Was it the great travel enabler and work/life balance lifestyle I initially hoped it might be? Hell no.
In my preliminary push to feel out the path to “going pro” I took a close look at my content. One of the biggest mistakes many bloggers make is that they want to have their blog serve as the next Rick Steves or Lonely Planet. The reality is that 99% of the time this type of content is absolute crap and because of how we travel goes out of date extremely quickly. To top it off, the guides themselves are often just a regurgitation of the same crap you can find on Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong – I have done, and continue to do posts like this from time to time, but I also no longer fool myself into thinking they’re anything other than self-gratifying nonsense.
To be clear, this shouldn’t be confused with writing that does work and is effective. Namely, articles on personal experiences that convey the visceral nature of the experience through words, video, or photos. THOSE are the guides that are worth consuming, that we can connect with, and which resonate with us. They also require a less clinical approach to the content and require that you open yourself up to your audience in order to better share your own emotional journey. An interesting and emotionally invested experience. This is the type of content I’ve tried to move towards – stepping from behind my professorial podium and instead embracing a fireside chat approach. The response has been fantastic, and while I’ve still got a long ways to go, I enjoy this much more than previous approaches to content.
The path to building a large audience also usually takes writing a lot of simplified light reading in bulk (here’s looking at you top 10 lists). This BuzzFeed style of content writing works for audiences, but really sucks as a writer. I spent some time doing it when I was working on building my footprint and I quickly felt the joy of writing slipping away. When I write a post I want it to be as much for me as it is for you. The type of soulless writing these types of posts require saps the joy from the experience for me and was another key factor in my decision to scrap that style of content in favor of my more casual and relaxed rambles.
Forcing content out is a natural part of the process, and at a certain level an essential part of the travel blogging experience. However, going full-time requires editorial publishing schedules, specific format types, and quite often results in decreased quality in favor of increased frequency. All of which gets magnified by the unfortunate reality that if you go dark/offline or don’t post for a week or two you’re going to see a large chunk of your audience wander away.
It was with these factors in mind that I decided to return to the corporate environment. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the truly challenging part was finding a situation and setup that struck the balance properly. The lifestyle we live is something squarely in our hands and under our control.
My solution was to remain in Europe, in the heart of Copenhagen, while returning to a relaxed corporate environment. In so doing I may have returned to a traditional 9-5, but it is a 9-5 that lives and breathes the Danish work/life balance. I have the security, stability, and financial compensation of a reasonably well compensated 9-5 while still working in a country that mandates at least 25 days of vacation plus national holidays. As with many workplaces in Denmark, I qualify for an additional 5 days of vacation per year bringing the grand total to 30 days of paid travel per year. Equally important, this is time I’m actually expected to take. Add in Christmas and National Holidays and for the time being I’m quite comfortable with the 7-8 weeks in total that translates into.
True, I miss out on adventures those remaining 44 weeks each year but the work days end up being shorter and the opportunity to afford traveling how I want, when I want, where I want to fully enjoy the experience is a fully-realized reality, not a carrot on a stick tied to my backpack to chase.
The added perk of those 44 extra weeks “grounded” in Copenhagen is that every day still feels like I’m exploring the world. Only, I have the time to nurture good friendships, to enjoy relationships, and to connect in a way that is nearly impossible for professional travel bloggers who are still navigating the open roads.
Perhaps at some point my feet will grow antsy and the industry will have matured to a point where I lust for that lifestyle. For now though, both VirtualWayfarer and I will remain as passionate travel enthusiasts.
I hope for some of you this post has brought clarity. I hope for all of you, it has helped increase your level of respect and appreciation for just how impressive the accomplishment is of full-time, long-term professional travel bloggers.
You can learn more about my new job and what it means for VirtualWayfarer in this update.