“What do you do in travel?” she asked me.
She, a woman who founded a company that develops products that help measure your social media impact.
Me, an adventure traveler who could not care the least bit about measuring my social media impact.
While many of the “travel people” who mingled about the event are digital world addicts who would sell their traveling souls for a new follower, I was not one of them.
What I DO care about is truly experiencing the world and connecting to the people and places I encounter on my adventures.
The three strangers standing around the cocktail table stared at me in anticipation as I slowly chewed a mouth full of cheese and crackers. Free food & booze and the chance to win a free airline ticket were the only reasons I was even at the event.
“I travel.” I said simply, with a blank “duh” expression on my face as I downed my glass of champagne. I eyed the bar for a quick escape. I was going to need a few more glasses to get me through an evening of networking with tour companies, industry professionals and bloggers eager to one up you with a more harrowing travel tale.
Over time, travel events have morphed from laid back social gatherings with like-minded people to networking events with people who are focused on getting ahead in their travel careers.
TRAVEL CAREER. The juxtaposition somehow disturbs me greatly. It just feels wrong.
What ever happened to traveling for the fun of it?
“Do you write about your travels? Are you a travel writer/blogger? Do you publish your stories?” she asked, appearing genuinely confused by the notion that I would just travel to travel.
“Yes I do, I have a blog” I told her, “but I write for fun and have no intention of making a business out of my travels.”
GETTING PAID TO TRAVEL
I started my blog in 2007 to share my experiences with family and friends while I traveled for a year. Today my blog serves the same purpose as my travels continue and writing has become a reflective process, a creative outlet, and a means to express myself.
While I have been flattered to learn that my adventures have inspired people I have never met and that my following increased over the years, my intention is not to monetize my travel experience as I feel doing so cheapens them. I travel for me.
I will admit in my early blogging days I asked the age old question “how can I get paid to travel?” Newly afflicted with the travel bug, I wanted to stay on the road but had depleted my funds having gone a little crazy having clothes and shoes custom made in Hoi An Vietnam. Back then I hoped for sponsorship, advertising, and free stuff to keep me on the road and far away from a cubicle.
I contemplated teaching English abroad, Wwoofing (volunteering to work on organic farms in exchange for food and accommodation), selling my photography, becoming a dive instructor and travel writing. When I discussed the topic of professional travel writing with a well-known travel editor he candidly advised me … “don’t quit your day job Kelly; you get to travel way more than most travel writers because they don’t have the money to do so.”
At the end of the day I am not a writer, I am an adventurer. Writing is hard for me. I love and hate the challenge. This post has been brewing inside me and it has taken me a year to put my feelings about the travel blogging community into words.
I have done some very silly things over the years in my efforts to keep traveling. I wore a scuba diving suit on a cable car in San Francisco while auditioning for “The Best Job in the World,” hoping to find my way back to Australia. I didn’t get the job and in hindsight I have come to realize it would not have been the best job for me.
We are told that the dream job is to love the work you do. But I have long suspected that the minute your passion becomes work, your paycheck and means to survive, your love will surely fade.
Today I honestly feel I have the best job in the world and it has absolutely nothing to do with travel. I have been blessed with a contract position in which I work half a year, affording me the flexibility and funds to travel the other half of the year. Then while I am on the road, I am able to be fully in my experience versus wired and attempting to work on the road constantly posting blogs and travel updates.
There are people out there that will try to tell you that you can make a living blogging and many people start a blog for this very reason. But the truth is very few people make money blogging and those that do work very hard at it and in my opinion sell a piece of their traveling soul.
“TBEX increasingly has a lifestyle back-chatter component. “You can quit your job and live the life you’ve always dreamed of! Yay you!” — as though living life churning out marketing copy from a comped hotel is somehow superior to staying home and having a job.”
“I have left TBEX feeling frustrated, uninspired, and diminished, like I’m stupid for not focusing on the money making opportunities of blogging. I don’t sell out, I don’t even sell, and for that, I’m a fool. I’ve left thinking I should quit what I’m doing or seriously amend my tactics, because what kind of success isn’t backed up by endless “free” travel and lucrative sponsored “content” deals? ” – Pam Mandel
SELLING OUT TO TRAVEL
The travel industry has exploded and competition is fierce. Nowadays everyone and their mother has a travel blog, and people fight hard to stand out, gain a following, get advertising money and free stuff. If your goal is to make the Top 100 bloggers list, you best be willing to sell out in one way or another and spend a lot of time promoting yourself, which detracts from the time you can actually spend traveling and truly experiencing the world. Being a top blogger has little to do with experiences or quality writing and more to do with shamelessly self-promoting every single day.
I have seen many bloggers who claim to be “independent travelers” sell out to big corporate sponsorships and tour companies, allowing free trips and tours to forge their path and forsaking spontaneity and serendipity. These bloggers preplanned traveling tales bore me, as they continue to plan months and years in advance, lacking an authentic story and loosing my trust in their words.
I am innately a competitive person, but have no desire to compete to be a “top blogger” as doing so would demand that I stay connected, constantly promote myself and in my opinion sell out. No thank you. I don’t want to only go where the free press trip or tour awaits me, I want to go where my heart desires, by the seat of my skirt … and often “wherever the wind blows.”
SCAMMING YOUR WAY ON THE ROAD
Many people seek out sponsorships and funding for their trips. I did this once myself; however, I sought sponsorship that would benefit a local charity in Western Sahara. I participated in the Dakhla Challenge an off-road rally across Morocco in a banger called Honey Badger. The plan was to donate the car at the finish line in Dakhla. I abandoned my sponsorship efforts as it felt weird asking for money and all the effort and planning required was zapping the fun and spontaneity out of my adventure.
Today the world is full people aspiring to travel on someone else’s dime.
I recently read Van Base with a Fan Base in the New York times, telling the story of a traveling family who in my opinion abused “Kickstarter” scamming people into funding their vacation in the name of “creative inspiration” at a cost of 16k. The art exhibition the Harteaus promised in their Kickstarter pitch has been postponed, as the family continues to travel now that their website has gained popularity and their following has skyrocketing.
The author of the article, Steven Kurutz, seems to have no real issue with the fact that the couple “skirted the rules” as he says and suggests instead the family is inspiring.
“Mr. Harteaus laughed at the notion of living an endless road trip, and added: ‘Our friends are like, ‘How did you pull this off?’ I don’t know.’”
Well I do know, you sold out to travel and tricked people into paying for your family vacation.
The couple has found a new way to make money on the road that allows them to continue to travel. They hold online “flash sales” showcasing local handy crafts sold for three times the cost they paid the person who made it. I would support what they did IF they gave back a portion of their proceeds to the local community, but there is no indication they do this on their site.
“The flash sales, sponsorships and efforts to cultivate an audience through social media are necessary, Ms. Latimer Agah said: “They’re hustlers, figuring out a way to sustain this lifestyle.” – Steven Kurutz – from Van Base with a Fan Base
Hustlers indeed, many travelers are these days. I will not hustle to travel.
This quote from the article really sums up what is happening out there in the online travel community:
“Instead of disappearing into the blissful anonymity that foreign travel affords and unplugging from a wired culture, they have spent their trip onstage and hyper-connected, always in search of magic-hour moments they can upload to their blog at the next Wi-Fi signal.” – Steven Kurutz from Van Base with a Fan Base
TOO CONNECTED TO DIGITAL WORLD AND NOT TO EXPERIENCES
Before one is in a position to sell out for travel, they need to develop a large online following to entice advertisers and corporate sponsors. This requires staying digitally connected and promoting their blog constantly while traveling. In my opinion, these travel bloggers sacrifice a lot more than they gain.
“I think travelers who spend so much time being digitally connected while they’re traveling are doing themselves and the places they are visiting a disservice. They need to be present and immersed in their environment. If you have one foot in the digital land, then you’re not 100% in the environment.” – Francis Tapon
I have also been guilty in the past of being too connected during my travels. I used to feel the need to “catch up on my blog” and make my blog better than the others out there. Those days are long gone. Nowadays I am always “behind” and never blog in real time. I have let go of the pressure I used to feel to compete. I don’t care about my klout score, or how many followers I have, or how many people like my post.
I am more interested in being there, in my experience, with the people I meet and the places I wander.
I do not allow my blog to rule my travels. I do not choose an accommodation based on Wi-Fi availability. I do not impose deadlines on myself for the stories I write. I write when I feel inspired, on a rainy day, or most often when I get back home.
As I write this post from my home in San Francisco, there are dozens of memories floating about my head from my time spent in Madagascar over three months ago. I know I will write my Mada posts eventually, but while traveling I am content to be in the moment not chained to my blog and to the internet.
TRAVEL BLOGGER HALL OF SHAME
I have noticed many travel bloggers cheating themselves out of amazing experiences by being too connected on the road.
I read a post by Brooke vs. the World in which she explains to her audience that she doesn’t get to see everything while she travels because “I am always working honey!”
“The computer is always open! Even on the Trans-Mongolian train.” Brooke vs. the World
I can’t help but wonder what beautiful scenery Brooke missed while she chose to stare at her computer instead of out her window, and what amazing connections and conversations could she have had with local strangers on the train. But she was too busy “working” so she could keep traveling.
I rolled my eyes when I read how FoxNomad explains “A snap or 15 of every dish that sits in front of me is standard before I eat, including a few notes in my iPhone for a restaurant review that will appear on this site eventually.”
Stop documenting and experience your food already!
I read in bewilderment as a well-known blogger tweeted her way across Spain while on a historically spiritual pilgrimage, the Camino Del Santiago. She sacrificed her experience in lieu of being connected to social media.
I was later annoyed she had the audacity to preach to her audience about the importance of taking time out of your daily life to reflect. She wasn’t doing what she claimed others should do. She didn’t immerse herself in the experience; instead she stayed connected to her normal life.
“The real adventure of travel is mental. It is about total immersion in a place, because nobody from any other place can contact you. Thus your life is narrowed to what is immediately before your eyes, making the experience more vivid.” Robert D. Kaplan as seen in “Being There” the Atlantic
Why do so many bloggers obsessively stay wired and connected to social media while on the road?
- Are people so self-absorbed that they believe the rest of the world is hanging on to their every word real time?
- We all crave acceptance from our peers, but it seems that many bloggers get off on a “like” on FB or a retweet. The world of social media breeds narcissism.
- Do they stay wired for the sole purpose of growing their online following to in turn make more money through sponsorships and advertisers?
- Have people’s social lives been confined to an online community?
- Do they feel they are doing a great service for those who are “missing out” and can’t travel for whatever reason? While they may feel they are sacrificing their experiences for a greater good, in the end they are the ones that are missing out.
- Do they have a legitimate addiction to social media? Is the feeling of getting a new like or follower like crack cocaine for them.
There is help out there people for internet addiction or maybe they just need to step away from social media for a while.
“Put down your smartphone-the art of travel demands the end of multitasking.” – Robert D. Kaplan
Apparently it has become trendy to say you are taking a “digital detox.” Lots of people claim they are doing this but most seem to fail and within 24 hours are back to tweeting, facebooking, pinning and other social media nonsense. I believe there is a real need for digital detoxing in the travel blogging community.
Ironically people have begun to use #digitaldetox while tweeting. Absurd! I recently saw a hysterical tweet that echoed my sentiments on the subject.
Yes I find it odd, irritating, and slightly comical that the irony escapes the people who tweet #digitaldetox.
A blogger recently wrote a post on her site claiming she would be on a digital detox while hiking the Lycian Way in Turkey. She stated she would only be taking her smartphone with her for gps mapping and security, but didn’t intend to use it much at all.
I decided to check in on this blogger to see how the digital detox was going only to discover she has clearly fallen off the wagon. Or maybe tweeting 40 times in a day is considered detox for her in her social media obsessed world? Instead of being in the present moment and focusing on the beautiful environment surrounding her and the stories this ancient trail could teach, she is focused on her smartphone and seeking out the next photo to upload or the next clever message to tweet.
“Travel is like a good, challenging book: it demands presentness-the ability to live completely in the moment, absorbed in the words or vision of reality before you.” Robert D. Kaplan as seen in “Being There” the Atlantic
She gave a callout to (aka advertising for) the mobile Wi-Fi company that allowed her to stay connected and upload photos while hiking. In my mind, she has no one but herself to thank for not truly experiencing the reality before her.
I could have easily brought my smartphone up Kilimanjaro with me and tweeted to all my followers in real time. I couldn’t imagine doing anything worse. I am sure I wouldn’t have been the first person to post a Facebook and twitter in real time the moment I summited the mountain, but I didn’t. I was present, connected to my experience.
My point of view of the blogging community has changed over the past few years and my intentions for this blog and my travels continue to evolve as I continue to experience the world. I feel a strong desire to disconnect, be there in a moment, and allow serendipity and spontaneity to lead me on my path through this big beautiful world. Anything else feels inauthentic and l will not sell out my traveling soul. What has not changed since I first hit the road is my intention to embrace the unexpected, take risks in life and trust my instincts … by the seat of my skirt!
I am sure this post will not sit well with many travel bloggers out there today, but I challenge everyone to step back and really evaluate how social media, adverting and sponsored trips has shaped and affected your experiences on the road. Ironically, I plan to share this post on social media, mostly to reach the people who I wish to challenge the most. I hope once the initial feeling of defense wears off, they can be open to putting away the laptop and smartphones, stop allowing social media to take over their travels, and gain a deeper more rewarding experience by truly being there in a precious moment. We in the travel community are all so blessed and many of us have seen more of the world already than others will ever see in their lifetime.
My hope for all of us is that we can each look back on the experiences we have had and truly remember being there, in that magical travel moment.
Stop connecting, start experiencing!