People are willing to sell out for many things, but once their own mortality is involved, it’s a different equation. Welcome to the new grey, the area between influencers and travel brands.

One Mile At A Time recently covered the unfortunate story of SeaDream, the first cruise line to reboot sailing this year, which operated initial journeys in Europe over summer, before launching its first Caribbean cruise over the last week.

When I started reading the article, the first red flag was almost immediate, which came in the form of a quote from a SeaDream executive.

“So far, we do not want people to be wearing masks. That’s why you get tested before. We want you to enjoy the SeaDream experience.”

SeaDream SVP

So cruise ships – largely blamed as the super spreader of super spread – are rebooting, and you’re relying on a singular rapid test to condone people not wearing masks at all, in any juncture of the cruise? At tables, maybe, but not at all?

Enter: influencers.

Ever feel like there’s some part of the picture you’re not quite getting with influencers?

An angle of the OMAAT story which is particularly interesting, is that quite a few people continue to document the journey, including The Points Guy, from early headlines like “Surprisingly normal: What it’s like on board the first Caribbean cruise since March”, to “Day 2: I’m stuck on a cruise ship lockdown due to COVID”.

Update: unsurprisingly, The Points Guy was on the cruise as a comp’d guest of the company, though this wasn’t disclosed at all in the first 6 positive blog posts until today, after numerous posts with no mention, including a few telling everyone how great it is.

“Cruise With Ben & David” are also among those documenting things, two people who like most “influencers”, I’ve never heard of in the slightest. Watching their videos from the experience, and subsequent tweets, one can’t help but feel that there’s something a bit spurious to it all, and that they feel a potential obligation to be incredibly positive.

I’m only reading between the lines, but I feel that there must be an underlying comp or financial relationship which makes it very, very difficult for them to speak truth of any kind.

Reputational Risk

In normal times this is murky, but if you’re continuing to promote something to an audience as positive for personal gain, when it may in fact KILL THEM, or you yourself, the ethics radars should with any hope – begin to go off. It’s one thing to buy your own ticket and document travel as you call it, but it’s quite another when any undisclosed benefit is involved.

Even if the difficulty is purely in their perception of how speaking out could impact their future business, and nothing to do with pressure from SeaDream, it shows how a seemingly mindless exercise in being an influencer can lead to actual reputational risk for a brand, or the influencer. And surely, if you care about the industry, you should be trying to pay your own way right now?

Interjections of “ooh, we can still order from the full menu, yum” just seem… odd.

Here’s how it started, sans masks of course…

And here’s where we are now, stranded at sea…

Here’s how I see it. These guys have two choices…

  1. Throw SeaDream under the bus, tell their audience they see first hand the risks of not wearing masks in public spaces right now, and recommend avoiding all cruises which don’t take safety seriously for the near future. They’ll likely lose future collab opportunities, but perhaps gain respect from their audience?
  2. Tow the line for SeaDream, protect their positive spin lap dog reputation for travel brands so as to keep financial opportunities open for the future, but risk alienating their entire audience forever.
  3. Actually become influential enough not to need brand collabs and instead provide unfettered insight?

How is there no anger or frustration about the company setting sail without masks during an increase in global virus concern? Instead,almost every sentence is caveated with how amazing SeaDream has been and continues to be, while highlighting perks of the cruise ship, which is currently cast off at sea, because no port will have it.

In defense of these two semi-affable “influencers”, It hasn’t been disclosed anywhere whether they are in fact on the cruise as comp’d guests of SeaDream, so until they choose to make that clear, we can only make our own judgements.

This, perhaps for the first time since covid-19, highlights the growing unease we as travel audiences collectively feel in a world where everyone wants to be an influencer and disclosures are lacking. How do we establish trust, when everyone is looking for shortcuts to freebies?

There’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind and promoting something you love.

And it’s absolutely possible to get paid to talk about products you love. In fact, it’s really the main way these relationships are supposed to work. Don’t endorse products that are not amazing, and there’s nothing to worry about, right? The key is just letting people know that you benefit, so everyone can approach the purchase logically.

When you reach a large scale, as GSTP and many other blogs and influencers have, and work with credible organizations, there’s stringent legal requirements to fully disclose the facts behind a relationship. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid, you just need to be upfront about it.

In credible circle, it’s also typically the brands who are most insistent on this, since they have the most to lose in any potential legal issues, or disaster scenarios like this.

There are many less formal, or less scrutinized and regulated areas of the travel influencer game, where covid-19 presents huge new challenges, and audiences must discern information for themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with asking an influencer: did you receive anything for this?

If they’re legit, they’ll have an easy answer, like yes, see the banner at the top of the article? Or see the hashtag #ad, or #sponsored? Or a simple “no, used points, or paid myself because I wanted to provide you a real opinion. If not, or your comment gets deleted, well.. you can figure that one out.

For brands, this should be a good caution of influencer campaigns when there’s a fair chance things will go pear shaped. That’s not every element of travel, but cruises, yes, definitely.

Do you send someone on a cruise right now for free, knowing that they may contract covid-19 and use their self proclaimed ‘reach’ to talk to their following about what a terrible experience it is and how it could’ve been avoided?

Or is it actually even worse when they begin to carry on a false narrative of a positive experience, when it’s clear that they’re on board the FyreFest of cruises. The same absolutely applies across flights, hotels, destinations and everything else.

There is always fear, anxiety and trust issues in any PR, influencer relationship, where something is being invested by the business – a free stay, actual money, etc – and a risk of it blowing up in your face exists. That was the story in normal times!

While influencers never carried the credibility of say… the BBC on travel matters, the murk was easier to avoid when travel was easy and care free.

Now that there’s risk beyond just having an influencer kick off about a bad experience, and in fact risk of spending 14 days stuck on a ship, held in quarantine, or facing risk of your own mortality, using so called influencers to build back a brand may not quite be what it was. For now, at least…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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9 Comments

  1. Until I started blogging I had no idea this was a thing. Like many, I believed what I read. Now though my eyes have been opened, so many people writing positive endorsements and experiences- some with #ad disclosure or similar but many not. Now I can spot them a mile off. It’s so frustrating.
    Your site and only a couple of others are on the list.
    Readers expect honesty.

  2. Ben and David have used the hash tag #presstrip throughout so I suspect it’s comped. What I find incredible is the Barbadian authorities are allowing people on the ship to disembark today and fly home without quarantine. They simply want rid of them problem.

  3. …And Different from Skytrax “rankings” how?
    the idea that BA have won a shorthaul award for their overly densified, overly priced, dirty cabins, unreliably catered, no IFE, with intermittently available Wifi and with sector trailing customer service, IT and refund policies is a farce and yet many will open their Sunday papers and take it at face value.

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