Over the past few months, if not longer, I have seen more and more messages popping up promoting workshops and seminars to help people get out of the rut of their everyday lives, off the ball and chain that is an office job, and into a travel lifestyle that will potentially not only make them a lot of money, but also allow them to travel…for free.
Before I go on to explain the many things wrong with this message, I want to fully disclose that I do not work in a corporate office (full-time), nor have a traditional 9 to 5 job (every day). I also have been able to build a career around travel and though I am not the most active traveler these days, I recognize that I travel more often than most. But I also know a lot of people who absolutely love their corporate jobs and are happy in their everyday lives. This persistence that there is no joy in this kind of lifestyle sounds so incredibly clueless and narrow-minded to me.
Even my “lifestyle” comes with a pretty demanding work ethic, a few long hours, and what I like to call, the constant freelance hustle.
Why “Travel for Free” is a lie
It goes back to what my own hard-working, immigrant parents used to tell me, “Nothing in life is free.” And at the risk of sounding like my parents, I have to agree.
In all my years, I have never gotten anything for free. There is always an expectation. When granted a favor, which is the free-est freebie I have ever received, the moral and ethical expectation is that one day you will pay that favor forward. As a travel blogger / influencer / writer (what ever term you prefer), a complimentary hotel stay, or meal, or flight, or upgrade, or activity comes attached with the expectation that you will use your platform and skill, be it in writing, or video, or photography, to pass on the information from your experience. On social media it’s called user-generated content and brands love it because when done right, it is the most authentic and least expensive way of marketing. This technological word-of-mouth is not new. It is what we do every time we tweet about that awesome ice cream we just had on our way to the park one afternoon, or the Instagram of that perfect view from the beach hotel you just scored on your Spring break. It is human nature to want to share good things we are experiencing with others. So much so, we do it almost daily, for free. And when we do, others follow and if they love it too they will tell more people, and maybe even say they heard it from you or saw it on your blog, or heard about it from your latest YouTube video. That chain of communication and sharing is what most brands and businesses invest in when they host you, or give you a complimentary something. That investment is minimal when compared to the marketing dollars that it would take to generate the same level of buzz and reach in at the speed in which we do through our social channels.
What feels free to you is not free to others
However, that doesn’t mean brands will just give things away to anyone in the hopes that it will get people talking, because then they would go out of business. So, instead, these efforts are more targeted and focused and research is done (or should be) on who will yield the maximum output for the least cost (a hotel room, a meal, a trip). But, the true weight of this cost depends on the business. A complimentary hotel stay is a heavier burden on a small, independently own boutique hotel than it is on a major hotel brand with a chain of hotels around the world. It is a lot more to ask from a small restaurateur in remote Ireland, than it is from a major restaurant in the middle of New York City.
Because while it all may feel free to you, it costs somebody something. Cleaning staff, administrative staff, rent and electricity still need to get paid…and they don’t accept a blog or social media exposure as compensation.
But, I am sure you are wondering how is their financial obligation still not free for me? Especially if I am not paying cold hard cash.
Well, it all goes back to that expectation. The expectation that their investment will yield a strong marketing response that will at the very least raise awareness and interest in their brand, business, and/or destination and at most – and this is the icing on the cake for many marketers – that it will result in increased visits and sales – none of which any blogger, influencer, or celebrity can promise. Not even Kim K.
In order to be worthy of such investment, you have to have the platform already in place. While I don’t believe that the platform has to have millions of followers and likes, it does have to have a strong following and engagement. (A strong following does not equate to a large following. Read on.) You need to have built a community that trusts you and is listening and talking with you. The people who are waiting to hear from you about the next best thing…or just what you really like so they can try it too.
Get ready to pay
That takes work and years. It also takes money. Maintaining a blog, paying those hosting fees, the equipment investment, the Internet fees, electricity, etc., is what you have to pay for. Then there are the conferences for networking opportunities, which are plenty. That, on the most basic level, is your investment to grow your profile and build an audience of readers and followers who are steady and committed and engaged. It is what you have to bring to the table, and without it there is no negotiating.
You have to spend the money to set up your business, not only to grow your platform and audience, but also for tax purposes. Only as a business can you deduct expenses associated with working as a freelancer. You have to show not only a personal investment, but also a continuity. These trips are not “perks” or “gifts” and even if they were, you still have to pay for them. According to the IRS, taxable income is defined as all “employee wages and fringe benefits, and [all] income from bartering, partnerships, S corporations, and royalties” must not only be disclosed, but you have to pay taxes on them and that can be a major financial blow if you aren’t ready. And the FTC requires that you fully disclose all of it, publicly, clearly, and prominently. Or face the consequences.
The other danger in allowing these trips to be seen as gifts, favors, or freebies bestowed upon you is not only that this is a deceiving notion, but it minimizes the value of the hard work so many of us do and all the education, efforts, and investment we have put into our businesses.
This is operating a business and all the responsibility that that entails. You have an obligation to continuously find, network, pitch, and lock down those partnerships and travel opportunities. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, you will realize that what you thought was travel for free, is actually work, just maybe in a different setting with more flexible hours, no healthcare, no guarantees, no consistency in pay or pay rate. The more money you want (or need) to sustain your travel lifestyle, the more you will need to work.
In addition, as your brand grows so will your need to seek stories away from the press groups, or differently from how others are sourcing their content. Have you ever wondered why it seems that there is always a wave of bloggers going to Iceland one year, then another wave going to Thailand the next, followed by another and another? It speaks to who had the budget to invest on hosting influencers that year and those stories will dominate the space. If you want to do something different, you have to pay for it. The rat race isn’t limited to corporate life. If you don’t want to fall prey to it, you will need to find and pay your own way. For a creative, this exclusivity and separation from the crowd is like a breath of fresh air. If you’re lucky, someone will recognize that and want to work with you.
This has never been my reality in blogging. Over the years I have been able to build a business that helps supports my family but at some point, you have to actually stop traveling and work (if you don’t burn out first, but that’s another story).
Don’t hate the player
I’m not angry at the people selling you the dream. They, like most of us freelancers and business owners, are on that freelance hustle too. They are only further pursuing their ambitions and finding ways to fund their lifestyles. I also don’t want to discourage you from pursuing a life of travel. I travel as often as I do because I make it a priority. So while some people like to buy nice shoes and clothes, I like to spend my money on two things: home renovations and at least a couple of big trips with my family a year, with some smaller ones in between.
After building my audience, I needed access to the trips and opportunities that would grow my content and I went on many trips over the years where I was hosted and received complimentary meals and experiences, but it was and is always WORK. These trips are an agreement where I am investing my time, my experience, and my skills, on a possible story or feature that will, first (and more importantly) be of interest to my readers, but will also yield a positive outcome for my hosts.
The promise of a positive feature in exchange for a complimentary stay or experience is unethical, and if your hosts are of the thinking that it is the least you owe them for their troubles, then walk away. It is never worth jeopardizing your credibility and the trust people have in you.
Find and partner with destinations and brands who understand and value you for what you bring to the table. Who respect your work and the working relationship you both have agreed on. A complimentary hotel isn’t just making your travel experience easier, it is also one of the most cost-effective ways to generate marketing and public relations for a business. They are just as lucky to have you, as you are for them giving you the opportunity.
The expectation from any sponsor or host that you will show up with the intent to work is fair and exactly how this whole thing operates. Show up, be professional, be ready to get to work. You are not on vacation, even if your Instagram says otherwise.
And if this whole travel for free approach sounds like it’s going to take more than what it ultimately gives, especially if you find yourself still struggling for things like food, or a bed, then maybe what you are searching for is not so much how to live off of freebies, but rather how to grow a business successful enough to pay for travel and other wonderful things in life.
Take it from me, that’s a much sweeter deal.