Catarina Mello was in Finland when she first realized that COVID-19 may have a huge impact on her life.
Mello, a 30-year-old whose home base is San Francisco, was used to her life taking unexpected twists and turns. In 2017, she had been dutifully checking off boxes of success, working in marketing at Google, but she found herself feeling restless. After taking a trip to Indonesia, she started her Instagram account, @professionaltraveler, determined to reignite some passion in her life.
From the first Instagram post of her Indonesia trip, she told BuzzFeed News, she felt determined to try to turn her page into a profitable business. She drew on her experiences in marketing and tech, starting with posting carefully edited and perfectly posed photos from trips she took to Greece and Bora Bora. She worked the algorithm and began pitching herself to brands for partnerships. Two and a half years later, when the income from her account surpassed her Google paycheck, she quit that job to travel the world. She now runs a team of five, who produce online courses on growing a brand on social media, as well as help run her account.
When Mello first heard about the virus, she figured it couldn’t be as bad as some were warning. As things escalated in mid-March 2020, Mello went back and forth, wanting to finish her obligations for the hotel brands she was working with for the Finland trip, but increasingly worried she may get stuck there. Finally, she decided to leave in the nick of time.
“We managed to get out of Finland and connect in Germany right before it all closed and all flights got canceled,” she told BuzzFeed News.
It turns out, even digital nomads can be brought swiftly back to reality by a global pandemic. In 2020, travel bloggers, like all of us, were grounded, confined to their homes, and unsure how to keep their businesses running. Their partnerships were canceled, and they had to scramble and innovate to keep their head above water. Many spent long nights wondering how they would survive. When they did tentatively resume their trips, some dealt with travel-shaming from their followers (and others dealt with hate for even acknowledging the pandemic) on top of their own fears about safety.
Whitney Haldeman, a 34-year-old who runs the Instagram account @Blonde_Atlas, was on a sailing trip in the Caribbean in March last year when COVID-19 cases began increasing around the world. She had begun what she called her “adult study abroad” in 2015, after being laid off from her job in advertising. Over the years, she built her passion for travel into a business, visiting more than 175 cities in 40 countries, sharing with her more than 60,000 followers on Instagram, and launching a business that plans bespoke group travel tours.
Haldeman said she tends to be an optimistic person, so when she heard about COVID-19, she chose to hope for the best.
“I was terrified thinking about the implications it could have, not just on my business, but also my relationships and life overall,” she said.
After the sailing trip, Haldeman parted ways with her boyfriend, who lived in London, and headed back to the US. They had planned to be apart for three weeks, but wouldn’t see each other for months.
Once her new reality slowly began to sink in, it was daunting.
“I watched my career shift from being the busiest I had ever been, to obviously have everything come screeching to a halt,” she said. She estimated that “at least ~95% of all my traditional income methods paused completely.”
Influencers expressed the terror that they felt in the early days of the pandemic — not just because of, well, everything, but also because their careers basically vanished.
Carmen Sognonvi and her husband, Serge, started their luxury family travel brand, Top Flight Family, in 2016. By 2018, it had become her full-time job.
In the blink of an eye, her family’s life changed. The couple and their two daughters went from jet-setting across the globe to not leaving their Brooklyn brownstone for anything except groceries for months. Before the pandemic, paid travel campaigns accounted for about half the revenue from their business, but in 2020 it only accounted for about 7%, she said, adding they were able to increase revenue from consumer brand deals to make up the gap.
2020 was supposed to be Mello’s most ambitious travel year yet. After COVID-19 hit, she had to cancel or postpone dozens of brand trips and ad campaigns. The future looked daunting.
“Suddenly, I went from having a packed year to absolutely no plans,” she said. She estimated she lost about $30,000 directly from canceled campaigns and press trips.
Jessica Serna, 26, has been posting about her travels on the account @MyCurlyAdventures for about four years, focusing on finding exciting places to explore in Texas, where she lives. Like Mello, 2020 was supposed to be her most active travel year yet, but suddenly, she and her husband were scrambling to keep their business afloat. In the first three to four months of the pandemic, she estimated that her influencer income decreased by about 20%.
“Little by little all of our trips disappeared. Website traffic also disappeared practically overnight,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Serna and the others didn’t have the option of sitting and waiting for the world to open up. They had to pivot and get creative. While this was challenging at the time, the influencers say it ultimately left them stronger than before.
Mello believes that while lockdown obviously caused many challenges for the influencer industry, it also accelerated the trends like “the demand for online courses, the need for more authentic and real content on social media, the social obligation to use one’s influence to speak up about social and political issues, the transition of retail to e-commerce, the transition to short-form video content, and more.”
Stuck at home, Mello was “forced to think of ways to future-proof my business,” she said, and think outside the box. She did so by working on new ventures, like online courses to help people grow their businesses on social media and creating more short-form video content.
Haldeman also tried out new things, and “committed to learning as much as I could and improving my skill set to be better at my job,” she said. She threw herself into studying, finishing a course with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and a certification program in international tourism and events management.
“I just tried to create as many positives as I could,” she said.
“No matter what approach they took, there was always someone in their comments section criticizing them for it.”
As the lockdown continued though, Mello realized she had an advantage.
“Brands quickly realized that they needed to leverage creators to reach their target demographic more than ever now that no one was going to stores or looking at billboards around the city,” she said. “I went from having all my contracts canceled, to getting a lot of new ones all at once a few months later.” With the new brand deals plus sales of her online courses, Mello said 2020 actually ended up being her most profitable year yet, which she called a “blessing in disguise.”
Pretty soon, a new question emerged: When should they get back on the road? Each influencer said she struggled with the idea of getting back out there. They were not only worried about safety, but about appearing out of touch, even if they followed all local safety ordinances and acknowledged they were willing to accept a level of risk others may not be.
“It’s been interesting to see the broad range of reactions travel creators have had to this epidemic,” Sognonvi observed. “Some chose not to travel at all. Others chose to do road trips only, no flights. Some did domestic travel only, no international trips. But what I noticed is that no matter what approach they took, there was always someone in their comments section criticizing them for it.”
Sognonvi and her family slowly began to venture out last July, first with a staycation in Manhattan, then a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. In her posts from the fall, she emphasized how she believed that it is important to show how people could travel, giving her followers tips on things like picking a hotel with proper safety protocols and flying safely.
“It’s time to normalize conversations about how to travel in a safe and responsible way, instead of just pretending that nobody is traveling,” she wrote in September. “That’s about as effective as pretending that teenagers aren’t having sex, instead of educating them on how to do it safely.”
Still though, her posts got heavily criticized by both people saying she wasn’t being cautious enough about the virus and those slamming her for acknowledging it at all. After Sognonvi posted a video on TikTok about how she believes families could safely travel to the Maldives, people accused her of “trying to bring COVID there,” with another calling it “not safe to post.” Then, she said, people started getting arguments in the comments about COVID’s survival rate. “It was crazy to see how polarizing the topic of travel was,” she said.
At first, Serna had struggled to figure out how to keep her business going, finding that at-home content she was making didn’t perform as well. However, over the summer she and her husband began making local trips, primarily outdoors, people began to respond.
“We found that because many people had their anniversaries, honeymoons, etc., canceled that they were looking locally and our page and website ended up seeing a huge surge,” she said. “Because our page primarily focuses on local travel, it ended up being an important resource for our community, and by the end of 2020 it was one of our busiest years yet.” By 2021, she said, they had tripled what they were making before the pandemic.
Not all of the influencers jumped back into traveling, though. Haldeman ended up moving to London during the pandemic to be with her boyfriend (her visa just happened to come through during that time) and barely traveled at all, besides a few car trips in between the UK’s lockdowns. To keep herself afloat, she developed online courses to teach others how to navigate immigration issues while traveling, how to be a digital nomad, and more. She also secured brand deals with wine companies after finishing her WSET certification.
“My mission has always been to help people be better travelers and really steer people away from irresponsible or insensitive travel of any kind, so I really tried my best to continue to advocate for that,” she said. “Instead, I tried to focus on being optimistic about the future and planning for trips down the road.”
She recently took her first big flight since COVID-19, to Greece earlier this month, writing on Instagram: “This one is for all my travel industry friends who spent the last year on the bench. Here’s to getting back in the game and back to work.”
Looming over any plans, though, was backlash. Travel bloggers are already the focus of much ire for their seemingly perfect and stress-free lives, and Mello braced herself for criticism when she made the decision to begin traveling again after about six months grounded. (She said she took precautions like getting tested frequently, planned mostly outdoor excursions, and only stayed in hotels with strict protocols.)
To her surprise though, her followers were mostly supportive of her decision to venture out.
“I received thousands of DMs of people saying they really needed that fresh travel content to get them through lockdown and isolation,” she said. “It gave them something to look forward to and gave them hope that maybe the world would get back to normal sooner rather than later.”
Serna said that she did not experience a ton of criticism either and that she believes being open about what precautions she was taking helped.
“We tried to stay very transparent with our community and because so many people could find trips that fit in their comfort level, we generally received positive feedback with very little pushback,” she said.
“It’s time to normalize conversations about how to travel in a safe and responsible way, instead of just pretending that nobody is traveling.”
While Sognonvi said she did receive criticism, it was from both extremes.
“Because our content always had such a strong emphasis on COVID-19 safety, we actually caught just as much flack from COVID deniers as we did from travel shamers,” she noted.
Now that vaccines are making traveling safer, it seems people are feeling ready to board a plane again. According to statistics from a study called the Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Report, half of American travelers “indicated they are excited about travel in the near term.” The CDC’s current guidelines recommend that travelers wait until they are fully vaccinated before embarking on any trips and continue to wear a face mask on public transportation.
Mello believes that travel influencers can be a huge part of showing consumers they can travel responsibly and help revive the industry so many people depend on.
“I genuinely believed that it was possible to travel safely by getting tested and following mask and social distancing guidelines,” she said. “And I wanted to share that message with my audience. Too many communities around the world also depend on tourism, and the thought of them struggling to put food on the table was really difficult for me.”
Sognonvi agreed, saying that while travel influencers have always given their followers a window into a jet-setting life, now they can make a big difference by helping people feel more comfortable with travel.
“I think people appreciate being able to preview what the experience is like by seeing us go through the process first,” she said.
For Haldeman, the pandemic has only strengthened her resolve to share her love of travel with more people, and make it more accessible for all.
“I didn’t hear anyone tell me they learned how much they actually appreciate clothes or material things,” she said. “Instead, for most of us, it’s being out in the world together and connecting with each other in it. I don’t think any of us will ever take that for granted again.” ●
This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Travel Week series.