For Valerie Joy Wilson and Alex Baackes, traveling is more than just a hobby. Valerie, a Saratogian, and Alex, who hails from Latham, have made jet-setting a full-time profession as travel influencers, curating their worldview via their widely followed blogs and Instagram handles, @trustedtravelgirl and @alexinwanderland, respectively. So, what exactly does a travel influencer do? To get the gig, you not only have to be a fearless solo traveler with a black-belt in US/world travel, but also be able to turn that into must-read content and ultimately, a business. So, for example, travel influencers will often create content on social media or a blog—maybe, a can’t-keep-your-eyes-off-of-it photo of them in a certain hotel’s luxury spa or enjoying the comfort of a particular airline’s first-class cabin—to entice other travelers to spend their dollars on said hotel or airline. The influencer could be in a paid partnership with that hotel or airline—or simply get a free hotel room or first-class ticket as a form of payment. Not bad, right? (Like any job, though, it’s a lot of hard work, so don’t just assume it’s all bikinis and bellinis.)
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, it threw many American travelers—and influencers like Wilson and Baackes—for a loop. World travel all but ground to a halt for months, with giant swaths of the globe still completely shut off from American tourists today. Also, it wasn’t entirely clear whether airline travel was safe (and there are still a lot of question marks); because of this, the airline industry has taken a massive financial beating, and there have been many ripple effects felt throughout the world’s economy.
Because we know that most of you are working stiffs chained to your home office desks (or “essential” offices) for most of the day, Saratoga Living wanted to give you an escape. What’s it like being a travel influencer, and how has the job been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? Valerie and Alex answer all of our questions (and more) below.
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Valerie Joy Wilson – Trusted Travel Girl
“I live in a chair in the sky.” That’s how the 33-year-old Saratogian, who’s now based in Los Angeles, puts it. (She actually spent a few months in the Spa City recently, at the height of COVID but has since returned to the West Coast.) She first launched her travel blog, Trusted Travel Girl, in 2014, and has since been featured in Forbes, Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure among other top-flight (travel) publications. That, and she’s built a giant social pedestal for herself as an Instagram influencer, to the tune of more than 135,000 followers. Since graduating from Clemson in 2013, she’s regularly racked up 200,000 (!) miles a year, and has visited six continents and countless other countries, working with local tourism boards and brands to create the most authentic travel experience possible at each destination. Her goal is to help others make the most of their travels, which she accomplishes through service content such as YouTube videos (“How to Pack a Carry-on“); handy-dandy digital travel guides (example: Stuttgart, Germany); and even practical pieces on how much to a tip a maid at a hotel. And, of course, there’s also all the great content on her Instagram feed and in her Insta Stories. Wilson is an especially vocal proponent of solo travel, an endeavor that she acknowledges can be daunting for many women. She uses her own experiences to empower others to explore the great unknown without fear. Wilson even hosts Trusted Travel Girl Trips, curated group vacations with her leading the way. Though her group trips were canceled this year due to COVID-19, Wilson is planning to head up groups to Peru and Cambodia in 2021.
But first, we wanted to know what it’s like being a travel influencer right now.
Have you been directly affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
My experience has been really challenging, because I’m in the travel industry, and I got COVID at the beginning of March.
How are you feeling?
To be honest, I still have a lot of brain fog, and it feels like my brain fires slower. Sometimes, I’ll be looking for a word and it’s right there. For a while, I had short-term memory loss. I’ve had Lyme disease for a really long time, and it’s something I still really have to manage, and I have ups and downs. I really felt like I had Lyme disease again after I got rid of COVID, because it was the same symptoms—really bad brain fog, I was really tired, it was really hard to focus, I had short-term memory loss to the point where I would have a conversation and a few minutes later I would have no recollection of what I said. It’s a little better; I’m taking supplements now, but it’s definitely been one of the many challenges that have come with this stupid pandemic.
Have you lost a lot of business because of the crisis? I think I noticed on your Instagram feed that you’d flown across country a few times, right?
Trusted Travel Girl was put on hold and honestly turned into COVID Travel Girl for a little while. It was really difficult, because a lot of people were still traveling and talking about travel, and I was conflicted about encouraging it, so I did a whole article on safe travel during COVID. If you think back, everything changed within three days; it all kind of came crashing down. So, I had to remove [the post]; it just didn’t really sit well with me to have that up there, especially because I had contracted COVID. Travel is probably the biggest industry that’s been hit. As someone that travels all over the world, prior to the pandemic, I felt very secure because I knew if we ever had an economic crash, I wouldn’t have to be dependent on work only in the United States. I could always depend on someone to have some sort of budget somewhere in the world [to hire me]. But for everybody to be hurting—airlines and hotels—it’s been very challenging. And then also comes the question of, is it ethical to tell my audience to travel? So it’s been quite the balance.
What’s your take on air travel right now? Is it safe?
The last time I flew before COVID, everything was normal, but I was so worried. It was prior to anyone being told to wear a mask, and then the next time I flew, masks had just been mandated. I was so grateful that the airlines finally made them mandatory and not a choice, but it was still very challenging. I was going to see my family in Saratoga, and I was taking no chances. I was that nerd in my N95 mask and with a face shield on. I actually yelled at a guy in first class who kept taking his face covering off. The flight attendant told him so many times to put it on, and he wasn’t listening, so I went over and told him he was endangering everyone’s lives.
[On a more recent] flight, it was just so different. Knowing I wasn’t going to see my family and that I had already survived COVID, I felt a little more confident and comfortable. It felt good to know that masks were really being enforced. I had a pretty empty flight on the way back from JFK to LAX; I flew out of JFK because the flight loads looked really empty. When I booked the flight, there were 14 people on it, and when I got on, there were maybe 30. Both times I spent the entire time feeling like a first-time flier; I had this big goofy grin on my face under the mask, staring out the window, so appreciative.
What do you think it will take for the travel industry to pick back up again? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Travel always comes back; it will always be here. Travel is not just going to go away for good. That being said, the loss of revenue and jobs was so substantial in April that it’ll take three to five years to get it back [to what it was]. We think of the golden age of travel as the ’60s, but really, we were living in the golden age of travel—a new one. Flights were more inexpensive than they had ever been in history, you could fly to Europe for a couple hundred bucks, there were deals like no other. There were more direct routes than we’d ever seen and just so much opportunity. One of the biggest problems in the travel industry leading up to this was overtourism: How do we not destroy all of these places, because it’s just so easy and so fast and so affordable [to get to them]?
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Alex Baackes – Alex In Wanderland
Baackes, who spent her childhood in Latham before moving to Brooklyn to go to college and eventually, work, began documenting her travels on a two-month trip to Southeast Asia in the summer of 2009. After four years in the city, she acted on what she calls “an incurable case of wanderlust” (hence the name) and bought a one-way ticket out of the country. She hasn’t looked back since, traveling to places like Egypt, Indonesia, Peru and Belize, documenting her travels via her blog, Alex In Wanderland, and on her same-named Instagram handle, which has about 80,000 followers. Two years ago, Baackes expanded on her business by launching “Wander Women” retreats, getaways designed specifically for women looking to explore a destination with an experienced guide and within a like-minded community. Past retreats have been held in the Dominican Republic, Florida, Lebanon and most recently, Koh Tao in Thailand, where travelers were treated to eight days of diving and yoga under Baackes’ expert guidance.
We caught up with her about her experiences during the pandemic—and her decidedly different take on being a travel influencer than Wilson.
How have you been personally affected by the COVID-19 crisis? Has your business taken a hit?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting time to be in the travel industry. I was in Thailand running my second out of what I thought was going to be 8-10 retreats this year, but little did I know it would be my last one. I spent two months in Thailand just kind of riding out the worst of the lockdown until it felt more stable to travel, and then I returned to the Capital Region. I’m as busy as ever, but it’s basically been about pulling apart my plans for the year and trying to put them back together for what I hope will move forward in 2021. And of course, that’s just the retreat side of my business. All of my campaigns with various Destination Marketing Organizations and tourism boards have been put off indefinitely, so it’s the first time in 10 years that I’m sitting here, and I really don’t have anything on my calendar.
What was it like in Thailand in the early days of the pandemic? Was there lockdown there, too? Were there restrictions, or did it feel “normal” there?
There’s a New York Times article that came out about what an incredible job Thailand did stamping out the virus. They had a very low case count when I arrived there in February. They were already being proactive, so arriving from [another part] of the world, where COVID was just being whispered about on the news and seeing everyone wearing masks was [shocking]. I was going into spin classes, and they were giving us hand sanitizer and spacing out the bikes. At the time it was like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” They eventually did go into quite a strict lockdown with curfews and mandatory mask mandates. But they’ve done a great job, so I didn’t leave for any lack of confidence in their [handling of the crisis].
Despite COVID, you’ve continued doing your retreats virtually. How do you plan to change your business now that you can’t travel as much?
I didn’t cancel any trips; I just postponed them, and I am super optimistic about being able to run them in 2021. But I had other trips planned for 2021, and I pushed back our entire business plan by a year. I have two part-time staff members who are virtual and I wanted to be able to keep them, so I thought, “OK, what can we create right now?” In April, I launched my first virtual retreat while I was still in Thailand. It included a daily yoga session, meditations and a workshop, and since more or less the entire world was in lockdown at that point, it was very focused on this sense of reflection. It was a community of travel lovers, so we talked about past travels and what we missed and how we could get that feeling of travel at home. It was a huge success; I had about 60 people sign up and got great feedback, so when I finally made the very difficult decision to postpone everything, I decided to hold [a virtual event] every quarter. They’re a little sampler of what you get on one of our destination retreats—some yoga, some sustainability, some community. I’m actually really proud of what I’ve created.
Have you already planned your next big trip? When’s the next time you’ll be traveling?
Everything is pretty up in the air for me at the moment. I have gone on a few regional road trips. I’ve been out to our family home in Martha’s Vineyard, I went to Lake Harmony in the Poconos, and I’ve been to Lake George. Oh, and I went to North Fork in Long Island. I’ve been focusing on close-by travel, doing things differently than I normally would, taking my own car. Normally, I’d hop on the Amtrak or take a bus, because then I can work on the transit hours—a way to sneak in some laptop time—but now I’ve been avoiding public transportation.
Normally summers are an extremely busy time for influencers because of the short summer season around the US. That’s when we’re busy with a ton of DMO campaigns, retreats and projects. So, getting time to actually soak up the Capital Region…I haven’t lived here, full time, very consistently, but I’ve been coming here my entire life, and I’ve done things since COVID that I had never done before. I’ve visited local wineries that are doing outdoor brunches now, I’ve done hikes I’d never been on. It’s been fun to explore. And I’ve been really excited, as a small business owner, to be able to support other small businesses. I’ve been really doing what I can to take part in whatever efforts they’re making and support them in person or from afar. Whether it’s liking or sharing their social media posts or showing up to outdoor events or buying gift cards.
Where are you recommending that people travel right now? Are you recommending they take certain precautions? Or are you just saying, “Stay where you are right now, and we’ll travel again once everything is better”?
I think looking at the data that’s out there, people are traveling whether they think it’s safe or not. I saw a headline the other day that said, like, 70,000 people have flown into Cancun since they reopened the hotels in June. As a travel influencer, I feel like it’s my role to help people do that safely, regardless of what their reasons are. Some people have been traveling throughout this for essential reasons—doctors or nurses traveling around the country, or people going to see relatives that need their assistance. There’s such a wide range of reasons why people are traveling right now. I’m just trying to focus on education. This is so new to all of us, so I don’t think there’s any “COVID travel experts” yet. It’s a learning process for me, too, but I’m trying to share that learning process with my audience as I go.
Where are you most looking forward to travel to once you’re allowed to and it’s safe? I’ve really been loving the Middle East lately; I’ve launched a lot of trips there, and I have many in progress. I go through phases: I’ve spent a lot of years obsessing over Southeast Asia; backpacking through Latin America; and now I feel like I’m in my Middle East phase, so I’m really looking forward to getting back there.