The travel industry has shifted significantly in recent years, with the Internet and social media playing outsized roles in that transformation. According to Instagram, nearly a million accounts search the platform for travel-related hashtags every week, and more of its users have expressed interest in travel than the average Internet user. Over the course of six months in 2017, the platform’s advertising base doubled as its influence on travel decision-making grew. Companies have had to rethink their marketing strategies to court young jetsetters who prefer experiences, not material objects, when planning purchases.
Two women have cracked the code in reaching them: filmmaker Kristen Kellogg, founder and creative director of the creative agency Border Free Travels, and television personality and chef Aida Mollenkamp, founder of food and travel lifestyle site, Salt & Wind. We spoke with them to learn more about how they’ve used video, photography, and SEO to grow their respective brands and to create engaging branded content for clients.
First, the numbers
Travel is the sixth-largest industry in the United States when it comes to digital ad spending, and it’s projected to slide into fifth in 2020. According to a report released by eMarketer last month, spending for online travel ads made up 8.4 percent of all digital ad spend nationwide; projections show it growing by 21.4 percent to $10.86 billion in the coming months. The report also states that more than half of ad spend goes towards search marketing, with the travel industry comprising 10.6 percent of all search spend.
Most of that goes towards mobile marketing and video. This year, spend on video ads will jump 25.7 percent to around $2.62 billion, while mobile marketing continues to reign supreme. A 25.1 percent boost in 2019 will result in a 70.1 percent slice of the travel industry’s total digital ad spend. There are more than 1 billion monthly users alone on Instagram. It’s not difficult to see why social media platforms with a large userbase that skews younger and websites with original content that can generate more organic traffic are more important than ever for brands and marketers, but not everyone is using the tools as effectively as Mollenkamp and Kellogg.
Defined by self-motivation
Before establishing Salt & Wind in 2015, Mollenkamp studied at Cornell Hotel School and Le Cordon Bleu Paris cooking school. Afterwards, she became the food editor at Chow.com, where she ran the test kitchen. She then made the jump from editorial to TV, appearing as the on-camera host of shows on the Food Network and The Cooking Channel. But it was a trip to Cuba that inspired Mollenkamp to channel her love of travel and passion for food to creating content missing from the Internet at the time.
Kellogg followed a different path. After receiving undergraduate degrees in communications, marketing, and PR, she moved to Nantucket and began volunteering for a local film festival. That’s when she fell in love with visual storytelling. A winter in New Zealand inspired her to make a film, but she needed help from filmmaker Dan Driscoll, who taught and mentored Kellogg for six months. That experience, along with online courses and learning photography on her own, led to Kellogg’s first film production in 2010. The following year she established Border Free Travels as a creative agency focused on image-based travel and lifestyle stories.
A press trip brought Mollenkamp and Kellogg together when both collaborated with Visit Thailand. The duo became fast friends, shooting and speaking at conferences together. “We thought it would be a great idea to test the waters and try out a Mexico City trip that was like, ‘Border Free Travels and Salt & Wind run this trip together!’” Kellogg said. “While we were in the process of creating that, we decided that we should just kind of go all in and work together on both brands.”
It’s not solely a two-woman operation. They have a network of freelancers and an SEO consultant, and when they travel abroad, they either assemble a crew using people they trust or shoulder the work themselves. “I do have editors that I refer to for certain projects,” Kellogg said, adding that it depends on the workload and how much she and Mollenkamp want to take on.
When they can take advantage of their global connections, they do. “I think we're getting to the point where we're going to see a lot more growth in what we're doing,” she continued. “And so we're gonna be using more on-the-ground help and things like that. But [it] just really depends on the project, so we’re able to pull a team together if we need it; able to shoot solo, if not.”
Balancing editorial and video content
Mollenkamp’s background in editorial and Kellogg’s experiences as a visual storyteller ground a multifaceted approach that makes their partnership work. “We both bring travel expertise,” says Mollenkamp. “We both have content creation expertise visually and editorially. And the piece that very much overlaps between Border Free Travel and Salt & Wind is that we both work with brands. So, on Salt & Wind, we work with them [on] more traditional sponsored post brand work . . . advertorial, sponsored, the influencer content, whatever you want to call it — whereas Kristen's company is first and foremost a content agency.”
They still operate the businesses as separate entities, but it’s finding the places where their Venn diagrams intersect and using their individual strengths (and the strengths of their network of contributors) to craft content in different formats and across various platforms that distinguish their collaboration.
With Border Free Travels and Salt & Wind operating as separate sites, how do they decide which content ends up on which? “We're still working that out,” admits Kellogg. “We're trying as much as we can to [produce] the type of content that we want to live over on Salt & Wind. We're really focused on producing content in the places that we work in, like Mexico, Italy, France, Spain, and California.”
Aida Mollenkamp prepares ravioli di pappa al pomodor with chef Gionata D'Allessi of Io Cucino in Bibbona, Italy, for olive-oil company Lucini.
A recent project with a higher-end olive oil company involved the creation of a five-film video package. Kellogg shot the series, explaining that brand’s audience matches Salt & Wind’s, so that’s where they hosted the content, because audience and brand are the biggest factors they consider when deciding where to place content. Some branded content is strictly editorial, while other projects have more moving pieces.
“Sometimes, like in the case of this olive oil company, we will have a video package that lives on Salt & Wind, and then we will also have written editorial around it,” Mollenkamp explained. “The reality is we have to really work with a brand and say to them, ‘What are your objectives you're trying to get across?’”
The ethics of brand collaborations
When it comes to choosing which companies they approach or which jobs they accept, Mollenkamp and Kellogg agree that shared values are key. How do they figure out if there’s alignment between their brands and a potential client? Sometimes it’s through personal use of a company’s products and services; sometimes it’s through research. “There's always people who come in and you don't know their brand, but you're, like, this totally seems like a great alignment. I'm always open to those kinds of collaborations,” says Mollenkamp. Other times, the process involves seeing which brands like-minded influencers are working with and doing what she calls “a little bit of stalking.”
“You say you care about sustainability; we do too. So does this company . . . We're not just trying to shill and talk about any old olive oil.”
For example, with their olive-oil client, the founders found it challenging to convince their audience that paying a little extra for the product compared to other brands was the right move. The sell then became more about the brand’s mission statement and its artisan-based, sustainable production because, as Mollenkamp and Kellogg have learned through outreach and SEO, those are values they share with their audience.
“We try to weave in the values of the company a little bit more,” says Mollenkamp. “You say you care about sustainability; we do too. So does this company. That's why we're partnering with them. We're not just trying to shill and talk about any old olive oil.”
The SEO game
There are now countless travel and lifestyle blogs on the Internet. To not only survive but excel, content creators have to find and focus on exactly what their audience wants. “The big play that Kristen and I have dug into in the last eighteen months is the SEO game as much as one can [in] this era and really listen to what the audience is telling us,” Mollenkamp says. It’s not a complicated strategy, but it’s overlooked by other content creators who chase trends and invest in the meme of the day rather than finding and connecting with a core audience.
The first step in their two-pronged editorial strategy, according to Mollenkamp, involves “looking at Google Analytics and doing the really analytical, boring side and just saying, ‘This is performing well. What does that mean? What kind of content does our audience want if they're looking for this?’”
The second step is “actually asking the audience, telling them to DM us, telling them to respond to our newsletters or whatever way that we can get them to give us feedback themselves,” she continues.
Investing in editorial
Video ad spend and mobile marketing may be on the rise, but that doesn’t mean editorial is dead. “In terms of SEO, I always feel like the best investment is going to be on the editorial sites first,” Mollenkamp says. “Kristen and I put a lot of our effort there because they're going to be evergreen . . . that's going to continue to give back.”
The biggest growth opportunity they’ve found is by updating their articles that are on page two or three of Google search results and working to get them to the first page. “You look at competitors and say, ‘Oh, well, their article’s longer.’ It's more focused or niche or whatever it is. And we try to create the Salt & Wind version of that,” Mollenkamp explained.
It’s also how they shape content to lead travelers “into the sales pipeline,” Mollenkamp says, adding that quality wins over quantity and that Google’s algorithm usually rewards those who put in the effort. “People think I need to be on page one, or I need to write a ton of content. Sometimes you just need to improve B+ content to A+ — it makes a huge difference,” she continued.
On being accidental influencers
Because they also have large followings on social media, with Mollenkamp racking up almost 40,000 followers on Instagram, Kellogg counting nearly 58,000 on her personal account, and both contributing to the almost 37,000 on the Salt & Wind Travel account, they’re considered social influencers. While they acknowledge the label, neither embrace it. “I've never said ‘I'm an influencer,’” Kellogg says. “I come from a filmmaking background, so when someone says to me, you're an influencer, I say, no, I'm a filmmaker. I just happen to have an audience that follows what I do. And I'm able to share these beautiful brands with people that want to know more about the world or the products that are out in the world. That's how I look at it.”
“Kristen's better about engaging the audience and talking through stories,” Mollenkamp says. “I still have a little bit of — not anxiety but I'm just a very private person. I don't necessarily want everybody to know everything about me. I would prefer not to be an influencer. At the same time, there is so much magic behind being able to reach your audience and talk to them directly, immediately because of these channels.” She added that Instagram is their favorite platform because of its visual emphasis and because of “the ability to storytell.”
Returning to the idea of authenticity, Kellogg says that, unlike most Instagram influencers, their primary focus isn’t fashion-based or on meticulously crafted aesthetics, but on the content. “What Aida and I do is create content based around what we actually do. We don't decide, like, ‘Oh, today this dress would look great,’” she says. “We do things we're genuinely interested in. And if there's a great setting for our photo, awesome. We live our lives how we live them and try to share that with people whenever the moment arises.”
On women-led businesses and the “girl boss” movement
Having recently celebrated her ten-year, on-camera anniversary, Mollenkamp can reflect on how the media landscape has changed for women like her. “The greatest thing about the girl-boss movement is that there's greater acceptance for women to be all kinds of women on camera. When I was first on camera, I was groomed a certain way and told to dress a certain way,” she remembers. “And that's totally great. That worked for that moment. But I think what it's meant for Kristen and me now is, you know, we're not taking a break every two seconds saying, ‘Is my makeup perfect? Is my outfit absolutely perfect if I'm on camera?’”
“We're actually creating content photography, video, what have you,” she continues. “If our hair [is] a little bit windblown, that's because we're on a windy cliff. We're not going to spray it into place and bobby-pin it. There's a little bit more freedom there, and it also makes it so we can have a freedom in the actual content creation.”
“I think it makes the content more relatable to an audience too,” Kellogg adds, noting that she didn’t take selfies until asked to during a project with Rosetta Stone. “It ended up working really well because I'm not this model-perfect human, you know? I'm just a normal person.”
What’s up ahead
Through Border Free Travels, Aida and Kristen hope to launch an educational platform in the near future with online courses, as well as a newsletter with business tips and insights for entrepreneurs and other business-minded people with ideas they need help marketing. Visit the website and follow the creatives on social media for updates.
Cielo Lutino contributed to the reporting for this article.