Hashtag heaven: inside the world of travel’s top Insta-influencer
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Jeremy Jauncey’s Instagram is, on the surface, much like so many other aspirational social media “influencer” accounts. There he is, posing with a panda in Chengdu, each animal showing impressive white teeth. There he is, strolling at sunset through the gardens of Babington House, the members’ club and hotel in Somerset. And there he is, shirtless in the Austrian Alps, pecs glistening like glaciers.
Jauncey, a Scottish former rugby player who retired in his twenties after injuring his back, has 640,000 followers. That’s a lot by any measure, but his own account is a secondary concern. In 2012, the year when Facebook bought Instagram for $1bn, Jauncey and his similarly photogenic brother Tom began sharing pictures of nice places. They gave the account a simple name: @beautifuldestinations. You may well know it; at the time of writing, it has 11.4m followers.
During a trip to London from his base in New York, Jauncey, now 34, meets me at his members’ club on Pall Mall. He wears a white T-shirt, blue jeans and an expensive watch. He is, as ever, Instagram-ready. But he has become a lot more than the buff itinerant he presents to the casual scroller. Beautiful Destinations (BD) has grown to employ 40 people on “Silicon Alley”, a stretch of Park Avenue humming with tech entrepreneurialism. And it is growing fast. In an ongoing hiring spree, Jauncey has so far poached Remi Carlioz, global creative director at sportswear brand Puma, and Brendan Monaghan, former publisher of Condé Nast Traveler — a hire that underlines that contrast in fortunes between this new form of travel media and the old. (Condé Nast Traveler’s own Instagram feed has a more modest 1.7m followers, and it was announced this month that its US and UK editorial teams are to be merged).
As well as sharing nice photos, BD has become a kind of advertising and branding agency. It uses slick video, data and proprietary algorithms (more of which later) to boost digital audiences — particularly on Instagram — for brands including Marriott, Hilton, Shangri-La and various tourism boards.
The extent to which Jauncey’s Instagrammer lifestyle has collided with a more corporate reality is evident at the club, where Jauncey’s newest colleague is taking notes. For five years, Elizabeth Linder led Facebook’s political division in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, advising world leaders on social media. In May, the American became executive director at BD and is about to open a London office. “I’m responsible for comms and external affairs — so the government outreach piece,” she tells me in unimprovable jargon, adding: “Helping governments understand the role of citizens in the travel space is something we’ll be upskilling them on.”
Today it is Jauncey who is “upskilling” me — on what he sees as a new era for the travel industry in which Instagram’s casual hashtag vanity is going somewhere more calculating and commercial. Since its launch in 2010, Instagram’s most visible impact on the world of travel has been the proliferation of holiday snaps of dubious quality and the rise of “influencers” who request free stuff from hotels and airlines in exchange for a few filtered selfies. But things are changing, and Instagram, which in June hit a billion monthly users, boasts of its tightening grip on the travel industry. According to a Facebook-commissioned survey in the US in 2016, 67 per cent of us turn to Instagram for travel inspiration. Brands including Virgin Atlantic, Airbnb and Hostelworld have flocked to the app with ads.
To convince me that BD works beyond the influencer model — or purely advertising — Jauncey is scrolling through its main Instagram feed. “Right, look at this one,” he says. He opens a striking shot of a footbridge over a forested valley in Da Nang, Vietnam. The picture of the bridge, which opened in June and passes through giant concrete hands made to look like ancient stone, has half a million “likes” and hundreds of comments. But like most of the photos on the BD feed, it was shot by someone else. A guy called @smashpop gets a credit at the end of the caption.
The BD feed has become, in large part, a gallery of photos trawled from the rest of Instagram. Exposure is generally the reward. But such is the new reality of the platform that many of these subsidiary Instagrammers are no longer chancers with iPhones. @smashpop is Jason Goh, a professional photographer in his early thirties who runs his own social media agency in Kuala Lumpur. His Instagram, which has more than 65,000 followers, is home to his lifestyle shots of food, architecture and travel. He tells me he was on holiday in Vietnam with his parents in July. He sent up his drone to get a few shots of the bridge before a security guard told him to delete them. “I obliged but fortunately the original copies are still inside the memory card,” he says.
When Goh posted one of the images to Instagram two days later, his notifications came in such a storm that he had to turn off his phone. But it was when Beautiful Destinations asked permission to share it a few days later that things really rocketed. Requests came in from media organisations all over the world, and Goh gained 23,000 followers in a week.
This is what Beautiful Destinations has managed to perfect: identifying what flies on Instagram and either doing it or finding it, and sharing it with the world’s biggest online travel community (that’s the company’s claim and I could find no travel accounts with a bigger following). A team at its New York HQ monitors #beautifuldestinations, a hashtag now attached to more than 25m photos, in a search for posts with viral potential, while also calling on a network of more than 200 “ambassadors” — in effect stringers whom BD can mobilise around the world when it needs particular shots for clients (it does pay them for client work).
“What we’re looking at now is this rising creative class of young people who are incredibly talented but don’t fit into a traditional ad agency mould,” Jauncey says. “And it’s this insight that allows us to go to a country and talk about building their exposure.”
This is where we get to the meat of Beautiful Destinations — and the money. (Jauncey, who worked in e-commerce after quitting rugby, declines to talk bottom lines — BD is a private company with no outside investors. But he will reveal that while the Instagram feed is the business’s heart and calling card, 90 per cent of its revenues come from ad campaigns that don’t sit on it). It took 18 months of building the BD network before a travel brand came knocking. Until then, Jauncey says that the industry, from tourism boards down, didn’t really “get” social media, if they bothered with it at all.
In 2014, Dubai and the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel were running a big PR push and realised that they should take social media seriously. Jauncey’s team got to work and hosted a meeting of influencers at the hotel. Locals and visitors began using the #mydubai hashtag to expose lesser-known shots of the city, the best of which were projected on to the Burj’s sail-like exterior. Jauncey says the hotel’s bookings grew 38 per cent during the month of the campaign.
BD is now in the business of what Jauncey calls “nation branding . . . how does a country position itself for a future generation of traveller?” The company’s creative team travels to destinations with drones and cameras to shoot imagery for clients to use in old and new media, often also sharing that content as “paid partnership” posts on the main BD feed. Jauncey shows me a video that BD made for Bermuda. The minute-long story of an attractive young couple from New York visiting the island is as slick as anything I’ve seen on primetime TV.
Partnerships like this invariably produce clips of varying lengths as well as imagery for use on- and offline. So when does an Instagram account become a branding agency like any other? “I think Beautiful Destinations are very good at what they do, but that’s all they are,” says Paul Charles, head of London-based travel PR firm the PC Agency. “They’re just using good imagery to boost a brand.” This is not, unsurprisingly, how Jauncey sees it. He says no other agency or brand matches BD’s social expertise or following. “We have enormous capability to help brands decide what platforms to be on,” he insists.
As new clients got in touch after the Dubai gig, Jauncey says BD began to get smarter in the way it used the data that its main account generated. He recruited data scientists to build “a robust prediction engine” to show a client, for example, which of a selection of promotional images would do best on different platforms. Jauncey declines to describe exactly how these algorithms work, but he has explained previously how the “digital fingerprint” of an image — its colour, hue, brightness, and percentage of person versus landscape — can be measured against its performance to start establishing patterns.
If the industry has been slow to get smart about social media promotion, many travel brands have been influenced themselves to get Instagram ready. Paul Charles points to one naked example in Marrakesh, where luxury hotel La Sultana installed a large empty frame on its roof to, well, frame the Atlas Mountains. It begged to be Instagrammed, but “the problem of course is that there’s no definitive proof that that has boosted sales”, Charles adds.
Colin Nagy, a travel columnist based in New York and the head of strategy at global ad agency Fred & Farid, believes the third phase of Instagram travel will be more sophisticated marketing tools that drill into monolithic follower counts, and new technology linking ads directly to bookings. “So ‘here’s a targeted deal based on your data and here’s how you book right now’,” he explains. “Right now you can have a bazillion followers but how many are real, how many have the means to spend?”
In the meantime, Jauncey says BD’s power is to provide background inspiration, as well as its direct reaches for wallets. And beyond his opaque algorithmic approach, he says that finding a novel angle is crucial (that and shooting at sunrise or sunset). Back on his own feed, he shows me a recent photo from a trip to Jordan, where he spoke at a conference about social media and “resilience” in tourism. BD has worked with Jordan to help it reverse a steep decline in visitor numbers during the crisis in neighbouring Syria.
In some downtime after the conference, Jauncey hired a young guide for a tour of Petra. The boy led him up to a rocky promontory with a view down on the Treasury, Petra’s most famous — and photographed — temple. The boy laid a rug on the rock for Jauncey to sit on. A photo of him taken with an iPhone of the scene got more than 40,000 likes. For Lina Annab, Jordan’s minister of tourism and antiquities, the photo was a bonus beyond the BD campaign, but she’ll take it. “In today’s social media-driven world, a picture is worth tens of thousands of engagements,” she says.
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