We're more than halfway through 2020 – and what a crazy year it's been.
What began as a year in which I was poised to have a lot of work and go on some of my most epic trips yet has devolved into a year where I've barely left my house, let alone the country.
The reason for this, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic.
I first heard of this mysterious new virus in late January, when I was in New York City for a networking event and the New York Times Travel Show. This was when China put Wuhan into lockdown, and the global news services started to pick up on the story.
At that point, nobody in the US was really concerned. In fact, even when I got really sick about 5 days after getting home from NYC, I was more annoyed with our local news stations airing a story about a guy from Chicago who got the virus after visiting China while ignoring the fact that several local schools were closed because so many students and teachers had the regular flu.
(And, for the record, I don't think I had COVID-19 back in January/February; I'm just mentioning that I was sick because at the time I wasn't worried about it!)
February continued on more or less normally; site traffic was up, I was still making travel plans, and the general consensus was that the virus was more or less contained to China and people who had traveled there. Elliot and I took a trip to Puerto Rico, and people were more concerned on our behalf over earthquakes than the coronavirus.
By late February, though, things had started to shift. While the World Health Organization and many experts were still saying that healthy people didn't need to worry, and that borders didn't need to close, COVID-19 was nevertheless spreading.
I think many of us were fairly apathetic about the risk until northern Italy went into lockdown in early March. That's when it started to get real.
I spent one of the most stressful weeks of my life trying to decide whether or not to cancel the tour I was supposed to host in Morocco in mid-March; I decided 2 days before I was set to leave that I wasn't going to go, and very swiftly afterwards the US closed its borders to the EU, and the tour got canceled anyway as tour companies halted their operations.
From there, it was a string of canceled plans, stay-at-home orders, and nosediving numbers when it came to both site traffic and income.
In March, I was still fairly optimistic that this could be mitigated, and that maybe things could be “back to normal” by summer. But as March melded into April, and April faded into May, it was obvious that COVID-19 wasn't going to just disappear.
The tone of the emails in my inbox from conference organizers and PR reps changed from “let's just see what happens” to cancelations, rescheduling to 2021, and indefinite postponements. In some cases, the emails just ceased altogether as an increasing number of people in the tourism industry were laid off or lost their jobs altogether.
I am well aware that travel is a privilege, and that I'm very lucky to do something that I love as a job. But I've also worked for more than 10 years to build my own profitable business, and it was devastating to see everything basically evaporate overnight.
Writing this now in July, of course, I can let you know that things are starting to improve. Even though COVID-19 is still raging here in the United States and I still have no travel plans on the horizon, traffic numbers and earnings started to slowly rise again as summer arrived.
As far as the blogging side of things goes… it's starting to get better. We still have a long way to go, but I hope that the worst is over.
Now that I'm not actively worried about the collapse of my business and loss of my livelihood, I thought I'd share a bit more with you about what it's really been like to run a travel blog during a time when the world was closed.
10 truths about running a travel blog during a pandemic
1. Mixed emotions are an understatement
A big thing I've been struggling with through all of this has been balancing conflicting emotions.
Some days I've felt hopeful and motivated; other days I've been depressed and sluggish. I've oscillated between feeling grief over the loss of a year's worth of work and travel plans, and guilt for being less adversely affected than many of my peers in the travel industry.
Back in April, these see-sawing emotions were more difficult to grapple with. As time has worn on, I've done my best to just accept that I may feel differently from day to day.
And of course now that we're a few months into this, I'm adding in daily feelings of rage to this mix as I read stories of people ignoring restrictions, arguing about wearing masks, and basically just making things worse in a lot of areas.
At this point, my business *could* be doing better, but selfish people are ruining it for those of us who ARE following all the rules – especially in the US.
2. The facts are fluid
Part of the reason people are so upset and resisting new recommendations and restrictions is that what we know about COVID-19 is constantly changing. Facts are still facts, but in this case we're continually learning new ones.
This isn't surprising, considering that this is a novel (i.e. brand new) virus. We are literally watching the scientific process unfold before us. Unfortunately that sometimes means that what was recommended 3 months ago may not be what's recommended now.
It's been important to acknowledge what we don't know, and also when we've been wrong. For example, early on I was very much in the “healthy people don't need to wear masks” camp, because that's what most experts were saying. But as we've learned more about how this coronavirus spreads, the recommendations have changed – and now I don't go anywhere without my mask.
I believe in doing my own research, but I also am under no illusions that I know more than virologists, epidemiologists, and other actual experts. We need to pay attention to the people who actually know what they're talking about – even if we don't like what they're saying.
3. You play the “should I share this?” game often
Because recommendations are changing all the time – sometimes from one day to the next! – I've found myself agonizing over whether to share certain things or not, both on my blog and my social channels.
On the one hand, I'm not really actively encouraging travel right now – especially not international travel that requires plane trips, or that could bring the virus to vulnerable places. BUT, I also can't just stop running my site during all of this.
I've had to change tactics slightly; early on I was writing about ways to travel from home and how to keep supporting the tourism industry. Now, I'm writing about older trips on my blog, but making sure to be clear when sharing new posts that they're just for inspiration for that magical “later” time when we can all travel again.
On social media, I've oscillated between just turning things off entirely, to using certain hashtags like #TravelSomeday and #TravelLater to imply I'm not promoting travel right now, to only sharing certain types of content.
4. No matter what you share, you're wrong
Even though I've tried to be very intentional about what I'm sharing and when, it's impossible to make everyone happy all the time. Especially now when emotions are running high all around, people have been very vocal about telling me what they think of me and the content I'm sharing.
When I shared travel-inspired cocktail recipes to try at home, I got this comment:
When I write about old trips and share those new posts, I get comments like this:
The disclosure I've added to every post on my site pointing out that now isn't really the time to travel apparently isn't enough for some people who are landing on my site through Google searches. I'm sorry, folks, but I'm just one person and I cannot keep all 800+ posts on my site updated with COVID restrictions for every country in the world!
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion when it comes to the type of content they like to read online, but let's please remember that I'm a real person trying to keep my business afloat in as responsible a way as possible!
(And, if I was in this just to make money, I'd be hopping on planes right now and telling you to do the same! THAT would be the best for my bottom line – but I'm not doing that right now, because I actually believe in science and care about other people.)
5. Social media is a minefield
Don't even get me started on how I decide what to share on social media! It's been a creative challenge to navigate around travel bans, conspiracy theories, social justice movements, and everything else in the last few months.
The upside is that people are spending more time on social media, and engagement is up! The downside is that the reason why engagement is up is because everyone has an opinion right now – and they're usually not afraid to share it!
I've done my best to provoke (usually thoughtful) discussions about a variety of topics on both Instagram and Facebook. For the most part, these posts are really successful, and I'm always glad to find I have so many smart and thoughtful followers.
But of course feathers get ruffled by just about everything, since the pandemic has become so political (especially in the US). Last week, for example, I published my most controversial post ever on Facebook, which led to me banning several people from my page!
6. Bye bye, ad and affiliate earnings
Most users of the internet assume that monetized travel blogs make money through advertising. As a concept, this is true. But what most people don't understand is that, in practice, just because you *have* ads on your website doesn't necessarily mean you're going to make money from them.
When the world shut down, advertising earnings virtually disappeared overnight. Now, I will be honest and say that my earnings didn't drop to $0 – but they did nosedive by about 85%, and sat there for a couple months.
They're starting to bounce back now that many parts of the world are opening back up and economies haven't entirely collapsed, but it was pretty anxiety-inducing for a while there.
And as for my #2 income-driver? Well, affiliate marketing in travel is faring even worse than advertising, as you can imagine. I make money through affiliate links when people buy/book things that I recommend (like hotels, tours, gear, etc.). But with few people planning trips right now AND many big brands suspending their affiliate programs through all of this, my affiliate earnings have taken the biggest hit of all.
7. We weren't really all that diversified
They always tell you that you shouldn't put all your eggs into one basket. And, before the pandemic hit, I felt like my income streams were pretty diverse. I wasn't overly reliant on any one income stream, and was confident that if one failed, I would be okay.
Well, as it turns out, when all your income streams still revolve around one specific industry or niche (i.e. travel), it can still all fall apart at once when a global pandemic hits!
No one could have predicted this, of course, but it has made me look more critically at how I'm making money.
8. It's not easy to pivot
When travel first disappeared, a lot of travel bloggers started talking about ways to pivot. In fact, the topic of pivoting to new blogs and different topics was basically all people were talking about in all sorts of blogger groups.
After all, not every niche was hit by the pandemic – food, DIY, homeschooling, pets… there were plenty of topics that weathered the lockdowns just fine.
But it's not really as simple as just starting another website. Growth takes time, and you also need passion for new projects if you want them to actually be successful. I had a second niche site already – but it was in the travel niche, too.
I briefly considered ways I could pivot to other topics or other income streams, but at the end of the day my heart just wasn't in it. Travel and tourism is what I know, and it's what I love. Pivoting to something completely new just didn't seem like the right move for me.
So, instead, while I took some breaks from this main travel blog of mine and started publishing less, I ramped up things on my Cleveland Traveler blog. There's been more interest in traveling locally and supporting local businesses during the pandemic, so focusing on my local area seemed like to better place to spend my time and energy.
It seems like it was a good move, as traffic on my Cleveland site is the highest it's ever been, and I'm also about to launch a shop with some specially-designed Cleveland products!
But basically, the point I want to drive home here is that it's not okay to tell people who've lost income or an entire job that they should just go “find something new” (yes, I'm looking at you, Ivanka). That's a very flippant response, and not always feasible. Not to mention that it seems to place all the blame on people for losing their livelihood.
Before the pandemic, I was doing everything “right” as a small business owner. My income was steady and diversified, I had a good amount of savings, I was investing back into my business… but I was still hit really hard by the pandemic. Telling me to go find a new job isn't really helpful, and only makes me defensive!
9. I know I'm actually one of the lucky ones
Having said all of that, I'm actually one of the really lucky ones. Since I work for myself, I never had to worry about furloughs or getting completely fired from my job.
And because 2019 was a really good year for my business, I had enough money tucked away in my bank accounts that I knew I could survive for months with no new income coming in. I didn't need to apply for loans or grants – and believe me, I 100% know how privileged I am to be able to say that.
But it's entirely possible to be really grateful and really concerned at the same time. The first couple months of the pandemic were especially stressful, and I know we're not past it yet – I'm watching my bank balances very closely and making sure I still have a nice big cushion, just in case.
10. People are paying attention
I guess if I had to sum up the things I've observed and learned during all of this, it's that people ARE paying attention; it turns out that bloggers and influencers actually DO have some influence (ha!).
But that means that those of us with any sort of audience have some degree of responsibility to and for that audience.
This should be true ALL the time, of course – I would never, for example, recommend a product that I haven't tried, or write about a place that I would never tell people they should visit. But right now, I think it's even more important that influencers keep in mind that people are paying very close attention.
Yes, people are quick to publicly “cancel” people and brands behaving badly (and yes, I've ruffled my fair share of feathers recently for standing up for things I believe in), but I think they're also open to listening to people they trust.
I haven't done any real “travel” since February, but when I do venture out again, I'm going to do it very thoughtfully, and will be sharing what the experience is like with my audience. I want to promote safe and responsible travel in whatever form that takes, and I firmly believe in leading by example.
So what's the *real* point of this post? Well, if I'm being completely honest, it's been tough to find the motivation to write about travel recently. It's getting harder and harder the longer borders remain closed.
Instead of just letting this blog go silent, I thought I'd give you a little behind-the-scenes look at what it's been like to try to run a travel blog when the whole world stopped traveling.
Hopefully you found it interesting, and hopefully this will be something I can look back on a year from now, happy that it's all behind us.
And, in case you missed some of my lockdown-related content in the past few months, here are a few highlights:
- Feed Your Wanderlust with These 12 Travel-Related Things You Can Do When You’re Stuck at Home
- 9 Things You Can Do to Support the Travel Industry When the World is Closed
- What Working Remotely is Really Like + 7 Tips for Working From Home
- Drinking Around the World Around the House: 9 World Cocktails to Make at Home
- A Decade in Review: 10 Years of Traveling and Blogging
- The Business of Blogging: What I’ve Learned After 10 Years
- A Peek Inside My Camera Bag: My Favorite Travel Photography Gear
- Can You Safely Plan a US Road Trip this Summer?
- Escaping to a Secluded Treehouse: The Perfect Socially Distanced Getaway