To say that this is a difficult time to be running a travel blog would be putting it mildly. Business is a million miles away from usual right now for anybody working in travel, one of the hardest-hit sectors amid the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.
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The uncertainty is the toughest. Nobody knows when things will return to normal again, or if they will at all. Perhaps there will be a rush to embrace travel when all of this is over, or maybe there will be a new ingrained cautiousness when it comes to booking big trips. Who knows. It does feel like we’re living in a different world now, and all we can do is try our best to adapt to the new circumstances.
Lisa and I count ourselves among the lucky ones in this situation. Her regular salary means that we still have plenty of runway ahead, which means precious space to find our way forward. We can afford to look after ourselves and take time to regroup. Many of my travel blogging friends, and indeed friends in a swathe of other professions, are not so fortunate.
So, as these are not normal times, this will not be a typical business report. I’m ditching the regular format and will instead pace through the last three months, the gradual onset of a pandemic, how it has affected us and what we are doing to adapt. And I will do my best to shine a light of positivity on the uncertain times that lie ahead.
Because, somehow, there has still been some good news for our business among all of the anxiety.
The targets set out in our last business report at the beginning of the year are, of course, out of the window. But in spite of everything, we are daring to be optimistic. The opening quarter of 2020 culminated with my 37th birthday a few days ago, and instead of being at a musical show as we had planned, we ate, drank, and drew up a strategy for the new future.
All will be explained in due course, but first, let’s rewind…
The year had started so well…
January 2020 began with a flurry of activity and hope. We saw a sharp increase in website traffic, as festive hangovers subsided and people starting dreaming about travel again. In the first few days of the year we made several big affiliate sale conversions.
By the end of January, we crept past $1,000 in affiliate commission for the first time in a single month. A big tour cancellation knocked this down to $782, but it was still our best yet.
January also saw the launch of our new-look website. Lisa took leave from her regular job, and we worked on it together for four days straight, and many mornings and evenings afterwards. We chose to do the design and development work ourselves rather than outsourcing it, as we felt it would be better to internalise the knowledge of our site, and, well, that it would be more rewarding. Not to mention saving on funds.
As with any migration and redesign, we encountered challenges and teething problems. But we managed to overcome everything that stumbled into our path, and the new site went live on Sunday 19 January.
We also had reason to celebrate at home. On Tuesday 14 January, Lisa’s sister Sara gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Alfie. He’s been a joy for the whole family.
The good news continued in February…
Anyone who has been following these reports will know that one of our key business goals from the very beginning was to qualify for the advertising network Mediavine. Well, in February 2020, we finally made it.
The traffic threshold required to qualify for Mediavine is 25,000 sessions per month. In December 2019 we had 11,636 sessions for the month, so it looked like we still had a long way to go. But the new website changed everything.
We’re not sure of the exact reason – perhaps moving our hosting to Siteground was the main factor, maybe the new design was better optimised, or more likely it was a mixture of factors – but after the site went live, our traffic soared. Towards the end of February our traffic peaked at over 28,000 in a 30-day period, and we put in that Mediavine application. Within a few days we were accepted.
This fantastic news coincided with us moving into a new home. All of the things happening at once!
Cue bubbles and celebrations. But not so fast…
Preparing for TBEX in Sicily
With the new site complete and our place on Mediavine secured, we turned our attention to the next big date in our calendar – the TBEX Europe conference in Sicily, which was due to be held on 10–13 March. This trip had been months in planning. We had a packed itinerary of tours lined up. We designed hoodies, flyers and new branded business cards to take with us, and had them printed.
I was so excited that Lisa would be able to come to the conference, and meet lots of the amazing people in the travel blogging community. The last TBEX in July 2018 came at the very beginning of our blogging business journey, and I went on my own – it was a HUGE help in getting us off the ground (not least because it’s where we became aware of Make Traffic Happen). Sharing the experience with Lisa this time was going to be great, and we felt it was coming at a real turning point for the business.
It’s easy to say now that, looking back, we should have all been paying more attention to the virus in China that was increasingly infiltrating the news airwaves.
As cases began to sprout in northern Italy, a nervousness grew among the TBEX community. Then it was announced that there was a confirmed case in Palermo, on the other side of Sicily from the conference venue in Catania. Meanwhile, the ITB conference in Berlin – the world’s biggest travel trade conference, with over 100,000 attendees, due to take place the week before TBEX – was called off.
The nervousness simmered into anxiety and apprehension. Would the conference still go ahead? If it did, would people still go? Among the conference community, it seemed that the greatest fear was not getting sick, but the risk of getting stuck in quarantine and being unable to fulfil commitments.
The conference organisers handled all of this incredibly well. In particular, TBEX’s CEO Rick Calvert answered everyone’s questions in the Facebook group with an admirable calmness and levelheadedness given how much stress the whole team must’ve been experiencing.
Inevitably, at the beginning of March – less than two weeks before the scheduled dates – the announcement came. TBEX Europe would be postponed, with new dates to be confirmed later.
Should we go to Sicily anyway?
This gave us a quandary. We had return flights and accommodation booked for a week in Sicily, but no conference to attend. However, many bloggers were still planning to go. We didn’t know if we would get refunds for our flights, and with limited business funds, was this an opportunity we could miss?
After some painful consideration, we made the decision not to go.
We felt that we just couldn’t risk it. What if we ended up being quarantined, leaving Lisa unable to work? And of course, we didn’t want to play a part in spreading the virus. Others decided to go ahead, and we completely understand the reasons why. At that point, the global severity of the situation wasn’t anywhere near as clear as it quickly became afterwards.
The decision spared us a nightmare situation. Within 24 hours of our scheduled outward flight touching down in Catania, the whole of Italy was put on lockdown. We would have been stuck. Our blogging friends who had made the journey were scrambling to get out of the country.
Our friends Cooper and Sarah, who featured in one of our career break travel interviews, were on the same flight to Catania that we had been due to take. Here’s their story about being stuck there when Italy was shut down. My friend Becki who runs the blog Meet Me In Departures wrote about taking a rescue flight back to the UK. A few days later, I heard from my best friend and his partner that they were stuck in Poland.
Luckily, everyone who travelled to Catania managed to get away safely. But there are many stories about travellers stranded around the world who have not been so fortunate.
On the finances side, things worked out ok for us. We got a full refund for our accommodation and a tour that we’d booked, and Easyjet gave us a voucher for the full value of our Catania return flights.
Getting started on Mediavine
The situation at home lagged behind elsewhere in Europe. As we saw countries around the continent going into lockdown, it wasn’t happening here, and we felt an eerie ‘calm-before-the-storm’ vibe.
We focused on getting everything set up with our Mediavine ads. At this point, our website traffic was holding fairly strong. Travel bloggers with content focused on China and Italy were reporting huge traffic drops, but with much of our content focusing on yet-to-be-impacted South America, our numbers stayed buoyant.
In the first few days of March, we were still holding firm at 35,000 page views per month. The revenue from Mediavine ads is based on RPM – revenue per mille, or income per 1,000 page views to put it another way. Typical RPM rates for a travel blog (based on multiple conversations among the community) are anything between $10 and $25, so we were expecting to make somewhere between $350 and $875 per month to begin with, which would then grow in line with our traffic and optimisation efforts.
However, all too predictably, the growing global situation was taking its toll on advertising expenditure, and especially on travel. In the first few days on the platform, our RPM was below $5. And worse news was yet to come…
The inevitable traffic tank
We could only stay afloat for so long. As lockdowns spread around the world, the travel industry ground to a halt. And so did our website traffic.
Here’s a graph showing our daily sessions from the beginning of February to the end of March:
Before this pandemic tightened its grip around the world, we were hitting over 1,000 sessions a day on a fairly frequent basis. By the end of the quarter, we collapsed to below 250 a day. A drop of more than 75%. Devastating.
Our Mediavine RPM actually improved a bit to around $8 by the end of March, but we only made about $60 in ad revenue between launching on 6 March to the end of the month.
So, this is what our 12-month traffic graph looks like now:
And we can expect April to dip much further, as our traffic didn’t reach its lowest point until midway through March.
The article that defied the trend
I did notice an odd little nugget when digging deep into our website traffic data. Our website visits were down almost entirely across the board, but there was one article that bucked the trend and has actually increased in traffic.
This article on van life essentials, guest-written by my friend Lindsay, was our 50th most visited post during January, with barely 100 page views. In March, however, it had nearly six times as many hits and was our third-most-visited article for the month. As far as I can see, it’s the only post on our site to actually see an increase through this period.
What could be the reason for this? Perhaps people who are living in vans and needing to self-isolate are looking up the essentials they need. Or maybe there’s another explanation – we can’t be sure. If you’re a van-life blogger reading this, I’d be interested to know how your traffic has fared through this situation. Drop a comment at the end of this article and let us know.
Our affiliate bookings dropped before our traffic did
With our eyes on the number of people visiting our site, we had barely noticed the fall in affiliate sales that preceded the big traffic dip. While our traffic had maintained fairly steadily in February, our sales hadn’t. It seemed that people were still reading about travel, but not booking anything, which is understandable given the growing global uncertainty.
So, after that record month for affiliate sales in January, we saw a big drop in February and then a near-total collapse in March. If it wasn’t for one single hotel booking for $105 commission, the last month would’ve been close to flatlining.
The drop in new sales wasn’t the only woe, either. People were also cancelling previous bookings in droves. This meant that affiliate commission we’d been counting on would not be coming in. Yikes.
Entering lockdown in the UK
Still behind the curve, the UK finally announced strict lockdown measures on Monday 23 March. Within a couple of days, Lisa joined me working from home.
This part of it has been great. We’ve set up an office in our second bedroom. It’s been a bit weird for me seeing so many people getting to grips with isolation and home-working; for me, the reverse has happened. Instead of being on my own, I get to spend a lot more time with Lisa, which is a massive silver lining. And it’s another reason why we’re considering ourselves among the lucky ones.
Missing family and friends is the big downside. Both my parents are over 70 and have entered a 12-week self-isolation period. I don’t get to see them often anyway as we live so far away, but the fact that seeing them is now forbidden makes it feel a lot different. We’ve ramped up regular phone calls.
With Lisa’s family, the situation is depressing as we’ve gone from having regular gatherings to not being able to meet at all. We’re gutted not to be able to see our little nephew, a feeling that is amplified for Lisa’s parents (Alfie is their first grandchild). We’re all looking forward to being able to get together once this is over.
These reports usually contain a rundown of our blogging income and expenditure. We’re obviously looking at a very different picture to what we expected three months ago.
We had targeted $2,500 income for this quarter, which we were well on course to exceed before coronavirus had other ideas. Beyond that, we would have reasonably expected strong growth into the summer months ahead – now we’ll be be lucky if we make anything in the next quarter.
In spite of everything, we did make a little over $1,300 from affiliates and ad revenue during the first quarter of 2020 (mostly before the downward spiral, of course). We also had the minor boost of refunds from TBEX bookings.
These were our outgoings for the quarter:
- Regular monthly costs:
- Photoshop monthly subscriptions: £29.94
- ConvertKit monthly subscriptions: £68.69
- Phone bills: £120.46
- Gadget insurance payments: £27.98
- Non-sterling transaction fees: £4.55
- TBEX costs (non-refundable):
- Hoodies: £100.97
- Flyers and business cards: £44.99
- Additional investment/costs:
- Website database fix (freelancer): £81.25
- Office supplies: £28.25
- TOTAL: £493.09 / $613.26
The materials we had produced for TBEX we will mostly be able to repurpose later, so we’re not too worried about that. Other than this we’ve mainly been operating on the bare essentials, which will continue to be the case for a while.
So what now for the business?
In the immediate onset of lockdown, I used the time to get on top of some background tasks that I’d been putting off for a while. I got started on optimising thousands of images on our site to improve the loading speed, and began updating several old posts.
I also grasped the opportunity to bunker down in the learning incubator, and revisited some modules of Adventure in You’s Blogging Fast Lane course. Tom and Anna (the course leaders) held an online coffee morning for the community to discuss the situation, which gave me and many other bloggers some much-needed reassurance, and some ideas on how to adapt.
But with the situation suddenly so very different, Lisa and I felt we needed to take a real step back and assess the situation. So that’s what we did on my birthday at the end of March.
Adaptation and resilience, not total change
We came out of our strategy day with a three-month action plan. These are the key points we’re taking forward…
Firstly, we don’t see a need to completely change our raison d’être. People will travel again, and career breaks are what we live and breathe. It will probably take a lot of time for things to pick up again – we’re braced for a business setback of at least 12 months – but if we can build on our foundations while riding this out, we will come out stronger on the other side.
In the mean time, however, we can make some careful adjustments to our content strategy to stay relevant through this fast-changing situation. Rather than practical travel advice, for example, you can expect to see more big-picture inspiration and planning ideas on our site in the coming weeks.
We’ll also pivot a little towards the career-based aspects of our content. Let’s face it, there will be many people out there rethinking their future career trajectories.
The two main areas where we will refocus our resources will be as follows:
- We will devote time to producing an e-book. This is a project that has been on the backburner from the very beginning, and this is the perfect opportunity to do it and introduce a new income stream. We have content ready to go, and if successful it’s something we could expand in future.
- This is also a great chance to finally spend some time nurturing a community of career break travellers. In the coming weeks, we aim to get this off the ground with our LinkedIn group.
With the situation changing so much every day, it’s impossible to predict what the scenario will be three months from now. So we’re not setting any targets. Instead, we will devote our energy to enacting the new strategy, while keeping a close eye on how things develop and adapting more if the circumstances demand it.
Reasons to be thankful
We are so very, very, VERY lucky that we made it onto Mediavine before everything hit the fan. It would’ve been heartbreaking to get within a whisker and not quite make it before seeing our traffic plummet. But the fact we did make it means we are well set for when travel picks up again.
On a more personal note, Lisa and I are lucky to have each other through this situation, and to have regular virtual contact with our family and friends. This situation must be magnitudes more difficult for the people out there going through it alone.
I have no idea what I will be reporting in three months’ time. But we have a plan to get through it, and we’ll give it our very best shot.
Take care of yourselves and we’ll see you on the other side.
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