In 2003, video game designer Matt Harding quit his job to travel the world. Everywhere he went, he recorded himself doing a little jig, then uploaded the videos to his personal website. In 2005, he learned someone had copied them to a then-fledgling site called YouTube, where a million people had already seen it.
Harding began reaping the lavish rewards of Internet fame. Chewing gum company Stride contacted him offering a sponsorship where he could go wherever he wanted, so long as he made another video with the goofy dancing.
Stride sent Harding around the world. Twice. Then Visa flew him business class around the globe. Doing the dance and traveling was his job—really.
Harding’s 2008 dancing video has been viewed more than 48 million times. His website—“Where the hell is Matt?”—is still the top Google result for “Matt.” So where is he now? More importantly, what can he teach us about getting corporations to pay for years-long vacations?
He’s a stay-at-home dad. “So I’m slow to respond to email and almost never talk on the phone,” he says via email. “In my experience, the age for throwing travel money at random Internet doofuses started in 2005 and ended around 2012.”
By 2010, when he was shopping around his final video, the market had changed. Companies were more inclined to spend their digital budgets on less risky, more strategic campaigns, as opposed to outlier viral phenoms.
The salad days of viral marketing are over. Turning travel into paying work via the Internet is still possible, but it takes more upfront work than filming oneself doing a jig on a crowded street. No one I talked to was flying business-class. However, these intrepid individuals monetized their wanderlust by documenting their adventures, often for niche audiences, and by capitalizing on friendships forged along the way.
1) Turn a travel blog into a business
Lisa Lubin was a local television producer for almost 15 years. Then her cat died and a five-year relationship ended. Feeling unmoored, she decided to take a year-long sabbatical from her life in Chicago to travel the world.
In 2006, she started a blog to document her journey, LL World Tour. Blogs were still a novel format, and she gained some press attention—“TV producer chucks it all to travel around the world”—and an audience.
“There’s so little I really need, after living out of a bag for four years. Typically now, I’m spending my money on experiences.”
One year turned into four, without an apartment or a long-term job. She had some gigs along the way—she taught English, worked in a café, and did PR for a company in Spain. She started doing freelance food and travel writing and began collecting sponsorships on her blog. But the site was a bigger help indirectly: People learned about her and her writing, which brought more job opportunities.
In the nearly nine years since Lubin quit her TV job, she’s been to 55 countries; today, she travels about half the time. She pays for it with a host of freelancing gigs: travel writing and photography, corporate writing, speaking engagements, and media and video consulting. She says her income is about half what it was when she was in television, but travel changed her perspective: She doesn’t have a car, she has a minimalist phone plan, and she books haircuts on salonapprentice.com.
“There’s so little I really need, after living out of a bag for four years,” she says. “Typically now, I’m spending my money on experiences.”
Lubin benefited from being early to the blog space and also from having an already lengthy career in media, but others with less experience and younger blogs have also found a way to make a go of it.
2) Become a street-food maven
If there’s something you need to know about a Southeast Asian noodle soup, odds are Mark Wiens has you covered.
Wiens graduated from college in 2008. He started backpacking through South America, then he made his way to Asia. In 2009, he began blogging, mostly just to record his travels. After six months, his money ran low, so he took a job teaching English. At the same time, his blog earned its first few dollars from ads—enough to buy a plate of food in Bangkok.
“That was a big inspiration for me,” he says. “And that’s when I really started thinking about ways to earn a living online.”
He decided that during his English-teaching year, he would devote all his spare time to his blog and working online. Teaching was OK, but he wasn’t in love with it. He decided he would find some way to do something online that would allow him to travel all the time and eat. (Eating is very important to him.)
With the low cost of living in Bangkok, he was able to save money while teaching, and by the time the year was up, he’d written an ebook about Thai food and was earning enough money through his site, Migrationology, to subsist in Thailand, though not enough to do much else.
In early 2011, now finished teaching, he also started making videos about his meals. “At first I would post a video and nothing would happen,” he says, “but I decided I had to commit to doing it on a consistent basis.”
By the end of the year, Wiens was solidly in the black and no longer dependent on savings, thanks to a combination of ebooks, video ads, and affiliate sales on his website. (He focuses on food, but he mentions where he stays when he travels, and if a viewer clicks through a link to make a hotel reservation, he earns a commission.)
On Wiens’ YouTube channel, there are now videos of him eating mango ice cream in Delhi, nasi campur in Kuala Lampur, and giant lobster at a Thai street food market, each with views in the hundreds of thousands.
In 2013, Wiens got married, and now he and his wife both work on the website full-time. They travel about half the time and are still based in Bangkok. Most of their travel takes place in Asia, but they’ve been to Africa, too.
Wiens says his audience is mainly foodies and that the people purchasing his ebooks tend to be vacation travelers—people who don’t have years to explore the myriad dishes he’s tasted but still want to eat well on their trips.
3) Write for an overlooked audience
Based in Lafayette, a tiny town in northern Georgia, Cory Lee is 25, the youngest traveler I interviewed, and he only began his blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee, in December 2013, a few months before he finished college.
Lee has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair to get around. He caught the travel bug at a young age, going on summer road trips around the U.S. with his mother. After graduation, the two of them went to Australia, his longtime dream destination.
In the beginning, his audience was exclusively friends and family, but he did a lot of guest posting and networking with other bloggers who use wheelchairs. Today, he has 35,000 social media followers and a steady stream of emails from people seeking travel advice.
He focuses on the blog full-time and has had writing gigs with Lonely Planet and publications like New Mobility Magazine. His breakthrough was a post that went viral—10 of the most wheelchair-accessible beaches in the world. Now, tourism boards and destinations are interested in working with him, and he’s able to get rooms, meals, city passes, and other activities comped when he travels in exchange for coverage.
Cory Lee with his mother in the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, Australia.
Lee reckons about 75 percent of his audience is people with disabilities or people directly related to someone with a disability. He writes about his travels broadly but pays attention to accessibility. Transportation is the biggest obstacle, he says. While visiting Paris, he and his mother could only find one wheelchair-accessible rental car, and it cost 650 Euros for a day. Another issue, Lee says, is sometimes hotels will advertise wheelchair-accessibility, but upon arrival he’ll find they’re less than accommodating.
Lee is looking for further ways to monetize the website—perhaps through ads or branded merchandise—and he’s also planning his next trip for the fall: Iceland.
4) Turn a road trip into a marketing opportunity
Jessica Watson quit her corporate job in 2010 and started her own design firm. Two years later she looked around and realized the office she was building was not so different from the one she’d left, so she ditched it.
“I didn’t see my clients regularly enough to warrant always being in the same place, so I thought, ‘well, I’ll just take my company with me,’” she says. “I pretty much packed up my car, downsized my life, and drove away.”
She planned a 10-city U.S. tour with the goal of living like a local for a month in each new place she went.
“I wanted to mimic, to the best of my abilities, a normal life in a different city.”
Watson hopped from Miami to Atlanta to New Orleans, Austin, Boulder, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Memphis, then back home to Baltimore. Along the way she developed a system for ingratiating herself into each new scene.
She used Meetup groups and CouchSurfing forums to find social gatherings. She used Airbnb for lodging and also worked out of coworking spaces or in local cafés. She wasn’t really thinking about finding new work—she had ongoing clients back home in the tri-state area—and this was a finding-yourself journey, not a promotional tour. However, the task of making a new home and meeting new people each month turned into a natural networking opportunity.
“I pretty much packed up my car, downsized my life, and drove away.”
Watson finished her travels at the end of 2013. Today, her biggest client is based in Chicago. She has another in Seattle, another in Boulder, and one in Moab. Her design studio, JWatson Creative, now comprises herself and three contractors, all of whom work remotely.
And she’s not done traveling. She’s hitting the road again in September, with a loose plan to stay in smaller cities around the U.S., and then work remotely from Bali for a spell, perhaps starting from next spring. Right now, she’s just not sure from which airport to buy a ticket.
5) Land a job as an elite resort reviewer
In 1979, Andrew Harper (a pseudonym) founded the Hideaway Report, a subscription-based newsletter providing unbiased reviews of top resorts around the world. The anonymous writer traveled to elite hotels, always paying full freight; the newsletter had no advertising, protecting the integrity of reviews.
Today, the original Andrew Harper has retired, but the company lives on, still putting out a newsletter with over 24,000 subscribers and now also offering trip-planning services. The Andrew Harper website offers membership packages ranging from $195-350 annually.
The company employs several editors who travel the world doing the hard labor of reviewing. An Andrew Harper PR rep passed my questions to the current Andrew Harper editor-in-chief, who we’ll call Editor X. If shoestring travel is not your style, turns out a lengthy career in magazine publishing may be the surest path to becoming a professional resort tester:
Editor X wrote that he was answering my questions from a hideaway resort on an unspoiled tropical island: “[F]rom my cottage I can look down a sandy path to an expanse of turquoise sea. There is no humidity, so the windows are open and the white linen curtains are blowing in the breeze.”
Editor X has a graduate degree, worked as an editor at several major publications, and was the editor of a “well-known New York-based lifestyle magazine.” Also, he has written two books and has traveled to 130 countries over the course of his working life.
He travels three to four months out of the year and generally visits about 10 countries. Resort stays are two nights on average, but it varies since some places have a minimum number of nights. During visits, Editor X is “hyper vigilant” about staff, service details, the physical environment, food and drink, and all amenities.
The best thing about the job? “I am profoundly grateful to have been able to stay in many of the world’s best safari camps—to watch a pair of leopard hunting, to track a tiger through an Indian forest, to experience the Serengeti wildebeest migration, to be up close with gorillas in Rwanda and chimpanzees in Tanzania,” he writes.
Not anyone can do this work. The editor says that Andrew Harper’s present editorial staff has, combined, more than 100 years of experience writing about luxury travel. So if you want to join them, he advises to start writing now: “Editors are usually busy so you’ll often get ignored, but publications need content—websites consume limitless amounts of the stuff—so sooner or later you’ll find a piece being accepted.”
Photo via mroach/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)