Hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – of abandoned travel blogs litter the internet with just a handful of posts and then silence. They gave it the old college try. They had the best of intentions. They wanted to travel the world and write about it.
The fact is: the vast majority of folks who try to become bloggers / influencers / YouTubers, etc. give up within the first year. But why?
Because the professional, longtime bloggers – the original gangstas, if you will – make it look easy.
Not because it is easy, mind you. But because they have put in a DECADE of work, learned the lessons and found success at the end of a very long journey.
The OG Travel Bloggers Series is about the entrepreneurial wanderers who have stuck it out long past the early days where a free hotel room was considered compensation. Past SEO and HTTPS and GDPR hurdles. (Don’t know what those things are but want to be a blogger? You’ve got lots to learn, grasshopper!) This remaining handful of OG storytellers has reinvented the way travelers research trips, hotels and destinations. These trailblazers, most of whom self-financed for years before blogging ever became profitable, are the reason there are so many resources for travelers on the Web today.
I wanted to wait until Valentine’s Day to share the latest choice for my OG Travel Bloggers Series because surprise – the next contestants are one of the most adored couples in travel. They’re nice, they’re funny, they say “soooory” like proper Canadians and they’re a blast to hang out with. Not only are they some of the most easy-going folks you’ll ever meet, they’ve been on the forefront of professionalizing the blogging industry and bridging the chasm between marketing/PR teams and influencers for almost as long as I have. They were named National Geographic’s Travelers of the Year and Dalene’s piece on Auschwitz won BlogHer’s coveted Voice of the Year award. On top of being good at what they do, they are real people with real lives who share the good and the bad. Hecktic Travels is about as authentic a journey as you can find on the Internet.
Meet February’s OGs, the Hecks from Hecktic Travels!
Q&A with OG Travel Bloggers – Pete & Dalene Heck, Hecktic Travels
ANGIE: Crisis has changed your life path time and again. You’ve both been through so much, and yet you remain some of the friendliest people and most grounded influencers in the industry. How have your struggles influenced your career, your content and your choices?
DALENE: Crisis has definitely been a big part of our lives – starting with a barrage of tragedies in 2007 that actually caused not only an upheaval in our careers but our entire lifestyle. We were both living in the Canadian suburbs and subdued in cozy corporate jobs when it all went down, and such events really caused us to rethink our choices. What did we want to do with our limited time on earth? We didn’t hate the way our lives were unfolding at the time, but we knew we could do much better.
So followed the familiar story of selling-it-all-to-travel-the-world, and we began entirely anew. Blogging about our journey started as a hobby until we realized it could be so much more and we turned it into a business. And then, a few years into that, while we did enjoy content creation, we also realized we could still do much more. We merged our newfound loves of travel and new media with the business skills we had honed in university and in our corporate careers. Hecktic Media Inc. (HMI) was then born, and that has become our enduring love. Blogging and content creation is still very much a part of our lives, but it is not what sustains us financially nor holds the most excitement for us. We have returned to our nerdy roots (we love making spreadsheets more than videos!) and thus managing influencer marketing campaigns and providing social media management services has been a perfect union of sorts.
That refocus paid off when I was diagnosed with leukemia just over two years ago. Travel bloggers who don’t travel get boring very fast, and so thankfully HMI had grown up enough to sustain us while I was in treatment (and hence not traveling). Now that I have almost fully recovered – and my medical team is confident that I will never have to deal with this cancer again – we are beginning to find our feet on the road once again. We still aspire to travel much more like we used to, but I still need constant tests and time to heal, so we will be rooted in Canada for the foreseeable future. Which has also been good for our business – HMI has really blossomed since we’ve been settled back in Alberta and is keeping us very occupied. But this year we are challenging ourselves to travel at least once a month to keep the travel bug sated, and to keep the blog alive with new content.
ANGIE: Depending on who you ask, influencer can be a dirty word or the be-all, end-all of modern marketing. As both award-winning content creators AND marketers who work with influencers, how do you explain what you do to skeptics?
D: We cannot deny the dirty-word side of influencer. It exists because the industry as a whole has earned it. There is some shady shit happening out there.
But there is also so much GOOD. We hope, at least a little, to be leading by example. We are not the biggest bloggers out there by a very long shot, but we have legitimately earned our place, and we are continuous advocates for other micro-influencers who have talent and have built an audience who really cares about what they say. That’s what our clients come to us for. Most of our HMI business comes from travel brands getting to know us first through Hecktic Travels, so we must be doing something right.
A: Working in this industry, you must have your share of horror stories. (Don’t we all?!) What’s one thing that’ll get a blogger or influencer blacklisted from working with Hecktic Media?
D: We definitely have our share of gross stories to tell about misbehaving influencers. The most recent one included an influencer taking down all of her content about the brand on the day the contract expired, over a very minor contract dispute (which wouldn’t have been a dispute if she had just read the damn thing in the first place). She exhibited some clear diva behaviour and is someone we will never work with again.
We also strive so hard to work with influencers that are truly genuine in how they have built their brand – avoiding those that have clearly bought followers or are engaged in sketchy techniques to grow their following. The very sad thing is that authentic influencers are becoming harder and harder to find; I estimate that anywhere from 80-90% of Instagram audiences have been built using some form of shadiness. It’s become impossible to blacklist them all, and so I now find myself pointing out what I find to clients, and advising them to just be aware and cautious. Thankfully, brands are becoming much more wise to the games, and I have found that they routinely prefer to work with an influencer who may have smaller numbers over someone who appears bigger but looks sketchy in any way.
A: You started HeckticTravels.com in 2009. What’s the biggest change in the industry you’ve seen from the early days to now?
D: The intent of travel blogging has changed entirely. So many of us who started way back in the day did so first out of love, second out of a chance at a new career. Nowadays, it seems like most start with the intent to make money from day one. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but sadly, it has also changed the content. There are fewer true travelogues and more listicles and pseudo-travel guides aimed at ranking on Google. I miss the stories. I miss reading reflective pieces about how travel changed the writer, or fresh perspectives when visiting a brand new place. Such articles are few and far between now.
A: What trend in the blogging/influencer world drives you crazy? And what’s a trend you are excited to see play out?
D: The “pretty girl on Instagram” trend drives me batty – when the photo is all about the pose and provides no context of the scene. One in particular always pops into mind from the last year – the photo was of a beautiful blonde woman in a long white gown, standing with arms outstretched amidst ruins and garbage of an impoverished area in India. The photo screamed “white saviour”, and also had no text at all as to where she was and what was going on around her. With a large following, she had a significant opportunity to tell a story about her surroundings but decided to just make it all about her. I just find that terribly sad.
I think that brands and destinations are beginning to wake up to that though – realizing that quippy captions and staged photos have been overdone – and I’m seeing more and more favour a return to storytelling. I hope that they all stop chasing Instagram “likes” as a measure of success, although I think we still have a long way to go.
A: Many years ago we talked about the unique position you’re in as a husband and wife team who also works together. What’s the best part about being a team and how do you not talk about work ALL THE TIME?
D: Pete and I are so fortunate to have complementary skills and desires. He has a strong attention-to-detail and I am more the big picture thinker. I like to write and he likes to be behind the camera. In our past lives, he was an accountant and I was a contract negotiator and project manager, and these are roles we replicate today at HMI.
We do talk about work A LOT but I don’t see that as a burden; we both love what we are building and especially love that we can do it together. Although years ago I instituted the rule that there would be no work talk after 8pm, and we *mostly* stick to that. We also have lots of other things in common (our loves of music, curling, and The Office, for starters), so we definitely never run out of things to talk about.
A: What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an influencer in 2019?
D: Double (or triple!) down on a niche – i.e. the world doesn’t need another simple “travel” blog, but it does need blogs that focus on “travel” and “skiing”, or “travel” and “indie music”. The more specific, the better, and while it may seem harder to grow (pageviews may never be as high as a more general blog), it can be much more lucrative over time.
Also, don’t manipulate your following. Come about your audience legitimately. Brands are becoming MUCH smarter to this and thorough vetting is common. That short term boost is only going to hurt you in the long run.
A: Finish this sentence, “Before we started blogging, we wish we knew…”
Absolutely nothing more than we did. It has been such a fantastic journey of rises and falls, successes and failures, and I honestly wouldn’t want to change one thing about it because it has all led us to here. And here is pretty fantastic.
A: If travel blogging as an industry abruptly ended today, what would you consider doing instead?
D: We’ve diversified enough that I think that if the whole influencer marketing schtick went away, we’d still be okay and HMI would survive. But if not, I’d definitely still want to work in tourism somehow. Travel is vital to opening hearts and minds, and we need that in this world more than ever.
A: What’s something your long-time readers would be surprised to find out about you?
D: I have always said that I write as if my mom is the only one who ever reads it – so I think most people would be surprised that in real life I have such a potty mouth. Ha! The odd time I let loose in my content I do get chastised for it at least once from someone. Although it has become a little bit more common lately (#F***Cancer), so maybe it’s not such a surprise anymore.
A: What’s your favorite episode of The Office? And obviously it’s the best show to binge on Netflix, but what else are you guys watching in your free time?
D: The Injury is the best episode of The Office, hands-down (“Dwight! You forgot your bumper!”), but The Deposition and Dinner Party are runner-ups. Right now we are rewatching all of Game of Thrones to get ready for the final season, and other favourites that we keep returning to are Veep and Parks and Recreation. New loves include Killing Eve, Atlanta, and Russian Doll. (One thing no one tells you is that recovering from cancer is super boring. I watch a lot of TV to distract myself.)
How to Find the Hecks
Thank you so much to Dalene for the thoughtful responses! And thanks to all of you for the enthusiasm surrounding this series. I thought it was a good idea, but gees Louise, it’s nice when you all think so, too 😉 If you’re just finding this series for the first time, check out January’s installment featuring Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere.