Amid pandemic, Orlando tourism businesses recruit influencers to entice visitors

Elma Beganovich at the W Hotel in South Beach. - Image via
Image via
Elma Beganovich at the W Hotel in South Beach.
As Florida's tourism industry begins to reopen tentatively during the coronavirus pandemic, marketing efforts are also beginning to thaw out. Social media influencers are returning from their hiatus as well, and heading back to Orlando resorts.

One of the first local resorts to begin hosting influencers has been Gaylord Palms, where select media outlets and social media influencers have started visiting in recent weeks. That "familiarization trip," or FAM, saw influencers provided with two nights at the resort and access to many of the on-site amenities, including admission to the Cypress Springs Water Park. In return for the free trip, Gaylord hopes to reach social media audiences with the message that they’re now open and ready to welcome guests once again.

Orlando-area resorts were forced to cancel their annual FAMs this year, which usually take place each spring. The same is true for nearly all other social-media-focused marketing that local groups, including Visit Orlando, typically rely upon to reach crucial Millennial and Gen Z audiences. Disney World held its annual, influencer-focused Creators Celebration in February, just prior to their mid-March pandemic closure.

Get ready to see social media influencers hyping Orlando's resorts and attractions — to Central Florida locals.

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COVID has dramatically altered the tourism landscape, with many changes likely to remain in place long after the shelter in place orders and signs encouraging social distancing have gone. To understand what this brave new world will look like, and what role influencers will have in it, Orlando Weekly spoke with New York-based mega-influencer Elma Beganovich.

"Influencers are ultimately content creators, like creative directors, and their job has become to create a dream for their audience," says Beganovich, "a sort of escapism that their followers can tune into in the midst of a day sitting at a desk in front of their computers or laptops."

"Ultimately, this is the reason that influencers form their own platforms around a particular topic, e.g., travel, food, or technology, because people want to escape from their everyday reality and imagine themselves at these destinations and living this wanderlust life," she says. "Of course, followers get ideas and make purchases based on the recommendations of influencers, some of whom they have followed for years and have come to trust."

Elma Beganovich - Image via
Image via
Elma Beganovich
Beganovich is a New York-barred attorney with a law degree from the University of Miami and a Master of Laws in Securities and Financial Regulations from Georgetown Law. As her social media channels began taking off, however, she shifted focus away from her successful law career and toward influencer marketing. Along with her sister, Amra, the two founded A&E, a go-to ad agency focused on the shifting dynamics of influencer marketing. Together, the Beganovich sisters have worked with some of Florida's most in-demand tourism clients, including Kimpton EPIC Hotel, the W Hotel in South Beach, and Miami’s Mandarin Oriental.

Beganovich explained that influencers are unique in that their followers expect a certain level of quality and knowledge from them.

"An influencer is a person who has developed a brand, i.e., their followers expect a certain level of quality of content and a specific angle, e.g., an influencer who travels the world and only stays at luxury hotels and reviewing each restaurant and city along the way," says Beganovich. "It is because of this personal brand that the audience clings on to every word the influencer utters whether through InstaStories or through captions of escapist photos, which have become these surreal and dreamy photos of jaw-dropping views and destinations."

click to enlarge The updates pool area and hotel expansion at Gaylord Palms - Image via Ryman Hospitality Properties
Image via Ryman Hospitality Properties
The updates pool area and hotel expansion at Gaylord Palms
Beganovich says other influencers in an industry will follow that influencer.

"In the travel industry, it could be an internationally acclaimed chef, a travel reporter from CNN or marketing teams from the travel industry," she says.

This is what makes an influencer so crucial in a world where people don’t trust ads, but where 40 percent of Millennials believe their favorite YouTube content creator understands them even better than their own friends do. The fact that influencers also use digital platforms means that ad agencies are even more effective at understanding how successful their campaign has been, thanks to the data that digital platforms provide.

"I believe influencer marketing is a more effective marketing tool than more traditional options for several reasons, mainly – digital media allows marketers to measure the effectiveness of the campaign," Beganovich said. "It becomes very easy to track the progress of the campaign, which would be harder to do with, for example, outdoor advertising on a highway."
Downtown Orlando's Sideshow Bar - Photo by Rob Bartlett
Photo by Rob Bartlett
Downtown Orlando's Sideshow Bar
Businesses, now very aware of the role influencers and social media play in marketing, are being designed to be " 'grammable."

Last year, No Vacancy opened in St. Petersburg, a Bates Motel-themed bar by Tampa Bay-based restaurateurs Hunger Thirst Group. It was designed with influencers in mind. Every detail of the space was reviewed by creative branding agency Wax & Hive to ensure there were plenty of photo-worthy spots throughout the space. In Orlando, themed bars and unique dining experiences have come to be expected.

These spaces, along with Florida’s theme parks, A-list events, and natural beauty, has made the state one of the hottest markets for influencers worldwide.

In Florida, says Beganovich, "there is something from every target demographic, whether the traveler is into culture, partying or fine dining." She says all of these factors attract a wide range of American travelers but also an especially international crowd, from Europe to the Middle East.

The rise of influencer marketing in Florida is also linked to the state’s biggest industry, tourism. While sectors like accounting and manufacturing might not be ideal for an influencer, the hotels, theme parks, and attractions within the tourism industry have always been designed to market escapism.

There’s another reason why influencer marketing works so well within the industry.

Similarly to how Gaylord is offering influencers a stay at their resort — in a room with an Instagram-worthy view — tourism businesses can barter for coverage that would cost far more for other industries or marketing efforts.

These exchanges are common, according to Beganovich.

"Influencer marketing works so well within the travel industry because the travel industry is one of the only industries that can get away with partnering with influencers on an exchange basis; other industries have to pay top dollar for those same partnerships," she says. "Also, it works so well within the travel industry because influencers can be used to attract a local clientele who is looking to go to a bar to relax after work hours, somewhere for dinner or brunch on the weekends."

Unlike traditional photoshoots, where talent needs to be accompanied by a crew, an influencer does not require a team.

"Influencers can reach hundreds of thousands of highly targeted eyeballs within seconds, and produce their own content," says Beganovich.

While hotels and other tourism businesses look to reopen, many recognize that much of the initial traffic will come from locals. This means a renewed push for "staycations" and more local influencer marketing.

click to enlarge Amid pandemic, Orlando tourism businesses recruit influencers to entice visitors (9)
Photo by Jason Ferguson
This localized push is nothing new for Central Florida. When live music restaurant Tin Roof opened its location on International Drive in 2015, they invited multiple local influencers to the restaurant. They encouraged the influencers to use hashtags, such as #Regular, in their coverage as a way to show it was a spot for locals despite being in the heart of the tourist district.

With an ability to break through to consumers in ways older forms of advertising cannot, influencers are sharing the updated safety procedures now required. Prior to Disney Springs reopening, Disney hosted a preview where media outlets and influencers were shown the new safety procedures.

Gaylord Palms was clear in its communication with influencers that part of the purpose of the FAM is to showcase new safety procedures. An email obtained by Orlando Weekly that Gaylord Palms sent to local influencers reads: "As we all work alongside our local communities to rebuild, the goal for this partnership would be to generate awareness of our reopening, promote our summer packages, and communicate the many health and safety measures we have in place to keep guests safe."
The Cypress Springs Water Park Gaylord Palms - Image via Marriott
Image via Marriott
The Cypress Springs Water Park Gaylord Palms
Lakeland officials turned to influencers to help promote wearing masks, even as city commissioners refused to put mask mandates in place. The "Mask up, COVID down" campaign saw partnerships with local influencers.

For its part, Gaylord Palms is ensuring that its message is getting out. In the email it sent to influencers, the company says that a blog post, a social media post per channel per day, and at least two daily InstaStories are required.

"Your hosted stay is offered in exchange for inclusion in your blog and social media channels with fun images of you and your family enjoying the resort together," it reads.

Look out for more influencer-focused marketing efforts from other Central Florida resorts in the coming weeks.

Please follow CDC guidelines and Orange County advisories to stay safe, and please support this free publication. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider making a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.
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