When they set off with their children to sail around the world, Renee and Keith Whitaker never dreamed they’d be making $150,000 a year documenting their travels for YouTube. Having grown disillusioned with life in the Texas suburbs, the couple and their four kids bought a boat in 2016 and their adventure began.
Making money from their travels was never part of the plan (the family had funds from Keith’s sold businesses and savings), but when their Sailing Zatara videos gained a growing following they began to wonder if they should be charging to promote the products they recommended. Fast-forward six years and – with 438,000 subscribers and a reported net worth of $1.7 million – their content funds their lifestyle, as it does for a growing number of others.
There’s Nick Fisher of Indigo Traveller, who journeys to danger zones and – it’s estimated by youtubers.me – earned $10,000 in the last 30 days. There are Instagrammers Raquel and Miguel at @explorerssaurus, who have 1.3 million followers and earn up to £3,500 for each sponsored post of them looking into each other’s eyes or kissing in various photogenic destinations (according to the Oliver’s Travels Luxury Influencer Rich List). There’s even one-time solo female traveller Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse whose blog generated “mid-six figures per year” in 2020 (she’s now a mother with a partner and has dutifully documented that particular journey too). Is it really as easy as it looks?
It’s not all sunbathing on deck and shore excursions aboard Zatara, that’s for sure: Renee spends four or five hours a day filming and editing content and tackling all of Sailing Zatara’s marketing and social posts. She’s good at knowing what her viewers want to see – and she’s supremely dedicated, diligently liking or replying to many of the comments from an engaged viewing community that regularly sends prayers and “hugs to y’all” from back home.
This sort of tenacity is a prerequisite. When Jori and Austin of Nomads and Pawpads began documenting their travels as pet sitters 11 months ago, they had to pester the online platform TrustedHousesitters several times before the company gave them an affiliate deal.
“When we started house sitting, we both realised the gap in social media,” says Jori. “We started out with some not-very-refined videos but we just had this vision: as we travel more and more, we can get some cool content and one day TrustedHousesitters will recognise that and want to work with us! We approached them multiple, multiple times, and when they finally saw us grow to 22,000 TikTok followers, they were like ‘ok, taking notice now!’.”
With an extremely engaged audience (fans raised more than $50,000 for a non-profit transport initiative for an animal shelter after a TikTok post went viral), the partnership makes sense. And, though Sailing Zatara’s followers couldn’t be more different, they’re also a key reason why advertisers are queuing up to work with them.
“We’re different. We’re not woke or liberal Left,” explains Keith. “We get a lot of redneck Texans who like to see me working on stuff and fixing things. A lot of the other channels are just girls in bikinis and partying. I don’t have anything against that – but it means they get a lot of people watching who don’t have money to spend.”
As a couple, Keith and Renee are immensely likeable, which goes some way to explaining their loyal following. She’s quiet and self-contained and he’s a larger-than-life type but the way they look at each other suggests they’re still in love, despite being at sea for 365 days a year with teenage kids. That’s right – although two of their children have chosen not to be on camera, the others “look at it as a way to make money. They’re doing their own stuff now, they’re getting paid.”
Jori and Austin (who are equally endearing) are yet to work out if YouTube, where it’s generally acknowledged the big bucks are, is for them. “It’s definitely a little time consuming, with the scripting and just understanding what to do,” says Jori. “We’re trying to figure it out but right now TikTok and Instagram work for our bread and butter: when we’re talking to camera and that’s it, it gets a bit weird.”
With the pressure off, the highs and lows are less intense. “We had a video hit four million views. You feel you’re going to grow more and more and more, and then you plateau. And then you start to feel like no one cares. Then a TV show messages you,” she says. “It’s very much a roller coaster. We could be posting every single day and we’d have more money by now, but at the moment we just want to enjoy travel and sustain what we’re doing.”
On the money: How to make your travels pay
Find your schtick
Estimates of the number of social media influencers in the world vary wildly, from a little over three million to more than 37 million. Either way, in a sea of bikinis and palm trees, it helps to stand out. As both round-the-world petsitting and sailing as a family have been done, find another USP and stick to it.
Be prepared for hard graft
There are a surprising number of skills involved in content creation – filming and editing, ad strategy, community engagement and marketing to name a few. Master those and you’re half-way there, though, as Renee warns, you’ll also need to post like clockwork or you’re likely to lose followers.
Have a buffer
Unless you’re prepared to live on a few pounds a day, it’s a good idea to have savings before you sail off into the sunset. Don’t quit your day job until you have some capital in the bank, or you might be heading home sooner than you bargained for.
Believe in your advertisers
Amid all the samey, downbeat shout-outs for protein shakes, a sincere acknowledgement of the role your indigestion tablets have played in your round-the-world trip will be music to an advertiser’s ears. Genuine-seeming product placement gets all the click throughs (as well as getting you paid). That’s why Sailing Zatara only works with products they actually use. “I’m the kind of guy people really love to hate,” says Keith. “But whether they love me or hate me, they all value what I have to say when it comes to what we’re selling.”
Engage in the comments section
There are a lot of c-words in the influencer world, but the biggest is Community. Followers love likes and replies to their comments – as well as being asked questions which they cannot possibly accurately answer (do you love Burkina Faso? Would you try grubs if you hadn’t eaten for four days?). All this conversation is more than background noise because, the more you engage with these willing fans, the more you will grow your channel and attract advertisers.