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How to be a YouTube travel star

  • Story Highlights
  • Many successful online travel videos involve travelers who share their opinions
  • Industry insiders encourage videographers to provide information and be authentic
  • Tell some kind of story, even if it's a simple tour of your hotel room
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Marilyn Parver never wanted to become a YouTube star. Neither did Iesha Walker.

Their path to social media celebrity didn't involve uploading an overproduced music video, clips of dancing comedians or laughing babies. They just took their video cameras on vacation.

Parver whipped out her Handycam after two passengers began arguing on a recent JetBlue flight and taped the fracas. When flight attendants asked her to erase the footage because they were afraid it might "end up on YouTube," she refused -- and was later escorted from the plane in handcuffs. The clip ended up on YouTube, where more than 30,000 people watched it.

When Walker checked into her cabin on Carnival's Destiny, she found wires hanging from the lamps above the beds, a soiled toilet seat and toilet bowl, a grimy shower stall, broken tiles and a broken wall panel above the bed. And there were bugs. Lots of bugs. So she pointed her camera lens at the infestation. When Carnival refused to reimburse her for the cruise, she uploaded the video.

This is only the beginning.

Online video is big. Americans watched a record 13.5 billion online videos in October, the last month for which figures are available, according to Comscore. That's a 45 percent increase from a year ago. Nearly 8 out of 10 Internet users watched an online video, and among younger users, the Internet has already become a TV substitute.

Some of the most effective Internet videos are ones that allow travelers to "voice and record their own perspective, opinion and experience," says Fionn Downhill, the chief executive of Elixir Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Videos documenting authentic, user-generated experiences spread like quick fire because they speak to the concerns and sentiment of the market."

How do you become part of the video revolution on your next vacation? Here are a few tips.

Pack the right camera

Today's video cameras are small, affordable and shoot in high definition. I just field-tested the Flip Mino HD, a $229 camera that's so inconspicuous, I could -- and did -- film anyone, anywhere. I gave it to my sons (ages 6 and 4) and they took some good pictures. The footage downloaded directly to my PC and could be posted to the Internet within minutes. I'm especially excited about the convergence of the SLR camera and video camera, such as the Canon 5D Mark II, which allows you to take broadcast-quality video and sharp photos. Once these technologies get a toehold among travelers, the video revolution will really catch fire.

Get to know the competition

In an age of citizen journalism, your competition could be your seatmate. What sets your video apart from the tens of millions of clips on the Web is a basic understanding of what makes a compelling video. It's part science (good lighting and composition) and part art (understanding why a billion people want to watch a guy named Matt dancing).

The first part is easy. The second part -- not so easy. In online-speak, a popular video is called "viral" because it spreads quickly. "Over the years I've had more misses than hits with viral videos," says videoblogger Brandon Mendelson. "The ones that became hits were the ones that I had low expectations for -- and the ones I had high expectations for, never reached the success I envisioned."

Post helpful information

For years, only production companies with expensive cameras had access to video cameras and the means to broadcast what they shot. Not any more. And guess what? People are interested in the other side of a travel product -- the side the airline and hotel don't necessarily want you to see. Travel blogger Darren Cronian recently uploaded a tour of his hotel room at London's Shaftesbury Kensington Hotel and was surprised when prospective guests began contacting him. "People are searching for hotel reviews on sites like YouTube," he told me.

Be yourself

It's easy to distinguish the corporate video from the homegrown travel production -- even if you shoot both on the same camera. The commercial video usually has one purpose, says Tom Flanagan, the chief executive of the Denver-based marketing company Red Robot: to drive sales. "It is obvious that consumers increasingly demand more," he says. They don't just want to be pitched. They want to see videos that are interesting, authentic -- and brief. Enough said.

Tell a story

Even though you're dealing with a new medium, a lot of the old rules apply. A popular online video has to tell some kind of story, even if it's a simple tour of your hotel room or an argument on a plane. That's the assessment of writer and producer Tim Street, who specializes in creating and distributing online video.

"I've had over 30 million views of my videos online and what I've learned is that you can't just make a video and expect it to go viral," he says. "You need your video to be emotionally engaging, moving two or more emotions. You also need spectacle and story." Incidentally, there's plenty of that in the travel industry. It's just waiting to be discovered by you.

Be responsible

Camera-toting tourists have a lot more power than they think. Use yours responsibly. Alexia Nestora, a consultant for a tour operator in Littleton, Colorado, remembers how one unhappy customer posted a video that alleged her client was operating a fraudulent business. In the clip, he burned a T-shirt with the company's logo and scrolled text with falsified information. More than 500 people downloaded his tirade.

"We know that we lost a few sales as a result of the video. People would call after they had booked -- sometimes even forfeiting their deposit because this video scared them off," she remembers.

Lesson learned? Online videos "can no longer be ignored by marketers and must be monitored," she says. But the takeaway for us, the folks who are creating these videos, is that the world is watching. Think before you post.

I'm not sure anyone fully understands what video means to travel -- let alone the Internet. As Wilson Cleveland, a vice president at CJP, points out, "Video is the best medium for bringing an experience or storyline to life." It can provoke a visceral response from you. But is that all?

I believe it's possible that we are entering an age in which a single online video has the power to transform an obscure destination into a must-visit Mecca -- or to turn throngs of travelers away from an airline, car rental company, cruise line or resort.

Will this make the travel industry offer better customer service? Or will they just try to confiscate our video cameras when we're on the road?

Better hold on to your cameras.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on You can read more travel tips on his blog, or e-mail him at


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