Do influencers still have the same sway in UAE's hospitality industry?

How a huge number of new influencers are creating challenges for the sector

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How many of us have dined out at a new restaurant or stayed at a hotel based on recommendations we read on social media?

The answer is probably most of us, but do influencers still have the same sway they once had?

Hoteliers and influencers told The National about how a number of factors had created an environment that was more challenging and competitive than before.

A sharp rise in the number of people calling themselves influencers, often with thousands upon thousands of online followers, was making it more difficult to stand out in the market, experts said.

One of the trends emerging is the hospitality industry turning to micro-influencers who may have fewer numbers but can target niche groups of consumers.

“Influencers continue to be relevant and impactful but the market is now a lot more mature,” said Miguel Rojas, director of marketing for Rove Hotels.

“This means that authenticity has also become an important factor in what brands and users look for in influencers.

“Because of that, micro-influencers with small followings but highly engaged and targeted audiences have been on the rise.”

While influencers can charge fees of up to Dh30,000 for one post, those kinds of engagements are rare in the hospitality sector, said Mr Rojas.

Much more common are barter deals with influencers, which often involve free stays or brunches offered in exchange for content, he added.

While influencers can help a property reach an audience that previously was untapped, there are also potential disadvantages.

“When working with influencers, brands may have limited control over the messaging and content that is created,” said Mr Rojas.

“It can be challenging to accurately measure the return of investment of influencer marketing campaigns, particularly if the goals are more focused on brand awareness and reach than direct sales.”

Saturated market

A major issue for influencers who have been on the scene for several years is the market becoming saturated with new faces, meaning more people than ever are competing for the same business.

The role of influencer was the fourth most appealing career choice among UAE residents, according to a survey carried out last month by digital finance firm Remitly.

Lavina Israni, 30, an influencer in Dubai who specialises in food, travel and entertainment content, said there had been a significant increase in the number of young people moving into the market.

This has resulted in a much more competitive environment than before.

“All of them are doing it as a side gig, which is affecting the business for the rest of us,” said Ms Israni, 30, from India who has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.

“There used to be three or four influencers at these events before and now you are seeing more than 20 each time.

“There are so many new people coming up on Instagram and TikTok that the amount of available work gets split between many more than before.”

She said most are having to come up with alternative sources of income to ensure they can make a living, such is the volatility of the sector.

“Many people look at it as an attractive career to be part of,” she said.

“That’s not where the industry is right now and you can’t predict how much income you will make.

“I’ve been doing this for almost eight years and know quite a few other experienced influencers and we all need other forms of income, be that other jobs or investments.”

The sheer number of influencers on the market right now is making it tricky for hotels to find the right people to work with, said Dubai-based hotelier Thomas Kuran.

“While influencers continue to be impactful in the hospitality industry, the process of collaborating with the right people to reach the desired target audience has changed to become more challenging,” said Mr Kuran, hotel manager with Leva Hotels.

“A big reason for this is the increasing number of influencers, their scope and a number of other commercial aspects that have come to prominence.

“Today, it has become more difficult to identify appropriate influencers who have a follower base that is relevant.”

A recent survey from Influencer Marketing Hub showed that 59 per cent of consumers believe influencer content is inauthentic.

However, crucially for the sector it also said that 90 per cent of potential buys are made by visuals people see online.

While the market has become saturated, there are still advantages to hiring influencers, providing the right person was identified, said Caroline Jonsson, regional communications manager in the Middle East for Radisson Hotels.

“You need to review the influencers you choose to work with thoroughly,” said Ms Jonsson

“There is always a risk of working with influencers who have purchased fake followers, which can result in poor engagement.”

Niche market

Others have found that having a niche in the market gives them a head start when it comes to the hospitality industry.

One such person is Courtney Brandt, who refers to herself as a key opinion leader rather than an influencer.

She specialises in the fine dining sector and has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram.

“The hospitality industry took a hit with the pandemic and marketing budgets are being looked at more,” said Ms Brandt, 41, from the US.

“They are drilling down on what the deliverables are and those who are in it less for the free food and more about helping the food and beverage industry are the ones who are going to shine through now.”

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