The rise of the TikTok travel guide

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One of Jack Gillespie’s most popular TikToks is a quick tour of Selfie Wrld, a photo studio in Chicago where visitors can have their picture taken on a golden throne, in a tub-shaped ball pool, or in a cell. bright yellow prison. Scroll down Gillespie’s TikTok page and you’ll find plenty of other new things to discover around Chicago – Salt Therapy Caves, Ax Throwing, Transit-themed Ice Cream, Hot Cheetos burgers – without having to read a single review of Yelp.

TikTok tour guides like Gillespie now seem to exist in every major city, introducing viewers to trendy new stores and restaurants, often in a minute or less. You can get recommendations for soju margaritas in Manhattan, crystal stores in Los Angeles, or burgers in Boston. These accounts can be great ways to learn about new locations and a boon for local businesses that suddenly see queues. But they also have hidden limits, with influencers turning to newer, more hip companies – and often those willing to compensate them for the possibility of going viral.

“I want people to see the city the way I see it,” says Gillespie, whose TikTok @visualsbyjack account has more than 300,000 followers. “There is something really special about our city, and you just have to look around and experience it for yourself to see it. “

A viral video from a TikToker can have an almost immediate impact on the business it presents. A TikTok Gillespie posted from the Museum of Illusions in Chicago was viewed over 2 million times, and over the following week, the number of guests who reported hearing about the museum through TikTok increased by 21%, according to Stacy Stec, the museum’s marketing manager.

“The fact that with TikTok you can bring in influencers for free and get that kind of reach, is amazing,” says Stec. Stec arranged for Gillespie and his friends to visit in February, after his first contact. “And we got it without really spending a dime.”

Influencers like Gillespie can often get their food or post cleared by agreeing to post a TikTok on their account. These exchanges are informal – no one signs a contract, and usually companies or influencers themselves organize this through Instagram DMs. When Gillespie first moved to Chicago, he and his roommates didn’t pay for a meal for two weeks because Gillespie was always able to find a restaurant that would cover the cost.

“If one of my videos goes viral, I’ll have several hundred DMs from businesses and restaurants the next day,” says Gillespie.

The process of finding new companies to feature can be expensive and time consuming for influencers. Some therefore choose to only present companies that pay them with free meals or services. “People will say, ‘Go to a family restaurant,’ and honestly the reason I don’t is because restaurants don’t contact me and I have a pretty busy schedule. Says Danielle Heath, a Boston-based TikToker with over 25,000 subscribers. “So I will prioritize restaurants that are interested in me.”

Creators also choose to show specific parts of their city in order to cater to a specific audience. Sarah Hodgson, a New York-based TikToker, says she is specifically trying to organize experiences for people who visit or have just moved to the city. “I’m not trying to pretend to know the bodega in some dark place in New York City,” Hodgson says. “I don’t pretend to be that person, and I’m definitely not that person because I’m not native and I’m saying it very clearly.”

The most followed guides on TikTok are generally young and white, and their videos tend to focus on companies that match their tastes. This means that the hippest companies like Catbird in New York City, a jewelry store where you can get a bracelet permanently attached to your wrist, are more likely to be highlighted on these accounts and have a higher chance of going viral. Businesses that cater to ethnic groups or don’t have the money for marketing teams are unlikely to be listed on these pages. For Hodgson, this is an intentional move – his videos are meant to show parts of New York City that visitors can easily recognize from shows like Gossip Girl and Sex in the city, that’s why she sticks to Manhattan.

“I’m speaking specifically to people who are either tourists who travel here or who have just moved here,” says Hodgson. “So if you’re not in my target audience, you will definitely have things to say about my videos. ”

Sometimes businesses don’t know that a creator like Hodgson has visited until a customer shows them that a TikTok showcasing their business has gained millions of views. These views, and the increase in customer base they bring, don’t always translate into benefits.

Robby Gordon, the founder of Hollywood Sculpture Garden, saw more and more young people coming to his outdoor garden, which is free to the public, when it reopened earlier this year. For Gordon, who relies on sculpture sales and donations to fund his business, the increase in visitors hasn’t helped him sell anything.

“TikTok brought a lot of very enthusiastic young people to the garden because during COVID there was no other place to go,” says Gordon. “I was glad they had a place to go, but neither of them were a potential buyer.”

Even though a viral TikTok doesn’t do much for the business side of things, Gordon is happy to help creators create content in his business, though he highly doubts he would pay a creator to showcase the Hollywood Sculpture. Garden on its page. Lucy Wong, a New York-based TikToker with over 35,000 subscribers, believes showcasing these companies will always be a mutually beneficial experience.

“If this helps a struggling small business owner, why don’t you post about it?” Said Wong. “You are not going to win anything and they are just going to lose.”

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