It’s hard to imagine planning a family vacation in the midst of a global pandemic and lockdown. The US State Department has advised Americans abroad to return. Disney parks have shuttered. Governments have ordered schools and playgrounds to close and citizens to remain inside their homes.
In the midst of all of that uncertainty, a Chicago-based family vacation website is working to stay relevant when no one can travel.
This had been a banner year for TravelingMom before the travel world shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In the crowded, competitive online market for travel information, TravelingMom.com found a space through travel content specific for moms and dads on TravelingDad.com.
“It’s been a year of big change at TravelingMom and today we learned that it’s working. In the last 30 days, more than 700,000 people have visited the site, reading more than 1 million stories. It’s almost double where we were a year ago at this time. One million may just be a number, but it’s a pretty dang satisfying one,” TravelingMom editor, Cindy Richards, said in a Jan. 24 post on Facebook.
Since then, everything in the travel business has changed, including TravelingMom. The site has pivoted to give its readers more immediate aid. There’s a story on how to clean a hotel room and another on where to find the germiest spots on an airplane and how to disinfect those. And the site has gone back to its roots as a social media company with Facebook Lives inviting the Travelingmom community to #travelathome. It also has shared resources for homeschooling (with a travel angle, of course) as well as a bucket list travel dreams.
The site also is using this time to update older content so everything is ready once the crisis passes and families are ready to travel again.
In 2008 when TravelingMom was starting as a blog, it used Pinterest to find a small audience. That opened a new door to using social media while gaining readership and attention that ultimately drove half of the site’s traffic. Richards built alongside business partner Kim Orlando, what is now the second-largest family travel website next to FamilyVacationCritic.com.
“We built it from the ground up, but we built it ourselves from day one,” Richards told GRJ. “We were starting alongside thousands of blogs, and there were a limited number that would survive.”
As the website grew, Richards learned the most important factor to growing the audience was using search engine optimization. SEO comes into play when readers search for keywords, and TravelingMom would be the first to pop up at the top of the page.
“For any growing media brand, you have to have a targeted and methodical SEO strategy to build an organic audience,” said Jeff Inman, Drake University journalism professor. “Without it, you can’t really have a business. But if you create a product that fills a need and provides strong service to the reader, then load it with keywords to make sure Google knows you exist, it’s possible to see significant growth. It also helps that often the voice of those sites is spot on to the audience – one travel-loving mom to the other.”
Before pursuing her interest in travel writing and going full time as editor three years ago, Richards worked as a freelancer, writing op-eds and had three sources of income, including teaching at Northwestern University.
“Initially I wanted to be self-employed and this provided 3% of my income, but all of my happiness,” she said.
Richards also reported for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Parent, all of which gave her the tools she needed to pursue a career in the online travel world.
Susy Schultz, former editor and publisher of Chicago Parent and a friend of Richards, remembered working alongside her at Chicago Parent magazine when they published a travel story every month.
“Whenever you work with people, you want to work with people who are smarter and brighter and more talented than you,” Schultz said. “Cindy is all of the above. She’s very talented and a 360 thinker and knows how to get things done. She was one of the leading voices and columnists in the city of Chicago.” Richards was a “hard news person,” Schultz said. “So this was a very different task.”
After 12 years, TravelingMom has 45 writers who write stories about a variety of family vacation spots around the world. It’s mission is to bring families together through travel. The company does that by bringing mothers the advice they need for a trip with their kids and preparing them for whatever may be thrown at them.
“We want our writers to tell our readers what they would tell their best friends”, Richards said.
With travel plans on hold and so many families closed off from one another, that seems more important now than ever.
“We know that this crisis shall pass,” Richards said. “When it does, TravelingMom will be here and ready to help families get back on the road. Because we’re all going to need a vacation more than ever.”
Kamy Smelser is correspondent for Gateway Journalism Review in Chicago, where she is a student at Columbia College Chicago.