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I find it hard to even type, but as of today, Valerie & Valise has been live on the internet for 10 years.
Ten, whole, years. A decade! Over a quarter of life!
Every year on this day, I like to sit down and share my thoughts about the site, how it’s grown, how it’s changed, and maybe what’s next. This year, I thought it would be fun to share what you are all interested in learning about me and this site, so I asked for questions in my weekly newsletter and over on Instagram, too. Below you’ll find the questions I received in response, and many long-winded answers, probably in way more detail than you were expecting!
Thanks for sticking with me… through this post, through all my posts, and through the past ten years. ❤️
How did you get started? What inspired you?
My “origin story” is one of my favorite parts of this blog, to be honest! I started journaling in 1998 and wrote online (in a very bad personal blog) from around 2001-2010.
In September 2013, I was fresh from my MBA program in London, unemployed, and staying with my parents temporarily. I was sitting on the floor of my parent’s living room and my mom asked me: “if you could have any job now, what would it be?”
My answer was to be a travel editor and marketer for a major travel publication. She suggested I start a website to prove that I had the skills to do that kind of work, a bit like a portfolio or living resume. I launched that website in October 2013, and you’re visiting it right now!
(This is also why my domain is “valisemag.com” – it was originally “Valise Magazine.”)
So I was inspired by my mom, unemployment, a love of writing, and a dash of creativity!
How old were you when you started blogging?
I was 26 when I started my blog, making me 36 now!
Life is very different now than it was back then; I live in Cleveland now, and have lived in Seattle and San Francisco in the time since this blog started. I now have a husband and a daughter (on the way, as I write this), plus two mortgages and two cats.
How have you kept up with all the changes in the blogging/online world in that time?
When I look at my site, there are three main chapters:
- Pre-2017, before I figured out SEO at all
- 2017-2018, as I became a ‘pro’ SEO through the job I was doing at the time
- Post-2018, where I excelled at SEO
(SEO = Search Engine Optimization, aka making sure my content shows up on Google, which drives about 90% of my traffic.)
Are you sensing a theme? SEO was definitely the biggest change in the blogging world in the past decade; Google has gotten better at understanding the content bloggers like me create, and we’ve in turn had to get better at creating content Google can understand and (hopefully) show to readers like you.
The theme throughout all of my blogging work – aside from writing – is trying to constantly keep learning about what the best practices are and what might be next. This has gotten a lot harder in the past year, with the rise of AI content/search engines and a bunch of other changes in Google, and I honestly worry I’ve fallen behind now.
How do you make money?
Hopefully, this question is interesting to both bloggers and non-bloggers! My blog income is in three main buckets:
- Advertising – Any banner ads you see on this site, which are all powered by a third-party company called Mediavine.
- Affiliate Marketing – Partnerships with companies who pay me when someone books through a link on my site. I use a number of different sites to manage these links/partnerships.
- Products – This has taken many shapes over the years, but anything that I make and sell myself on my site.
The 2023 revenue breakdown of these three categories for this site is about 75% advertising, 23% affiliates, and 2% products.
I don’t share my income on the internet, but I’ve earned about 30% more in 2023 than I did in 2022, and am well into the six figures of raw revenue each year.
What changes to your blog have helped the most in terms of income?
Without getting too deep into the weeds for my non-blogger readers, the biggest changes I’ve made have always been around optimizing my affiliate marketing efforts. Most recently, that was adding the “LetMeAllez” script from Stay22, which simplified and improved my hotel bookings across all of my sites. Rough guess, it has 5x’ed my affiliate earnings on this site alone.
In the past, similar tech and optimizations (switching platforms, etc.) have helped improve my conversions and commissions. Affiliate commissions are still not as much a portion of my income as I’d like to help protect me from changes in the advertising space, but there’s always more to try.
What are the three best decisions you’ve made relative to your business in the last 10 years?
This was a tough question for me; I was able to think of two decisions easily but the third took me a while!
- Doubling Down – While it seems like ages ago now, I could see the writing on the Google wall: they want us to be experts on our websites. Over time, I started focusing more on the places I know really well; Alaska is the biggest part of that strategy on this site, and it has paid off by helping me become one of the better-known Alaska bloggers. I have a brand and community now, and those are really powerful parts of my business.
- Diversifying – If you visited my blog 10 years ago (or even 5 years ago!), you would have seen posts about many different destinations across the world. Over time, I’ve moved some of the posts about places I know more about to their own websites; I run a portfolio of sites (mostly in the travel space) that cover all kinds of destinations, even as V&V is my biggest. This means my income isn’t just tied to this site – if one site gets hit by a Google update or hacked or whatever, I have multiple income sources (in addition to multiple income streams, as already mentioned).
- Going Full Time – Back in 2018, I had a decision: I could stay in a job that was transforming into something I didn’t want to do, or I could take a big leap and try being a full-time travel blogger and freelance writer. Leaving that job was the best decision I ever made: I got to write a book for Lonely Planet, build this site into a business that supports my family, travel more, and have real freedom. I didn’t have a big parachute but I wasn’t too concerned as I had lost two start-up jobs is the previous five years and knew I could fly already without one; I don’t recommend following this same course, but I do recommend figuring out what it would take if you want to do it full-time too and then working toward that.
What is the top mistake you’ve made?
I added this question of myself in response to the previous question, because I think sometimes people think I do it all – and I definitely don’t!
If I could go back and work on one thing MORE (perhaps instead of starting any other sites except for Space Tourism Guide), I’d work on video more. Having a successful YouTube right now would be huge for my brand and business, and knowing good video practices and styles would help a ton on social media.
What are the biggest changes in travel that you have noted over the last 10 years – was it due to COVID or just changing preferences/technology?
Gosh, this is a good question – but also has a kind of depressing answer. Absolutely the COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on travel, first by depressing travel activity, then by overcompensating. But in all that time and turmoil, I don’t think travel behavior itself changed very much.
Instead, here are the things I think that have really changed the way we all travel:
Social Media – When I look back on social media 10 years ago, it was about connecting with one another; today it’s about broadcasting to each other. It’s a whole bunch of people with megaphones and very hard to hear what anyone else is saying – or be heard yourself.
If I could wave a magic wand and remove one part of the internet, I think it would be social media. While this would negatively impact my own business, it would dramatically improve the way we communicate and travel. Social media has become an insidious, addictive part of our lives (and my business), and drives travel behavior in detrimental ways (such as encouraging overtourism to specific destinations). Seriously, where’s my magic wand?!
Influencers – While influencers are obviously tied to social media, I’m treating them a bit separately here: I think that the obsession with becoming an influencer or “going viral” has driven people to lose sight of the purpose of travel. It’s something even I struggle with; I travel to places to gather information and experiences to share with you – but that interferes with my own experience of that place.
Similarly, influencers travel in search of the photo that will help them grow their audience, often obliterating the fact that they’re in a place to actually experience and enjoy it.
Additionally, influencers are driving trends that are irresponsible, unsafe, or unsustainable. I’m looking at you, influencers wearing dresses on glaciers in Alaska… (There are so, so many!)
“Hipster” Homogenization – You’ve probably experienced it: you step into a cafe or bar or shop in some far-flung destination, only to feel like you’re somewhere else, perhaps closer to home. Anthony Bourdain hated hipsters for this region: the culture of cool has disseminated across the world, obliterating some of what makes each destination unique.
Over time, some destinations and businesses are reclaiming those unique cultural aspects that brought travelers in the first place, but the reality that you go somewhere new only to feel like you’ve been there before (somewhere else) is definitely more dramatic now than it was 10 years ago.
Access – Ending on a more positive note, I think it has generally become easier to travel. Economically, you can definitely travel for less, depending on where you want to go and how you like to travel. Geopolitically, more countries have become welcoming to travelers and more countries have helped facilitate their own citizens traveling. Accessibility has improved too so that more people who might have never been able to travel are now able to.
All in all, this has more people traveling. While philosophically, that’s a great thing, it’s also become clear that over-tourism is a real risk to every destination, and the burden has fallen on destinations to regulate themselves rather than travelers seeking more sustainable means/patterns of traveling.
Okay, maybe this isn’t a positive note in the end. More travel is good for making us all kinder, more understanding people, but it needs to be paired with more introspection about the impact of travel to help the places we love retain what makes them special and unique.
How many days per year do you travel on average?
I had to do a bit of digging around in past annual recaps to figure this one out! I don’t have exact data, but looking at the past few years (2019-2022, including the pandemic), I’ve spent about 100 days on the road. This is probably pretty close to accurate for 2018 too. I didn’t travel much in 2017 due to having a full-time job, but did travel a lot in 2016. Before that, I’m not sure.
All this to say, I travel around 100 days per year on average!
What were your favorite trips/what is your favorite place you’ve traveled to in the last 10 years?
I wanted to end with a fun question I was asked, so here we go.
As those you asked pointed out, it’s basically impossible to choose, but here are some of my favorite trips in the past 10 years in no specific order:
- Chile (March 2019)
- Jordan (May 2016 and March 2022)
- Huntsville, Alabama (October 2018)
I’ve also traveled to London several times during this past decade – 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2022, and 2023. It is my favorite place I’ve traveled to, though I technically started visiting (and lived there for a year) before I started this blog.
This might be surprising to some of you who think Alaska is my favorite place. Don’t get me wrong – Alaska is great! It’s just not my favorite place if you make me choose.
So, what’s next? 10 more years?!
It should come as no surprise if you happen to know me personally but writing this recap and considering what to do next has thrown me into an introspective tailspin.
As I publish this, Mr. V and I are expecting our daughter in early February, which will obviously affect my capacity for both work and travel – a lot for the first few years, and then in an adjusted way for the next few decades. Big life stuff happening over here, folks.
Add on the dramatic changes we’re seeing in the industry – AI, Google changing, social media/influencers, etc. – and I feel a bit lost. Do I just keep plugging on this website? What about my other sites? How much do I need to focus on social media or YouTube? Should I go back to look for a fulfilling stable job being employed by someone else?
No seriously – someone needs to answer me! 😉
At this point, I plan to keep on keepin’ on, as they say. I have a plan for the next 9+ months that I hope will at least maintain my business in the maelstrom of a newborn and Google “being drunk” (as many of us bloggers have been calling it lately). After that? Ask me next year, I guess!
That’s all the questions I’ve received so far, but I’m happy to answer more – let me know in the comments and I’ll add them or answer inline.