It was in the middle of a tour in South America last November that Contiki's global marketing director first realised the celebrity power of YouTube stars.
For the first time ever the travel company had invited two YouTube celebrities, Corey Vidal and Nadine Sykora, to experience one of their tours — something previously only offered to journalists and travel writers.
"You don’t realise until you get involved in the community how many passionate fans there are," says Alexis Sitaropoulos.
"They're not TV stars or Hollywood stars but they have the same sort of passionate following."
When Mr Sitaropoulos saw Mr Vidal, a 25-year-old Canadian, talking to his South American fans on Twitter he quickly realised how large his fan base was.
Now just one year later Contiki is taking YouTube celebrities seriously — launching a new marketing initiative called "The RoadTrip" that will see 13 of the world's most famous "YouTubers" go on a 10-day journey across Europe, starting on October 5.
The stars — Corey Vidal, Charles and Alli Trippy, Charlie McDonnell, Kate Elliott, Jesse & Jeana, Nadine Sykora, Jack Douglass, Jimmy Wong, Meghan Camarena, Michael Aranda and Bryarly Bishop — will produce YouTube videos as they take in the sights tourist-style in Germany, Austria, Italy, Paris and London.
"We're not asking them to produce specific content or giving them ground rules, we want to keep it real and organic — we don't want to turn it into some slick, produced marketing video, that's not what their audience want," Mr Sitaropoulos said.
The celebrities will also compete to make videos as part of challenges set throughout the tour and participate in fan meet-and-greet sessions — Contiki is using a Canadian production company ApprenticeA to make its own behind-the-scenes videos to document their antics.
Asked what the fan gatherings will be like, Mr Sitaropoulos admits: "We're not quite sure what to expect."
"There are a handful of YouTube events in the US, like Videocon, but there's nothing like that anywhere else in the world.
"We really wanted to get a lot of these guys who are big stars out so they can meet their audiences worldwide — we want to build something with longevity, do this year-on-year."
YouTube is an 'untapped' market
According to Mr Sitrapoulos, YouTube — which first launched as a video content sharing website in 2005 — is still "surprisingly" underutilised by marketers.
"Every time they post a video they get two, three, four million [views]— those are television numbers but with nowhere near the same level of commerialisation. It's a really untapped market.
"There are no travel companies and not a huge lot of other companies that are very deeply involved [in YouTube]," he said.
Publicis Mojo social media manager Carl Burgmann agrees, saying companies are only just starting to turn to YouTube "influencers" for marketing and promotion.
"It's underutilised because there is a lower understanding and knowledge from marketers about how to take advantage of the different opportunities," Mr Burgmann says.
"Brands will throw out a two minute or three minute video but there's no continuous story being told.”
Mr Burgmann said YouTube celebrities had niche audiences that enabled marketers to target the specific group they wanted.
"These celebrity bloggers have quite a lot of influence over their followers.
"And because it's coming from an independent voice that they trust, they wouldn’t be expecting this to be a marketing message."
But Mr Sitrapoulos said Contiki had to be careful in how it tried to tap into the YouTube audience.
"It can't just be viewed as commercial," he said.
"The guys are very protective of their integrity — they have audiences that buy into them because they are real and genuine."
Sources: Contiki, The RoadTrip, Publicis Mojo.
Author: Alys Francis. Approving editor: Matthew Henry.