Vagabrothers Find Celebrity via Travel Videos
Photo: Marko Ayling (left) and Alex Ayling (right) by Vagabrothers.
Marko and Alex Ayling are living the dream. Known as the Vagabrothers, these SoCal-based siblings document their globetrotting adventures through video, photography and blogs. Raised by a flight attendant mother and a Kiwi father (who met on a train in Switzerland), it’s no surprise that Marko and Alex found their calling in travel. In 2013, they entered and won the Biggest Baddest Bucket List competition and embarked on a whirlwind tour of six continents in as many months, resulting in a web series for BBBTV.
The Vagabrothers have since crafted their own brand of travel content and have amassed over 91,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel. The duo’s videos are at once exhilarating, funny and educational. From the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, to a road trip through Ireland, the Vagabrothers combine historical background with recommendations for the best local food, booze, nightlife and attractions. Additional videos provide viewers with tips on how to pack smarter, use a Eurail Pass correctly, and make their own travel vlogs.
Marko and Alex spoke to Crave from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Crave: How do you find off-the-beaten path destinations and local contacts for your travels?
Marko Ayling: We’re on the Internet a lot. We’re constantly earmarking cool stories or reviews of new restaurants. We keep our fingers on two things at once: traditions of where things come from and global trends.
Alex Ayling: Apart from that, we also just ask locals. We’re curious. When you show genuine interest in a place and a culture, people really open up to you and give you those insider tips that take you off the beaten path and show you a slice of life in a foreign country.
Marko: We also use our own social media a ton. We ask our audience a lot on Snapchat. When we’re going to Quebec, for example, we’ll ask where to get a good poutine or where to get drinks. That’s really helpful.
The tagline for Vagabrothers is “A YouTube Travel Show for the Global Generation.” What is the “global generation” and why is it important for people to travel, beyond pleasure?
Marko: That’s a term that we developed. The word “millennial” has been given to our generation. It’s not very accurate. It’s not very creative. I think the bigger descriptor is that the world is shrinking in ways our ancestors could never have imagined. In the past, at least in the United States, there’s been this idea that America is a great country, we have this unique role in the world, and therefore, we don’t have to learn languages other than English. I think the world’s changing a lot. You cannot exist in isolation these days. If you’re going to be part of a global workforce, or be competitive, it’s in everyone’s interests to try to understand the world as best they can, and one of the best ways to understand the world is through travel. Not only is it fun, it’s essential to surviving in the global era. That’s why we call it a “travel show for the global generation.” We really will be the first generation that will work, live, and marry all around the world.
With which of the cultures that you’ve been exposed to so far do you feel the most kinship?
Alex: We’re really enamored with Latin culture and Spain. We both lived in Spain for a couple of years, teaching English. Living in Spain, being exposed to all of these regional cultures of the country and learning how to speak Spanish fluently has really opened a large section of the world for us. Being bilingual has facilitated so many unique experiences that we would not have been able to get if we did not speak the language.
Marko: Spain’s a very regional country. We both lived in the Basque country, which really is like a nation within a nation. This is an ancient culture. They believe they’re really the aborigines of Europe, that their language goes back to the Stone Age. The average visitor could think that Spain is this homogeneous country but in reality, our experience living in that country showed us how much diversity there was in one country—culturally, linguistically, socially. Spain is a mosaic of cultures and it really taught us that the world is a mosaic of cultures and to appreciate each individual tile.
What personality traits do each of you have that make you good traveling partners?
Alex: I would break it down like a Venn diagram: there’s a large section of our personalities that overlap, but then there are the rest of the circles that are very different. Marko is very driven by this quest for knowledge. Marko wants to go to a place and understand it. I studied history and cultural anthropology, and though I am interested in that, I’m more of an experiential person and I’m maybe more focused on living it up.
Marko: Alex is a very practical person. If we’re trying to get from A to B, I’m always like, “Let’s take the long way!” This blend of optimism and practicality, idealism and realism tend to make for good travel buddies and great videos. It’s weird: if we were not brothers, if we weren’t in this project, would we travel together? I don’t know if we would. We’re constantly arguing before we film a video on what we’re going to feature, how it’s going to happen. It’s a constant battle. It’s creative conflict, all the time. We’re different in that sense. We’re not traveling for fun, necessarily. We’re making videos. It’s our job. We’re focused on how to produce content rather than just go on a spontaneous adventure.
Alex: We try to incorporate as much of those unexpected things that happen on any given trip. We’ve made enough videos that were totally products of spontaneous trips that were a pain in the butt to edit. Our lesson has been to think of the story that you want to discover before you go, plan the trip around that, and let it unfold.
How does the business side of Vagabrothers work? Do you have sponsors?
Marko: In the very beginning, we had the idea of making a TV show. At the time, Anthony Bourdain had “No Reservations” but “Parts Unknown” was not on TV yet and we had an idea that, looking back, was quite similar.
Alex had experience on-camera because he had bought a first-version GoPro and duct-taped it to a broomstick and started filming himself. He got tapped by this documentary expedition that was looking for a Spanish-speaker to go to the Andes. Long story short: he got selected for that. He was mentored by a BBC presenter. They went on two expeditions: one to Ecuador and one to Namibia. Meanwhile, I was working as a travel writer, doing guidebook writing, freelance writing.
We combined forces in 2012 to make this TV show idea. We wrote the idea on paper and sent it to production companies and they really liked it and they wanted to see us on-camera. We filmed something about Spain, sent it into the production companies, and they were like, “You guys don’t even look like brothers. This is a great idea, but you don’t have any chemistry.” We practiced for six months. At the end of that six months, when my Visa was expiring, I saw a tweet [about the Biggest Baddest Bucket List competition]. All we had to do was make a three-minute video. We entered the contest, won the contest, and we got sent on this trip around the world for six months.
Basically, that company sponsored us on a six-month trip. There was not much of a budget. We learned from the trip about the importance of working with sponsors. We kept making these videos and realized we were providing a huge service to tourism industries that were trying to reach young people. We started partnering with tourism boards that wanted to get the word out about destinations on social media but didn’t want to hire a production company. That’s how we found our initial investment. Since then, we’ve expanded to different sponsors—car companies, airlines, cruise companies. We’re down here in Argentina now with a wine company.
Alex: We’re definitely selective about who we partner with. It has to be on-brand for us. It’s not like we’re just taking anything that comes.
Given how much you travel, is it hard to maintain friendships or romantic relationships?
Marko: Yeah, it definitely is. That’s probably the biggest single drawback. Our friends live in California. I just turned 30 and a lot of my friends are getting married and having kids. We’re trying to date people when we go back to California or on the road. Every single lifestyle has its pros and cons. Every single lifestyle has its chains. We can choose our chains, but in this case, one of the chains that we have is that the constant movement makes it difficult to maintain those relationships. We do our best when we’re at home to hang out with our friends and maintain our friendships from before all this crazy adventure started.