A year ago at this time, I didn’t know what the Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) was. Last June, all I had was a WordPress.com blog with about two posts to my name. I was still two months away from purchasing my domain name and switching to a self-hosted blog and about six months away from publishing posts on a regular (i.e. weekly) basis. I didn’t know what SEO meant (search engine optimization) or what an Alexa rank was and hadn’t given a thought to branding, monetization or considered what my niche was. The thought of attending a conference devoted to travel blogging probably would’ve seemed a bit silly.
Yet there I was last Friday, arriving in Vancouver to attend TBEX Vancouver – a gathering of travel bloggers and public relations reps from the travel industry. I admit, I was nervous and, frankly, I felt a bit insecure about the whole thing. As a relative newbie to the travel blogging scene, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d fit in and I feared feeling like an outsider. It helped that I shared a hotel room with Amanda from A Dangerous Business and Val from Silly America, but there were definitely times throughout the weekend when I felt like more of a fan of everyone around me than a “real” travel blogger myself.
(Confession: the fact that a few people actually recognized and approached me because they read this blog made me feel pretty damn good).
When the conference schedule was released, I was optimistic that I would find it pretty valuable. Sessions on narrative and non-narrative writing, SEO and branding seemed geared toward newcomers like myself – which also led me to wonder what on earth the more experienced bloggers would be getting out of it. By Saturday evening, the answer was apparent – alcohol.
Okay, not really just alcohol, although there was certainly plenty of it flowing each night of the conference. It was clear, though, that the weekend was much more about the personal connections than anything else, although that’s not to say I didn’t learn anything or that I didn’t get my money’s worth (disclaimer: I got my TBEX ticket from someone for free and I combined the conference with a work trip to Seattle, so all I paid for was my shared hotel room and my bus to and from Seattle).
So what did I learn?
Well, first of all, I didn’t learn the secret to running a super-duper successful travel blog, nor did I expect to. Many of the sessions lacked focus or specific take-aways. Some covered points I felt I already knew (maybe I’m not such a newbie after all?), while others were way over my head.
I did learn that I probably shouldn’t be writing this post. I’m in the travel industry, not the blogging industry and any of you who are not bloggers yourselves have probably stopped reading by now. After this post, no more writing about blogging.
I could tell you how quaint, rustic, charming and beautiful Vancouver is and that it is the jewel in the crown of Canada and has a lot of hidden gems to discover, but I learned that I should banish those words and phrases from my blogging vocabulary. I also didn’t see that much of Vancouver outside of the convention center and several bars, so I’m really not a fair judge of its attributes.
I learned some awesome tips on learning a foreign language from Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months that I hope to use as I try to improve my Russian language skills.
I also learned that Vancouver residents are really passionate about their hockey team. Even though it was only Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals and they hadn’t actually won the Cup yet, they were partying harder than Patrick Kane on Friday night. (of course, after I wrote this, they proceeded to riot and set cars on fire in the wake of losing Game 7, something I feared might happen after seeing the raucous celebrations after Game 5).
Finally, I learned that networking and socializing with travel bloggers is a different ballgame. Unlike events or parties I might attend here in Chicago, at TBEX, everyone’s nametag included their Twitter name, not the company where they work. I was already familiar with the blogs of most of the people I met or I followed them on Twitter, so the typical conversation starters of “what do you do?” and “where are you from?” didn’t seem to make much sense - I usually already knew! This made some conversations much easier and others a tad bit awkward.
What inspired me?
More than being educational, I found a couple sessions particularly inspirational. I found the session by Lonely Planet’s Robert Reid on research particularly interesting because I have always been a travel research junkie and he inspired me with some new ideas on how to incorporate research into what I write. Sean Keener’s talk also motivated me to dream big, build a simple process that will make me better over time and then “go like hell” to achieve my goals, no matter how big, hairy and audacious they may be.
A few gems that really resonated with me:
“Write until it stops being interesting.”
“Good travel leads to good narrative.”
“Avoid negativity – don’t be the worst person you’ve ever traveled with.”
“Writing is writing wherever you publish it.”
“Be true to the story, write the story, and the right people will find it.”
“Focus not on providing something for everyone, but everything for someone.”
“When you want to climb the ladder, it’s not about kicking other people off it.”
“You might get rich by working your ass off.”
“Budget travel is getting the most experience out of the budget you have.”
And about those personal connections…
One of my favorite quotes is “strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet” and I think that applies so well to TBEX. A year ago, everyone at this conference was a stranger to me – I likely wasn’t even reading any of their blogs yet. But in the last few months I have become friends with several fellow travel bloggers through Twitter, Facebook, email and/or our blogs (and yes, I still think that sounds a little weird to say I’ve become “friends” with someone before ever meeting them in person). It was such a great feeling to finally meet these friends “in real life,” share a big hug, and start chatting like we have known each other for years.
And it was even better to meet dozens of new “strangers” who share my love and passion for travel – I hope many will be become great, lifelong friends.