If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you likely saw that I recently attended (and spoke at and helped plan!) the inaugural Women in Travel Summit. Taking place in my adopted hometown of Chicago over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, WITS was the first conference of its kind, planned by women, for women, focusing on travel and blogging and, of course, travel blogging.
I first heard about WITS from the founder, Beth Santos, when she tweeted me that they were accepting speaker applications. I quickly emailed her and before I knew it, I was on the planning team, speaking about volunteer travel and overseeing the volunteers for the weekend! Throw in staffing a table for Passports with Purpose (the travel blogging community’s annual fundraiser) throughout the weekend, and I had my hands full!
The thing I liked the most about WITS was the overall vibe. With just under 200 attendees, it had the intimate feel of the early TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange) conferences, but with a much more supportive, encouraging atmosphere. At TBEX and TBU (Travel Bloggers Unite), I feel there is an undercurrent of competition among bloggers, jockeying for position with the brand reps in attendance and humble-bragging about their stats. There was none of that at WITS. We were more than just a group of travel bloggers – we were female travelers and, as the WITS promotions boasted, we were there to celebrate the sisterhood of traveling women.
The two keynote speakers – Jeannie Mark and Evelyn Hannon – absolutely personified this and were by far the highlights of the weekend for me. First, it was amazing to finally meet Jeannie in person after “knowing” her online for a couple years now! Second, her keynote address to kick off Saturday morning absolutely rocked. As she told her story of pursuing promotions she didn’t really want until she finally got laid off and started her life of travel, I felt myself nodding along since that was how I once felt as well. Unlike her, my family was fairly supportive of my decision to quit my job to travel for a year, even if not all of my friends were.
Likewise, Evelyn “Journeywoman” Hannon’s keynote to end the weekend was inspiring. Married at 19, divorced by 40, she challenged herself to travel solo in Europe for a month and never looked back. To think that she started “blogging” by writing letters and then a newsletter sent by “snail mail” is incredible – to think that she turned all of it into one of the longest-running travel blogs in the world and that she is still going strong at 74 is truly inspiring.
WITS also represented my first experience actually speaking at a conference like this. While I am hardly an expert on SEO or story-telling or scoring press trips, I found an opportunity to speak at WITS in the “travel” track, focusing on travel-related, rather than blogging-related topics. So I found myself in front of 20-30 women on Saturday morning talking about volunteering abroad. Though not a huge crowd (I was up against Gillian Duffy’s uber-popular session on making money outside of blogging that I wish I could have attended as well!), I got some great feedback from those who did attend (thank you to the woman who told me she could listen to me talk for 2 more hours!).
I didn’t attend many of the other sessions at WITS – in part because I was trying to keep an eye on how things were going with our volunteers and in part because not many really jumped out at me as ones I wanted to attend. That’s not a knock on the other speakers or sessions at all – I’m sure many were great and I heard good things; they just didn’t resonate with me (okay, I confess, several seemed too “easy,” which made me realize how far I’ve come and that maybe I could actually speak about blogging-related topics after all). I also enjoyed spending time in the exhibit hall staffing the Passports with Purpose table and chatting with other attendees about the travel blogging community’s annual fundraiser. I’m thrilled to be part of PwP and it’s one of my favorite things about being part of this big crazy travel blogging world.
It was also an interesting weekend in that I didn’t know that many people going into it. It seems like just yesterday that I rolled into TBEX Vancouver knowing just a handful of bloggers and wandering around in awe of the others. Since then, I have found my niche in the travel blogging world and have found a good core group of friends (several of whom are some of the same bloggers I was once in awe of!). But at the same time, I haven’t expanded far beyond that core. As I looked at the list of fellow speakers at WITS, I found I hardly recognized any of them.
So it was exciting to go into a conference feeling confident in what I had to offer and in a position to meet tons of new people (whereas at TBEX Vancouver, I felt like I had nothing to offer and was intimidated by meeting anyone). And there were so many new people to meet! I met bloggers from Brazil and Australia and all over the U.S. I met two bloggers who write about gluten-free travel (awesome!). And I met more bloggers who, like me, blog in addition to working a full-time job. I felt like the diversity of WITS was one of the best aspects – perhaps it was just my imagination, but it felt like the attendees were far more diverse in terms of age and race and niche than at any TBEX or TBU. It was really cool and I wish I could’ve spent even more time getting to know people before completely wearing myself out!
A year ago, I left TBEX Toronto feeling deflated and unsure of where I fit in the world of travel blogging. Last weekend, I collapsed into bed after WITS, feeling inspired and proud to have found my place in this global sisterhood of traveling women. And I’m looking forward to what the future has to offer!
Photos courtesy of Studio Nouveau and WITS.