I’m certainly not new to blogging nor am I new to blogging conferences, having attended them in their infancy ten or so years ago. I was on the advisory board of BlogHer for the first two years, helping with its initial launch (and still contribute content to the network), used to attend all the RSS conferences in the early days, which social media events have replaced, and have been a regular at BlogWorldExpo since the beginning.
And, none of this is counting the umpteen social media events I have attended on a monthly basis in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, New York, Paris, Dublin, and even Israel. The list goes on.
I’m also not new to traveling, having lived in 11 countries and scoured nearly 80, covering every continent on the planet except Antarctica. That said, I’m more of a newbie to the marriage of traveling and blogging than I am technology and blogging, which I started doing around 1997 in some form or another. YET, I can’t even count the hotel rooms, patios, mountain tops, cafes or bistros I’ve blogged from around the world, long before the birth of We Blog the World.
This year was my second TBEX (aka Travel Blog Exchange) an event which is considered the official travel bloggers conference by many, now only its fourth year. It grew up quickly and organically, so much so that this past March, BlogWorldExpo acquired TBEX, which means that the event in Keystone Colorado this past June had more structure and formality to it than previous years, but not in a way that had any negative impact. In other words, more resources, more experience and more tentacles means tighter organization and programming and oh yeah, better food.
Refer to my write-up on the over-the-top Taste of Vail event where we were wined and dined from nine different local restaurants. If I recall, my biggest food memory from the Vancouver event last year were the food trucks (which were fabulous, but no Taste of Vail) and the restaurant review I did on my own of the Yew in the Vancouver Four Seasons.
For those of you have read any of my posts, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the fact that I am as passionate about travel as I am food but the two don’t always merge as much as you might think they do. Food bloggers are not travel bloggers and vice versa. If you think that all travel bloggers are natural foodies, think again.
And so, we ate well in Keystone.
You begin to experience ‘blogging events’ a little differently after years of content and panel overload. Most of the value at any of these things tends to be wrapped up in the networking — we all know this and its the primary reason we attend — yet snippets of content and keynotes swim around us, weaving in and out of hallway conversations. And, truth be told, within those sessions are book plugs, product plugs, sponsor plugs and seminar plugs.
There are other agendas. People laugh when I tell them one of my agenda items is tech support at events. It happens to be a great way to access the geeks who are building the stuff we all use, so what a better venue to have a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t.
I also attend events for perspective. I decided to share a condo with two people I didn’t know at TBEX this year…for the fun of it and frankly, because I haven’t done the room share in years. “Room time” is focus time and when I get a lot of work done so sharing means lost focus time which equates to lost productivity, something I can’t afford when I’m juggling so many things. On this trip however, sharing was not only fun, but provided fodder for the perspective piece of it, one of the reasons I attended the event.
What a blogger who has been at it for a year or so deals with and thinks about is very different than the things that go through my mind on a daily basis. That said, you know the teacher/student concept right? Just when I think I’m in a teacher role, I become the student and vice versa. Life is just that way. Trust me, if you go through life being open to the fact that you are likely going to be a student even in the obvious places where you think you’re the teacher, you’ll take so much more away from the experience. This was the case when Anna, who is in her early twenties and recently graduated from Northwestern, helped out with the WBTW travel photo contest. She had creative ideas, we had more fun because she was along for the ride and the perspective that she brought to the table was great.
One of the things we were reminded in the contest, which applies to all the basic concepts of travel blogging, is this: while we had great giveaways, I bet if I were to interview all the folks who submitted photos, the giveaways wouldn’t be the primary reason they participated. People participate in things like this because they have a passion for the idea: in this case, travel photography. It is a mutual thing that fed both them (those who submitted photos) and me, also a travel photographer and writer.
We ‘share’ things that matter to us AND we ‘read’ things that matter to us. Obviously the more we can find things to read that we resonate with and are in tune with our internal voice, the better, right? There’s a reason soap operas and really smart advertising still work: they appeal to an emotional need, passion or desire.
This bridges into what people ‘should take’ away from a blogging conference, frankly in any industry. Creating great content still matters a lot, whether its in the form of text, audio or visual. There are industry folks and writers who get this and some who don’t and never will. In the old media category, those who attended the conference and subscribe to the value of really great content include Jen Leo and Spud Hilton. New media folks include NomadicMatt, Gary Arndt, C.C. Chapman and Andy Murdock, Lonely Planet’s Digital Editor. (note: there are countless others who create incredible content, but these were the folks I managed to see this TBEX)
I’d love to see more panels, discussions, hallway brainstorms and after hour deep-dives into “why great writing matters, and where we need to start.” Its not that I don’t think that we ALL need to monetize and that business needs to take “this industry” seriously, which includes rewarding travel bloggers and content creators for the value they bring to the table — and I don’t mean with digital badges and patons.
Brands, countries, tourism boards, businesses, investors, vendors, and wanna-bes, should PAY for that inherent value. Some exchange needs to happen. It takes a lot of time to generate “really great” content, from research and interviews to fact checking and crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s. Most bloggers don’t have the time to produce New York Times quality content and certainly don’t have the resources and budget.
I don’t have the percentage breakdown between bloggers, vendors, PR folks and brands at TBEX this year, although Rick Calvert surely does…my sense is that the majority were travel bloggers although the number of brands and sponsors showing up to ‘pitch’ them is growing.
The problem comes down to the new guard giving away too much for ‘free’ over the past ten years and the perception that “bloggers” aren’t professional writers who deserve to be rewarded in the way traditional journalists always have. The current ‘system’ poorly-supports a “fair exchange”, so regardless of what we do to improve our SEO, our Google page rank, our Klout status (don’t get me started on this inaccurate popularity contest measurement tool – you know I love you Joe, but its way too one dimensional in its current form), and eyeballs (there’s just too much content out there competing with ‘our voice’, there’s just never enough time in a day. Travel bloggers may not be doing it to make a boat load of money, but MONEY must be made. That brings me to why people showed up at TBEX.
Bloggers want to monetize, vendors want to sell, tourism boards want to capitalize, hotels, resorts and restaurants want exposure and mobile app developers want data and users. There’s more than five categories but you get the point.
Bottom line, if you don’t LOVE TO WRITE and LOVE TO TRAVEL, none of this is going to work. I come across those in the “love to travel” category more than I do in the “love to write” category.
From asking around at TBEX this year, it appeared to me that the majority were trying to figure out ways to monetize their blog to a point where it could sustain itself and create a lifestyle that supports ongoing travel. Since the travel blogger audience skews young, many folks are ‘okay’ with having their expenses taken care of in exchange for a chance to explore a particular region. And btw, this may be acceptable in the “short term” if you are 18-25 year old age range and in it for the adventure.
My issue with this kind of exchange is that it turns content into a commodity, reducing the value of really great content and the value of that really great content to a brand. Really great content can drive tourists to an area who will spend money. Journalists will have their own viewpoint on this, but if you’re not the travel writer for USA Today, LA Times, the Tribune, or Le Monde, you don’t have a travel expense budget, so how do you continue to cover region after region beyond a year off from work or a two year stint between college and your professional life? How do you sustain this lifestyle and create really great content ethically and thoroughly without selling your soul? The $100 million dollar question at all blogging conferences.
Affiliate Links: Really? The amount of time and effort that it takes to set these things up and the kick back you get as a blogger is so low, its a slap in the face unless your traffic is in the hundreds of thousands to millions. This is the case whether you sign up for an Amazon affiliate program or something like Skimlinks or services in its category, which has a hybrid approach. That said, it can be a nice supplement if you’re focused on product reviews.
AdSense: No need to expand here. 90% of the stuff isn’t relevant and your kick back is so low that its not worth doing.
Sponsorships: There’s something here, but the value proposition is poorly positioned so we’re still seeing an intern-level cash exchange for a value that is probably 50x more.
Consulting: There is money here, but if you’re a 23 year old blogger who is more passionate about traveling than anything else, you have less to offer than someone who has been doing something ‘else’ for 5, 10 or 20 years who can offer a brand something that makes an impact to their business. That said, as you build your brand, and a big part of that brand is YOU, you need to figure out how to make revenue while you’re asleep and consulting ‘ain’t it’ baby.
Books & eBooks: Sure, but the revenue is small. Same goes for travel photography unless you’re in the top 3%.
Product Placements: Sure, with integrity and full disclosure of course, but is the money really there to make the effort worthwhile over the long haul? And, it dilutes your blog.
While we’re talking monetization, the sessions were loaded with ways to help bloggers get to the next level. Panels and talks included: SEO for beginners, Podcasting for Travelers, Contest Giveaways, Monetization, Working with Brands, Creating a Business with your Blog, Tourism Marketing, Fans & Influence, WordPress for Beginners, Web Design, Breaking into the TV Biz, Legal Issues (this is important schtuff, particularly for newbies), Funding, Email Marketing and Newsletters. Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list. Rand Fishkin gave a keynote on SEO Without Selling Your Soul, and one of my favorite buds in the biz C.C. Chapman kicked things off on morning one.
While I think the sessions provided value to bloggers looking for tools, techniques, SEO do’s and don’ts, and advertising vehicles, you still need to start with a passion for creating really great content, the stuff that will rise above the noise.
Keynote Christopher Baker also emphasized these points: passion, persistence and having really great content. Born and educated in England, he has authored more than 20 books for Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Moon, National Geographic. His writing and photography have appeared in more than 200 international publications as far-ranging as Caribbean Travel & Life, Elle, Maxim, National Geographic Traveler, National Wildlife, Newsweek, The Robb Report, and CNN Go. He is considered the world’s foremost authority on travel and tourism to Cuba and Costa Rica.
Pitches didn’t go un-noticed by this marketing veteran however. After his talk, he did a book signing and pitched his latest and vendors were in abundance, from product and services companies to airlines, hotels, resorts, PR agencies, global brands and tourism boards. ScotteVest gave out free vests, which come in gray, black, navy, red and hunter green, to travel bloggers. Below I’m hanging with CEO Scott Jordan after I picked up my vest. It turns out that Steve Wozniak aka Woz, is on their board – nice job guys!
Other destinations on site included tourism boards from Jordan, Canada (west coast and Montreal), Dominican Republic, Costa Brava, Lake Geneva Switzerland (now there’s a place I haven’t been to in 20 years), Virginia, the Caribbean Islands, Australia, Croatia, Vail, Colorado, and Hawaii. No doubt there were others I missed.
Vendors included everyone from TripIt, Tourism Currants, Viator, WordPress, American Express, Starwood, British Airways, Southwest (but no booth), Expedia (they hosted the final bash), Hartmann Luggage, GoGo Inflight, IGoToo and Mapquest, to RoomKey, Room 77 and Walks of Italy. The odd duck of the bunch was sponsor Cottonelle, who was giving out samples as women entered the bathroom…
Very few of them actually reached out or did anything that would move the needle or affect their bottom line. Brands could have done so much more to leverage their presence; there were also a ton of players who didn’t show up who could have really scored from being present. TBEX is a low-cost effective and intimate way to begin relationships with travel content creators who create buzz – it’s a pretty easy value proposition if you have a smart marketing head and know what to do with that presence.
Speaking of branding, there was a final on-stage promo for TBEX Europe which will be held in Girona Spain on September 21-22, 2012.
Think gorgeous coastline, cycling, fabulous food, clear blue skies, warm and passionate people, dancing, music, historical and cultural texture and sunny skies.
Although I haven’t been yet, I have started doing some research and its a gorgeous place. Need I say more?
At the end of the day, we all know that conferences, TBEX included, isn’t really about the sessions or keynotes. Much of our success comes from the relationships we make, the collaboration from those relationships, having really great content, persistence, being at the right place at the right time, a little bit of luck and never giving up regardless of how hard it gets along the way.
It is often the after parties and bonding that takes place at those events that allow us to form stronger connections with people, people who can make a difference in our lives AND to our blogs. Now for the unofficial TBEX:
Before we even left Denver, there was a kick off party at Wynkoop (all things beer).
Visit Denver aka the Convention & Visitors Bureau (thanks Deb and Rich) did a smashing job organizing three customized whirlwind tours from Denver to Keystone: drinking beer from breweries all day, adventure schtuff, such as skylining through the Colorado mountains and lofty peak climbs, and the one I took: History. Below are team aka the Blue Team, photographed in the Red Rocks Ampitheatre museum, which shows a l’il Beatles history from their concert there, the only one that didn’t sell out in America. (here’s my write-up on Keystone to Denver)
The red rocks, not quite as vibrant as what Utah or Sedona has to offer, but they are in fact red.
The ampitheatre stop came after the fastest trip to a zoo I’ve ever made, where we said “hey” to an ancient elephant, took a pit stop in restrooms that had wildly colored animals on all the stalls and waved to the giraffes. There were also a number of corny but fun exercises we had to do along the way to show our creativity to a group of judges who would award the winning team the latest iPhone and free Sprint service. (I really needed that baby, so I don’t want to talk about all the creativity our team exuded that didn’t make it online IN TIME for the voting).
Yes, that’s us trying to make a Z-O-O from our bodies while standing up. What were we thinking? And this was all without alcohol unlike some of the other teams.
There was the gold mine, which I loved – the Phoenix Gold Mine to be exact – which allows you to pan for gold.
Antarctic Mark aka Mark Walsh, Renee Blodgett, Chris Christensen and Spud Hilton.
Posing with my team (the blue team):
A total traitor t’is I as I now pose with our competing team — the yellow team. They had a more creative pose…what can I say?
Blue team hams it up in front of a French museum in historical Georgetown, though somehow we didn’t get any ‘creative’ points for this one. C’mon Sprint, really? Look at the coordination efforts here…fork over a phone or two for the Blues.
While we’re still in Georgetown:
Did I mention the incredible piano nearly two centuries old I discovered in one of the artsy gallery shops in the center of town? It’s walnut, baby, walnut.
It couldn’t be a complete history tour if we didn’t stop at the Continental Divide, even if it was for more drinking than viewing:
The game was to drink beer out of a shot glass (in unison) from a ski. I’m sorry, but what the F’-K were they thinking? Sorry Blues for letting you down but it was just too complicated for this right brain artist to figure out at such high altitudes.
One of the highlights was the Georgetown Loop Railroad. See my write-up on it here. What a precious travel experience.
Below, the Lake at Keystone, a view pretty close to what I had from my condo, which was a mere 5 minute walk to the Convention Center each morn.
The gondola to the top, was roughly a 45 minute journey. But, OH, the views and the food combined were so worth it. (sadly the blur is a combination of a moving iPhone and a moving gondola)
A ScottEvest blogger dinner…
Colorado pub moments too dark and late to remember ‘clearly’
Late night girl chit chat about just about everything. We most certainly made poor Dave blush on a number of occasions and he’s technically a grown up.
Then there was the last night party: Rodeo night. Okay, so, there wasn’t a real rodeo, but western style it was, from line dancing to cowboy hats:
BWE’s Dave Cynkin
Apple pie anyone?
Before it got late and wild…
Kim Mance, Gary Arndt
It was the first time they served Colorado wines. Go #Colorado.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun…..
Renee Blodgett, Scott Jordan, JD Andrews aka @EarthXplorer on Twitter.
Carly Grimes – at the final bash.
The after after party was in some random pub in Keystone. Okay, it wasn’t some random pub. We almost always ended up at the Kickapoo Tavern, a name I couldn’t seem to say correctly even after four days.
While the below shot is a blurry one, its a classic: Jen Leo with NomadicMatt and Spud Hilton on his eukulele.
Deborah Park of the Denver Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Renee Blodgett, Rich Grant, also from the C&V Bureau, also our guide on the Denver to Keystone rally.
Even in Colorado, bars eventually close. Below we move onto the after after after party.
Below by the fire, taken by Rich Grant.
I’d call the conference a success and remember that its in its infancy – there are so many opportunities in this space that brands, services, travel product manufacturers, writers and content creators have yet to tap into. I look forward to hearing the new U.S. location for next year as there was a lot of speculation about where its going to be….lots of cities are pitching for it including Detroit. Below are links to my write-ups while in Colorado in and around TBEX: from Boulder and Denver to Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek.
- The Sebastian in Vail: http://bit.ly/LM8dA0
- The Charter in Beaver Creek: http://bit.ly/MotnF9
- Beaver Creek’s Black Diamond Bistro: http://bit.ly/KY16s1
- Whiz Bang Tour from Denver to Keystone: http://bit.ly/MgxkO4
- Panning for Gold at the Phoenix Gold Mine in Idaho Springs: http://bit.ly/MOYg6c
- Taste of Vail Event: 9 Restaurant Overview: http://bit.ly/KGXDfZ
- Charming Georgestown Colorado: http://bit.ly/LTp7jz
- Georgetown Loop Railroad Experience: http://bit.ly/LR4FzF
- Colorado Artist Randy Milhoan Turns Parking Structure into Historical Landmark: http://bit.ly/LsG6cN
- 3 Restaurants Not to Miss in Vail: http://bit.ly/Ms7cfJ
- Colorado Resorts in the Summer: Overview of Keystone, Vail & Beaver Creek: http://bit.ly/LSdJV1
- Colorado Red Rocks Ampitheatre: http://bit.ly/Mifl7R
- Doing Beer Shots from the Continental Divide: http://bit.ly/LXvu5s
- Boulder Colorado’s Thriving Farmer’s Market: http://bit.ly/LqBQum
- Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse: http://bit.ly/NmFArZ
- Boulder’s Trattoria on Pearl: http://bit.ly/KtHJRw
- Boulder Art Scene: Not All Art Galleries Equal: http://bit.ly/MrKR4w
- Foursquare on a Colorado Ski Lift: http://bit.ly/LJaQkB