TBEX 2013: The Biggest Travel Blogging Conference Hits Toronto


Canada's own Dave and Deb of ThePlanetD give the keynote at TBEX Toronto

When I started travel blogging seven years ago, the profession didn’t exist. Canada’s Dave and Deb of ThePlanetD give the keynote at TBEX TorontoWhen I founded Breathedreamgo four years ago, I called Toronto’s first travel tweet-up and three women met for tea.

When I went by MegaBus to the second TBEX, in New York City three years ago, I was amazed to see about 300 travel bloggers congregating. And Saturday morning at 8:45 am when I sat in the second row of a huge Metro Toronto Convention Centre Auditorium and stood up and looked back, I was too gob-smacked to take a photo: 1,300 people, a mammoth sound and lights show and an electric feeling of excitement in the air. Travel blogging has arrived, I thought, and it’s happening here, in my beloved city, Toronto!

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when Toronto won the bid to host TBEX 13; or how flushed with pride and satisfaction I was when David Whitaker, president of Tourism Toronto, gave credit to the Toronto travel blogging community for making this possible; or when the dynamic duo, Canada’s Adventure Couple Dave and Deb of ThePlanetD, in their keynote speech, thanked Alicia Taggio and me for organizing Travel Massive. I have had the privilege of having a front row seat as travel blogging as evolved and grown into a real, viable and professional pursuit and it’s been one of the most exciting rides of my life.

TBEX Toronto

So, the first highlight of TBEX of course was that it was here, in Toronto; that TBEX chose this city for their first 100% organized conference; and that the Canadian, Ontario and Toronto tourism boards got behind it 100% and made it happen. I thank ALL of you with all my heart. You did a great job in just about every way (just one lowlight, below). Toronto Tourism made me proud, as a fourth generation Torontonian, to see the city’s rich multicultural heritage on display at the showcase Roy Thomson Hall. That was a great opening night party Toronto! And thanks for posting my piece Nostalgia, Toronto Style. But there’s more. Here are just a few of the other things I thought were TBEX highlights.

Indian food and culture on display at the Tourism Toronto opening night party at TBEX

The emphasis on storytelling, community and finding your unique voice

I gravitated to the content sessions because writing is my passion, and it was quite well represented at this year’s TBEX. I loved Mike Snowden’s session “Using Storytelling to Hook, Frustrate and Torment Your Readers.” Mike, of Fevered Mutterings is funny, sweet, talented and self-deprecating and he had the audience in stitches in his session. He explained that readers like to be held in state of delicious tension and advised writers to “tease, lie, and delay satisfaction.” Here’s a summary of his storytelling tips:

  • start in the middle
  • delay your answers
  • end your stories
  • focus on details
  • fess up when it sucks
  • write less

Likewise, Spud Hilton of the San Francisco Chronicle takes every opportunity he can to extol the importance of good writing and storytelling, and I was uber pleased to see the closing session This Week in Travel podcast start with this topic. As always, Spud underlined the importance of good writing for the sake of good writing — but he also said it’s the key to long-term success as a travel blogger. He gave this Good writing advice: read your story out loud or get someone objective to read it.

In a session that could have been better — especially given the caliber of the presenters — I really appreciated Vivek Wagle of Airbnb and Andy Murdock of Lonely Planet emphasizing finding your purpose and passion as a blogger in “Content Strategy” session. Vivek said, find the intersection of your purpose and what the world needs. He said to ask yourself, what problem are you solving; how can you make people’s lives better? And he suggested writing a short promise statement to your readers.

It’s not about you

TBEX TorontoThe other two sessions I enjoyed at TBEX both stressed values that have nothing to do with “I want to travel for free and write about myself ad nauseum.” Jodi Ettenberg and Annemarie Dooling’s session on “Rethinking Your Audience: Turning Readers into a Thriving Community” was probably the best one I attended at TBEX; and local entrepreneur Bruce Poontip’s session called “The Noble Purpose of Travel Blogging” was truly inspiring.

Jodi and Annemarie talked both in general and specific terms about building a community — not a platform, an important distinction — and they achieved their purpose, with me anyway. I am rethinking how to relate to my audience better, and all the ways I could do a better job. There were literally too many tips to list, but here are a few:

  • connect readers to both you and other readers (your job is to put yourself out of a job!)
  • be authentic, be passionate find your unique voice and tone and always provide value
  • use social platforms to have conversations and authentic interactions
  • listen to how your readers are communicating with you
  • reward your readers, do something nice for them; give them a platform; highlight success stories; meet them for tea!
  • ask questions very judiciously
  • try and turn trolls around by engaging with them and trying to understand the underlying issues (unless they are hateful and insulting)
  • use the “nice person” metric

I have seen Bruce speak before and I know his company very well. But in a small intimate setting I really saw for the first time that the G Adventures founder really does care about sustainable tourism. Previously, I was impressed with his business acumen, but after attending “The Noble Purpose of Travel Blogging” I am impressed by the man. In his session, Bruce underlined what travel bloggers could and should be doing for the planet and the tremendous power that we yield to send positive messages about spending locally and informing the world about other cultures. He said travel bloggers can help spread a message of peace and be a tool for the redistribution of wealth. The man thinks big. I LIKE. Here’s an inspiring and fun video Bruce showed — Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy:

The lowlight: Where’s the CanCon?

The only thing that really disappointed me about TBEX Toronto was that we could have been in Cleveland. It was a great big American machine almost from start to finish. Most of the speakers were American, and many of them were the usual TBEX suspects. Two of the three big keynote addresses were by Americans. One of them was the grandson of Charles Lindbergh, which is cool, but we have Canadian travel-related heroes too.

If TBEX had been held in a picturesque destination like Whistler, or Peggy’s Cove, I might understand the need to “import” talent. But Toronto has a huge and thriving pool of people to choose from. For example, why was Evelyn “Journeywoman” Hannon not honoured for her role in pioneering travel blogging? Evelyn was called one of the most forward thinkers by Time Magazine. Bruce Poon Tip is a global leader for both promoting sustainable tourism and working with bloggers. The G Adventures “Wanderers in Residence” program was way ahead of its time and is still the shining model of how to work with bloggers.

Mariellen Ward
Mariellen Ward is a freelance travel writer whose personal style is informed by a background in journalism, a dedication to yoga and a passion for sharing the beauty of India's culture and wisdom with the world. She has traveled for about a year altogether in India and publishes an India travel blog, Breathedreamgo.com. Mariellen also writes for magazines and newspapers.
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