Last week, I published Part One of my review of the 2011 TBEX Travel Bloggers Conference, focusing on the organizational aspects of that event. A couple things before I move on to this post.
First, my thanks to everyone for an amazing amount of comments (around 210 or so) from the last post. More important than the volume was the quality. There were some amazing suggestions and ideas put forth in that post and each of you that took the time to comment contributed, I think, to the improvement of this conference going forward.
Second and related, thanks to Joey Hernandez and Kim Mance for taking the many and varied critiques and suggestions in stride. Their comments and contributions to the discussion were of the perfect temperament and from what I am hearing, I think they plan to take everything to heart and come back with a significantly improved 2012 TBEX, which would be great for them and for all of us.
Lastly, this hopefully will be my last post on the topic of travel blogging for a little while. While I really appreciate my travel blogging readership, I hope I don’t lose too many “normal readers” with these posts which only address topics that a slight few of my readers care about. I felt it necessary to post my thoughts here because so many people were privately talking about these topics while at TBEX, but saying they weren’t going to post about them, but I best get back to my travel writing soon, or people might forget this is actually a website about travel and not just blogging.
The short summary is that the content was leaps and bounds better than the organization. There were some wonderful and amazing people that spoke at TBEX 2011 and I am going to leave some out by accident and because I didn’t get to see everyone, but I was particularly impressed by Robert Reid’s talk to the entire group, Gary Arndt’s keynote on the state of travel blogging, anything that came out of Chris Christensen’s mouth (he needs to be the MC of the entire TBEX 2012 event, in my opinion), Spud Hilton and David Farley and Jim Benning talking about narrative travel writing, Andrew Evans and Pam Mandel and Don George also talking about narrative travel writing, Jen Leo on relationships with PR people and more.
A truly great weekend for meeting people, networking, and picking up some tips.
I was going to write a post reviewing more of the content, but this post got way too long and I’m not breaking it out into yet another post, so I’ll try to avoid opening myself up to the “stupid and spiteful” tag tossed off in my general direction at least one other comment thread on another blogger’s TBEX review and go with….
What would I do to make the content of 2012 TBEX better on the content side?
* Multiple separate tracks. Obviously, TBEX 2012 really needs a beginner track at least, separate from the intermediates and experts. I asked a few complete newbie bloggers after TBEX what they got from the conference and they complained that they didn’t get any of the basics they were looking for: how to set up a website with plugins and such, how to get traffic to your site, effectively using social media (none of them even knew how to set up a Facebook Fan page yet, which isn’t odd, considering how young to the field they are). The basic travel blogging tips are a must for a large group that is going to be there every year. As a note on this, I think an entire panel of us talking to newbies about how we ‘found our voice,’ the process and time that took and failures on that path, would be one of the few ‘war story’ panels that would really communicate useful information, but regardless, they need two days of Travel Blogging 101 stuff.
But the separate tracks goes further than just a beginner track. For example, video blogging should be an entire day’s track, not just one hour. I completely adore Lisa Lubin, but she needed the opportunity to slow down the content stream that she had to pump out in her video overview hour. Make it a whole day’s track. An hour on what sort of equipment you should use. An hour on shooting basics. An hour on editing. An hour on maximizing traffic via YouTube and Vimeo tips or on how to make video look best on your website.
Similarly, those of us that have been blogging for a long time need content focused on some more “expert topics.” SEO for intermediate and expert use, broken out entirely separate from the newbies. Some groups on how to pitch PR people, with example emails, mock phone calls and so forth. Beginners need to find a way to find their voice and get traffic and get to the point they can worry about this stuff — the rest of us need to focus on some specific goals and tips to refine our skills.
* Plan ahead for content. In one of the narrative travel writing sessions I attended, the panel gave out a little writing project on day one to go over at the follow-up session for day two. (By the way, I couldn’t attend the follow-up session, but I heard it was great, with the panel breaking into smaller groups to go over the homework with the people that did it.) Those sort of projects — where you show some of your work to the experts and get feedback — is invaluable and exactly what a lot of people want, but…. why can’t that be organized beforehand and not after you get back from the fun after parties?
If you announce the sessions early enough and the speakers are organized, people can sign up for certain classes and email something to TBEX, who then gets it in the expert’s hands beforehand. So, in the travel narrative section, the speakers request a 300 word-max example of how you open one of your posts and then use those examples, some of their writing, and some other published content, as the fodder for a few hours on that topic in a slide show presentation and live teaching session. Similarly, you could do the same for the video track, with a pre-submitted 5 minute video you have done, or photos submitted for the photography break-outs and so forth.
* Realistic monetizing sessions. The monetizing session could have been subtitled “If you aren’t on stage, you likely aren’t going to make much money.” Look, I don’t think making good money travel blogging is a realistic goal for 96% of the people at TBEX, but while it is great hearing stories about how some huge travel bloggers got sponsorships, that seems more like good happy hour fodder than any true monetizing strategy. Monetizing talks need to be focused on what the average blogger can do, not what you can do when you are one of the top 4-5 in the field, rarefied air which most of us aren’t going to sniff in our lifetimes.
First, it needs to involve some talks about how to drive traffic to your site, so a session on using Stumble Upon, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Triberr, Google +1 and the like is part and parcel with monetizing — there was not a single person that talked about driving traffic that I heard of on any panel.
Secondly, the realistic way to monetize and talk about it is to discuss selling contextual links, affiliate sales, collaboration with local tour companies and things like that. Again, I don’t think any of that was discussed in any full sense at all. If you are willing to do all the grunt work, there is money to be made travel blogging and web designing: Kristy of Nerdy Nomad made $5,604 in the month of May. My good friend Dave, of Go Backpacking and other sites is making a full-time living. I love the titans in the field, but monetizing is the conversation for us grunts out there, grinding out the money a hundred dollars at a time.
* Live stream, and more importantly video record, the sessions and offer them to everyone for free. This isn’t entirely a content suggestion, but close enough. If I were running TBEX, I would be aiming almost for a TED-like feel from it. Be the information providers to everyone. Make money on the people that want to show up and network and see things live (TBEX will sell out every year, even giving the content away for free later on the web), but be a service to the community via free distribution of the content you are offering. The payback in goodwill, respect, and loyalty to your product will be worth it. It also eliminates the need to do the same repetitive topics on different days, like was done at TBEX 2011.
* Networking opportunities. One of my favorite PR/travel blogger stories of the weekend involves Keith Savage, who I am no convinced is my long-lost brother (though he might not be as happy with that designation). He was standing in line at a happy hour talking about his blog, which is exclusively about Scotland, when someone turned around and said she did PR for Visit Scotland. Total happenstance meeting that I hope brings great things to Keith.
While TBEX provided random chances for some of that, there are better ways.
If TBEX would have bloggers fill out a form specifying what niches they are in or what sort of PR people they want to meet — and likewise have the PR people fill out forms detailing who there clients are and what sort of travel bloggers they are trying to meet — weeks before the conference and then publish that list to everyone attending, there would have been scads of more effective meet-ups. In that instance, I’d bet the Visit Scotland PR person would have done their homework before the conference, seen Keith’s site, checked the content and the traffic, probably contacted him directly beforehand and said, “I want to take you to dinner to discuss what we can do for each other.”
The PR people I spoke with were frustrated they couldn’t find the bloggers they wanted. My name tag read “Michael Hodson, @mobilelawyer, www.GoSeeWrite.com.” It would have been completely random for any PR person to find me in the mass of humanity. Publish up a free directory of what we each do and there will be meet-ups like mad at TBEX 2012.
* Coffee with the Pros. Networking is a big part of TBEX, but I also realize that for the newer bloggers, it isn’t always the easiest thing to walk up and talk to some of the big dogs in the field. To the same extent though, this is an amazing community where I know that almost all of us, no matter our level of success, is willing to help newer bloggers out. So how about a morning coffee meet-up between newbies and some of the biggies? Set a room aside with some tables and chairs, TBEX organizes up a dozen successful bloggers to take one table each, and bloggers that have been at it for under 6 months can come in, grab a cup of coffee and sit down and talk to some of the veterans in a small group setting. Not only good for just casual picking the brain of the pros, but if the newbie seems on the ball, they are probably going to have a blogging mentor relationship come out of a couple of mugs of (free) coffee.
* Lunch with random seating. Similar to the above suggestion, but for everyone. It is great to get a chance to talk to people we already know and catch up with, but how about setting up a lunch with some semi-random seating to meet new people. Again, organization beforehand is the key. So a table might be a couple PR people, a big blogger, and 7 other random bloggers or some similar format. The meeting mash-up might not lead to anything concrete, but I’d love to sit at a table with some random folks over a rubber chicken lunch and talk about blogging and travel.
So those are a few of my random musings on some possible ways to improve TBEX 2012, or for that matter, any other travel blogging conference in the future. I’ve got more, but this post is too long already.
Would love to hear your comments on the content of the 2011 TBEX conference (sorry I didn’t do more of that here) and your thoughts for TBEX 2012, though many of those ideas from you were on the last thread also. I think the organizers are listening…. and maybe hiring…. so take your opportunity to be heard.
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