Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences: What I’ve learned from 20 years of success stories at Book Passage

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When Elaine Petrocelli conceived the idea for the first Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference 20 years ago, she didn’t know what she was getting into. “All I really knew was that I loved great travel writing and photography, and I thought it would be fascinating to bring the best writers and photographers together for a few days to talk with aspiring writers and photographers about what they do and how they do it,” says the co-owner of Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, California, where the conference is held for four days each August. To help realize her dream, Petrocelli contacted the then travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle – who, as luck would have it, was me — and I contacted legendary travel writer Jan Morris, who agreed to be the first guest of honor, and the Book Passage conference was born.

That was 20 summers ago. We certainly didn’t imagine then that two decades later conference alumni would have published hundreds of articles and photographs in national magazines and newspapers, and dozens of books that directly resulted from contacts made and lessons learned at the conference. We didn’t think that some alumni would be so successful that they would return in future years as members of the conference faculty. And we didn’t dream that we would be celebrating in 2011 with the most ambitious Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference yet.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years and the conference has evolved to embrace those lessons. We’ve added food writing and photography to the menu and focused more and more on writing for the web, blogging and self-publishing. We’ve included in-the-field workshops and one-on-one evaluations, expanded the faculty and fine-tuned the panels and events. And we’ve added karaoke!

Most importantly of all, we’ve learned from the successes of our participants what it takes to get the most out of attending a conference — whether it’s Book Passage or other creative conferences around the country. Thinking ahead to TBEX in June and to the many other summer gatherings now offered, I thought it would be helpful to share the top tips I’ve learned from successful students.

Fittingly enough, as I’ve put these together, I’ve realized that these tips can equally be applied to getting the most out of any journey:1) Know before you go
Do your research before your journey starts. Know everything you can about the territory: the conference schedule (when do activities start and end, when are the break times, when do you eat, when can you rest), the venue (how far is it from your hotel to the event, where is food, caffeine and cabernet available), and the faculty (what are their blogs and their books and their areas of expertise – if at all possible, read their work before you go).

2) Plan your itinerary
Know who you definitely want to meet (authors, photographers, editors, publishers, producers, participants), and what subjects you want to learn about (at TBEX, for example, this could be making money from blogging, working with pr people, maximizing technology, and/or refining your non-fiction narrative style). If you want to be sure to meet author X and learn about subject Y, mark that author X is reading on Friday at 7 pm and subject Y is being discussed at a panel on Saturday at 10 am, and map your schedule accordingly (this is especially handy when someone spontaneously asks if you want to go to dinner on Friday).

3) Be a sponge
When I’m on the road on assignment, I try to absorb everything; I pick up brochures, postcards, menus, facts. I know I’ll end up discarding 90 percent of them, but since I’m not sure at the time which 10 percent I’ll want to use, I vacuum up everything I can. Past participants say the same applies to conferences. You won’t be able to attend that reading, workshop or panel after it’s over, so do everything you can while you can (and yes, this includes karaoke).

4) Embrace serendipity
Once you’ve crafted your carefully planned itinerary, don’t be afraid to detour from it. My best travel stories always come from serendipitous connections – the artist I meet through a chance encounter, the festival I hear about along the way. I love the story of the Book Passage student who by chance sat at a table with an editor from a publishing company, started talking about his travels in Europe and ended lunch with a contract for a book. If you meet someone fascinating or stumble upon a subject you know nothing about that instantly intrigues you, go with the flow. Dozens of students’ stories affirm that the life-turning, career-changing encounters were unplanned and unforeseen. When the universe opens a door, walk through it.

5) Practice the art of vulnerability
It’s a lesson I keep re-learning in my travels: The more open you are to the world, the more the world rewards you. Open yourself to the people and lessons around you. Embrace the risk; trust in the kindness of strangers. As countless students at Book Passage have found, if you really want to talk to Tim Cahill, pluck up your courage and approach him. (You’ll find he’s remarkably friendly.) And at TBEX, Book Passage and other conferences, you take out only as much as you put in. The more you leave there, the more you’ll bring home.

6) Keep the journey alive
The road doesn’t end when the conference ends. That’s just the beginning. Follow up with the contacts you’ve made. Incorporate the lessons you’ve learned. There’s no such thing as overnight success: All success is the result of hard work and respectful persistence. Pursue your passion; follow your dream. There’s no guarantee where your journey will take you, but as I learned long ago on the Karakoram Highway, there’s only one way to get there: step by step.