Assisi, a small town in Umbria, Italy, stands about a mile south of the city center on a quiet country road. I walked here this morning on the gravel shoulder, declining to take the shuttle service in lieu of some exposure to nature. Now I sit on the back patio of this small resort that plays host to the Travel Bloggers Unite conference, quietly jetlagged with a group of weary bloggers.
I’ve come to TBU for a couple of reasons this year, primarily to compare the conference to the American competitor that everyone knows as TBEX and, additionally, to tap into the current psyche of today’s travel blogger. Up next: a talk on how brands can work better with independent bloggers in the main lecture hall of the resort. Later this afternoon: the value of storytelling. There are pre- and post-conference tours scheduled for the attendees as well, but my time only permits a visit to the educational tracks.
It is a small conference this year, with maybe 200 attendees (exact numbers were not available at publication) eagerly scurrying between workshops and networking events. For the size, the resort is a great fit – small enough to house the bloggers and most of the workshops and yet large enough to find a quiet corner. And it’s remote. The bus ride from Fiumicino airport outside of Rome took just under three hours while the journey back will take even longer.
Most of the workshops and talks take place over the course of two days, with networking events and other activities sprinkled in between. Prior to my arrival, for example, there was a workshop on photography with mobile phones, while afterwards, bloggers broke out in groups to explore the rich surrounding area.
Since I arrived too late for the prologue, my first contact with the conference comes at the dinner planned for the group on opening night. It’s a dinner that’s hosted by the resort and the tourism board of Umbria, and like many of the activities this weekend there’s a strong component of local culture that is carefully being presented to the group. As TBU and other conferences grow, I expect more influencers to take larger roles in hosting bloggers, and though there’s an earnest engagement from the attendees, I wonder how many people will write about Assisi only because of this planted seed. Admittedly, however, one cannot expect a conference to run without sponsors, and the interaction between the organizers and the financiers seems to be well respected.
Bloggers, for their part, seem eager to engage with the sponsors, and it’s apparent from the workshops that much of the conference focuses on how to build a marketable site. And that seems to be the difference between TBU and TBEX. Here, their focus lies in enriching one’s personal brand and leveraging the product to work with sponsors. There was plenty of that at TBEX last year as well, but there was also a heavier focus on narrative writing and development. Conversely, TBU only had one workshop on the art of travel writing.
In a way, however, it seemed that most travel bloggers at TBU were comfortable with that ratio. TBEX focused more on the writing side of the equation in 2011, “and that’s where they failed,” one blogger told me. Indeed, as TBEX 2012 starts to take shape, I’m told from several people that the focus will dramatically shift away from writing and over to the business of travel. Those looking to build their writing skills, I was told, should look elsewhere.
For many, however, the value doesn’t really come from the proper workshops or the talks but rather from the networking. In the volumes of criticism produced from last year’s TBEX, one prevailing theme was that it was good to see the broad spectrum of travel personalities in real life and sit down for a few drinks and brainstorming. It’s the reason that I go to TBEX and TBU and the reason that I’ll continue to attend.