Don George: Five things I learned at TBEX

I approached last month’s TBEX10 in New York – the travel bloggers’ conference organized by Travel Blog Exchange — with a mix of excitement and trepidation. The excitement was because I felt like an explorer on the precipice of a new world, about to stare out onto – and immerse myself in — a landscape I’d only seen in glimpses and snatches. The trepidation was because it’s unsettling sailing from an old comfortable world into a new unfamiliar one, and even though I’ve been wandering in the digital publishing world for 15 years now – half of my professional life — my apprenticeship was in the old world of print publishing and the new world still feels, well, new to me.

So I landed in New York on June 24 – and experienced over the next three days an intoxicatingly varied and vibrant microcosm of the evolving world of travel blogging. I meant to write about the conference immediately after it ended, but a couple of days later I was on a plane to Peru for a seven-day exploration of the Sacred Valley, so I had to put my TBEX reflections momentarily on hold.

Now I’m back and those reflections have had a few weeks to simmer and settle into these five things I learned at TBEX10:

1. It’s a Small World After All: My aforementioned trepidations melted as soon as I walked into the pre-conference kick-off party. Not only did the crowd contain lots of familiar faces – Wendy Perrin, Jim Benning, Spud Hilton, Mike Yessis – but equally comforting, a great number of familiar names were in the room: people I already felt I knew from Twitter or Facebook. This humanization of Twitter handles – “So you’re nerdseyeview!” … “don_george, meet nomadicmatt” … “Heather_Poole in person!” — became an ongoing amazement and joy of the conference.

So, for about five minutes I felt like an outsider – the awkward guy in the corner sipping a beer and surreptitiously checking out the crowd — and after that I jumped onto the roller-coaster and just enjoyed the ride. Whatever its graces and pitfalls, one truth of social media became crystal clear for me: In its own way, social media is fashioning a new world order, enabling interpersonal connections that span political borders, geographical distances and time zones in a way the world has never experienced before. Time after time after time I witnessed people who had never met hugging like old friends: “I feel like I already know you!” and “It’s so great to finally meet you!” were two prime mantras of the conference.

I believe that great travel narratives transport people and illuminate places as no other literary creation can.

2. The Narrative Is Not Dead: One of the portentous questions I brought with me to the conference concerned the death of the travel narrative. I love travel narratives; I’ve basically made my career by writing and editing travel narratives. For three decades I have believed that great travel narratives transport people and illuminate places as no other literary creation can. But for a few years now I’d been hearing that the rise of online publishing and social media portended the demise and eventual extinction of the old-fashioned narrative.

So I was truly thrilled to discover at TBEX that a great number of attendees do care about great “old-fashioned” travel storytelling. This point was reinforced for me many times over – by kind people who told me how much they had enjoyed my writing or had learned from my Travel Writing book, by the tremendously gratifying response to the “upping your game” panel led expertly by Mike Yessis, and by the delightful and moving presentation Pam Mandel and Mike Barish did on the final day of the conference, reading eight terrific, transporting blog posts.

I came away from TBEX understanding that while digital publishing affects and will affect the shape of travel writing now and to come, the appeal of great travel storytelling remains as vibrant and alluring in this new world as in the old. And I came away believing fervently that while the forms these stories take will morph as the media morph, the fundamental compulsion-quest to create travel stories that evoke and enlighten abides as strongly as ever.

3. Persistence + Passion = Possibility: One of the points I make in Travel Writing, which was originally not written with bloggers in mind, is that being successful as a travel writer requires substantial doses of both passion and persistence. This same message came through loud and clear at TBEX.

Out of almost 400 total attendees, invited panelists and paying participants alike, you could probably cram the number of people actually making a living through their travel writing/blogging into a Gotham Limo. But – and this point was made in panel after panel and party after party — this shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing their dreams: Travel bloggers/writers just need to realize that persistence is absolutely essential to success, and that the tree of persistence has many boughs: persistence in pursuing your travels; persistence in creating your posts, portfolios and videos; and persistence in promoting yourself, from tweeting to attending travel industry functions to participating in conferences like TBEX.

It’s as true today as it was when I started in this business: Persistence and passion are the keys to possibility.

It’s as true today as it was when I started in this business: Persistence and passion are the keys to possibility. As I write in my book, “The world of travel writing is open to everyone – if you love to travel and love to write, it’s a natural. No one can guarantee that you’ll be successful, but I can guarantee that you’ll never be successful if you don’t try.” Try, TBEX echoed in many different ways, from Gary Arndt‘s empowering presentation on “travel porn” to the multi-faceted panel on niche-mining. The threading subtext was this: However you GPS Success (acclaim, influence, profitability, freebie-arity), you won’t get there without passionate persistence and persistent passion. (And, the corollary message ran, remember that passion + persistence = possibility, not necessarily profitability – but that without the two p’s, profitability is an impossibility.)

4. It’s Not About Old School and New School: While many serious, important issues and questions were raised and explored at the conference, from ethical responsibilities to SEO exigencies (at which point I wrote in my journal: Can literary grace win the Google race?), this Old School-New School lightbulb was the biggest illumination of TBEX for me. I flew into New York thinking there was a Grand Canyon-like divide separating the Principality of Print to the west and the Domain of Digitalism to the east. This notion had been reinforced by countless conversations with cherished colleagues of many decades who have made their careers as newspaper and magazine editors and writers, most of whom have seen the publishing landscape convulse before their eyes and many of whom feel stranded on the wrong side of the divide.

But I came away from TBEX feeling passionately that it’s not about Old School and New School media or creation – and that positing the current publishing situation in this way is distinctly unhelpful. Whether Old School or New School, most of us travel journalists/writers/bloggers are trying to do the same thing – communicate our passion and expertise to readers/viewers who are curious about the world. For some creators, this communication takes the form of practical, nuts-and-bolts-style information, whether service pieces, sidebars, charticles, or blogs; for others, it takes the form of evocative personal narratives and reflections, sometimes woven in words and sometimes in aural and/or visual threads. While our backgrounds may differ, our goals are fundamentally the same.

So I’m no longer thinking of Planet Publishing as divided into the Principality of Print and the Domain of Digitalism: I think this is an artificial and detrimental divide, and my redrawn map now shows one jostling, thriving landmass of multi-media mountains and lakes and rainforests provisionally called the Continent of Creative Communication. (Clearly, I need a little help with my place-naming – all suggestions welcome.)

5. The Only Constant is Change: I realized at TBEX that I had brought a static view of the universe with me to the conference. I’ve already alluded to this above, seeing things in terms of outsider and insider, print and digital, Old School and New School. But my last great TBEX epiphany was that everything is in flux, the blogosphere just as much as the printosphere: The media for the travel message are constantly evolving, as is the globe those media are trying to capture and convey.

It’s all about change. And the best we can do is embrace and celebrate that change.

Travel is alive and well, and we who love it continue to play a vital role as evangelists with a sacred mission, to pave the pathway to peace and understanding around the world.

Embrace and celebrate. For me, the takeaway symbol of the conference was a huge hug: of the future, of the blogging community, of the globe we honor and cherish and try to evoke and share, and of the eternal exhilaration and expansion of travel — the life-changing lessons we absorb and connections we build. This was the ultimate inspiration-message of TBEX10 for me: Travel is alive and well, and we who love it and labor in it continue to play a vital role as evangelists with a sacred mission, to pave the pathway to peace and understanding around the world.

What do you think? Leave a comment here or send me an email at Don DAWT George AT Gadling DAWT Com.

[Photos: Flickr | GalavantingGals; Nerd’s Eye View; Bucky925; GalavantingGals]