Travel Bloggers Unite: A Profile Of The Conference From Umbria, Italy

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.

Assisi’s Quiet Police

The 13th century Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy is one of the world’s most spectacular places of worship. From the moment you walk into this magical place, your eyes are drawn to the glorious frescoes, the stunning stained glass windows and the Franciscan Friars in their brown robes. But on a recent visit with my two little boys, ages 2 and 4, I was also captivated by a much less heralded institution: the Silencio Police.

Both the upper and lower basilicas have uniformed men, dressed like snazzy police officers complete with flat, wide brimmed hats who patrol the churches, scolding unruly visitors through wireless microphones. The first Silencio Cop we encountered had a voice that was so deep and gravely that it sounded like a Hollywood voice over for God, delivering an angry message to a non-believer.

When I first saw the Silencio Cop in his uniform, holding the microphone, I immediately conjured an image of the cop from the Village People. Only this guy didn’t sing YMCA, he had just three commands he imparted: “SILENCIO!” “SHHHHH!” Or “No Photo!” And they didn’t smile or dance, they just looked stern and grimaced at people.But most of the time, he just barked, “Silencio!” If the offender didn’t quiet down after that, he’d shush them to drive home his point. We visited the basilica on a busy Saturday afternoon and the place was packed, so there were plenty of people who got silencio’d, including my kids.

One could argue that the Silencio Cops were the loudest people in the place, but I was taken with them and the concept of policing quiet. I spent much of the rest of the day bellowing “SILENCIO!” at my children, who enjoyed returning the command. On the way out, I asked about the Silencio Cops and was told that they were paid security guards.

A place like the Basilica of St. Francis commands quiet but I think the concept should be expanded beyond places of worship. In an era of cellphones and a million other mobile devices, silence is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

I would love to spend a day riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., the “L” in Chicago, or the subway in New York in an official looking uniform with a battery operated wireless microphone on silencio patrol. I would look for people talking too loudly on their cellphones, and then I’d silencio them, and if they ignored me, I’d follow up with a good old-fashioned shushing. It might not work, but it’d be a hell of a lot of fun.