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.

Upcoming travel blogger conferences for 2012

travel bloggers conferenceIf the word “conference” immediately conjures images of tipsy, poly-suit clad conventioneers, comic book geeks, or coma-inducing workshops, you obviously haven’t attended a travel blogger gathering.

‘Tis the season for some of the year’s biggest travel industry blowouts. Each has a different focus–some are for accredited travel writers, others hone in on the burgeoning travel blogging industry or events tailored for the public. What they all share is an emphasis on networking with industry professionals, travel trends, and continuing education in the form of field trips, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, and yes, a fair bit of partying.

Below, our picks for the best in travel industry camaraderie and information exchange:

Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX)

The year’s most anticipated travel scribe gathering will be held June 15-17 in Keystone, Colorado. Expect a mix of over 350 fledgling and veteran writers, PR and travel industry experts, guest speakers, and workshops. In your downtime, take advantage of Keystone resort and environs by hiking, mountain biking, paddling, fly-fishing, or riding. Psst. Europe TBEX will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland, October 11-13.

New York Times Travel Show (NYT)
Held March 2-4 at Manhattan’s Jacob C. Javits Convention Center, this is a great event if you’re an accredited writer with a specific niche (Industry Professional Sessions include topics like “Focus on Africa,” and “Focus on Travel Media”); there’s also a “trade-only” day. The public and and newbie writers can explore the Exhibition Hall, check out a variety of cultural events to be held on five stages, and let the kids run amok in the Family Fun Pavilion. Bonus: Accredited travel professionals can attend the Friday Exhibition Hall and travel industry welcome reception, and Saturday and Sunday seminars and Exhibition Hall free of charge.

Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU)
Feel like a tax write-off trip to Umbria, Italy (did I just say that)? From April 20-22, this UK-organized conference unites travel writers and bloggers with travel PR experts, tourism boards, and travel companies. Seminars include photo walks and workshops, and using social media. Best of all, delegates will be able take free post-conference tours of Umbria.

Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference

Lonely Planet guru/Gadling editor Don George co-founded this renown industry event with Book Passage owner Elaine Petrocelli in 1991. Held annually at Petrocelli’s Marin County bookstore (located 15 minutes north of San Franciso; the other Book Passage is a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building). The event has attracted in the past luminaries such as Tim Cahill, Larry Habegger, and Gadling’s David Farley. This year, esteemed writer Susan Orlean will be in attendance, and the schedule includes four days of seminars, workshops, panel discussions, and optional evening field trips. If you’re serious about travel writing–and few places provide as much topical diversity as the Bay Area–sign up, stat.

Be sure to check out Don’s article on “Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences” before you sign up or get on a plane (they say advice doesn’t come cheap, but this is free, baby).

[Photo credit: Flickr user Dia™]

Presenting Xtranormal’s “I want to be a travel writer


Travel writers: You need what Book Passage offers

The Book Passage Travel and Food Writers Conference had its 20th anniversary in August of this year. It was small, there were approximately 75 students. The conference is made of the usual stuff — formal talks by travel writers and classes taught by food bloggers and panel discussions about social media and breakfasts made blurry by staying up too late the night before. Book Passage is expensive, inconveniently located, and doesn’t include the cost of staying overnight at the limited hotel options nearby. And Book Passage can, I believe, make a very big difference in your trajectory as a travel writer, making it worth every dime. It was probably the most exciting, meaningful conference I’ve had the good fortune to attend.

A disclaimer and some context, first. This year was my first year at Book Passage. A travel writer friend, Jen Leo, had been badgering me for years to attend. (Jen is one of the regular voices on This Week in Travel, she launched the LA Times travel blog, and she edited Sand in my Bra, a travel compilation.) “YOU need to go,” Jen told me, “Promise me you will save all your ad money from this year to attend.” Then, shortly after TBEX (the Travelblog Exchange, a bloggers conference) in Vancouver, Don George offered me a faculty spot teaching a course on travel blogging. (Don contributes here at Gadling, but he’s also the author of Lonely Planet Travel Writing (How To), a contributor to National Geographic Traveler, and one of the founders of Book Passage.)I accepted and attended my first Book Passage as faculty. This means I didn’t pay the conference fee and that some of my expenses were covered. That said, let me assure you, I wasn’t there for the money. I was there to teach, to participate in panel conversations about social media, and to find out what all the fuss was about. By the end of the weekend I was equal parts delighted and really angry with myself for putting it off for so long. I was wildly honored to be there as a teacher, but I wanted to be a student every minute I wasn’t teaching. Jen was right, I needed to be at Book Passage. And if you are serious about your work as a travel writer, but having a hard time finding your way, or just looking for the next sign post, you do too. Why? Here is what you can find there.

A Sense of Possibility. Travel writing can, at so many junctions, seem like an impossible career path. For those of us who are truly in love with words and writing, it can be deeply frustrating and demoralizing. But the environment at Book Passage is all about encouragement and possibility. There are places where your stories can see the light of day and at this conference, you will meet people who genuinely want to help you make that happen.

An Emphasis on Creating Good Work. On the first night of Book Passage, I listened to Tim Cahill (the founder of Outside magazine, author of Road Fever, and so much more) talk about new media. He struck me as something of a curmudgeon, a guy with tendencies to dismiss the digital world as not worthy of attention simply because it was digital. But I changed my mind about that when he said something along the lines of “all the Twitter and Facebook and blogging tools in the world are not going to help you if you can’t tell a story.” This emphasis on creating good work was repeated throughout the weekend. There are no easy shortcuts, you must sit and write and do so until it is good. It is hard and it is worth it.

Valuable Critiques from Respected Pros. For a little extra money, you can book an hour with a writer or editor who can help you whip your story into shape. They’ll give you actionable notes that can get you unstuck or out of your own head. This isn’t coddling positive feedback, it’s a private session that will make your work better. If you’re further along, you can do three days of this in a small group with Tim Cahill. His students seemed positively shinier by the end of the weekend.

Access to Experts. Book Passage is small with a low student/faculty ration. The travel-blogging class I co-taught with Jim Benning (the editor and co-founder of World Hum) had 12 students — that’s a lot of one on one time with plenty of opportunity for Q&A. Plus, faculty were always accessible between sessions — in the book store, over breakfast, during afternoon breaks on the patio. They don’t disappear when the sessions are over. They’re next to you in line for lattes and they are genuinely interested in what you’re doing.

Really Great Company. Book Passage is the travel writer’s tribal gathering. It doesn’t matter where you’re going next: Phnom Pehn or Honolulu or Dar es Salaam. Somebody has been there and can’t wait for you to go, but mostly, they can’t wait to read what you have to say about it. Really. These are people who are just as compelled to write as they are to travel and they understand. Not only do they want you to have an amazing adventure, they want you to write well when it’s over. And you kind of love all of them for that.

Fairy Dust. I’m a firm believer in conference fairy dust. At big conferences, you find it in the hallways between sessions or in the hotel when it turns out your New York friend has the room across the hall and you have a bottle of Scotch. At big events if you want fairy dust, you have to look and get offsite and make plans. But at Book Passage, the fairy dust seemed concentrated, like something great could happen at any moment. Like an editor could say, “That’s a great idea, write me that! I want to publish it.” Or an idea could go from abstract to concrete in front of your eyes. Or you could go home inspired, knowing that yes, it’s a fool’s path, of course it is, but you would not have it any other way. I saw all these things happen.

I sincerely hope I’ll be invited to return to Book Passage next year as faculty. But even if I’m not, I’m going to do what Jen Leo told me to do all those years ago. I’m going to save my money and go as a student. You should too. See you there.

Image: The Travels of Babar Record Cover by Dominus Vobiscum via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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

vancouver tbex

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.

[flickr image via raindog]

Submit your travel writing to TBEX ’10 Community Keynote

TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange) is preparing for its second annual event after a successful gathering of travel bloggers and writers in 2009. This year’s event, TBEX ’10, will be held in New York on June 26-27 and will include a new session focused on highlighting the best in independent travel blogging. The Community Keynote will feature readings of some of the best travel blog posts in nine categories and aims to honor the amazing writers who write about travel not for money but to share their stories and passions.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Hey, I have a travel blog. How can I submit one of my posts for consideration?,” you should head over to the TBEX ’10 Community Keynote page for all of the details. Even if you’re not able to attend TBEX ’10, your writing could be featured. So, no matter where in the world you are located, you could be honored at this fantastic session.

The nine categories that will be featured at the Community Keynote are:

1. Twinkle in a Traveler’s Eye – The Ideas That Inspire the Trips

2. In Transit – The Perils (and Joys) of Transportation

3. Talking to Strangers – The People You Meet

4. Spit or Swallow – Culinary Conundrums

5. The Power of Places – Inspiring Destinations

6. You Did What? – Adrenaline Rushes and Adventures

7. Love at First Flight – Tales of Romance on the Road

8. Trips & Falls – Embarrassing Tales & Travel Fails

9. Home, Bittersweet Home – Reverse Culture Shock & Many Happy Returns

The session will be hosted by the talented Seattle-based writer Pam Mandel of Nerd’s Eye View and Gadling’s own Mike Barish (hey, that’s me) who also blogs at his own site (and apparently strays into third-person writing from time to time).

So, what are you waiting for? Look through your archives, find your best, most unique and awe-inspiring blog posts and submit them for consideration today! Your work could be featured at the TBEX ’10 Community Keynote (and that’s pretty damn cool).