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)

Gadling + TBEX = Meet us in Vancouver

This weekend, travel bloggers from around the universe (granted, most are from Earth) will descend on Vancouver, Canada for the annual Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) conference. Workshops will be held, the industry will be discussed and, ideally, bloggers will acquire some tools that allow them to deliver richer and higher quality content for all of you readers out there. If you happen to be attending TBEX, you’ll notice that Gadling is very well represented on the many panels. We don’t like to brag (we’re too busy being good looking to boast), but we’re thrilled to be talking shop with so many wonderful writers.Our fearless leader, Grant Martin, will be on the “Keep it Churning” panel with fellow Gadlingers Paul Brady and Pam Mandel. Here’s hoping that this panel does, in fact, teach us all how to make homemade butter. Paul will also be on the “Non-Narrative Travel Writing” panel, while Pam will be on the “Narrative Travel Writing” panel. We fear that they might end up feuding West Side Story-style (Paul’s a Jet).

Our features editor, Don George, also happens to be the godfather of travel writing. He joins Pam on the “Narrative Travel Writing” panel. David Farley will cover that topic, as well, and he is often mistaken for the Godfather of Soul.

Annemarie Dooling is an unseen force here at Gadling. She helps us with social networking (you know we have a Facebook page and Twitter account, right?). She’ll be on the “Branding & Niche Expertise” and “Non-Narrative Travel Writing” panels.

Lastly, yours truly will be there on the “Monetization Reality Check: Get Creative” panel. I plan to dress and act like Matthew Lesko. I’ll also be joining some PR folks for the “Blogger + Industry Jam Session,” at which I will demonstrate my human beatboxing abilities.

Rumor has it that Gadlingers Jeremy Kressmann and Eva Holland will also be attending TBEX. We suggest that you find them, give them big hugs and buy them cocktails.

We’re thrilled, flattered and honored to be representing Gadling at TBEX. It should be a tremendous weekend and we hope that we can share some of our knowledge with everyone in attendance. The other speakers are fantastically talented and it’s humbling to be joining them on these panels. You can view the full TBEX schedule and speakers list.

We can’t wait to see everyone there and encourage you to say hello if you see us. Just don’t bother Eva if the Stanley Cup Finals are on.

Photo of the Day: Downtown Vancouver

Flickr user James Wheeler brings us this photo of downtown Vancouver which was also featured on

This one caught my eye because several contributors to Gadling will be in Vancouver next month for the second annual Travel Blogger’s Exchange, a networking and learning opportunity for new media travel writers. TBEX ’11 is June 11-12, 2011 in Vancouver and hosts Kim Mance and the Galavanting Gals are planning a dynamic and useful lineup of in-depth workshops and sessions.

Do you have an image you would like to share with us? Upload it to the Flickr Gadling group pool. If we like your image we might just pick it to be a future Photo of the Day.

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

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]

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]