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.

Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

Jack KerouacWhile blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Six things I’ve learned about travel writing after submitting 1000 posts for Gadling

SOmaliland, Sean McLachlan, travel writing
My blogger dashboard tells me, “you have written 465,451 words in 1,000 posts since you started publishing 1,048 days ago.” Wow! I’ve been working for this wonderful blog for that long? It’s been fun and I’ve learned some important things about travel writing.

The subjects are endless
I got into travel writing years before Gadling hired me, but working for a daily blog made me worried that I wouldn’t have enough material. Boy was I wrong! There’s always a new place to explore or a new exhibition opening or a new archaeological discovery. Instead of having too little to write about I’ve discovered that there’s too much to cover.

For some people, your work is a blank slate
A playwright I know complained to me that, “Some people will use your work as a blank slate on which to project whatever they see in the world.” While the vast majority a Gadling readers understand what they read, there’s a vocal minority who see whatever they want.
A couple of years ago I reported on a smoking ban in Egypt. The comments section erupted with dozens of tirades against the U.S. government restricting our right to smoke. Only a couple commenters acknowledged, “I know this article is about Egypt, but. . .”

It got so bad that one reader exploded:

“THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!! EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT THE USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ALL YOU SMOKERS STILL HAVE YOUR RIGHTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SO SHUT UP AND TALK ABOUT EGYPT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Nice try, buddy. Nobody listened to you.I also did an article about the Loch Ness Monster going extinct. With tongue firmly in cheek, I wrote, “In the United States, liberals are saying Nessie died of shame from being called a ‘monster’ instead of the more politically correct term ‘evidence-challenged endangered species.’ Conservatives claim Nessie was the first victim of the death panels set up by Obama’s America-hating, terrorist-loving national health care.” Everyone got the joke except for some Obama supporters who piled on me, assuming I was some Bush-era devil. I even got messages in my public email account screaming at me about that one.

My public email address is easy to find if you Google me. I’m always happy to hear from readers. I had an interesting conversation about the Kensington Runestone just last week. The reader disagreed with my debunking it, but he was civil and cited sources. If only all such emails were so polite. I’ve been called a patriarchal Christian, a godless atheist, a fascist, a communist, a stupid American and an America-hating foreigner. Send me a nice email and we’ll chat. If you email saying you want me to be eaten by cannibals then the next time I go to Africa I’ll mock you and block you.

Want to cause controversy? Challenge basic assumptions
Sometimes I like poking the public with a stick by challenging long-cherished beliefs that have never really been thought through. I’m ornery that way and I like watching my editor’s hair turn gray. Saying stuff like “God should be referred to as and ‘it’ and not a ‘he,‘” or “you don’t have to bring your camera when you travel” challenges so-called truths that most people have never questioned. The knee-jerk reactions are predictable and fill up the comments section and my inbox.

I’m doing this less and less, because it has the opposite effect from what I intended. Instead of getting people to question their assumptions, most simply react angrily and strengthen their preconceptions rather than think about them.
I still might do a post on “Top ten reasons not to travel.” :-)

The more obscure the destination, the more they pay attention
When I wrote my series on Ethiopia and Somaliland I received a wonderful surprise — the wave of positive feedback from those countries. I got lots of happy comments and emails from Ethiopians and Somalis, and several local websites and even a Somali newspaper picked up my posts. These two nations unjustly suffer from negative stereotypes and so the locals were glad to see someone writing about all of the good things they had to offer.

An even more amazing response came when I wrote about the Athens War Museum as part of a series of how the Greek tourism industry is dealing with the economic crisis. I mentioned how I was disappointed because I couldn’t buy a copy of “A Concise History of the Balkan Wars 1912-1913” displayed at the counter. They didn’t have enough money to reprint it and so the last few copies were reserved for veterans. Only a few days later I got an email from a major in the Greek army offering me a copy! I have it on my desk now and it’s an excellent read.

Locals are your best coauthors
Before I go somewhere, I usually ask for tips from the Gadling team, other travel writers, and friends. Posting questions at the end of my articles always gets some great feedback from well-traveled Gadling readers. While this is all useful, the best help always comes from the strangers I meet while traveling. This works best when I stay put for a while, like when I lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for two months. Everyone was eager to tell me about their culture and show me the sights. People love it when you write about their hometown! They make my job easy.

Travel writing is important
Despite the many frustrations of travel writing and the (ahem) low pay, I think it’s more important than my history and fiction writing. This is such a divided world, filled with hatred, ignorance and fear. Chipping away at that negativity by showing people all the wonderful things other cultures have to offer is a noble profession, and I’m grateful to Gadling for giving me the chance to do it, and I’m grateful to all of you for the support I’ve received for my last 1,000 posts.

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