A Travel Blogger’s State of the Union – 2010

Freshly back from TBEX 2010, a travel bloggers’ conference in New York City, it would seem I’ve met my people.

Sure, none of them for long enough, but as my wise father points out, two days is a woefully short amount of time to bond with as many folks as you’re likely to meet in four full years of high school.

Throughout the weekend, I learned a bit about improving my blog and a lot about my travel blogging people’s concerns, back-stories, insecurities and triumphs. In my own version of a State of the Union (because when you think Obama, you automatically think of Travels With Two in the same neuron-fire) here’s what I’d like to share with you:

While the travel blogging landscape could still be considered the Wild West, we now at least have hitching posts, a downtown saloon and a post office. Maybe even, dare I say it, a brothel (depending on how you view the PR/blogger relationship, which I personally love). Anyone who’s been in this sort-of-small world for a year or more and has found any degree of success can say the same thing:

They’ve made up their own job.

But “degree of success” is still a pretty vague concept in this universe. There are a small handful of people making a living from travel blogging, generally those who also write for group blogs like BootsnAll, World Hum, Gadling and Matador Travel. While I have no immediate plans to abandon TWT, this is certainly a direction in which I’d like to move.

Others make cash by:

  • selling traditional click-through ads on their site (still not sure how to pursue this in an organized fashion)
  • selling e-books that focus on their travel niche (if anyone has a favorite publisher, I’d love to know)
  • having multiple websites of their own, with advertising on each
  • offering their blog real estate to indirect revenue sources like affiliate marketing programs

I’ve been asked to join several of the latter in the last year, but have been leery of offering a home-page conduit to services that I’ve never used in a way that could result in a graphic onslaught. (More so, that is, than the one I’ve got kicking now.) Time to un-leerify myself and get to researching sites like Commission Junction, World Nomads and Linkshare.

Turns out, labeling your blog’s photos is even more important than labeling your blog’s posts. Thanks to the inimitable Gary Arndt (who found out this week that his own Everything Everywhere is one of Time‘s top 25 blogs on Earth), I was reminded that by not tricking out my photos for SEO (search engine optimization), I’m throwing away an easy opportunity for increased traffic. While there’s a glut of written content on the web, there are far fewer photos; as long as a blog’s photos are properly labeled (e.g., eiffel-tower-at-night-paris-france.jpg) they have better odds of being found through an Images search on Google or a subject search on photo storage sites like Flickr and SmugMug.

Via Twitter, Oliver of I Wish Gap Year assures me that re-labeling photos from archived posts won’t mess up Google ranking, but post titles should absolutely remain unmolested. Changing post titles can mess up not only a post’s ranking, but also its links, both intra- and inter-blog. Travel guru Andy Hayes also points out that the keyword tags you use to describe a post should match those used for that post’s photos.  Suffice it to say, it’ll take a long boring slog to amend this for 400+ posts over the last two years…but I feel it’s highly worth it.

There’s even less search competition for video, so if we can all get our hands on a $500 (or so) hand held camera with a wand mike and a little tripod, create a well-lit, 2 to 3 minute narrative with a series of establishing, close-up and over the shoulder shots, and upload the result to a video storage service like YouTube (while, as urged by the force of nature known as Sheila Scarborough [Tourism Currents] describing, naming and tagging the heck out of each video), we can give the Travel/Ghost/Poker Channel a little healthy competition. A truly great blogger/writer/internet/living room personality already doing this: Reid on Travel.

There’s even less competition in the aural world of podcasting. Craig and Linda Martin of Indie Travel Podcast and Chris Christensen from The Amateur Traveler are vanguards in this still-burgeoning (and potentially lucrative) world of voice-recordings-as-travel-guides. I have to tell you, I’m way, way intrigued…and hope to try my hand at this technology within the next few months. (After all, despite what an angry man in an airport once said before slugging me in the jaw, I don’t actually have a voice that could scratch glass.)

During a panel on blogging ethics, René Mack of mega-PR/marketing firm Weber Shandwick was a great inspiration to potential press trip travelers; he’s looking for bloggers with a voice, a point of view and writing skills. In turn, he also rendered a firm smackdown about bloggers not acting like immature, self-involved assclowns on said potential press trips. (His story about the douchebag who ordered a $300 glass of scotch on the client’s dime was a real crowd-pleaser.) Sponsored travel isn’t a vacation, he says – it’s an opportunity to further your work. It should be treated accordingly.

Mack didn’t spare PR/marketing reps in his critique. A fellow blogger stood up and expressed her joy about a recent St. Louis press trip she’d taken with Weber Shandwick’s local office there, one in which she’d been given a long list of their requirements from bloggers (number of posts, number of tweets and Facebook updates, etc.). She was happy to know what was expected of her, but handing such a laundry list to a blogger is generally frowned upon in the PR world (read: completely uncool). Mack’s eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed, and an uncomfortable murmur rolled like an aftershock; I couldn’t help feeling that somewhere in the St. Louis office this week, heads are rolling across a carpeted floor.

Mary Engel, an honest-to-God representative from the FTC, drily presented an overview of the FTC’s blogger endorsement regulations and seemed to grab everyone’s rapt attention. Upshot: disclose in full, both up front and within the body of a post, when any part of a trip is sponsored. No matter what the governmental regulations are/aren’t in a blogger’s country, all bloggers owe honesty and an informed (rather than simply purchased) opinion to their readers.

After all, while we were counseled to take the emotion out of our business, we were also advised to put it into our writing.

Which brings me to the most touchy-feely part of TBEX: discussions about narrative travel writing and finding your niche. What I took away? Don’t be afraid to use all your senses and personality in your writing. Grammar and punctuation matter, and make not only your writing look good but also stand to elevate the perception of travel blogs in general. Stay within your skill set: the more you’re yourself and not simply the image you’d like to portray of yourself, the more you’re likely to hit with readers and have them trust your opinions.

Good travel writing hits an emotional note, inspiring people to expand their horizons, go on a quest, shake up their routines, add a little texture and excitement to their lives. Much like an ABC After School Special, we as bloggers can aim to entertain and inform.

David Farley, an engaging travel writer and human being (as well as a writing teacher at my alma mater, NYU) encourages travel writers to do copious research at home and then put aside time on a trip to sit still and use their powers of observation. This seems a very simple combination of tasks, but created a lightbulb response in me.

I’ve lately been inspired by the intrepid spirit of the vibrant, funny backpackers that make up a good half of the travel blogging community, and have tried to plan less ahead of time in favor of letting go and just discovering an adventure along the way. This style of travel is probably easier when you don’t have to get back to your regularly scheduled life within two weeks or less, but it’s been working okay for me/us so far. On my/our next few trips, though, I’m going to give myself quiet time each day to actively sit and notice, rather than feel compelled to keep relentlessly moving, seeing, doing. I’m curious to see if these changes in my behavior will improve the quality and usefulness of the information I provide.

Because, after all, that’s the core point of most travel writing: Providing information.

As a print fan, you can soothe yourself with a trip to your local bookstore; magazines and newspapers still have a major presence in the world. But the last few years haven’t exactly been a cozy time to be a freelancer or even a publisher. I started this blog two years ago as a hopeful springboard into freelance writing, only to start immediately meeting freelance writers who were eager (that is to say, running as if rats off a sinking ship) to start blogs. I now see travel blogs as a blended product of the past and future, and we’re all making up our own jobs, niches and formats as we go merrily/insecurely/nervously/proudly along.

We may stoke fires in different camps from one another, but there’s enough room on the internet for us all. (There may not, however, be a decibel range of post-conference party music upon which we can all agree.) The world of blogging encompasses endlessly traveling families, couples, single folk and those who are rooted to jobs and homes; luxury enthusiasts kicking back in business class and backpackers schlepping happily from chicken bus to hostel; those who would take a lifelong cruise if only they could vs. those who in great detail share why they feel it’s killing the oceans, seas and our very hearts. There are those who value a good story over a printable list of suggestions, and vice versa. There are those who value finding friends and a good drink on the road over a gorgeous museum or the quiet of a deep and verdant forest.

We’re all travelers who want to share our experiences with other people through hard work and technology — modern-day extensions of a cocktail party slide show after the vacation of a lifetime. It’s a universe I’m excited to be a part of, brothel and all.


Here are some other bloggers’ thoughts on TBEX and the cyber-world we share:

Jessica Spiegel, Why Go Italy: Ode to Some of the People I Met at TBEX 2010

Maren Hogan, Galavanting : In your words…#TBEX ’10


  1. Marvelous observations, Melanie! Adore the Wild West analogy (we now have a hitching post! brothel!). You, my friend, do such a good job of weaving colorful description in with the “how-to” — I think your blog is a great model of what a beautiful blend of narrative and service can be.

    Your fan,

  2. My goodness, but you’re a good writer. And you say you only started this blog as a diversion? Interesting…

    Now then, get thyself to Portland and we’ll make a tour of the city’s food carts.


  3. Lovely round-up from TBEX. I like the analogy of the travel blogging community still being the wild west, but with a few hitching posts now. Some of the trailblazers (like Gary) have set the bar and have pushed the rest of us to do more, better and to be taken seriously instead of just as hobbyists.

    I joked with Dan that my big takeaway was that we need to travel less 🙂 I was inspired with ideas to improve our site and the business side of it. But it all takes time (and an internet connection).

    Although it was only for a short time, it was wonderful to meet you in person. Rest up from all your travels and then…get to work!

  4. Lovely recap Melanie! I agree with Kara and Jessica – you have a lovely, lyrical way of describing the experience of TBEX in a way that is both narrative and informative.

    And it was woefully short, wasn’t it? I would have loved to have had time to meet (and get to know) everyone, but I was happy to see that it seemed a good time was had by all.


  5. Hi Melanie!

    I enjoyed reading you thoughts about TBEX. It’s been fun the last two days checking out all the posts about it.

    For e-books, just write your own, have someone design it so it looks snazzy, do a little launch process, and wa-la! Your ebook is published. Wouldn’t hurt to get some affiliates promoting it either. Oh, and you can use e-junkie to deliver it.

  6. For someone who couldn’t make it to TBEX, this is solid gold. Thank you! You stated that the core point of travel writing is providing information. Was the general tenor that narrative travel writing (not lists, how-tos, or tips) is considered “providing information?” I assume so, but sometimes it seems to be referred to as “simply” entertainment and takes a backseat to the more functional lists and such.

    Thanks again,

  7. Ah, my people…it’s extremely gratifying to know that we’re all part of a tribe. (And no, I don’t mean a “twibe.” That’s just annoying.)

    Kara and Jessica, if you don’t already know how much I love you, there’s nothing more I can do…beyond buying some “I Love You” banner ad space on your blogs.

    Audrey, I hear you! I’m looking forward to an August mostly spent indoors in front of my laptop, getting my business in order. I wish you homeless vagabonds something akin to the same thing. 🙂

    Trisha, your kind words mean a great deal to me as a writer! Travel Writers Exchange is an amazing resource, and I’ve shyly lurked in its wings for too long. You’ll be seeing me around in the future.

    Debbie, I loved meeting you last weekend, and really appreciate your suggestions about e-books — hadn’t heard of e-junkie, and it looks like just the thing: http://www.e-junkie.com. I once again realize I’m lucky to know a graphic artist whose stuff is in my bedroom…and has been for the last 16 years!

    Keith, there definitely seemed to be a one-track focus at TBEX when it came to writing: narrative = best. Personally, I love me some Pico Iyer, Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz, but to me, they provide companion pieces to a trip, before, after or during, and not the meat in the sandwich.I think we all like links, addresses, opinions, neighborhood round-ups etc. to help us navigate our way across the Earth, and this is where magazines do and blogs do/can really shine.

  8. Melanie, just so I understand we’re using the term the same way, I consider Pico Iyer and Bill Bryson to be narrative writing. Can you clarify what you mean by narrative writing?

  9. RE: Narrative vs. “everything else” when it comes to travel writing…

    What I took from the emphasis on narrative was that my writing, even though I’m not doing narrative and I write an online travel guide, can be made better by knowing what makes a good travel story. Reading good writing – narrative and otherwise – makes me a better writer. Being able to tell a good story – travel and otherwise – makes me a better travel guide writer.

    After all, if I’m not telling a good travel story, who’s going to want to follow my travel advice? I need to be able to convey why someone should care about whatever place I’m offering tips about.

  10. Keith and Jessica, we’re definitely on the same page.

    I feel that Iyer/Bryson/Horwitz are absolutely narrative writers, and that narrative storytelling has a place in even the simplest photo essay. It’s certainly what I strive to provide on my blog!

    I just believe that concrete travel information shouldn’t be neglected, and if there’s an opportunity in a post to provide a link to a website with more info, a descriptive photo or definition, to provide a Google map, to spell a place/region/experience the hell out for a traveler, so they can go experience it, too…well, then take that opportunity. It takes more time and research when preparing posts, but this interactivity is what truly separates us from all forms of print.

    Jessica, your recent guest post on how to spend a day in Milan is a perfect example of what I’m talking about – a blend of narrative and concrete information: http://www.gypsysguide.com/2010/06/one-day-in-milan.html

  11. If you can stand one more comment on the narrative vs. service/informative travel writing explanations, the way that they are typically differentiated is that narrative travel writing is not so much about the destination, but rather that the story is about the experience, with the destination serving as a character in the story. Any reader, not just travelers, can enjoy them.

    On the other side of the coin, ‘service’ pieces are typically about the destination itself (tips, where to go, what to see, etc), and while they can be about the experience as well, they really serve to inform travelers about the destination.

    And I agree, I love a good narrative travel story and absorb them like they are a fabulous meal, but there is definitely a need for service pieces as well, but like Jessica says, there is no reason they can’t be beautifully written and contain some narrative techniques.

  12. Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t disrupt my schedule or spring for a trip to NYC, because I got what I needed right HERE, baby! Also, I love that you included this gem:

    “Grammar and punctuation matter…”

    Solid gold. Makes me tingle. So few people pay attention to that shit on the web these days.

    Hope to catch you when you flit through town again.

  13. And, see, this is where I feel I differ *so* much from so many of the TBEX attendees: I don’t read Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or any other travel narrative famous types. *Gasp!*

    I’ll talk monetization, PR or SEO til the cows come home, but I’d be totally out of my league by even attempting to hold my own on a travel-narrative panel.

    Yet, somehow, I’ve managed to make a decent living as a part-time (when kids are in school) travel writer in the past 4 years. Granted, I write service pieces, destination/hotel profiles, guidebook-like magazine articles, advertorial (ack, I hope Spud Hilton isn’t reading), brochure copy and the like. But, still, I consider myself a travel writer… who just doesn’t read narrative stuff regularly.

    I wish that fact wouldn’t make me question my “authenticity” or “worth” in the industry, but it does.

    I continue to ponder this point, and wonder if I should check some Bill or Pico out of the library to see if it does make me think/work/write any better.

    Thanks for allowing me to use your space, Melanie, as therapy download. XO

  14. One point I’ve seen raised in a few places – including Katie Hammel’s piece on BootsnAll – is that a TBEX take-away was that there’s room for all kinds of travel writing. I’ve never read Pico Iyer or Bill Bryson, either, Kara, and I write travel guide pieces. I, too, consider myself a travel writer – and I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on narrative or seek out a place on a panel about narrative. I don’t think “travel writer” necessarily equals “travel narrative,” or vice versa.

    Where I see the intersection – and why I don’t feel like I’m not being included – is that at the core of all of this is the writing. There are boring “service pieces” (as you call them, I’ve never heard that term) and there are interesting ones. I believe that reading good writing – again, as I said above, whether it’s travel writing or something else – makes us better writers, and that learning what makes narrative writing work can make travel guide-y pieces better, too. I feel like you see a big gulf between the two that I don’t see.

  15. Jessica – I hear you, and for sure I know there is “room for all of us” on the Web. Thank goodness we all take different approaches to travel-related subjects, otherwise we’d be boring one another to tears!

    For me, personally, I feel like my writing has most been improved by a) taking Amanda Castleman’s awesome travel-writing class (on Writers.com; her line-edit critiques are worth weight in gold) and b) having brilliant magazine editor/mentors massage, trim and enhance my work over the years.

    I think I just might be odd man out in terms of what I like to read. This English major never did like the classics, nor was I any good at literary criticism. I filled my required major by taking as many classes as possible with titles like “Writing a Newspaper Column” and “History of the English Language.” Today, I’ll choose an easy-breezy chick-lit paperback over a thick novel filled with loads of descriptive prose any day.

    –Kara, not so much an intellectual. 🙂

  16. “Thank goodness we all take different approaches to travel-related subjects, otherwise we’d be boring one another to tears!”

    I couldn’t agree more with that statement, Kara! 🙂

  17. Man, you wander away for a few hours to do your first podcast interview…and you miss a lot!

    Kim, my Kim, I’m always happy to make you tingle. Remember that every time an apostrophe is used incorrectly, a puppy dies.

    Kara, you can use my blog for therapy anytime. And please know, being thought of as intellectual is overrated. The far more important thing is that you’re very, very pretty.

    (“You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like you.”)

    Such a great suggestion, the Writers.com course. You could probably teach one yourself at this point, though. Your voice is always engaging, and your writing is as tight as a sailing vessel on the North Sea.

    If you (or anyone else reading this post) would ever like me to read you excerpts from the world’s greatest travel literature so that you can absorb a little daydreaming while simultaneously getting some other stuff done, just say the word.

    And for the record, I’m a fan of travel narrative, but avoid anything that sets off my fussy and florid-o-meter; I like a little danger and humor, and if there are giant bugs, all the better. The book I’m presently reading, for instance, is “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-City-Deadly-Obsession-Amazon/dp/0385513534

    You said it best, Jessica:

    “I believe that reading good writing – again, as I said above, whether it’s travel writing or something else – makes us better writers…”

    I say, read what gives you a challenge, and therein lies the lesson. Or the nap. It’s one of those things.

  18. What a great synopsis of the actual session content. I loooove this wrap-up because I actually couldn’t sit in on all the sessions. Thanks so much for the post. Hope to see you at TBEX ’11

  19. Do it – change the tags – it is worth it. 🙂 Great wrap-up of the event!

  20. Good round up for those of us who weren’t there. Thanks for sharing, Melanie 🙂

    Chiming in on the narrative style vs other writing, I hope there was a move to be rid of list posts that everyone seems to copy eg Top 10 Things You Must See/Do with dot points in the body. Travel blogs are oversaturated with these to the point that posts start to look and sound similar with no distinct voice.

    I’m feeling the push to relabel my photos as well. With over 200 posts in a year, I feel your pain!

  21. Melanie, let me know if I can help with the podcasting stuff. Always happy to point bloggers in the right direction(s).

  22. This is the most thorough round-up I’ve seen, Melanie! I’m glad someone was paying attention and sussing out extra info about SEO, etc. behind the scenes. I’m definitely bookmarking this for later.

    Thank you!

    Melanie Renzulli from Italofile

  23. So wonderful to meet you and I love this really thorough look on what you took away from the conference – like you there was a lot to consider just based even on what I learned that others are doing for their sites! Also like you, I have some work to do on old posts! Hope we meet again…we’ll make it happen when I come back to LA 🙂

  24. Changing post titles should not effect SEO, but if you change the URL then you would need to do a redirect or you would lose all teh links you had.

  25. Oh, I feel like I’m late to the party here, but thank you for a great and thoughtful post. I agree there’s plenty of room for narratives as well as more straight information pieces and everything in between. And I agree w/Jessica – reading anything, but especially things that are unlike what one traditionally reads or writes, can bring so much to one’s work. It makes one more willing to experiment. When it comes down to it though, I think it’s most important to write what feels natural to you – or boy will this stuff burn you out 🙂

  26. Maren, glad to fill in some of the blanks — thank you so much for TBEX!

    Craig, I’ll absolutely come knocking at your door when I’m ready to podcast it up — and not just because your door’s in New Zealand.

    Andy and Chris, thank you both for the SEO assurances and for your travel inspiration.

    Margo, word. Re: writerly burnout…thank goodness we all now have even more of each other to draw energy from and keep our momentum going.

    Corinne, Shannon and Melanie, I wish we could all throw on some comfy pants, open a (few) bottle(s) of wine, and hole up together to attack our SEO backlog…it would really help the time go. 🙂

  27. Melanie! this is the best round up of TBEX that I have read! Well done. It is a must for travel bloggers to bookmark and come back to.
    It was so great to meet you in person and spend some time with you in NYC. Thanks for the insights. We missed the first day, and you summed it up for us nicely.


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