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 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. 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
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