TBU Rotterdam and TBEX Toronto: You’re All Individuals

MikeachimBlogging, Storytelling25 Comments


Three countries and two conferences – but why?

My bedside alarm clock starts shrieking.

I’m in an unfamiliar room, it’s an unfamiliar alarm tone, and – I don’t even know where the alarm clock is. My bed is in the wrong place and the window is against the wrong wall . . . which itself appears to have been moved. I grope a hand sideways and find a bedside table I don’t own.  What the…?

It’s not an alarm clock. The noise is coming from near the ceiling, where a blue light is pulsing. It’s less of an alarm tone than an agonized shriek.

Sudden rush of memories: plane, stifling heat, airport, a taxi driver tripping on his words in his haste to sell his city to me (“if you have a business, buddy, hey, this is where it’ll become a success story, y’know?”), the wide, tree-lined streets of uptown, 24 hours of exhaustion and then out again, lugging my rucksack down what feels like the longest street in the world – which later turns out to be the longest street in the world – and the city rising above me as I tramp sweatily into it, glass and metal stretching with quiet confidence into the sky, and I find my hotel – but no, that wasn’t last night – a day of exploring and rehearsing (hold on, rehearsing what?) and…and?

It’s the fire alarm.

I leap out of bed – and my left foot finds my spectacles, which have slipped off my bedside table during the night.


Welcome to Canada, Mike.


Over the previous 2 weeks, I’d been waking up in unusual places. I’d woken up in a friends’ cottage deep in the forests outside Bewdley, Worcestershire, roused by the distant pant of a steam train. I’d woken in my room at the Mainport Hotel Rotterdam, once to blue skies, three times to grey cloud hugging the tops of high-rises across the way, and once to lashing rain. I’d twice awoken curled up on seats at Heathrow’s Terminal 1, and once in a shadowy corner of Terminal 5 (of A Week At The Airport fame)…

I once woke in darkness, immediately confused. My brain was telling me it was mid-morning and I had no idea why I couldn’t see anything. I found the bedside light and turned it on: no, I hadn’t been struck blind. I padded across my AirBnB basement room and opened the door to what should have been daylight. It was so dark they’d put the streetlights back on. Eh? I hadn’t come this far north, surely? And it was only after a few minutes of utter incomprehension that it occurred to me to check the time – which was 2.45 am. This was my very first introduction to jetlag.

I’m outlining my recent history of disturbed mornings (and passage back and forth between three time zones, 6 hours apart) because this post is about summarizing the value of travel blogging conferences. And, well, I’m not sure I can . There are two reasons for this:

  • my brain isn’t working terribly well right now (see: mornings)…
  • …and I’m biased. My view of these conferences is currently skewed by the fact that I have been speaking at them. (My session writeups are on the way soon).

So, that’s a sort of disclaimer. Best you bear it in mind as I continue.

Note: if you’re only here for the stories of adventure intermingled with personal disaster, this post is all businessy, conference-like stuff from here onwards. Try my ridiculous walk across the North York Moors instead, or facepalm over my account of getting robbed in Germany. Ah, good times.

(Oh, and I managed to mend my spectacles, which held until I got home again. I’m now wearing a new pair. Thanks for your concern.)


What On Earth Is A Travel Blogging Conference?

If you’d like to stick to the facts, these conferences are a gathering of travel writers, travel bloggers and travel editors (some people fit more than one category – in fact, imagine a Venn diagram looking like the Mandelbrot set), representatives from PR firms and tourism organisations, and lots of other people who have the wrong-shaped head for any of these hats. Everyone moves between opening and closing keynotes via a series of lectures, panels and workshops, with “networking” (a word that means “talking while exchanging business cards”) and various other things taking place, all designed to disseminate or absorb expertise.

The two I attended this summer were Travel Bloggers Unite (Rotterdam) and Travel Blog Exchange (Toronto). A third, Traverse, took place in Brighton in April (I couldn’t attend, sadly). I gather there were other conferences, but those were the three I was most aware of. In Rotterdam and Toronto, I spoke about storytelling, attended too few talks for my liking, and informally networked, ie. I talked to people without using business cards.

Confession: I’m really bad at networking – so bad that I now carry a sheaf of totally blank business cards as a running joke. I hand my card over saying “I like to keep a low profile” or “I’m a man of few words.” It’s actually my way of hiding how appallingly bad I am at networking. (Well, until now it was.)

Both these conferences were really good to me – in my biased role as a speaker – and good for me. I’m grateful.

But that means I’m biased, so to hell with me for a moment.


Why Do People Go To Travel Blogging Conferences?

If you believe some people, it’s all about learning new skills and building on existing ones – not so much to hustle and pitch, but get better at everything so you have something to hustle and pitch about. If you believe others, it’s about scoring press trips and relinquishing independent credibility to become uncritical marketeers for tourism companies. I tend to listen to the former type of people, although the latter viewpoint is also well worth discussing.

There’s a lot of talk about learning to work with sponsors, which is good advice if those sponsors don’t block your way into upper napkin-space, and especially good advice if those sponsors are people who do amazing work you would endorse in a heartbeat. There is a great deal of ‘How To’ talk, and a little ‘Why To’ talk, and almost no ‘Hey, Let’s Just Invent Something Right Now’ talk. (More on that later).

Ask most attendees in previous years, and the traditional response seems to have been “I go for the opportunities to network.” In other words, travel bloggers go in search of work opportunities, whatever their definition of “work” entails. There’s also a certain amount of summer-camp-for-adults vibe to them, and there’s usually a certain amount of activities around that concept. It’s a chance to see a new city, to meet a lot of people in a very short time, and to listen to a lot of advice.

And what do people get from travel blogging conferences?

Almost all post-conference blog posts focus on this topic. Here’s an excellent one from Pam Mandel (with a terrific and still-evolving comment thread). What people get from them is always, always subjective. Some feel frustrated at being presented with so much opportunity to meaningfully connect with people and having almost no time to do so. Some walk away with a tiny supernova going off in part of their business-minded brain from something they heard in a talk or in a private chat. Some feel they had a rare old time, but feel they now need a holiday. Some feel it’s not like the old days; some are relieved it isn’t.

But the pattern seems to be that the people who had specific aims in advance? They came away happy. They knew why they were going, they were there with a set of mission goals, and they made sure the conference served them as much as they, as attendees, served it.

So if you’re wondering if you should attend a travel blogging conference later this year or midway into the next – the best thing you could do is to pull out a pen & paper (come on, be old-school with me just this once, okay?) and write down why you would attend such a conference. Seriously. Why? What would entice you to such a thing? What, specifically, would you want to learn and share and benefit from engaging in? What would be the point for you? And what is your idea at a personal level of a “successful conference”?

Done that?

Now go tell them.

Tell TBEX here (100 words or less!), tell TBU here, and tell Traverse here.

Since it would be a poor show for me to suggest that while not having any ideas of my own – here are a couple.


Two Things Travel Blogging Conferences Could Excel At

1. Telling People To Choose Their Own Adventure

Newcomers ask questions that sound daft to established folk. Things like “how many times should I blog every week?” (A real query during a session.)

But they’re not stupid questions if you believe there are rules.

The reason these questions sound daft is that anyone who has been running their own blog for a while knows that everything is open to experimentation – worth tinkering with, bending, and sometimes even breaking. What works for blog (A) can fail miserably for blog (B), because of the very different personalities running those blogs, fuelled by very different motivations. Blog (A)’s best day ever may feel like blog (B)’s mid-life crisis.

I haven’t seen it happen yet, but I’m really twitchy about the possibility of travel blogging ossifying into some kind of Ultimate Way To Run A Travel Blog, which new bloggers follow to the letter because it is the One True Way. This hasn’t happened. I don’t know if it will. But I do think travel blogging conferences should be unafraid to champion a massive diversity of approaches, and reinforce to newcomers that everyone running a wordshop, giving a keynote and standing up on a podium ranting about storytelling is really giving his or her very best advice about what could work.

Both TBU and TBEX seem keen to cross-pollinate from outside travel blogging, bringing in fashion bloggers, food bloggers and experts from other fields who have to have “blogging” explained to them before they start talking. I think that’s really healthy. But I’d also like to see this philosophy of power through diversity spelled out, right at the beginning. I’d like someone to stand up in a keynote and say “Nobody in this room is going to become successful by Xeroxing someone else’s success story.” I’d like to hear that again and again, until there is absolutely no doubt in a newcomer’s mind that yes, the rules are up for grabs and they can do something that hasn’t been seen before, something original enough to stand out that’s backed up with all the good advice they can learn from the experts around them, but steered by the things they love most about travel – the things that led them to open a blog in the first place.

In fact, I’d love that.


2. Banging Heads Together

Conferences get everyone under the same roof, at all sorts of levels of experience – and unsurprisingly, all sorts of crazy schemes are hatched between presentations and on lunch-breaks.

But why not try to do that formally?

Why not have sessions that present a problem to the audience – and have everyone tackle that problem, there and then? Or, even better, have the audience invent the problem and the solution?

In short, engage in a mass orgy of blue-sky brainstorming, just to see if anything good comes out of it. Get everyone throwing ideas at the wall, including folk who are entirely new to blogging, because that’s a spectacularly healthy message to convey to them. Imagine it’s your first day at one of these things, and you suggest something to the crowd, and a room of hundreds of people (many of which you’ve admired from afar over social media) go “holy crap – I love that idea!”


It doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been around – it’s what you do that counts.

A small selection of session writeups from TBU, TBEX & Traverse:


Did you attend any of these conferences? What would you like to see more (or less) of?

All images: Mike Sowden.

  • holy crap – I love this post!

  • Getting a blank Mike Sowden business card is still my highlight and probably why i ll return…

    • I’ve got loads more! They’re ALL blank. Give me a number, and they’re yours.

  • So much in here I’d like to respond to but then this would end up being fodder for Longreads. I’ll try to keep it short.

    TBEX Toronto was my first blog conference. I went in with the specific goal of meeting certain people for the first time and seeing others whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. Of course that’s also a pretty vague think to accomplish bc it’s still a bit broad, so I contacted a small and manageable group of people prior to TBEX.

    I wanted to connect face to face with people I’ve known online for years. I did that. Better than that, it seems that those face-to-faces created possibilities for actual work and collaboration.

    Oh and yes, it is very much what you DO that counts. Very well said. It’s so easy for doing to get lost in a sea of posts and tweets. It is also confusing to know whether these kind of blogging/online/conference relationships are business or personal. Which is great in the sense that we get to work with people we truly like. Still, it’s easy to get lost in the personal and forget the business side. Or vice versa.

    Total highlight for me, though, was that 7.3 minute coffee with you. I’ve always liked you online. You’re even better in person.

    • I was really surprised to meet you. I thought I’d pinpointed all the people I really wanted to meet, and was gradually going down the list. If I’d known you would be there – and I don’t know why I *didn’t* know you would be there, not sure where those wires got crossed – then I would have found you much earlier and hung out with you longer.

      7.3 minutes is nowhere near enough. But it’s a good start. :)

      More and more, I’m thinking that working with people you like is the route to creating special work. I used to think it was anti-businesslike – that introducing an emotional component would make things tricky when hard decisions had to be made. And that’s always the case, when it happens. But the rest of the time, it seems to unlock deep reserves of creativity. It makes it much easier to goof around with ideas, for starters, which is a big part of stumbling across the Next Big Thing.

      I’m all for working with friends. There’s a good example of the power of that approach: Joss Whedon. The same actors, again and again, and each time, the results are strangely, magically exceptional. Eg. http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/much-ado-about-nothing/25925/much-ado-about-nothing-review Joss Whedon writes ensemble showcases because he surrounds himself with that ensemble as he moves through his career. It’s inspiring to see just how well that’s working for him…

  • Wow…this is long, and I’m a fan of long-form narrative. I attended Mike’s talk: it was awesome and he had the audience engaged start to finish. In a nutshell, storytelling IS a skill, one that requires nonstop practice, like medicine, and TBEX is a great networking venue. If anything, it launched an interesting discussion about what’s quality content and what makes a good travel blog, and it connected me to people who love words. Plus, I found a new favorite city park in Toronto, so I’m set in terms of conference satisfaction.

    • Too kind, Katrina, thank you. :)

      And yes, over the last year I’ve really come to believe in storytelling as a separate skill – as a toolkit with a variety of uses. That’s really where I am with the consultancy work I’m doing: showing people that these techniques work across any medium and in pretty much any situation, because the things they’re working *on* – ie. people – they never change. Only problem is, the more I dig into it, the more I see there is to learn. An ever-widening rabbithole.
      Hopefully I won’t meet a 100ft wide rabbit at the end of it.

  • I. Love. This. Post.

    This was my first TBEX, and I cannot agree more about your final two points (and everything before that was so very witty and well-said that I loved that, too). I actually put in a proposal for TBEX Dublin (it’s not gonna happen, but hey, a girl can dream) and part of the session was people talking with EACH OTHER. Because I will always believe (know?) that that’s not a bad way to go about learning (of course, it is not the only way). I’m also all about separate paths for separate people. That’s the trap into which I tried not to fall–feeling like a failure because I do things differently.

    And do you know what? I came away from TBEX having learned a lot. But I also came away knowing what I do well–and what I’m not going to change. Not because someone justified it for me, but because, well, I’m confident enough to know when it is ok to go against what might be considered ‘great advice’ for others.

    • Hi Tracy

      Sounds like you are on the tracks of a theme I thought of after TBU Rotterdam that I want to introduce at future conferences.

      Shoot me a pitch / bio and yes, I’ll absolutely consider it.

      My email is at the bottom of this page: http://tbujerusalem.com/contact-details/


    • Thanks, Tracy!

      “Separate paths for different people” is very much what I was getting at in the latter half of this post, yep. There’s a lot of talk of success in travel blogging, but not much definition of exactly what that looks like – in public, anyway (we all have our own definitions locked inside out heads, hopefully where we can get at them). For example, for some people, success is nothing to do with money – I’m seeing this come out of post-conference write-ups. It is not a bad thing to decide to not monetize your blog. It’s also not a bad thing to monetize it indirectly – to use it as a showcase for your talents. I know a lot of people doing that, and they’re doing a great job…

      So, I’m totally curious/nosy about this question now: what have you decided you’re not going to change?

  • Great post Mike. I love your writing. Sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet at TBEX.

    This was my third TBEX and I really enjoyed the first one in Vancouver. That was smaller, more intimate, and felt like there was more opportunity to connect, network, and learn. This one was just too big. It had too much of a corporate feel. I know blogging has become a business for many now but I felt the atmosphere could have been different.

    I feel like we needed to talk more. The conversations I had were awesome. There were great brainstorming sessions at parties, in the hallways, and different places all over Toronto. For me, I want to become a better writer and photographer. I need to work at that. Blogging is a HUGE hobby for me – but it isn’t my life or my business. Yet I really care about what I’m doing.

    Quite honestly, I think sessions on time management and the many hats of a blogger would have been nice to have. The sessions on storytelling and community are awesome. However, I think we’ve lost the plot a little bit with the focus on trips, partnerships, and other things. We need to get back to the basics – a love of travel and good writing.

    • Sorry we didn’t say hi, sir. Next time! And thanks for popping by…

      How did you feel the atmosphere was a bit off – what do you mean by corporate feel? Wish I had been at Vancouver so I had something to compare against here.

      >>”For me, I want to become a better writer and photographer. I need to work at that. Blogging is a HUGE hobby for me – but it isn’t my life or my business. Yet I really care about what I’m doing.”

      I’m seeing this more than a few times in the post-conference writeups. Someone I read today took mild offence when someone said “We all started blogging to make money, right?”

      So I reckon it’d be great if, somehow, lots of people could publicly nail down what “successful blogging” looks to them (I tried asking on Facebook once; didn’t really work). I reckon there’d be a surprising amount of variety…

  • Great post! I love the bit about the blank business cards and networking. I walked around with real business cards but am horrible at networking. People were passing out cards left and right like they were extensions of their fingers. I was constantly fumbling through my bag. I need to work on that.

    Toronto was my first TBEX conference. It was inspiring and overwhelming at the same time. Everything moved so quickly! I enjoyed the keynote sessions and the breakout sessions were extremely informative. Overall, I walked away with a lot of great ideas and practical information that could be applied to the craft side of blogging.

    I wasn’t sure what to do in the Exhibitors Marketplace. Being new to it all, I found myself wandering. The Speed Dating was great, however the Open Marketplace was baffling to me. It was difficult to get a moment with any of the exhibitors. It would have been great if there were more time for the Open Marketplace and perhaps, for the newbies a How to Guide for navigating the Open Marketplace. I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

    • Thanks for calling by, Sojourner!

      There needs to be some kind of business card dispenser technology invented, maybe fitting into the palm of the hand like Spiderman’s web-firing gadget…or maybe just a converted tennis ball machine. Although, getting that through airport security might prove interesting…

      What were the most useful things you learned from TBEX – the things you intend to put into practice ASAP?

  • When you mentioned Colin Thubron in your Toronto talk, I wanted to clap and call out “wooo!” except that I’m not that kind of person. His ‘Shadow of the Silk Road’ carried me away like no other book has.

    I went to TBEX to get direction to improve my travel writing (and photo taking). I was able to achieve this but there’s no way I would have attended were the event not being held seven subway stops from my apartment.

    Perhaps it’s because I felt a bit like a fraud at TBEX as a non-pro but I found it almost impossible to crack open a conversation with anyone beyond basic introductions. Maybe it isn’t feasible with such a massive attendance but it would have been amazing if lots of small groups of 8 to 10 randomly assigned people could have been put together for an hour or so, just to break out of the cliques and exchange ideas.

    • I wanted to comment upon your comment, Andrea (hi Andrea! Nice to ‘meet’ you!) because I felt the same way, WRT: “I found it almost impossible to crack open a conversation with anyone beyond basic introductions.” I could not agree more. I’ve been hearing this (well, reading it) a lot as part of everyone’s feedback. Which is ironic–you’d think that if so many of us felt this way, we’d have found each other!

    • Yup, same here, Thubron’s work gives me shivers. His Journey Into Cyprus has also made me determined to find a way to walk round the whole island (I grew up there, so it would be a journey around my childhood too)…

      >>”Maybe it isn’t feasible with such a massive attendance but it would have been amazing if lots of small groups of 8 to 10 randomly assigned people could have been put together for an hour or so, just to break out of the cliques and exchange ideas.”

      That’s a really great idea. Send it in to TBEX, they’d love that one. And yes, we all tend to gravitate to our friends at these things – I was definitely “guilty” of that (not convinced that’s the right word, it’s only human nature) and as a result, I didn’t get to meet a lot of new people. It’d be nice to have a formalized way of breaking that up a bit.

  • Rob

    Wish I could have run into you at TBEX but such is life.

    “Nobody in this room is going to become successful by Xeroxing someone else’s success story.”

    Oh how that rings true, I was thinking of pitching a talk called “There is no wrong way to do it”.

    • 1300 people – too crazy-big to bump into everyone, alas. Hope to do so next time, Rob…

      What Alternative Right Ways To Do It would you put into that pitch? (I won’t steal it, honest).

      • Rob

        I don’t have any suggestions for alternative right ways to do it as the whole premise was “there is no wrong way to do it”. I haven’t put much thought into it but that was the idea I had after hearing about so many sessions that kind of preach what you “should be doing” as though there is a right and a wrong. That said, there is obviously some merit in all of them as well, they are successful techniques.

        It just seems things are getting very mechanical when at the end of the day, this whole blog game is a creative pursuit shared by people with a passion for travel. I believe there is enough room for every style of communication similar to there is room for every style of travel.

  • Great post, Mike!
    Thanks for your insight in Travel Blogging conferences. Every now and then we can read bittersweet stories about them. Not having had the opportunity of going to one so far but looking for that free TBU announced for later this year at the WTM London. See what it holds for us :)

  • A very informative and straight forward piece indeed. I am attending TBEX Dublin in October with the intention of expanding myself in terms of conversations with similar people, getting into face to face conversations with them, networking. I am actually nervous. Probably the first step always has you nervous till the time you actually take it.

  • Wow, you are a brilliant writer! I only just started blogging (yes, I’d be one of the newbees asking the question”how often do I blog?” ) and I feel like a little schoolgirl writing her first essay next to you amazing style of writing! Well, I am a 17year old schoolgirl but you’ll understand what I mean. Awesome job!

  • I love your writing! I actually find so much to learn from you and I wish some day I could tell stories in the way you do.