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.

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