Oh dear. I should done this so much sooner.I’m now in my fifth year of travel blogging, but it’s taken me all this time to finally attend my first travel blogger conference.

I’ve just wrapped up three exhausting but incredibly fulfilling days at TBEX Europe 2017, an event held in Killarney, Ireland. Still dizzied from all the talks, lunches, networking sessions, and parties, it’s clear to me that I’m a dum-dum and should have gone to these blogger events from year one.

Muckross Abbey, a short walk from the TBEX convention

You see, travel blogging can be a lonely pursuit. You typically don’t have any direct colleagues (even as a couple blogger you only have one). You’re just plodding along, learning by yourself, and doing your own shtick. And that’s what makes it so valuable to go to a conference like this: being in the same room with hundreds of people who are also travel bloggers is simply priceless.

While TBEX is set up to facilitate connections with the travel industry, my purpose at TBEX Europe was simply to meet other bloggers. I also hoped it would help me think about the strategy behind my blog, since I’ve been consumed for a while now by questions about what the next five years of Indie Traveller are supposed to look like. In both cases I believe I got a lot out of this conference.

The following are some quick thoughts written on my train back to Dublin.

Don’t go to TBEX just for the talks

When you first start attending conferences, you assume they’re all about the presentations and panels. But honestly… no.

In practice, most sessions won’t tell you anything that you can’t already easily find in an online tutorial or ebook. Panels can be particularly bad as they are mostly unstructured, inviting all sorts of rambles and tangents. Mind you, that’s not a criticism of the speakers, it’s just what I feel many conferences inevitably are like.

I already knew this from attending many digital media and video game industry conferences in my past career. As I expected, there was nothing truly earth-shattering in the TBEX talks (at least for me), though some of them did help remind me of a ton of things I should be doing — or just doing more of.

But I believe the true value of a conference comes from the incidental chats over lunch, the parties, and the mini discussions about the talks that you end up having with fellow attendees. And in this regard TBEX was one of the best events I’ve attended.

My collection after Day 1…

I was actually a little amazed by how many business cards I exchanged at TBEX. At game industry conferences I’d been to in the past, I’d give out maybe ten cards over a whole week. At TBEX, it was closer to 100.

That’s probably because most people you meet at TBEX aren’t just one of many representatives of some larger company; instead, they’re all individuals representing their own brand. That means you really want to get their card so you can check out their blog, their Instagram, or their YouTube channel, and discover what they’re all about.

If you’re ever going to TBEX, definitely bring a big stack of business cards.

It was super fun to finally meet Agness and Cez of eTramping in person, having known each other only online for many years. I got to meet the wonderful Francisco & Analucia (Spanish-language travel bloggers extraordinaire), Teresa of Brogan Abroad, Sally of Passport & Plates, Tiana of Passport Chronicles, and Steph & Jim of The Upbeat Path. Big shout out to Tino and Angela of Dutch Nomad Couple, two super cool vloggers (be sure to follow them on YouTube). When I wasn’t talking with people about blogging, conversations inevitably drifted to our favorite destinations; Asdghik (@jetsetterdiaries) totally convinced me I should add Lebanon to my on my list, while Megan of Bobo And Chichi reminded me just how much I need to go back to Laos. (Hmmm, that list never gets shorter.)

I’ll forget about five billion other people here (sorry!), but needless to say I’ve been inspired by meeting so many people doing cool things from so many angles.

The big theme: quality over quantity

It’s impossible to distill just a single takeaway from an event such as this, though “quality over quantity” seemed a common theme at TBEX.

Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere spent much of his keynote address essentially making this point. He emphasized how travel blogging is all about building authority and focusing on quality, not just building up traffic numbers for vanity’s sake. He encouraged everyone to be their own biggest critic, to try to stand apart from the crowd, and to focus on meaningful engagement (beyond merely comments or likes). Wise words.

You could sense this theme elsewhere as well. Writers talked about narrowing your focus and finding fresh ways to tackle tired topics. Social media personalities talked about building lasting organic audiences and not relying on quick-and-dirty tactics. And every blogger seems obsessed with carving out their own niche.

I’ve been aware for some years now that travel blogging is a more crowded and competitive field. At the conference, travel blogging definitely seemed to have reached a certain stage of maturation. As a result, everyone is trying to do better. It’s not about just boosting meaningless numbers, but about real substance, which is a great development in my book.

Max Hartshorne of GoNomads giving some sage advice on travel writing

Travel blogging secrets (??)

There were two things that I felt were kind of unspoken at the conference, but which you could pick up on if you read between the lines a bit.

Secret #1: big blogs get more traffic from SEO than they’re letting on

While every channel is super important in their own right (and some specialize in just one), it seems that for larger blogs it’s search engines that drive by far the most interest.

Maybe I’m biased as this is true for my blog: I get at least 90% of my visitors through SEO. But based on some conversations I’ve had it seems this kind of ratio is not uncommon for blogs that have been around for a while (if it’s not around 90% then it’s somewhere not far below that). It’s what I long suspected, but it’s interesting to get more confirmation of this.

I think some bloggers are maybe being a little coy though about how much search traffic they truly get, or how much they benefit from both regular and casual visitors. It’s probably just not very sexy to talk about this (it’s way more interesting to talk about how you get your greatest superfans through social), but I feel it plays a huge role that’s still often understated. 

Secret #2: the biggest bloggers get a lot of help

It’s difficult for a single person to manage a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, mailing list, etc. etc. all on their own and be equally good at managing all of those wildly different channels. What’s sometimes left unsaid is that many of the more advanced bloggers use VAs, social media managers, and editors.

That’s not particularly shocking of course — it makes total sense to outsource certain aspects (I myself used a VA in the past). It’s just something to keep in mind if perhaps you’re a new blogger starting out and feeling overwhelmed. Not everyone is superhuman!

The conference was held in a hotel near the beautiful Muckross Lake

My thoughts after TBEX

Finally, these are a few assorted thoughts I’ve had about my blog over the past couple of days (written up in a very sleep-deprived state):

  • I’m finally going to take Pinterest seriously. I’ve heard about its potential for years, but it’s time for me to actually get active on it. I just had a little peek today and turns out that without doing anything Indie Traveller already gets 19230 viewers on Pinterest a month (I had no idea). I’m wondering how far that could grow if I actually start making Pinterest images, boards, and pinning regularly??
  • I’ve really enjoyed meeting up with readers. Before TBEX I had a pint with Tighearnach and Hannah, two local Irish travellers who went to the Philippines based on my posts. Last week I met Rafael from Lisbon, who read my book and is planning a 6 month trip through Southeast Asia. I love to see the faces behind the comments and emails.
  • The holy grail of travel blogging for me is to find ways of balancing the realities of SEO (and the need for practical value) with the aspirations of doing better travel writing. It can be disappointing to see generic ‘top things to do’ posts do amazingly well and more original or thoughtful stuff not getting much interest. I’ve thought a lot about how to cover popular topics but still making those posts evocative and interesting, or how to lead visitors down to more specific content.
  • Blogs are great at demand capture, while social is better at demand creation. Both are important.
  • Ummmm, is it just me or are travel guide-style blogs (like mine) terribly overlooked by folks in the travel industry? I often find DMOs difficult to reach (I’m talking basic inquiries, not asking for fam trips). At TBEX I struggled just to get a brief meeting with a particular DMO, despite being in the top 5 results for many of the top searches for their destination and over 80,000 people reading about their country through Indie Traveller every year. I get it, they want influencers to reach people who haven’t yet even thought about their destination. But there is a huge role to play for travel guide content in directing travelers to new places within a destination. I always see reports from DMOs complaining that tourists only go to one particular region or tourism not being diversified… well, then those who are curious enough to search about your destination should receive a range of ideas and advice. And that’s what we do! (OK, rant over 😛 )
  • In case you’re wondering, yes… TBEX = “Tea Bags”.

This event definitely gave me a lot of food for thought, and I made some wonderful new travel blogger friends. If you’re trying to make connections in the world of blogging or in the travel industry, it’s definitely a lot easier when you can meet face-to-face at a conference. But if you’re new to conferences, just don’t expect the talks to give you any mindblowing revelations. They’re more useful for getting inspired indirectly, or sparking interesting discussions with your peers.

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