Reflections on TBEX ’10 and Travel Blogging

I’ve just returned to my mom’s lake house in New Hampshire after a whirlwind four days at the second annual Travel Blog Exchange conference in New York City. SoCalGal Jennifer Miner was there, too — in fact, she was a panelist among many speaking about “SEO for Travel Blogging & Monetization Strategies.” (I wish this session had been two hours long — so many great take-away tips!)

Statue of Liberty from Staten Island FerryWhile both of us were there to learn from the two days of professional-development sessions, we were most thrilled to finally meet in person many of our fellow bloggers we’d only “met” online. I know for most of the 300+ attendees, which also included public-relations professionals, this was the highlight of the weekend — matching real-live faces to tiny Twitter avatars. Indeed, a good time was had by all. (Well, except for my dear friend Debbie Ferm, who had her purse stolen from an NYU-neighborhood deli, and my buddy Jody Halsted, who got stuck in Newark when she was supposed to be tucking her babies into bed in Iowa.) There were certainly ups and downs throughout the hot, humid weekend, for sure, but overall, it was a tremendously positive experience. I love being on the front end of a wonderful grassroots movement of community-minded travel bloggers.

That said, what struck me this weekend’s event was its overall emphasis on narrative travel writing/blogging, as well as independent, nomadic, budget travel — or at least that’s the vibe I got. The session, “Travel Writing: Upping Your Game,” with highly accomplished travel writers, was truly insightful, but the lyrical storytelling genre they most often described is not the type of blogging I typically do at The Vacation Gals. Since I generally write service pieces or destination profiles as a freelance travel writer, as well, this session didn’t speak to me the way it did many other attendees.

When I get my copy of Condé Nast Traveler in the mail, I flip first to Wendy Perrin‘s consumer news articles and the Ombudsman column; I don’t always read the feature well. That’s just my preference: guidebook-like tips for my next trip (with plenty of personal anecdotes thrown in for good measure).

Sure, we’re storytellers here at The Vacation Gals, occasionally offering more thoughtful essays from our travel experiences, but more often than not, we’re advice columnists, sharing with you our best tips for making travel easier (and more fun) with your children, your romantic partner or your girlfriends. We love offering in-the-know suggestions for travel destinations and travel gear we’ve found helpful along the way. Generally speaking, “practical” and “how to” are our middle names.


Family at Breckenridge Colorado in Summer.For the TBEX ’10 community keynote, witty and wonderful travel bloggers Pam Mandel and Mike Barish showed a video and read eight compelling travel pieces (I think my favorite, or the one to which I could most relate was Sophia Dembling’s lovely “The Making of a Flyover American.”) One of the stories was written from a mom’s perspective — Leigh Schulman on the culture shock of returning to the U.S. after spending six months living in Panama.

Still, I feel like the large mass of family-travel bloggers on the web (of which at least a dozen were at TBEX) weren’t acknowledged much at all. (Shout out to Debbie Dubrow of Delicious Baby; I’d have loved to have heard more from her on the “Branding, Finding a Niche & Relevant Self-Promotion” panel she moderated.)  I fully admit I did not submit a family-travel story (but again, I don’t typically write the reflective narratives that were read, so I doubt anything of mine would have been chosen anyway). In essence, what I’m trying to say is that generally my family-travel-blogging tribe is writing about the top things to see and do with kids in Orlando, Boston, Sydney and Paris; we’re not reflecting on what life is now like back at home after a long stint in a Central American country. (Which is not to say I didn’t like Leigh’s well-written piece; it’s just not part of my world right now. At all.)

Further, while I enjoyed watching the well-done “We are Backpackers” video shown at the beginning of the community keynote, I could not relate to it at all at this stage of my life. All the faces in the video were nearly half my age — I’m well, well past the backpacking, staying-in-hostels phase. Been there, done that (in 1989 through Western Europe).

While I know there are plenty of families who embark on round-the-world travel with their kids (hello Michelle Duffy!), that’s  not on my radar. I love my house in Colorado, and I have no intention of leaving it any time soon for extended global travel. While I’m so happy to camp with my kids, hike with them in National Parks and get dirty on mountain bike rides, I’m equally thrilled to spend the weekend in a five-star luxury hotel.

Frankly, I sat in the auditorium watching the screen as the “We Are Backpackers” video played, thinking about my 8- and 10-year-old children, and hoping that I’m arming them with enough self-confidence and enough varied travel experiences to have the wherewithal to take off and travel on their own if they want to when they’re out of college. (So now that I’m organizing my thoughts on this computer screen, I suppose I was inspired by that video — though likely in a much different way than most TBEX attendees. It’s not me who has any interest in slipping on a backpack and hopping a plane to Asia, but I’m hoping my children will have the opportunity to do so one day!)


My bottom-line point: During the conference, more than once I wanted to stand up in that NYU auditorium and shout, “Hey! I create Top 10 lists. I take my family vacations at plush, all-inclusive resorts. I’m not going to choose the “real bus.” I’m still worthy!”

I believe there’s no “wrong” way to blog, the same way I believe there’s no “wrong” way to travel. If it’s service pieces, advice columns and bullet points that you prefer to compile, like I often do here at The Vacation Gals, then you — and I — are authentic travel bloggers, too. Because if there is anything I learned at TBEX ’10,  it’s that there’s a heck of a lot of us travel blogging, in a myriad of ways, and we’re having an absolute ball doing it!

I look forward to meeting even more bloggers in Vancouver at TBEX ’11. I can’t wait to see how our community continues to grow, thrive and collaborate even more in the months leading up to next summer, the next time we gather en masse IRL.

Though I learned from fabulous TBEX ’10 speaker Lola Akinmade that she prefers her disclosures at the beginning of a post, I’m adding here at the end that these are my opinions, not necessarily those of my site co-owners Jennifer Miner and Beth Blair. (I’d love to hear their thoughts in the comments!) — Kara

63 Responses to “Reflections on TBEX ’10 and Travel Blogging”

  1. 1

    Hi Kara! It was great meeting you this weekend! I wasn’t there on Sun, so missed that part of the conference. I LOVE when you say here there is no wrong way to travel…I completely agree! Great post! Hope to meet again soon!



  2. 2
    pam says:

    Maybe you missed it? The last piece in the keynote, by Leigh Shulman, was about Leigh and her daughter Lila in Lenox Mall upon return from a long stay abroad. Just FYI. Traveling moms, represent.


  3. 3
    ColoradoGal says:

    I stand corrected! (And will reflect above.) Darn it, Pam, scooted out toward end (to call home!) and missed that one. Thank you for clarifying.

  4. 4
    Linda says:

    Kara, thanks for the insightful post. As another family travel blogger, you’ve helped ease my pain of missing TBEX this year just a tiny bit.

    I don’t really fit into any of the “categories” of the travel blogging world, as I’m the mom with four kids who just purchased a very used vehicle to pull our 1989 travel trailer for the next ten years, using the same money we would have spent on a single week at Walt Disney World. My vacation choices for this year are ranging from Michigan to Iowa to South Dakota, hardly the exotic places that many travelers choose.

    After attending last year’s TBEX, I had a bit of that same vibe you mentioned, and it actually was empowering in a way. It allowed me to look back at the focus of my blog, and why I started it in the first place. I decided that, instead of changing it to fit the mold of what the “real” travel bloggers are doing, I’m just going to do whatever it is I please and not worry about how successful it is in someone else’s eyes. That brought me right back to where I started–offering advice on traveling with big families and finding fun in out-of-the way places. I’ve actually been much happier and less stressed about my blog since that realization. So, like the unintended result you experienced with the backpacking video, I suppose you could say the entire TBEX experience last year was an eye-opener for me. And that’s a good thing.

    Thanks for the honesty in your post. It’s nice to read a variety of reactions after a conference, from different perspectives.

  5. 5
    Mara says:

    Kara, as one of the other parents at the conference who is also twice as old as some of those young backpacking types I’m of course interested in your response. I do consider myself a narrative travel writer (I like to say my blog is travel advice without the how-to – I try to share my insights through stories) and felt that the conference was useful to me because it reminded me not to forget the importance of my writing, something I think I have been doing a little bit of late.

    I do think part of what you are observing is part of the growing pains of the conference. Although TBEX has gotten pretty big in terms of attendance (which makes for a pretty diverse audience with different interests and needs) it hasn’t yet reached the point where multiple sessions are offered at a given time. For me it meant sitting through panels on video and podcasting that I could have easily given a pass to because those things don’t interest me. And I’m sure there were some people who focus on writing who could have cared less about the SEO panel. Perhaps as the conference continues to grow it will offer opportunities for attendees to choose what panels they attend.

    I think your point about there not being one “right” way to travel or to write about it is well-taken. But I didn’t feel like most of the people in attendance at the conference (including Mike and Pam certainly) think that there is. Are some people convinced that their way is the only way? Absolutely. But I didn’t feel like that was the majority view. A quick glance at the panelists in the session on niche blogging that Debbie Dubrow moderated reveals that to be true.

    I did submit a piece for the keynote, which obviously was not selected; interestingly it was about me traveling with my mother, not my children. I enjoyed the essays that were shared because the quality of the writing was so high. Like you, I observed that the entries leaned heavily toward the riding-on-a-bus-with-no-bathroom-for-three-days variety but it didn’t trouble me too much. And also like you, I found myself inspired by these stories for my own children, a fact which I shared in a post yesterday.

    And one last gentle reminder about the keynote: Parents weren’t excluded altogether. The last essay read as part of the keynote was by Leigh Shulman of http://thefutureisred.typepad.com/ – it was about returning to the U.S. with her children after living in Panama and concerned her experiencing culture shock with her daughter in a shopping mall. Leigh is a fantastic writer and a supportive blogger who often describes her experiences with her children.

    I was so very glad to meet you in person last weekend Kara, and I really appreciate your honesty in this post – I know you’re going out on a bit of a limb here. I look forward to reading what other people have to say.

  6. 6
    Jody says:

    As you said when we hugged goodbye, “we have very similar thoughts”, and your post hits many of my highs and lows. I’m going to disagree with Pam just a bit as I did hear the post she mentioned in the keynote and it didn’t resonate with me.

    I truly enjoyed meeting people “IRL” and getting to know PR people who often overlook me due to my location. I, too, blog to inform with a tiny bit of a story woven in; but don’t blog in narrative. As Debbie said, “Why use a 25 cent word when a 5 cent word will do.”

    My overall feeling was that there was a group of people the organizers really wanted to get together with and the rest of us, well, we were just a bother and bodies to get sponsors to pay for the trip.

    I hope there is an opportunity to leave feedback as I believe this conference could be amazing and look forward to Vancouver (if I’m not in Ireland, that is!)

  7. 7
    ColoradoGal says:

    Mara – I TOTALLY stand corrected on the “no moms represented in the keynote” statement, and edited my post above. (Leigh’s piece is beautifully written, but I’d much sooner relate to a “toddler puked on me in turbulence” story than a “culture shock at local mall after coming home from 6 months in Panama with preschooler” story.

    Certainly, I don’t feel like anyone at the conference said to me, “You are not worthy.” It’s likely more my own insecurities. I was just looking for some validation over the weekend that writing with SEO in mind, that writing lists and tips, and giving trip-planning advice is a VERY LARGE segment of the travel blogs that are out there today.

    Like Linda so beautifully said above, I am SO PROUD of what I do here at The Vacation Gals — I love helping readers plan a better trip. I’m so proud of the living I’ve earned as a service writer and copywriter over the last 20 years. I have no interest in writing long, 2,000-word narrative pieces for my blog or for National Geographic Traveler. I love the services I provide here and on other travel websites… and I’m sticking to it!

  8. 8
    Spud Hilton says:

    Nicely said. It was a great event for meeting folks (including you) and for sharing experiences.

    You are correct that there’s many ways to blog and that the consumer-oriented family content is certainly no less valuable than the long narrative storytelling. I still haven’t figured out what my blog is about (some consumer, some narrative, mostly humor) in part because I’m a long narrative guy (supposedly, I teach the stuff) who spent 12 years as a daily newspaper journalist doing breaking news and consumer stuff.

    My interest, however, in the narrative storytelling is that, while I find heaps of good writing in the blogosphere, there seems to be very little great travel storytelling — and I am concerned the style will be lost in the move from one medium to another. (Especially as even print media is running fewer stories and more chunky bits of info.)

    So, while the panel on writing was intended for everyone, no one was trying to say everyone should write that way. Apologies if it in any way made you feel less than worthy.

    If your blog is read, enjoyed, shared and is useful to even one traveler, you are worthy. And it is.

    Spud Hilton
    Travel Editor
    San Francisco Chronicle

  9. 9
    Lauren says:

    Kara, thanks for sharing your honest thoughts on TBEX, and I’m glad I got a chance to meet you, and the handful of others I had conversations with.

    I think probably 80% of us write more service and tips pieces than we do stories, and my take-away is to try and incorporate more storytelling into those types of pieces to make them more relevant, *authentic* (sorry) and human to our readers.

    TBEX obviously took a huge amount of work to put together. I organize conferences myself and the work, from strategy to logistics, is enormous. I’m grateful to have heard about it and had the opportunity to attend.

    However, I don’t think the structure of the conference created much opportunity for discussion and collaboration among the smart, innovative bloggers themselves. We had like 200 – 300 people with a tremendous amount of individual knowledge and experience in that room, and 80% of TBEX time was spent in panel sessions being talked to. (the other 20% in loud, crowded bars). I wanted interactivity. I wanted small-group breakout sessions on topics we could choose that were relevant to us (I’m just not likely to do video, you know?). I wanted a big gym where we could “speed date” for 2 hours over coffee – how much fun would that be?

    BTW – is there some sort of evaluation or survey? I am not on the TBEX email list (a glitch must have left me off) so I’m afraid I missed this.

  10. 10
    Lisa says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kara. (And also to those above who have done so.) I both wished the conference could stay smaller-since I didn’t get to meet half of the attendees–and that it could be bigger–so that there could be different tracks and workshops that would fit “me” better. Yeah, I’m greedy like that. I want it all.

    What the conference did best for me was to really make me stop and think about what I want to blog about, and how. What’s my voice? Who is my audience? It shook me out of worrying about SEO and profitability (a pie in the sky dream for an independent, as far as I could gather) and brought me back to Do What You Love.

    You and the other amazing Vacation Gals have figured that out. I celebrate that and find value in it, just as I do in the more narrative blogs. The beauty of the Net is that there’s room for all. Now I just have to figure out what piece is mine. TBEX got me started on that road, and for that, I’m thankful.

    Lisa, theworldiscalling.com, @TheWorldCalls

  11. 11
    ColoradoGal says:

    Spud – THANK YOU for taking the time to comment. I don’t think anyone EVER intentionally made me feel bad (oy, do I need a therapist or what?). I hear your concern re: losing the narrative storytelling genre, but since I love those “chunky bits of info” found in many print magazines and throughout the web, I’m not as worried about it. 😉 Loved, loved meeting you — I very much appreciate your enthusiasm and your support for travel blogging (coming from a print journalism background).

    Lauren – Wonderful ideas! I have not received an evaluation or survey, but I suspect one is coming. AGREED on all points that organizing a conference, especially in its infancy, is a monumental task (huge kudos to Kim Mance and crew for taking it on). Pleasing all people all the time is not going to happen. But I do think that if we attendees offer candid feedback and ideas/solutions for TBEX ’11 it will absolutely rock. This weekend, I realized how many bright, energetic, enthusiastic, AWESOME travel bloggers are out there. What an incredible community we are part of — I see only success in our collective future.

  12. 12
    ColoradoGal says:

    Lisa, a true regret is that I did not get a chance to sit down with you, Tim & Olivia during the weekend. Someday, we *will* enjoy a cup of coffee together — perhaps in our home state?? :-) Much love to you – glad I got to squeeze in a hug, or two!

  13. 13
    Gray says:

    It was great meeting you during TBEX, Kara, and I like your thoughts here. I agree that, just as there is no one “right” way to travel, there is no one “right” way to be a travel blogger. There is a space for every type of blog, be it travel narrative, hotel reviews, travel planning advice, and yes, top 10 lists. People need to do what feels right for them and their readers and not worry too much about what other people are doing. Keep doing what feels right to you, Kara.

  14. 14
    kimba says:

    Hey Kara! I started my site as a narrative site, and now it’s a bit mixed between narrative and advice posts. Even though I’m now twice as old as those scrappy young travel bloggers you refer to, I still travel like a backpacker, albeit with a rollie suitcase. I stay in hostels and budget my pesos and euros and make them stretch out as far as I can. I love storytelling and I don’t see enough of it on the web.

    But I do acknowledge that we all go through our life stages and are in different places …

    I think we probably all have parts of us that aren’t represented in panels like the ones at TBEX. How many of those 300+ travelers would rather crawl around archaeological sites or sit in museums and study paintings all day, or really DO care about what kind of camera they use? I can’t say I’m going ziplining anytime soon …

    Now that TBEX is “established” I’m sure as individuals in this group we’ll be able to suggest topics for panels and breakaway sessions. And “family travel” can be represented. I can’t say that for sure, it just seems logical.

  15. 15
    Traci says:

    Thanks, Kara, for voicing what I was feeling, too. As a new blogger (but an established writer), I didn’t have other blogging conferences as a reference point.

    While I found many sessions inspirational and informative, I didn’t pull out too many actionable tips for my own (proudly low-brow) blog!
    The SEO / Monetization session was on my radar from the time I registered. Sadly, this was rushed and shorter than scheduled.

    In addition, I just felt plain OLD! From all the talk about drinking, to the too-small print on the name badges, I came away fearing that this is a pursuit best left to the Y generation.

  16. 16
    ColoradoGal says:

    Traci – Another regret was not spending enough time with you! I hope you *will* stick with it; my life has been truly enhanced connecting and collaborating with like-minded bloggers over the last few years.

    Age range at the conference was 15 to 70 — I’m thinking that future TBEX events will better reflect the needs of the “older” crowd. (I’m 40 and I don’t do tequila shots.)

    Please don’t be a stranger; ping me and my Vacation Gals on Twitter once in a while. I’d love to keep abreast of your latest posts and travel adventures.

  17. 17
    Donna Hull says:

    Kara, thanks for writing this post. I totally agree with you. I try to keep in mind why my readers are coming to read My Itchy Travel Feet. My mission is to arm them with the information that they need to plan an active baby boomer trip from the eyes of someone who has been there, done that. Hopefully, I’m also writing in a way that is entertaining to them.

    I enjoy writing travel narrative. In fact, I wrote a piece to enter in the contest. It was one of the least read posts on my blog. Why? Because I stepped away from my mission of providing practical information to my readers. I’ll keep honing the craft of narrative writing, but I’ll look for other places to submit it.

    Backpacking is fine for those who travel that way but I cannot relate. I’ve never traveled as a backpacker and don’t intend to start. But I still can communicate insightfuly on the types of travel that I enjoy to those who would enjoy the same thing.

    The SEO and advertising panels were why I came to the conference. I could have used two-hour sessions on both topics.

    I enjoyed meeting you in person. Even with the growing pains, I’ll attend TBEX again. The networking is as valuable as the actual sessions.

  18. 18

    It was great to meet you at TBEX, Kara. You’ve made some good comments that can help the 2011 organizing committee understand and represent the diversity among the travel bloggers who attended the conference. Your thoughts on what is authentic travel reflect comments Robert Reid made during the conference and which showed up in his 76 second travel show yesterday. At the end of his video he asks: “Is it authentic? By whose definition?” We appreciate good story telling within top 10 lists and hotel reviews, by budget travellers and luxury travel writers. Travel blogging is a big space with lots of room for everyone. TBEX is a great forum to bring this diversity together, to build understanding and collegiality and to inspire others, whatever their budget, interests and desires.

  19. 19
    Chris says:

    Kara, I agree with you and many of the commenters here. While I love reading narrative travel writing, it’s not why people visit my site either. They are looking for just-off-the-plane tips about specific destinations. And, I do care about SEO and the short attention spans of web surfers. I wanted more information about that.

    As TBEX grows bigger, I’m sure it will morph into a regular conference, with break-out sessions, get-to-know-you opportunities and events that aren’t so alcohol-centric. I’m not in the phase of life where I want to do tequila shots either (OK, well, maybe sometimes! :) I’m thrilled at the promise of TBEX, however, and feel that the community has its heart in the right place. With so many smart people involved, it should grow to fit our needs.

  20. 20
    wandermom says:

    Hi Kara,
    Thanks for writing this perspective on TBEX 2010. I didn’t get to go to this year’s event, but I did read all the community keynote posts Pam listed on nerdseyeview.com and I did get the same vibe as you: all written by independent backpackers in a narrative style which is very different to most family travel blogs + websites. This isn’t too surprising, for example, when I was writing my book, Traveling With Kids, I got feedback from a number of interviewees saying “give me lists, I don’t have time to read lots of detail”. Perhaps the Community Keynote should be more clearly defined as a keynote for narrative travel writing only and the TBEX organizers can figure out a different way to involve the community of folks who write for about travel for list-swapping, time-pressed moms ?
    p.s. Fwiw: I did submit an entry which you can read here if you’re interested http://wandermom.com/international-escapades/flight-delay-lima-to-seattle/

  21. 21

    This is absolutely great! Loved meeting and connecting with so many people that I’ve come to call friends! Yet so many that I just didn’t have the chance to connect with.

    I believe we’re all storytellers. For some of us, those advice/list pieces are the story. I like doing a mixture of both, doing the advice type pieces, but also the more feature type stories. They offer a unique mix that reaches the masses.

    I just love the travel community. I’ve made some great friends there and honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else. What I love about it compared to many others, is there isn’t that same competition that I find in so many fields. So many of us have found our niche, whether geographically or topically, and that’s our thing. For some, it’s Central America, for others backpacking and yet for many more, family travel and the list goes on. I think it’s great how we compliment each other so well.

    I’ve always said that social networking is only as good as the face to face relationships that are a result of it, and I believe TBEX echoed that, strengthening and sending out the travel community for a great year of traveling and storytelling!

  22. 22
    wandermom says:

    p.s. love that photo of you + your little guys above :)

  23. 23
    Matt says:

    Love this! I agree with you about some of the focus at TBEX. Although I do some narrative, a lot of my site is geared towards tips and advice. I think that as the conference continues to grow, there will be opportunities to highlight all segments of our blogosphere, at least I hope so.

    Like you, I will not be donning a backpack anytime soon and touring the world. Instead, I tend to my website after I finish my yard work. LOL There is nothing wrong with traveling comfortably or affordably – after all, we represent the great majority of people who travel.

    Keep on keeping on, love your work on the site.

  24. 24
    Debbie Ferm says:

    The conference definitely has some growing up to do as conferences go, but there were some things I really enjoyed, first among them being Gary’s travel porn talk. It was very funny, but he also shared valuable information that was helpful to me.

    I’m hardly qualified to comment on narrative writing because I rarely read it, and don’t write it. Narrative writing needs to be brilliant for me to appreciate it. Otherwise, it’s just boring. I generally prefer to read thinking or opinion pieces myself – like this one:)

    During the essay reading portion of the conference, I was preoccupied because my purse had been stolen 10 minutes before, and I was sitting in New York with no identification, and 72 cents in my pocket. I was there, but I was mentally problem solving. In general, I’m the one who thinks you shouldn’t use 25 cent words when a 10 cent word will do.

    My thoughts on the weekend as a whole were that:

    1. Meeting people you know online is a blast.
    2. Conferences involve serious time and money by sponsors, planners, and attendees and should be run respectfully and professionally.
    3. Bloggers need to quit bitching about PR. Work with them, or don’t.
    4. We need more Sheila Scarborough

  25. 25
    ColoradoGal says:

    Debbie, your bullet point #4 made me guffaw out loud: “We need more Sheila Scarborough.” Agreed!

  26. 26

    Great post Kara – I can relate to much of it. And I am sorry we did not meet in person this weekend. Although I don’t have kids (and I know you do a lot of family travel) I follow and enjoy your work – espeically the new spa site!

    First, enormous kudos to the TBEX organizers. Hard to believe this was only the second year!

    I run a subscription travel newsletter (and Web site) for 3- to 5-star travel – so I can definitely relate to wanting to see different types of travel sites and demographics represented. We do some narrative pieces in the print newsletter (and I have a soft spot for that kind of writing) but our Web traffic (who we hope turn into paid subscribers at some point) relies on the short, newsy, service pieces we run on the site and our blog. So yes, I’d love to have more discussion on that kind of writing.

    I also love, love, love online marketing and it would have been great to have an expanded discussion on that as well as how we can leverage our power as a community to help each other.

    As I was writing this post, I thought I should contact the organizers and offer to help in expanding the scope of next year’s topics. I can only imagine that if we all put our heads together what next year’s conference could be – on top of this already really successful conference.

    Kathy McCabe

  27. 27
    Ciao Bambino says:


    Although I missed the second half of Sunday (community keynote and anything after that), I relate to your sentiments. Travel stories and narratives are wonderful and the heart of inspiring readers to travel. That said, the Web has created a forum for tips-based writing that is about dishing out useful, practical advice for a real, upcoming trip – not just one you are dreaming about.

    For family travel specifically, advice-oriented writing is so important (oddly enough, just published a post from one of our readers yesterday who expressed her gratitude for this style and approach to travel writing – http://www.ciaobambino.com/ciaobambinoblog/index.php/2010/06/a-note-of-appreciation/).

    One is not better than the other – they are just different and the beauty of the Web is that readers can pick and choose whatever works best for them. Tips-based writing is a valid and valuable part of travel blogging and should be recognized as such at TBEX. I never felt left out over the weekend and the travel writing panel provided the most takeaway points for me in terms of things we don’t do well on Ciao Bambino, but I agree with what you are saying and hope that TBEX next year addresses alternative styles of writing more thoroughly.

    Thank you for writing this post. Loved seeing you Kara. You are as entertaining in person as you are online!

  28. 28
    Theresa says:

    Your post reflects many of the thoughts I had about TBEX while watching what I could via the Live video feed.

    Perhaps we should host a TBEX-Family Focus conference here in Denver!

  29. 29
    Gary Arndt says:

    If I had to bet, I don’t think there will be just one track for everyone next year. I think you might see a track for writing, one for multimedia (video, audio, photography), one for business issues (seo, affiliate marketing) and maybe some other things with only 1 or 2 keynote speeches where everyone is in the same room.

    I have also seen interest in non-blogging, people in the travel industry who would like to attend.

    I certainly didn’t like the fact that at every party it was impossible to hear yourself talk because the music was so loud.

  30. 30
    Sharlene says:

    Absolutely fantastic post Kara. I think your post relfected what many of us family travel writers felt. I absolutely enjoyed the conference and felt like it was great to understand the other side of travel writing (I love a good narrative and wish I could write more but it doesn’t always fit my genre of writing very well) but I do wish we could have spoke more about family travel since it is such a huge portion of the market. I agree that I sat in the room and thought abotu my own children backpacking across the world one day but those days are long past me (and I never actually got the chance to do it. Boo.) My world travel experiences will be with my children and we won’t be staying in hostels. Our travel will be just as authentic as the next person. As a matter of fact we plan on having an authentically good time while I review Legoland’s new waterpark today and I don’t think my writing on a theme park will have any less value than the post I do on exploring a National Park or Inca ruin.


  31. 31
    Dominique says:

    Kara-Although I can only base my response on going to last year’s TBEX and the few little bits of this year I managed to catch of the livestream (I managed to catch Gary’s fun and informative “Travel Porn” session) I can relate to a lot of your post.
    I sometimes feel even more out there on my own because I don’t go to a lot of “exotic” locations, my pieces are mostly Midwestern destination pieces, I consider 40 pretty young (:lol:), the vast majority of my IRL friends don’t understand the whole blogging thing with me, and I’m not a parent blogging about traveling with kids. A lot of the formal presentations just didn’t speak to me.
    I do like the idea of having smaller break-out sessions, more down time for informal networking, and opportunities to get out and see the city. I haven’t been to NYC and didn’t want three days in a hotel to be my first experience there–I managed to extend my stay in Chicago last year, which was great, but out of the budget this year.
    Hopefully some of those things will become part of TBEX as the conference matures.
    Going to TBEX (and BlogHer) last year reminded me of my experiences going to writing conferences in the past. The real value of the conferences was the chance to sit down and talk to folks I’ve met online in person. I can take or leave a lot of the formal sessions because they often don’t apply to my situation.
    While I would have loved to go to TBEX to see everyone this year, several factors played into my decision not to do so. Family issues (can you say job loss and a major medical event?) made it impossible to go-I just couldn’t justify the expense this year in light of everything else going on. The focus of the sessions, again, didn’t seem like a great fit for me.
    I hope this comment doesn’t come off as too negative, because I appreciate the effort it takes to put on the conference, I enjoyed last year’s TBEX, and I hope to join y’all one of these years down the line.

  32. 32
    Gary Arndt says:

    @Debbie Fern

    I wish working with PR firms was as simple as doing it or not doing it.

    The fact is, most PR firms are clueless when it comes to working with bloggers. It is getting better, but for the most part, they have no idea how to evaluate them or pick who to work with. I’ve seen bloggers with 2 month old blogs and no audience get press trips. I’ve seen people with established blogs and large audiences get mostly ignored.

    The bloggers who seem to work best with PR firms either are freelance writers or have a background in freelance writing where they previously established relationships.

    I was in Spain last month with the president of a PR firm who focuses exclusively on travel. She had no idea that travel blogs existed and had only recently learned what Twitter and Facebook was. You can’t simply choose to work or not work with someone who isn’t even aware of the universe of online travel media.

    Things are slowing improving, but for the most part, I think most PR firms are happy to keep doing what they’ve always done. Much of this is the result of their clients being more ignorant than they are.

    Having said all that, I did meet some people in PR this weekend who I think really do get it. They are the minority, but hopefully over time their numbers will grow along with their influence.

  33. 33
    Lanora says:

    Awesome (to borrow a GenX or GenY term) discussion-sparking post, Kara!

    One observation that rises to the front: blogging does not equal writing. Gary’s plainspoken “I don’t belong to SATW because I’m not a travel writer” shows he gets that distinction.

    I came to blogging from a (choke) 30-year writing career, first as an academic and then, more lucratively, as writer and editor in the tech and finance worlds.

    My first travel stories for my blog were long narrative memoirs of my escapades as a 20-something traveler, and I hope to keep refining my narrative writing skills. I’d never even heard the phrase “story arc” until I attended a National Geographic Travel seminar on travel writing in 2005 and had to raise my hand to ask for explanation. (I have no shame.)

    I love travel narrative and read as much and as widely as I can. I’m certain the stories Pam and Mike chose to read were selected for their literary qualities without concern for age of the writer or method of travel. I loved them all because they allowed me to share vicariously in the narrator’s experience, whether sleeping in freezing rain because there was no room at the inn or riding the “real bus” awash in vomitus.

    But I digress. My point is that the most-read posts on my blog are photoessays, service pieces, and lists, like where you can eat for free in Paris or how to buy a pass for the Metro. I’ll keep refining how I write those too.

    We’re all making it up as we go along.

    As far as the logistics of this year’s TBEX are concerned, I’m certain there will be refinement there as well. Like many others, I was there primarily to meet my online friends IRL while making new friends and maybe learning a bit about travel blogging.

    We all have our stories about the parts of the weekend that didn’t go as well as we would have liked. I don’t know how much hearing I lost at the Friday and Saturday night parties. Even with my high-tech bifocal contacts, I couldn’t read the badges. I wish my taxi driver had known how to find NYU Sunday morning so I could have caught Gary’s travel porn talk.

    But hey. It was an amazing opportunity to be part of an event that has come a very long way from last year’s one-day one-room nonalcoholic event.

  34. 34
    Debbie Ferm says:


    I understand what you are saying, but I stand by my statement.

    If a PR firm reaches out to a blogger, they can either respond respectfully or ignore it. If you want to approach PR yourself to propose a working relationship, you are free to do that, and they also have the choice of how to respond. If someone doesn’t “Get you”, maybe it’s not a good match and you should move on. It’s not always about reach and stats. Impressive beginning bloggers can, and do, go on to have large audiences and good reputations.

    I just don’t want to hear more unproductive, sweeping statements about how PR sucks. I don’t like to hear that about bloggers, why would they want to sit and listen to that? I would rather hear innovative ideas about how we can work together for the benefit of bloggers and their readers, as well as PR firms and their clients. I believe it’s possible, and I want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

  35. 35
    Debbie Ferm says:


    I hope you know that my response was not speaking of you personally, but of the issue in general.

    You already know I love your blog:)

  36. 36

    Firstly Kara, I must say how wonderful it was to meet you!

    I agree with you and I agree with Mara. I felt that a lot of the content of the panels did not apply to me, but I also felt inspired to incorporate some of what was said into my site.

    My guess is next year they will divvy up some of the panels by niche, and I’ll hope they’ll offer a few networking events that don’t involve a hangover in the morning… Does that make me sound old?

  37. 37


    I am so glad to have found this post via twitter. As a blogger / travel writer still finding his way and balance between the narrative and the destination spotlight, I agree with many that no right way to write a travel story exists. Each reader thirsts for different stories… Ah, maybe Potter was correct, Travel is the search for difference” or maybe he meant travel writing…

    We all hunger for a different take and different story. Just like families will want a different trip than a backpacker or flashpacker… we will all read different stories. But for me, what I search for and try to put to the page (or screen) is some of me. That to me makes the best writing.

    And, yes, hopefully at TBEX ’11 as it grows, more break out opportunities will exist to allow people to network in quieter rooms and also focus on their unique interests… their difference. (had to say it)

    stay adventurous, Craig

  38. 38

    So grateful for this post! I’ve never felt so simultaneously included and between worlds as I did at TBEX this past weekend.

    Seeing about 4 gajillion mom travel bloggers in the audience, I admit to being a confused that there was so little info in the panels themselves that specifically addressed their/your presence…especially since women/moms drive most travel purchasing.

    I agree with Gary, and feel TBEX ’11 will be a little more like cable TV: separate channels for those who’d like them.

    I greatly admire the backpacker spirit, regardless of someone’s age — it’s an experience I’ve never had and it’s fun for me to learn more about it. But I now high-five you, my dear Kara, and say loud and proud:

    I live somewhere. I travel away from my home a lot, always to a place with its own bathroom. I return, thrilled to share the experience with others…and to sleep in my own bed.

    I’m Melanie, and I’m a travel writer.

  39. 39

    […] Vacation Gals give their takeaways on the weekend […]

  40. 40
    Gary Arndt says:

    Saying that PR doesn’t get it isn’t unproductive. I think it is very productive. They need a swift kick in the ass to join the 21st century. Doing nothing and thinking the status quo is fine is the definition of being unproductive.

    I wouldn’t get mad if people said that about bloggers. People do say that about bloggers all the time, and there is a lot of truth in it. One of the hard parts of being taken seriously a blogger is overcoming the stigma of all the amateur hour folks out there that give you a bad name. They need a swift kick in the ass too.

  41. 41
    Gary Arndt says:


    I think one of the dirty secrets is that narrative travel writing has never sold very well and there isn’t much demand for it. I think many writers view narrative writing as the closest thing you can get in the travel space to art, and that is the appeal in it.

    The only people I’ve ever heard talk glowingly about narrative travel writing are professional travel writers. I think it is a form of writing which is primarily targeted towards other writers, not the public.

  42. 42
    Lanora says:


    I’m sure I could round up scores of literary types and bookworms, not just travel writers, who’d talk glowingly about travel narrative.

    Lots of people buy Bryson’s books; I’ll concede that maybe not every book buyer actually reads his copy.

    For myself, travel blogging has been a way for me to move beyond my background as a professional writer and give more attention to photography, which I enjoy much more than writing.

  43. 43
    Gary Arndt says:

    I have nothing against narrative writing. Nothing at all.

    I just think that outside of the literary types you mention (which is a small group of people), there isn’t much demand for it.

    Photography and other types of articles tend to be more popular.

    I’m not going to rip on narrative writing however, because I have no problem with there being an artistic form of travel media. I’m not good at it, but I respect those who are.

    It is better that people attempt to do that than put out an endless stream of the travel equivalent of video clips of getting hit in the crotch with a baseball.

  44. 44
    Dominique says:

    I’m actually seeing some interest in my blog from PR folks these days (mostly local orgs).

    My latest post was based on an interview I did after being offered the opportunity to do a phoner with a Grammy Award-winning music producer…and I recently did a preview for the local symphony’s summer season when one of their PR folks contacted me to see if I was interested in doing a story on them (we’re also planning something with them later this summer based on a pitch I did to them at that time for a story I thought would be a good fit for my blog–and something other than a straight preview).

    I’ve had some other nibbles from further afield in my region, although nothing has really materialized yet on those locations.

    The value for me so far in working with PR folks is more a question of access for behind the scenes stuff, interviews, etc. Still, it takes time…

  45. 45

    I think that is the great thing about blogging: you don’t have to fit any one category. To say you should do it a certain way is a disservice to everyone. We all have our own voices, to be shared in the way that best serves ourselves and our audience!

  46. 46

    Kara, I agree with your points here… in fact I was thinking similar things, although for different reasons. I get why they stressed narrative travel writing, but it’s kind of like going into a conference of newspaper writers and telling them they should write more novels. Who doesn’t love a great character-driven narrative? But will it work for my blog? Does it work online at all? Is the reason you don’t see it online because as writers we’re missing the boat or is it because an online audience refuses to accept it? (Unless the point was, “write whatever you want — building your brand be damned”). I think it was a little naive. I mean Gary was just listed on the Time Magazine Best Blogs for 2010 and he hasn’t written a stitch of fancy travel prose. We can write it, but will they come?

    On the other hand, I sort assumed that none of the panels would apply to me. Really, the kinds of information I would want is so specific to what I’m doing, all I really need is to sit down with about 12 people I know and pick their brains. And in the end that’s what I got, although not nearly enough time and way too crowded and noisy.

    Maybe next year they’ll move away from the panel format and have a mix of lectures, break out groups and panels — plus separate tracks depending on what your focus is. I mean the SEO/Monetization panel was like the most bizarre mix of random tips I’ve ever seen. If I was just starting out my feeling would be: “huh?”

    My ideal TBEX? A weekend spent talking to people in small groups.

    All that being said, I had a fabulous time and would definitely go again.

  47. 47
    Matt says:

    I think Gary’s analysis of travel writing is well said. I had similar thoughts when I was reflecting on Pam and Mike’s session. Pam has an amazing talent, she is an artist. I don’t have the same talent, but I don’t think that means I am worth less to the travel community. Yes, some of my posts may be “shopping lists”, but they are useful to people who need the advice. For the majority of people, travel is a scary experience and ANYTHING we can do to break down barriers and help them discover the ROI of travel is of tremendous value.

  48. 48
    ColoradoGal says:

    Amber – I don’t think anyone said “you must blog this way.” I just felt, overall, there was an inordinate emphasis on narrative prose, which is more often found on magazine-style webSITES not blogs, anyway. I do so dearly hope that you’ll go to Vancouver next year for TBEX ’11. You were missed in NYC.

    I am so so so thankful for everyone who has posted comments here. Thanks so much for the respectful dialog. I’m certain the TBEX ’11 organizers are listening, and our ideas/opinions/feedback will be considered for the next conference. :-)

  49. 49
    Lola says:

    Thanks for this honest post Kara! and it was a pleasure meeting you in person.

    I personally didn’t feel the “this way is better than that way” vibe at all. Far from it.

    I think because TBEX 2010 was particularly heavy on narrative travel writing made it seem that way.

    Everyone’s goals are clearly different and that’s perfectly okay. That was what I got out of TBEX.

    Regarding the articles that were read, “backpackers” didn’t immediately come to mind as many of their authors actually aren’t traditional backpackers.

    What did come to mind was originality and transparency in the way they told their stories. They tossed aside easy adjectives and just described what they saw and felt.

    Whether we’re writing narratives or service pieces (which I also do a lot of for print outlets – http://www.lolaakinmade.com/articles), we should strive to replace basic marketing copy with our own true voices while still providing valuable service information.

    As others have eluded to, split up sessions at TBEX 2011 are definitely needed :), including one on why many print editors are allowed to go on press trips while their freelancers aren’t.

    I would totally attend that panel!

    I did want to clarify one thing though regarding disclosures…we (Matador) actually prefer them woven early on into the piece itself, and Mary Engle with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also said they prefer this type of integrated disclosure because it doesn’t stand separate from the article and is embedded.

    That way, people quickly get that the writer was on a sponsored trip and quickly move on as they read through the rest.

  50. 50

    […] Reflections on TBEX ‘10 and Travel Blogging – The Vacation Gals TBEX10 Report – Bearshapedsphere TBEX10 Conference Recap – Travel Writers Exchange Here Comes Everybody – Chris Around the World The 10-plus things I learned at TBEX – Writing Travel Seven Things I Learned at TBEX 2010 – Travelojos The top 10 things TBEX attendees love besides TBEX – Art of Backpacking The one about the Travel Blog Conference – See Paul Go In Pictures: Travel Blog Exchange 2010 – Geotraveler’s Niche […]

  51. 51

    Thank you Kara for a great post that inspire us all to have candid and very professional conversation!!

    This was my first TBEX and I will definitely attend TBEX 2011.

    First of, I have to say Kudos to all the team who helps make this happen!!! What an accomplishment to do! Also thank you to all sponsors who support and make this conference affordable.

    With that being said, it’s nice to provide them with constructive opinion so they can make the next one even better and I think so far we have done so.

    I don’t consider myself as travel writer AT ALL. I’m a travel blogger and I’m proud of it. I blog the way I talk and I have no shame of using 5 cents word with top 10 list. :)

    So now on to my list:

    What I love:
    – A chance to meet many travel bloggers I have been following or secretly following in real life.
    – A confirmation that there is NO ONE WAY to travel!!!
    – A great session by Gary for Travel Porn. I have to find a new server to host my photo STAT.

    What I think can get better:
    – More networking time between blogging in a better environment than a pub or bar with too loud music.
    – A breakout session with more in-depth in each session and less speakers in each panel. I believe all the speakers are amazing and we have so much to learn from them than just 10 minutes of their time.

  52. 52
    JoAnna says:

    I’m going to avoid putting in my two cents on the conference and just say instead that it was a pleasure meeting you Kara. Thanks for all that you’ve done. :)

  53. 53
    Caitlin @ Roaming Tales says:

    You know, I think the ‘upping your game’ session did start off by talking about the kind of narrative travel writing you would see on World Hum or certain types of print publications. But I don’t think it stopped there. They talked about other types of blogging as well – rants is one that springs to mind but I’m sure there were more. And some of the writing tips such as working with a beginning, middle and end or avoiding cliche are worthwhile goals for service writing too.

  54. 54

    Wonderful post, Kara! There’s little I could add that hasn’t already been so accurately and eloquently stated in all of the previous comments, so I’ll just say that I agree with you 100%, and am truly glad that I got to finally meet you! I hope our paths will cross at some future conference or event so that I can spend more time chatting with you. :-)

  55. 55
    Lauren Quinn says:

    Definitely interested in reading these insights, as I wasn’t able to attend. i think you’re totally right: there’s no wrong way to write a travel blog, and the medium is so young, there’s really room for everyone. I do think that narrative-driven and service-oriented blogs are two entirely different creatures, in that same way that guidebooks and travelouges are different. You go to them for different things, and they are both totally important. Bummer that you felt unworthy.

    For the record, I was trying to make fun of myself with the “real bus” bit. 😉

  56. 56
    TBEX 2010 Wrap-Up and Photos | Travel Site Guide says:

    […] Reflections on TBEX ‘10 and Travel Blogging – The Vacation Gals TBEX10 Report – Bearshapedsphere TBEX10 Conference Recap – Travel Writers Exchange Here Comes Everybody – Chris Around the World The 10-plus things I learned at TBEX – Writing Travel Seven Things I Learned at TBEX 2010 – Travelojos The top 10 things TBEX attendees love besides TBEX – Art of Backpacking The one about the Travel Blog Conference – See Paul Go In Pictures: Travel Blog Exchange 2010 – Geotraveler’s Niche A Travel Blogger’s State of The Union – Travels With Two Hype, help, hope and hangovers: The weekend that was TBEX10 – theseboots.travel Messy Thoughts on TBEX 10 – Nerd’s Eye View […]

  57. 57
    Karon Warren says:

    Kara, thanks for sharing your insight on TBEX 10. I didn’t hear about the conference until it was too late to attend, but would love to attend TBEX 11 in Vancouver. I hope the organizers take your and the other attendees’ comments and critiques to improve and grow the conference next year. If that turns out to be the case, it certainly sounds like this will be one of THE conferences to attend in 2011!

  58. 58

    Thanks so much for the shout out. I really enjoyed the opportunity to finally meet you at TBEX, and I wished we had gotten a chance to chat more.

    The panels were really jam-packed, weren’t they? That was probably my biggest frustration – I wanted to hear more from everyone, and it felt like half of the allotted time was gone before the introductions were done. On the Niche blogging panel, I made a decision not to exacerbate the problem by answering the questions myself, but of course that was tricky for me because I have a lot to say 😉

    I was bummed that it was so hard to meet up with my favorite family travel bloggers – I always learn so much when I get around other people who are doing what I do. Next year I’ll do a better job of scheduling in time to meet with different folks instead of assuming that I’ll somehow bump into everyone during the two days.

  59. 59
    Experiencing: TBEX 2010 Recap Roundup says:

    […] of The Vacation Gals gave her reflections on TBEX 2010 and Travel Blogging which sparked a great conversation among bloggers on her […]

  60. 60
    Jill says:

    Great points Kara. I wasn’t there but I understand the feeling of, “Hang on, the whole world of travel writing, including travel blogging, surely can’t just be travel lit and dangerous adventures, can it?”

    I love reading great travel literature, don’t get me wrong, but service pieces and specific info about “ordinary” vacations are very important and necessary.

    It’s a big world and there’s room for everyone.

    Apologies if others have said this; I am commenter #61 and I just couldn’t face reading the other 60. Mea culpa.

    Roll on, The Vacation Gals!

  61. 61

    I don’t know why TBEX bring out the divide and conquer side of travel bloggers. I think last year it was the whole blogger vs. writer vs. journalist vs. whatever bruhaha. This year it appears to be literature as authentic travel writing vs. service pieces, lists, and short tips as junk. And in between was the whole debate about what constitutes authentic travel vs. mere vacationers.

    It saddens me to think that people think the world of travel is so small and the writers of it so small-minded, as to not recognize that there’s plenty of room for everyone to co-exist. Really — it can all be good, regardless of style, preference, or approach.

  62. 62
    New York & TBEX ’10 – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly says:

    […] I’d prefer a more-inclusive environment. There seemed to be a definite preference for backpack/independent travel at the TBEX 2010 conference that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. I loved traveling during college with nothing but the backpack on my shoulders and a Let’s Go Europe! in my hand. I think everyone should experience the freedom that comes from seeing the world alone at one point in their lives. However, I’ve been there, done that. I’m ready for high thread count sheets, private bathrooms, and preferably a fancy pool with a waterslide. My friend, Kara Williams over at The Vacation Gals, covers this more thoroughly in her post Reflections on TBEX ‘10 and Travel Blogging. […]

  63. 63

    […] Reflections on TBEX ’10 and Travel Blogging // by Kara Williams http://thevacationgals.com/reflections-on-tbex-10-blogging-and-the-vacation-gals-purpose/ TBEX’10 Review – New York City // by James Clark […]

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