Lessons learned at my first TBEX conference

I’ve blogged in this space off-and-on since 2007 after my trip to visit a grad school friend in Germany.  However, I didn’t start taking my blogging seriously until 2012 when I started to write about my baseball stadium visits.  So right on schedule (another five years later), I decided to try and “professionalize” my blog a bit more.  To me, professionalizing my blog meant attending TBEX North America 2017 and seeing what I could learn at a travel blogger conference.

Why I did it…
So why did I decide to spend three days in Huntsville, Ala., attending an event I knew little about?  Like I said, I wanted to make my blog more professional, and I knew that I could only learn so much from reading other people’s blogs and participating in Twitter chats.

However, it was a Twitter chat and my interaction with some of the regular participants that pushed me to attend TBEX in Huntsville.  Since my visit to Chicago in 2015 for a work conference, I’ve regularly participated in #JAchat on Twitter (read more here) and interacting with Pola (Twitter: @JettingAround) and Francesca (Twitter: @WorkMomTravels) convinced me that I would learn more about blogging and interacting with convention and visitor bureaus by attending the conference.

Even after a few conversations, I was still on the fence about attending until I considered the pros of attending a conference that was only 2.5 miles from my home.  It’s not often that such an event would land in my backyard, so I decided to bite the bullet and registered.

Tuscaloosa to Huntsville under ideal traffic conditions is under two and a half hours.

What I expected…
I signed up to attend TBEX about a month before the conference and with the end of the semester closing in on me (my “day job” is a college professor), I really didn’t have a lot of time to plan and formulate expectations far in advance of the conference.  In talking with other travel bloggers, I expected there would be a lot of networking opportunities at the parties each night.

I knew that through speed networking sessions that I’d have the chance to get myself in front of people from CVBs and hopefully make a good impression that could lead to a fruitful collaboration in the future.

What I learned…
Lesson One: It is critical to have business cards.  People had told me about this in advance of the conference, but never having attended a travel blogger conference I really wasn’t prepared for how important it was to have business cards.  Naturally I handed out my business card to people working with DMOs, but I also swapped a number of cards with travel bloggers.

Front and back of my business card for the blog, which features me with Portland Sea Dogs mascot Slugger.

Lesson Two: Take notes.  I was prepared with a notepad to write down what I learned at the different breakout sessions I attended, and while it has been about two weeks since the conference and I still have not converted my hand-written notes into a usable Word document, I at least have important lessons recorded for me to reflect upon later.

Lesson Three: There are multiple ways to run a blog.  My blog has been sparse at times because I’ve generally focused on baseball visits, but I feel like each of my posts is well-written and thoughtful (i.e. quality over quantity).  During a breakout session, one speaker insisted that quantity and flooding the market was important in generating clicks and eyeballs.  During a keynote speech, another speaker said that it was more important to generate quality content instead of just a lot of content.  At a breakout session I did not attend because there was another session that was more interesting to me, a speaker spoke about running a successful travel blog while completing ignoring social media.  All of these comments seem to contradict themselves, so there’s no way of saying who is right or wrong.  Coming into the conference I hoped to get some really poignant advice about ways to professionalize my blog and best ways to grow my audience.  Instead I was left with many unanswered questions, but also the knowledge that there really is no tried-and-true right or wrong way to operate a blog.

Lesson Four: Say “yes” unless you just have to say “no.”  It may seem obvious that travel bloggers are extroverts because we are writing about visiting different places and interacting with a number of people.  However, that is far from the truth.  I identify as an introvert, but my day job requires I be outgoing when giving lectures.  My side gig as a learning travel blogger also requires me to be outgoing.  So I debated how best to approach the conference and opportunities that would be presented to go to after parties or just talk to people I knew nothing about moments ago.  I did my best to say “yes” when offered the opportunity, whether it was drinks out on the town following the Opening Night Party or to striking up a conversation with someone, but I also tried to strike a balance and say “no” when it came to heading to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for the 2nd Night Party so I could have dinner with my fiancée at Bandito Burrito or exploring downtown Huntsville and having a beer on Saturday when I did  not have any speed networking meetings setup.

Doing it again…
I’ve had almost two weeks to reflect on my experience at TBEX North America 2017, and I’ve been contemplating the biggest question: would I do it again?

The simple answer is “Yes.”  However, there are a lot of underlying issues to address before agreeing to attend a travel conference.  I feel like I made some good contacts with some CVBs that attended the conference, but wish I had come into the conference with a more organized plan about what I am covering with my blog.  I feel like I could have made more contacts if I had a specific plan about what I intended to add to my blog.

I wish there was a way to specifically meet bloggers who share similar interests.  I know that Blogger Bridge provides a platform specific to TBEX that allows attendees to setup speed networking appointments with the DMOs, and that it is also searchable to find other bloggers.  However, I felt like either the opportunities were lacking or I just didn’t know enough in advance to take advantage of opportunities to meet other bloggers who write about sports, the Southeast, or historical sites.

Another shortcoming as a newbie was the FAM trips that TBEX organized with local DMOs.  I saw them in advance of my trip, but did not know how to apply for them nor did I see information to help a newbie sign up.  I am not saying this to lambaste TBEX, but to voice my frustration that some resources are needed for newbies to fully benefit from attending the conference.

Overall, attending TBEX North America 2017 in Huntsville was a really good experience.  I learned a lot, and I would recommend it to other travel bloggers.

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