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Notes from the 2009 BlogHer Travel Session

Wanna know what happens when you get 1400ish people in one hotel using the same wireless network? Said wireless network gets achingly slow, often cutting out altogether. So, it was just a few minutes into the travel session at BlogHer 2009 when I gave up trying to update Twitter with all the stuff being discussed and started taking notes (so all those years taking minutes back in my admin assistant days are still paying off).

As an aside, I’m glad BlogHer included a travel session in the 2009 conference (no such session existed in 2008), but the full room was a testament to the fact that perhaps one session isn’t enough. The 2009 TBEX conference the following day, which was even more jam-packed (both with information and people), was even further proof that the world of travel conferences can only get bigger.

Personally, I’m most excited about TBEX 2010, because I think that while there are plenty of BlogHer attendees who may have an interest in travel blogging, it’s just not the ideal venue for travel blogging sessions. Squeezing travel blogging into a format designed primarily for mommy bloggers just doesn’t do travel blogging justice.

There, I said it.

Here, then, are my notes from the travel session at BlogHer 2009.

Oh, and for the record, the panelists at the travel session were:

Another thing – the session started off with a little more structure (i.e. here’s a topic, here are our thoughts on it), but then people started asking questions. So these notes may be a little disjointed, but hopefully the information is still interesting and/or useful.

How do you decide a focus for a travel blog?

  • Rosalind is a culture writer, so she specifically asks for culture-related points of interest from press trip organizers.
  • Pam finds her stories “accidentally.” She thinks the interesting stuff is what’s happening in the corner of your vision. She says she doesn’t do “homework” so much as stumble upon stories during her travels.

How do you keep a travel blog fresh when you’re not traveling?

  • Pam says that one trip can feed blog posts for months. In addition, travel close to home (day trip, weekend trip, even something shorter, an event going on in the next town) is great for travel blogging, too.
  • Rosalind says trying new things in her own city is good travel blog fodder, too (a new restaurant, esp if it’s a different type of cuisine, for instance).
  • Angel focuses on one city, so everything where she lives is good inspiration for the blog.

Is it okay to write negative reviews?

  • Pam’s mantra is “don’t diss the locals.” Hold onto those thoughts for later. Once you have a chance to process it, you might have a different perspective on it. You might not understand how things work in a different culture/place, and may find out that what you thought was negative was “normal” for that place (for example). Yes, it’s okay to be negative – if you have a specific negative experience, ate something you didn’t like, etc. – but get specific, stay away from vague descriptions of “the people in X are mean.”
  • Angel says if you’re going to be negative, be specific & constructive about it.

But what about dissing the suppliers? Is that okay? If so, when?

  • Rosalind says the rules for journalism & travelblogging are different. She once had a bad experience on a cruise (she says she’s not a cruiser, but her editor wanted her to take the trip). The editor then wanted her to talk to someone in the cruise industry to get the other side of the story. But on her blog, she felt more at liberty to talk about why she wouldn’t recommend it & what was wrong with it. She thinks the perspective makes all the difference – when she says something negative, it depends on how she says it. In that piece, she wasn’t saying all cruises are bad, just that these specific things made her cruise experience a bad one.
  • Nancy says that for Uptake she stayed at Circus Circus in Las Vegas recently and had a horrible experience. Her room was dubbed (by her daughter) the “suicide room.” She took the Circus Circus online survey to register her complaints, giving them a chance to reply and address what she thought was so bad – but no one contacted her. So she felt like she’d given them an oppotunity to respond before she wrote her negative review.
    nancy – for – stayed at circus circus; had a horrible experience. “suicide room!” took the CC online survey, but no one contacted her – she gave them a chance to reply. another way to deal with it – twitter!
  • Nancy says another way you can deal with a negative travel experience with some companies is to contact them on Twitter. Some companies are good with Twitter (Comcast, JetBlue), some aren’t (United Airlines).
  • Nancy says she’ll definitely be writing about her bad experience with United losing her luggage (on a direct flight from San Francisco to Chicago) and not getting it to her for a couple of days.
  • Nancy says that if we only write good things about the places we go/stay/see, that’s not authentic. We should be able to say we didn’t like something or that we had a bad experience. If you don’t write about something just because it’s negative, you aren’t giving a real review. She says the PR people don’t own her.

With negative reviews, do you ever worry about being sued?

  • Pam says there’s a difference between libel and not liking something. In her negative reviews, she specifies “this specific thing wasn’t for me,” or “my room was dirty.” She chooses her words carefully.
  • Pam says if she’s traveling as a standard paying customer, she has no problem expressing her opinon via her blog. If she’s working with a PR agency, she’ll contact them first to tell them what she thought was negative to give them a chance to explain or deal with it before she writes her review.

I had such a bad experience once that I didn’t even write about the trip at all. What proof do I have? Isn’t it their word against mine?

  • The panel agrees – your experience is your proof.
  • Nancy thinks people shouldn’t be afraid to write about their experiences, whether they’re positive or negative or somewhere in between. If you only write about the good things, you won’t have credibility.
  • A PR person in the audience said, “As someone who represents a brand site, I can tell you we want to hear about your experience if it’s negative, too. Bloggers are afraid of that, but we want to hear a negative piece if it’s fair and honest – that helps us improve. And for someone to sue you, they’d have to prove that it was both untrue and malicious. Finally, if a brand won’t work with you because you’re honest in your reviews, then you don’t want to work with them anyway.”
  • Pam says she and the TBEX Road Trip crew worked with a gear company for their road trip. Two people in the group are hard-core campers, and will know if a piece of gear is good or not – and they told the gear company that. They were thrilled. They want customer feed back that’s good and helpful. And that’s based on her conversation with them before the product testing even started.
  • Angel says that there’s good potential to influence important people with your reviews, too – like local politicians, restaurant owners, etc.

I was really moved by the stories in the community keynote last night, and it made me think about my blog. How do you increase the depth of travel writing to break through new barriers, to be more than just “I did here, I saw that,” to be about how it changed your life?

  • Rosalind says it takes time to develop your voice, but it’ll appear after you’ve been writing consistently. She thinks it helps to read often – good writers read a lot. She says to read lots of good narrative fiction, and the fact that you’re reading good writing will come through in your writing.
  • Nancy says she spends too much time reading travel blogs and doesn’t get her work done – she doesn’t even get on Twitter now until she’s filed her article… But she says Alltop Travel is a good place to find new blogs, get familiar with good travel writing, and be inspired.
  • Angel says that developing a narrative and more “in-depth” content comes with time and as you get to a different comfort level sharing things with your readers. Take the reader on a ride with you, and then they’ll get a full view of what you’re trying to talk about.
  • Pam says narrative is kind of her baby, travel narrative especially – and it takes a lot of time. The voice on her blog now isn’t the same voice she started the blog with. She says to develop your voice, you have to write. You just have to write. It sounds dismissive, but it’s true.

Do you disclose in your writing when you’ve gotten something comp’d/for free?

The panel all nodded vigorously in unison, so the question was elaborated upon: What’s the wording you use?

  • Rosalind says this is a very important issue. All her travel is comp’d, and she always says things like, “on my media trip,” or “on my press trip to…” in her articles. She doesn’t say the name of a company (either a tourism bureau or a PR firm), but she makes it clear that someone else paid for the trip. She doesn’t do property reviews, because she focuses on culture, so that’s not an issue – but she thinks property reviews can get “funny.”
  • Pam says that on her “about” page of her blog she makes it perfectly clear that some things come to her for free – and if it’s not otherwise clear on a particular blog post, she says it specifically. She’s really up front about it.
  • Nancy says that although Wendy Perrin (writing for Conde Nast Traveler) can’t accept comps (it’s against Conde Nast’s policy), she doesn’t get paid enough to pay for high-end hotels herself – so the property reviews Nancy does are comp’d. She always says so in her reviews, saying things like, “as a guest of” or “I was on a press trip to…” She does link to the tourism bureau’s website if they’ve helped organize the trip, and she lets them know that’s what she’s doing.

Do you take notes while you’re traveling?

  • Rosalind says she over-researches. She looks at lots of blogs, then guidebooks, etc., so she’s constantly taking notes – on the plane, during the trip, on the flight home.
  • Nancy writes down everything, including where she was and what room number she stayed in, because the next night she’s staying at a different hotel and would forget those details otherwise.
  • Angel says she doesn’t need to take as many notes because of the kind of place blog she’s writing – she’s at home, and can go double-check something if she needs to. For her, timeliness is more of the issue.
  • Pam says she doesn’t do any of this note-taking stuff. She writes narrative – experiential stuff. Sometimes she doesn’t know what the experience was until four days after the fact. She’ll forget where she was sometimes. Sometimes she’ll have notes, but she also takes lots of photos, which helps fill in instead of notes.

Because people have less money to travel these days, what are you finding resonates with your readers? What are they looking for?

  • Rosalind says that just because you’re reading a travel blog doesn’t mean you travel often. Lots of her readers are expats, for instance. Some people have bigger (non-travel) questions about destinations or specific issues going on in a certain place. And still others travel vicariously through her blog.
  • Pam says what she gets is usually very delayed and ends up in her inbox (rather than a blog comment). For instance, she got a question recently about what to see in Vietnam. It’s been 1.5 years since she was there. That’s more of the typical interaction she has with her readers. She also gets lots of questions about Hawaii, but not always when she’s there or just written about it. She does have a nice, loyal following.
  • Angel says her reader questions are more immediate. Her site has 23 writers with a wide range of perspectives, so it’s not just “here’s what’s going on in your neighborhood” – it’s also “I went to this event and here’s my review of it.”

I do lots of narrative (what I think of as “how to without lists”). A couple sites that typically offer a more how-to and nuts & bolts approach have asked me to write some narrative pieces for them. I’m interested in leveraging that into more paying gigs. How do you get to the next step there and get paid for writing narrative?

  • Nancy says that with her position at Uptake, she’s able to hire good writers who can do good reviews – if they’re already visiting a place, they can write a review about it and bring their perspective to the site.
  • Rosalind says it’s a good idea to start setting yourself up as an expert for where you live. Query your local press – newspaper, city’s website, etc. – even if they say no, you can make those connections so they’ll know you’re there and who you are. You’ll eventually get their attention and get some paid assignments.
  • Nancy says the reality is that because so much print media is folding, we’re now competing for writing assignments with people who had editorial positions at print publications, which can make it tougher to get assignments.
  • Rosalind says that journalism in general (travel or otherwise) is really competitive. It’s hard, but there will always be opportunities – you just have to make yourself really visible.
  • Pam says she’s going to be the contrarion on this issue and talk like a marketing person for a moment. She says she owns her brand. She’s discerning about who she agrees to work with. And she also puts herself out there with the idea that “you want to work with me” (where the “you” is marketers and potential publishers of your work). She approaches conversations with the attitude that “I’m the brand, I’m the expert, I’m the person you want to talk to. You want to put ads on my site. You want to reach my readers.”

I’m very new to travel blogging, and I come from a traditional journalism background. Do I need to worry about using a picture of my local host, or the person who took me on a wine tour? Is online media different than traditional media when it comes to getting permission to use a person’s photo?

  • Pam thinks people need to ask educated legal resources about that.
  • Rosalind thinks you should always get written permission from the people whose photographs you’re publishing.
  • Nancy thinks that even if you’re just tagging someone’s photo on Facebook, you want to ask. She says even if she takes a picture of people and she’s not going to be identifying them individually, she always asks.
  • Rosalind thinks the standards are different for online media than traditional media, but that you need to cover yourself.

Do you all do traditional media freelancing in addition to your online work? Do traditional media outlets think you’re tainted if you write a blog?

  • Rosalind says that she and Nancy are freelance writers – it’s what they do. Some outlets won’t accept sponsored trips, but before she even goes on a trip she already has assignments lined up. She asks editors in advance whether they’re interested (and whether they’re okay with sponsored trips), so she has assignments before she even goes on the trip. She doesn’t think traditional media will shy away from you if you’ve taken sponsored trips.
  • Nancy says some outlets have very clear policies about sponsored trips – with others it’s more like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy where an editor doesn’t want to know that it’s been sponsored. It depends on your relationship with the editor.

How do publicists find you for these sponsored trips? Or do you go after them?

  • Rosalind says that once you’ve gone on one trip, you’re on the list – and they all share the list. But you can also approach the tourism board directly.
  • Nancy says Twitter has become a good resource for her. She’s had a few CVBs (convention & visitor’s bureaus) reach out to her via Twitter, because they were then able to show what social media can do for tourism.
  • A PR person in the audience said, “I watch Twitter and find some people that way. I also look at Technorati authority, at traditional media outlets on Twitter to see who they re-tweet, and comments on blogs to see how engaged readers are.”

Going back to the review issue and disclosing when you’ve gotten free stuff – it’s one thing to notify readers if your trip is sponsored, but are you getting a genuine experience if a hotel or vendor knows who you are and what you’re doing?

  • Rosalind says she always has this issue. Yes, they’re bending over backwards to give you great service, which your readers may or may not get. To get a more “real” perspective, she usually escapes the organized groups whenever she can. She goes off on her own and have those genuine experiences, not telling people who she is or what she’s doing. She sometimes gets perspectives the CVB doesn’t necessarily want her to get, too.

Do you use video blogging on your sites?

  • Pam says they just did this on the TBEX Road Trip, but she’d never really done it before. She’d been holding off because she didn’t think she could do it well. But since they started doing it on the trip, she likes it. She thinks a Flip camera is the gateway drug to doing video.
  • Pam also thinks she does some weird stuff with video because she’s a photographer with an art background, not a video person. She’s not trying to do a standard story narrative with video, and thinks you need to tie your video stuff back to the narrative. If you’re going to tell the story, you need to tell the story.

Do you have any advice for video bloggers, like how to syndicate?

Pam and Rosalind both said they didn’t have advice on this one, as they were either too new at it or hadn’t done it at all.

  • Nancy says she’s a travel writer who does bad video, but she knows from most searches that more people want to look at video than ever before. She video interviewed an accordion player in Switzerland on a recent trip and as a result she’s #2 on YouTube at the moment for some accordion-related keyword.

Pam, can you tell us about this travel community you’re a part of?

  • Pam says it’s TBEX, or the Travel Blog Exchange, and it’s very informal – you’re in it now. There’s a TBEX event going on tomorrow, but you have to be pre-registered to go.
  • Nancy says anyone can join TBEX, including PR people, and it’s a great way for you to connect with PR people (and vice versa).