Sunday, June 17, 2012

The TBEX Conference Comes to Keystone

I am actually in Colorado to attend the TBEX conference. I’ve been a (rather inactive) member of the Travel Blogger’s Exchange for a while now and watched as last year’s conference came and went. It seemed like it was a good conference and a lot of fun. Should I go next time? Am I serious enough about my blogging to invest the time and money necessary to attend a conference? Do I want my blogging to be more than just a hobby? COULD it be more than a hobby?

Last winter I went to the conference website and realized how inexpensive the conference itself was. What the heck, it’s an excuse to visit Denver, a city I’ve long wanted to see, so I registered.

Now here I am.

The conference itself is at Keystone, Colorado, a ski resort outside Denver. We’ve arranged through the conference to take the Colorado Mountain Express to Keystone, so for me the conference begins in the van as we exchange information about our blogs or travel industry jobs. (Among my travel companions is Jenny McIver, whose blog Around the World in Thirty Days chronicles her annual trip around the world and provides a wealth of planning information to help anyone do the same, and Julie Gallager, whose blog Things You Should Do provides a wealth of things to do.) The time flies as we share tips and ideas while we travel through the mountains to Keystone.


Things officially get underway with an over-the-top Taste of Vail Resorts event at the top of the mountain. It features delicious food prepared by Keystone’s various restaurants (some of which are among the very best in the county), unbelievable desserts, and views of the setting sun.


This is followed the next night by a western-themed party at the stables, complete with a dinner, bull riding, music, and line dancing.
The ranch event is fun enough, but what I like best is the way the evening sunlight illuminates the old wagons and machinery scattered around a nearby hayfield. 
It’s more my style than all the programmed activities.

As for the working part of the conference, it was hard to decide which sessions to attend, but my choices end up providing valuable information at a level that suit my needs. Some sessions, like that of  The Vacation GalsJennifer  Miner speaking on “SEO for Beginners” or The Expeditioner’s Matt Stabile on “Legal Issues for Bloggers” provide solid practical information. Others, like CC Chapman’s keynote “Amazing Things Will Happen When Your Content Rules,” Rand Fishkin’s general session “SEO without Selling Your Soul,” and Travelllll’s John O’Nolan’s “Advanced Web Design: How to Build the Best Blog on Earth” were practical, but also incredibly inspirational. They left me fired up and excited to get to work on my writing, photography, and blogging. They also got me thinking more seriously about what a career that allows me to travel for extended periods might look like.

A Brief Conference Critique
The conference exceeded my expectations in many ways. I found many sessions that clearly addressed my questions and needs – some of which I didn’t know I had before I walked into the session! It helped me clarify what my options are for building a travel-related career and identified immediate steps I can take to improve both my blog and the likelihood of making a career change. It also confirmed that, while he is a great guy, I really DON’T want to be Nomadic Matt (or any of the other permanent nomads out there); I need a home base.

While the session tracks generally made sense, it might have been nice to have a better sense of what was aimed at novices versus those with a lot of experience. Session descriptions in general could have been better – that alone might have been enough to steer people into the sessions of most use for them. However, I learned useful things in every session I attended, so really can’t complain!

TBEX brands this as a conference for “new media” writers. I found that really appealing. As someone who once envisioned a career with a major newspaper and now finds most newspapers to be zombies that don’t realize they are already dead, I like the way “new media” captures the change, challenge, and opportunity out there right now. How we share news and information is changing fast and TBEX is trying to help people build on and shape the future. It’s exciting stuff.

Vail Resorts seemed to be a great conference host. (Keystone is one of a number of Vail Resort properties.) The level of service provided seemed pretty incredible. They also made my trailing spouse feel welcome, even giving him passes to attend all the big functions. (For its part, TBEX handled the issue of travel partners who were not attending the conference poorly.) If Vail Resorts carries this ethic throughout their corporate structure at all properties, they should have a brilliant future.  I have no idea how well that relationship worked for the conference organizers, but what I saw as an attendee (who has arranged conferences in the past) was impressive.

Keystone is a sprawling place with no real center, which could have been a problem for people like me who didn’t have a car and chose to stay at lodgings not part of the main group options. However, the resort ran its shuttle service throughout the conference on an on-call basis. It was fast enough and very convenient, with competent and personable drivers. I appreciated not needing a rental car, although there were times when the ability to spend a few hours touring the surrounding area would have been nice.

When it comes to little things, the fact that there were electrical outlets everywhere was great. The existence of a classroom set-up (tables) at the front of the room, with power, is something I will recommend at every function I’m involved in. It was great to know I could take notes on my laptop or go directly to a site on the web as long as I wanted. It seems so obvious, but most conferences don’t address those needs well.

Despite a heavy emphasis on making contacts, I didn’t make a lot of meaningful contacts. It was hard to figure out who (aside from speakers) had what sort of expertise or might be in a position where we could meaningfully support each other. The conference structure (including the speed date sessions) didn’t really help. I met a lot of interesting people, but that isn’t the same as making good contacts and I found the socializing required rather exhausting. This year everyone was a stranger, so meeting people took a lot of energy even for an extrovert. However, the people I met were generally interesting and nice, so I’m hoping it will be easier next time. . . and maybe by then TBEX will have a simpler way to locate and connect with others with similar interests and needs.

I was also surprised (and a little put-off) by how many attendees were really new to this “field” (less than a year) and how self-assured (condescending) some of them were. Maybe they really do have all the answers, but then why were they here?

There’s swag and then there is SCOTTEVEST
After years of attending engineering-related functions, I found the TBEX conference’s swag to be truly amazing. Best of all, Scott from SCOTTEVEST made his million pocket, yet reasonably flattering, vests available to conference participants. I’m still testing mine out (the little daypack I’ve used for years works really well for me in most settings), but I have been pretty pleased with it. . . pleased enough that I’ve been trolling the website looking at other things I might “need.”

Like Scott, many of the people selling products of various sorts had cool things I could have or do for free, along with concrete reasons why their product or service would be useful.

On the other hand, I wish the destinations participating would take a cue from the folks selling merchandise. A little more thought and effort would have gone a long ways for every destination exhibiting. At a conference with hundreds of people who write about travel as their passion or their career (or both), I would think that some meaningful incentives to get people to visit their destination would be worth the marketing dollars. They could run a contest to give someone an expense-paid trip or give away certificates for tours, lodging, etc. that might entice someone to visit that destination as part of their next trip. As it was, it didn’t seem like any of the destinations put any effort into this.

Are there travel bloggers who actually hate travel?
The other thing that surprised me was how many people who either work in the travel industry or write about it apparently don’t actually like to travel.

Keystone was a nice enough resort, in a lovely part of the country, at a gorgeous time of year, and the resort knocked itself out to accommodate us; yet there was plenty of whining about the location’s altitude, the dry air, the lack of dining options, and the distance from the airport. Really? This was too difficult a location for people who promote travel for a living?

TBEX organized several days of well-thought-out, inexpensive or FREE activities in Denver (including free passes to museums and private tours) for the days leading up to the conference. Taking advantage of these by spending a couple days in Denver before the conference (which is what I did) would have allowed plenty of time to gather material for posting while acclimating to the altitude. We asked at each of the places we visited and it appeared that very few people took advantage of the free passes to the places we visited (the Kirkland, the Denver Art Museum, and the Botanical Gardens). I don’t understand why more people didn’t take advantage of that. I would have thought that people who are interested in travel would have wanted to see and do as many things as they could while they were there.

At the conference itself, we saw very few people any distance from the main conference venues. Humorously, almost no one figured out you could cross the street and have a very nice, quick lunch at one of a couple cafes overlooking a pond instead of waiting in long lines for overpriced hot dogs in the courtyard at the conference center. Likewise, we only saw a handful of other people during our 1½ hour hike behind the conference center and don’t think most (any) of them were in Keystone for the conference.

Likewise, the trip out to Keystone takes under two hours from the airport (less from downtown Denver), is well-served by shuttles, and passes through gorgeous mountain scenery. While I’m not a big fan of the location of DIA, it’s not like anyone had to hike up the mountain with their gear in order to get to the conference.   

I realize not everyone is an adventure traveler, but I don’t understand how people who make (or want to make) their living in the travel industry could be so lazy and/or uninterested in traveling themselves. Why would anyone want their travel advice?

For me, travel is all about the magic of place and the increased understanding of yourself and the world that can happen when one opens themselves to a different reality. The speakers I heard all got that. I benefited from the knowledge of these wise, funny, and smart people – I hope their travel writing is what other people turn to when they are thinking about travel. These are the people I want for my friends and colleagues, not the ones who go somewhere else in hopes of experiencing the exact same things they experience at home.

If you want to know more
Because this was a “new media” conference, there were probably a million tweets about the conference as it was happening. There are also quite a number of blog posts, a random sampling of which are listed here to give you a sense of how others experienced the conference:
John O’Nolan of Travelllll (one of the speakers I really enjoyed) also has a fun video about the conference.



The second day of the conference my husband asked where next year’s conference would be. I think that’s a sign that he’ll support my decision to attend the next one. If I didn’t already have fall travel plans, I’d be at TBEX in Spain this fall! 

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