Here’s the truth: I attended only two sessions at TBEX this year: writer Mike Sowden’s storytelling talk and the live recording of Gary Arndt, Jen Leo, and Chris Christensen’s This Week in Travel featuring Spud Hilton, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle as the guest. I regret missing two talks, Lola Akinamade’s photography talk (Lola recently signed with National Geographic) and Erik Lindbergh’s keynote, but my regrets are pretty minimal, less so since catching up with Lola in the Toronto airport on Monday morning at daybreak.
During the conference, I helped teach a writing class and participated in panels. I spent a good deal of time outside of the convention center visiting with friends. Often, there was bourbon involved, enough so that it was thematic, not so much that there were ugly hangovers. The rest of the time I spent hiding out in my hotel room wearing my hotel bathrobe drinking hotel coffee. I attended the speaker reception, briefly, arriving late, and the opening night party, which I left early. I hear I missed the best possible dessert offering, but I’m okay with that.
Because of my avoidance strategy, it’s hard for me to answer the annual “How was TBEX?” question with any kind of authority. I can tell you that I enjoyed my sessions, but that I need to learn to make a refined, stand alone presentation. I learned interesting things from my co-presenters. I did not have meetings, I did not work the room, I did not try to wring opportunities out of the event. I probably overlooked some potentially great connections, but I exist in a word of mouth economy and I naively believe that this stuff will work itself out.
The distilled version of my time at TBEX 13 looks like this: I went to do some work for the weekend, stayed in a nice hotel, hung out with some friends. How was TBEX? I honestly don’t know. It was too big for me to want to hang out, too noisy, and too focused on marketing and statistics for a lit snob like me, but I liked the work I did there, even while I’m aware of its flaws, and I enjoyed the people I worked with.
During the course of the weekend, several people asked me about another conference I’m involved with, Book Passage. I found myself fawning effusively about it; Don George (the conference is his baby) should put me on commission. But it’s not a fair comparison. TBEX is a large commercial and marketing focused event, over 1300 bloggers attend and the sponsorship dollars… I can’t imagine. It’s also relatively cheap for attendees; industry eats the cost of keeping ticket prices down. Book Passage is expensive and tiny — I think there were 80 students last year — and focuses on writing, the craft of writing, at its heart. Sponsors exist but they are not front and center like they are at TBEX. My workshop at Book Passage last year lasted three days with two instructors for ten students. At TBEX, we had three instructors for three hours with 45 students.
They are very different events. It boils down to the message on the shop floor. At TBEX, it’s “Bloggers are business.” At Book Passage it’s “Writers (and photographers) can make beautiful things, here’s how.” TBEX is a business conference that acknowledges the role “content” plays in business, Book Passage is a writer’s conference that acknowledges that writers need to eat too. TBEX increasingly has a lifestyle back-chatter component. “You can quit your job and live the life you’ve always dreamed of! Yay you!” — as though living life churning out marketing copy from a comped hotel is somehow superior to staying home and having a job. Book Passage takes (I think) a more circumspect back channel tone: “Since you’ve decided you have to be a travel writer, you ought to be the best at it you can. Don’t quit your day job, but love your writing, okay?”
I have left TBEX feeling frustrated, uninspired, and diminished, like I’m stupid for not focusing on the money making opportunities of blogging. I don’t sell out, I don’t even sell, and for that, I’m a fool. I’ve left thinking I should quit what I’m doing or seriously amend my tactics, because what kind of success isn’t backed up by endless “free” travel and lucrative sponsored “content” deals? That previous feeling of despair is why I stayed away from so much this year. The result is that my experience has been heavily filtered to make TBEX appear like a place where good “content” matters, like it’s okay to “just” write.
I remain ambivalent; I want to be excited by the program, I want to feel like there are opportunities for me to learn things that are important to craft focused writers. Given that I stayed away from so much this year, I’m obviously not in that place. I’m currently trying to decide what would make me feel that way and when I do, I’ll pass it along to the TBEX organizers. As a speaker, my travel expenses and accommodation at TBEX were covered, but I did not earn any money, in fact, the weekend cost me money. I’m not so foolish as to think that the pay off for these things should come overnight, but I do want to be a booster. I leave Book Passage totally spent and with less money in my wallet, but also, with the absolute certainty that you, person who wants to write well about travel, should go. I would like to say the same about TBEX and failing that, I would like to be able to describe what would make me feel that way at TBEX in 2014. In fairness, I think TBEX would like to know as well, and I’ll be sending my feedback along once I make sense of my thoughts.
You should send your ideas in too, that’s something I can say with absolute certainty.