A few thoughts on TBEX Toronto

I went to the TBEX (Travel Blogger Exchange) new media (travel blogging and more) conference for the first time last year when it was in Keystone, Colorado. That was a fabulous conference and I’ve been eagerly anticipating this year’s event ever since.

Reflections on the conference

Maybe because last year’s conference was such a great experience, I have mixed feelings about this year’s event.

The most exciti545ee-tbex-toronto-badge-join-me-250pxng thing for me at this year’s TBEX was very personal. When Dave and Deb of The Planet D talked about how long they’ve been blogging, I realized for the first time that I’m NOT a newbie who maybe doesn’t belong here, but an experienced blogger who’s been doing this a lot longer than most. While I’ve only recently become interested in how my blog could become a source of income, I’ve been working to build an audience and improve my storytelling, imagery, design, functionality, and overall content for a long time now. What drew me to TBEX in the first place was the desire to learn more about the tools and techniques available to help me improve and build on what I was already doing. As usual, I have big ambitions and little patience with my own accomplishments, but I’m in a good place. I should be proud of what I have done while getting down to work on the next step.

As for the conference itself, while I still feel like an outsider, this year I felt comfortable there – I know there is a place for me here even if I haven’t quite found it yet. That increased comfort level was due in part to the fact that this is my second conference. But this year’s conference was different too. This time it truly felt like an event for adults who are serious about who they are and what they do. I was never a party girl even when I was young, so I found last year’s fascination with drinking and partying disconcerting – as if the underlying theme was that none of the professional stuff mattered and that the key to being a travel blogger was spending your nights at parties and making a point of being too hung-over to get up and do something the next day. I was still older than most participants at this year’s conference, but I never felt like I had wandered into a frat party by mistake the way I often did last year. I know that’s not a change everyone is pleased with and that there is an audience for that, but for me the increased professionalism made the conference far more comfortable.

It was harder to make contacts this year than last year, but the contacts I did make were good ones and likely lead to some lasting relationships. Several people generously gave me solid, implementable advice. Among them, Kerwin McKenzie not only gave me the encouragement I needed to start the (long-dreaded and thus long-avoided) process of rebranding and moving my blog to another host and platform, but actually provided instructions for doing it. (And now I’ve begun the process.)

Finally, Toronto is a great city and I enjoyed my time there as a tourist as much or more than the conference itself. I was way overdue for a visit.

Pre-TBEX events

Photo walk

TMay-31-216-DSC_0194-garden-car-in-Kensington-Market-Torontohe Photo Walk was a great idea. I liked the leader (David Goorevitch) and the chance to see some places I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own. On the other hand, the group was too big and the tour too unfocused. The photo tours should be focused around something specific – either a particular level (beginner, intermediate, etc.) or skill (street photography, journalism, art photography, etc.) or a theme (art and architecture, events, food, etc.). Still, I thought David did a good job of giving us a “Best of Toronto’s Variety Tour” with a lot of good photo tips.

Tours

The tou3d99d-tbexmay31dsc_0277ago-artgalleryofontariointorontor options for the conference were great – the only downside was trying to decide between all the tempting options on offer.

We ended up choosing the “Art a la Canadiana” tour, which took us to a variety of Toronto’s biggest and best-known museums. While we surprised that the focus wasn’t on Canadian art itself, we enjoyed our tour. (I especially enjoyed the insider tour of the new addition at the Art Gallery of Toronto, where museum staff provided all sorts of interesting information.) Oddly enough, there were only a couple other people signed up for this tour and there really weren’t any similar tours. Apparently there isn’t much interest in art among travel bloggers!

Attraction pass

I loved the free attractions pass and made good use of it in the days around the conference.

Media Trips

I didn’t try to get accepted on any of the media trips, but the offerings looked absolutely wonderful. I wanted to go on all of them! It’s something I now know to keep in mind for future conferences.

Writing workshop and media tours

The writing workshop and pre-event parties were both big bummers, with attendance so limited that is was impossible to register if you weren’t able to do so the moment they were announced. That left a sour taste that has persisted.

TBEX Opening party

The opening party was one of the highlights of the conference in Keystone, with amazing food and drinks served on a mountaintop. It was a zoo, but still great for mixing and mingling.

TBEX-May-31-DSC_0333-cheese-and-maple-syrup-treats-at-TBEX-in-TorontoPerhaps that experience set too high of a bar. The opening party for TBEX Toronto was held at the spectacular looking Roy Thompson Hall. Despite (or maybe because of) its interesting architecture, it was a terrible space for a social event. The space was completely linear (despite the fact that facility is round) with no way to loop through the space. To make matters worse, it was too narrow and too small for the group, making it impossible to circulate and connect with people. (And, since there were virtually no tables, there was no logical space to gather either.) Not that you could have a conversation anyway, as the music was at full-blast level – far more suitable for a nightclub than a networking event.

I didn’t even sample most of the foods (it was too hard to get to them and the lines were too long), but I did make the effort to try the maple syrup wrapped cheddar cheese Sasseh by Ninutik. That was so amazing I went back a couple of times.

As you may have guessed, the whole mess made me really crabby, so I left early and spent the bulk of the evening photographing the city instead.

TBEX party on Center Island

Toronto-June-1-DSC_0381-Centre-Island-arrival-Toronto-CanadaAs in Denver the year before, the TBEX evening party on Center Island was well thought-out and a lot of fun even with a bit of rain to complicate things. It was a nice event for networking, but also fun, with a wide enough variety of things to do to keep everyone busy. And, of course, the opportunity to photograph the Toronto skyline with Trey Ratcliff was a treat.

 

TBEX conference sessions

As the opening speaker, Trey Ratcliff was delightful, if maybe a bit all over the place. It was a treat to see his work on a large screen and I found him to be inspirational (but then, I’ve always had a weakness for folks who not only follow their own vision, but also advocate for it and share their expertise with others) and I appreciated his generosity in making his landscape tutorial available to attendees. It was particularly apt for me, as HDR photography is something I’ve been interested in learning more about.

I also enjoyed the presentation by Erik Lindbergh. His talk was personal and inspirational, the story of an artist who spent years avoiding a complicated family history and then later came to find his own niche in that history and a platform to move flight technology forward. It doesn’t have a lot to do with travel blogging, but it was interesting.

As for the sessions themselves, despite having more information available this year through the online program, I didn’t do that well at choosing my sessions. Last year was easy – everything was new so it was easy to learn a lot from anyone and everyone. This year I tried to focus on specific areas, but I would have been better off figuring out who the best speakers were and just going to their sessions, regardless of the topic. (If I could get in the room, since many of the sessions by the most popular speakers were completely packed.) Many of the sessions I picked didn’t match my expectations very well or were presented at a level far above or below what I needed.

Despite being a little disappointed in the sessions over all, I learned a lot. It was still worth the cost of the conference.

Suggestions for TBEX conference planners

Free access to local attractions is awesome

There are a few things I would have done in Toronto no matter what they cost, but there are others that I would not have done were it not for the free access provided by Tourism Toronto. Among those that would not have made the list were I paying on my own: Casa Loma and the harbor cruise. I was skeptical of the value of these attractions, but both turned out to be really enjoyable and worth the cost of admission. (Someday I’ll even get posts on the blog!)

I don’t take a lot of comps and have mixed feelings about doing so. However, the attractions pass – with its wide variety of options – did encourage me to get to at least a few places I would not have visited otherwise. Had I had more time, I would have gotten to a few more. For the host city this seems like a low-cost way to encourage visits to places guest bloggers might not get to otherwise and spread the word about their experiences.

I’d love to know if many bloggers really took advantage of this and whether the host community found it to be useful. Do they feel it spurred additional visits? Did it bring visitors to more places than otherwise? Does it have a noticeable continuing effect?

Offer more professional development opportunities

The opportunity to spend more time working in-depth with an expert is fabulous. Provide more of these before the conference. These could cover a broad range of topics and skills. Even if there was a small additional charge for these, it would be worth it.

Give everyone a fair chance

Unless you were in a position to break away from whatever you were doing at a precise time in order to register, it was impossible to register for many of the pre-conference events and workshops. There has to be a better way to do this.

It can be fun without being loud

Some of us would prefer opportunities to actually talk to people (and hear what they are saying to us) at social events to incessant loud music. The Toronto Island event was ideal for this; the opening event at Roy Thompson Hall (as explained above) was a failure.

Thanks for the plug-ins, but more tables (and bigger rooms) please

It’s wonderful that TBEX provides tables with plenty of places to plug in during sessions, but it would be nice to have a larger share of the room set up in tables. In general, larger rooms are needed, as most sessions seemed to fill in pretty well. This is probably due to the amount of late registrations for the conference. Probably because of the nature of our business (lots of travel) TBEX seems to have a high number of later registrations, which would make planning for room sizes a nightmare.

The easiest way to address this would be to require an indication of which sessions participants plan to attend at registration . . . except you don’t have that info months in advance. What about using the registration system to send everyone a follow-up confirmation a month before the conference that included a return form or survey that required participants to indicate which sessions they are most likely to attend? That would at least allow planners to make room shifts to better match attendance even if it doesn’t match the printed program.

And working Wifi too

I never did get the web connection to work at the conference, which was really frustrating and greatly reduced the number of posts I sent from the conference itself. Apparently I wasn’t the only one having this problem. TBEX needs to make sure the connection they set up is going to be easily compatible with a broad range of computers. . . I have a new computer that I’ve had no trouble using to connect to the net in Africa and Europe, so was surprised to have a problem in Toronto.

Keep the online information up to date

Is there going to be an evening event on Sunday night or not? Put it on online. Pulled or replaced a speaker? Put it on online. Tweet it too, but put it on TBEX conference page and online program.

Organize sessions by meaningful tracks

I found the tracks used to organize sessions this year unclear and not very helpful.

One option would be to organize more by audience: New Bloggers (which could cover content, how-to examples, SEO basics, business basics, goals, etc.); Travel Industry Professionals (tourism companies, hotels, etc., which might cover how to work with bloggers, organizing media trips, etc.); Business Beyond Blogging (broader publishing activities); Building Your Blog (for those with established blogs who want more advanced SEO information, contest info, marketing, business planning, etc.); and a general strengthening your skills (improving your writing, photography, twitter, newsletters, etc.) track.

Another would be to go by skill development: Business development (business planning, publishing, pitching, other revenue streams, legal issues, press trips, working with bloggers, etc. – maybe have business development for bloggers and a separate track for industry professionals); content (editorial planning; writing; photography/video/pod casts); social media (twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.); Marketing & SEO; and so on.

The idea is to develop tracks where attendees can more easily find sessions that meet their needs AND reduce the number of times when either all of the sessions seem equally valuable or none of them seem worthwhile.

Offer guest registration for conference events

TBEX should keep in mind that some of us have spouses or partners and that some of them may not have any interest in the conference itself. Most conferences offer guest rates or separate event tickets for partners that aren’t attending sessions and TBEX needs to do the same.

Last year Keystone Resorts graciously gave my spouse event tickets even though he wasn’t registered (contrary to TBEX policy, but a very good decision from a Keystone Resorts marketing perspective). Because he could join me, I participated in both evening events (I would have skipped the ranch party) and stayed much longer than I would have on my own. This year another early registrant decided weeks before the conference that she couldn’t use her ticket and sold it to me for my spouse. That was lucky for me, as we wouldn’t have paid full price just for him to attend the evening events and a couple of sessions he might find interesting, and I would have been much less likely to participate as fully had he not been able to join me.

Registering a spouse at the early registration rate isn’t too unreasonable an expectation, but that or another lower-cost option needs to be available throughout the registration period. Not everyone can/should have to decide months in advance whether their non-blogging spouse will be joining them at the conference. Those of us with spouses that love to travel are going to bring them along and, if they don’t have affordable access to the special events, we will be much less likely to participate in those. Several people I knew didn’t attend evening events, in part because their spouse couldn’t join them. Some of those people are doing really interesting things and not having them participate is a loss for the rest of us.

Other perspectives on TBEX

TBEX has a whole page of links to blog posts with stories from and feedback about the conference. A sampling of perspectives I found particularly interesting include:

As for me, I’ll probably skip next year’s conference and focus instead on implementing the things I’ve learned.

I was at TBEX in Toronto

All Toronto posts

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