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Is travel blogging a closed circle?

I was invited to participate in an online travel panel recently, where I was expected to offer my opinions about trends in tourism, particularly as they relate to Mexico.  The other panelists represented various sectors of the travel industry, including travel agents, hotel developers, and and tour operators.

Unsurprisingly, the questions asked referenced narco-violence in Mexico and our general impressions of the country. Many of the respondents used adjectives like “dangerous,” “corrupt,” and “poverty-ridden” to describe Mexico. They were quick to offer recommendations about how Americans’ perceptions of Mexico could be improved: The government has to show that it’s ruthlessly rooting out corruption. That it has an iron-fisted, no-nonsense policy when it comes to drug cartels. There was no indication that the respondents knew much about what the Mexican government actually is doing (and what it has done) to address any of these issues.

Many of the participants acknowledged that they’d only ever been to Cancun or Los Cabos, both of which are coastal resort areas.

Reading their responses, I was genuinely curious about how they formed their impressions of a country that they’d admittedly seen very little of, and so I asked one of the participants exactly that. MTV and the [US] news, he answered.

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Perhaps I’m a little sensitive when it comes to Mexico-bashing. I lived there for two years and would live there still had our residency visas been renewed. I don’t deny Mexico has problems… just like any other country. But I was   –and remain–constantly fascinated by innovative government strategies that address issues as diverse as urban livability and environmental sustainability to abortion and same-sex marriages. But creative interventions and successes don’t get much airplay in American news.

That’s where bloggers–travel bloggers, especially–could come in handy. One of the most exciting things travel bloggers can offer people is an on-the-ground account of what life is like in places that those people may not be able or likely to visit. Travel blogging can contest stereotypes and entice a reader to reconsider the possibility of visiting a particular place, especially a place that the reader previously perceived as dangerous.

But how do these two groups connect? For people whose lives are ostensibly focused on travel, the participants on this panel seemed pretty disconnected from the travel blogosphere. I imagined the travel agents sitting in their offices, advising clients to skip Mexico City–too dangerous–in favor of Cancun or Los Cabos. Yet if they’d read Grantourismo, or Daniel Hernandez’s Intersections, or David Lida’s blog, or Jim Johnson’s blog, they’d likely have a much more nuanced perception of Mexico City, in particular, and Mexico in general.

And yet… as I think about the travel blogging community, it often seems like a closed circle. Travel bloggers are interacting heavily with one another, promoting each other’s posts on Twitter, StumbleUpon, and Digg, and liking each other on Facebook. They’re participating in get-togethers like TBEX and chatting with each other online during weekly events like #TNI ["Travelers' Night In" on Twitter]. They’re commenting on one another’s posts (often in the hopes that the other person will turn around and comment on their post).

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, so if you’re a travel blogger reading this, don’t get your hackles up. The close-knit community of travel bloggers is remarkable in many ways. But I also think it’s a bit of a closed circle… not an intentionally closed circle, but a closed circle nonetheless. If a travel blogger’s goal is–as so many bloggers say it is–to inspire people to travel for the first time, to help virgin travelers pop the travel cherry, and to give them the tools to do so, then why aren’t more of them reaching outside of the circle to draw those folks in?

I’m curious to know what you think. Do you agree that travel blogging is a (mostly) closed circle? How can travel bloggers reach new readers and engage with them as meaningfully as they do with one another? Will the closed circle eventually produce diminished returns for travel bloggers?

Interview with Trisha Miller of Travel Writers Exchange

I like talking with writers, editors, publishers, and other folks in the profession to learn how they got started, what projects they’re working on, what advice they have to offer, and what they’ve learned through their own work.

Below is a recent exchange I had with Trisha Miller of the website Travel Writers Exchange.

Julie:

I consider Travel Writers Exchange to be one of the best resources for travel writers, and the main reason is because you and your contributors are generous with information that other writers tend to keep to themselves. Why are you so generous and how would you sum up TWE’s goals in a sentence or two?

Trisha:

Although I’ve never been a teacher by trade, helping others through teaching is second-nature to me, and something I’m passionate about. It’s also really humbling to be a part of such a supportive community, and I’ve found that travel writers and bloggers are among the most supportive writers out there, so it hasn’t been hard to get others to contribute.  Sharing just seems to inspire others to share also.

Originally TWE’s goals were to help traditional print writers learn how to adapt to writing for an online audience, but it’s grown from that into something that is, I hope, helpful to any writer or blogger.

Julie:

When did you start TWE and what was your impetus?


Trisha:

It’s been around about two years.  When I decided to shift from travel related copywriting, which I’d been doing for nearly a decade, to writing for myself, I was immediately approached by other writers asking for help in learning how to set up their own websites and attract readers….so many in fact that the idea of establishing a community just seemed like an easier way to teach many all at once.

Julie:

Is serving as the editor in chief of TWE a full-time job for you? (And if so, does it pay the bills?)

Trisha:

It takes up a great deal of my time, but it’s really a labor of love.  It’s always been the goal for it to remain a community resource, although it does earn enough from advertising revenue to cover it’s own costs (hosting and such).  I’m very fortunate that I spent years building a large travel company which I sold back in 2000, giving me the ability to just focus on doing things I love to do, and TWE keeps me involved in the both the travel industry as well as both the tech and travel communities.

Julie:

What are some of your short and long-range goals for TWE?

Trisha:

Short range goals include continuing to grow the community in terms of both readership and quantity/quality of resources and information we can offer.

Longer range goals include attracting more Forum members so that writers can engage more directly with each other, and recruiting more contributors to help scout out and present opportunities that travel writers should be aware of.  There’s so much out there that finding and compiling it all is a bigger job than I can handle on my own.

Julie:

One of the messages of TWE is that writers should really use the Internet as a resource platform by creating a blog or website that serves as a professional portfolio. Two questions here: (1) What are the essential elements of such an online portfolio? and (2) Are there a few blogs that you’d point as being exceptional examples?

Trisha:

It depends on the goals of the writer.  If you want to be a freelance writer for hire (regardless of genre) then you should have a portfolio site that is separate from your travel blog.  I believe you need to target your site to your audience, and those are two vastly different audiences – one is looking to hire a writer and the other is looking for information about a place. It gets challenging to excel at either if you’re splitting the focus of one site between two audiences.

So for the freelancer-for-hire writer, the most essential component of a professional portfolio is exemplary writing.  Every word on a portfolio site must earn its way there, be free of typos or grammatical errors, and be productive to the goal of the site. Skip the fluff.   Editors and publishers are very busy people, and what they want to know is what qualifies you to write for them.  Give them a professional bio that includes only what is relevant – your education or background as it relates to writing, links to online clips, a few examples they can read, a list of offline places your work has been published (along with publication date and title), and if applicable, awards or acknowledgments for your writing.

However, if you want to be ONLY a travel writer, a travel blog can also perform as a portfolio, because an editor/publisher looking to work with a travel writer will naturally want to see their travel writing.

In that case, I still believe good writing skills are important, but that doesn’t mean a travel blog can’t be successful even if you’re not the best writer – I regularly read several travel blogs on which the writing is often filled with typos and grammar errors, but I ignore those because I enjoy the stories and the personality or attitude of the writer.  A travel blog with a large enough audience should be able to generate opportunities despite less-than-great writing.

The key here is to brand yourself and develop an audience.

As for examples, there are so many that I think are doing a really great job, but one in particular that I like is Health Conscious Travel, written by Melanie Haiken.  She’s done a great job at combining a well-written travel blog with a portfolio component that is appealing to both readers and editors.  Another great example is ThePlanetD, where Dave and Deb have done a great job with creating their brand (“Canada’s Adventure Couple”) that has led to some exciting opportunities for them.  The writing there is less professional but more personal, and they connect well with their audience.

Julie:

Talk to me about monetization. I’m all for writers making a living off their travel blog, but I find so many of the monetization strategies to be terribly annoying, often bordering on obnoxious. What are some smart strategies for monetization that don’t produce visual clutter and questionable ethics?

Trisha:

I totally agree that many of the blogs I see don’t really understand good monetization strategies, and often hear writers saying that monetizing their blogs violates their ethics.  But I believe that it can be done right, and not involve compromising one’s ethics, or annoying readers.

For me it boils down to two questions: 1) Is it something I would want to buy? and 2) Is it something I can be comfortable telling someone else about?   If the answer is yes to both, then I have no qualms about saying to others “hey I found this really great thing that I like, and that I think you’ll like too.”

Whether it’s a graphic ad or a link in your post, the key is finding the right combination of relevancy and quality, and being transparent about it.  If it’s a quality product that you believe in, then you’re not compromising your ethics by offering it to others, and if it’s something that  is relevant to your readers, then they won’t be annoyed by it.  And when you’re up front with them about the fact that if they use the link, you’ll earn a small amount on their purchase, most readers understand and respect that.

An example I often use is this: If I write about traveling with pets, and I know that the people who read my blog are interested in traveling with their pets, it makes sense that some of them might want to know if I found a new TSA-approved pet carrier that fits perfectly under an airline seat.   So if I write a blog post and say “I really like this product, and my cat liked it to, and here’s a good deal on the same one at Amazon”, I see that as providing a service to my readers.

Better still, if I have a reasonably good-sized audience of pet-loving travelers, it’s quite likely that I can negotiate an extra discount coupon through a particular distributor for that same product, and offer that extra discount to my readers.  So I earn money and they save money.  Again, it’s a service I’m providing to them, so at the end of the day, I can feel good about that.

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Follow Trisha on Twitter.

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