“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” ~ Woody Allen
I’m headed to Colorado on Friday for the annual Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) Conference.
It’s my first time attending and it’s thinking about the concept of “showing up to succeed” that convinced me to shoo away the doubts and just go.
When I first started blogging in December 2008, I had no strategy, no plans to make income from my site or seek sponsorship. I didn’t anticipate the growth of the travel blogging industry. I just wanted an outlet to share experiences from my first long term trip to Jamaica, after leaving a job I held for seven years. I was a traveler long before becoming an attorney, and I wanted a way to go back to that.
I posted for the sheer joy of showing others how amazing travel and culture are – from food to music – and photography was my medium. I had a small group of followers – part Jamaica lovers, part travelers and folks who admired my courage of stepping off the grid. And family and friends, of course. But a bigger audience than I expected.
It didn’t take long for me to realize, while in Jamaica, that blogging is a full time gig. I knew early on I couldn’t do both writing and photography at once. I decided to focus on learning professional photography. I shared my images weekly and blogged when I had extra time.
Within eight months of travel and over the next two years, my travel images were published in several outlets and I had landed a major Tourism Board photography assignment. That’s when I started thinking about revamping my blog, increasing my Facebook presence and turning my site into a portfolio. Signing up for a MatadorU travel photography course kept me focused on this new blog direction I was taking. The old Facebook Page name “Lily Lily Images” morphed virtually into Sun and Stilettos (too bad Facebook won’t let me change the old name because I already had over 100 Likes).
A year after revamping my travel and photo blog, I was selected for the Road Warrior Program in Belize. I had a bigger >> following, even if not in the top 100 travel blogs (or other numbers-only ranked sites). They were loyal readers. They kept me going. Clearly there was something to what I was offering.
It’s now June 2012, and almost one year to the date that I left for Belize, I’ve come a long way. I’ve learned a ton about travel blogging without selling my soul and I have much respect for the powerful and influential tool that it is (we tracked my numbers while I was blogging for the Tourism Board) and for the dedication it takes to maintain a well-read blog. It’s many, many hours and late nights, and with photography even more so (ask me how many days off I had in Belize in three months!).
But now, the time has come for me to figure out how to take Sunshine and Stilettos, as well as my photography work, to the next level and what direction to take. To have a well-defined strategy and to work with sponsors on my own vision. These are exciting times for us bloggers and all those in travel media.
And so, fresh from re-entry after three winter months abroad and as a relatively-new blogger, I toyed with the idea of going TBEX. To go or not to go?
I’ll be honest, I hesitated for a good while – for three reasons.
First, I wondered about the “label”. I’m not the “traditional” travel blogger with tons of guides and hotel reviews on my site. I haven’t gone on a Round-The-World trip. I’m not 20-something. I have a blog with photography as a major component. My posts are varied – from reflective essays to travel coverage and tips (like the one that was popular last week) and occasionaly, advice on photography. I’ve built content that attracts female readers as well as represents me in an authentic way – a thirty-something former attorney turned writer and photographer who celebrates and showcases diversity. Three years into it, I consider myself more of a travel photojournalist – with a blog.
The second factor that made me hesitate in attending TBEX is noticing in the past three months that many of us qualified (and yes, often African or African American) bloggers are facing an uphill battle in competing with the “big” blogs for press (or blog) trips and sponsorship offers. While I understand that someone with 100,000 readers a month will get noticed faster every time and the importance of statistics, I hoped that travel was more than just about the numbers. What about passion and connection with a place for more than a week (and yes arresting photography)?
In addition, I heard that it could get “cliquish” in the travel blogging world and that the possibility of feeling “left out” at conferences is real as most already know each other or attract the most sponsors. It goes on, and it seems some are happy, others are disgruntled.
What do I think about all that? In any field in which people have similar interests and compete in the same industry, it’s inevitable: there will be comparison, envy, duplication, ruthless behavior from a few, and yes, “cliques” (have I left anything out?)
I have felt only a twinge of this virtually, but it doesn’t really matter. What I believe is this: what you want shouldn’t be exactly what everyone else wants, even in travel. The focus should not be solely on what others are doing – other than to learn and be inspired – but on what is unique about you that the travel world needs. This also means doing things your way – yes, even in terms of blog design and content. You don’t have to mirror everyone else’s. We share a passion for travel but we each have something unique to offer. If anything, thinking about whether or not to attend TBEX has pushed me to start becoming clear on my vision and brainstorm on how to go about achieving it.
The third reason I almost used to skip TBEX, is that I’m putting together my first photography book on Jamaica (post coming soon). I’m self-publishing and partnering up with sponsors for Jamaica giveaways leading up to publication. My goal is to have it ready a few weeks prior to Jamaica’s 50th Anniversary of independence in August. And well, it’s a beast of a project. But it’s a step in the right direction, something I’ve wanted to do for a while now.
This week as I continue to reflect on my work, I’ve had more signs that confirm why I do what I do, and why I want to learn from the best on how to do it better. A reader told me on the phone last night that she found my blog comforting: “You bring me pieces of culture from wherever I am. I can be in a corner of the US buried in work and I log on and feel your vibrant photos and stories.” Another emailed me over the weekend saying “Don’t forget, you can make a difference by just doing what you are doing.”
How can I not continue to push and grow (besides the fact that I’m dying to anyway)?
To go places in life and to grow, you have to keep showing up. No excuses. You have to keep learning from the best and keep connecting with folks because we are all one community. It can be done, all without losing sight of who you are and what you have to offer the travel world.
And so, this newbie is showing up at TBEX this weekend, even when it means digging up my near non-existent winter wardrobe for chilly Colorado.
P.S. If you’re a TBEX newbie too, feel free to find me and say hi!