Why I’m Heading to My First TBEX

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” ~ Woody Allen

 

After five weeks at home, I’m getting on plane again and I can’t tell you how excited I am to get out of town.

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.

~ Lily

P.S. If you’re a TBEX newbie too, feel free to find me and say hi!

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma has contributed writing and photography to CNN Travel, New York Magazine, AFAR, American Way, Travel Channel, BBC Travel, and others. She’s the currrent author of MOON BELIZE for Moon Travel Guides and is completing a second title, MOON BELIZE CAYES. Lily is also AFAR's Jamaica Expert, and author of the AFAR Jamaica Country Guide. A serial expat, she's lived and studied on three continents, including Africa–from her native Ethiopia to Côte d'Ivoire–and Europe, and is fluent in four languages. A former attorney who ditched the office for the road in 2009, she favors all things culture, adventure and storytelling, and escapes Washington DC’s winters every year.

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11 Comments

  1. Katherine 11 June, 2012 at 8:05 PM #

    Hi Lily – try again with changing the name on facebook – mine wouldn’t let me as had over 100 likes and then I went back into one day and it did! Not sure why but I could change the name all of a sudden!

  2. Ayngelina 11 June, 2012 at 8:09 PM #

    I’m not going this year but I can guarantee you will have a lot of fun. The first night is intimidating as it will seem like everyone knows each other but just go up and introduce yourself to everyone and you’ll find that uncomfortable beginning slips right away.

  3. Lebawit Lily Girma 11 June, 2012 at 8:13 PM #

    Hi Katherine, wow! You got lucky. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t. I’ll drop them a note maybe and keep trying, thanks!

    Thanks, Ayngelina for the heads up – I guess it’s just one of those things everyone has to go through at first. :-)

  4. Hilarye 11 June, 2012 at 11:18 PM #

    I love love love this post. It sums up how I’ve been feeling about my first #tbex to a T! I’ve been to blogworld before but not to a travel blogger conference. I too feel like the big bloggers get all the attention and kindof wondered whats the point! I also am worried about it being cliquish. But these things do tend to be fun! Loved reading your background. My husband will be there with me and he is our photojournalist so we all have to meet!

  5. Lebawit Lily Girma 11 June, 2012 at 11:46 PM #

    Hi Hilarye! Thanks for sharing, I think I’d feel less anxious if I had a hubby coming along, ha! I’d love o meet up with you guys, let’s stay in touch via Twitter? Looking forward to it!

  6. Terri 11 June, 2012 at 11:57 PM #

    Hey there, LLG!
    I totally feel exactly the way you have about TBEX, especially the feelings of cliquish-ness that I feel like I often observed a lot lately. A few bloggers I’ve spoken to have confirmed that, but perhaps things have changed as the conference has grown? I’m really looking forward to hearing about what you think. Good luck with your book. I too am a recovering attorney who’s not in my 20′s, so it’s nice to see I’m not alone. Have a great time at the conference!

  7. Lebawit Lily Girma 12 June, 2012 at 7:26 AM #

    Hi Terri, always great to meet a fellow recovering attorney! I’ll have to visit your blog. Yes, I heard similar comments but I decided that as in all things – including travel – I’m going to find out for myself and not listen to the noise.

    I’m very excited about going and it will no doubt be a great learning experience. I’m also looking forward to meeting a few bloggers I’ve known virtually for a while. I’ll be sure to report back and let you know. Thanks, Terri!

  8. Britany 12 June, 2012 at 11:21 AM #

    Hi Lilly! I’m another newbie, attending my very first tbex and I’ve had some of the same concerns as you, but I think we will have a great time! I’m going with a friend so its a little less intimidating, but we’d love to meet up! tweet us @britseeingstars and @abbymarissa and us newbies can take tbex by storm! :)

  9. Leah Travels 12 June, 2012 at 8:13 PM #

    Hey there, Lily. Thanks for finding my blog and the Facebook comment. Please search me out at TBEX. There’s a whole bunch of people that will be new there, so you won’t be alone. I’d be happy to introduce you to the people I know.

  10. Lebawit Lily Girma 12 June, 2012 at 8:44 PM #

    Hey Leah, thanks for finding me as well. Katherine told me you were headed to TBEX. I’d love to meet and I’m also rooming with a fellow blogger friend who is also a newbie. Should be fun. See you at TBEX (if I can recognize you!)

  11. Lebawit Lily Girma 13 June, 2012 at 10:21 AM #

    Hi Britany!! So sorry, I somehow missed your comment! Would love to meet and will find you on Twitter! See you soon.

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