Have you ever been to a party where you knew no one? Okay, maybe you know a few people through Instagram and Facebook, but essentially you’re going on a blind date. If you’re an introvert like me, it’s scary, intimidating, and exciting all at the same time. Walking around a party with a wine glass in one hand while trying to make eye contact with the first solo person you see. Finally, you spot her near the food table. You anxiously walk up to her and say “hi.” She greets you warmly and says “hi” back. You just made your first friend at the party. From then on you feel more comfortable with talking to complete strangers who will later become good friends and potential travel buddies. All it takes is a simple “hello” and smile to break the ice.
My First Travel Blogger Conference
I recently attended my first travel bloggers conference in Boston sponsored by Wanderful (formally Go Girl Travel Network) called Women in Travel Summit (WITS). I’m not sure exactly how I first heard about WITS, but it was being held in Boston, a mere 2 hour bus ride from Portland, and on a weekend. I decided to sign up for the conference and see if I could learn a thing or two about blogging. And learn “a thing or two” I did! WITS 2015 officially kicked off Friday night with an opening party at WeWork South Station at 7:00pm. The part scene I described above is exactly how I felt going into the conference. I personally knew no one else going to this conference, but I did know of a few bloggers going because I read their blogs regularly. I was intimidated walking into the party and also the conference in general because I wasn’t sure what to expect. Is it going to be full of big name bloggers? Are the women a bunch of young 20-somethings? Would they respect my little blog? I had numerous thoughts floating in my anxious head on the bus ride down from Portland.
I arrived late to the party as my bus arrived at South Station around 7pm and I had to check into the HI Boston Hostel before walking the 10 minutes to the WeWork South Station building. When I arrived to the party I was immediately surprised by the amount of women of various ages, nationalities, and sizes at the party. The noise levels were crazy high indicating the fun and excitement of my fellow conference attendees. I dropped my coat off and began my sweep around the room to get my bearings. And then I did what every introvert hates, I put myself out there and started introducing myself to other women. The first woman I introduced myself to was Jackie from The Budget-Minded Traveler. I have been reading her blog for a while and she currently lives in one of my favorite places in the world… Bozeman, Montana. What was the odds of that! Afterwards I met a bunch of bloggers, such as Becky from The Girl and the Globe, Melissa from Suitcase and Heels, Brianna from the Casual Travelist, and Melody from Wherever I May Roam. All amazing and unique women with the same love of travel and exploration as me.
After a late night of mingling and tasting delicious wine from the Finger Lakes region (side note: I really don’t like American wine, but I will admit, this wine was pretty good), the conference opened at 8am with a speech from Dina Yuen of AsianFusionGirl. Dina has an interesting story. She was raised by a civil engineering father and a classical pianist mother and split her childhood between Southeast Asia and San Francisco. Growing up she was pressured by her mother to constantly be the best, which I can relate to a lot with my father growing up. Dina went to the University of Michigan as a double major in industrial engineering and piano, but later dropped the music part. During college she became a musician and later earned a record deal and produced a hit song in Brazil. The song was later illegally copied by another artist. Dina and her label sued and she won a large lump sum of money. With all her new money she started to travel around the world and met her fiancé who turned out to be in the Italian mafia. Dina let him have control of her money and when he was finally locked up, she lost everything. Dina was devastated and left for India. During the days she cooked for people living in the slums in Mumbai and at night she lived it up at 5 star hotels. It was during her time working in developing countries that she found herself and her purpose in life. Since that moment, she has created a world-famous hotel, restaurant, and product review website, a web design business, and several cookbooks. Her story was interesting and easily could have been a Lifetime movie. While I respect Dina and find her a powerful career woman who I inspire to be, I thought her talk was slightly lacking. Her speech was very monotone and lacked personality for me. I think Dina is just naturally more reserved and it showed in her speech. Nonetheless, I enjoyed her story and was excited to be introduced to her website.
Get Shit Done and Still Go to Yoga: Holistic Productivity for Entrepreneurs and Independent Creatives – Amy Segreti of Live All of You
I was a few minutes late to the first presentation of the day as I was chatting and networking with a few exhibitors and snacking on yogurt and fruit. Amy is a serial entrepreneur with several business ranging from being the editor-in-chief of her own online magazine, Twine, and personal coaching individuals with a holistic approach. Her presentation was centered around “idea storming” our perfect day. She walked us through a few exercise featuring her Holistic Day Design Packet, which you can purchase on her website. A few of the sheets are free on her site. She asked us to pick three words that we wanted to feel at the end of the day and then we worked through identifying the most important feelings and goals we want to accomplish in a single day. By the end of the exercise, we had mapped out what our “perfect day” was in order to go to bed feeling accomplished. I heard a lot of positive comments about the presentation and I was able to chat a little with Amy on Sunday about her presentation. I’ll be honest, it was a great presentation, but for me personally it wasn’t my jazz. I’m too Type A for things like this. It just doesn’t work well for my personality and time management style.
Decolonizing the Blogosphere: How to Check Your Privilege in Cyberspace – Anubha Momim of Finding True North
This presentation was one of my favorites for multiple reasons. First, Anubha is an excellent speaker and I was impressed with her tenacity and maturity for her young age. Secondly, her presentation topic was extremely relevant and as a public health professional, I found it very interesting and thought-provoking. Anubha currently lives in Iqaluit, a town of 7,000 people on Baffin Island located in the Nunavut province of Canada. Never heard of Nunavut? Me neither! Nunavut is Canada’s newest province located in the far north. Only about 33,000 people live in this very remote area that is completely fly in. There are no roads to get from community to community. Over 85% of the population is Inuit and about 85% of Canadian Inuits live in Nunavut. Anubha started her presentation with an overview of her community and the issues that many of them face on a daily basis. Over 50% of the community lives on welfare, 70% are food insecure, and the suicide rate and domestic violence and sexual assault rate is the highest in Canada. Anubha is not of Inuit descent and is considered an “outsider.” She was born in Bangladesh, but raised in Toronto. Prior to moving to Iqaluit with her boyfriend, she did health research at a hospital in Toronto. Her first job in Iqaluit was in sexual health policy for the local government. She only worked the job about a year because it was emotionally draining and tough as she learned about the abuse that a majority of the women have faced in their lives. Anubha currently works multiple jobs in Iqaluit as an account manager for an Iqaluit-owner communications and graphic design business as well as a freelance writer and crater. Anubha gave us great advice about writing about your community as an outsider. She lives in the community, but is not Inuit herself and she personally cannot write about their experiences and struggles. As Anubha said “know what you don’t know.” Here are a few of her suggestions:
- If you want to write about people and communities that you travel to or may live in, create meaningful connections and relationships with community members. These relationships must be mutual and both parties benefit from it.
- Create space for other voices. Allow others to write for you about their experiences or interview them. Don’t put words or feelings into their mouth.
- Respect your limits and be open to criticism.
I left the presentation feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious. Do I need to go re-write everything? Have I offended anyone in my writing? The presentation was great because I think it made a lot of us stop and think about how we write about communities that we visit. As visitors we need to stop and check our privilege before we put our thoughts and words on the internet.
How to Make Google Like You and Other SEO Strategies to Increase Your Site Traffic – Brooke Roberts of Yoga Travel Tree
Another one of my favorite presentations of the weekend! Mostly because I’m a beginner when it comes to SEO. When I write, I write because I like telling a story, not for a robot to get my site up the Google ranks. And I totally want Brooke to be my new BFF. She is energetic, funny, and an all-around badass! Brooke has spent the majority of her working career in college study abroad education and programming. Just looking at her LinkedIn profile makes me slightly envious of all the places she has worked! Throughout her presentation, Brooke used the analogy of dating and love to share her tips of SEO tricks with a side of humor. Here’s a few on my favorite tips:
- Google “likes fresh young stuff”
- Brainstorm the common terms and phrases you think people would use to search your broad topic that you plan to write about
- Use keyword tools to expand your research. Tools include: Goggle Adwords Keyword Planner, KeywordTool.io, and Google Trends, etc.. (all free!)
- Aim to use long tail keywords instead of long game keywords (Example: Bali yoga retreat in May 2015 vs. Yoga retreats)
- Know your audience – Write content that helps and/or delights your readers
- Use the 10x Test – Can you read your article 10x over without getting tired of it? As Brooke said, “You need to be your #1 fan!”
- Utilize social media. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just put it out there for readers
I really enjoyed Brooke’s presentation and the information she presented. Although she only touched the very basics of SEO, I learned a better way to approach the process I had been previously using. And I loved her ending message of “you can either win or learn.”
Bloggerpreneurs: Monetization Models That Make Cents! – Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores
I don’t make much money on my blog and it’s never really been a major priority of mine. I primarily write because I enjoy writing and also in hopes of inspiring someone to take the plunge and travel or get their financial life together. But, when I embark on my Great Adventure next year, I would like to make at least a few dollars so I don’t completely drain my savings account while on the road. Lauren gave us a great presentation on various methods of monetizing your blog and yourself based on your skill set. She walked us through an exercise where she had us write down 3 words that describes our blog and then asked us to write down all the skills we have to offer that we could offer as services to paying customers. She ended her presentation by presenting case studies of four different travel bloggers including herself. Each blogger has monetized her blog differently and makes a living in different ways. It was fun to see the difference monetization platforms used across different bloggers. It goes to show you that no two bloggers are alike and you can make money in lots of different ways. Just be careful because the game changes at the drop of a fly.
Panel: Volunteer Travel – Adedana Ashebir, Allison Fleece, Natalie Jesionka, Kathryn Pisco, and Delia Harrington
Honestly, I wasn’t interested in any of the three presentations offered at this time, but decided to listen to the volunteer travel panel discussion because I have been on a volunteer medical mission and volunteer travel has been controversial in the travel blogging sphere recently. I’m glad I went to this discussion because it turned out to be a lively discussion full of quality information and opinions. Delia, the moderator, asked each of the four women on the panel various questions varying from what is your stance of volunteer travel to how do you determine “red flags.” Kathryn Pisco and her husband run Unearth the World, a volunteer travel non-profit. As someone who works in the volunteer travel industry, Kathryn recommends choosing an organization that is very transparent with their finances. She also recommends asking the organization a multitude of questions before you leave for the project so you have an idea what you will be doing on the ground. Natalie, a human rights lecturer at Rutgers University and editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, is definitely someone I would love to chat with more. She has been working extensively with a NGO in Thailand rescuing women from prostitution and was recently dubbed by the organization after working with them for over 2 years. She said it happen and it’s unfortunate, but do as much research as you can on the organization. All the panelists agreed that volunteer travel can be good if it is done right. The women suggested that some “red flags” to be aware of when choosing an organization to volunteer include:
- There appears to be a lot of donations coming in, but the organization says they have “no money”
- Their itinerary and volunteer process resembles a factory or assembly line
- Very large group sizes
- Go with your gut feeling
- They are unwilling to share their finances with you (or at least a snapshot of it)
- They won’t tell you what a day/week/month will look like during your volunteer time
“What If There Was No Un-Tag Function?” Addressing the Uneven Power Relationships Between Author and Subject Through Responsible Representation – Fiona Millar of Pathfinder in Social Change
Fiona’s presentation was one of my other favorites because not only does she have a super awesome Kiwi accent, but she works in international non-profits specializing in Eastern Africa. As someone who desires to work in international public health, I connected well with her presentation. Fiona started off her presentation by showing us two different pictures of Christchurch, New Zealand where she is from. The first picture was a beautiful picture of the sun setting over the snow-covered mountains. The second picture was the earthquake-damaged buildings of Christchurch. As bloggers and photographers we control the message we are sending in our stories and our photos. Fiona has worked in nonprofits throughout Africa and showed us some of her personal photos she has taken in her travels. One picture showed a woman with a sad look on her face and the second picture of the same woman showed her laughing with her friends. The term “poverty porn” is used often now when photographers and writers edit their photos or spin their stories to objectify the subject. Fiona told us that as authors we hold the power over the reader and the subject. We need to utilize “respectful, relevant, resonant storytelling.” To do this, Fiona suggests to avoid generalizations and stereotypes and be careful of what you crop.
Surviving the Long Game: Building a Blog and Career That Will Last – Stephanie Yoder of Twenty-Something Travel
I’ve been reading Stephanie’s blog for a while so it was fun to meet her at the conference. Stephanie has been in the blogging game for over 5 years and is very successful in what she does. Stephanie shared some of her wisdom with us and ended with a solid Q&A session. One of the best tips she gave us is to remember that your “audience is your most important asset.” Stephanie started her blog when she was 25 (hence the blog name), but recently turned 30. She considered a re-branding of her site, but she realized that her loyal readers have matured with her so even though she might not be that “20-something,” the message and information is still the same. Stephanie suggested that we experiment a bit with different writing styles, different stories, etc. And don’t be afraid to fail because it will happen often. The blogging industry is very fluid and can change with the drop of a pin so you need to beware of changing and learn to adapt. She also recommended setting goals for your goal. What is your blog’s purpose? While I didn’t learn any mind-boggling things from Stephanie, I really enjoyed hearing a blogger that has been in the game for a longtime and is successful at what she does. Plus she is super nice!
Keynote Speech – Kate McCulley of Adventurous Kate
I was super excited when WITS announced that Adventurous Kate was giving the keynote speech for the conference. She is perhaps one of the best known solo female travel blogger, but don’t you dare call her the “female Nomadic Matt!” Kate gave a great speech on gender inequality in the travel blogging industry. Kate is a phenomenal speaker. She is very well presented and spoke with confidence and authority. I loved it! There are a lot of very successful women travel bloggers, but yet, it is mostly men who get the major media attention and awards. Kate gave several samples of the male travel bloggers and photographers that generally win the travel blog/photography industry awards or ranked on the top lists (not that they don’t deserve it, but it would be nice to see woman too). Kate outlined her presentation of 5 business concerns for woman: success vs. likability, Howard vs. Heidi study, negotiating & achieving, work/life balance, and the anatomy of an entrepreneur. One sample Kate gave from the “Get Off My Internet (GOMI) website that allows people to anonymously rip people apart. A majority of the bloggers attacked are female and a majority of the attackers are females. Why do woman always attack each other? Kate gave some great suggestions and ideas to break through the gender gap in travel blogging. Ideas include:
- Brand ourselves as experts
- Support female photographers
- Know our financial value
- Apply for more awards (we deserve them too!)
- Cut down on the infighting/gossiping
- Think bigger and more creatively for new business ventures
I think it was safe to say that all the women left more inspired and determined to succeed in travel blogging after Kate’s speech. Collectively women are powerful. I have always worked in very male-dominated industries (biotechnology, healthcare technology) and I have personally seen and been a victim of casual sexism in the workplace. It’s not fun. I will certainly be putting Kate’s advice into play as I grow my blog and I’m sure other WITS attendees will too. Thanks for a great presentation Kate!
I left immediately after the conference. I was physically and mentally exhausted and needed “me” time. Plus, I had a bus north to catch. I met some amazingly inspiring woman who I hope to stay in contact with and visit on my travels. As a natural introvert I really went outside my comfort zone to be an extrovert and network. So far it has paid off. I made wonderful connections with the exhibitors and will be guest posting for a few blogs. Not to mention the swag bags were incredible! I think all the stuff in each bag was worth more than the price of my ticket to attend the conference.
So was the conference worth it? Absolutely, I had fun. Here’s the benefits of attending the conference (in my opinion, of course) and the areas in which I think WITS can improve in future years.
- The networking – I loved meeting all the amazing women that I was able to meet. I only wished I could have met more. Through the connections I made with the women, I have been offered a few chances to guest post, an opportunity for a comped tour, a product to review that I have been dying to try for a while, and I now have lots of couches to crash on throughout the world.
- The presentations/speeches – While I obviously couldn’t be in three places at once, I wasn’t able to see all the presentations during the conference. I attended the ones I wanted to and for the most part I was very happy with them.
- The swag bag – The swag bags were amazing. Everyone received a giant Samsonite laptop bag filled with goodies such as Squeezepods, a rechargeable battery, New Zealand candy, a laundry bag, and more. I was super impressed! Nice job WITS team!
Areas of Improvement:
- Presentations/speeches – In the future I would like to see WITS make the presentation slide decks available for download prior to the conference. I understand that perhaps the speakers weren’t done with them, but I think a lot of the attendees would benefit from them. I know a lot of the women have been asking other women in the Facebook attendee group if they could have notes from the other presentations they were not able to attend.
- Nametags – Nametags at the opening party would have been super helpful!
- Attendee List – There is now an attendee list with names, websites, and social media handles being created, but it would have been nice to have this list prior to the conference. I would have liked to be able to add people of Twitter and check out some blogs before I even set foot in Boston.
Overall, I enjoyed my first WITS conference and if I’m in the country next year for the conference in Irvine, California then I will probably attend. Here are some posts from other conference attendees in case you want to read other people’s experiences and thoughts on the conference:
- How to Kill it at Your First Travel Conference from Ticket for Tea
- Full of It: 5 Takeaways From the Women in Travel Summit ’15 from Map Maiden
- How to Get the Most Out of a Blogging Conference from The Brave Little Cheesehead
- You Gotta Do This: Must-Do’s in Boston, USA from Wanderlust
Did you go to WITS this year? What was your favorite presentation? What did you learn?
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