It's been less than a week since I returned home from a whirlwind 11 days in the Czech Republic, where I attended the 2018 European TBEX travel blogging conference and enjoyed subsequent touring around the country. My mind is happily swirling with ideas and inspiration, so I wanted to share a few of my thoughts as a TBEX first-timer while the memories are still fresh.
This year's TBEX Europe conference was held in the Czech town of Ostrava!!! (the triple exclamation marks are actually part of the city's branding, which is fun), located in the eastern reaches of the country quite near the Polish and Slovak borders. Ostrava is in the Moravian-Silesian region, one of Czech Republic's 14 administrative districts.
Ostrava has a long industrial history and, despite being Czech Republic's third-largest metropolis, it tends to be an underrated tourist destination. I love an up-and-coming city, so Ostrava serving as the TBEX host this year was nice incentive for me to attend.
Not that I wouldn't have wanted to go regardless; it's just that I was struggling with a bit of, shall we say, imposter syndrome? I wondered if my tiny website (and I do mean tiny; at the time of this writing I'm still under 500 pageviews per month) was enough for me to bother going to a travel blogging conference yet. There are expenses involved in attending such things, and while I'm on board with the concept that one must eventually spend money to make money, sometimes it feels difficult to discern between 'worthwhile investment' and 'not sure if justifiable.'
So, I did my research. I read recaps of previous TBEX events, I scoured social media, and I did a bit of asking around. Consensus seemed to be that TBEX is perfect for newcomers, offering a great opportunity to learn essentials from the start and build an early network of friends and cohorts. Encouraged by positive feedback, the sensible proximity of Ostrava to Nuremberg, the advantage that Czech Republic is still a reasonably affordable destination, and the fact that I am so motivated to do this thing for real, I registered.
The conference itself—packed with keynote speeches, breakout sessions, and speed-networking appointments—spanned two days: 27-28 July, a Friday and Saturday, at the Gong Multifuntional Hall. The Gong is easily the coolest trade show or conference venue I've seen, and a shining example of an adaptive reuse property as the hall itself was once an enormous gasometer. Massive concrete walls, exposed ducts, ironwork, and the quietly rusting pipes of the iron and steel mill outside ensure an industrial-chic vibe.
The mill facility also includes the Bolt Tower, Ostrava's highest point at 78 meters, which was built atop a former blast furnace and offers spectacular views over the city.
I arrived in Ostrava on the evening of the 25th as I had a coffee culture tour and a food tour scheduled for the following day. Event registration, for which I paid $157.60 after a 20% discount off of the price in May, included the option to sign up for a pre-conference tour of choice. There were many to choose from and initially we were only allowed to choose one, but as the event dates drew closer and people changed plans or canceled tours, we were able to sign up for a second; which was great for me as I was able to enjoy these offerings:
From left to right:
Chicken liver pâté from MeryJane Bistro
Noodle soup from Polívkárna
Svíčková (braised beef with root vegetable sauce and bread dumplings) from Bistro Boule za ušima
Yeasted roll with plum and curd filling from U Černého stromu
'Black Heart' cocktail from U Gustava
Sidebar: While the Ostrava food tour was great, my favorite culinary experience of the trip (and one of the best I've ever had, anywhere) was a little place I discovered on my own thanks to its close proximity to my hotel and weeknight opening hours beyond 9 PM: Vaše Prasátko on Stodolní street. I've already raved about it on Instagram, but let me just say again that this the best pulled pork I've ever eaten in my life, and I lived in South Carolina for 13 years, where barbecue and roasted meats are basically a religion.
Now, let's get down to the business of travel blogging and TBEX Europe 2018.
Each morning of the conference began with an opening keynote, then we had about 20 minutes to make our way towards our chosen breakout sessions. Each time slot had five sessions to choose from and topics included everything from the creative side of blogging (writing, photography, video, podcasting), to the business side (SEO, social media branding, building authority, monetizing), to everything in between like pitching, collaborating with tourism boards, and current travel trends.
My first breakout session was one I'd really been looking forward to: Practical Tips for Bringing Destinations to Life Through Travel Writing with Mark Baker. This is a session topic I'd likely have attended with any host, but I'm a big fan of Mark's writing and storytelling on his website so I was especially looking forward to his presentation—as were many others, apparently, since the room was packed. Mark was kind enough to write up a synopsis of his TBEX talk, and if you're at all interested in travel writing I would advise you to give it a read.
Mornings consisted of the keynote speech, two breakout sessions, then lunch. After lunch we had one more session before it was time for speed-networking, which is very similar to the speed-dating it sounds like. In weeks leading up to the event, we had the opportunity to invite brands to meet with us for a quick, 10-minute chat to swap info and see if there might be potential for a future collaboration. The networking room was filled with rows of numbered tables and a loud buzzer would sound when it was time for us to move on, resulting in a stampede of attendees rushing to their next appointment table. It's hectic, but a lot of fun and fantastic practice for nailing one's elevator pitch.
What I appreciated perhaps the most about TBEX was its inclusivity. It didn't seem to matter if you were just starting out or if you were one of the biggest names in the travel blogging world, it didn't matter if you were young or old, didn't matter what your race or gender might be—everyone had a voice. As I mentioned, with my blog being so small I was hesitant about the likelihood of anyone taking me seriously, but this simply wasn't an issue. Even brand representatives with whom I didn't have a formal appointment and for whom my current numbers are far below their minimums for collaboration were still happy to speak with me when I'd spot a break in the action, slither up to their table, and ask for a moment of their time.
I never once felt like I didn't belong at this conference, and as someone who chronically feels like the last kid standing in the cafeteria, clutching a tray and eyeing the room for a suitable place to sit when it seems like everyone else has buddied up, this was awesome. It seemed like we were all on the same page once the conference badges were around our necks. People whom I'd never so much as seen on Instagram before would be sharing tips or confiding their own uncertainties within minutes of introducing ourselves.
I can't express enough how glad I am that I went to TBEX Ostrava. I hope next year some other hesitant newcomer is googling "is TBEX worth it" and finds this post, because I can say with full confidence that TBEX IS WORTH IT!
You'll meet so many incredible people, you'll learn so much about the business of blogging and how the travel industry works with bloggers and influencers, you'll be so filled with inspiration that you'll actually be excited to go home and get to work.
The thing is; yes, you can learn about SEO and branding and blogging strategy online by yourself, but it's electric when you're learning about it in the midst of 500 other people who are into the same things as you. When everyone is sharing ideas, asking questions, swapping business cards and following each other across multiple platforms from the palm of their hand, you pick up on things you didn't even realize you wanted to pick up on.
You know that old adage about how you can't know what you don't know? It's true. Especially in an industry like blogging, where things change frequently just from a technology standpoint, let alone *travel* blogging where information and opportunity abounds from all over the world. Don't let your wee little blog numbers stop you from participating in TBEX, or any other conference or trade show for that matter.
Plus, you might get to go on a fam trip, aka "familiarization trip," and see beautiful little cities like Olomouc...
You might explore other-worldly caves...
...and picturesque castles.
Once again, I thought for sure my fam trip application would be denied due to my low traffic numbers and small social media platform, but I was accepted. In fact, everyone I talked to at TBEX who had applied for a fam was going on a sponsored trip.
CzechTourism did an amazing job of organizing and executing these mini-trips all over the country, designed to show us that there's more to Czech Republic than just Prague. CZ is the Land of Stories, after all, and I'm thankful I have a great story of my own to share. (Look for more Czech content here in the coming weeks—I've much to write about!)
Future potential TBEX-goers, have I convinced you yet that it's worth going? Even if you're just starting out? Even if you've already been doing this for years? Great! I'll see you there next year.