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It's Lady Gaga... It's Katy Perry... It's a Travel Blogger!
Amanda Lee reports from TBEX, where scores of party-loving, costumed travel bloggers descended on Toronto

Image courtesy of Expedia/Ryan Emberley

“Sure, we have a Mayor that may, or may not, be smoking crack,” Deb Corbeil addresses the crowd at a keynote presentation on the future of travel media with her husband, Dave Bouskill. They are the local rock stars of the travel blogging community, and considered “veterans” in this industry, with six years of blogging at The Planet D. They’re also among the lucky ones who make a living from their blog.

Corbeil and Bouskill are speaking at The Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX), which took place in Toronto this past weekend. Travel bloggers gathered to discuss topics from travel and technology trends to food writing, travel photography, marketing, and, yes, even the art of storytelling. NY-based travel Writer and editor, Kim Mance started TBEX just five years ago with a handful of bloggers. Like the travel blogging industry, the event has grown exponentially. Our city played host to 1,300 travel bloggers, writers, vloggers, and social media experts from as far away as Australia, Sweden, and Mexico. Minister of Tourism Michael Chan addressed the group. Local blogger Mariellen Ward announced that travel bloggers “have arrived.”

I dabble in freelance travel writing and came to the event to learn from those who’ve carved out a niche and a living in the travel industry. I’m not the only one. “I have to work full time, I don’t like that,” Rachel Stuckey echoes a popular sentiment. “Everyone seems to forget that travel bloggers weren’t making any sort of living a couple of years ago,” says Bouskill and Corbeil of the Planet D. “People had to work really hard to come up with creative ways to make a living and to be recognized in the travel industry.”

Saturday began with keynote speaker, HDR photographer Trey Ratcliff, who literally rolled the dice to decide which story he would tell his audience (a technique that sounds good in theory, not so much in practice) but whose Google glasses took over the show. I learned more about how they worked than I ever needed, or wanted, to know. With his Google glasses, which he was spotted wearing throughout the entire conference, and boyish enthusiasm, Ratcliff looked like Marty McFly from Back to the Future.

Throughout the two days, participants wandered from keynote speeches to workshops, omnipresent iPhones in hand, tweeting and recording content to share with their audiences. Over the course of TBEX, 171.6 million impressions were made alone on twitter through the #TBEX hash tag, reaching 16.6 million people (that’s about four times the population of New Zealand).

There were the official parties — kicked off with an opening night celebration of local culture put on by Tourism Toronto. At Roy Thompson Hall, participants sampled Canadian wine, Canadian food, and Canadian talent, with a surprise appearance by Serena Ryder that had everyone buzzing.  But get a group of writers together — who also travel – and you’re guaranteed a party. Pre-parties were held the week before, and any space in the schedule was filled; Travel + Escape squeezed a “pop-up” party in between the conference and the official Saturday night shindig on Centre Island. Then there was Matador’s after-hours event at The Fifth that may, or may not, have lead to CEO Ross Borden being kicked off his panel presentation and resulted in a flurry of tweets with the hash tag #FreeBorden. (Borden simply took his presentation to the nearby Loose Moose).

It’s not surprising travellers also love to share their tales and surely there’s got to be some one-up-man-ship? I chatted to Bouskill and Corbeil from The Planet D about this at the opening night party. “You’re telling a story about India and someone interjects,” says Corbeil, “‘Oh that happened to me – in Nepal!’” Saturday night I find myself sitting with an American blogger who specializes in travel and kids. We unpacked our travel stories. I made the mistake of showing my best hand too soon: “When I took my son to Bangladesh…,” I say. Travel mommy comes back with a solid two pairs, “We travelled around Thailand with our son…” she pauses. “…when he was nine months old.” Full House.

Admittedly, like many other (probably hung over) writers, I missed the Sunday morning keynote with Erik Lindbergh, grandson of famed Aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Fortunately, I found myself seated next to Lindbergh’s PR rep Glenn Phillips over lunch. I’m a PR rep by day, so we swapped war stories.  Working at Lindbergh’s company, Air Charter Service, Phillips says their clients are either celebrities hiring private jets (and demanding the blue M&Ms be picked out, as per Whitney Huston) or charting cargo planes. But it’s not all glamour, the deadpan Brit has been with the company over a decade. “I’ve been on a Russian cargo plane to Afghanistan, but never been on a private jet.” he says. Last I saw of him, Phillips was rushing off to book Lindbergh–and hopefully himself –onto the CN edge walk. Only one of them made the list. You can probably guess which one.

According to Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere, the travel industry is a 12 trillion dollar industry — worldwide.  During a live recording of This Week in Travel at TBEX he said, “I notice some bloggers have become whores.” If bloggers are whores, then does that make the travel industry reps our ‘Johns’? A large number of tourism boards and travel marketing companies were present for “speed dating” sessions with travel bloggers. Participants signed up for eight minutes with a rep to sell themselves and their expertise. Relationships were struck. Business cards were handed out. I managed to snag a free spot with the South Australian tourism board and pitched a story idea I’ve fostered for a number of years.

While there was much discussion about digital marketing campaigns, travel agency partnerships, and content strategy, legendary travel editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, Spud Hilton (as cool as his name suggests) was there to rap our knuckles and focus on storytelling. “What about the word ‘iconic’? It’s one of the most used words in travel writing, he reprimands the audience, “Our copy desk takes it out of our stories now.” Also off the list? Off the beaten track, nestling, and luxuriously appointed. “Don’t use that phrase. Ever.” he says.

Like the bars of chocolate Expedia left on everyone’s seats the first day of the conference, holding the  promise of a lucky ticket, many of us were there for our own Charlie Bucket moment: to be able to give up our day jobs and dream of travelling the world, sharing our stories with others.

Speaking with visiting writers to our city, they’re more likely to remember enjoying pieces of locally produced cheese wrapped in Tire sur la Neige than our (allegedly) crack-smokin’ Mayor. And local pride among our own travel writing community soared; Andrew Dobson of Dobbernation Loves summed it up best, “This has been a great experience. I’m so glad it came to my city.”


Amanda Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has also appeard in The Grid, Toronto Star, and Up! Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @leeamandaj.

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