So it's only taken me 6 years since starting Going Awesome Places to go to TBEX, also known as the Travel Blog Exchange. I was seriously skeptical going into it whether it was going to be worth my time. Now that I'm back from TBEX 2018 in Ostrava, Czech Republic, I can share my thoughts around this conference and answer a few questions that I know a lot of you have out there including “what is TBEX like?”, “how do I prepare for TBEX”, and “should I go even if I'm no longer a beginner?”
This article is meant to be a non-diluted viewpoint of TBEX from someone that's been blogging for awhile and my hope is to help you get a glimpse of what it's like to be at one of these conferences and ultimately whether it's worth the money and time commitment.
First thing's first though…
What is TBEX?
Like Travel Massive, TBEX is synonymous with travel blogging and one of the things you hear over and over whether it's through chatting with your colleagues, being at local events, or online in Facebook groups. It's a conference that brings together travel bloggers from all over the world over the course of 2 days. It has it's roots in 2009 when the first TBEX was held in Chicago and has since thrived to become one of the biggest events for those in our industry in the world.
In years since, they've expanded to have events each year in select cities in North America, Europe, and Asia and draws easily 300-600 delegates that range from travel bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, content creators, influencers (whatever you want to call us really) to destinations, tourism boards, brands, and PR.
It's an extravaganza event that has many components to it but I'll get into that in a bit.
TBEX Ostrava in 2018 – A retrospective
What better way to understand what TBEX is like than through video so I've put together a snapshot of my experience in the Czech Republic both pre, during, and post TBEX. Take a look and better yet, continue scrolling down to read my breakdown and thoughts. Check out my collab with Viktor of Gone Venturing and make sure to check out his video on TBEX.
The best way I can think of dissecting TBEX is by chronologically walking through how it all went down.
I think one of the best parts about TBEX is that it's very affordable compared to the competition. When you're first starting out, it's kind of a big deal because you don't have a lot of money to spend on something you're still iffy about.
Three of the reasons why I signed up in the first place was 1) I had a discount code and 2) It seemed like a great excuse to go to Europe and 3) If I couldn't go, I was okay to forfeit my ticket.
I was registered for the TBEX newsletter so I started getting emails many months in advance about TBEX Europe and the early-bird ticket pricing so I jumped on it. I paid just over $100 USD.
This was the easiest part.
Tip #1: Register early – the price only go up
Tip #2: Look out for promo codes – Join Travel Massive and you never know if one might pop up in a newsletter
Registering for Pre-BEX/Post-BEX and FAMs
Okay so the way every TBEX is structured is that before and after the actual conference, TBEX works with the local tourism board to create a set of single-day press trips. These are what's called Pre-BEX and Post-BEX tours. There's usually a wide selection, variety, and availability for these tours.
Every creator that registers for TBEX is eligible for one of these (either pre or post) and with these, there's no real vetting or screening so pretty much everyone gets one as a perk of being an attendee. For Ostrava, there were 3 days of Pre-BEX and 1 day of Post-BEX.
With me so far?
Then there are FAMs. In the industry, these are what are known as Familiarization Trips (FAM for short) and for us, these were the longer trips hosted by Czech Tourism. Since there are quite a number of FAMs and limited spots for each, we were asked to pick our top 3 choices. What was different here was that the tourism board was much more selective about who got into what. This makes sense because they want to make sure they get the right influencers on the right trips to maximize exposure.
When does this all happen?
As attendees, we got emails to let us know when registration was open and from that point forward, the TBEX website had specific pages where we could go to see all the Pre-BEX, Post-BEX and FAM trips with photos and descriptions.
Those of us that registered early got 24-hour advanced access to Pre-BEX and Post-BEX. What I didn't realize at the time was that it was a first-come first-service system and that whatever you picked is what you got.
FAMs applications came out a little later but worked in the same way. These were tough choices as well because you had to rank your top 3 choices and without knowing the region well, it was hard to figure out which one I would like the most.
On top of this, there were additional opportunities to apply to such as the Colours of Ostrava music festival and a Hamburg press trip. I also heard that independent companies were also reaching out to bloggers.
At this point, I wasn't fully committed to going and I probably didn't look as closely as I should've in my choices. Apply first, think later.
Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for TBEX e-mails. Make sure they're not landing in your spam folder.
A little lost leading up
The months leading up to TBEX were either long periods of silence or a barrage of information and I remember not being too sure about what was going on. Maybe it was because I didn't put things into a spreadsheet yet (yes I'm that guy) but I didn't have a good grasp of the dates and when I needed to be where and also what I had gotten accepted to. I was just a confused guy and hence my random emails to organizer Michele asking for help.
The main form of communication was through e-mail but eventually the official Facebook group was leaned on heavily to share notices in real-time. Here's a snapshot of the types of things that came up:
- Confirmation of acceptance into FAM trips
- Being able to select additional Pre and Post-BEX tours
- Discounts offered for transportation to Ostrava (flight/train/bus)
- Sponsored opportunities to select influencers
- Signing up for TBEX events that pop up like the icebreaker
- When speed networking appointments and ready to be made
- On-the-fly adjustments like trip extensions, new FAMs, and changes in Pre and Post-BEX availability
What made it confusing was that you felt pressure to check the Facebook group constantly because you didn't want to miss out although you just kind of wish it came to you a bit more cleanly without all the noise that comes from Facebook.
As a result, I must've changed my booking with Kampus Palace at least 6 or 7 times. The specific dates I was to be in Ostrava seemed to be a moving target.
- I got accepted to the Hamburg press trip – change dates
- Realizing that I got my selection of Pre-BEX tour – change dates
- Prague Travel Massive chapter event – change dates
- I was confused – change dates
- Michele was confused – change dates
- We got unconfused – change dates
Let's just say I'm glad I was able to be very flexible with my travel plans.
Tip: If possible, try to book things that are refundable or just do it really last minute
When did I know I was going for sure?
Up until this point, I was still unsure whether I was going to go or not. It wasn't until I got accepted to FAMs that I realized that I had to make a decision. Things got real after those confirmations and I decided to make it happen.
Speed networking registration
A main fixture to every TBEX event is the speed networking. This is where you have a chance to line up meetings with all the sponsors of the event and get your pitch through in 8 minutes or less. It's a great structured way to get face time with all the brands represented at the conference especially since most blend into the crowd and it's often hard to catch them when they're free. The challenge of course is that you only have 8 minutes to make an impression.
The tool that they use to coordinate everything is called Blogger Bridge, a platform that connects content creators and influencers with brands. Luckily, I already had an account with them so getting set up was pretty quick but if you didn't, you had to create a new account, fill out your profile, and make sure you had a solid portfolio of work.
With a profile ready to go, the next step was to send out meeting requests to each of the brands that were listed and in many cases also send personalized messages in hopes that they'd accept. Once you send out the request, the ball was in their court. For interested brands, I got meeting times locked in and others I never heard a peep back.
My end goal was to try to line up as many meetings as I could with the brands that mattered to me.
Prague in advance of TBEX
I arrived in Prague 2 days earlier since I wanted to explore the city on my own and attend the Prague Travel Massive event. This ended up being a smart move as it gave me some time to get over my jet-lag and get situated. While it wasn't my final destination since Ostrava is 3.5 hours away by train, it was great to meet up with other attendees of TBEX informally.
As a budget traveller, I couldn't afford staying in Old Town and so I found myself in the neighbouring Florenc and at the apartment-turned-hotel Florenc 41. While the accommodations were forgettable, what was memorable was the lack of AC in what turned out to be one of the biggest heatwaves to hit Europe in a long time, and the incessant doorbell ringing in the middle of the night that was a bit of cause for concern.
Catching a train via RegioJet, I arrived in Ostrava and through the help of the TBEX help desk at the visitor center, caught a tram into the city.
Tip: Again, keep a sharp eye on e-mail blasts from TBEX and the Facebook page because the sponsored train ride opportunity was a bit hidden at first. Eventually they announced it more publicly but originally I had to hunt for it on the event page.
The apart-hotel booked in Ostrava was called Kampus Palace. It was on the list of hotels provided by TBEX and figured there'd be a ton of people there. The accommodations were new, clean, and simple, similar to what I had at PING Festival in Helsinki. These were essentially suite-style units that had shared kitchen and bathroom used during the year as university housing but booked out for tourists in the off-season. It was super affordable considering I only spent $80 for 4 nights. The funny thing was that there were barely any TBEX-ers there as I later learned that most elected for a few of the others either located right at the conference venue or on the bar street.
With two days to explore Ostrava before the start of TBEX, I spent my first afternoon heading over to the New City Hall to go up to the tower as part of the TBEXTRAS. As part of having a TBEX badge, we were given complimentary access to a number of attractions around the city and also free use of the city tram during the conference.
For my second day, I was signed up for the “Moravian Bethlehem and Town of Hats” Pre-BEX. We received the itinerary ahead of time via the confirmation e-mail we received the week prior and we assembled in the designated meeting spot early in the morning. Spanning the full day, this was our chance to explore outside of the city and visit the picturesque town of Štramberk with it's castle tower and a local gingerbread dessert called Štramberk Ears. From there we moved onto Nový Jičín to discover why it's called the “Town of Hats”. As a full-day tour, it was great chance to meet other bloggers and learn about a region that isn't normally on the tourist path.
We returned back to Ostrava just in time to clean up and head over to the Opening Night Party. This was my first time heading to the revitalized former steel works and coal mining complex of of Lower Vítkovice but I was seriously impressed with the setting for the night – gnarly rusted ballasts, towers, pipes, and conduits juxtaposed against the energy and excitement of TBEX. With the official opening of TBEX, this was a great night to make new friends, enjoy the vintage jazz and electro swing music, and eat and drink to heart's content.
Tip #1: By the week of TBEX, the Pre-BEX and Post-BEX tours become a bit of a free-for-all. I'm not sure if this happens at all conferences but since not all of them get filled, you're pretty much free to do as many as you want. All you have to do is show up at the designated tour desk and chances of getting on are pretty high
Tip #2: In my case, there were three days of Pre-BEX activities so if you really want to maximize on exploration and complimentary tours, head to the host city early and sign up for as many as you can. There's also another day of Post-BEX so if you wanted to, you could get 4 days of free tours.
Tip #3: There could be some goodies hidden in the TBEXTRAS so pay attention to those
The TBEX experience
For the next two days, it was all TBEX and it was intense, it was fast-paced, and it was enlightening.
Each of the two days were similar. In the morning we all gathered in the main auditorium of the GONG Center and it's here where there were opening sponsor messages followed by a keynote. These were typically broad stoke topics that were meant to inspire. One was given by Yaya and Lloyd of Hand Luggage Only and the second from Booking.com.
Once this finished, everyone rushed back down to the main floor to get their dose of caffeine and small breakfast snacks. You had to be quick about it though because the 20 minute coffee break went by like that.
From there there were two breakout sessions back to back. These were the sessions run by established influencers and brands on topics ranging from pitching, SEO, market trends, marketing, social media, etc. It's these sessions that we were here for.
Lunch was served on the second floor of the building. Lines were typically long because of the cafeteria-style serving and there were large round tables to meet up with your friends or sit with new attendees you haven't chatted with before. The 35 minutes for lunch were never long enough and before I knew it, the third breakout session of the day was about to begin and it was another dash to the next room.
Afternoons were typically a bit more free. With only one session, the rest of the afternoon was left for speed networking. The way it works is that the ground floor is set up with a grid of tables, each one designated for a brand. With a ring of a bell, the scramble begins. First, you have to find the table where you need to be at and then in 8 or less minutes try pitch, have a conversation, and hopefully lead to an actionable outcome before the dreaded bell rings again. In this time, business cards go flying, you become incredibly thirsty, and your swag bag grows.
Tip: 8 minutes is less time than you think.
The afternoon also had snacks available and there was always bottled water and pop at various tables in the venue if you ever got thirsty.
On the second day everyone hung back after speed networking for the closing speeches and a hilarious talk by the local talents of Janek and Honza from Honest Guide.
And just like that it was over…
Oh gosh I didn't even get to talk about the icebreaker event called Cryptomania with its mind-bending puzzles scattered around the city and the after-party on the bar street named Stodolni. Those happened in evening. Yeah no kidding, the days were packed!
After a full night of partying and saying goodbye, all of us were set to go in different directions with the 17 different FAM trips. Some had ridiculously early departures but luckily mine wasn't until noon. I slept in, packed up, and head back to the GONG Center to meet up with a new crew of friends.
Over the course of the next 3 days, I got a chance to see “The Best of the Beskydy Mountains” which included a mix of medieval towns, old traditions, the Czech love for the outdoors, sports, and relaxation.
Tip: It's probably a good idea to not make the same mistake as I did. Check to see whether your Pre and Post-BEX tours overlap with your FAM. Whoops.
Wrapping things up
Once the FAM was over, I caught a train back to Prague with RegioJet and took advantage of my extra buffer days there to get some work done and continue exploring the city on my own. What was nice was that other groups were also wrapping up their trips and so more and more TBEX-ers were making their way to Prague.
In another last minute change a week leading up to TBEX, a new opportunity popped up with the tourism board that they were willing to host bloggers through one of their hotel partners in Prague. As a result, I ended up inquiring and getting accepted to stay at Casa Marcello for my two nights in the city.
From here, most people were continuing their adventures in Europe or heading home but I had the chance to prolong the TBEX experience with an invite to visit Hamburg. These were opportunities that were only possible thanks to TBEX so I was grateful.
Was TBEX worth it for someone that isn't a beginner?
I had a lot of doubts going into my first TBEX whether it would be worth my time or not. One thing that TBEX is known for is that it's primarily for those that are early in their career. It's one of those things you hear about through the grapevine. So far I've told you about what my experience was like in Ostrava but what did I really think about it?
Yes, I can confirm that many of the sessions and keynotes leaned more towards beginner-level. The challenge that TBEX has is that there are no such thing as levels or tracks. As a result, you have a set of breakout sessions that have to be geared towards the masses and the easiest way to do that is to focus on the foundational concepts and keep things high level.
Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by what I was able to come away with at the conference. Okay, not every single one was good and there were certainly a few that I either thought about leaving early or literally did walk out of because the information was too basic but then you had others which were thought provoking, inspiring, and filled with good tips that you could actually action on.
For instance, I loved Laura and Gemma's SEO talk (you gotta sign up for their Make Traffic Happen FB group). While some of the concepts were basic, there were still a ton of nuggets of gold in there. We all do SEO to a certain extent but do we do every single piece of it to make us successful? No. For me, their session was a nice wake up call for a few things that I was too lazy to do.
So for me, I really can't say that I didn't come away with anything tangible from the sessions. I don't think anything was groundbreaking but there were bits and pieces here and there that were either powerful reminders or new ideas that made me go “wow!”.
As good as the sessions were, it was honestly all the people at TBEX that truly made the conference special.
When you blog for long as I have, you get to know a lot of the travel bloggers in the space by name, their work, and profile photo but you don't really know them. You're in the same Facebook groups and you follow each other but does that really count as knowing someone?
Through TBEX, that veil is lifted and whether it's meeting those people you feel like you've known for years or new bloggers you've never heard of, the feeling is the same. Bloggers are real people and more often than not, a lot nicer than you ever thought possible. It's just nice to be able to meet others that get what you do, struggle the same way you do, and strive for the same things you strive for. Hanging out with other bloggers in many ways feels like coming home.
Friendships thrive at TBEX and it's something that has a lot of value. Most of the year we're holed up in our own little world but through this, life-long friends are made that you can't replicate anywhere else.
While I may not have learned a lot from the sessions, I gleaned so much more from the conversations I had with all the people I came in touch with through the conference. It's those casual conversations that happen when you're having a beer in Ostrava, partying on opening night, or in between FAM destinations that you get to that is the true goldmine of knowledge that make TBEX worth it.
When it comes down to it, the people you meet at TBEX are 10x more important than the content of the conference itself.
What happens when you mash 300+ bloggers together? Magic is what happens.
Hell, even 10 of us on a FAM trip was enough to make that magic happen and it's all thanks to TBEX. So yes, even if you're a 6 year “veteran”, TBEX is totally worth it.
My top tips for having a great conference
- Lots of business cards – You're going to be handing them out like hotcakes so make sure you bring at least 200
- Build in buffer in your schedule – Things change quite a bit at TBEX so make sure to plan in plenty of extra days before and after the conference to account for the Pre and Post-BEX, FAM trips, potential FAM extensions, and extra travel you might want to do in the region
- Don't lock yourself into bookings – Already mentioned in the Tips above but just make sure you stay as flexible as possible because things can change on a dime
- Dress casually – I wasn't sure what the expectation was for TBEX but learned that it was pretty casual especially given this was a summer event. You obviously don't want to look like a slouch in front of the destinations and brands you'll be meeting so keep that in mind. I made it a point to wear a buttoned up shirt instead of a t-shirt
- Talk to people – What makes TBEX good is the chance to meet bloggers from all over the world, each with their own ideas, paths to success, and unique experiences. Don't stand in a corner in hopes that someone will approach you. As uncomfortable as it may feel, jump into conversations with others, introduce yourself, and strike a conversation
- Take notes – Information overload is real at TBEX so try to keep track of it all in whatever way works for you. Lots of terms, tools, and strategies will get thrown around. Even though you might not be able to write down the full idea, scribble it down and organize it later
- Have a pitch ready – Get ready to answer the question “so tell me about your blog” whether it comes up in conversation or speed networking. You should know that off the top of your head and also have a version that's short and succinct. Think about what makes your own brand unique, what you bring to the table, and how you can make an impact on whichever brand you're talking to. I might not go as far as printing media kits as that would be a killer on paper but go in with a mentality of “how can I help you”
- Remember to follow up – This could be to follow up with all the people you met through speed networking, friends you made, or just organizing all your chicken-scratch notes, set some time aside after TBEX to go through it all
- Commit to producing content – While yes, you don't have to sign any contracts for deliverables as part of the FAMs, you want to make sure you represent the community well and come through with the creation of content. Destinations pour in a ton of money putting these experiences together and while you're not getting paid for the work, think about how you'll be promoting them whether it's social media, collaboration projects, or creating your own content
- Participate in all the events – To maximize your experience, say yes to everything. Whether it's the opening party, ice breaker, or closing party, there's really no reason why you shouldn't be out there socializing with your peers
- Be open to sharing – The point of TBEX is to learn from everyone else and that only happens if you're equally open to sharing knowledge as you are to receive it. Everyone has something to contribute and once you open up to others, you'll often find that they'll be much more receptive to share their learnings
- Find brands during the sessions – Most brands and destinations don't attend the sessions and you'll find them hanging out at their speed networking tables. Skip a session and get more face time with them than you would at speed networking
Where I felt TBEX could be improved
I left TBEX feeling rejuvenated from the experience but also with some thoughts of how things could be improved. Here is some food for thought on where I think TBEX could be improved.
Lack of centralized communication
If I pinpoint my pre-planning frustrations, it comes down to a lack of a unified method of communication. It quickly became evident that if you wanted to be on top of everything, you needed to be on Facebook. I didn't think that this was an effective way to get communication out especially if you're not the kind of person that is checking all the time. There were so many instances where either I completely missed out on an opportunity or found out about something last minute because I happened to see a notice pop up of someone responding to a post in the group. While Facebook is great for conversation, it's not good for notices.
Difficult to make travel plans
Another thing that's threaded throughout this post is how you either had to keep your travel plans really wide open to account for changes before and after TBEX or book everything last minute. For those already in Europe that's easier to do but if you're coming from further away like I was, I never felt confident locking things down until the very end. It's something unique to TBEX because of the challenges of planning simultaneous FAMs and something that I'll know for next time but you definitely can't treat it like a regular conference where you know exactly when it will start and end.
The idea of tracks
This is an old idea that I know was implemented in the past but I would love to see more variety in terms of skill level, expertise and experience. This could be by beginner, intermediate, and advanced, but this could also be broken down by writing, social media, marketing, video, photography, blog basics, etc.
Perhaps what I'm really asking for is for TBEX to be more than 2 days so that there are more opportunities to learn. For me, I think at the end of the day, I'm looking for sessions that can tell me tangible ways that I can do my job better and get down to the nitty gritty detail as opposed to staying high level. Understandably though, my needs are going to be different from other attendees so I get why it's hard to please everyone.
More opportunities to network with other attendees
Focusing on the two days of the conference specifically, I felt that you had to make calculated decisions around “am I going to linger around at coffee break time to continue this interesting chat I'm having and be late for my next session or should I just not talk to anyone so I can make it to the meeting room on time”. The break periods were short and if you wanted to go to all the talks and fully participate in speed networking, then you really didn't have a whole lot of time to “talk shop” with other attendees.
Now yes, we did have evening events such as the opening night party, Cryptomania and the closing party but beyond that there weren't any structured ways to almost “speed network” between attendees which ultimately is the most useful.
Certainly the onus is on each person to proactively seek out those conversations but perhaps there is some value in helping facilitate that.
So tell me about your TBEX experience. Beginners and veterans alike, what did you think about your recent TBEX conference? Drop a comment below!
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