“Hi Liz, I’m pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Travel Blog Villa.”
It was an ordinary Monday night in August when my inbox pinged with this email. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! As my mouth fell open in dumb shock, reality soon set in and I jumped off the couch and did a little dance of joy around my hot, stuffy apartment in Logroño, Spain.
A few weeks before I had applied to participate in the Blog House, a new collaborative effort set up by some of the most successful bloggers in the travel industry. The deal was several up and coming bloggers (me included) would go and spend a few days with them in a villa in the little village of Besalú, Spain (an hour from Girona), and learn all we could about the industry, improving our content, and everything from WordPress to photo editing to social media, all in a relaxed, casual environment. At the end of the trip, we’d all travel down to Girona together to put our newly acquired skills into practice at TBEX, a big travel blogging conference.
I was really nervous getting on the bus to Besalú from Girona. Apart from twitter, I had rarely interacted with other bloggers, especially face-to-face. For the past 2 years, blogging had been something very personal to me, a creative outlet, a way to continue writing and sharing stories after college. I had put my heart and soul into my blog and I was about to have it openly scrutinized for the first time by some of the best in the business. It was like taking my baby to its first doctor’s appointment. Of course I was nervous!
But it was what I needed. Over the past year my goals and dreams changed. I realized I wanted to pursue travel writing and blogging as a career. But how to go about it? I had no idea. There is only so much you can google.
When the possibility of attending the Blog House, combined with the TBEX in Girona, Spain and TBU in Porto, Portugal in September, and all happening right on my back door, it didn’t take me long to yell out, “yes please, of course I’m going!” This was my chance to learn all about travel blogging. It seemed like fate.
Luckily, I heard English on the bus and made my way back to sit with Flora, Jen, Erin and Brett, all newbies too. As we got to know each other, my nerves began to fade and I realized how cool it was to interact with people exactly like me! In a slightly absurd way, it felt like we were all on the proverbial yellow school bus traveling on the way to the Blog Academy for our first day of lessons.
We spent our days holed up in probably the biggest, most luxurious house in the Costa Brava, and possibly all of Spain. My whole apartment in Spain could have fit in my bedroom there with room to spare. Through Charming Villas Catalonia, we stayed at the palatial Casa Marcial, a beautiful piece of property on the edge of town, with more rooms and staircases than I could count, a stunning kitchen and a seemingly endless supply of red wine. Scattered throughout the property are remains of various medieval and early modern buildings dating back a thousand years. There were tons of hidden rooms with sofas and conference desks for us to scamper off to and discuss things like building a brand and engaging with your audience. My kind of work environment.
We would meet in big groups, break down in small sessions based on our needs and interests, as well as have plenty of one-on-one time with the pros.
“Wait a second, you still use Blogger?!” began my first conversation with Michael Hudson of Go, See, Write.
“No. Yes. Crap.” I mumbled. I secretly liked Blogger.
“We are going to fix that.” Alrighty then! Within minutes I had rough draft of what my new and improved self-hosted site would look like (still rough, sorry guys! I’m working on it!), several big key tips of how to maximize social media, as well as encouragement for starting my own ebook and phone app. I was elated.
Before we left Besalú for Girona, the tech god Michael Tieso from Art of Backpacking helped me have my new site up and running quickly (I originally used Bluehost as my host provider: setting up was super easy!). Without his help and encouragement I probably would have dragged my feet for another year about making the switch. After an hour session, I had about 20 new tabs open on my browser of new sites and programs I was itching to try out.
Why do I always shut my eyes in important photos?!
“I’m going to do a quick session on iphoneography in the garden in 5.” Said Kate of Adventurous Kate. With her I learned how to take amazing pictures with my iphone, and how to use them to my advantage on my social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Kate was wonderful with helping me build confidence to pitch and work with PR’s and tourism boards so I was comfortable by the time I arrived at TBEX.
Cailin of Travel Yourself inspired me to think outside the box and try out making videos for my blog, not to mention helping me take better food photos.
And Steph of Twenty-Something Travel took me under her wing as a mentor and gave me amazing advice about working in freelance and how to improve my writing. With her I developed a tentative 6 month plan of ideas and goals to work on with my blog, and recognizing what I need to improve on.
Getting to work with these seasoned bloggers individually, ask all the questions that have been on our minds, getting advice and tips that would normally have taken years of trial and error made for a truly unforgettable experience. Not to mention working with a good group of newer bloggers just like me. Everyone brought something different to the table and through casual conversation, impromptu sessions and loads and loads of questions, we learned a ton from each other.
We didn’t spend all of our time with our heads bent over our laptops furiously taking notes, or snapping a million photos with our smartphones. We had some time to enjoy all the amazing things Besalú had to offer. It made the perfect backdrop for the Blog House. A cute medieval village tucked away in northern Cataluña, it’s not surprising so few people know about it.
Our first afternoon we made time to go downtown and check out a local artist Kel Domenech’s gallery before heading back to the villa to cook dinner with chef Lee Pennington. In addition to learning important skills like SEO and WordPress Optimization, I learned to clean and stuff squid and cook paella.
We had a traditional sprawling Catalán breakfast overlooking the gorgeous stone bridge at Ribera Bistro as well as typical long, several course late-night dinner with great conversation at Restaurant Pont Vell. Every night we all sat out on the patio in the garden under the stars drinking red wine, dancing and chatting til dawn. I’ll save us all the embarrassment and not mention the songs. We must have slept about 3 hours every night.
So what did I take away from such a singular experience? Besides several kilos gained in sampling the best Catalán cuisine and far too much vino tinto, I found encouragement, confidence and support from 14 amazing new friends and the belief that I can take this little blog of mine so much further than I ever dreamed when I started (shudder) a Blogspot account 2 years ago. Not to mention I finally learned what all those fancy acronyms meant! Before Besalu, I honestly didn’t know if I had what it took to make it and I wasn’t even sure how to go about it. The Blog House was the push I needed to really believe I could turn my travel blogging into a career.
So a big thanks to all the pros for being so open and welcoming, and so, so patient and helpful with all of us! What an amazing opportunity it was for us! And of course a huge thanks to my fellow up and comers, Flora from Flora the Explorer, Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, Cole from Four Jandals, Emma from Emma’s Travel Tales, Ed from The Polar Route, Naomi from Anywhere but Home, Jen from Jdomb’s Travels and Erin and Brett from No Checked Bags and Our Tasty Travels. You guys rock and you are so inspiring! I can’t wait to see where we all are in a year, hopefully at a Blog House reunion!