Are Travel Conferences Worth Your Time and Money?

There are many opportunities to meet with others interested in travel, and I’ve long held that the only way to succeed as an expert traveler is to share with and learn from others. But even the best conferences can be a wasted effort if you don’t think carefully about what you hope to gain from attending. I use the term “conference” loosely and include things like the Chicago Seminars, Frequent Travelers University, MegaDOs, and TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) from which I recently returned.

I’m sure some exist I haven’t even heard of. TBEX was something I just learned about nine months ago, and that was probably the first sign I shouldn’t go. I don’t regret attending — I was looking for something different to see what I was missing. But I’ve answered that question now. Coincidentally, a reader asked me to expand on which travel conferences are worthwhile, so I decided to write a post on the topic. This post isn’t really meant to say which are good or bad, though I do reflect on personal experiences. My real goal is to tell you what they’re about so you can make your own decision based on your interests.

Destination Travel

First, understand that there is more to the world of travel than miles and points. Nearly everyone on BoardingArea is a miles and points blogger; those who don’t blog about them probably still use them privately. Entire conferences like FTU are devoted to them. But at TBEX, I was a rarity. More than one person I spoke to had no clue. “Points and miles? I’ve heard of those. How do they work?”

These people are destination travelers. And I developed the following contrast to explain my blog to them: I probably won’t write anything about Toronto because the city itself is irrelevant to my content. My goal is to review the flights, review the hotels, and provide some suggestions for both on whether you should pay or redeem points to get the most value. I assume that you’ve already decided you want to go to Toronto or Hong Kong or London and just need to know the best way to do it. Maybe I will inspire a few to change their destination, but it’s not the goal when I write.

The economics of destination travel are hugely different. Without a clear understanding of miles and points, credit cards become far less relevant to their content, but banks have the most advertising dollars.

Many of the people I met were backpackers or other budget travelers. I learned new terms like “FAM trip” (familiarization) in which a tourism board will actually pay to fly you out so you can see and write about a destination. Some had even tried to get a local hotel to comp their stay in Toronto in exchange for a review, something I never considered. I don’t want a discounted rate if I’ll lose out on points and stay credit! I also met a lot of people staying at hostels. That’s fine, but their audience is completely different from mine.

So while being able to talk to fellow budget travelers, tourism boards, hostel chains, and clothing companies may work for them, I found myself at a loss for what to do. I did have a productive talk with Starwood and lunch with Hyatt. In other cases it was hard to convince tourism boards that all I wanted to do was learn about their destination, not hit them up for a free trip. A few other BoardingArea bloggers were in attendance, like Loyalty Traveler and Rapid Travel Chai, but I think the conference better fit their content, not mine. TBEX was well organized for what it was and had some awesome parties, so maybe it’s worthwhile if you’re interested in that.

Points and Miles

So lets switch back to points and miles, with which I’m more familiar. I’ve talked before about the increasing focus on credit cards vs. other ways to earn and burn. You may have your preferred method, and I have mine. Neither one is better, which is exactly why I think focusing too much on one is a mistake in my opinion. Mine is not a good strategy for all people, either.

Beyond that disagreement, the content at all of these conferences is pretty similar. You’ll learn the same things at the Chicago Seminars and at Frequent Travelers University: How to earn miles. How to use miles. Whether it makes more sense to focus on loyalty programs or be a free agent. The speakers and topics are pretty much the same. Even though FTU is held twice a year, it’s the same stuff both times. I have no clue what’s going to happen with the Charleston Sessions, but I’m expecting a cross between FTU and the Chicago Seminars (FTU tends to be more convenient to some off-site activities for those who want to organize something independently.)

Like TBEX, these seminars have a lot of bloggers in attendance, but they are targeted more to readers. Bloggers are often there to present or meet with those presenting. A few industry personnel may be present, but not many. I appreciate the smaller size of the events because it’s easier to find people and have deep conversations. At TBEX I felt like I was always waiting in line for a drink or yelling over the music. The points and miles seminars are often held at one central hotel and lead to more serendipitous encounters in the lobby or hotel bar, but this may change if they continue to grow.

BAcon (BoardingArea Conference) is a smaller event that selectively invite bloggers and other industry players. This is the points and miles equivalent of TBEX and is probably more valuable than FTU as long as you’re a blogger looking to write about miles and not use them. I don’t think a reader will gain much from an event like BAcon, but having been to the inaugural event I hope that Randy continues to host them. Being with a group of roughly 50 bloggers was far more valuable than the 1,500 I met at TBEX. It was not only easier to find people who shared similar perspectives on travel but also to develop close relationships.

Meeting Brands and Sponsors

Events like MegaDOs and the Freddie Awards offer better opportunity to meet and greet with representatives from your favorite brands. Some do appear at the actual “conferences,” but not many. Just make sure you know which companies are participating before you sign up. You’re not going to meet Hyatt’s Jeff Zidell if Marriott is hosting you. Some will still make a special visit, like when Hyatt made a presentation at last fall’s FTU at the Sheraton Gateway LAX.

TBEX is also targeted to a large number of businesses looking for writers and promoters for their brands, just as the bloggers are looking for sponsors. It’s a good win-win as long as you’re the kind of person they’re looking for. In addition, several of the talks seemed focused on industry issues and not blogger issues. On the second day, I found talks on creating Instagram strategies and why social media is more important than ever for the travel industry. From the content and figures, you could tell that these were talks created not for bloggers but for the companies that might hire a blogger. In contrast, the first day had more talks about what a brand is looking for and how to craft a pitch for a new sponsorship.

The last major event I’m aware of is a major event coming up soon is the International Pow Wow hosted by the U.S. Travel Association. This event is a Big Deal, where international and domestic power players meet to talk and create deals for upcoming publicity and travel packages. Although they will help pay for international journalists who come to write about it for their home markets, access for U.S. journalists is extremely limited. The domestic writers I know who go are either big shots or were in the right place at the right time.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, sharing drinks in a hotel lobby has been far more valuable to me than any talk or seminar, or even a large party, because access is the most important thing to remember. Who do you want to talk to? Will they be there? Will there be competition for their attention? These are questions you should ask yourself before attending a conference, whether a reader, writer, or some other interested party. All of the meetings I discussed here have their merits. For me, TBEX was not a success, but I was not their target audience. If you’re interested in attending any of these events, keep my lesson in mind.

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Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • http://www.jeffalytics.com/ Jeffsauer

    Great summary – I am new to travel conferences so I only have two under my belt at this point (FTU and BAcon). I found BAcon to be more valuable because of the focus and intimacy. It seems like the other ones bloggers need to visit simply to connect with readers/grow that base. I think I would actually enjoy something like TBEX in the future, but it does seem a little unwieldy with that many people in attendance.

  • Darren

    Great post, Scott. I have always been on the fence about TBEX and wasn’t exactly sure if it would be worthwhile for me to attend. You’ve answered my question.

    • Scottrick

      Some regular attendees loved it. It certainly depends on what you hope to gain.

  • Aptraveler

    Thanks for pointing out the differences of these events. It seems that at the end of the day, it is worthwhile if you value the odds that you might have to be able to get the access to those individuals with whom you’d like to talk. Nice recap Scott.

  • http://www.rapidtravelchai.com Rapid Travel Chai

    TBEX was really cliquey too, it did not have feel of Chicago Seminars and FTU where you can just walk up to start a conversation and be welcomed. Many of the people also only seemed to be ‘bloggers’ in the sense that they wish to be or have put up a handful of posts, with the only ones making out well the organizers and the speakers/consultants. Even with the big names it is surprising how little most seem to travel. That said, I might be tempted to go to the upcoming Dublin one because I like Dublin, but alas it is on weekdays and I won’t spend my vacation on that.

    • Scottrick

      I think there is a lot of variation. Remember, FTU is “Frequent Travelers University” so regular travel is already assumed. At TBEX, some people didn’t travel as often, but I met a couple of people who had just returned from 6-month trips. But that variation does make it difficult to find someone who shares your interests.

  • First2Board

    Charleston Sessions are going to be nothing like Chicago or FTU. There’s a total of 2 hours of speakers during the entire weekend and of that, maybe 30 minutes about points/miles. It’s going to be a weekend of tours, meals, and networking.

  • Toni

    What about for newer “players?” Do you think these conferences, specifically FTU can be beneficial to those of us just getting started, or would we be in way over our heads?

    • Scottrick

      I think FTU is perfect for beginners. Usually the seminars are at an introductory level and the advanced discussions occur privately over meals and drinks in the lobby.

  • Benjamin

    Your audience isn’t entirely separate from those staying in hostels. I have accrued 400k frequent flyer miles so far this year, but when I get to the destination, I am staying in hostels rather than expensive hotels. For me, the miles are a way to eliminate the big fixed cost of flights.

    • Scottrick

      Not entirely separate, but I’m not planning to write about them, either.

  • http://www.streetsmarttraveler.com/ Marcus

    Thanks for the insights. Since those events are all targeted at travel, sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart.

    Not exactly conferences, but I’ve wanted to attend those more casual meetups, where you get to meet a blogger or two and other frequent travelers. Like over dinner and/or drinks. I prefer hanging out like that compared big, splashy events.

  • jammanxc

    I’ve always known that TBEX was for destination bloggers who typically stay at hostels and “quit their job” to be nomadic around the world.