TBEX Cancun: A Newbie’s Perspective
TBEX is the world’s largest gathering of travel bloggers, and this year my husband Jason and I were among them.
My first TBEX encounter was the pre-conference tour, a Mayan experience and visit to the ruins of Coba through Alltournative Tours. Jason and I were told be at the pickup point by 630am, but this is Mexico and of course our ride was late. I met my first travel blogger waiting here: Indi of Indiana June, an adventurer from New Zealand who was trying out the travel planning service of her own company, Out Trippin first hand.
Our van finally pulled up about a quarter after 7 with six people already inside. Indi fit in the front but Jason and I had to squeeze all the way in the back and listened with dismay to the profanity-filled conversation. Room service breakfast, how many cigars they smoked yesterday, the pool bar, the massages, the bar, the endless buffet of food and booze. Obviously these people were staying at a resort, and they were the stereo type of the obnoxious all-inclusive party traveler that the Hotel Zone of Cancun caters to. They were terrified by the driving and amazed that there was a Sam’s Club here in “a 3rd world country.” Were these travel bloggers? Was this what they were like in person?
I was greatly relieved to find that they were honeymooners from the U.S. and knew nothing about TBEX. When they finally took an interest in us and realized we were bloggers they slowed the redneck commentary on Mexico for a moment and said, “Uh-oh, are you guys gonna write about us?” How could I resist?
We picked up two more bloggers, Jo and Des of World Wide Adventurers, who had recently been in Guatemala and would continue on to Cuba in a few weeks. Oddly enough they were also from New Zealand, so we had the only three from that country attending TBEX in our van on the first day. They would become an inseparable three-some until we all went our separate ways: the 3 Kiwis.
The pre-TBEX tour was an amazing introduction not only to new friends but also a close-up of the kind of American tourist I am most embarrassed to encounter, although they had a good time too. We don’t stay at resorts, partly because of the expense and partly because we feel they are, well, fake. I think we were all hoping maybe we could enlighten the honeymooners a little, coax them out of their controlled environment, but the closest we got was a comparison of travel costs over lunch. One of the girls raved about the bargain of the resort, saying everything was included (except the tour they were on-and the spa visits, the cigars, the souvenirs they dropped wads of U.S. dollars to buy, and who knows what else.) For 6 days on the resort she said they paid about $3000. Her jaw dropped when Jo said casually “That’s about a month for us.”
The Alltournative tour deserves a post all its own, it was so much more than I expected. We were given photos and information afterward, a perk of being a blogger that I’m still getting used to, and a reminder that we are expected to pass on our impressions so we need to be paying attention. That first day showed me that travel bloggers really are different from other travelers: we’re not on vacation, this is business (even when it’s fun) and we are always aware of the cost and what it might earn us. We’re also always watching, so you never know when you’ll wind up featured in a post.Team sport or best-man-wins competition?
The next day it stormed, rain blowing in our windows and dampening our plans to visit the ocean. Jason and I took the day off and lounged in our downtown apartment until it was time to meet the shuttle for the TBEX opening night show at Xcaret. Not staying on the expensive Moon Palace resort where the conference was being held meant that we had to find our own way to shuttle pick up sites, but the long ride meant we met up with other bloggers who made similar travel choices. Waiting for our bus I was pleased to see my New Zealand friends from the tour, and another familiar face, archeologist and writer Nicolas Andriani. I had interacted with him online, we often liked each other’s posts, but meeting someone you’ve only known virtually face to face there is an instant connection, a feeling of “I know you!” that made me feel like we were already friends. As introductions went on I quickly lost track and began to look forward to getting name tags for all the new faces, but there was a feeling of bonding, of being part of something.
I wasn’t sure about Xcaret or the show; there was some suspicion that it would be cheesy or over the top extravagant. We rode an hour south on a comfy bus and were herded inside where we quickly mixed with a crowd of other visitors. I was a little worried that we would get lost, Xcaret is a huge place, but there were periodic staff yelling “TBEX! TBEX!” and waving their arms. I began to see solemn actors in elaborate Mayan costumes in the jungle, posing by fountains and in stone passages above the path. To my horror tourists were stepping up next to them and taking selfies. When we reached the theater I had to stop and admire it, an amphitheater for hundreds of people around a huge central stage. There were stone seats with cushions and long tables where we would eat a gourmet meal while the history of Mexico unfolded in front of us.
Waiting for the show to start someone realized there was wifi and word spread like wildfire through the bloggers. For the first time I felt the pressure of competing with all these people, all of us taking pictures and posting information, tweeting, trying to make an impression. I was very aware of the need to not only enjoy the show but to document, to take mental notes, because I knew hundreds of other bloggers were doing the same all around me. It was a little intimidating.
The show was amazing! Over 300 super talented dancers and singers, and tremendous athleticism. For the first time I was able to watch the legendary Mayan ball game being played with two full teams. Games gave way to history, through the arrival of the Spanish and song and dance showing the individual identities of different areas of Mexico. I felt rude eating but the food was just as impressive and I wasn’t going to let them take my plate until I had eaten every bite. I was sitting next to Mariel of Mariel de Viaje, a Spanish language blogger from Mexico City and I could see she was having the same struggle.
Afterward there was a margarita reception just for TBEXers, an excuse to poke around the place a little more and chat with other bloggers. Over drinks I met Jeta of Global Lipstick and realized I already followed one of her traveling sisters on twitter (there are three!) got to know Laura of Gringation Cancun who will be a “neighbor” next year when we move to Mexico, showed Roger of Cooperatize how to get the spicy salt on the margaritas out of the way with a slice of lime, then when the heat was too much we shared space in front of the fan with fellow family travel blogger Paige of All Over The Map.
On the bus ride back I got struck up a conversation with the one blogger it turned out Jason didn’t like at all, Edward of Practical Nomad and they got in a bit of an argument over bicyclists on the roads. I spent the rest of the hour long ride concentrating on the business of making a good impression (and keeping them separated) and Edward did have a lot of interesting things to say, even if we didn’t always agree. It was just a personality clash but that’s not a luxury you have here. Even in Cancun coming to TBEX is a business trip, not a vacation. Jason and I were both representing The Everyday Journey and I knew everything we did would make an impression. When we got off the bus I was rewarded by a request for one of my business cards by Cate of The Life Nomadic, who had overheard my conversation and taken an interest in our story. It made the tricky verbal wrangling with the other blogger worth it.Day 1: Pick your session wisely
The opening keynote promised to be interesting. It had originated out of a controversy involving dolphin tours that were offered prior to TBEX, then cancelled after protests and threats to boycott. I usually look at these things as a matter of if I don’t like it I’m not going to do it; to each their own.
The speakers were Dr. Martha Love of The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and Bret Love of Green Global Travel, and I appreciated that Bret freely admitted to swimming with dolphins himself in the past “because I didn’t know any better.” There was a lot of talk about environmentally responsible travel, but not a lot of realistic solutions offered in my opinion. Air travel is a huge contributor to pollution, but almost all of us had flown to get there. Plastic water bottles create waste but what else was there to drink from in a place where the tap water was not safe? Talking about ways to reduce our carbon footprint while sitting in a giant playground carved out of the jungle seemed more than a little ironic, but I suppose it’s a start for those who didn’t know anything about responsible travel habits before.
I have since read a post by Jeremy of Living the Dream detailing his investigation of the captive dolphins right there on the Moon Palace grounds. He makes some excellent points about journalists (which bloggers are) having a responsibility to personally look into the truth of these things, not blindly boycott them. How did I miss this guy at TBEX?
I frequently volunteer when I travel, trying to give something back to the community that is hosting me, so I tend to look at how travel affects communities and people. During the keynote there was some talk of not allowing the sheets to be changed or fresh towels to be brought, but I wondered how that would affect the jobs of the people who do these things. Bret pointed out that resort staff is paid very low wages and often not tipped because guests aren’t paying for their meals or drinks-too bad most of us weren’t staying there. I wondered more than once why TBEX was on an isolated resort instead of in the Cancun Convention Center, a place that would have been easier to reach from anywhere we chose to stay, allowing us to take part in the local community more and not have to shuttle back and forth on huge buses.
For the speaker sessions Jason and I were taking a divide and conquer approach so we could soak up as much information as possible. I had studied the schedule carefully and chosen presentations for each of us, but found mine a little disappointing. I picked topics that I already knew something about, thinking I would expand on my knowledge but instead I felt that I was listening to a lot of information that I already knew. Jason was new to all of this and was excited about his sessions every time we met up. I admit I was a little miffed that he was enjoying it so much while I was a little disappointed, but I realized it wasn’t because of what was being offered it was what I had chosen. My advice: choose something you know nothing about and learn that rather than sit in on something you’re already familiar with. On the up side, Jason was realizing how much work a blog really is, that I’m not just cruising facebook and chatting people up online; he began to see it for the business it is.
I was surprised at the reaction I got when telling people what my blog is about: our plan to move to Mexico with our kids, to document how we get there and what it’s like, and our lives while we do it. People were really interested, and not in the way people are at home who think we’re a little crazy. Everyone at TBEX is a traveler, but most of them were younger than we are, and few of them seem to have children at home, much less travel with children. We were moving our family to another country and people seemed to be impressed. I started to realize that we were different, that we stood out, and that’s a good thing for a business.
At lunch we sat with Alison, the representative for New Brunswick, Canada, and by the end of the meal I was seriously considering a visit even though I hate the cold. We met Wander from Best Day travel booking and transportation, and he and I talked a little about his home in Brazil since I was there last year, as well as how I might work with Best Day here in Mexico. We were soon joined by several of the TBEX staff, including co-founder Rick Calvert, who chimed in on our plan to move to Mexico by recommending some helpful language resources that we could try to speed up our Spanish skills.
I was a little surprised that there was alcohol being served so early in the day, but what the heck. I was more surprised when they kept appearing in front of Jason without any request for a refill. We drew the line at two Jack and Cokes at 2pm and had to walk away from the third one! Welcome to the resort! Yikes!
Jason was really impressed with Dave and Deb of The Planet D, and I learned about Pinterest but felt that taking on another social media outlet might be too much for me right now. I do, however, have a teenager daughter that might soon become an intern for me, and she loves this stuff. You have to use whatever resources you have.
After the final session we were ready for a break. I didn’t plan to do much with the speed networking so we met up with my friend Tim Andersen from Marginal Boundaries and headed over to the lobby bar. I had spent the week with Tim at his Travel Blog Boot Camp in Palenque a few weeks before learning what I needed to do to take my blog to the next level (very worth it btw and he’s setting up another one soon.) I was pleased to meet Tim’s friend Beatriz on our way out; she’s an ecologist and graphic designer at Arboris Graphics in Playa del Carmen; another soon-to-be-neighbor. I knew Tim and Jason would hit it off, and soon we were laughing and comparing embarrassing stories like old friends.
After Tim left for a meeting I felt like we should go do something productive, so we started back but ran into Indi and a New York based blogger, Brittany of Gypsy Jaunt, who were headed into the bar. Turn around? Mmmmm, okay! They wanted to sit by the ocean, so we kept going until we found Barracuda’s beachside restaurant. The waiters loved helping Brittany practice her Spanish, a reminder that I should be doing the same. Our table filled with margaritas, Jo and Des soon found us, bringing along Australians Dave and Carmen of Double-Barrelled Travel, and U.S. to Mexico expat author Tim Leffel. We quickly split into a boy table and a girl table and proceeded to enjoy ourselves, (another form of social networking.)
The Expedia sponsored More Selfies in More Places party started just down the beach, the lights and music clearly marking where to go. We drank and danced and took selfies that appeared on big screens for all to see. I think having so many bloggers might have strained the wifi on the resort as it got really slow and I sent out a mental apology to the regular guests. I met a photographer, Natasha, and she was learning quite a bit from TBEX despite not being a blogger. Jason hung out with Tim again and met Dave of The GypsyNester, whose wife Veronica I had talked with earlier in the day. I wondered how you choose music for people from around the world, and of course “I Like Big Butts” came on. I couldn’t help but notice there were no American men on the dance floor (sigh) but I found myself persuaded to dance for the first time in years, and it was fun.
Too soon it was time for the last bus back to downtown Cancun, and feeling like Cinderella about to turn into a pumpkin those of us staying off the resort had to run away. We hadn’t wanted to leave with the party still going full force, but conversation was lively with our new friends as we rode the length of the hotel zone. Including the taxi back to our apartment our commute was more than an hour, and by the time Jason and I got home all I could do was fall into bed, exhausted.Day 2: People who get it
It was another early day and our last complicated journey out to the isolated Moon Palace. From our apartment we walked a few blocks before catching a taxi to the Ibis hotel where a shuttle bus picked up all the bloggers from downtown. Our taxi was 30 pesos, and I always tipped 10 extra, so about $3 USD. Many were staying in hostels, some walking to the shuttle stop, and I felt a little indulgent that we were taking taxis and living in an apartment, but communal living and bunk beds seemed silly with my husband there. I had done my time in hostels earlier, having been in Mexico for almost 3 weeks. A little comfort was a nice way to finish the trip.
All the faces were starting to look familiar, and I started making sure I had cards to go with my conversations, like Maggie from Mags on the Move who I hope to see again when we’re in Orlando next spring. Morning sessions with Disney expert podcaster Lou Mongello on making the most of offline interaction and travel writing guru Don George on creating quality content were more interesting to me, and Jason continued to enjoy learning about the business of blogging. I met a few more people in between, including Mackenzie of A Wandering Scribbler and blogger/consultant Angie of Angie Away. Juan told me about his Tulum hotel, Azulik, and it sounded very romantic but honestly the clothing optional part might be a bit much for us!
I had meant to make the most of the resort and get a quick swim in over lunch, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the conversation. (I found out later that some of the bloggers ate lunch poolside-why didn’t I think of that?)
One final session on blogging in Latin America introduced me to what my future as a writer here might include, the good and the bad. Half of the speakers were from Belize, which I found interesting because they speak English there and I had assumed it would focus on Spanish markets. Most of the audience seemed to be Latino. I finally got to meet the infamous Cancun-based Kelly of A Canuck in Mexico and her adorable son, who I hope to introduce my girls to when we are next in town.
We stopped in at the speed networking, even though my smart phone refused to allow me to sign up for anything. I looked for empty tables and worked my way in wherever there was an opening, chatting with other bloggers while I waited. Becky of The Girl and Globe set an impressive example, meeting with everyone even if she doubted she would work with them; “It’s good practice for me.” I sat down with Erika from Travel Massive and considered the possibility of starting a chapter in Cozumel after we move-there are a lot of travelers there. We were called over to meet Scott and hear about his company Unikgo, a tourism company that focuses on authentic and unique experiences, right up my alley.
One of the TBEX staff remembered us from lunch the day before and had mentioned us to Andrea, a tourism representative for the state of Quintana Roo-turns out she lives in Cozumel! My numbers aren’t high enough for her to be able to work with me yet, but it gives me a goal to work toward and a foot in the door when I get there, so I was happy. I also really appreciated the assist from the TBEX staff. A few more quick stops at tables we realized we’ll have to work in some time on the mainland when we come to Cozumel in February so we can follow up on connections we made with Rio Secreto, Xcaret, Joanna at Royal Resorts and Cristina at Cancun tourism. Stephanie of San Ignacio in Belize was another interesting contact that might take us a little further out in the future.
TBEX is a business conference, and businesses come looking to hire. As a blogger this is a golden opportunity-you don’t have to explain why bloggers matter or what social media campaigns can do for them, they get it, that’s why they’re at TBEX. You don’t have to make the hard sell, you just have to show up, be professional and represent. TBEX is the place to make easy business connections that can last for months or even years, and if you’re not making any you need to look at a career change. As a newbie I wasn’t sure how the game was played yet and I still walked away with a handful of cards that make my head spin I’m so excited to work with these people.
The final keynote was on professionalism, and I admit that I only halfway listened (very unprofessional of me, I know.) We had been told that all of the sessions were going to be available online so that’s one I’ll have to go back and look at later. My brain was full and I was ready to be done for the day at that point. One final group selfie of everyone who stuck it out until the end and TBEX was officially over.
The last shuttle was scheduled to leave right after the keynote, meaning an abrupt end that no one looked forward to. Word quickly spread that several of us intended to stay, swim , eat and drink thanks to the resort day passes included with the conference, and split the cost for transportation back into town. We went back to the Barracuda and realized that we could eat whatever we wanted; our day pass threw the budget travelers’ worries out the window and cost was not a factor. I think we all had steak or something similarly extravagant and the drinks were always full, a great way to celebrate our last night that I admit made me re-think my no resorts approach a little.
It became very clear to me both at TBEX and on my earlier travels through Mexico that my poor Spanish skills are not going to cut it anymore. I can’t work with local marketers if I can’t communicate with them, so this is going to be a high priority as we prepare for our move to Mexico next year. I made some Spanish language blogger connections like Julio of El Souvenir and Alicia of Boy de Viaje out of Mexico City that I can learn from just by watching what they’re doing, and hopefully I can work with them when I get my language skills up to speed.
Carmen of Double-Barrelled Travel summed it up best: “It’s so great to be with people who get it!” She and Dave had been traveling for a year and a half and were constantly asked “When are you going to settle down?” “When are you coming home?” Jason and I are selling everything to move to Mexico, and one of the aunts had asked us “Why would you sell your house just to move there for a year?” Jason had responded “Because we’re not coming back.” People at TBEX not only “get” the travel bug, they’re all infected too.
I had been afraid that TBEX would be awkward, that I would feel stiff and have a hard time talking to all these strangers, but they weren’t strangers. They were my tribe, my fellow travelers, kindred spirits and fast friends. I spent my time beforehand preparing for sessions, researching speakers, but in the end the most valuable people to me were the other bloggers there that showed me that what we are doing is not only possible but reasonable. That not everyone is shocked by leaving home and roaming the world, and taking your family along doesn’t make you crazy it just makes for that much more of an adventure. I learned a lot about business, and I learned a lot about travel, but I also learned that there are a whole bunch of other people out there just like us. To all my new friends, thank you.
As we dashed for our overpriced taxi off the resort we were still meeting people in the lobby; Sarah of A Week at the Beach, Deb of Traveling Well for Less and Kathy of Will Run for Miles. Even at the airport in Atlanta, Kim and Kyle of Byte-Size Travel Kyle were our layover buddies. TBEX reaches further than I ever imagined, and if you follow up and use those connections once you get home it just keeps going…for a traveler the possibility of infinite journeys is one I can’t pass up.
Did you go to TBEX? Have you been before? What did you think? If I missed connecting with you please drop me a line!