I cannot believe that a year has passed since I attended TBEX Toronto!

When I look back and think about my newbie self, with my oversized backpack, my point and shoot camera and my self-made media kit walking into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre with nothing but a dream – I kind of cringe a little. I knew nothing about the business of blogging, had no travel blogging friends and was totally lost in a sea of bloggers all talking shop around me. I listened, wrote a full notebook worth of notes and started making new friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but TBEX was about to change my life forever!

Mendelaoui_Sharon 2014 April_25_smallHere are some of the life changing lessons I learned at my first TBEX conference.

Lesson #1. I Can’t Learn Everything About The Business of Blogging in one Conference

When the TBEX Toronto schedule came out I knew one thing for sure: There were a lot of different sessions held during TBEX and there was no way to attend them all. So I decided to really go through the schedule and the speakers profiles to figure out which session in each time slot were the ones that were most important to me in that moment. It was a good strategy because by the end of the conference I was able to swap notes with other travel bloggers and also found a Facebook Group that posted notes as well. After the conference the TBEX team also sent out slides of many of the sessions, and at the end of it all I got the information I wanted.

The other thing I learned very quickly during TBEX was that the sessions were not the only source of information and learning.  I decided not to let myself get overwhelmed by 5 days of non-stop blogger chatter. I had a notebook and turned it to the back page and started a list. In every conversation I had, if someone mentioned something I didn’t know, I wrote it down. I had no idea what a twitter chat was, but by the end of the conference I had a list of hashtags for twitter chats. The first week back from TBEX I became a Twitter Chat expert! If other bloggers mentioned a Facebook group, website, travel blogger, sponsor they’ve worked with, a place they contributed guest posts, I wrote it down.

I only remember a handful of people I met at TBEX and there was no way I was going to remember all that information. Those 20+ pages of notes in the back of my notebook were valuable resources of information that moved my blog forward step by step. I always remember this when it comes to learning new things for my blog: You do what you can with what you have in the present moment. Don’t try to do or learn too much at once it will end up driving you crazy. Just add it to the list.

Lesson #2. I Must Find My Own Network of Travel Bloggers

I have met a lot of travel bloggers over the past year and this is what I know. The really good bloggers are not the ones with 10,000 in Twitter followers and a new FAM trip every week. The really good bloggers are the ones that collaborate, share, and learn from one another. I was very lucky to make some amazing new friends at TBEX that I am proud to have in my own travel blogging network.

Why is this important?

By yourself you are only as big as your network. When you are new this is painful; when you are a giant you are expected to get the message out to as many people as possible. When you are in a network of 4 – 5 people who all share each other’s work, who sit down and talk about the things they did right and wrong, give honest and constructive feedback, share contacts and connections they’ve made – you multiply your reach. You get more opportunities and you expand faster and further than you will ever be able to by yourself. Forget competition – blogging is a collaborative sport. Together you are stronger – there is more than enough to go around for everyone!

Lesson #3. Just Because I’m New Doesn’t Mean Companies Don’t Want to Work with Me

I’m so glad, I didn’t go into TBEX thinking, I’m new, I don’t have enough followers, and no one will want to meet with me or work with me. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but I still signed up free tours, applied for press trips and most importantly, tried to get speed dates. Guess what? I had dates! People were interested in meeting me and learning about my blog.

However, because I didn’t know better at the time, I didn’t know how to pitch them. I should have been more confident, but the idea that people would send me to their regions (on their dime) just didn’t sink in. I got to meet some great companies and, luckily, I have had a chance to work with a few of them this past year. They didn’t care that I only had 300 Twitter followers and 24 Facebook fans. They cared that I had passion and loved my blog and what I was doing.

The people that didn’t want to meet with me during speed dating at TBEX – well guess what – I went to the Marketplace and found opportunities to talk to them. I may not have said the right things in the moment, but I have their business cards, which means I started my travel rolodex.

Now that I know better, I can pitch these companies and they are happy to do business with me. Making these connections were a MAJOR step for my blog and for me. Which brings me to Lesson #4.

Lesson #4. My Blog is Actually Good

The most important thing I learned at TBEX was that my blog was actually good and had incredible potential. I quickly realized that 2 years of writing was actually worth something.

I hounded poor Mitch Canter on Twitter leading up to TBEX when he announced he would be critiquing travel blogs in a session. Every day on Twitter I sent a tweet begging for a blog critique. And I got one! From this session alone I learned: my blog looks good, comments were broken and not working properly, the site should be responsive, but overall the review was good. Since then I’ve redesigned the blog in a responsive WordPress template and it is better than ever.

TBEX gave me the understanding and confidence I needed to believe in my blog and myself. People recognized my blog, my name, and the feedback was really positive.

So while I was shocked and surprised when Trump Tower Toronto invited me to a blog lunch during TBEX, it wasn’t until I was sitting in a room with the Planet D and Johnny Jet that I realized – hey my blog is good enough to sit at the same table as these guys! The whole lunch I was terrified they would realize they made a horrible mistake and would send me away, but they retweeted my photos and engaged with me on Facebook and Twitter. At the end of the day I was invited to that lunch the same way all the other amazing blogging giants were. It was at this very lunch I learned another important lesson.

Lesson#5. Check Your Teeth for Little Green Things Before You Meet Your Travel Blogging Idol

“You have a little green thing in your teeth.” Imagine that you’re standing on the patio of the Penthouse suite at Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto during a special private tour with some of the biggest Travel Blogging giants and hearing that phrase.

DreamTravelMag_meeting Johnny Jet

Yup, that was me, after totally fan girling all over Johnny Jet and asking him if he would take a picture with me. So I have this amazing picture with Johnny Jet and I have a green thing stuck in my teeth. If you learn anything from this blog post – please – remember to check your teeth for green things before you go up to your travel blogging idol and make a total newbie ass of yourself!

Bonus Lesson. How Getting Rescued from a Tree Could Change Your Life Forever

When the actual TBEX conference was over I jumped on a bus with 8 other bloggers on my very first FAM trip. It was an overnight tour of the Central Counties region of Ontario. Our last stop was at a tree-top trekking adventure which we were all told was zip-lining.

The short version of the story is that after a few segments of challenging tight rope walking and hanging onto metal wires for dear life, I could not go on anymore.

Sharon_TreeRescue_TBEXI was an obese blogger, stuck on a tree platform, and trying not to lose it on a FAM trip. The crew at the Tree Top Site didn’t flinch and began setting up “the high angle rescue.” I was horrified, and holding back tears and. Then I was told to step off the platform and fall backward. I was so freaking scared I forgot that I wanted to cry. After letting go and being gently lowered down the tree, all the fear and shame of being rescued went away and this feeling of sheer bliss came over me. I realized in that moment that I had a story – I could write about this experience in a way that no one else could! In that moment I was a travel writer and I knew it.

In the months after this event, I decided I didn’t want to be the fat blogger anymore. I didn’t want to be the blogger that got rescued from a tree. I didn’t want potential companies to think I couldn’t participate in one of their trips because of my weight. I knew in my soul that I was meant to be a writer. I also knew that if I wanted to be a travel writer, I didn’t want to be limited in any way.

I started to see a doctor who worked with me to help me understand how some foods were making me very sick. He stripped my diet and we worked together to create a healthy eating plan that I live by today. I’ve lost 62 pounds so far and counting.

As I worked on living a healthier life I also dedicated myself to my blog. I scheduled time each week in my calendar for blog time. I came home from my full-time job and in the evenings I wrote, worked on social media, website tweaks, did whatever I had to do. I became a freelance travel writer, and when I saved up enough I bought a DSLR camera, took a photography course, and found a new passion as a photographer. I may never quit my day job, but that won’t stop me from writing and working on my blog.

Since TBEX I realized that my blog was not just about my travel dreams. Dream Travel Magazine is about turning travel dreams and experiences into reality. Because of this realization I had a lot of firsts last year: attended my first travel blogging conference, rode a segway, ziplined, got rescued from a tree, went ice fishing, went dog sledding, went snowshoeing, saw a tractor pull, saw a horse pull, and attended a demolition derby.

Since TBEX my numbers have grown 5 times what they were last year. I have been a regular guest blogger at CentralCounties.ca. I have written sponsored posts, been on FAM trips, invited to special events, and made amazing friends who understand my crazy travel blogging life. I have the confidence in myself and my blog to continue to grow and use the hashtag #livingtheDream.

TBEX changed my life forever and it can change yours too! Just believe!

Sharon is a travel writer and blogger based in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada. She founded Dream Travel Magazine in 2011, an online travel magazine filled with travel tips, hotel and excursion reviews, and favourite vacation destinations. Sharon specializes in Caribbean vacations, Ontario road trips and getaways, and organized traveling. She loves to share her dream vacation destinations and how she turns them into reality. You can follow Sharon on twitter @dreamtravelmag.