Dalene Heck is half of Hecktic Travels, a blog that chronicles the adventures of Dalene and her husband, Pete, as they travel around the world. In our interview today, Dalene shares with me how she and her husband got started in travel writing and where she sees the future of travel media. Enjoy!
Dalene, you’ve written about your story and why you started traveling on your blog. It is such a powerful story and one that I know speaks to so many people. How would you describe your current niche in the travel blogging world?
That is a good question, but I think the best answer I can give is that we don’t really have one. From the very start we have been committed to the idea that our blog is purely a chronological narration of our story – from recording the devastating circumstances that inspired our travel, to grand adventures like our Greenland kayak expedition, to deep cultural experiences, to personal posts on our marriage, to even recounting the variety of foods we try. I write about what moves me, and that can be any number of things along the way.
So while some may consider our lack of niche a detriment to our blog or the ability to achieve success with it, that matters little to us. We will never be the biggest blog in the world, and it probably means we get passed over for certain projects, but we’re completely okay with that. At the end of the day, we have to enjoy what we do, and after four years we still adore it – not many bloggers get this far while saying the same thing. As well, I think our style has contributed to our success in other ways – our readers are highly engaged and very invested in our story. They appreciate our openness and honesty, and are always eager to know where we are going next. We hear/read the words: “Never stop traveling and blogging!” very often. That’s all that matters to us.
Being named Travelers of the Year by National Geographic also served as some validation to our blogging methodology. When we asked why we were chosen, the editor told us: “We’re interested in what people learn from their travels—how it changes them—what they discover—what they can tell us about the power of travel to transform their lives.” That award was by far our greatest accomplishment and I don’t know how it can possibly be topped – if we had focused on just one niche aspect of travel and not reflected on our whole story, I don’t think it would have happened.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the blog came to be? What were your original goals and how have those changed?
Hecktic Travels was born largely out of boredom! We had accepted a 6 month house-sitting job on the small island of Roatan, Honduras, and while hitting the beach daily sounds like paradise for some, we quickly grew bored. We had already been traveling and journaling for a year, but never discovered the world of travel blogs until that point. We stumbled on a couple like The Professional Hobo and Hole in the Donut and realized that there were people out there who were actually gaining income off of their blogs while traveling full-time. We knew that we wanted to keep traveling perpetually but that our savings would run out sometime, and so this seemed like a logical solution. Thus we started the blog to give us something to do as well as earn a few dollars along the way.
We were having a lot of fun and gained traction quickly, but also learned that it wasn’t likely that we would be able to entirely sustain our lifestyle with it. And thus began our “exploration period” of seeing what else we could do while paying a little less attention to our blog – we did some freelance writing, freelance video, new blogger training, we wrote an ebook, and more. And then finally in this last year we also started social media consulting and campaign management (as Hecktic Media Inc. http://heckticmedia.com) and really found our way. Now that we are more focused, we are far better organized and also able to invest more time into quality content for our blog.
Our new business venture has also taken the pressure off of our blog having to make money. We are proudly ad free, and while we do enter into some strategic partnerships where they make sense, we say ‘no’ FAR more times than we say ‘yes’. Our blog is thus a labour of love, and we’re only publishing the kind of content that we enjoy creating.
I’ve often wondered this when I read about people selling everything they have to travel: How do you relate to readers who enjoy their lives of occasional travel and living in a comfortable environment? Conversely, have you ever thought about settling down again in one place for a while?
I really strive to write for only one reader. And (maybe embarrassingly?) that reader is my Mom! She’s settled and only travels occasionally, so I focus on what she would be interested in reading about our life on the road. That might be an easy sell (my Mom wants to know everything of course!), but it does force me to make the posts relatable.
I also make the assumption that the reader knows little about each place we visit. I include very high level info so as not to exclude those who know nothing about it. And I try to tell each story with heart – to focus on what moves me and what true feeling I get out of being there – I find that it is those posts that readers attach themselves to most.
Pete and I have the odd conversation about settling down, but it never goes very far, we are too addicted to the journey. We travel quite slow and do some house-sitting along the way which allows us to feel like we are “home” if even for a short while.
What do you wish you’d known when you started blogging that you now know? What did you know about design, SEO, networking, etc. then versus now?
You have actually stumped me with this question. Partly because there are things that we STILL don’t know well (hello, SEO!) but also because I guess I just accept that this has all been a big learning process and is constantly evolving. We have mostly stuck with our overall philosophy since the very beginning and don’t feel like we’ve made any drastic mistakes. There are always things we can improve on, but overall are very happy with our blogging journey.
As many of our readers are budding or experienced travel bloggers or travel enthusiasts, I’d like to ask how you see your income mix changing in the next 5, 10 years. What does the future of digital media hold for bloggers?
Every six months I seem to utter the same thing – “Wow, we’re really turning a corner here!” – but it’s true. I’m always amazed at how quickly things are changing, and how the travel industry continues to strengthen their embrace with bloggers. It’s such an exciting time to be where we are.
I expect our income mix to stay relatively the same as we’ve found work (albeit outside the blog) that we enjoy. We both hold business degrees, have decades of experience in negotiation, project management, and analytics, so using those skills to help bridge the gap between influencers and industry is a natural fit. We’re also only taking on projects where bloggers are compensated fairly, so it feels good to be helping out our fellow bloggers. Focusing on our own blog as a source of income will continue to come second.
I think the overall trend will continue upwards. More brands and destinations will understand the benefit of working with bloggers and our value will continue to rise. I do believe, however, that there Is much more pressure on bloggers to improve their craft given the large number of new blogs starting every day plus the fact that the industry is getting more savvy at evaluating them. But those that work hard and have genuine audiences will be rewarded.
Dalene and her husband Pete are originally from Canada but have been nomadic for over five years and blog at HeckticTravels.com. In 2014 they were awarded the “Traveler of the Year” award by National Geographic, and Dalene has also twice been named a “Voice of the Year” by BlogHer.
Interview conducted in December, 2014 by Kristin Winet.
Many who attended my presentation at TBEX Athens asked if I could post it somewhere. Others who couldn’t attend have been asking as well. The audio from that conference is still not posted and the slides only make so much sense without it. So I’ve re-recorded it and here you go. So Much Content, So Little Time: Productivity Tips for Bloggers.
Note that sometimes it gets stuck for some reason after the second slide and then one point toward the end, so you may have to hit the > arrow on your keyboard or onscreen to take it off pause. It’s small here though, so use the full screen option to expand it, then hit the “slideshow” option.
Watch this when you’ve got some time, because it’s more than a half hour long. Naturally the Q&A part is not in here, but if the TBEX audio posts later, you should be able to fast-forward and hear that part. Questions were mostly about specific scheduling tools, how much to pay outside bloggers, and what to do if you can’t afford to hire others for tech or design work. (My answer to the last one is, you almost certainly can afford it if you look on some of the freelancer sites I mentioned. It’s cheaper than you probably think.)
I mentioned a lot of tools in that presentation. Here are some of the main ones I use on a regular basis. Free ones are first, paid ones after. Some have a free trial or are free with limited features, but then if you pay more you get more. A couple of these are affiliate links, most are not.
Boomerang for Gmail
Thunderbird (Outlook or Gmail for desktop will work too)
Mention.com *I think used to be .org and that’s what I said in the presentation, but it’s now .com
Speaking of LeadPages, you are on the Travel Writing Success newsletter list, right? RIGHT?! If not, you’re missing out on a great source of advice from me and the people we interview here. You can see the nice sign-up page I created with that tool here: success newsletter.
Here’s a poster created by Candace Rose Rardon with quotes from various speakers’ presentations at TBEX Europe. I was honored to be included and…isn’t this cool?
Adam Groffman is the voice behind Travels with Adam as well as a number of other sites (such as the popular My Gay Travel Guide). In our interview today, he talks about how his approach to blogging has changed over the years, what makes him unique, and offers some advice for new bloggers. Also, Adam wants us to know that he is giving away a trip for two people to Berlin! The trip includes flights from select USA cities and 4 nights accommodation at the Ku’Damm 101 design hotel. Enter here by Nov. 30th and enjoy our conversation!
In 2010, you left your job as a graphic designer to become a blogger. How has your approach to blogging changed over the past few years?
I started my blog out of a sense of guilt: I was quitting my job in the middle of the USA recession and felt pretty guilty about that so while I was backpacking across the world spending my entire life savings, I figured I should do something productive at the same time. I set up the blog as a place to start writing again (something I’d done in college but had lost sight of while working on my design career). Before I had the blog, I’d actually had my @travelsofadam Twitter account – mostly because I just loved social media. Blogging and social media were always passions of mine and when I started the blog, it was a chance to take my passion & interests to a new level.
These days blogging is still a passion but I’ve had to think more creatively and consider it as a business. I never intended it for it to become a business, but as the blog grew and my own interests changed from design to social media, it just seemed like a natural step. Plus it seemed like finally a good use for my Bachelors of Science in Communication.
I love your new web design! What recently inspired you to redesign the site?
Oh wow, thank you! The response to the new design has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m so happy about it. I’d had the previous design for over two years already and though that design had lots of great comments, I just knew it was time to change things up. Plus, as my blog has grown I’ve discovered the things that have interested me more and more – such as my small series of Hipster City Guides. I currently have 11 guides and there are two more in the work for this year. The new design puts a greater emphasis on the guides which I love producing and which people love reading.
With the advent of new travel startups like AirBNB, ridesharing and unique tours (food tours come to mind), I’ve noticed a trend in travel where travelers are looking for more special, more tailored, more memorable holidays. A trip to Rome is less about seeing the sights today than it is about experiencing Roman culture (and the food! — though of course a trip to Rome isn’t complete without a stop by the Trevi Fountain!). I think we can travel in more meaningful ways — ways that will make our trips more memorable rather than just a photo snapshot in front of the Colloseum. On my blog, I try to share about those unique experiences and share ways to achieve those same kinds of holiday memories — though of course every trip is different and every traveler is different.
What would you tell a loved one who wanted to become a travel blogger today?
Go for it — if it’s something you’re actually passionate about! Writing/blogging isn’t easy and can quickly become exhausting if it’s not a passion. Social media may be fun and easy for you as an individual, but as a brand it can be more tricky – you’ve got to really like it or else there’s really not much of a reason to do it.
You have another travel website, My Gay Travel Guide, along with Travels of Adam. How do you balance the two?
It’s hard work to manage two blogs! But I’ve got several friends and colleagues who are helping with MyGayTravelGuide.com and a small team of freelance writers and bloggers. I credit a lot of the success for that blog to the personal stories by David from lefashionisto.com and Sam from indefiniteadventure.com.
There’s no doubt there’s an effect but it’s up to the writer to determine whether it can negatively affect a story. I have the luxury of running a profitable website and a freelance business as a writer & marketer so I personally only join FAM trips and sponsored press trips when it’s most appropriate for the content that I actually want to produce. I don’t really want to be writing stories about African safaris or winter adventure holidays. I’m very particular when working with a tourism board or destination on a planned press trip. These days, it’s up to the writers AND the PRs to agree to and create press trips that are relevant for all parties involved. There’s no sense in an African safari company inviting me to join a trip because it’s not the content I know how to write or can produce, and I would never take the trip if it were offered to me for the very same reasons. It’s just about being smart and selective. Which is pretty much a key to success for many types of business endeavors.
Also, don’t forget! I’ve partnered with airberlin and VisitBerlin to give away a trip for two people to the greatest city in the world (hint: it’s Berlin!). Simply enter the contest before November 30 for your chance to win. The trip includes flights from select USA cities and 4 nights accommodation at the Ku’Damm 101 design hotel. Enter here: http://travelsofadam.com/contest/
Interview conducted in November 2014 by Kristin Winet.
Janice Waugh, the voice behind the Solo Traveler blog and the Solo Traveler’s Handbook, talks to me in our interview today about how she went from personal blog to public community–and where she hopes to go from here. Enjoy!
Janice, you started Solo Traveler after realizing that your personal blog was quickly going public. After that shift, how did you (or did you?) change your approach to blogging?
Solo Traveler has evolved over the years. At first I wrote all the content. Then I started the Pic of the Week so that readers could share their travel experiences as well. Then Tracey came on board as editor and added her voice to the mix. And with her involvement, we had the resources to manage more contributions from readers and the Destination of the Week became a regular feature of the blog. My approach to blogging is about building community. About giving readers a sense of ownership of the blog through real participation. I think this is well reflected on the blog’s content.
How did you become a location-independent entrepreneur? What did it take to get there?
I have been an entrepreneur my entire life. Being a blogger is just the latest manifestation of my entrepreneurial life. Blogging is a full time gig for me. As long as I have my computer or tablet and WiFi access, I can do my work from anywhere.
Where do you see your blog headed in the next 5 years? 10?
Solo Traveler serves a very broad demographic – from people in their twenties to people in the seventies. But the main writers are Tracey and myself – we’re from a very specific demographic. Over the next few years I would like to get more writers on board so that we can better serve all solo travelers.
What would you tell a loved one who wanted to become a travel blogger today?
To make travel blogging a career you need to focus on building a community of loyal readers. This means being authentic and transparent, putting yourself out there and being thoughtful about your work. But there is also the business side of blogging. It takes creativity, diligence, discipline and a lot of time.
On your blog, you advocate for traveling solo. Do you think that couples and even groups can adopt this same mentality and approach to the traveling life?
Everyone can take the time to travel solo at some point. And, in my opinion, everyone should. Traveling solo presents opportunities and experiences that simply don’t happen when you’re traveling with someone else. It also allows you the time to discover, or rediscover, your own interests and rhythm. Without being concerned about the needs of others you can learn who you are when no one is looking.
Tell us about writing The Solo Traveler’s Handbook. What was that experience like for you?
I had intended this to be a leisurely process but then I was contacted by the Smithsonian to speak there and I suddenly had a deadline. What a wonderful deadline to work to. Writing the book was enjoyable but it is far more satisfying to receive the comments from those who have read it. While those who already travel solo have liked the book it’s the newbies who really get the most out of it. It’s very satisfying to hear from them and know that it has made a difference in their lives.
Janice Waugh is author of The Solo Traveler’s Handbook, publisher of Solo Traveler Blog, the blog for those who travel alone and moderator of the Solo Travel Society on Facebook with over 70,000 fans. She has spoken at The Smithsonian and elsewhere on solo travel and at a number of industry events on travel blogging. She has been quoted in many media outlets including CNN, the Oprah Blog, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times and USA Today. You can follower her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+. She is also founder of Full Flight Press, publisher of The Traveler’s Handbooks series.
Interview conducted in November 2014 by Kristin Winet.
Shannon O’Donnell is an advocate for grassroots volunteering and slow travel. In addition to being recognized as Traveler of the Year by National Geographic last year, she recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and writes for her blog, A Little Adrift. In our conversation today, Shannon and I discuss her consulting and public speaking work and her passion for inspiring young people to travel and become global citizens. Enjoy!
Shannon, you were named National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year in 2013. Congratulations! What did it take to receive this prestigious award?
Thank you! It was such an extreme honor to receive from a magazine that I have read for more than two decades. The Travelers of the Year program focuses on individuals who travel with passion and purpose, and NatGeo honored me for the work I am doing to promote grassroots level travel and tourism. My Grassroots Volunteering site looks to encourage ethical independent volunteering opportunity alongside the chance for travelers to find and support local organizations—restaurants, social enterprises, boutiques, tour companies—that are creating positive change in their communities.
You are a former actress. Have you been able to bring any of that part of your life into traveling and blogging? If so, how?
I’ve always felt that my acting training has benefited my life in intangible ways—from an ease with people in unfamiliar situations to networking at travel industry events. I have a strong background in improv, for years that was a focus of my training, and it’s that training that has helped me feel confident moving my travel blog success into speaking to students at universities and high schools. After honing a narrative about myself as an actress in LA—that took work to find a story arch about characters and my role in the industry—I was ready to bring that same idea of having a public persona to blogging. Though my site, A Little Adrift, is an authentic outlet for my thoughts and ideas, I also think successful blogs take this a step further and the bloggers create and follow a narrative line within their own story that makes them compelling to readers and their community. Years navigating the overwhelming sea of other red-headed actresses in Los Angeles taught me how to form a narrative voice that stands out.
Since you don’t run ads or sponsored content on your site, how do you make traveling full-time possible? Is it primarily through public speaking and training?
Speaking at universities about travel is part of my income, but the majority of my funds come from online marketing and running social media for small businesses. The breakdown is about 30% from speaking and freelance traveling writing and 70% from online consulting. When I left to travel in 2008, 100% of my income came from my online work, and I was able to work from the road for years with this income and travel for the better part of every year.
How do you see your income mix changing in the next few years?
My income will likely remain at roughly this ratio; I enjoy the consulting work and generally have a good mix of speaking and writing every month that fulfills the travel and creative side of my life. I have long found that it was easier for me to gain well-paying expertise by focusing on consulting work versus trying to make an income from my blogging.
My best advice is to decide up front if you are building a business or a blog—they are not necessarily the same thing, and the way you build them is likely a different path. I offered up some ideas here for bloggers on how I built my online community, it really came down to identifying what outcome was most important to gain from the blog; for me, that was building a community of like-minded travelers interested in culture, food, and language overseas.
Oh, and I wish I had taken everyone’s advice to start a newsletter list immediately. This direct communication with my community is one of my most valuable ways to communicate and I wish I had built that community sooner!
Shannon O’Donnell is a long-term traveler on the road since 2008; she travels slowly and supports grassroots tourism along the way. She published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook and founded GrassrootsVolunteering.org to help travelers connect with ethical volunteering and travel opportunities. She also founded the award-winning travel site A Little Adrift to share stories of culture and inspire others to travel. She regularly speaks to students at universities and high schools around the country, striving to ignite in the next generation a passion and interest in global citizenship and travel.
Interview conducted in November, 2014 by Kristin Winet.