A Conversation with Sheila Scarborough

Sheila Scarborough, who has written for the likes of National Geographic Traveler and the Perceptive Traveler blog, is one of the go-to professionals for training, teaching, speaking and consulting at the intersection of travel, tourism and social media. In 2008, she joined the blogging world and co-founded, along with Becky McCray, Tourism Currents, an online learning community where they teach tourism professionals the ins and outs of social media and marketing. Check out her website here!

I mentioned you in Travel Writing 2.0 as someone who started out with a bang: getting one of the first pieces you published into National Geographic Traveler. How did you manage that?

Honestly, no one was more surprised than me. When the editor called, I was unloading the dishwasher, so it was the most pedestrian moment to realize that I’d DONE it! I almost dropped a plate, I swear. :)

As a subscriber for over 10 years, I knew what the magazine was all about – cultural and heritage travel, to unique places, without a massive budget – not coincidentally, the same way that I travel.

I had a stretch of central Florida backroad near Gainesville in mind, so I looked to see the last time that they’d covered a similar topic. As I recall, I found that it was a canopy road near Jacksonville, which was different from what I was pitching, and the article was 3-5 years old. That was my wedge: unique place, near the Interstate but not of it, different from previous coverage, with enough time elapsed between the Jacksonville piece and my idea.

The editor commented that she really liked my cover letter/pitch, and I burst out, “Well I hope so, because I worked my tail off on that blasted letter for a week!”

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I broke in by reading a bunch of books on freelance writing, paying careful attention to the content of magazines that I subscribed to, and pitching a story to National Geographic Traveler that I thought might  fit based on reading the magazine for years. It worked.

Keys to success:  persistence, doing my homework, trying to be professional and pleasant to work with and as a news junkie, keeping an eye on future technology so that I can best fit my talents to the Web opportunities that I find.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

I’m happy with how I launched myself, but as time has gone on, I haven’t maximized my opportunities enough. I have good relationships with several editors and should pitch them more often, especially for short “front of book” items. I don’t know why I keep thinking about features instead of FOB, especially since I’m a blogger. :)

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Be an awesome writer first, then use those talents to make your travel experiences come alive. A lot of stories just about write themselves if you know how to pay attention to details around you, but you must think like a writer.

My best advice? Quit thinking about GOING someplace and pitching stories from there – look around your very own town but see it as a travel writer would, and pitch that.

Write what you know. Paris, France has been done – someone needs to totally rock Paris, Texas.

You make some money from travel writing, but more teaching destination marketers how to reach and engage visitors through social media. Why has it taken most travel marketing people so long to catch on to this newfangled internet thing?

Many CVBs (Convention and Visitors Bureaus) do not have large staffs, and social media requires a lot of hands-on time and personal engagement to do it well.  Until the advent of very capable smartphones – allowing interaction, photo uploads, etc. “on the fly,” – it took a lot of vision and dedication to see oneself as a “digital concierge” or an online version of the Visitor’s Center.

Also, many tourism organizations are used to outsourcing their websites, their creative efforts, their brochures, etc. The idea that one or two chatty CVB people can handle thousands of fans and followers – and do it better than an agency, because they know their town better – is a new and somewhat scary concept.

At our educational site, Tourism Currents, we spend a lot of time “teaching people to fish, then getting the hell out of their way.” It’s just storytelling and visitor engagement, with new tools and now a worldwide, 24/7 audience.

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Sheila Scarborough is a writer and speaker specializing in tourism, travel and the social Web. Along with Becky McCray, she is the co-founder of Tourism Currents; together, they teach tourism and hospitality professionals how to make sense of social media for their destination marketing. She has been blogging since February 2006, first on the BootsnAll Family Travel Guide (till December 2010) and as one of the original authors of the Perceptive Travel Blog. Her personal blog is Sheila’s Guide to the Good Stuff (covering tech and tourism), and she is currently writing a book about older women and online entrepreneurship – The Elastic Waist Entrepreneur.

Interview conducted in September, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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