Christopher Mitchell is a Canadian travel writer, blogger, podcaster and photographer who is the founder of travelingmitch. He has visited nearly 80 countries and lived on five continents. Chris also runs the podcast “Rick Steves Over Brunch,” with another travel writer as they break down classic episodes of the show, “Rick Steve’s Europe.” He joins us this week to talk about his travel experiences and the business of building his brand.
I know from our conversations that you have lived in Norway, Turkey, and Korea, that you just moved back to your native Canada in mid-2017. What’s the story behind that?
You’re absolutely right about that, Tim, I’ve lived in all of those places and a few others that you haven’t listed. My spark for travel has always been curious, ever since I was a kid. It seemed perfectly logical to me that if I was going to be made to spend so much time in elementary school learning about geography, history, and so forth, that in my adult years I’d at least go and see these places and form my own opinions.
You can ask my mother – I’ve never been very good at staying still. In fact, I was 16 was when I first moved away and spent some time to take a course at Trinity College studying Irish authors, who I’ve always held pretty dear. When I first said I was taking off, I feel like people thought it might have been a phase but, at this point, it’s my life. Suffice to say, boredom isn’t a problem for me anymore.
To address your question a little more carefully, I did indeed return to Toronto in August of 2017. Prior to that, I’d studied in Norway at the University of Oslo, taught English and worked as a blogger for the government in South Korea, then taught at an international school in Istanbul for 3 years, while also playing professional hockey there and getting my Masters. So, you know, your standard course of action.
What actually sparked my desire to head back to the homeland was a number of things. First, my family is in Toronto, and I’m blessed to be very close to them. The same goes for my friends in this city who, in many ways, are like family as well. My brother and I both got married this summer, so I wanted to be here leading up to that.
On a more bleak note, though, our last year in Istanbul was tumultuous, as terrorism increased and Erdogan’s grasp on power was tightened at all costs. There reached a point where it became apparent that it might be wise to head back to Canada willingly before we were ousted in another fashion. Some of my old posts capture those very moments of turmoil, which I’m thankful for in a way—particularly after I witnessed a major bombing. I was writing feverishly in Istanbul both for myself and for other publications, and freedom of speech was not exactly in vogue.
All that to say, I’m back in Canada now but I’ve left a piece of myself in many places around the globe, and I’m more than comfortable with that.
When did you start blogging and what took you from your former career path into travel writing as a real business?
So, I actually started my blog in 2010 when I was studying in Norway. I wanted a way to keep my family and friends in the loop without having to call everyone individually. By releasing posts, I could talk about specific aspects of my life abroad when catching up with friends, as opposed to just some overarching thoughts of what it was like.
In 2011, when I moved to Korea, I was selected as a World Korea Blogger, which essentially meant being a brand ambassador for the government and, in light of that, my blog began to seriously grow. That being said, I really don’t think I thought of it as a viable career path until 2016, which is when I started to conceive of myself more as a brand than blogger. With social media, I was able to reach different people in different ways, and I realized my approach had to be holistic. I spent some time on the backend and development side of my site and tightened up all aspects of my brand, including creating a strong media kit and so forth.
At the time I was teaching at an international school and thinking about whether or not I should start applying for jobs back in Toronto, but I decided to forego that and focus on my own business.
In the beginning, I was writing for anybody and everybody to get my name out there, but slowly I became more selective. My idea, really, was to continue to grow my portfolio, some of which you can see here, to the point where I knew that magazines, publications, brands, and tourism boards would know that I knew how to construct the content they wanted and needed.
Then, it was all about the hustle. I started going to more networking events and opportunities started coming my way. I used my blog to leverage travel writing opportunities and my contacts in travel writing to leverage blogging opportunities. Again, I was all about the holistic growth, in all aspects, which all comes back to thinking of myself as a brand, not just a blogger.
I will say that writing is my great passion in life, and I’d have gone nowhere if that wasn’t the case. It’s hard work, as you know well, Tim, but it’s worth it if you love it.
In truth, I’m still growing this business, and there’s a lot more I can do, but I’ve built a strong foundation, and that’s all I can ask for at this point. You certainly won’t find me complaining.
Everyone has to start out at zero and build up from there as a blogger. Which activities or tactics that you put in place have made the most difference for traffic or income?
That’s a good question and, while there are a number of factors, I can certainly highlight a few tactics that have made a difference.
First, networking is going to be your best friend. When I moved back to Toronto, I went to every single travel, social media, digital marketing etc. event that was there. You can ask my wife, in some weeks, I was going to 3 or 4 events, and that wasn’t terribly unusual. Some of them were a waste of time, but some of them were a great success. In this business, once you get a few opportunities, more come because, in a sense, you’ve been “vetted.” I started working for some travel companies as a spokesman doing live videos on social media and so forth and it’s amazing how other companies start to feel like they need you as well. I’ve always felt that if you plant enough seeds, some of them will grow into trees (and, subsequently income), and that’s the way I conceive of networking.
Second, you’re going to have to be humble and accept rejection on scales you never knew were possible. When I moved back to Canada, I began researching every singly RTO and DMO around me and took the time to reach out to every single one with a carefully crafted pitch, as well as my media kit and so forth. Not all worked out, obviously, but some have led to very fruitful partnerships which have lent legitimacy to my brand and mission.
In the beginning, you should be pestering people with emails in all directions. I wouldn’t hesitate to spend an entire Monday just on emails. Be smart, use a program like MixMax to make your emailing process as efficient as possible, and just go for it. The truth is, nobody is going to give you grief for your rejections, but you’ll get praise for your successes.
Lastly, learn about SEO. I cannot stress this enough. If you’re a blogger and you’re not proficient in SEO, you’re not going to make it in today’s competitive landscape. There are some great programs and courses out there which make SEO easy, but you need to know it, so find a way to make that happen.
You’ve also placed a good number of freelance articles in other publications, whether that’s regular ones like Outpost or GoBackpacking or custom articles for companies like Intrepid. How did you get your foot in and then how did you become a regular?
Yeah, that’s exactly right, Tim. There wasn’t really any “one way.” For starters, I realized that pitching is a bit of an art form, and I had to get that down pat if I was going to be professional in this realm. I learned about constructing a proper lead etc., as well as scheduling reminders to follow-up with editors from previous pitches I’d made. Editors are so busy I quickly found out, that often times a little follow-up makes a huge difference for opportunity.
I also started leveraging past articles to showcase the fact that I knew what I was doing. Editors, I quickly understood, adore writers who ensure that they don’t have much to do on their side of things, so that became my goal. Naturally, if you do that the first time, the editor wants to work with you again. A large part of that, realistically, is understanding the goals of the publication. Intrepid, for example, is likely going to want to positive spin on the benefits of travel (at least implicitly), whereas a magazine like Outpost might specifically want to hear a narrative of struggle on the road.
Now, I’d say I write regularly for three or so publications, but I’m primarily focused on my blog and making partnerships where I have creative control of the content, and can host it on my site.
Are you making enough as a writer to thrive financially? Which income sources make up the highest percentages?
I’m pleased to say that indeed I am. It depends on the month as far as what income sources make up the primary portion of my income, but a large part of my income is based on partnerships with destinations. My niche has become creating longform content that serve as itineraries, so I often work with places and do an active social media campaign while I am there, plus an overarching article which I release on my site roughly two weeks later. At this point, I’m doing about three or so a month, so that definitely helps.
I also have had a few photography shows where I’ve sold some photos and some other things like that. I’ve worked with companies to host live videos as well, and even run seminars at companies on best practice for creating content and social media.
Freelance travel writing still does make up a fair chunk of my income, but a little less so than before. I still love freelancing, it’s more just about making sure it’s worth my time. That’s been a big thing in running my own business, ensuring that I’m spending my time wisely and efficiently.
It’s funny, but it used to be that I begged for opportunities, and now it’s very much the other way around. My inbox is filled with interesting paid gigs, so, as I said, now it’s about sorting through what aligns with my brand and makes sense financially.
You’ve been to a lot of places that I’m highlighting in the 5th edition of my book The World’s Cheapest Destinations. Which places really stood out to you as being a screaming bargain and what are some examples of what you paid when traveling there?
I’ll have to make sure I get myself a copy of that, by the way, but let me rack my brain here. I still think Georgia offers great value, especially because the food and drink are so cheap. Tbilisi is an interesting capital and, while the roads aren’t wonderful, they’re good enough. A meal there likely won’t run you more than 10 bucks, and you’ll leave full, and, quite possibly, drunk.
Bulgaria, and specifically Sofia, is cheap for what you’re getting. You can stay in a fairly swanky Airbnb there for about 30 bucks, and nothing really runs up the bill too much. I have a bunch of travel writing friends who actually are based in Sofia.
With the lira dropping so much, it’s not a bad idea to fit your travels to Turkey in right now. The value there compared to USD is just amazing. It likely wouldn’t hurt to fit in Mexico or South Africa this year either if you’re looking for a good deal.
Chris regularly tries to showcase his adventures through photography on Instagram, or through boredom on Twitter. You can see more of his work on his portfolio or reach out to him at [email protected] He’s currently based in Toronto, and continues to travel regularly around North America and beyond.
Interview conducted by Tim Leffel, posted by Terri Marshall.