Notes from a First-Time Attendee: What I Learned at NATJA

Two weeks ago, I attended my first NATJA Conference, which was held in Anaheim, California (a perk I shouldn’t forget to mention) and included over 100 travel writers and travel industry publicists. While I went primarily to get my feet wet, I also went to help Tim, who gave an awesome keynote speech about the future of digital travel writing. Over the course of three days, I learned a lot, especially in terms of how this business actually works. So in the spirit of this blog, here are the top 10 things I learned during my days in California:

  1. If you’re anticipating a rousing series of day-long panels and break-out sessions, you might be in for a surprise: panels can be few and far between at NATJA. The emphasis here is on networking, a word that makes many people new to any profession shudder. My advice? Work up your 50-words-or-less bio about who you are and what you write before you get there—you’ll be repeating it more than your own name by the end of the conference.

    Helen Hernandez, NATJA CEO, Welcoming Attendees to the Conference

  2. Now, once you’ve introduced and attempted to legitimize yourself in the face of a room full of writers who are likely more accomplished than you are, I’d suggest quieting the “imposter syndrome.” It’s not helpful and it will just make you nervous (yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here). Put a smile on and sit with people you don’t know—it’ll force you to speak up and get yourself known. You might even find yourself next to the editor of a blog you’d love to work with.
  3. If you’ve got a blog or are thinking of starting one, here’s a tip from one of my favorite panels, led by Jennifer Miner, Gary Ardnt, and our own Tim Leffel: be helpful (thanks, Jennifer) and “get personal” (thanks, Gary). And, last but not least, rely on SEO keywords to increase traffic when you start a blog, because no one—yes, gulp, I know this is hard to hear—knows or cares who you are when you start!
  4. Brush up on your knowledge of digital media before you go. You’ll want to at least look savvy before you attend a conference where many of the attendees make their living off the internet. Don’t be afraid to jump head-first into social media networking (thanks, Tim!). Make sure you revise your page on LinkedIn, Facebook, and any other social media sites you use before you go.
  5. If you are lucky enough to secure a spot on a press-trip or FAM (after a panicked search, I discovered that this oft-used term means “familiarization trip,” or free trip sponsored by a supplier or group of suppliers to familiarize the agents with their destination and services), you have to tell publishers that the trip you’re writing about was paid for.

    Riding Surreys on our Guided Tour of Huntington Beach

  6. As I’ve mentioned, the heart of the NATJA conference is on networking.This also includes press trips around the area, most likely sponsored by the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (known among travel writers as the CVBs) and aimed at fostering positive reviews about the location and its services. While you’ll hear a lot of fluff about why tourists should visit particular places, go on the NATJA press trips—they’re fun and a great way to debunk the whole publicist-writer-publisher relationship.
  7. Print some business cards if you don’t have them—you will get a million of them, and you’ll want to return the favor. (You can design and order your own online). When you get home, you’ll have a bunch of new contacts to connect with and keep up with! I’ve already “linked in” with a whole bunch of cool people.
  8. Even if you’re exhausted by the last day, go to the Marketplace. This is the place where the CVB reps and publicists set up their tables and wait for the writers to come to them. Craft up a story about why you’d be a good fit to write about the place they represent, or offer to email them later to work on pitching a story. Usually, you’ll need to find a place to publish you before you’ll secure a spot on a free trip, but even still: it’s worth the chatting. (Plus, who doesn’t love all those free pens and totebags at the tables?)

    Arriving at Our Behind-the-Scenes Tour and Banquet at Disneyland

  9. I also learned that the art of negotiating pay is not exactly welcomed in the travel writing industry. Don’t ever ask for more money on an article, because here’s an example of what you’ll probably hear (thanks, Spud Hilton, travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle): “I just checked my job description and nowhere does it say I have to make it easier for you to vacation for a living.”
  10. And lastly, while this isn’t a surprising one, allow yourself time to soak up the experience. There is nothing like being surrounded by immensely creative, interesting people for an entire week, and there’s nothing better than starting to see yourself as a contributing member to the field. Enjoy the free drinks, gorge yourself at the buffets, and, above all, have some fun. And trust me–you’ll come home with a whole set of new ideas and very itchy feet.


Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in attending next year, keep checking the NATJA website for the conference location and date announcement!

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