A year and a half ago, when I first seriously became interested in starting a blog, I came across BlogHouse. Put on by Navigate Media Group, BlogHouse is an intensive 3-day experience for travel bloggers, to get a fully rounded overview of all that successful blogging requires. Roughly a dozen bloggers are accepted to spend a long weekend with 4 experienced blogger mentors, in both lecture as well as hands on sessions covering all aspects of building and growing a blog. If you know anything about me, you know I’m a heavy researcher. Google is my BFF. “Wow,” I thought when I started reading bloggers’ posts about their experience in Chicago, “that’s exactly what I need. Someplace where I can get all the info in one place, and have one on one personal support as I do it.”
I’ve had numerous frustrations putting together my website and blog. But, I’m not one to give up once I’ve decided to do something. However, figuring out not only what all I have to do to build this blog, but also how to market myself and it, as well as grow it into a viable business that I can support myself with… well, it’s pretty daunting. Not to mention how to manage wearing all these hats I’ve come to realize a blogger must wear.
Enter the solution, but not immediately:
I applied for 2015 BlogHouse in Milwaukee, and was not accepted. No surprise there, as I was just beginning, and had no direction and only a skeleton blog to show my intent. But I persevered in getting my things going, writing about my travels, learning conflicting advice on SEO, studying good writing practices, how to pitch, improving my photography, and conquering social media. I have managed to tame the bird, push the (photo) envelope, and even master pinning on the virtual bulletin board. In fact, I think it’s pretty darn amazing that I have amassed a fanbase of over 50,000 followers on social media in the last 6 months without having a fully fleshed out and properly functioning blog. Clearly I am on the right path however, and my content is resonating with people.
Come 2016, I applied again admitting my previous defeat, and angels appeared and sang their chorus. I was in! Fortunately, the venue for this year’s BlogHouse was in Philadelphia, a mere 90 miles from home. Not having to book a flight cut my expenses considerably, which was a good start to maxing out my experience and justifying my need to attend. I even knew two of the other bloggers accepted, so that made it a bit less intimidating.
BlogHouse 2016 was hosted at the newly renovated art-chic Sonesta Philly hotel right downtown in Center City, convenient to everything a visitor could want. The Sonesta turned out to be an excellent venue for our needs. You can read more about my stay, including details regarding the accommodations, the food, the Art Bar (where we caught up with all the attendees the first evening), and other amenities at the Sonesta over HERE.
Navigate Media was very organized and sent out full itineraries in advance , complete with social media handles of all the sponsors, as well as the necessary hashtags we’ve all come to expect prior to a press trip. Conveniently too, a full list of all attendees was also included, so we could get a little inside info on who we’d be spending our long weekend with!
The Raison d’Être
BlogHouse covers just about all aspects of what you need to run a successful travel blog. And, that’s a direct reflection of the experienced mentors and excellent organization by these people who wrap it all up in a tidy, jam-packed three days. Topics covered include Writing, Photography, Monetization, Pitching and Working with Brands, Social Media platforms, SEO/Wordpress, and Media Kits.
It was a whirlwind of information. With so many complex topics to cover, each session was really an overview, lasting from 45 – 90 minutes, sometimes barely enough to scratch the surface. Or, should I say… make you realize how much you DON’T know and need to learn more about! However, just like in school, you take copious notes and can ask questions. A part of each day was also dedicated to each of us meeting with one mentor for a private one-on-one to go over what was most pressing. In addition, a tech savvy mentor also rounds out the expert panel, to lend a hand to specific tech questions or issues you may be having.
Our mentors were all successful bloggers who are truly ‘making it’ out there, having had years of experience and are pioneers in travel blogging. Their combined expertise in several related fields helped to shape their current endeavors into real success. But more importantly, they were open books to the attendees. Whatever question we had, they answered it. If we needed a suggestion or contact, they opened their virtual rolodex and shared who best to call. They showed us how they managed aspects of their blogs. They shared their tips and tricks, shortcuts and secrets, and even offered to critique our writing and photography, and invited us to write a guest post for them.
They also had us practice what they preach
Lest you think it was all theory, without practice, BlogHouse integrates some of what we learned with on-site execution, in real time. One afternoon we did a photo walk led by Visit Philly, to try out some of what we learned in the Photography session.
We also had guest speakers and activities that allowed us to hear honest advice straight from the source. Context Travel cleverly brought Federal Donuts to woo us during a coffee break, but gave us a very explicit talk on how exactly they like to work with bloggers to create long term partnerships with beneficial results for both sides.
Visit Philly sent a no-nonsense (but super fun) PR rep to give us the inside scoop on what DMO’s want and what they look for in bloggers. She also warned us how analytic savvy they are, and how they can see through puffed up profiles and thinly veiled pitch attempts from bloggers just trying to get freebies.
Our last night placed us directly in action: the Sofitel Hotel hosted a lovely Industry Night Reception for us in their beautiful Liberté Lounge. BlogHouse invited Visit Philly staffers, PR reps from all our sponsoring companies, and even some former BlogHouse alums. Of course the Sofitel management was in attendance too, including the GM, F&B manager, Marketing/Sales Director, and the Executive Chef. The purpose? For us to get out there, connect with others in our field, pitch our brands and blogs, and get real experience promoting ourselves.
It’s Fun(ny) in Philadelphia too
One of the best parts of any BlogHouse is the opportunity to see and experience a new destination. Being from the mid-Atlantic region, I certainly was familiar with Philadelphia having passed through several times over the years. But Blog House and Visit Philly made sure to give us a good sample of the town. Our second night took us to 2nd Story Brewing Co. where we schmoozed with Visit Philly staffers and got a behind-the-scenes tour with the brewmaster John Wible. We stepped out for lunch one day, by way of a breezy double decker HOHO bus to see some of the sights, and ended up at the super fun Independence Beer Garden.
A perfect place to spend a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, IBG was also obviously the locals choice too, as they packed the open air tables and expansive urban courtyard, drinking craft beer, playing cornhole, just hanging out to while away their day off. I wish we could have stayed and enjoyed a few of the more than 40 regional beers they have on tap, or eaten some more of their addictive fried pickles. But, we were whisked away to our photo walk around Independence Hall and several of the oldest blocks in the city. We were also lucky enough to catch one of the many story-telling events around the historic area under the shade of 200 year old trees – a welcome respite from the heat of the day.
Our Saturday night soiree at the Sofitel was a delicious mix of business and pleasure in their Liberté Lounge. A generous spread of charcuterie and cheeses, a threesome of risottos, and a sweet ending of macarons were most appreciated by our group. In honor of National Gin Day we were also served some very special libations made with local distilled spirits, scented and garnished with honey from bees and fresh herbs raised on the hotel’s roof. Executive Chef Luke Rogers accompanied us on an unexpected surprise visit to the rooftop to see firsthand his flourishing garden and beehives, as well as the spectacular view!
Context Travel graciously provided us with the opportunity to take one of their many wonderful in-depth tours either before or after our BlogHouse event. You can read about my fantastic Ben Franklin Tour experience HERE. We also received a ticket to the Observation Deck at One Liberty Place, which provides an amazing 360° view of the city and beyond.
Some of us were fortunate enough to arrive early or stay a day later, allowing us to get out and experience some of the MANY activities going on that weekend in Philly, like the nighttime display at the Chinese Lantern Festival, or attend the PrideDay LGBT Parade. Others attended the 12-block Odunde Street Festival celebrating African heritage. The weekend we were there for BlogHouse was also the kickoff to the 8th annual brew-tastic Philadelphia Beer Week (actually 10 whole days long!). There is certainly no void of interesting, cultural, and fun activities on any given day in sunny Philadelphia!
The Take-Away, and Taking it to the Next Level
I came away from BlogHouse with almost a fully scribbled in spiral notebook. Listening to what destinations and partners want in working with a blogger, and how best to ask for (and GET what we want), was invaluable. Learning different ways to monetize was encouraging. I loved getting tips on Facebook advertising. I was glad and relieved to hear a session on the importance of good writing, with tips and resources to improve my own. Photography could have been a whole day hands-on exercise itself, but the pearls I picked up I know will vastly improve my images and editing efforts. The fact that I had a pretty good media kit when many others didn’t even have one was also encouraging. Information on how to best grow our social media platforms gave me a big boost of confidence because it made me realize I’d been getting it right all along, really right.
I also made great connections with the sponsor contacts that can hopefully grow into solid partnerships. I’m already planning two return trips to Philadelphia in the near future to better check out the food scene. I’ve come to realize that Philadelphia is so much more than just cheesesteaks, and I’m excited to return to delve deeper into the unique food traditions and try the dishes that make Philadelphia such a great, and diverse, food town. Being less than 2 hours away makes it so easy for me. I have always liked Philly, but now I better realize what an amazing city it truly is because of all it offers. I want to return and discover more about it. It’s easy to write about something you love.
Advice and expertise about improving my blog were not the only things I came away with from BlogHouse Philly. I met other bloggers who are in the same boat as I am, both passionate about what they want to produce, yet also with their own intriguing projects to develop and hurdles to overcome. I’ve come away with the sense that we are in this together, and will support each other in whatever ways we can. I hope to pursue the friendships I made with not only the bloggers, but the mentors, too. Three days crammed with intense sessions and planned activities makes it impossible to get to know even a handful of people, much less all 14 bloggers and 5 mentors, as I’m sure we all would have liked.
All in all, a fantastic experience. My only regret about BlogHouse (even though the Sonesta was a convenient and practical venue): I wish it had been held in a large house, like the early editions, where we all stay together, and there are common rooms we can hang out in. I think it’s easier to foster new relationships when it’s after hours (or early morning, as the case may be)… when we are finally able to relax, put our feet up, or change into our pj’s and just bond over a bottle of wine. We did manage a bit of after-hour fun, going out for drinks or a cheesesteak, but that’s not the same as being able to actually talk, discuss our industry, in a quieter environment, as opposed to shouting over loud music or in a place with bad acoustics, and lots of strangers around. I’m sure it’s less headache to host the event at a hotel, than a rented house, so I understand the likely reason for switching our base to a property with more amenities. I just prefer the camraderie in a private location.
View of Philadelphia from our rooftop tour of the Sofitel Hotel
Our BlogHouse mentors assured us that making these connections and friendships would be one of the best benefits to come out of our BlogHouse experience, and I believe it. I’ve already got a guest post lined up, a house-sitter I know I can call on and trust, plans to attend a writing conference, and two new foodie friends who I can’t wait to visit and have them show me around their town. I feel pretty fortunate for being given such a great learning opportunity and fun experience from BlogHouse.
I want to give special thanks to our BlogHouse sponsors Visit Philly, the Sonesta Philly, the Sofitel, Context Travel and Travel Blog Success, who so generously arranged our accomodations, meals, receptions and activities for us during our stay in fabulous Philadelphia.
2016 BlogHouse Graduates
Lee Blackwood (c’est moi!)
Amanda Bowers www.unrestingsea.com
Danielle Desir www.thoughtcard.com
Juliana Dever www.cleverdeverwherever.com
Delia Harrington www.awayshegoes.net
Jennifer Huber www.solotravelgirl.com
Julian James www.globeslice.com
Katie Macleod www.storiesmysuitcasecouldtell.com
Rachel Miller www.blondwayfarer.com
Marissa Pedersen www.postcardstoseattle.com
Marie-France Roy www.bigtravelnut.com
Valerie Stimac www.valisemag.com
Kimi Sugiyama www.sushiyamatravels.com
Gina Zammit www.wanderlaughs.com
2016 BlogHouse Mentors
Lisa Lubin www.LLworldtour.com
Cailin O’Neil www.TravelYourself.com
Sherry Ott www.ottsworld.com
Anne Lowrey www.parttimetraveler.com
Lisa Ghisolf www.Gizmo-Design.com
Get Your Philly Hot Links Here…
Visit Philly – Find out everything you need to know about planning a trip to Philadelphia with this exhaustive resource
The Sonesta Philly – A recently renovated art-inspired hotel perfectly located in downtown Philly
The Art Bar – Cool art and even cooler cocktails are poured at this trendy watering hole and restaurant in the Sonesta Philly.
The Sofitel – Philly’s option for refined service and luxury accommodations in the French style, (mais oui, bien sur!)
The Liberté Lounge – this is the scene where you want to be seen
Context Travel – Delve deep with these small group and private tours for the intellectually curious traveler
2nd Story Brewing Co. – Handcrafted brewing with a story, and a 2nd story too. Ask for a tour of the upstairs brewing equipment. You might be lucky enough to have Brewmaster John Wible himself as your guide.
Independence Beer Garden: A perfect place to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon or a lively Saturday night, IBG is a haven for craft beer fans with over 40 regional brews on tap. Strings of Tivoli lights illuminate the garden at night, making it doubly a place I’d visit after dark on a balmy spring evening or gathered around one of their fire pits on a chilly fall night.
Philadelphia Sightseeing Tours – Have fun riding this double-decker HopOn/HopOff bus with 27 stops covering 100 iconic Philly attractions
Once Upon a Nation – 13 Story-telling Benches scattered around the Old City Historical area
One Liberty Place Observation Deck – Not cheap, but worth it view of Philly’s green city grid, and beyond. Learn bits of Philly trivia, both pop & historical, and get your picture taken alongside a giant Ben Franklin. Free tours also run every hour once you are up at the top.
Federal Donuts – a Philly legend, and the epitome of comfort food. Crispy (Korean style) fried chicken and fresh donuts. What more do you need? Oh yes, they also serve coffee, good coffee. Several locations in town, but the one close to BlogHouse was on Sansom St.
Philly Beer Week – A misnomer because it’s 10 glorious days celebrating all things beer in the City of Brotherly Suds