WTM London 2019 ended last week, and I can’t help but think about what I wish I’d known before my first time at a travel conference. Because I’m such a great photographer, I didn’t take any photos of the event. So this article might seem like an imposing wall of text, but I’ll break everything down so that you can have the most successful travel conference experience possible.
Quick note before we get started: WTM London is the only travel conference I have attended, so while the experience is likely similar for other conferences like ITB in Berlin and IMEX in Las Vegas, there are certainly things that differ. Refer to the info sections and Contact Me pages of whichever conference you’ll be attending for the most accurate information! And don’t be afraid to reach out to me if you have any questions, I’m happy to help!
What is a Travel Conference?
WTM London, or The World Travel Market in London, is one of the biggest travel conferences out there. But what does that mean? A travel conference is a collection of the biggest names in tourism. From hotels and tour operators to national, regional, and city tourism boards, and everything in between. Hundreds of organizations and thousands of people involved in tourism come to these events, and they’re here for one reason – to promote their company, destination, or product.
Literally millions of Dollars, Pounds, Euros, Yen, and everything else exchange hands at these conferences as exhibitors meet with visitors and other exhibitors alike, making deals and securing their next year’s travels and profits. At WTM specifically, each country (generally) has their own space on the exhibition floor to which companies and tourism boards from that country can set up everything they brought. These exhibitors give away things like brochures, travel guides, and business cards. Region of Crete even gave me some authentic Cretan tea!
That attracts a lot of different people, including people like you and me.
Why Should You Attend a Travel Conference?
This section is directed toward travel and tourism professionals like Photographers, Bloggers, Writers, and travel-centric Digital Nomads. While the information will be specific for what we experience at these conferences, if you don’t fall into one of those categories, keep reading! You may find some information that might be useful!
So, why should you attend a travel conference? They’re incredibly crowded, busy, and loud. But if you prepare well it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your travel career.
In short, you should attend a travel conference to secure clients, connect with potential future clients, and network with people in the tourism industry. The people you meet at a travel conference are your greatest resources for keeping you on the road as a digital nomad. Or at least keeping you employed if you aren’t a full time traveler.
If you want or are trying to make a career in travel, a travel conference should be at the top of your list of things to do. While literally all of us would like to make a passive living while sipping fruity drinks on some remote beach in Thailand, that’s just not how it works. And we’ve all heard ad nauseum about how full time travel “isn’t all just sipping fruity drinks on remote beaches,” but instead is, “really hard work,” and, “just like a regular job (snort).” You all know that and don’t need me to tell you. But when you hear those phrases, what does it actually mean? It means going to events like these! Full time travel is hard work, and this is how you make the most of your time.
At these conferences, you are given the chance to expand and secure your ability to travel.
How Do I Prepare For a Travel Conference?
Alright! Now that you’ve been thoroughly convinced of your need to attend, how do you make the most of it?
First, why do you want to attend a travel conference? Because I told you to? Because you want to look at pretty booths? Hey, if that’s what floats your boat, you go for it!
But if its because you want to find clients, network with fellow travelers, and get waaaaay out of your comfort zone and be successful, then you need to set goals. I’ll tell you what I did. Grab a notebook and write down where you want to go in the next year. If you already have travel plans confirmed for parts of the next 12 months, even better!
Now, how much money do you need to make to do all that? Flights, housing, food, business expenses, etc. Split it up by month or by location. I do it by month (download my template here)! Once you’ve done that, congrats! You’ve successfully set some goals. If you want to take it a step further, go for it! But these are the basics.
Your goals should be set and you should start planning around 3-4 months before the conference. If you’re reading this and you have less than that amount of time, you have a lot of work ahead of you, but it isn’t impossible! Because of your goals, you now know where you want to be and how much it’s going to cost. Now it’s time to prepare so that you can make it a reality!
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I’ve only ever gone to WTM. However, I’m like 98.5% certain that every big conference has your next resource – The Exhibitor Catalog. This thing is the holy grail of travel professionals. A list of every exhibitor, every booth, literally everyone who’s going to be there. The greatest thing about this list, though, is that it lists some key things you’re going to want. Specifically: their location, their brochures, and their website.
Now it is time to start researching! With your list of every exhibitor going to the conference, find every exhibitor near where you want to be in the next year, and write em down. I used an excel sheet and listed their company name, location (Continent, Country), and website. I’ll be real with you. That last step takes forever and is boring as all hell. Just a warning. But whenever you get bored, just remember, tRaVeL pHoToGrApHy iS hArD wOrK.
You’re next step is to start reaching out to all these companies you just wrote down. WTM has this fantastic feature called ConnectMe. It lets you send invitations for meetings through the website and it automatically makes a schedule for you. The only drawback is that it only lets you have 20 pending meeting invites at a time. I know ITB in Berlin doesn’t have this feature, and I’m not sure about the others. Regardless of how you reach out, the time to start is now!
Whether you’re going to WTM and can use ConnectMe, or another conference and have to reach out through email (which can almost always be found on the companies website, but I would be looking for personal emails, not firstname.lastname@example.org), the process is basically the same.
The Initial Pitch
If you’ve never pitched before, this can be terrifying. If you have pitched before, it can still be stressful. That’s totally normal. No one likes to be rejected. What helps me is to remember that the worst thing that can happen is they say no. What usually happens is you just never hear back, so generally getting rejected isn’t even a worst-case scenario!
If you’ve never worked with the company before (which is basically a given if you’re reading this article), then a generic, introductory pitch is the best. Don’t throw 5 paragraphs about your dream trip to their location at them. They’ll just delete it and move on. Instead, here’s what you’re going to do:
Intro paragraph. Start off addressing the person you’re talking to. Then your name, what you do, where you’re from, your accolades, awards, mentions, published areas, etc. For example:
Billy Smith & The ILikeToHireTravelPhotographers Team,
My name is Brax Johnson. I’m an award winning travel photographer & writer originally from the western United States. I work with companies around the world like Delta Airlines, Shutterstock, and The Guardian.
Easy! Keep it nice and short. Literally 3 sentences. It’s easy to understand, and it’s quick to read. Next is your pitch. Take what I just said (easy, quick), and apply it to the next paragraph. For example:
I will be at WTM London this coming November and would love to come by your booth and pitch you a photography project. I have a project in mind for your company that I think would be great for your brand and beneficial for the both of us. If photographers and photography services are something you’re looking for, I’d love to set up a meeting! Let me know what day of the conference works best for you and I will come by then.
4 sentences. Now it’s time to finish. Always finish strong. If you’re timid, now’s the time to pretend you aren’t! Obviously don’t be aggressive or overbearing, but be confident. For example:
I appreciate your time and consideration. I look forward to meeting you!
Contact Info & Portfolio Links
And that’s all you have to do. Send that bad boy off and keep going. You have a lot of emails to send and not enough time to send them.
Hearing Back, Scheduling and Researching Round 2
Hearing Back & Scheduling
As you start to hear back from companies you sent emails to, make sure you start keeping track of when and where. Schedule yourself in 15-30 minute increments. Meetings (in my experience) usually only take 10ish minutes, 15 max, but some of your meetings can be on opposite sides of the convention from each other, and it can literally be a 10 minute light jog.
When they write back they may ask you to come by at a specific time. If you already have a meeting scheduled, don’t panic. Just write back and ask if you can come by half an hour before/after the time they asked for. ALSO, before you send it, give some other times as options if half an hour before/after doesn’t work. Say something like:
Thanks for getting back to me! Unfortunately I have something scheduled Monday at 1:30. Would 1:00 or 2:00 work for you? If not, I am available Tuesday from 11:30-1:00 and 3:00 to 4:30. Do any of those times work better?
Easy peasy. Don’t be worried about asking for accomodation. Seriously. In the actual meeting you’re going to be asking for things like food, sleeping arrangements, comp’d activities, and a whole lotta money. Asking to move the meeting back or forward half an hour isn’t going to lose you the job. If it does, you didn’t want to work for them anyway. That may have been a weird tangent, but I know some people can be a little anxious regarding things like that.
As you start to build your schedule of people and companies you’re meeting, it’s time to start researching! This is one of the most important steps. It is going to set you apart from all the other content creators who are looking for jobs. These people you’re pitching to are going to be sitting through hours of crappy pitches from amateur photographers, so you need to be different.
Let’s say you have a meeting with a National Park in the Western United States. You show up to the meeting and show them your portfolio. They politely compliment your amazing skills. You tell them how much you love the area they’re in and how you’d love to come take some photos for them. They say that would be very cool and if you could leave your business card. You do, and happily head off to your next meeting. And you never hear from them again. Why? Because they’ve already had 30 pitches that sounded exactly like what you just gave them, and they have hundreds just like it sitting in their email inbox.
Alternatively, you show up to the meeting well-researched and well-prepared. You tell the person you’re talking to about how you really like their campaign for the Park that they’ll be rolling out next year. You’ve found some areas less visited that the Park wants to promote more. You show them your portfolio as it relates to their brand (don’t show people your pretty wedding or portrait portfolio when you’re pitching landscape photography. That should be common sense but you’d be appalled at how often it happens). You ask them if there’s anything you missed, things they’d like photos of, campaigns they haven’t made public yet, etc. You get a discussion going. Then, lay out your terms. When do you want to come? How long? What do you want in compensation?
Do you get the job with that second one? It’s certainly not guaranteed (lmao nothing in this business is guaranteed. Go find a job on Wall Street if you want stability). But I can tell you that the guy who does the second pitch has a one million percent better chance at getting the job than the guy who does the first pitch. Do. Your. Research.
You’ve made your schedule, you’ve researched and prepared your pitches, you’ve planned the trip to and from the conference (see my article on planning a solo trip if you need some ideas on how to do that), and the day has arrived. It’s meeting time!
Before Your Meetings
My first bit of advice, especially if this is your first travel conference, is to arrive early. If your first meeting is at 9:00 AM, show up at 7. If your first meeting is at 7, well, good luck.
But seriously, show up way early, grab a coffee and a muffin, and go explore the venue. These conferences are HUUUUUGE. You aren’t going to see everything before your first meeting, but it’ll definitely help to map it all out for yourself beforehand. Grab a map (they’re usually free), and start walking. The amount of people and booths are honestly overwhelming at first, so just spend some time trying to get a lay of the land.
As you go through, take note of what sections your meetings are in. Usually the sections are split up by continent and the country, but sometimes it can be by company theme or service. Later on in this article I’ll go through some ways you can fill empty time slots where you don’t have meetings, and for efficiency’s sake it’s helpful to stay in the area where your meetings are.
Meeting With Potential Clients
Alright. This is why you’ve come all this way. These meetings are the most important part of what you’re doing at this conference (except maybe networking, but we’ll get to that later). As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. So be friendly, be authentic, and be prepared.
In the researching phase, you should have put together a nice, individual pitch for each meeting you have. You should have studied the company or board and tried to get an understanding of what kinds of things they’re looking for. If you’ve done this, your meetings are going to go infinitely better.
Each meeting is different, so I’m sorry I can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen in them. Your main goals for every meeting, though, are the same:
- Establish rapport and become friendly with your contact
- Explain your pitch for your project in clear, brief terms. Tell them what you’ve researched and what project you’d like to do.
- Explain what they get out of it (how many photos/articles, social media posts, youtube video advertising, etc) AND tell them how much it’s going to cost.
The last thing you want to have happen is build a good relationship, explain your pitch and your goals for it, have them get excited, and then later tell them “oh yeah, it’ll be x dollars,” catching them by surprise and completely sending your pitch off the rails. Be upfront about it.
If you’re just starting out, be cheap. Ask if they could provide housing and a small fee for food and to help with airfare. Don’t start your career off by asking for four digits worth of money and a whole bunch of compensation on top of it. You’ll get there, but you gotta start somewhere. Alright, enough about money.
A big thing with these pitches is that usually, the people you’re pitching to don’t want to plan it for you. Only in rare cases do you show up to the pitch and the client tells you what they want. If that happens, you’ve struck gold and you better hold onto that job for dear life. Normally, though, it’s up to you as the professional to explain why your project would be good for their brand. You have to convince them that what you’re offering is something they’re missing. That’s a big job, I know.
One of the best pieces of advice I can offer for preparing for your meetings is to have a family member or friend give you a company or tourism board they like, you do all the previous steps (researching, developing, etc), and pitch it to them like they’re the executive. You’ll quickly find the holes in how you’re preparing, letting you patch them up and helping you be even more successful.
Once you leave the meeting, open up your notes app on your phone or a physical notebook, it doesn’t matter which, and write down some thoughts about the meeting. How did it go, what did they seem interested in, what did they seem indifferent to, what negotiations did you have, what dates would be best, and anything else. With how many meetings you have you will forget. Take a second to write everything down to look back at later.
Filling Empty Time Slots
You aren’t going to fill out your entire schedule, going from meeting to meeting, unless you’re the most charismatic person on planet Earth. If you do somehow fill out your entire schedule, DM me, I want to learn your ways lol.
For the rest of us, you’re going to have a lot of down time. Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick: yes, the harder you work, the better your chances are of seeing success at these kinds of events. HOWEVER, if you need a break, it is ok to take one. Let me say that again:
If you need a break, take an hour or two to yourself.
You are (presumably) really far from home. You’re jetlagged, exhausted, nervous, and worried. That’s a lot of strong emotions running through you. You’re also about to get rejected about a thousand times. That isn’t easy on the mind either. Don’t kill yourself from working too hard, there’s plenty of other ways to find clients.
That said, there are a lot of opportunities to contact and network with potential clients and partners at these events. Let’s go over a few.
If you’re just starting out, chances are you don’t know very many other professional photographers or professional travelers. At least not on a personal level. The fantastic thing about these events is that there are literally hundreds of content creators to meet and network with. Chances are incredibly high that your event hosts more than a couple networking events. Check your event’s website and sign up! If it costs extra: IT’S WORTH IT.
Another option is to check Twitter and Instagram before your event! Chances that people are having a meetup or getting together are pretty high, and you can probably jump in. Find these connections and get to know some people! You can find jobs through them, plan workshops, and just make some good friends you might never have met otherwise.
2. Business Card Hunting
There are a lot of booths and people at these events. More than you’ll ever be able to talk to in the time you have. An option you have is to walk around booths and start collecting business cards. Have a container to keep them in (I usually use an empty container of my business cards), and just start walking around. No need to have an elevator pitch, no need to work yourself up to begging for a job, just walk up, introduce yourself and what you do, ask if you could grab a business card, and leave one of yours with them.
The benefit to doing this is that it gives you a personal email to contact later. When you’re doing research looking for jobs at home, the only email you’ll usually find is email@example.com. Sometimes you’ll get a response (it’s how i got my first jobs actually, so it’s not completely useless. See this article for more on that!), but oftentimes your email will disappear into the ether, never to be seen again. That sucks. Having a personal email like firstname.lastname@example.org gives you a direct line of contact into that job, making it less likely that you’ll have an email vanish forever.
3. Cold Pitching
The ever-present and ever-repugnant method of finding clients as old as sales and retail itself. I really really really dislike cold pitching. But I won’t deny it’s benefits. You want to suck the wind out of your chipper-brand-new-photographer soul, spend three straight days getting rejected to your face. It’s brutal. But sometimes, it does work.
And when it works, you have some concrete success to fall back on.
Cold pitching work just like you’re imagining it works. You decide on the person or booth you think it would be fun to work with, walk up, and pitch them your services. Something like this:
Hi! My name is Brax, I’m a travel photographer and writer looking for some people to work with and take photos for. How are you today?
The next part is important. If you go straight into “wow that’s cool, anyway I’d love to work with you…” their eyes are going to gloss over and you’ll never find success. Listen to what they say. Coax out of them some information. Who they are, where they’re from, what they’re doing here. THEN you can cold pitch them. Something like:
That’s fantastic. These photos are beautiful. I’ve always wanted to travel to Slovenia. Do you or your company ever work with photographers or writers?
And now the ball is in their court. If they say no, they don’t; then wish them a nice day and leave them a business card. If they say yes though, you are through the first step! Now it’s not a cold pitch, it’s an actual pitch. You know who they are, they know who you are. Show them your portfolio, talk about the kinds of photos you’d like to take for them, and go from there.
Doing this, you’re going to get rejected a lot. Sometimes it’ll be soft rejections: “Do you work with photographers?” “Oh, sometimes, but usually they’re local photographers we find.” That means no. Sometimes it’s a little more forceful, “No, sorry. We have everything we need.”
Don’t take it personally. Just leave your business card and move to the next.
The Follow Up
Congrats on surviving your travel conference! Time to start preparing for the next one! While you’re doing that, though, there’s still quite a bit you have to do with the conference that just ended.
Your first priority is to contact all the people you met with who you think you have the best shot at getting a job with. Pull open those notes you took and start crafting a schedule. What companies said they’d like to have you next month? Start with them and move down the line. As you’re sending emails, try not to offer the same dates to more than one company. It gets awkward when you have to backtrack on the dates you just offered.
In your email, talk about everything you talked about in the meeting. A little recap for them. They met with a lot of people to and chances are your meeting with them is a little fuzzy. Always nice to get a refresher. Explain your project again super quickly, tell them what they’d get, and how much it’ll cost INCLUDING the upfront payment (like a few sentences kind of “super quickly”). After that, tell them you’d still love to work with them and ask if you could send them an invoice for the (nonrefundable) deposit.
Next, start contacting all the people you cold pitched or networked with that you think you have a shot at getting a job with. Follow the same steps. Stay organized, be clear, and gather up those deposits. If you don’t have a deposit and a contract you’ll never see a dime. You might get to the country and never hear from them again. That would suck. A deposit and contract signing forces them to actually be interested and gives you the confidence to actually show up for work.
Once you’ve contacted everyone who you think you have a shot with, start contacting all the people you met with and cold pitched that you can. You can do this while you’re waiting for responses to your good contacts, just give a date range (“mid March to mid April,” rather than, “the first week of March” for example). Sometimes in these emails you’ll basically have to pitch the project all over again. That’s ok. Also don’t ask for the deposit in that initial email. Wait until they say that, yes, they would like to work together. Sending a request for money before that is a little… aggressive. Definitely won’t make you any friends in the long run.
The last people to contact are all the business cards you picked up while you were out card hunting. These are basically cold pitches but over email. You aren’t going to hear back from 99% of them. I say that just so you’re ready for it. Those cards are still useful though. If you ever find yourself heading to somewhere near where a company you have a business card is, shoot them an email. You never know.
Again, sorry about the wall of text. There’s a lot of information in here, I know. As I was writing this I was thinking, “What do I wish someone would have told me before my first conference?” I hope it was helpful. Use this guide as a resource! Read all of it once you book your trip to your first conference, and then come back and use sections of it to improve your experience and potential for success.
One thing you need to realize is that this is not a catch-all guide. Your experience is going to be completely different in some aspects. The way meetings go, how you book clients, a million different things. Don’t feel like you’re failing because something different happened at your conference from what I wrote in this article. Adapt and improvise. Be ready for change, take all opportunities you have, and you’ll be successful.
As a last note, you may come home from your first conference without a single booked client and just a box of business cards in your bag. That’s ok too. This job is hard, and just because you didn’t get anything you feel like you can show for your trip out there doesn’t mean your a failure. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be a full time traveler. At the very least, you learned something. You learned how to talk to potential clients. You learned how to cold pitch.
I’ll tell you a secret. My first travel conference, I came home exactly like that. I felt like I didn’t have a single thing to show for it. No concrete contacts, no official bookings, nothing. I sent hundreds of emails to people I thought I had a great relationship with to people that blew me off but gave me a business card as I was leaving. It really sucked. But I kept on going, because I knew this was what I wanted to do. And three months after the conference ended, I booked my first three travel clients in the space of two days. Had I not traveled 10,000 miles, 22 hours, and spent a week in London learning what I did, I never would have booked those jobs. I hope something here will help you at your first time at a travel conference.
Feel free to reach out to me here or on Twitter and Instagram! Ask questions, and let me know you’re experiences with travel conferences! I’m always eager to hear about others experiences.
And as always, thanks for reading.