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My experiences and reflections after attending TBEX Huntsville.
I’ve been back home for a few weeks now after attending TBEX Huntsville, so I’ve had some time to reflect upon the entire experience. Many of you might be thinking, what is TBEX? Why was Lauren in Alabama? Those are excellent questions! Alabama wasn’t exactly at the top of my list of US states to visit. However, now that I’ve visited, I’m itching to go back and explore more of this great state.
First, TBEX stands for Travel Blog Exchange. It’s a conference for travel bloggers to connect, network with tourism boards and brands, attend learning sessions, and visit the host destination on trips (day trips or multi-day familiarization trips). TBEX Huntsville was my second TBEX conference; my first one was in Fort Lauderdale back in 2015. You can read more about my first TBEX in Fort Lauderdale here.
There are TBEX events generally three times a year in various locations around the world. There’s always one in North America, Europe, and an international location.
I have to admit, when TBEX North America was announced, I wasn’t super thrilled that it was going to be in Huntsville, Alabama. After all, what’s so appealing about Huntsville? With that said, it wasn’t terribly far away and I really wanted to attend another TBEX. I booked my plane ticket to Huntsville, booked my hotel stay, booked a pre-BEX hiking tour, and started to look up what I was going to do during my free time before the conference started. I was mostly excited to hang out with some blogging friends and hoped to make some new connections, too.
THE STRESSFUL JOURNEY
My trip to Huntsville didn’t exactly get off to a winning start.
I arrived to the airport very early and got a little work done. My first flight went from Toronto to Washington, D.C., and then Washington to Huntsville. I had a two hour layover at Washington Dulles Airport, which I figured was more than enough time. However, my flight from Toronto was delayed. First, by a half hour. Then, an hour. Then, two hours. We didn’t receive too many answers, other than “a part on the plane needed to be fixed.” The odds that I was going to catch my connecting flight were growing slimmer by the moment.
I looked up the terminal and gate of my connecting flight at Dulles Airport. Terminal A, Gate 2B. I asked an airline employee, “Do you know what terminal we are landing at?”
“No,” he said. “But, I’m sure it will be in the same terminal.”
Finally, we boarded the plane. It was a small, commuter plane. I’ll be perfectly honest with you – the plane looked like it had seen better days. Maybe this was due to the fact that the lights and air conditioning weren’t working.
Our flight attendant assured us that this would be working before the flight started. Our main issue was that the left engine wouldn’t start. We waited longer. Our flight attendant said that the engine had to be started manually from the ground. I’m not quite sure what that meant, but it didn’t sound great.
“GET OFF THE PLANE!”
That was the text I received from Justin after telling him everything. I knew that if they couldn’t start the plane safely, we wouldn’t fly. I was determined to get to Huntsville, so I stayed on the plane.
Finally, the engine started, the lights came on, the air conditioning started up, and we were ready to go.
I was really impressed with the pilots during the flight. While the flight was scheduled originally to be an hour and 20 minutes, we reached Washington in less than 40 minutes!
I kept looking at the time. Was I going to make my next flight? It was tough to tell. The flight attendant allowed me to leave the plane first as it was such a tight connection. Once we landed, I had exactly 15 minutes to get to my connecting flight. I felt a little relieved as that should be enough time, right? When we were safe to leave the plane, I took off like a flash. I raced into the terminal, probably looking like a crazed lunatic.
“What terminal is this?” An employee pointed at the wall. “Terminal Z.”
Of course, I was in a different terminal.
I ran towards the signs for Terminal A. After taking some twists and turns down hallways, I came to a halt at a stop for their “people mover.” You actually have to take a tram between the terminals as they are so far apart. The train for Terminal B showed up, and everyone boarded. I tried to catch my breath after running. Turns out, I had a lot of time to catch my breath. The tram for Terminal A took eight agonizing minutes to arrive.
I leaped off the train at Terminal A and ran for my life. I ran up a flight of stairs, an escalator, and another escalator. Then, I ran down an escalator, and up another escalator. It was almost comical the amount of staircases I had to navigate to get to this damn gate. Finally, I saw the gate numbers. Gate 6, gate 5, gate 4. Then, gate 2F, gate 2E, gate 2D. Why was gate 2 the only one with additional letters, making gate 2B even farther away? I was running, and coughing. I even felt a little vomit start to rise up.
Completely out of breath, I somehow managed to squeak out the word, “Huntsville?” when I reached gate 2B. “This is Syracuse,” a man exclaimed. What? Did I run all that way for nothing? I heard a voice. “Over here!” Boarding hadn’t closed yet for Huntsville. I handed over my boarding pass and walked outside to board the small plane. I made it.
When I arrived in Huntsville, however, my luggage did not make the flight. I filled out the claims forms, and was instructed that my bag would hopefully show up in the next day or two (it did). I was happy that I made it to Huntsville, but I didn’t have my hiking boots for the pre-BEX tour the following morning, and I didn’t have any extra clothes or toiletries.
Thankfully, after texting Ashley (a blogging friend I was set to meet at TBEX), she suggested that I go to Target to replace some of my things as they were open fairly late. That’s exactly what I did. So, I finally got to relax at my hotel with a collection of new toiletries and clothes at about 11:30pm. After that adventure, I was ready for the real adventures to begin at TBEX Huntsville!
Every blogger who attends TBEX can book a pre-BEX tour. These tours highlight experiences and activities of the host destination. We had several choices in Huntsville, and I chose to take a hike at the Land Trust of North Alabama. It was amazing to hike in the forest so close to the city itself. Before the hike, I met Ashley of A Southern Gypsy, who turned out to be my TBEX Huntsville partner in crime. Not only did we hike together, but we spent most of the conference together, too.
On the hike, we learned about the native trees and wildflowers. Our small group also enjoyed lunch by three, giant man-made caves in the area.
Read more about this Huntsville hiking trip at the Land Trust of North Alabama: Three Caves.
After the hike, I essentially had a day and a half to explore Huntsville, Alabama. Ashley and I partnered up to visit some memorable locations around town. Again, I’ll be writing about these locations in much more detail in the coming days. We were delighted that Huntsville is such a charming, artistic, and welcoming community. From the beloved ducks at the nearby park to the vibrant street art that covered the walls, I quickly fell in love with Huntsville.
Ashley and I walked around downtown Huntsville and explored on our own. All in one city block, we tasted refreshing popsicles from Friso Gourmet Pops (so many flavours…so difficult to choose!), savoured delicious iced coffee at Honest Coffee Roasters, and ate yummy vegan dishes at Pints & Pixels. After our meal, we played numerous pinball machines and arcade games that lined the walls of the establishment.
EXPLORING EVEN MORE OF HUNTSVILLE
The next day, we visited the Huntsville Botanical Gardens for a peaceful stroll among the flowers and the trees. We saw various gardens, dazzling blooms, and even a dinosaur or two? Stay tuned for a more detailed blog post! We managed to see the entire place just before it started to pour rain.
Next, an ideal rainy day activity…a trip to Lowe Mill! It’s a former textile mill turned into a complex of art studios. It’s a creative environment with studio space for artists and makers. Members of the public can explore the Mill to learn, create, and shop.
Ashley and I also enjoyed a comforting and savoury vegan lunch from a food truck parked outside of Lowe Mill, Chef Will The Palate. I highly recommend trying the southern plate – it was yummy!
HUNTSVILLE AS THE HOST DESTINATION
I was thoroughly impressed with Huntsville’s hosting efforts for TBEX. It seemed like the entire city knew about TBEX and how important it was to host hundreds of bloggers in the city. There were TBEX decals in every storefront window, and TBEX logos projected onto buildings. Even my hotel, the Embassy Suites, had a giant TBEX logo in the lobby that you could see going up the elevator.
It was very convenient to stay at the Embassy Suites. Not only was the hotel close to everything in town, but it was connected directly to the Von Braun Center by a hallway. This meant that I could walk directly from my room to the conference without even having to go outside.
I could tell that was so much care that went into planning TBEX in Huntsville. The entire conference went so smoothly. I was wowed by the venues, the parties, and the enthusiasm of the local tourism boards and the locals I met around town. Southern hospitality is real, and you’ll find it in Huntsville.
OPENING NIGHT PARTY
TBEX officially kicked off with the opening night party. Every night, there was a party for TBEX attendees, and we were always spoiled by the venues of Huntsville. At A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard, we enjoyed local beer, photo opportunities, and tasty treats. There was live music and eight different rooms with various restaurants and bars.
The best part of the parties? Meeting new people and hanging out with old friends. It’s a welcoming environment where you can approach and talk to anyone. My favorite part of TBEX, even since my first TBEX in Fort Lauderdale, is connecting with like-minded people and forming long-term friendships.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS AT TBEX
One of the main components of TBEX are the learning sessions. Over the next two days, I attended sessions led by industry experts that spanned a variety of topics in social media, business, blogging tips, and more. I feverishly jotted down notes and soaked up as much information as I could. Some of the sessions I attended were:
- Taking your writing from side hustle to full time job
- Affiliate marketing techniques
- Live streaming on social media
- Everything you need to know about SEO
It’s actually funny – during my first TBEX, I found that most of the sessions were geared towards beginner bloggers and I didn’t get much out of them. This time around, there were still sessions for the beginners. But, there were sessions geared towards people like me, who have been blogging for a while. I actually learned way more this time around, two years later, than I did at my first TBEX.
One of the most important components of TBEX are the speed networking sessions. These are quick, 10-minute meetings with brands and tourism boards who are looking to partner with bloggers. Armed with my elevator pitch and lots of energy (perhaps from the coffee I was drinking all day), I successfully networked with 24 different tourism boards and brands during speed networking.
I booked all of my speed networking meetings ahead of time. As for the few that I didn’t manage to meet during the scheduled times, there were many other opportunities to approach their tables for a chat. I highly recommend taking advantage of the speed networking meetings, or simply approach the representatives on your own.
Every day started with an inspiring keynote speech by a notable, even famous, person in the travel industry. Bruce Poon Tip of G Adventures inspired us with how he started his adventure travel company business, and continues to grow that business today. TV personality Samantha Brown presented a spirited speech with her many years of travel stories and expertise. And TBEX ended with a brilliant closing speech by Bret Love of Green Global Travel, who showed us that it is possible to live the dream, earning a living as a travel blogger.
PARTYING BENEATH A ROCKET
After a busy day at sessions and speed networking, it was time for another party. For this event, we were transported to the US Space & Rocket Center, best known for its space camp. We dined beneath the Saturn 5 rocket. Then, we went on a tour of the facilities at our own pace. This even included going on a ride outdoors where we were shot up into the air, enjoying a weightless sensation up there! It was thrilling and a little terrifying. I screamed a lot.
After our party at the US Space and Rocket Center, Ashley and I toured around to some local bars, thanks to our “tour guide”, Andrew (an Alabama native, representing Red Diamond Coffee). We visited a boisterous karaoke bar, and a packed local pub. It was awesome to experience where the locals hang out on a Friday night.
CLOSING NIGHT PARTY
While I’m on the topic of parties, the closing night party was perhaps the best of all. At Campus No. 805, a former middle school had been transformed into craft breweries, restaurants, retail shops, and an arcade.
When Heather, Ashley, and I realized that one of the retail shops was a hair salon that promised 80s-inspired makeovers for everyone, we headed there first. Soon enough, my hair was teased and there was a big scrunchie in it. I had neon eye shadow added to my face, as well as bright pink lipstick. The three of us strutted around with our new poofy hair and loud makeup. While Chris (blogs with Heather at A Brit And A Southerner) couldn’t be convinced to get an 80s makeover of his own, he became our photographer for a very sassy photo shoot.
Back at the former middle school, we were shown how to reach the “secret” speakeasy….by pulling on a set of lockers to reveal a hidden room! I suppose the secret is out now. That’s what happens when you invite a bunch of bloggers somewhere!
UPCOMING TBEX EVENTS
I was so inspired by TBEX Huntsville that I came home and immediately booked my ticket to TBEX Ireland in October! I also booked my ticket to the next international TBEX in Zimbabwe, which will happen in July 2018. I can’t wait to reconnect with friends that I made at the past two TBEX North America events, and it will be fantastic to meet even more people.
TBEX has really inspired me to keep working on this blog. I want to write more, build my blog, connect even more over social media, and perhaps even transform this into my full time gig one day. Who knows? I feel like after attending TBEX, the possibilities are endless!
Do you want to see more photos from TBEX and everything I did in Huntsville? Check out my Alabama travel photo albums!