Long time adventurist, Dave Thompson of DavesTravelCorner.com shares his experiences traveling the world and earning a living online. Dave gives an honest account of what it is like to earn money blogging and offers some great advice for aspiring travel writers.
Please tell us about your travels.
My first major trip was to Nepal in 1996. This was the trip that hooked me onto International travel for a variety of reasons. It was my first trip to a part of the world that wasn’t western centric and my eyes were opened by the culture, food, the Himalayas and the authentic experiences. I became super ill from altitude sickness and food poisoning around 5200 meters in the middle of the night. I had to be carried down on our guide’s shoulders for 2 hours to a lower altitude where I vomited for the rest of the night filling up a large bowl which was frozen solid in the morning. I became so weak I could not walk and a lady who I was with carried me down the mountain for most of the ensuing day on her shoulders/back with a sling we put together from a sleeping bag. Unfortunately she had a large backpack with her so she had to walk this ahead of me, go back and pick me up and then walk past the pack on the ground and drop me off. It was crazy.
I’m pushing nearly 70 countries visited – its hard to pick favorites. I love Thailand, Greece and Peru. I’ve been to Asia, Africa, Europe & South America quite a few times. I love mountains and mountain climbing especially in the Andes and the Himalayas. Other travel highlights include Lago 69 in Peru, Petra Jordan, Milford Sound on a clear day in New Zealand, the experience of swimming and fighting your way up Wadi Al Mujib in Jordan, the eastern Sierra Nevada’s in California, exploring Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, the vastness and openess of the Desert of the Empty Quarter on the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Oman, Oldupai Gorge in Tanzania, or motor biking any number of islands in Greece in the summer with the warm air on your face as well as the tantalizing scent of wild oregeno all around you.
Regions I have yet to visit include any country ending in ‘stan, the South Pacific, some of the South African countries, Antarctica and Papua New Guinea. When I get tired of International travel and need a break I immediately head for the Northern or Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California and disappear for a week in the middle of nowhere either backpacking or next to a secluded stream with a pile of books and nothing else to keep me company.
When I travel I love a mix of time spent both in the country and the large cities. I do not like urban sprawl, it is boring. I like cities that have either character or class. Two cities that people can get frustrated in real fast are Los Angeles and Bangkok, both dubbed the “city of angels”. I love each one for what it offers. You have to look at these two cities in a certain way to understand them. “Perspective” is the most important word in travel. Sometimes those who grow up in an urban environment don’t have the perspective that one has who grows up in the country and vice versa. Both perspectives are equally important and a person who deeply understands both and is comfortable in both environments is somewhat rare.
There are lots of rewards from being a travel writer and not necessarily monetarily. It is absolutely a lifestyle and you have to love it. One of my own favorite quotes is: “Ownership of most things is overrated. Ownership of worldly experiences is not.”
How many months of the year are you abroad?
A typical year finds me abroad between 4 and 5 months. Nearly 6-8 weeks of that is spent in SE Asia during the winter months. It helps that my wife is from rural Eastern Thailand and we always have a place to stay.
Do you have a home base somewhere?
Home base is the entire state of California…with my actual office located in the “wine country” of Napa & Sonoma although I certainly work from Thailand when I am there. I also find myself in Los Angeles fairly often for various events.
Please tell us about DavesTravelCorner.com.
I started the site in late 96′ (initially from my scribblings in a journal I kept during my Nepal trip) – originally it was part of another website until I registered the website name in 1999. It has been called Dave’s Travel Corner since day one. The site covers a lot of my own interests and travels of course, but as our number of contributors have grown, their content now forms a significant part of the site. It is built to be a travel community with message boards, photography, journals, travel book reviews, interviews, travel links (over 12,000 hand entered), travel product reviews etc. I try to write about experiential travel – things you experience while you are on the road. And these range from real budget basic travel all the way to luxury travel. We are not a true backpackers site nor are we a luxury site but we cover content from both and everywhere in between.
There are those visitors to the site who look for a specific piece of information and then move on. Then there are other visitors who sort of “get lost” in the site and end up staying much longer than the “search” visitors. Our focus has always been on the content.
You have many people listed as contributors to the site, how did you build a team that size?
The team has been built over time based on my personal contacts and those who show an interest and talent in travel writing. Its certainly not something that happened overnight. There are no quantity submission requirements to be one of the writers. I have not yet been able to pay writers; its been more of a platform for the writers to showcase some of their writings and give them additional exposure. Its certainly not for everyone as travel writers do need to make income. One of our writers recently went on a press trip from one of his articles a PR company found on our travel site. Many of the team members are friends who help out where and when they can. Some of the web work has been invaluable and I’ve done trades in order to get that and small payments based on individual projects. We are currently working on another redesign of the site.
Is DavesTravelCorner.com your primary income source?
I wish! But then life seems more interesting when you are involved in so many diverse things. I also have income from a very tiny Internet Service Provider, wine tours of Napa, am part of a company called VinoVisit (like OpenTable for restaurants we provide an automated system of reservations for wineries) and then miscellanous income from a boxing fan site I run promoting undefeated middleweight and Olympic Gold Medalist Andre Ward, my book, “The Freeways of Los Angeles”, and some other miscellaneous wine projects.
How do you earn an income now?
I try to keep a good balance between content and advertising with the focus of the site on content – to help people in their searches or travel interests. I’ve never wanted to plaster my site with ads. Thats not what its about. The site was started without the intent of making money. With that said, over time I decided I needed to make some income based on all the time I was spending so I steer advertisers towards contextual ads rather than flashy banners or other large widgets.
It’s a tough market, very tough. I’ve found the amount of advertising revenue per advertiser has gone down significantly since the height of the market which for me was in the early 2000’s. Now I’m getting more interest in advertising but for lower amounts – budgets have gone down or advertisers are spreading their ads around more places.
I have been lucky to have been picked up by several ad agencies (all in Europe) – when they have clients who want an ad placed on a travel related site they contact me for pricing and ad availability.
I also run select travel related widgets on the site which include the ability to book airfare, hotels, tours etc. TourRadar and BookingWiz have been very good. Google Adwords did all right initially but as their presence has become dilluted across the web the click throughs have gone down. I would say 85% of the advertising revenue comes from contextual ads (linked text ads within content) and 15% comes from widgets.
Do you have any advice for travel bloggers?
Always try to get payment up front. PayPal works well and I try to bill a minimum of three months at a time.
It is also very important to build up contacts through social media. Focus on making connections with other writers, PR agencies, Ad Agencies, other travel companies etc. Some people love this type of networking; others just want to write. Either way social media can take up a serious amount of time.
Please tell us about the Napa Wine project.
This is initially an 8-10 year project in which I am trying to visit, taste with and review all Napa wine producers/wineries. There are 900+ of them and I’ve reviewed 625+ to date. I refer to “producers” as those who make wine but don’t actually either own vineyards or own a winery (they buy the fruit and make their wine at another winery). Virtual wineries if you will. For the first four years this was nearly full time – there is significant driving time (as I don’t actually live in the valley), time securing the interviews, interview time, research and then the writeup. In order to keep the reviews lively and my interest piqued in the wine scene, I took a fair amount of 2010 off and ended up traveling.
A number of wineries are very difficult to secure an appointment but I continue to work on this project and update the reviews as well as add new reviews. When I’m not traveling, I’m in the Napa Valley at least 1-2 days per week now.
My mission and goal is to create a comprehensive non-commercial resource for anyone intersted in wine from Napa, either consumers or trade. As you can imagine, the time invested to date in this project is significant. I have plans to put a book together based on my experiences – focusing on the industry, stories, the vintners and the project. Napa is a special place. Most people in the valley for the first time have a typical “tourist” experience compared to a more “genuine” experience if they dig a bit deeper. 95% of wineries in the Napa Valley are small production and privately owned but they don’t always escape the shadow of the larger more well known ones. It is very easy to escape the “wine trail” of the one busy main roads through the valley.
You write for other travel websites as well, please tell us about that work?
I’ve written off and on in the past for other websites – one that comes to mind was a vacation home swap site (for income) – I’ve also provided some content to blogs; one was to Nora at The Professional Hobo. I have both link and content partnerships with a number of websites (none of which are for income) but all are for traffic, link exchanges and exposure. Raveable, Uptake and GeckoGo are the main ones. If you count the Napa reviews and my travel blog entries and or articles – I usually produce 1-3 pieces of content per week.
Do you think it is still possible to make a decent living travel writing or running a travel blog?
Sometimes I wish I just ran a blog – it would be easier to maintain and the content is not spread out so much like it is on a sizable travel web site. But then we have a lot of content and a lot of places to position ads. Trying to build a business entirely on a travel website is difficult; it’s a long slow organic process if you don’t have funding backing you. You have to seek other forms of income.
If you seek out and make good connections within the industry and you are writing for publications that pay decently, and put in long hours you can make an okay living travel writing. If you are just counting on livable income from writing a blog, I think that’s much more difficult. There are thousands of travel blogs out there – I’ve waded through many of them over the past several years. Actual on the road travel experiences, unique personality, character, a good grasp of technology (or someone to help with this), solid writing, regular updates, and humor certainly are all factors that help highlight a “good” blog from the rest of the pack.
Do you have any advice for aspiring travel writers?
It depends on your situation. I know a number of travel writers who worked a 9-5 job for many years and after retiring jumped into travel writing with significant enthusiasm and passion. They are not using travel writing to “survive” but rather to explore their passion and or maybe earn some supplemental income. I think from a financial point of view, this is an easier way to become a travel writer.
For those starting out looking to make a career of travel writing its a different story. If you have the passion and love writing (most people know early on if writing gets their creative juices flowing) than I would highly encourage one to pursue travel writing. However, with that said it’s tough if you expect to survive solely on travel writing at the beginning. Many travel writers supplement their income with other jobs – consulting, freelance writing, non-related writing gigs etc, or they build up their passion as a hobby while they have a stable source of income. Building contacts and networking is very important, especially when you are starting out. Contact those who have been doing this a while, pick their brain – find out what has worked for them.
I highly recommend joining travel associations both for the connections as well as possible trips offered (which produce even more writer connections). Find a few associations that seem to work for you and stick with them. A couple that come to mind are:
- International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association
- Society of American Travel Writers
- Trav Media
- Travel 4 Press
- International Travel Writers Alliance
- Travel Writers Exchange
- Travel Writers
- Travel Blog Exchange
Also Travel Media Showcase ( www.travelmediashowcase.com ) is a great venue for journalists and travel media to network and meet one on onewith representatives from CVB’s and public relations firms. Not all journalists are accepted and you must apply for admission.
Writers need to build their own portfolio’s (ie, write and write a lot!) – writers from larger publications or websites with a lot of traffic tend to have priority on press trips. But writers once they have built up their portfolio can take the initiative and create their own press trip – contact hotels, restaurants etc, and provide a letter of intent basically covering what sort of press coverage that you can offer them. Most will not reply, but some will.
Dave’s Travel Corner
Above the Clouds Blog
The Napa Wine Project
Andre Ward Fan Site
“The Freeways of Los Angeles” book
Wow, fascinating interview with Dave! I am not sure where to start so I will start with the obvious – our local connection. I am an aspiring travel writer and blogger living in the Sacramento area not far from Dave. I’ve been writing about a year and a half and I greatly appreciate his honesty and encouragement to other writers.
I have worked on another site as a travel writer, then did my own blog at one of the main sites. Today, I just launched a new, self-hosted blog. I mention all of this because I have taken a path that Dave talks about – full time job, love to travel, decided to get my feet wet, and now the ideas and passion for a travel blog just ooze out of me. I still have a lot to learn but greatly appreciate the information. Areas I need to focus on are travel writing associations and forums and the PR side. I do fairly well in the social media side but I seem to learn something new every day. It can be overwhelming at times but it’s a fun process.
Thanks for sharing this Dave and a great interview! Glad to see a “local” travel writer become a big success while doing what he loves!
Dave, thank you so much for suggesting the travel associations and how that can assist writers. Great advice! Also, I appreciate the insiders look at advertisers. There is so much to know. I’m hoping to just stick with writing for now, developing my own style (figuring out what I’m good at!), and then build from there. Lastly, thank you for reminding us that perspective is important – I totally agree.
Thanks Jannell – yes, part of life is def to figure out what you are good at and what you enjoy and then how to combine the two to make a living 🙂