Food blogging (and general blogging) conferences and workshops are all the rage right now. One cannot log on to Twitter without someone mentioning an upcoming conference event or listing their recaps of highlights from such weekends. Last month I flew to NYC to attend BlogHer and Big Summer Potluck. This past weekend I attended the sold-out International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) in Seattle. Lately I’ve been attending many of these events and already have plans to fly out to San Francisco next month for another one. All these conferences begs the question, why?
I cannot speak for anyone else but myself but I have made some observations worth noting. Conferences are opportunities to learn, network, refuel, and reconnect with friends, old and new. Depending on where you are in your blogging career, you will be motivated to attend for different reasons and that is okay. My primary motivation for attending these events are going to be different than why someone else decides to go. And for the record, my main motivation for attending these conferences is to see friends. Where else are you going to find so many people you connect with on a daily basis in one place?
When I attended BlogHer in NYC last month I skipped all the sessions and only attended the Expo for one day. During the same weekend, I attended a very special all-day workshop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Although I was the keynote speaker at this event, being a speaker wasn’t what made this day wonderful.
The all-day food blogging workshop affectionately known as the Big Summer Potluck was magical because its focus was 100% on community building. Community building is something very close and dear to my heart – so of course I’m going to find much value in attending a workshop like this. Everyone who attended this workshop left inspired, encouraged, and most of all – validated. I believe food bloggers of all experience levels want to feel affirmed in their craft and this workshop certainly provided this.
Big Summer Potluck was small compared to others. Only 40 people in attendance but the quality of each session was world class. Pam Anderson, former Executive Editor for Cooks Illustrated and Best-selling New York Times author, shared her professional expertise on recipe development and writing. Both of these sessions were very helpful and useful because she has expertise in a professional setting which I found to be extremely valuable. Abby Dodge also gave a short recipe demonstration from her new cookbook. Melissa DeMayo – professional food stylist extraordinaire shared practical tips and insights I found valuable in application to my own growth. Erika of Ivory Hut also shared her photography knowledge and what I hadn’t realized is how accomplished she also was in professional photography – she’s humble like that. What I appreciated the most from these ladies was how approachable they were. All four of these ladies have worked in professional settings and have written or contributed to multiple books and magazines. Yet, each one was extremely gracious. Some people throw around titles as a way to make themselves seem larger than life. Others, however, do not. What attracts me to Pam, Abby, Melissa, and Erika is the fact that they are confident enough in what they do and what they have accomplished they have no need to self-grandiose themselves to try to appear bigger or better than others. As a result, new bloggers and accomplished professionals left Pam’s Bucks County home as dear friends. It was truly one of the best conference experience I have had to date and an honor to have been included as the keynote speaker.
Of course none of this could have happened without Maggy and Erika who organized this event with community building in mind. Maggy Keet (Three Many Cooks) is Pam’s daughter. She has an amazing heart to help others and started planning this event to fill a void she saw which other conferences were not filling. Both Maggy and Erika intentionally capped the number of attendees to 40 people to keep it intimate and real. There was no mention of SEO, Google Analytics, or how to make $30,000/month blogging. The focus was relationship-building and improving on skills to help attendees grow in their blogs. Although there were generous sponsors, this event wasn’t about making money. The only money collected was $25/person to cover the expenses of rentals, brochure printing, and other incidental costs. It’s amazing how the vibe of an event can change when money is not involved – it becomes more pure/honest and less self-seeking. There is an unconfirmed rumor spreading around the blogopshere that there will be another Big Summer Potluck next year. If community building is important to you, this is a workshop not to be missed. UPDATE Rumor has been confirmed.. there will be another Big Summer Potluck – stay tuned!
And then there was IFBC. Now let me make this clear: I understand the business aspect of putting on these conference events. It’s a money making stream of revenue which is in great demand and I’m not opposed to this one bit – it’s a business. However, it does change the tone and feel of the conference when it becomes a marketing machine for its sponsors. I get it… you can’t organize an event on this type of scale without the generous support of sponsors. And of course they need to promote them. But when you pay $350/ticket, objectivity in how you promote them may be muddled. If you followed the #IFBC thread on Twitter you likely saw a wide variety of viewpoints during each session regarding the promotion of sponsors. I wasn’t bothered by any of them but certainly many others were.
As for the sessions, I enjoyed listening to each one even those I thought beforehand I wouldn’t appreciate. There were panels on analytics, SEO, FTC ethics, writing, pitching to publish, and several others. Considering the hundreds of people who attended, I had a very good time and loved the food truck crawl for lunch. I finally met several people whom I had hoped to meet, made new friends while reconnecting with others I haven’t seen since last year. I look forward to next year’s IFBC.
The best two sessions of the conference were given by Saveur Magazine‘s Editor-In-Chief, James Oseland and Saveur photographer, Penny De Los Santos. What struck me about both of them was their obvious passion for food and people. This resonated with me so much I was reminded why passion and integrity should always be the driving force in everything I do and come before anything else.
The other major food blogging conference is called BlogHer Food. This year the sold-out conference will be hosted in San Francisco next month. This conference is similar to IFBC in size but very different in how they do things. Attendees have the option to choose a wide variety of tracks based on their preferences. Sessions include the business aspect of blogging, working with sponsors, how to make the jump to becoming a pro-blogger, and a host of other topics. Although this conference is heavily sponsored driven, BlogHerFood panelists are not the sponsors themselves. If you haven’t attended a conference this size, I will warn you that you may feel like a small fish in a big sea of people. My advice is to make friends ahead of time with people and meet up with them. You’ll enjoy the conference so much more if you’re with friends. I had a blast last year and I’m most looking forward to seeing friends who neither made it to BlogHer, Big Summer Potluck, or IFBC.
Why I attend these conferences is going to be different than why someone else attends. Each one is unique and I attach different values to the reasons why I go. Last year’s motivating factors are different than this years and I’m sure I’ll have different reasons for next year’s conference circuit. But if you’re considering going to any conference or workshop in the near future, ask yourself why you want to attend and what you hope to get out of it. This will help you decide which conference is best for you before you invest lots of time and money. When you take into account the cost of attending a big conference, flying to another city, and paying for a hotel over multiple nights, it can easily cost well over $1000. Not cheap.
If you live in the Seattle area, Keren Brown, food networking extraordinaire, often hosts free or low cost events for food bloggers. She also puts on all-day workshops in the areas of food photography, styling, and writing instructed by industry professionals. I’ve attended several of her workshops including Dianne Jacob’s all-day food writing seminar and Delores Custer’s food styling workshop. Her website, Frantic Foodie, is a great resource for local food related events and you can learn more about her workshops on her site.