Travel blogger Marc Smith shares how he’s built a business around travel, developed a unique voice and brand, attracts the right destination partners, and why a media kit is like a dating profile.
Marc Smith’s travel blog 30 Day Adventures takes readers to places they’d never find on a typical 1 to 2 week holiday. It’s a differentiator that helps him stand out in the crowded market of travel writers and travel bloggers, all of whom vie for a slice of the limited budgets of tourism associations who host their travels in return for publicity with the writer’s audience.
It’s a similar arrangement to any blogger who gets paid to post about a product. The difference is that travel writers get to go places. To make a living out of it requires more than the usual amount of hustle - which Marc Smith has in spades.
But before we get into all that, let me pose a question:
What would you do if your day job was burning you out?
Stick with it? Muddle through? Take a vacation and hope for the best?
Or quit the whole thing.
If you answered the second, you have the makings of a travel blogger.
“I was transitioning from a successful event planning business that was no longer making me happy and while I was figuring out what my next chapter was going to be, I spent thirty days being a tourist in my own city to kind of shake up the rut that my life had become.
And it challenged me in every single direction.
I’d never written long form blog posts before. I’d never done it consistently. I didn’t consider myself a photographer and I’d never built my own website (I’d always hired someone else to do it). That experience created the template I’ve been following for the last five years.”
Five years later, 30 Day Adventures is one of the fastest-growing travel blogs in Canada, and it’s taken him to most of the North American continent.
Here, he talks about how that growth happened, how he developed his brand and voice along the way, and gives his best tips on how you can do the same.
A different kind of travel blog
Travel blogging is as impacted an industry as you’ll find - and it’s no wonder why. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to travel around the world, have incredible adventures, take pictures and write about it? Not many people. It attracts writers and photographers at all skill levels, which means differentiating is vital. Because tourism organizations and travel-related brands only have so much money, and they, like any sponsors, want to invest in the blogger who can deliver the most value.
Marc’s 30 day sojourn into his hometown of Vancouver gave him an already differentiated template. Very few people, even professional travel writers, write 30 stories about a destination. It allows him to go deeper into what it’s like to be a local, wherever he may be. But 30 days is about more than having the chance to venture off the beaten path.
“30 day adventures embodies the idea that if you do something for a month, it becomes a habit. I’m on a constant journey to find the awesome in every place I visit. I’m always really clear that I don’t always do 30 days of travel – but I’m able to be in a city long enough to really experience it. Because I’m not as pressed for time, I have the opportunity to actually talk to people and to go off script in terms of my exploration.”
As any seasoned explorer knows, poking around can lead you to some amazing experiences - but it can also lead you into some bad ones. Travel bloggers are sponsored by destinations to write about them, and there’s a little pressure to write nice things. But, writers are also responsible to their audiences to tell them what they can really expect, which is something Marc takes very seriously.
“Part of what I offer is a realistic documentation of experiences. I don’t polish the silver. But I’m not there to criticize a property. Some properties might not have the cushiest bathroom towels, but not everyone wants to spend $400 a night on a hotel room either. It depends on what you’re there to do, and if that place provides an appropriate experience.”
Marc’s philosophy is that if a kid-friendly all-inclusive Caribbean resort with a giant waterslide isn’t his speed, that doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s. With that in mind, Marc makes a point to explore outside his comfort zone and try things he might otherwise pass on, if he were just traveling for himself. But that’s the point of travel blogging. You’re not traveling for yourself. You’re traveling as an avatar for your audience.
Finding your voice and developing a brand
Many writers struggle with finding their unique “voice,” that particular writing style and cadence that is uniquely them. Marc’s solution: Don’t think about it.
“I didn’t think about it. I just wrote. That’s how I started. What I often tell people is that we need to get out of our own way.”
Just go is a running theme for Marc.
“Ninety-percent of what I did in those first 30 adventures I’d never done before. I just went and experienced them. I still don’t pre-research very much. I don’t read reviews of restaurants, hotels or tours, I’ll read the web pages and FAQs so I’m prepared, but I don’t like to get too many other people’s input in my head. And I discovered that finding my voice just naturally occurred. Without thinking about it, it just appeared.”
As with any good writer, Marc’s voice - and his brand - are direct extensions of who he is. Positive. Open. Curious.
“My brand is really about saying yes to things – even things I wouldn’t have chosen to have done. It’s finding the good in the experience.”
One of those experiences he might have omitted was brewery tours. He’s not a beer guy. More of a pinot noir man.
“Three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have done a lot of breweries. Now I want to do breweries everywhere I go. I just went to one yesterday here in Kitchener, just north of the Niagara region, and the bartender asked me what beers I wanted to try, and I said ‘you pick!’ I love trying things I wouldn’t normally choose, because you’ll find something that surprises you. That’s another part of my brand, discovering the surprises."
Marc’s best networking tips (applied to website design)
Marc Smith has given a lot of thought into the visual presentation of his brand, right down to his signature color: sky blue. He says it came from an old networking tip.
“That’s a networking tip I transitioned to my online personality. When I go to networking events, I always wear a solid bright colored shirt because everyone else in the room wears black. A bright solid color makes it easy to pick me out in the room. If I’m talking to someone and later on they tell their friend to talk to the guy in the blue shirt – they’ll find me. It’s much easier than ‘go talk to that young woman in the black dress.’ There’s too many. It was a way for me to stand out, and blue happens to be one of my favorite colors.
The other reason I picked blue as my signature color is that for me, blue is the sky and the sky is limitless.
30 Day Adventures is about looking up and looking forward, seeing what’s around the corner, what the possibilities are. Prior to the blog I was looking down, only at what was right in front of my feet. If you’re always looking down, all you’ll see is dirt. I always want to be looking up and looking forward.”
Networking not only inspired Marc’s signature color, it also influenced his website design. If networking tip #1 is to wear a bright solid color, networking tip #2 is to “mirror” the person you’re speaking with.
Mirroring is something business and salespeople do to quickly create a sense of familiarity. If you’re speaking with them and scratch your chin, they’ll scratch their chin too. Cross your arms, they’ll cross their arms. If you speak slowly or quickly, they’ll speak at the same speed. It’s a subtle way of saying, “yes, we’re on the same page.”
Psychologically, it works. People are attracted to the familiar.
Marc says his website design is based off of the website designs of tourism organizations, most of whom follow a very similar structure. Because his website is structured in the same way, when tourism reps land on his site, they can easily find what they’re looking for - and get that feeling of affinity.
“Palm Springs, for example, all they have to do is go to my website and in less than 30 seconds, they understand I write about accommodations, attractions and culinary. My website design is kind of like that technique where you use the same wording, vocabulary as the person you’re speaking with, so you build a greater understanding between each other. My website was designed to be connected with the tourism – it’s a mirroring technique. People are attracted to what’s familiar, it builds affinity.”
Want to grow your following? Post daily - and not just on your blog
Marc has garnered a lot of attention in the travel industry, including landing speaking engagements, because of how quickly he turned his blog into an income-generating business. His following isn’t enormous by American standards - Canada is a smaller market - but his followers are deeply engaged and follow his recommendations. A valuable commodity. If finding his voice and building his brand came naturally, building his audience required substantial elbow grease.
“I publish five days a week, Monday through Friday. I write every morning, and on all my trips it is in my travel itinerary that I don’t do anything before 10 a.m. because that is reserved for writing time. I schedule it into my calendar.”
Consistent posting is what separates the pros from the dabblers. You have to treat it like a business, if you want it to be your business.
“Publishing on a regular basis really helps my ranking with Google and web authority. By publishing consistently and regularly, it forces Google to crawl my website daily, which is great for my SEO. The hope is that readers will find one story on a destination, then realize I have 3, 5 or 20 other stories on that destination, and keep reading.”
These are “engagement metrics,” or how much time a person spends on the site. Google uses metrics like time spent on site and number of pages viewed to determine search engine results page rankings.
“If they click on the related stories, they can look at five or six different accommodations options I’ve stayed at over the years. I keep everything as updated as possible, if restaurants go out of business, but for the most part my content is evergreen.
The learning curve was – I bought a theme with the help of a webmaster that had good SEO tools. And I used the Yoast plugin, which teaches really basic skills with green flags and red flags, it’s very easy to tell if a post is strong or weak, SEO-wise.”
That said, Marc doesn’t write for SEO: “I focus on writing a good story and go back afterwards and make sure I have a good keyword in there. Then figure out a way to work that keyword in without seeming terrible.”
But Marc doesn’t just post daily on his blog. He also posts multiple times a day on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Most bloggers take pictures of what they do, see and eat. He does that with videos - long ones, short ones, funny ones, goofy ones.
Not only does this help his followers feel like they’re going on every trip with him, live, but he also uses social media to prompt real life interactions. Every morning Marc goes out for an Americano. Any morning, if you’re in the same city, you can tweet him for a coffee date @TheMarcSmith.
Keeping in touch with thousands of followers isn’t for everyone. But it’s the perfect marketing style for Marc Smith. He’s taken what he does naturally - connect with people - and uses social media to do it at scale. While still making it feel personal.
Why a media kit is like a dating profile
Marc’s media kit could be a textbook example of what every media kit should be, but the philosophy behind it isn’t something you’ll find in class.
My media kit really is my dating profile. When I’m working with a destination or a brand, it’s like courting. Yes, it’s a business relationship, but any relationship is based on mutual attraction. They have a product or destination I want to use; I have an audience they want to reach. That’s what it’s all about.
There are several outstanding features of Marc’s media kit though that you won’t find in most dating profiles. Like the way he includes infographics for his stats and demographics.
And how the best reasons to hire him - like social proof of brands he’s worked with - are front and center, impossible to miss, even for those just scanning the highlights.
The life of a travel blogger isn’t easy, and Marc Smith has recently turned “full nomad,” taking the plunge for life on the road. He’s had to teach himself a lot over the past five years to make that happen, but perhaps the most difficult skill he’s mastered is dealing with the uncertainty any entrepreneur can relate to.
“People often don’t start because they get overwhelmed by the things they don’t know. Start with what you do know. I know how to tell a story. Over the course of time, I realized that by not thinking about ‘finding’ a voice, I realized my voice comes through very clearly on its own.
I don’t get terribly worried. It gets in the way of actually doing it. If I was thinking all the time of SEO, or voice, or strategy, I’d never be able to write the story.”
He doesn’t know what’s around the corner - but he takes such joy in finding out.