Hi friends! We’re continuing to celebrate my 13 years in the blogosphere with Vol. 3 of the OG Travel Blogger Series! In this series, I’m featuring bloggers who started writing about travel since before “influencer” was the term du jour. It’s been a long journey and many comrades have given up along the way, but there are still a handful of OGs left. I’m here to tell you, the ones who have soldiered on through countless algorithm changes, Google updates and the Instagram invasion are so worth learning from. So glad you’re here!
If you’ve been in the travel blog world more than five minutes, you’ve heard of Nomadic Matt. We met back in 2007 or maybe 2008 at some NYC networking thing for travel media. Matt is so OG, I invited him on my very first blogger-focused press trip to The Bahamas, way back when I was a publicist. When I quit my PR agency job to travel around the world in 2011, I ran into Matt in Greece, where we celebrated his book deal and his 30th birthday with an ATV ride around Ios. We had the jankiest ATV on the island and almost rolled backward down a hill through a herd of goats… but it’s such a funny story and we laugh about that every time we run into each other.
Personal reminiscing aside, Matt is the master of reinventing what it means to be a travel blogger. He started out sharing his tips for budget travel in 2006 and 10+ years later, he’s the best-selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, a successful conference creator and occasional controversy-stirrer. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and that has made him a polarizing figure in the travel world. But there’s no question, he’s doing quite well for himself.
I’ve known Matt as long as just about any in the travel blogging industry, and it’s been really interesting to watch his career evolve over the years from gangly upstart to successful entrepreneur. Here’s a guy who’s been out there doing the blogger thing as long as anyone and if his trajectory shows us anything, it’s that you have to make adjustments along the way and not be afraid to redefine what you’re doing as you go.
Meet March’s OG Travel Blogger: Matt Kepnes from Nomadic Matt!
Q&A with OG Travel Blogger Nomadic Matt
You’ve been a full time blogger for more than a decade. What’s the biggest change in the industry you’ve seen from the early days to now?
There’s been a lot of change over the last decade (a lot!) but I would say the biggest is the sheer abundance of people in the industry now. Before, you just had a handful of bloggers. Even for years after YouTube hit, it was still a blogger driven industry. Now, as people don’t follow blogs as much, it’s very much personality driven. People follow Facebook pages, Facebook video channels, YouTubers, and Instagrammers. There’s a million bloggers plus all those other channels too. Moreover, before you saw people specialize a lot more. You did travel or fashion or lifestyle or mommy blogging or finance. People generally had one primary focus. Now, everything sort of bleeds together, especially as brands got less picky about what vertical people fell into. Fashion bloggers who travel and travel bloggers who do fashion and lifestyle. It’s all a mix.
In short, there’s just a lot more quantity these days. Just so much quantity.
And that presents a lot of challenges to it, the biggest being that it is a lot harder to get found and heard above the noise. It’s not impossible. It’s just harder. Because in the end, there’s not a lot of quality. And there will always be room for quality. Sure, the rise to the top is longer but it’s still possible if you have an awesome product!
Like most OGs, travel blogging is not your only gig, and you’ve always been an advocate for diversifying income streams. You’re a best-selling author and a successful conference creator, among other things. What other projects are you working on and how do you find the time to do it all?
I think someone can make their full-time income from just blogging/Instagramming/YouTubing. What’s important is that you have multiple ways to make a living. For the website, that means we have products, do affiliates, run events, tours, and have tried a host of ways to diversify our income beyond one channel. I never wanted to rely on just travel insurance or display ads or products. If most of your income comes from one channel, then you can’t brave the ups and downs that will come with running a business. A bad month will ruin you.
I take a lot of non-website projects because I just like to do this kind of stuff. Writing books was a natural outgrowth of what I did so I view that as marketing for the website anyways. I also like to write. This year I’ve cut down the number of projects we do on the website. We’ve cut out anything not related to TravelCon and the website to focus on more. I simply didn’t have the time or the resources to half start projects. We don’t have anything else on the horizon now. I think it’s easy to come up with ideas but you really need a person in your business to manage that project full time. For example, we’ve had a charity aspect to our website for close to four years now but it’s only been in the last year and a half that anything has really happened with it. Why? We got a full-time person for that. Someone whose job is to eat and breathe that organization. I often see bloggers want to start things without the proper resources. You really need to have the time and energy as well as the staff to launch new products. Time is limited. No one can juggle multiple projects on their own.
You are currently planning for the 2nd year of TravelCon, a 3-day conference focusing on the business of travel blogging. (Can’t wait to hear Cheryl Strayed!) Who is TravelCon for and what can attendees expect to learn this year?
I created TravelCon because I was disappointed that travel media didn’t have an “advanced” event the way other industries do. I mean even think of a traditional industry like medicine. There are massive events that focus a lot on continuing education. In fact, it’s often required for certification and employment. Teachers also HAVE to go to training events. Where is that in travel? Only fools think they are wise. There’s always more to learn. And there’s more to learn from people outside of travel.
Marketers, video experts, SEO experts, photographers, writers – just because is someone is outside our industry doesn’t mean they can’t teach us anything. It’s always the same people talking. I wanted to create an event that brought in experts from outside the industry. I wanted something that was valuable even if you’ve been in this industry for twenty years. I wanted hands-on workshops and training. I mean there’s a lot of people who’ve been blogging for a decade who could still use some tips on writing and design, ya know? Never stop learning and improving. It’s a mantra I’ve always felt our industry needed more. It’s something I always see in other industries and events I go to. No SEO expert I know stopped learning ten years ago. They always work to improve. No marketer, doctor, lawyer, teacher, or television producer. They have teachers. They attend events. They learn. Why not us?
Thinking of attending TravelCon in Boston this year? Click here for pricing and availability
When we started blogging, there were only a handful of folks who would be considered travel bloggers – now, there are tens of thousands. What advice do you have for up-and-coming bloggers trying to find their voice and a place in this crowded marketplace?
I think it’s easy to talk about being online and flooding the social mediasphere but good ole fashioned networking wins the day. Since there are so many people around, it’s easier to meet people in your area. There’s probably some people doing some online media within an hour or two of you. Go meet up with them. Get to know them. Collab. Find ways to do stuff together. Putting more stuff out onto your channels isn’t going to grow your platform. More of zero is still zero. You need to find readers and other people have readers! No one gets there alone. You need friends and allies here. Even if the depth is just you help them and they help you. You need those people. Not enough people value in person relationships. You’re only as strong as your network!
Today you’re a respected travel expert, but like all entrepreneurs, surely a business venture or idea flopped along the way. Can you tell us about a time when things didn’t go according to plan and what you learned from it?
I once created an app that would help people track their expenses. We even ran a Kickstarter campaign for it but I underestimated how much work an app was and, eventually, we abandoned the project. We also gave away t-shirts as part of that and everyone was like “Hey, I want one!” So we went and bought a ton of t-shirts to sell…. and no one bought them. I think I still have a box of them somewhere. We just end up giving them away whenever we can. Two total failures that cost us a lot of money.
Our lesson from that? While you can know your audience, don’t assume you know them all that well. Run some surveys and get a feel for what their real needs are.
You probably get asked your favorite destination all the time, so I want to know: what’s one place you wouldn’t visit again?
I used to say Vietnam but, being older and wiser, I think every place deserves a second chance. There are simply places whose second chance is really, really pushed down on my list. I don’t think there’s any place I’ve been I wouldn’t try a second time. But there are places I’ve been that, if there’s never a second chance, I won’t feel like I’m losing out too much. If I never went back to Curacao, Macau, Panama City, Frankfurt, Milan, Atlanta, The Cayman Islands, and a handful of other places, I can’t say I would be too disappointed. Though, for all the shit I gave it ten years ago, I would really like to go back to Vietnam and give it another chance.
If travel blogging as an industry abruptly ended today, what would you consider doing instead?
I’d move back to Thailand, teach English, and work on my tan on one of the islands there.
What’s something your readers would be surprised to find out about you?
I used to be a high school history teacher. In fact, I’m still a licensed history teacher! Maybe that could be my fall back?
How to Find Nomadic Matt
Thank you for taking the time to respond, Matt! And thanks to all of you for the enthusiasm surrounding this series. If you’re just finding the OGs for the first time, check out January’s installment featuring Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere and February’s edition featuring Hecktic Travels’ Dalene Heck.
Got a question for Mr. March? Have another travel OG you’d like me to interview? Ask away!
What is the OG Travel Blogger Series?
The OG Travel Bloggers Series is about the entrepreneurial wanderers who have stuck it out long past the early days where a free hotel room was considered compensation. Past SEO and HTTPS and GDPR hurdles. (Don’t know what those things are but want to be a blogger? You’ve got lots to learn, grasshopper!) This remaining handful of OG storytellers has reinvented the way travelers research trips, hotels and destinations. These trailblazers, most of whom self-financed for years before blogging ever became profitable, are the reason there are so many resources for travelers on the Web today.