On Life and Blogging Lessons – My BlogHouse Ireland Experience

I didn’t know this when I started Sateless Suitcase, but the world of travel blogging is a world of many rules. There’s an uncountable amount of social media dos and don’ts as well as writing rules. One crucial writing rule is “Don’t use those cliché expressions like ‘amazing’ or ‘hidden gem'”. Obviously, I break that rule all the time. Because in my opinion, the world is full of amazing hidden gems. And, I’m about to break another one of those rules: “Don’t write about travel blogging on your travel blog”. I will do that now, although I’m aware that it might not be relevant to readers who just look for travel inspiration.

But from the beginning, Sateless Suitcase has been about journeys. Actual travel journeys, and the journeys of an art historian trying to find her place (literally and figuratively) in the world. And my recent trip to Ireland was an important journey for me in every possible way, maybe even a milestone in figuring out what I want and where I’m headed.

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

If you’ve read my Ireland via Instagram summary, you know that I attended a blogging boot camp called BlogHouse in the little town Bansha. I still lack the words to describe what it actually was. Boot camp sounds a bit too harsh, blogging training sounds too harmless (after all, we even worked during lunch!). Maybe it was like a short, but intense travel blogging grad school — providing you with a whole lot of knowledge, but in the end you have to make it work in the real world all by yourself. No matter how I call it though, it was an inspiring four days about learning, evolving, and understanding — the world of travel blogging, but also on a personal level.

I think would never had dared to apply to BlogHouse in the first place, if it hadn’t been for a late night discussion about travel blogging and the surprising quality of Dutch mayonnaise with Michael of Art of Adventuring in Rotterdam earlier this year. I never thought I could keep up with all the crazy talented travel photographers, the native-speaking writers, the digital nomads, and the solo female travelers. All these things don’t apply to me and probably never will. Michael however thought my blog was good enough (thanks!) and so I signed up for the Navigate Media Group newsletter and waited until the news of the upcoming BlogHouse rolled in so I could apply.

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

When the “Welcome to BlogHouse Ireland” email appeared on the screen of my phone one August morning, I didn’t know what to do. I had just decided on a big move to another city for my life’s biggest academic opportunity yet. Not only was I not going to be a full-time traveler in the near future, but also, the dates were about to interfere. In the end, I decided that it would work out somehow and booked my ticket to Ireland, accompanied with a weird feeling in my stomach. I still don’t know if this was the right choice, because I’m facing some massive drama with moving and preparing for my new position right now as I didn’t have enough time to sort out some important things. Nonetheless, flying to Ireland and attending BlogHouse was a good decision for Sateless Suitcase and me on many other levels. And I will try to find words for my BlogHouse experiences and lessons here.

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

Lunch at Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

First of all: I got to stay in a castle in rural Ireland! This was definitely one of THE highlights! I loved the feeling of walking up all the stairs to the little Tower Studio overlooking the green lawns clad in the famous Irish fog, framed by the colorful leaves of the chestnut tree in front of the window. I loved the thought of being somewhere in Ireland where rarely any tourist ever goes: The little town of Bansha where only a few houses edge a narrow street through farm lands and paddocks, and where Nellie, an old, easy-going pub owner, was suddenly turned into a little online celebrity by a bunch of tweeting bloggers.

Nellie's, Bansha, Tipperary, Ireland

The days in the castle were intense in many ways: Learning so much that you were afraid your brain would explode anytime soon, becoming slightly desperate about all that computer stuff (SEO, WordPress, newsletters, plugins, installments… and the little clapping monkey in my brain), but at the same time receiving so many good tips regarding writing, social media, and improving so many little things I never even knew could be improved.

I won’t go into the techie details, mostly, because I’m still in the stage where I call a flash drive a “peg thingie”… Believe me, if I could use carrier pigeons to send my blog posts to you, I’d highly prefer that over all these html-pdf-jpeg-php-xml-and-what-not things. And what I learned at BlogHouse was not as much about all those computery sides of blogging, but how to build better content. Because, let’s be honest, no BlogHouse could ever turn me into an IT-specialist, but into a better writer and photographer and, most importantly, into a more focused self-confident blogger with a goal. And I wanted to introduce my most important goals and what I learned at BlogHouse in this post — to see them in written form, but also to open them for discussion and constructive criticism.

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

1. I have to get serious about my photography. I’ve always enjoyed photography and pretty images, but until I started blogging I had always shied away from all the technology behind a “real” camera. But from a girl who didn’t even know that a dSLR camera actually consisted of two parts (the body and the lens that is) a year ago, I evolved into an over-photographer and prime lens lover, who spent a large sum of her hard-earned summer job money on a new 50mm f1.8 lens. After Steffen (aka the boyfriend aka the sugar daddy) gave me his old Nikon D3100 camera body (admittedly, as an excuse to buy himself a better one) for my birthday in Bruges this summer, I’ve taken the camera everywhere to practice constantly.

I’m starting to understand the technology behind a good image, and after shooting on aperture only thus far, I’m slowly working on how to shoot on manual as well. But if I want to become a really good photographer and shift my site’s focus even more towards travel photography, I have to put in more effort and ultimately, more money. So my goals for the next months are getting to know my camera even better, investing in a proper laptop and Lightroom, finally start shooting in RAW, and reading as many inspiring photography blogs as possible to train my eye.

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

Photography session at BlogHouse, Ireland

2. I have to redefine my audience. When I started out writing Sateless Suitcase, I had no clear audience in mind. Somewhere along the road though, I realized that I was writing for a girl that is just like me: An immensely culturally interested but broke 20-something coffee-addict. This girl is in love with all things geeky and European. She loves to travel, but she is afraid of public bathrooms. Nonetheless, she’s willing to sleep in a hostel dorm room full of snoring, sleep-farting people if it means that she can afford to visit one more museum. And yes, she might be out there somewhere, but I can’t just keep writing for that person only. (However, if this is YOU — can we be friends please?!)

The most important thing I learned is that I have to get rid of the 20-something backpacker crowd, as cruel as that sounds. I’ve never been a backpacker myself, but by writing from the perspective of a broke art historian in her twenties I might scare away culturally interested but mature readers with more money, who are repelled by the thought of me drinking tap water from public bathrooms (which I do). And although my massive post on money saving tips while traveling in Europe, or the post on how I did Paris culture-heavy but on a super tiny budget are still among the best pieces I’ve written in my opinion, I understand that a culturally interested audience doesn’t necessarily care for the best cheap hostel in Paris.

I will still write about free cultural highlights, because even a middle-aged man staying at a five star hotel likes his free stuff, but I won’t write about budget accommodation or cheap supermarket food anymore — there might be exceptions, of course, but the main focus of my blog will be art, architecture, churches, historic sights, and museums. One thing however, that will not be taken from me, is my beloved coffee. This art historian needs her drug, and a pretty cup of coffee in a cultural setting will always be my most favorite thing (to photograph).

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

3. I need to focus on a region and embrace my geekiness. A big deal at BlogHouse was finding the niche of our blogs, which I at first considered something that wasn’t really of need in my case. An art historical travel blog is already pretty nichey, right? But in the beginning of Sateless Suitcase I wanted to write a travel blog without regional borders, which was kind of a stupid attempt for someone who doesn’t even own a passport (there, I said it). Throughout the last year of writing this blog however, it became clear that my field of interest and my expertise lies in European travel.

By officially focusing on Europe only from now on I might narrow down my readership at first, but I also make sure that I don’t run out of topics to write about in the medieval art history department. This frees me of the travel blogging peer pressure to go to Southeast Asia, which is good, because Asia has never really been on my priority list (I’m sorry I’m not sorry) — and I have a good excuse to not needing to deal with squat toilets (except in France) or having to pretend to like cilantro (except in Portugal). This means at the same time, that I have to look beyond the capital cities and main tourist attractions and find some really geeky, extraordinary things that are unique to my blog. It’s now my official goal to turn Sateless Suitcase into the number one geeky resource of cultural travel in Europe!

Bansha Castle, Tipperary, Ireland

4. I have to decide if I want to be a business person, or not. This is the hardest part for me. So far, I’ve lived in a naive world where Facebook fans and YouTube views were not something you just buy online from somewhere. I was almost shocked to learn that every number in social media can be bought. Not sure if I’m giving away industry secrets here, but I really struggle with whether I want to be a part of this world, or not. Truth is, if I want to turn my blog into a business, I have to treat it like a business — meaning I have to play by the business rules to keep up with all the competition out there.

I haven’t made up my mind about all this yet, but I know that I won’t ever become someone to go after the money first. There’s a reason I chose studying art history over business administration (besides that I suck at math): I swore that I would never prostitute myself for the money, even though I might struggle financially for the rest of my life. And I haven’t broken that rule yet. However, if I spend an insane amount of time on this blog (which I really do), I have to be rewarded somehow, because time is a very precious good. Until today, I haven’t made a single cent from my blog, but instead I’ve invested quite a bit of money (conference tickets, business cards, host services do add up at some point!). So, I’m looking for a solution to be a business person about my work online without giving up my credibility and my believes. If I invest time and money to build a really good blog, there has to be some way to make it worth-while financially without me cheating myself. (Help me out here!)

Bansha, Tipperary, Ireland

5. Blogging is about the people you meet along the way. That weird moment when you realize that you’re sitting in a room full of strangers (although you may have communicated on twitter before) who happen to be just like you in so many ways: The same passions — traveling, writing, photography. The same goals in life — find a way to turn all this passion into a job. And they all understand this travel blogging cosmos (with a big number of inside jokes) that I didn’t know existed a year ago. Apparently, it takes an hour and a can of Bulmers, and suddenly you’re running through the hallways of a castle in rural Ireland with a bunch of people you just met, opening every door looking for ghosts and secret pathways.

Bulmers, Ireland

Sometimes, I question whether it’s healthy to spend so much time in front of a laptop and worrying about not updating the Facebook page often enough. But what BlogHouse taught me is that there are people out there who also once came up with the crazy idea to start a blog and who are really trying to make it work. Every person I met at BlogHouse had an interesting story worth to be told. And our wonderful blogging mentors (teachers? instructors? gurus?) Dalene and Pete of Hecktic Travels, Ayngelina of Bacon is Magic, Michael of Go, See, Write, and Craig and Linda of Indie Travel Podcast helped us to find our stories, put them into the right words, and choose the right photos and designs to go with them. I couldn’t be more thankful for the time, patience, and inspiration I was shown by all of them. And I also need to thank the wonderful other BlogHouse participants who made my experience extra special:

BlogHouse Ireland 2013

Thanks to Helen for being the first smiling face on a train ride into uncertainty,
thanks to Beatrice for being the greatest roommate
(although I always showered way too long),
thanks to Jo for asking all the questions I didn’t dare to ask,
thanks to Jaclynn for letting me stand under her umbrella (ella, ella,… oh, just kidding) during a downpour at Trim Castle,
thanks to Murissa for saving my BlogHouse experience by borrowing me her adapter,
thanks to Lance for writing down all the hilarious BlogTripQuotes
(although really just said Bulmers!),
thanks to Andrew for his encouraging words,
thanks to Megan for always providing comic relief with her dry humor,
and thanks to Brendon for turning me into a short-time vine videographer star.

I had the best time meeting all of you and I love the feeling that I have ten great new friends from all over the world, from British Columbia to Singapore!

Lastly, thanks to the BlogHouse sponsors FlipKey, Trivago, hostelworld, and hostelbookers.