HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A conference going on through Saturday in Huntsville is expected to boost tourism to North Alabama.
The Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) boasts it is the largest gathering of travel bloggers, writers, new media content creators and social media travel industry professionals in the world. It's happening at the VBC through May 6, 2017.
It was a big "get" for Huntsville.
"It puts us on the map where nobody's seen us," said Bob Rogers, Vice President of Conventions for the Huntsville-Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have people who have never been to Huntsville, never heard of Huntsville, never really even been to Alabama. And here they are."
TBEX brings social media and travel industry stars to the Rocket City, and their work this weekend along with after they leave town is expected to make its mark.
"The hope is people will read these blogs, these social media things, and they will eventually come here," commented Rogers. "It's not a large convention for the city itself, but the reach they have in the world is really why they're here. And we are trying to get all of them to tell every story they can. We are showing them everything we can that they may have an interest in."
It's the social media aspect that can pay off, big.
"During the next few days we will reach over 200 million impressions for the city of Huntsville from the attendees here," said Rick Calvert, TBEX CEO. That is a lot of online attention for the Rocket City and surrounding area.
Travel blog giant Johnny Jet said he was "pleasantly surprised" by what he found in Huntsville as soon as he got off the plane. He remarked on the great airport.
"Everything I've seen is really nice," he said of the city.
Jet's website, JohnnyJet.com, is highly successful.
"My website gets about a little over half a million visitors a month," he said. "I'll share live on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest," said Jet. "I'll write about it, share photos."
It's work like his that the city's businesses, festivals and leaders are counting on.
"TBEX does a lot for us," said Matt Pittman of Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, which set up a booth at TBEX and has interacted with many bloggers. "It's getting our name out in the community."
He said that exposure is valuable, and it is connecting Huntsville to places and people across the globe.
"We're starting to see connections with people from around the world that wouldn't have known we existed," said Pittman.
This convention has been to Toronto, Bangkok, Cancun. Why Huntsville?
"Because it's a great city, we knew our attendees would have a great time," Calvert said. "It's an undiscovered place, and we knew there were lots of great stories to tell here. You've got great history here, great culture, great food. All the things travelers are looking for." And, all the things bloggers want to write about.
Calvert said they've been very impressed by the people they met in Huntsville.
"We're happy to be here. Everybody here has been so nice, which is one thing that some people didn't expect. But they come here and go, 'Wow, everybody's so friendly!' So on top of the tourism board being great and great things to do, you've got great people."
Jet said he's mostly interested in finding things that make a community unique, and discovering local gems. We asked what made him interested in Huntsville.
"I'm always interested in learning about local stuff. You have the space program here, supposedly there's more phD's here per capita than anywhere else in the world. That is amazing!" he remarked.
Why should you care about TBEX?
TBEX organizers say the 550 people at TBEX come from 25 different countries. They'll put Huntsville on the map, and draw attention to it in ways it may not have been able to secure otherwise.
"When you want to know something about a place you're going to go, you're going to Google it. And you're going to find a blog that's talking about that thing," Calvert explained. "So these are the influencers. They're the people that help people make decisions about where they are going to, where they are going to stay, where they are going to eat, and how they are going to spend their money."
Calvert said many writers and bloggers won't just stay the three days of the conference, but that some have already been here for weeks. Many others may stay a few extra days to get a better feel for the area, and the state. It also means they are tourists, spending their money around the area.
Other communities in Alabama were also represented at TBEX, and bloggers traveled to cities like Florence, Selma and Scottsboro during their visits.