Travel, TV and fashion writer La Carmina is an expert when it comes to blogging. She’s been scribbling about her travels since 2007, she’s written three books and regularly writes for The Sunday Times, CNN and The Huffington Post. La Carmina hosts travel TV shows worldwide, and has appeared on series such as World's Weirdest Restaurants, Bizarre Foods and ABC Nightline.
We recently spoke to her about her career as a travel blogger, how she got started, and any advice she has for new bloggers. If you'd like some hints and tips from an expert, you're in the right place...
What made you want to be a travel blogger? Did you always love writing from an early age, or did you do a journalism degree which inspired you to tell the world about your travels?
I never expected I'd wind up with this career - after all, blogging didn't even exist 10 years ago! I grew up in Vancouver, Canada but traveled to Asia frequently with my parents. As a child, I felt inspired by the subcultures and fashion I saw in places like Harajuku. I always loved writing, but didn't want to write 'standard' journalism pieces that followed strict formats. I eventually enrolled in Yale Law School, started my La Carmina blog without any expectations, and kept growing it. As readership increased, so did opportunities. Today, I focus on travel-related projects: I blog, write for global publications, and host TV shows on networks like Travel Channel, CNN, Food Network and National Geographic.
How did you get started, and what were the setbacks that you faced?
In 2007, blogging was new and it was impossible to have a gameplan. Setbacks were part of the process. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what I'm able to deliver, how to grow my work, and the ways to make the biggest difference. For example, I initially focused on Japanese fashion. However, as I got more opportunities to see different countries and make a difference, my focus shifted. Now, I'm passionate about sharing meaningful stories about underground cultures and lifestyles worldwide. My team and I have shot travel episodes in Croatia, Shanghai, Czech Republic, South Africa and more (you can see them here). Hopefully, our work opens people's eyes to different walks of life.
What's the most challenging aspect of blogging? How do you decide what to write about – and how much research do you put into each story?
Personally, I focus on giving my readers the best possible experience and high-quality coverage. That means constantly upping the ante on every aspect of blogging: photography, site design, page load speed, interactions and more. It's especially challenging to find time for writing while I'm travelling. However, I never run out of material because there are always fascinating new places and people to encounter. Before I land in a city, I research the local subculture and set up meetings with insiders. I find this is the best way to dive deep into the fringes of a place.
What’s the most controversial story you've ever covered – and what advice would you give to anyone who breaks a story which goes viral?
My Tokyo TV production company, La Carmina and the Pirates, is best known for arranging segments about body modifications. We did four different TV shows about 'bagelheads', or the saline drip procedure that makes it look as if you have a bagel on your forehead! When the show 'Taboo' aired, the topic went viral, and I even went on The Doctors daytime talk show to speak about it. There were some negative reactions and misinformation - for example, a few media outlets falsely gave the impression that bagelheads are common in Japan, or permanent. I simply did my best to set the story straight and encourage an intelligent conversation. There will always be people out there who disagree with you, so I advise people to 'keep calm and carry on' rather than trying to win over everyone.
What’s your favourite story to date, and why?
I have the fondest memories of being on Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. I wrote a book called 'Crazy Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo', and it led to me becoming his co-host and guide for the Japan episode. While the cameras rolled, Andrew and I played 'takoyaki roulette' with monsters, and got served cakes by waiters dressed at schoolboys. This episode ended up being one of most talked-about in the series.
Andrew's genuine curiosity and respect for cultures worldwide, no matter how strange, inspired me to pursue what I do today. My appearance on Bizarre Foods also led to a number of further opportunities, including presenting and producing jobs with more travel TV shows.
You must have a favourite corner (or corners!) of the world – what are they, and why do you love them so much?
I've had wonderful and surprising experiences in all parts of the world, so it's impossible to name a single favorite. That being said, I must say that the Maldives live up to their reputation as a tropical paradise. I've been to many beach spots, but there is something otherworldly about the untouched waters, nature and the creatures here. You can watch my Maldives travel video and see me on a pirate boat here.
How did you initially get noticed, and create a buzz around your name?
My blog posts about Japanese theme restaurants and cute food garnered a lot of online buzz, and caught the eye of a literary agent, which led to two book deals with Random House and Penguin. These books were noticed by TV producers, and they invited me to appear on shows for Food Network, the Travel Channel and more. With this new demand, my business partner and I created a production arranging company, La Carmina & The Pirates. To date, we've arranged shows for Canal Plus France, NHK Japan, National Geographic, Discovery Network and more. This exposure also led to writing gigs with various publications, and freelance work on travel-related projects, all of which are in line who who I am, and what I believe in.
Would you say that your social media accounts have been an intrinsic part of your success?
Social media is a key component, but only part of the bigger picture. I feel that long-form, quality content (such as eye-opening blog posts, and professionally edited travel videos) are the 'meat' of what I do. This is the work that establishes authority, and shows what you are equipped to deliver. Many people lose focus and concentrate too much on gaining followers, instead of improving their abilities and output. Social media should just be a way to communicate, and get the word out on your well-executed content.
You’ve got thousands of hugely passionate followers. How do you keep them happy? Do you always try and communicate with your fans as much as possible, and write articles that you know will appeal to them?
I do my best to interact with readers in blog comments and on social media, and I am so grateful for their support; every tweet makes a difference! I feel I'm doing the best work for my readers by producing meaningful, quality coverage about alternative beauty, travel and cultures worldwide. I don't ever want to 'dial it in', or blog for external factors (like money or pageviews). To me, that's what causes readers to lose trust in you, and for a blog to fail.
What are the best – and worst – aspects of being a travel blogger?
Any supposed 'dream job' can be a nightmare if you're doing it for the wrong reasons. I've been quite adamant about finding my own path, with a 'tribe' of team members who share my values. We don't do group press trips or travel conferences, or follow the usual blogging formats. We do things our own way, and while not everyone will get it, those who do are connected for the long-term. As for the best aspects: I'm still in awe at everything I've been able to experience, thanks to blogging. Even if you're young, and have no connections, you can carve out a niche and build a career in the most unexpected ways.
Image credit: La Carmina