Gadling’s Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC

lincoln memorialAs our daily roster of posts and rigorous travel schedules can attest, we work hard here at Gadling (really; it’s not all lying on beaches, slurping pastel-hued cocktails…in fact, it rarely is). We’re a small team of freelancers who mostly have day jobs to help pay the bills, whether or not writing is our primary occupation.

As part of AOL, we also have a pretty intense set of goals, including budgetary and company requirements to meet. That’s one of the main reasons our intrepid, workaholic Editor-in-Chief, Grant Martin, plans a yearly team summit for us. It’s a way to talk shop, brainstorm, work on improving our effectiveness and skill as travel writers, bond with one another, and get a working vacation in a city that for many of us is a new destination.

In the last four years, team summits have been held in Chicago, Austin, New York and, most recently, Washington DC. From May 4-6, sixteen of our contributor crew of 20 headed to the nation’s capital, coming from as far away as Northern Spain (Sean McLachlan, who none of us feel sorry for), Maui (Kyle Ellison, ditto) and Northwest DC (Melanie Renzulli). We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Dupont Circle, right across the street from the infamous Hilton where former President Reagan took a bullet. There’s history on every corner in DC, let me tell you.

Read on to learn more about the cultural sights and flavors of DC, how many travel writers it takes to name the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot, why DC cops are the greatest, and when to use “dollar” as a verb. Names have been changed where indicated to protect…myself (from retaliation).

DC row housesMay 4
With most of the team not arriving until late afternoon, our summit officially kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with an extended Happy Hour at 701 Restaurant, a downtown lounge with live jazz. Two early DC arrivals, however, had taken advantage of a “2 for 1″ happy hour at a nondescript establishment across the street from the hotel – let’s call them “Jane” and “Bob.” Jane, who’d suggested going in, thought it was a dive bar but Bob was well aware it was, in fact, a sleazy strip joint. Jane was reportedly quite embarrassed, as she’d just met Bob five minutes prior, but a good drink special is hard to pass up.

Like Jane and Bob, many of us are meeting for the first time – an occupational hazard. The evening is casual, and most of us catch up on gossip, get to know one another and talk shop. Several enjoyable hours later, we splinter off into groups: those of us who want to call it a night and enjoy the balmy weather by walking back to the hotel, and those who want to tear it up. Sweet dreams.

May 5
11:30 a.m. Noon: Most of the team gathers at DC’s Eastern Market, a historic public food hall, for a walking “Food Tour of Capitol Hill.” Led by DC Metro Food Tours, which also offers cultural culinary visits to Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan and other neighborhoods and nearby cities, it’s a way for us to get our writerly juices flowing, as well as learn a bit about the area. It’s also a potential means of generating income, whether we write it up for Gadling or try to sell a story to another outlet. Travel writers: always working.

We have an abbreviated tour due to time constraints, but spend an interesting two hours learning the history of Capitol Hill, particularly Barracks Row, an enchanting micro-neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sweet little row houses. Historical points of interest include the birthplace of musician John Philip Sousa, the Marine Commandant’s home and the Navy Yard.

DC is well known for its ethnically diverse cuisine, which is due to both its immigrant history and the number of embassies located within the city. Capitol Hill, the largest Victorian neighborhood, has, over the past 200 years, been occupied by laborers, craftsmen, members of Congress, the military and significant populations of African American, Latin American and European immigrants.

The three restaurants we visited were chosen for their ethnic significance and popularity. We begin with North Carolina BBQ and soul food (candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea) at the famed Levi’s Port Cafe (beloved by politicos). Our guide explains that DC is considered a bit of a Southern city due to its geographic location and the number of residents who originally hail from the South.
las placitas
We move on to delicious Greek mezze at Cava Mezze, and finish up with fried yuca and manioca, carnitas and margaritas at Salvadorian restaurant Las Placitas. By the end of the tour, all of us have a better understanding of DC’s historical roots, and how they’ve developed its culinary scene.

3 p.m.: Business and Technical session at HuffPost offices downtown. The core of our visit, this team meeting is dedicated to the year’s goals and objectives, brainstorming and new media and travel industry trends. It’s also a chance for us to ask questions and get feedback from Grant on our individual and team performance and address any concerns.

One of the things Gadling is being more meticulous with this year is improving standards. We recently acquired our very own copy editor, the wonderful Robin Whitney (so if you see a typo, blame her…just kidding, Robin!).

7:30 p.m.: We meet for dinner at Station 4, a new, modern American restaurant near the Southwest Waterfront. I grab a cab with “Victoria,” her husband, Sean McLachlan, and Chris Owen. Our driver was a dapper West African gentleman clad in a funky-ass suit. He possessed a distressingly advanced vocabulary and knowledge of global politics and geography, and kept us in hysterics the entire ride. In his lilting accent, he’d ask us questions and quiz us on trivia like, “Name all of the countries in Africa that have four letters in them,” “What is the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot?” and “Name all of the world’s countries located within a country.”

He had no idea we were travel writers, which is good, because we were stumped most of the time. Victoria secretly videotaped the entire episode only to delete it after viewing. She explained that the shame was too great and it read like a bad joke: “A former archaeologist, a musician, a photographer, a food writer and a cruise expert get into a cab…”

After dinner (and a few too many glasses of vino), it was determined by someone that we were all going to take the Metro to a bar in Adams Morgan. We set off in clusters – keeping a posse of 16 together is damn near impossible when cabs and mass transit are involved, alcohol or no.
gadling
Thus began a new Gadling summit activity, what Pam Mandel dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Adventure One entailed having your ATM card digested by a Metro ticket machine and being trapped underground for an hour waiting for an employee to resolve the issue. Adventure Two utilized DC’s popular Capital Bikeshare and involved a scenic tour of the city’s historic sites, culminating with a dramatic finale at the Washington Monument.

Led by a team member I’ll call “Ulysses,” it was by all accounts a weekend highlight. Especially when Ulysses, distracted by the wonder that is the Lincoln Memorial, slammed at full speed into the back of a parked police car, denting it. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, and the tolerant officers only issued him a ticket for reckless pedaling.

A number of team members congregated at a popular watering hole called The Big Hunt, holding court until closing. Over on Adventure Four, Bob and Jane got into a debate in the cab over the name of the strip club, which piqued the interest of their fellow passengers, an angelic-looking blogger we’ll call Tiffany, and an esteemed member of the team whose identity shall heretofore be known as “Paul Theroux.”

A trip to said club ensued in the name of research. Readers should note that DC gentleman’s clubs are to be avoided on Cinco de Mayo eve because of the vast numbers of tequila-saturated frat boys in residence, rowdily “dollaring” (a term invented by Tiffany, blowing her “America’s Sweetheart” cover) the girls on stage. Bob and Jane were surprised to note that they’d already achieved “regular” status, and they’d like to go on record as saying that DC gentleman’s club staff, in their limited experience, are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the, ah, service industry. Paul Theroux smiled inscrutably while watching the Greeks, and remarked that the evening had developed into quite the “sociological experience.”

Day Three
All rise and power down copious amounts of caffeine for the 11:30 Noon 12:30 p.m. behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (post coming soon, so I’ll dispense with the details other than to say it was spectacular and an absolute must on your itinerary if you’re planning a visit to DC – and it’s free).

1:30 p.m.: Minus a few early airport departures, a final gathering at the HuffPost offices to hear travel writing gurus/team members Don George and David Farley do a presentation on how to craft more effective narrative travel writing. It was inspiring and interesting, even for those of us who are veterans of the genre, and made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of six pizzas ordered by Grant (Upper Crust on Pennsylvania Ave. NW does it right).

Sadly, most of us had to depart for our respective airports within the hour, but hugs all around, and promises to visit one another soon are made. All kidding aside, it was a truly memorable weekend for both work and play. I can only speak for myself (and what I gleaned eavesdropping on others) but the camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst our current team is something that’s very rare. I feel blessed to have such a fun, talented, diverse group to work with, as well as the leadership of an editor like Grant.

I should also add that it’s the first time I’ve enjoyed DC, despite eight prior visits. It’s true what they say: it’s not where you are, but who you’re with.

Special thanks to McLean Robbins and Jeremy Kressmann for their help in arranging assorted venues and activities for the summit.

[Photo credits: Lincoln Memorial, Flickr user pochacco20; row houses, Flickr user flickr-rickr; rest, Melanie Renzulli]

Rama: a smartphone app for history lovers

rama smartphone app for history travelers Rama is a smartphone app that not only guides you through your favorite cities while giving you historical details, it also makes the past come alive through archival photographs that show users exactly what a particular destination or site once looked like. See the rocky swamp that is now Central Park, walk through Chicago right after the Great Fire, experience the wild atmosphere of Mardi Gras during the Depression, or visit the few lonely buildings in San Francisco after the Earth quake hit in 1906.

Some of the available tours include:

And, many more. Click here to view a complete list of guided tours. Tours cover Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and North America.

Available on iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Price ranges from free-$2.99 depending which tour you choose. To download the app from iTunes store, click here.

In Search of Serendipity in Savannah


Sitting in the passenger seat of a lime green Mustang, driving out of the historic center of Savannah, I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. A guy in a black suit was taking me, well, somewhere.

I asked where we were headed. “Bonaventure,” said Shannon, as he started describing one of the biggest cemeteries in the area and the funerary traditions of Georgia’s generations past. I was going to tour a graveyard with a stranger I’d just met, and it was a perfectly Savannahian moment.

Traveling the American Road – Savannah


My friend Rob and I arrived in Savannah with little more than a vague notion that it’s filled with lots of public squares. And it certainly is: one of the most impressive planned cities in the United States, along with Washington, D.C., there’s seemingly a live oak-shaded place to stop every time you turn a corner. But we didn’t want to spend our stay hiking in the 100-degree heat.

We had little idea of what to see or do, so Rob and I headed for the hotel bar, which usually leads to an adventure of one sort or another. We met Becki, the bartender, yes, but also an ambassador to the city who seems to know everything and everyone in town. In minutes, Rob and I had a table for dinner and a pedicab waiting to take us there. (A caution: Pedicabs are just as touristy in Savannah as they are everywhere else.)

At Sapphire Grill, we sat at the bar, sampling appetizer after appetizer while drawing recommendations of what to do out of the staff. They kept coming. A guy sitting at the other end of the bar spoke up, with a dream quote. “Savannah is the kind of place where you start drilling down and you find more and more.”

Later, Becki told us to call her friend Shannon Scott, an expert on Savannah’s history, which tends toward the eerie. We made plans to do a tour in the morning, but I don’t remember agreeing on cemetery sightseeing. No matter: that’s where we were headed, to see the graveyard featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where a number of Savannah’s best (and most tragic) tales should be told.

Shannon’s tour took us past noteworthy graves of Johnny Mercer, Gracie Watkins, Corinne Elliot Lawton and Noble Wimberly Jones, a founding patriot and delegate to the Continental Congress. Shannon’s insights lent helpful historical context and he told stories we wouldn’t have heard had we visited without a guide. A couple of turned-around tourists we bumped into seemed positively overwhelmed; in Shannon’s charge, we were free to simply enjoy the visit, the monumental sculpture and the history.

After the walk, our guide invited us to lunch. We decided on Blowin’ Smoke, where the pulled pork rated as some of the best I’d ever had. Oh, and our waiter? Shannon had met him recently at a party. Just another Savannah coincidence.

Don’t do mornings? Take a “Crack of noon” tour of Italy or France

Don’t you just despise fellow vacationers who leap out of bed at dawn’s first light, eager to get a start on the day’s activities? Do you hate trying to comprehend great works of art with a throbbing hangover? If your holidays often end up feeling about as relaxing as a day at the office, Executive Tours International has a solution.

The small, California-based luxury and customized travel company offered its first “Crack of Noon” tour of Italy last fall. It proved so popular, France has been added to the fall 2010 schedule.

This new take on organized tours features activities starting “after the civilized hour of noon” -ideal for those who don’t consider themselves “morning people.” Most days officially begin after 12 p.m., so travelers can choose to sleep in after a bit of late-night revelry, or have entire mornings to explore on their own. Limited to 24 guests each, “Crack of Noon Italy,” and “Crack of Noon France” allow travelers to explore each country, while giving them ample time to relax, recharge, and get some quality alone time.

The tours showcase the food and wine of each country. Italy includes Rome, Tuscany, and Venice, while France highlights Paris, Provence, and the French Riviera. Bookings close June 30th-be sure to set your alarm.

Last Chance to Get to Greenland on the Cheap

Okay, it’s not at the top of many people’s travel lists. Who thinks about Greeland? Well, I do, and I’ve wanted to go for a while. Hurtigruten is pretty sympathetic to this fact and has a new deal that makes it pretty easy to get it to one of the most remote destinations in the world … but, you have to act fast. This deal expires on August 31, 2009, and space is limited.

Hurtigruten’s new ship, MS Fram, has 318 berths and takes its guests around a seascape that hasn’t changed in 5,000 years. On land, much is frozen in time as well, with Hurtigruten’s passengers able to move among villages that have seen little of what the rest of the world would call progress. Eqip Sermia Glacier, icebergs in Disko Bay and Jakobshavn Ice Fjord (a World Heritage Site) are on the itinerary, as well as guided walking tours of Inuit towns, such as Qeqertarsuaq, Ukkusissat, Itelleq and Ilulissat.

Curious about the deals? Check them out after the jump.

“Three Countries – One Deluxe Ship” – a At a savings of 64 percent to 67 percent ($8,667 to $13,117 in savings), the voyage starts in a European country and ends in New York (by way of Canada). Along the way, you’ll explore one of the world’s most remote destinations (Greenland), and guests on the 18-day voyage aboard the MS Fram are treated to a unique historical perspective as they are joined by Benedicte Ingstad, the daughter of the famed explorer Helge Ingstad. Ms. Ingstad joined her parents, Anne Stine and Helge, on their expedition to L’anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland in 1960, where they discovered and excavated what is believed to be the “Vinland settlement” of Leif Eriksson from around AD 1000 – 500 years before the Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of North America. Other highlights include visits to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: L’anse Aux Meadows, Red Bay (provisional World Heritage list) and Gros Morne National Park. The September 22 departure ranges from $4,249 to $7,249 and include flights from New York/Newark, one night hotel in Copenhagen.

“25% Off + 2 Hotel Nights” – This deal results in a cost savings of $1,990 to $5,745 per person and comes with a pretty hefty perk: two free hotel nights in Copenhagen, Denmark. Guests will have a chance to poke around the medieval city. And, the stop in Denmark stretches the 8- and 15-day Greenland sailings into 10- and 17-day vacations. The reduced prices for the four August and September departures are $4,597 to $15,862 per person.

“Go Solo And Save” – Interested in checking out Greenland on your own? Solo travelers can pay the same rate as if they were sharing a cabin, a savings that can reach 47 percent ($3,065 to $19,034 off brochure prices). Single passenger prices are $6,129 to $21,149.