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]

Coping with a fear of flying: the secret rituals of aviophobics

fear of flyingMy name is Laurel, and I have aviophobia. I, like millions of Americans, am scared shitless of flying. Aviophobia can manifest for a variety of reasons: a traumatic experience on a previous flight; claustrophobia; fear of heights; fear of loss of control (ding, ding, ding!), even a fear of motion sickness. After years of researching the subject, I’ve learned that I fit the classic profile of an aviophobic: female, with sudden onset in my early twenties.

In my situation, there was nothing to precipitate my phobia; I actually loved to fly as a kid. But over a period of 10 years, it progressed until I was not only having anxiety attacks on flights, but suffering frequent nightmares about crashes in the weeks before a trip, no matter how anticipated. The final straw came when, in December of 1999, I was about to embark on a five-week solo backpacking trip of Southeast Asia. It was days before my departure, and I was so terrified by the thought of 21 hours in the air, I was ready to bail on the entire thing.

Fortunately, I got a grip, called my doctor, and explained the situation. He immediately wrote me a prescription for Xanax and my life as a traveler has been the better for it ever since. Why it took me so long is a mystery, but Xanax quells (but not eliminates) my anxiety and enables me to fall into slumber that renders me drooling and pleasantly out of it during flight, but alert enough to awaken should it be necessary.

I know Xanax is a crutch, and that’s okay. I’m not advocating taking drugs to solve all of one’s problems, but in this instance, it’s what worked for me after other methods (including therapy) failed. I know people who no longer fly because of their phobia, and to me, that’s sad. The world becomes a smaller place–literally and figuratively–when you let fear control you.

I still don’t enjoy flying, although my phobia has lessened. There are even the rare flights where I don’t take Xanax. But there’s one thing I must always do before departure that’s far more important than popping a pharmaceutical. I must perform My Ritual.

[Photo credit: Flickr user runningclouds]

fear of flyingEvery aviophobic I’ve talked to (for some reason, most of my friends suffer from it) has a secret mantra they utter, or small ceremony they perform before flight that, in their minds, assures them the Gods of Aviation or whoever will ensure safe passage.

Admittedly, most of my friends are depraved lushes who drink themselves senseless before they fly (another used to rely upon “bong hits,”) but that’s not what I’m referring to. And, for the record, I strongly recommend you not get hammered before departure, especially if you’re taking sleeping pills or other prescription drugs related to your flight. I also recommend you see your doctor and get a prescription, rather than take meds or sleep aids from friends or purchase them in a foreign pharmacy.

For those of you who grapple with a fear of flying, I know you have your little pre-flight ritual. Whenever I board an aircraft I have to touch the outside of the plane with my right hand, and utter a specific phrase to myself. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to doom my next flight.

I asked my fellow Gadling contributors, AOL Huffington Post Media Group editors, and flight-phobic friends what they do for solace before taking to the skies, and they were very forthcoming. Touching the outside of the plane while boarding was by far the most common response. What a bunch of freaks.

Rebecca Dolan: “I won’t fly without a St. Christopher medal.”
fear of flying
Laurel’s friend L: “Despite not being religious, the act of saying the words to the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer before take-off is just something I have to do. I also can’t step on any metal on the jetway. This means I have to take a big, stretched-out step while boarding the plane.”

Annemarie Dooling: “This is all the Catholic school that was beaten into me as a child: I pray the rosary. I recite the Hail Mary and Our Father on succession; this way if I die, I’ll go to heaven, right? Right?”

Melanie Renzulli: “When I lived in India, I got into this habit of praying to Ganesha when taking off. Now I do a quick little prayer to Buddha, Ganesha, Allah, and Jesus just to cover most of my bases. Cheesy, I know. I mentioned this to a flying enthusiast friend of mine and he said, “I pray to the gods of certification, engineering, manufacturing, and most importantly physics.”

Laurel’s friend J: “I have no rituals except vigilance. Every time I try to nod off, that’s when the Captain comes on to tell us we’ve blown a tire, or that little dip was one of the engines going out, or we’re about to encounter some strong turbulence and the attendants had better strap in….so no distractions for me, just watching and waiting.” [I should add that this particular friend–a strapping fellow–has endured two emergency landings, so I applaud him for flying at all].

Kyle Ellison: “My wife has to take Xanax, pee twice, and snap her hand with a rubber band to calm down. Why? Who knows. I always touch the side of the aircraft with my right palm when walking through the front door. Done it since I was five.”

Laurel’s friend A: Her ritual is taking the train.

[Photo credits: pills, Flickr user Keturah Stickann; rosary, Flickr user miqui]

Deepak Chopra on How to Overcome Fear of Flying

Gadling’s 2011 NYC summit / NoFF happy hour recap

One week ago, the nefarious crew here at Gadling assembled from all parts of the globe to gather in the Big Apple for our annual team summit. Led by Gadling’s steadfast Editor-in-Chief & tequila pusher, Mr. Grant Martin, the team took to the bustling streets of NYC for a weekend of strategizing, socializing, pool sharking, and vital face time.

The highlights of the weekend (from what we can remember) included a travel/tech panel organized & curated by Gadling’s own Jeremy Kressmann; where Drew Patterson (CEO of Jetsetter), Geoff Lewis (CEO of Topguest) and Grant Martin discussed the present and future of social media’s impact on loyalty programs.


On Saturday evening, we had the pleasure of teaming up once again with the boys at the Nomading Film Festival to wrangle some of the top NYC-based talent in the travel industry for our second happy hour of 2011. Hosted at the Lolita Bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, we convened over a special pouring

of 17 Year Old Fine Oak & 18 Year Old Sherry Oak Single Malts from the Macallan. A sensible amount of scotch & tequila was consumed, new friends were made, old friends reunited, and when the fine folks at Mastercard & Travelocity started feeling generous, coveted gifts (and gnomes) were raffled.

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We couldn’t have asked for a better group to share the celebrations with; thank you to all that were able to make it. If you missed us this time around, then scroll through the gallery above to see the photos that we were allowed to publish. If you want the uncensored version, you’ll just have to join us next time!

Follow AOL Travel on Twitter, and enter for a chance to win $500 in travel money

Our friends over at AOL Travel would really like you to start following them on Twitter – their feed is a great read, so it’s certainly worth doing. But if you need a little more incentive, how about a chance at winning $500 in Travelocity travel credits? All you need to do is follow them to be eligible!

The full offer, and of course the rules, can be found here.

And while you are at it, don’t forget to add Gadling and your favorite Gadling writers!

You can find Gadling on Twitter, as well as the most of the Gadling Team: Mike Barish, Kraig Becker, Catherine Bodry, Alison Brick, Scott Carmichael, Justin Glow, Stephen Greenwood, Katie Hammel, Aaron Hotfelder, Tom Johansmeyer, Jeremy Kressmann, Heather Poole, Jamie Rhein, Annie Scott, Willy Volk, Karen Walrond, Kent Wien, Brenda Yun.

Galley Gossip: Airline Bashing, bringing the world together

“So what do you do for a living?” asks…oh…whoever it is asking that day, which on this day happened to be a client of my husband, a very important client with a very impressive job.

“I’m a flight attendant,” I say with a smile.

The two second pause, that’s usually the initial response from the person asking the question about my job. During this never ending pause, I always find myself holding my breath, because the pause is always followed by one of two responses, and nine times out of ten it’s not the good response.

  • The good response: Is full of excitement and ends with an exclamation mark. It goes something like this; “I’ve always wanted to be a flight attendant!” or “My sister is a flight attendant!” And always leads to a very nice conversation about travel, which then leads to other interesting topics related to travel.
  • The bad response: Always starts with the same four words, “On my last flight…” which is then followed by another pause, accompanied with a weird look, which of course leads to a very bad story about the last flight. Needless to say, the conversation usually doesn’t go so well after this. How can it? I’ve now been linked to the worst flight this person has ever had. No matter how well we’d just been getting along.

“Computers,” said a friend, and CEO of a well known watch company that I worked for thirteen years ago. “I always tell people I’m in computers and then they leave me alone. Try it.”

“Oh I hate telling people what I do for a living,” said Mark, a fellow coworker, as we stood in the first class galley of a New York to Los Angeles flight, a flight I wasn’t working. We were talking about the job, and what people tend to think of those of us who do the job, which is the main reason Mark hates talking about the job with those who work on the ground.

Flight attendants aren’t the only ones who dread talking about it. On a flight a few years back, when things weren’t nearly as bad as they are now in the aviation industry, a super 80 co-pilot once confessed, “I never wear my uniform outside the house. I don’t want my neighbors knowing what I do for a living. When I get to the airport I change clothes.”

“Really?” I asked the first officer who, at the time, seemed a little…well…weird. I mean this was a pilot – A PILOT! Something to be proud of.

Now, years later, I often think of that guy when I’m dressed in my uniform and not on the airplane, the guy who may not have been so weird after all. Perhaps somehow he knew something about the future of aviation we could not imagine back then when things were…well…good, even though back then we still didn’t think things were all that great.

Like most flight attendants, I miss the good old days, but I still love my job, even if I’m selling sandwiches down the aisle and constantly apologizing because we don’t have this and we don’t have that to a full flight of miserably cramped passengers. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I certainly don’t have to do it. Really, I don’t. I want to do it and I like doing it. Which is why I’m going to tell you something I told my husband five years ago while we were seated across a dimly lit table from each other on our second date. I won’t quit. Ever! Oh yeah, I’ll be one of the ones using the drink cart like a walker forty years from now. Why? Because I love my job, remember? So it’s a shame that talking about the job has become such a sore spot with so many people.

“You’re the new whipping girl,” said Margo Candela, one of my few friends who does not work at 35,000 feet for a living. She said that after I had told her how people usually react when I tell them I’m a flight attendant.

“Whipping girl?” I repeated, because this was news to me. I’d never been called that before. In fact, I’ve been called everything BUT that, so whipping girl sounded nice, for a change, and also kind of exciting. “Whipping girl,” I said again, because I just liked saying it, and couldn’t stop saying it, as I imagined myself, the girl, actually holding the whip, as I stood in the aisle surrounded by passengers. “So what do you mean, exactly, by whipping girl?” I asked Margo, even though I had a pretty good idea what she meant, which I knew wasn’t at all like what I was fantasizing about.

“What I mean,” said Margo, the writer. “Is nowadays the dislike for airlines and ticket prices are the only thing people can agree on. It brings the world together. Trashing airlines, customer service, you name it, is a fairly safe and enthusiastic topic of conversation. For instance, I won’t talk religion or politics with some people, but airline complaints are fair game.”

It was an ah-ha moment. Everything Margo said made sense. And guess what, she actually made me feel better, so much better, in fact, I could go on with my day and face whatever negativity that might come my way with a first class smile on my face.

So go ahead, say what you like about me, my job, my coworkers, it’s okay. Because we’re doing great things with our lives. Yeah, I said it, great things, people! I mean how many of you are actually bringing this crazy mixed up world together by creating a unified hatred not based on religion, race, or political belief, but by working in an industry that’s struggling just to stay afloat? I mean who would have thought that one job could spark so much emotion? From so many people. And from all walks of life!

Now seriously, why can’t we all just get along?

Please!

Because we’re all stuck in the flying tube together.