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Gadling's Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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]