Sunday, September 21, 2014

5 things I learned as a TBEX Newbie

I recently returned from Cancun where I attended the TBEX Travel Blogger conference.  I found the event randomly on Twitter and I am grateful I had the opportunity to attend.  I got to learn so much before, during, and after the event. 
At Expedia TBEX Party
1st Lesson Learned: Prepare!  I'm thankful for the great article from Travel Massive about how to prepare for TBEX.  I was under the impression I was only going to go as an active listener but I gained so much more from preparing ahead.  I took the advice to make a media kit and used the Canva design website, which is an amazing tool to create a presentation. I admit it was a lot of work editing the right content but I loved having something to share when I met with brands. Also, I enlisted my friends who work in the PR/Communications field to take a look at it. There was a lot of feedback and editing, but I am happy with the final product.  Additionally, I printed a condensed version of the media kit which was a great tool when talking about my brand.  I also followed the advice of researching the brands before the event, which paid dividends during speed dating or spontaneous networking with brands.  
Lovely Gift from the Corning Museum of Glass, one of the brands I connected with at TBEX

2nd Lesson Learned:  Reassurance. While preparing for the conference, I became doubtful of my abilities. I noticed so many people who have  much more followers, those who travel for a living, and who have been doing this so much longer than I have.  One of the breakout sessions which resonated with me the most was "Don’t Quit Your Day Job: You Don’t Have to be a Nomad to be a Successful Travel Blogger" by David Brodie and Chris Christensen.  They talked about balancing your day job (which I love) with your blog by creating to-do lists, developing great content from home, and being a tourist in your own city. Not only did I find it useful, but it reassured me that I am on the right path.
We're with TBEX
3rd Lesson Learned:  Networking.  Although that is a default activity in my professional life, I am pretty new at developing relationships with brands and fellow bloggers. It is different feeling when you're trying to sell a service or product at your day job versus trying to sell yourself.  I made sure to ask questions during the panels to get the best out of the experience.  Not only did I focus on connecting with brands, but also with other bloggers who I can collaborate with in the future. One of the things that helped me during this conference was my language skills. Thanks mom and dad for raising me in Puerto Rico!  I got to talk to so many Latin American bloggers and trade ideas with them. I even got to do an interview in Spanish with Best Day and engage with the management of Xcaret which hosted an amazing show for the opening night party of TBEX. 
Interview with Good Morning Riviera Maya

4th Lesson Learned:  PR Engagement.  I had the opportunity to sit on the breakout session of Diana Laskaris of Food Travelist, "Cashing in on Culinary Tourism".  During the panel I asked how to build relationships with destinations and restaurants. She suggested to get on PR lists in order to develop relationships with restaurants and destinations and to engage with the chefs and restaurants via social media. This is something I have been doing for a while and it has opened many doors for me in the local DC culinary scene. 

5th Lesson Learned:  Be a sponge. There is not enough space to cover all the little details I learned at the conference from brands and fellow bloggers.  I admit that it is an overwhelming feeling to go to a conference to promote your brand (as in You) but at the same time it is essential to stay open to all the tools that are available to you.  Take in the little things you learn at breakout sessions such as building pitches and connecting with brands. 
Opening Party at Xcaret

The verdict:  I am glad I made the investment to go to TBEX.  Not only was the information provided invaluable but the prep work I did beforehand reiterated the fact that blogging is hard yet rewarding work. I already have some great collaborations lined up with the brands I connected with. You have to make the effort to make the connections and reach out to people, find a way to make your brand unique, and most importantly be consistent in sharing great content. Not only your content on the blog, but in social media as well.  

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Recap: Arcadia Farm Harvest Dinner

Two Sundays ago, my good friend Marissa and I had the opportunity to attend the Arcadia Farm Fall Harvest Dinner in benefit of the Veteran’s Farmer’s program. As we entered the iconic grounds of the Woodlawn Estate, we were taken by the raw natural beauty of the venue. The large colonial style home that once belonged to George Washigton's Mount Vernon Estate, sits on this beautiful space, home to a kid’s farmer camp, beekeeping classes, among other exciting programs.  The programs place a diverse group of people from the DC metro area in touch with nature and organically grown produce.  Now, Arcadia  will launch a program teaching Veterans to be professional farmers in an effort to not only provide job training to a much needed group, but also to fill the crucial gap of an ageing farmer population.

Upon arrival, we were immediately welcomed by Pamela Hess, the executive director of Arcadia who has a long professional history with Marines as an embedded journalist covering Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom during key periods of the war.  Pam gave a heartfelt speech to welcome us to the dinner. One of the things she said that resonated with me as a veteran was the fact that there is so much humanity amidst a war.  If there is one thing I learned from my deployments, it’s exactly that.

As we walked the grounds, we were welcomed with delicious mini tacos and tuna canapés accompanied by a lovely cherry and sparkling wine aperitif.  We walked by a bounty of Swiss chard, corn, tomatoes, among other seasonal vegetables.  We enjoyed seeing what the farm had to offer and wondering why the tomatoes in our respective yards did not turn out as bountiful.

We took a seat in a family style setting where we shared the table with a spectrum of people: from an Arcadia staff member who started her career in the Peace Corps in Paraguay to a Gastroenterologist.  Although there was a variety of personalities in between, to include the first lady of Virginia, Mrs. McAuliffe, there was one thing we all bonded over: the exquisite dinner.

Our dinner began with pork belly and a ceviche, two of my favorite items this summer made by Chef Jesse Miller from Café Saint Ex.  We enjoyed the perfectly cooked pork on a bed of apple butter.  The ceviche had a nice spicy kick and the perfect citrus balance. We then moved on to more beautifully made dishes by Haidar Karoum, executive chef of Proof . We sampled a delicious cauliflower salad seasoned with tahini (one of the favorites at the table) and an eggplant and shrimp salad.  The second course was rounded with a Korean-style marinated beef made by Danny Lee of Mandu DC.

For the third course we indulged in a slow roasted pork with spiced peach chutney by Chef William Morris of Vermilion.  The pork was flawless but the star of the dish was the chutney, the table devoured it!  We then found a tiny space to fit the perfectly crisp fried chicken and refreshing watermelon and papaya salad by Jonah Kim.  To conclude, we spoiled our taste buds with the most amazing corn ice cream I’ve ever had paired with a fresh blueberry pie. I don’t even like ice cream like that, this one made me a convert.

We had a fantastic time talking to other veterans and people in the community who believe in this wonderful project. I admit the Marine in me is a little biased, but I was proud that the majority of participants were Marines despite us being only six percent of the DoD.  I am looking forward to more success stories about veterans who are committed to making fresh produce available to all of us.  To learn more about Veteran food programs, stay tuned to the November issue of Edible DC, where I will be writing about more about amazing organizations that serve our veterans. 

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Mexican History at Xcaret Park

As the opening activity at TBEX Travel Blogger conference in Cancun, we were welcomed with the "Xcaret Mexico Espectacular" show at Xcaret Park. Xcaret is a huge theme park located in the Riviera Maya south of Cancun.  As we entered the park, we were a little apprehensive since it seemed a little too touristy with its rows of tour buses, large gift shop, and the scent of popcorn. As we were seated in the stadium-like venue, we did not know what to expect.

Soon, the lights dimmed and we were taken into quite the show. I have always been fascinated by Mexican culture as I find it so diverse and rich in history. The Mexico Espectacular show gave the audience a glimpse into this rich history, from pre-Hispanic times to modern-day song and dance. The show includes more than 300 actors and costumes ranging from the indigenous Mayan dress to the modern day Mariachi.  

The show began with a traditional Mayan ball game, with players making moves almost synonymous to modern day soccer.  After various scenes of indigenous games, the show transitions into the arrival of the Spaniards, depicting the war between the Indians and the Spanish to the subsequent conquest of the land and conversion to Catholicism. This part of show is marked with the symbolic scene of the beheading of indigenous gods being replaced by crosses.

From there, the show moved to different music, costumes, and songs from the diverse states of Mexico. It enchanted us with the beautiful white dresses of Veracruz and it got us up and dancing to the nortenas of Chihuahua. Every costume was beautifully made with an amazing amount of detail. All of the dancers brought a genuine energy to the stage.

For those who are fans of culture, as I am, I highly recommend this show during your stay in the Riviera Maya. The show also has a dinner option, which is what we had with the TBEX group with a delicious three course menu.  We enjoyed a corn soup, a chicken with green salsa, and flan for dessert.  Afterwards, we had lovely margaritas in the beautiful hacienda courtyard. It was the perfect way to start our adventure in Mexico. 

Disclaimer: This trip was a sponsored trip by Xcaret via TBEX Travel Blogger Conference. As always, I only write about things I love!
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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Foodiechats brunch at Sona Creamery

Our first foodiechats brunch took place in Casa Oaxaca in July. We enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to have a second edition at Sona Creamery near Eastern Market.  One of the things I enjoy from the culinary life in DC is brunch.  Restaurants are becoming more innovative with their brunch offerings and Sona Creamery definitely fits the creative bill.  I was joined by several Foodiechats aficionados such as La'Chiah an active foodie on twitter, Andrew from Cook in/Dine Out, Laura from Mother Would Know, Michelle from Eat Style Play,  Laetitia from French Twist, and Patricia from Girl Meets Food DC.

A combined cheese shop and restaurant, Sona Creamery has creative ways to introduce its core product to the table.  We were given a warm welcome with freshly baked peanut butter and chocolate chip scones.  Although the scones were warm and delicious we quickly discovered it is all about the cheese. We officially began our brunch with an abundant cheese board with a mélange of different flavors from pecorino to local cheddar.  I enjoyed how we were educated on each piece of cheese from its origins to stories about the cheese makers.  The small slivers of cheese were deliciously accompanied by homemade jams, mustards, and pickles.

Then, we moved onto the main courses which were shared family style.  The opener was a French toast soaked in custard overnight and accompanied with bacon jam. I was impressed how it was not soggy and the jam went very well with it.  This was followed by Sona’s take on eggs benedict: substituted the hollandaise sauce for raclette. I will always be a fan of the hollandaise but this was a delicious alternative.  We were also served frittata which received positive reviews as well.  

To conclude the Sona Creamery brunch with a golden brooch, we had two items that were my favorite from the spread: the breakfast poutine and locally produced lamb sausage. There was some discussion about the poutine: some thought it was too dry compared to the Canadian original and some thought it was the perfect consistency. I belong to the latter group. As the belly started to get full, I was happy to have a dish not as rich as the original.  The point of universal agreement were the lamb sausages. Although everyone was full at this point, there was room made for this. The lightly spicy and succulent sausage tasted fresh and not greasy.

One of the things which makes a restaurant special is its service.  One random day, I went to Sona Creamery for lunch and was impressed with the knowledge of the servers and the passion they have for the items they make. Needless to say, it was one of the reasons I chose it for our Foodiechats brunch. From the spicy bloody Mary’s Tara, the cocktail manager made to the fact they bought a whole lot of cheese to support a cheesemaker heart surgery, there is a unique, personal touch to the place.  

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Sona Creamery & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Travel Fashion: Muumuu and Flats

A few weeks ago, I had photos for my media kit taken by the amazing Julien from the style blog, It's Julien.  When choosing looks for the shoot, I decided to go with one of my favorite travel uniforms: muumuu (loose dress), tote, and flats.  One of my favorite dresses is a DVF short loose dress (find one similar on sale here) I picked up at Saks years ago but never gets old.  I can wear it with tights in the winter and sandals or flats in warm weather.  It also dresses down for sightseeing and up with heels for dinner.  It's easy to pack and the light material makes it easy to fit in a carry-on or even a weekend bag. 

Another big part of my travel uniform are flats. Can't get enough of Tod's.  They are expensive but I still walk around with a pair I purchased in 2007 with no need for resoling.  Travel Tip: if you find yourself in Europe for the sales season (June or January), you can get them up to 50% off plus your VAT (tax refund).  I own them in conservative colors such as brown but also have pairs in red and turquoise. Definitely an investment piece. As for a tote, I never leave home with my LouisVuitton "Never Full" bag.  Despite the name, I have stuffed it with many of my travel goodies: my Nikon SLR camera, a scarf in case the plane gets cold, face mask, magazines, and plenty of beauty products. 

Now I am off to pack for my TBEX Travel Blogger conference in Cancun. Of course, all three of these items will be boarding with me! 

All photos taken by Julien Garman, learn more about her blog here. Photos taken at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden
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Friday, September 5, 2014

Restaurant of the Month: Menu MBK

I have a fascination with all things Belgian, fueled by my nostalgia of my former Brussels life.  Given that, I have been curious about Menu MBK, the restaurant/market concept by Chef Federik de Pue. Thankfully, my friends at Bookalokal hosted a dinner there last week and I had the opportunity to experience the restaurant. Going to Menu MBK is an experience as you go through layers of concepts throughout the four floors of the restaurant.
When you first enter the restaurant, you enter into a market featuring local foods and artisan products. It's reminiscent of the traiteurs I used to frequent in Brussels. The second floor contains the kitchen. The Menu MBK Kitchen has a six seat counter space where you can experience a five course menu and interact with the chef and his staff. The third floor is the bistro bar.  A beautifully decorated space with a wooden rustic bar which serves drinks, food, and brunch. On the fourth floor is the dining room, where we had our dinner.
The Bookalokal dinner was a three course meal with two choices per course. Naturally, the Dutchman and I had one of each. The winners in my eye were my choices, which consisted of escargot in garlic sauce, mussels, and beignets. My favorite for that evening were the mussels. They were meaty and tender with a delicious wine sauce that as Chef Keith Cabot describes has been reduced for hours with stock and herbs. Truly delicious.  The Dutchman was not in love with his steak but we did agree the frites were to die for. To end the dinner, we both loved our desserts. The deconstructed tiramisu was dense and not too sweet, just as I like it and the beignets were light with a fresh strawberry compote.
We love that Bookalokal is introducing the communal dining concept not only at homes but at local restaurants. We are looking forward to trying more of their series at local restaurants. 
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Menu MBK on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

5 Oktoberfest Survival Tips

One of the things I miss most from living in Europe was the close proximity to so many different destinations.  The event I will miss traveling to the most this year is Oktoberfest.  Oktoberfest (or as it the locals call it, the Wiesn) runs for 16 days in Munich. This year, it begins September, 14th.  As a veteran for the Wiesn (5 Okotberfests, 4 Fruhlingfests), I would like to share five tips to maximize your time at the Wiesn.
Hacker Tent
Tip 1: Arrive Early! If you don't have a table reservation, get there early!!!! I remember my first Oktoberfest when I had no idea how it worked and leisurely showed up at 3pm. Thankfully, we were a party of two so it was easy to cram into the outdoor tables. Keep your group to four people maximum in order to be able to get into the tents. Although the environment is a lot of fun all around, the best experiences take place inside a tent: sharing beers with perfect strangers, and singing songs in German you never knew existed. 
Beers at the now defunct Hippodrom
Tip 2: Research your tents!  The Oktoberfest website gives you a great guide of the tents and what they have to offer. Some of my favorite tents are the Wildstuben, Hacker, and Weinzelt.  I love the rustic details and the traditional cuisine at Wildstuben.  The Hacker is the traditional large tent that is perfect to stand up on the tables and party!  The Wienzelt is a non-traditional tent as is serves wine. It has a great bar with lots of Sekt (German sparkling wine). I'm sad that one of my favorite tents, the Hippodrom will not be at the Wiesn this year but I am sure there is an equally fantastic tent to replace.
Tip 3: Pace yourself!! Drinking begins at noon at Oktoberfest with beer steins that hold a liter of beer!  As tempting as it sounds to have a drinking contest with your buddies, no one wants to be wasted at 3pm with so many fun afterparties to follow.  Great thing about the Wiesn is that most tents have food. Delicious Bavarian filling food. Do not leave Munich without having the traditional roasted chicken and potato salad. Yum!
Tip 4: Buy a Dirndl or Lederhosen!!! Cannot stress this enough.  My first two Oktoberfests I wore the normal travel uniform of t-shirt and jeans. Although both were great experiences, the fun factor was tripled when I bought a dirndl(traditional Bavarian dress for women). They are not cheap, a quality dirndl runs from 100-300 Euros but I guarantee that it is an investment piece. Please don't be that person with a dirndl or lederhosen of cheesy material purchased from a costume shop. Bavarians take their fest seriously and so should you. There are plenty of shops in downtown Munich with beautiful dirndls and lederhosen. 
Tip 5: Discover Bavaria: Southern Germany is stunning.  Once you go south of Munich you enter a magical land of alpine beauty. Go to castle Schloss Neuschwanstein. The castle is absolutely beautiful with an amazing view.  Take a day trip to Oberammergau, Germany. The village,has beautiful houses with old world paintings on their outside walls. Some have religious paintings and some have old Bavarian scenes. It was all very old world and charming.  Also taking a day trip to these beautiful places will show your friends and family that you did not only go to Munich to drink. 
Hoping to make it next year with my Dutchman to sing some Schlager songs and wear my dirndl!  What are your top Wiesn tips? 
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