How a year in isolation allowed me to travel around the world from my own living room.
One year ago we watched the world come to a screeching halt as the first global pandemic of our lifetime was declared. All of our guilty pleasures and entertainment were cancelled in a matter of days and we had to find a way to entertain ourselves. Suddenly visits with friends and family were done thru screens, and visits with neighbors were done a safe distance apart. School and work was done from our dining room tables…also thru screens. Some carried on as usual, adapting to a new normal. While others watched their industry disappear into near extinction. For those of us in the live events, travel and hospitality industries life as we knew it was suddenly gone indefinitely. Poof! Into thin, Covid-19-infected air.
The first to cancel and the last to return, as they would say about the industry. Face to face meetings were now done virtually on Zoom, with much, much, much less labor and detail needed than we were accustomed to. No décor, no food and beverage, no servers, no bartenders, no cool venues, no florals, no small talk, no quick room changes, no big production, no stage builds, no entertainment, no travel, no site visits, no passports, no airport transfers, no hotels, no travel staff. So many components of an in-person event were just….gone. The details our brains were sharpened around were no longer needed. We knew we could eventually circle back to them but when? Those details would be in high demand again at the end of this when everyone would be desperate for some face to face contact…but we all had to still be standing to meet that inevitable demand. My LinkedIn became a depressing feed of friend after former colleague after industry acquaintance who updated their status change: furloughed, laid off, job change, industry change, open to work.
What a long strange trip this would be…
People now had to find their own entertainment at home. Sidewalk chalk art was an early winner for kids to express themselves and onlookers to enjoy as they took walk after walk after walk after walk. Dogs begged their people to stop walking them. While toilet paper, disinfecting products, pancake mix, eggs and boxed macaroni and cheese disappeared from shelves in anticipation of staying home, creativity flourished, as some had fun creating in-home experiences and recording them on video to share their imagination with the world. Artists, unable to tour, would share their talents with at-home concerts streamed live giving us something to look forward to just as my refund for floor seats for a Rolling Stones show came thru from Ticketmaster. DJ D-Nice began his now famous Club Quarantine on Saturday nights via Instagram live for tens of thousands to have a dance party at home. No dress code, no cover charge, no shoes, no problem. The creativity that came out of this time period will be like nothing we have ever seen. All the sudden we weren’t being entertained…we were entertaining ourselves.
For some of us, we are in the events industry because we thrive off visual creativity, like event and experience design. Like me! If I can picture it, or a client can picture it, I can figure out a way to make it happen. I often found if I was using my creative brain at work often enough I would get on a roll and be able to produce fast and a crazy amount of event design proposals. If I needed to give a client 3 design options, I might easily come up with 8 instead. I couldn’t stop the flow of ideas. I often generate designs based on concepts or firsthand experiences I have had in my travels, especially when working on designs from a specific era or culture. I often lay out an inspiration design board so a client can see where my thought process came from and it all flows from there.
Some of us have also become accustomed to life on the road. Living life out of a suitcase can be a reward of riches…in experiences. Even though I missed my dog Finn with every work trip I took I loved to come home to him. So when quarantine began I embraced the time I had with him. He was 13 and I knew our time was short. His decline began on March 19th and ended when I said good-bye to him on June 1st. I was grateful for the time to be with him, as well as the time I needed to mourn him. He was my everything, my once in forever dog.
Now I was truly alone for the first time ever, only it was during a pandemic where everyone was home keeping to themselves in quarantine. I was stuck in Michigan, a place I never really wanted to be during good times let alone bad times. When you live alone this truly meant isolation. My house was so quiet while my mind was not. I went thru box after box after box of tissues as my heart ached for Finn while wondering what do I do now?
I think at this point most of us thought that by the end of summer we would be getting back to normal. For those of us in the events and travel industry we thought that by September we would be back at it. So I decided I had a window….to get a puppy. One month and one day after I said good-bye to my beloved dog I brought home his successor, and named him Gus. Had I been traveling for work, I reasoned, I would not have been able to do this and have the time to properly train and bond with him. And being home alone unable to go anywhere was not going to go over well with me.
I drove 900 miles one way to pick him up from the same place I got Finn in Kansas. And truth be told, between work trips early in the year, a quiet, final roadtrip with Finn, picking up Gus and a couple roadtrips to visit my family, in 2020 I did manage to visit 17 states. I do realize that is more than some people visit in a lifetime. But that also demonstrates my innate need to be on the go. I finished going to all 50 states when I was in my early 30s, then got a dog and took him back to all the Lower 48 states, and have driven across the country at least 19 times. Some years I average 25+ states a year. I am very much used to just….going.
I needed to keep my mind sharp, my social skills somewhat intact…
Anyway, we had all been packing our patience…to go nowhere when, in July, I received an invite to an event and meetings industry networking event and presentation with a company I was familiar with called Retreats Resources and their Real-Time Retreats Destination Deep Dive Series featuring presentations from hotels and different destinations around the world…on Zoom, of course. A couple of friends had attended their early ones and I had seen pictures. They were dressed up….in costumes…and some even had dogs in the photo (also in costumes) and it looked like a lot of fun and a unique way to engage everyone during this unusual time. Typically in this industry those presentations might come to your office or you might attend a travel showcase or a conference or trade show where you are privy to these types of presentations and connect that way. So now, with everything canceled with the pandemic, they were happening in our living rooms. I decided to give it a try, if only to see the dogs on the call. I needed to keep my mind sharp, my social skills somewhat intact, and needed a break from the new puppy, who was just 8 1/2 weeks old that first time I logged on. Plus there were often cocktails and nowhere to drive afterwards!
My first call was a presentation with Discover Puerto Rico and they were giving away a trip – with airfare and a hotel stay at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve– to PR. That, I learned, usually incentivizes the participants to get creative and dress up. They also streamed live from Puerto Rico and had salsa dance instruction on the call. I stayed mostly in the dark, with my video off, except to introduce myself, because the puppy was a handful at the time, home less than a week. But I was taking notes. Someone was literally dressed as chips and salsa! There were often travel give-aways each week from the presenter as well as a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses awarded to one person for going “all in” on the theme each week, not to mention there were weeks they had ways to give back to good causes. It was a well thought out format to encourage engagement, which is something we all needed whether we knew it or not.
By the end of the month I had figured out the best spot to set up in my house, figured out how to use the virtual background on Zoom, and decided to dress up for a presentation from Hotel Hermitage Monte Carlo in Monaco. I used Princess Grace Kelly as an inspiration, donned a tiara, and made my own red and white Order of St. Charles sash and used the inside of the Royal Palace as my virtual backdrop. Up next was a presentation from Belmond hotels in St. Martin and Anguilla. Many years ago I had been in a wedding in Anguilla and still had the bridesmaid dress. I recreated the entire look right down to the side ponytail and flower I wore in my hair, and used one of my actual photos from the beach in Anguilla for my backdrop. I even made the Mudslide cocktail recipe we drank so much of that I got from the resort we stayed at many years before. It felt very nostalgic.
Ok, this was kind of fun.
I started taking some roadtrips to visit family by the end of summer and into the fall and was gone for several weeks so started missing the calls. I would join here and there, sometimes in costume, sometimes not. If I couldn’t find the backdrop I wanted I would make it by dropping images into a Powerpoint slide and convert it to use. I also found a multitude of riches in my dog Finn’s bin of photo props. Finn had a collection of iconic photos from each of the Lower 48 States from our travels, in mostly recognizable locations, and as the ideas evolved he often wore something, usually a bow tie or bandana, that went with the location. Not unlike what I was doing now. Only his photos were real!
I found his accessories to work for several of the themes. One such theme was just “hot” and your interpretation of that, as hotels from the Conde Nast Hotel Hot List presented. I thought about what “hot” represented….and all I could come up with was hell, which also represented 2020 to so many. So I wore Finn’s devil costume from his last Halloween when I made a video set to the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil.” I ended up winning a stay at Rosewood Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda for that!
Another theme was “Home on the Range” with a presentation from Auberge Resorts, The Lodge at Blue Sky in Utah and Bishops Lodge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When I did my search for this theme I discovered that Roy Rogers had recorded the best known version of the song. So I took some of his movie posters that represented both Utah and Santa Fe and made a collage for my own virtual background, and used Dale Evans as inspiration, donning one of Finn’s southwest print bananas around my neck. Each week it was requested we submit photos to the hosts if you were dressed up so they could share on their Facebook page to engage others to join and see the creativity each week sparked. After several attempts at taking blurry screen shots or selfies of the computer screen I figured out a better way to get the photos and that’s when things began to change.
In order to submit my ‘selfie’ to Retreats Resources after the call for their social media post I started setting up my tripod with my phone and used a remote to take a photo so I could do it in better light and not have it look like an extreme close up selfie. I could see my face in the screen of the camera to know if the photo was going to be what I wanted, or if, say, I wanted to ham things up a bit. I could see my posture, my facial expression, if I needed to suck my stomach in, if I needed a better angle for arms, chin, face, if I needed to sit up straighter….all those things you have likely forgotten about as you sat, relaxed and very comfortable on your couch devoid of people this past year. I actually hate having my photo taken but I didn’t mind this, being in control of the process, as well as seeing all those things mentioned above that I might want to be more conscious of. While I love photography and editing photos, my creative endeavors usually involved event design and including special details or setting up a beautiful event to be photo-ready or getting my dog to pose perfectly for a travel photo. I was not used to being the subject of that creativity. Seeing my own face in the photos was all new to me. After taking many photos and finding one I liked I then inserted the photo into an app where I could cut out the background and then lay the cut out over the photo I used as my virtual background on Zoom that day, then I might edit by sharpening or saturating or cropping it, sometimes adding a filter or frame depending on the era, and voila! I had my “selfie”. I had more than a selfie…I had the start of a collection of my quarantine virtual travel photos! More photos of myself than I would take on an actual trip. The funny thing is…I probably had on the same leggings and slippers in every single one of them. One big benefit of virtual travel was no shoes needed!
As winter rolled around, so did the darkness of the short days. It was dark by the time this call ended at 5 pm. When the winter line up was announced I knew I wanted to attend as many as I could to help pass the long, cold, dark, lonely winter, as well as for all the reasons I originally joined the call. At first glance of the line up I kind of knew what I would wear for each. The invite came out 1-2 days ahead of each call confirming the theme and more details on who was presenting and if there was something being given away, like a hotel stay. It wasn’t until that came out could I be sure of what I would do each week.
In fitting with the dark, cold days of winter one of my very favorite presentations was with the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, which sits above the Arctic Circle. As I sat in my living room in Michigan, with my Nordic hat on and gloves, drinking hot chocolate in front of my virtual backdrop of the entrance of the Ice Hotel and the green sky of the Northern Lights, they took us LIVE thru the actual hotel. It was a work of (ice) art! And literally the coolest Zoom call you could have imagined. I remember coming off that presentation feeling happy with a sense of satisfaction I hadn’t felt in a long time, like I had been there, almost, or at least felt like I had experienced it.
It was also at this time, right before the holidays, that I suddenly decided to cut my hair off. After months of extreme casual comfort I was having this longing for dressing up and looking nice. “I want to wear something sparkly”, I kept saying to my friends. Not only did I cut it short I also had it thinned from a very thick, heavy mane of hair to a much lighter and more manageable style. Little did I know that (with the right hairspray) this meant it would stay in place much easier if I were to style it! During a pandemic quarantine “if” being the key word. On New Year’s Eve I threw myself a party. Hors d’oeuvres, bubbly punch, music, noisemakers, hats…. for me and the dog. I got to wear something sparkly. I even put on shoes. And I knew I wouldn’t look back on this year and think I had done nothing.
Like so many, there have been times during this quarantine period that I have felt days run together. It feels like you are on a continuous loop. Then I realized I was binge watching the same 21 seasons-long show every day and sitting in the same place on the couch in the same “soft” pants and the same slippers, eating the same leftovers for the fourth night in a row. No wonder the days blend together! At those moments I would start by turning off the binge… and turning on a movie. Then maybe a second movie. Taking a walk one day and a hike the next, listening to music on one and a podcast on another. I started taking tennis lessons and, like many, doing yoga at home. Preparing different meals each day became necessary. Wearing sweatpants one day and leggings the next. (still the same slippers, though) I was becoming incredibly aware that it was up to me to create the variety I was craving. I also knew it was the dead of winter and I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I needed to create my own variety.
By January I was committed to adding some sparkle into my weeks, beginning with this call. I was starting to watch tutorials on how to do hair, finding photos of make up I wanted to mimic, and trying to make each look for this call different from week to week. Not just for the call….for me! I needed to create my own variety.
As a history buff and someone with a degree in Sociology I would jump down rabbit holes researching themes and destinations and eras and cultures. I might start with the virtual backdrop. Then I might curate a costume based on just that. Or I might start with something I owned that worked and find the accessories that took it to the next level. You quickly realize that to define an era, a culture, a destination can be done with just hair and makeup, a hat, sunglasses or some sort of headpiece. It was more than the outcome for me, though, it was the process. It was the research, it was combing thru history and historic photos sometimes, it was watching the hair and make up tutorials and finding photos for inspiration just as I did my event design boards. I remember the nostalgia that came pouring out of my mother when I mentioned the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans inspiration. They were the “it” couple once upon a time, she said, and the darlings of the old western movies. And yes, it was also about nostalgia and transporting myself to another time other than the one we were in.
I started buffering my time to get ready for each call to be sure I tested backdrops to find one that offered the best composition for what I was trying to do, for the call, but also to create the virtual travel photo from it. I turned on music thru the Pandora app to go with each theme to get me in the mood. I often planned a cocktail that went with the theme, as well. A great example of this was a Mardi Gras theme with a video tour of New Orleans with BBC Destination Management just a few days before Fat Tuesday. I turned on the New Orleans Jazz station and mixed up a Hurricane cocktail for myself while I crimped – yes, crimped- my hair for the call. There is nothing like the music of New Orleans to put me in the mood for a party. Another week was a wine tasting at Virgin Limited’s Mont Rochelle estate in Franschhoek, South Africa. They told us not to dress up this week and just share wine stories. But that wasn’t going to happen for me, not on a virtual trip to Africa. I had an African kente print headband to wear so while I listened to African Radio I teased and molded my hair into a faux hawk to wear the headband, a little 80s style, and opened a bottle of South African syrah.
History, for sure, can be a cause for my jump down rabbit holes. So when we had a presentation on the Presidential Inauguration Day with the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. with a “scandal” theme…you bet I was ready. I had recently jumped into the history of the Watergate scandal about a month earlier, not knowing this was coming. Watching documentaries on it which then lead to watching the 1976 Academy Award-winning film, “All the President’s Men”, had me well prepared for what I wanted to do for this costume. I went with a Deep Throat-inspired look with a virtual background of the actual parking garage in Virginia where he met with Woodward and Bernstein to leak information. No hair tutorials or make up needed for this one!
The Glam Squad had the day off that day. Another week the Glam Squad had off fell during the Sundance Film Festival, when two hotels in Utah were featured, Sundance Resort and Stein Eriksen Lodge. The theme was “outlaws”. My word association curiosity kicked in for this one as I searched the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which lead me to a law man named Charlie Siringo, who chased them for years and infiltrated Butch Cassidy’s gang, the Wild Bunch. I once again created my own virtual background by pasting their actual wanted posters into a Powerpoint slide and converting it. But I also became well versed on these outlaws and lawman from all the research that I was able to tell their story on the call. The next thing I knew I had won a stay at Sundance Resort in Utah for donning a mustache and western accessories from my dog’s bin on a Zoom call!
Another historical era that lead me to a deep dive was the Roaring 20s theme for a presentation from The Breakers Palm Beach for their 125th Anniversary. I searched “The Breakers 1920s” and discovered a vintage photo of the hotel in black and white. The cars parked in front of the hotel indicating the time period made it the perfect image for what I needed. The image came from the Henry Flagler Museum, the man who built The Breakers. Again, I had to take the photo and lay it into a Powerpoint presentation and convert it into a file to use. I purposely chose a dress and headpiece in black with gold trim so it would blend into the vintage photo of my backdrop.
To get in the mood I listened to the Speakeasy Jazz Station and searched for drinks from that era of bathtub gin. I went with a Bee’s Knees Cocktail making my own simple honey syrup mixed with some lemon juice, gin and a lemon twist. The Glam Squad (that would be me!) rose to a new level this week learning to make pin curls with a hot iron and hair clips, S waves and finger curls. If almost a year at home was making me feel kinda “meh” this theme had me feeling pretty glamorous. I even put on shoes for this one! As well as long black gloves, a fur stole and long pearls, of course. I also won a stay at The Breakers for my efforts. The idea that we have been in a 21st Century version of Prohibition (but with excessive alcohol this time!) makes me wonder if we will have our own version of the Roaring 20s when we emerge from this. I sure hope so. When writing a follow up note to the presenters from the hotel I decided to make some new photos with cool vintage 60s-inspired photos from The Breakers created by photograher Gray Malin that had come up on the call. Just because I had all the accessories, but also because I wanted to turn on the 60s Oldies station and see if I could tease my hair into a beehive!
It wasn’t winning the stays at fabulous hotels and winning a pair of new sunglasses that motivated me. It was making an effort. Its very, very easy to not make an effort. Pandemic or not, its also very easy to fall into a funk of comfort or saying you don’t have the time. I like being outside my comfort zone once in awhile, I think it’s good practice. In this case it was my color choice of eye shadow or wearing lipstick or learning to draw on really heavy black eyeliner and wearing my hair off my face because I am someone who can fall into a pattern of looking the same every day because its comfortable and easy even though I love variety. It was immersing myself into an experience when I was longing to have an experience, even if it was in my living room. It was using the creative side of my brain each week to come up with a look. Researching history, listening to the music, making a cocktail, searching for hair and makeup that represented an era…it was all bringing me joy. I never want to look back on this time and feel like I did nothing. Wednesdays are the best day of the week for me now. It was bringing me all that I had hoped it would, and more, when I joined the call over the summer. And now, as we can feel a change in the air, I will have moments I can look back on fondly during this challenging year and think, it wasn’t all bad.
So until we can meet and travel again: