Attending a good conference leaves you feeling energized, full of ideas and new contacts, exhausted, and—hopefully—with a good story or two. Social Media Marketing World 2014 in San Diego didn’t disappoint.
On the first morning of sessions, I met a lady named Cheryl Viirand. Cheryl runs a website called Freedible.com, which is an online community for people who have eating restrictions. There are recipes, blogs and forums for people to connect and share. This sparked my interest, not only because of my love of nutrition, but because my mother was diagnosed with multiple food allergies last year. One of her most severe allergens is eggs. She’s had to learn to read food labels very carefully, because eggs are an ingredient in so many things. Cheryl encouraged me to tell my mom about her site, and suggested that I sign up, too.
After eating my vegan lunch that day, I created my Freedible account and emailed my mom about it. As I was live tweeting in an afternoon session, I saw a tweet from @soymeetsgirl (whose real name is Stephanie) about the great lunchtime conversation she had about how vegans are connecting on social media. That reminded me of my conversation with Cheryl, so I connected the two of them in a tweet. Stephanie suggested we all meet for dinner, and that’s when things took off.
I had made reservations for two at Jsix Restaurant weeks in advance via OpenTable. I knew restaurants would be booking up around that time, and even though I was attending the conference alone, I wanted to make sure I had a reservation in case a networking opportunity arose. I’d never been to Jsix, but the menu looked great: locally sourced, sustainable, farm-to-fork style food and an incredible selection of craft cocktails. I invited Cheryl and Stephanie to join me, and I used the OpenTable app to change my reservation to three people.
Stephanie invited friends. I changed the reservation to six people and included a note saying that there are some vegans in our group, and asking if they could accommodate our dietary needs. Someone from the restaurant called and left me a voice mail confirming the reservation change and saying that although there aren’t many vegan options on the menu, that the kitchen could work to make a custom meal off menu.
Stephanie’s friends invited some of their friends, and I changed the reservation to nine people, mentioning that there would also be a diabetic in our group. Again, Jsix said there would be no problem in accommodating us.
We all agreed, via Twitter, to meet at the concierge desk at 5:45. As I waited at the concierge desk, I realized that Cheryl was the only one I would recognize. I also realized that of the group, Cheryl is the only one who would recognize me! (You can only tell so much from an avatar.) So I asked the concierge for a piece of paper and a marker. I made this sign and held it up like a limo driver at an airport.
I got lots of looks from people walking by, and I think I sparked a Twitter meetup between people who needed dinner reservations and those who had extra room at their tables. But, I wasn’t finding my group. So I asked the concierge to take a photo of me holding the sign and I tweeted it to them. Within minutes, we were all shaking hands and making introductions.
Two people on the Twitter thread couldn’t make it because they had to do a Google Hangout, so the remaining seven of us caught an Uber to Jsix (on the corner of J and Sixth Streets, get it?). Upon entering the restaurant, the hostess greeted us with, “You must be the Heidi Willbanks group. Welcome! We have some sparkling wine for you.” There, on the broad wooden host stand, was a glass of bubbly for each of us. What a delightful surprise!
Here we are, sharing a toast. Left to right: Becky Scott, Jennifer Boyd, Stephanie Garcia, Cheryl Viirand, Elliott Shaw, Rachael McGovern, and me.
Our server, Jason, was delightful as well. Cheryl handed him a card that listed her dietary restrictions. With a smile, he said, “No problem. I’ll take this to the kitchen and the chef and I will put our heads together to create a special meal just for you.” And they did! She was very pleased with her dinner, and told me that she often ends up with restaurant meals that appear to have been made for a child. This was sophisticated: a frisée salad with hemp seeds, a perfectly cooked beef entrée. She said, “This is real food, not ‘substitute food.’”
For two hours, we nibbled, conversed, and enjoyed cocktails made with unusual ingredients like salted orgeat syrup, bacon and cayenne (not all in the same drink). It was wonderful getting to know this group of like-minded social media geeks. It was an unforgettable, unique experience that led me to make professional contacts and friends I’ll keep for a long, long time.