A few weeks before I left for the Relevant Blog Conference, I was contacted by a social media guru... one who was working for a company to research educational 'experts' that might be able to share in a focus group to help the product launch in to the market this coming spring. I giggled that she thought I was any sort of expert - if only she knew, right? I even mentioned to her that I thought she was a tad crazy... but she assured me that she wanted a team of homeschool moms, a few people to represnt private schools and a slew of educators from the public arena. It was not a huge group, but a very diverse and amazingly talented group, for sure.
I was ready to tell her "No" right off the bat. Being in the middle of a blog awards season at the Homeschool Post, and knowing that I would have just gotten home from a very long and taxing drive all the way from Texas to Pennsylvania and back for a busy conference and a dizzying array of packed-in field trips... I knew I was going to be SO tired. She wouldn't take no for an answer. She made me an offer I couldn't refuse: a trip for my husband and I to a hotel in Nashville... dinner and a show... and the chance to see blog friends that I love - who live in other states.
How could I refuse?
The only catch was that I couldn't bring the kids... and no mention could be made about the productS I was learning about until after it launched (hence the 'secret' in my title).
I set the kids up with grandma, worked out plans for them to have sleepovers with friends, and made sure we had plenty of daipers and milk. Last Friday morning, my husband and I set off for the airport (my kids were overjoyed by getting the day off to bowl and play video games instead of doing 'school').
You already know I love taking road trips if you have read my blog for any length of time. What I bet you don't know is that I also love to fly. I started flying as a little girl - before the age of 5... with a baggage tag around my wrist so my divorced parents could claim me on either end of the flight. I flew alone and sat near the stewardess station from the time I was entering elementary school until some time in my high school years. Over a decade of flying ever other weekend or so; and the blue expanse above Texas became my 'other' home.
It was so nice to be back up there above the clouds. Nearly 13 years on the ground wasn't enough to take that feeling away... so familiar - like riding a bike or driving a car... you can ground the frequent flyer but you can't take the sky out of them.
The trip there was a little hectic. Connecting flights in Houston - in separate terminals - meant rushing (and almost missing) our plane. If you've ever been through the Houston airport, you'll know what I'm talking about... shuttle trains that drive you to other connecting terminals and endless walking (or waddling when you are as fat pregnant as I am). We managed to fit everything we needed in 1 carry-on bag... but I still had a backpack (for the laptop and bathroom stuff), my Camera bag, and my duffel bag purse. Each of us with 2 heavy bags and winter coats to shuffle... and security lines where you have to remove your shoes... and "pee in a cup" (my husband loves to exagerate).... equals STRESS.
I shouldn't have worn high heel boots, that's for sure. The charlie horses were my first clue.
When we arrived they picked us up and took us to the hotel - with enough time to enjoy a nap. It was a strange feeling not to worry if the baby was going to fall down the stairs when I fell asleep; or what the big kids were doing with their free time. I kept popping my eyes open and wondering where I was.
It was nice remembering I was in Nashville... and alone with my husband - who was snoring on the other side of a gigantic, plush, modern, king-sized bed (with down comforters and pillows). To be honest, I didn't even feel guilty - even though it was the first time I had left the Viking boy overnight (he's 20 months).
Trust me - the hotel room and the bathroom totally made up for those disoriented moments and strange dreams. It was fabulous. And posh. And swanky.
If I could have used a shrinking laser gun on the bathroom, I would have taken it home inside my purse. It made me want to pull up all my carpet and do concrete floors. Even upstairs. All over the house. Just imagine all the cat hairball mess I wouldn't be crying about if my floors were all mop-friendly and shiny like that?!
I took a picture of myself in the bathroom mirror to prove that I went on the trip. Don't you hate it that every time you go on vacation there are no pictures of you when you get home? I went through my photos and didn't even find one where my husband and I are together. What a shame - the one 'date weekend' we have since the kids were tots and we don't even have a photo to show for it.
Finally rested, we sauntered down to the lobby and waited for the 'meet and mingle' to begin at Starbucks. Having a Starbucks in the hotel was a huge plus... and the art on every wall was also a nice touch. The company gave us badges and told us that 'drinks were on them'. Too bad those magic badges don't still work at random Starbucks all over the country. That would come in quite handy, eh?
The first person I saw and recognized was my Homeschool Post partner in crime - Dawn.
Don't we look great here? Amazing what a little 'out-of-focus' can do for your skin. Takes the years off! She has some much nicer shots of us, I'm sure. I covet her 'full frame' camera... even though it's a Nikon. Don't ask me what full frame means... the "Professional DSLR for Dummies" version is that "it lets in more light which equals better photos all around". Handy for me that Canon also makes one of those (because I use Canon lenses). The Canon 5D Mark II is on my Christmas list ($probably will stay there for the next decade, too$).
It was the third time I had been fortunate enough to meet up with my Georgia Peach in real life (IRL). I was so glad she brought her hubby, Bryan, along to hang with Kevin. Pretty soon, Jenn showed up... and not long after that we were wisked away to dinner and an introduction to the company and products we had all come so far to learn about.
The photo above shows the whole slew of us... Megan, Sue (who doesn't drink sweet tea), Sami, Jenn and fat, pregnant, poncho-wearing me.
I can't show you the pictures from our focus groups... at least not the ones that have company logos and such. Those will be for a later date - and I can't wait to share them... because the product (which is really about helping kids love music) knocked my socks off.
I feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to have gone on this focus group weekend - but mostly, to have access to the program once the release date comes! My kids are beside themselves with anticipation.
In addition to great catered meals, fun discussion and games, Starbucks coffee, and enjoying time with friends... they had a wonderful 'private' songwriter evening set up for us at BB Kings Blues Club on Saturday night. Barely two blocks from our hotel, BB Kings offered us a river-front view in the back rooms and an AMAZING catering service with Tennessee BBQ, baked beans, pasta Alfredo, green beans and onions, salad, cornbread and cherry cobbler. The brisk (29 degree) walk was totally forgotten by the time I had my second helping. Or was that the third?
Dawn and I snuck away from the tables before the eating and singing began to take a few pictures inside the club. We were far in the back behind closed doors - but the font end of the club was full of Tennessee nightlife - bar lights, blues players, dancing and fast-moving waitresses.
I don't get out much (with 3.5 kids to raise, educate and feed)... so I enjoyed getting these shots. There are a few that I didn't include (just a few) over at my Flickr page... if you want to go browse there. It has been forever since I went on a date with my husband to any place that wasn't kid-friendly.
We aren't drinkers, but I love to hear live music. Funny that I never do it - seeing as how I live in the 'Live Music Capitol' of the world: Austin, TX. This trip made me realize that Kev and I really should do more things together without the kids every now and then.
Of course, you can't come to Tennessee without seeing a picture of Dolly Parton somewhere.
This one's true color was BLUE (fitting for a blues club, eh?) - not black and white. The urban artwork in BB Kings was so cute. It reminded me of some of the childrens books I have reviewed recently.
Dinner was fabulous. The show - Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, live and in person - was amazing. They sang not only songs that they have written for other big country and pop stars - but some that they wrote which haven't ever been released. One of those songs had all the women in the house crying - and I vowed to stalk W.K. until I had my hands on a copy of it. "Pity the fool" country star that ever turned it down... if he's shared it with any of them. It made me want to get out all my country albums again.
Here's Kevin watching the show (wish I was in the picture... but at least my iPhone got to enjoy sitting there by him when he was lookin' so cute).
On the way home from BB Kings we were amazed at how 'busy' the nightlife had gotten. We passed by a few cop cars arresting someone on the ground, watched countless cars roll slowly by with their windows vibrating to the bass, listened to folks yelling at people to get out of the street and stop blocking traffic, and heard horns honking (enough to make you wonder if you were in New York and not Nashville).
We had to listen to the boom-boxes and traffic half way in to the night from our hotel room window. That was my only beef with the hotel - besides the fact that they (being Southern in location) did NOT serve sweet tea on their buffet.
This little fact (the lack of sweet tea) sparked some interesting discussion between us blog moms... and inspired quite a few sweet tea recipes to be posted. Apparently one of us had never TRIED sweet tea before (can't blame Sue - she's from Arizona).
Just when we thought the company, their product, and the weekend couldn't get any better - they called us all together to give us a gift. The entire trip was gift enough... and the cute boxes in our room with local goodies like cupcakes, Moonpies, and snacks... the amazing food and the wonderful show. Needless to say, we weren't expecting much of a gift. First they handed out jackets with their logo. Everyone chatted as they tried on and passed out the correct sizes.
Then someone grabbed a microphone and went up front to say that they wanted to give us an iPad of our very own. "Liar!" I heard myself shout. Then the cardboard crate was passed down the center aisle and brand new iPad boxes began to be pulled out by the group of employees at the front of the room. The noise level went through the roof. Everyone reacted like you would imagine if we had all just won something on a game show: screaming, crying, jumping... and some of us just gaping - mouths open - in wonder and awe.
Someone placed an iPad box in my hands. "I thought the jackets were a great gift," I said - not really caring if anyone could hear me. It was just too much. Over the top.
I remembered hugging Steve (one of the guys responsible for our weekend) and telling him after the show at BB Kings that I felt like 'Cindarella' in Nashville. I couldn't believe a company would seek out the opinions of homeschool mom bloggers and treat them like royalty for the weekend. It makes me all moist around the eyes just thinking about it. What an amazing gift to be part of this talented group of people - and in such a small way to represent the homeschool community for them.
I went to sleep that night with a smile on my face... after hugging some wonderful people good-bye. We had to miss breakfast and nearly missed our flights home because the shuttle guy was late picking us up, and he had an unscheduled stop along the way to the airport to pick up some Delta pilots. Before the sun was up Sunday morning, Nashville was disappearing in to the clouds.
I tried not to complain about my flight home after such a great adventure... even though part of the lavitory wall fell off on me and I had to literally sprint through the Nashville airport to get on my first plane. Pregnant ladies don't look so pretty
We left the Tennessee hills behind and returned home to Austin... full of gratitude for such a wonderful 'Secret Weekend'. It might be secret, but it will certainly stick with me as one of the best 'blog-related' experiences I have ever had. I'm so glad I got to be there, to see a few friends, and to take my husband along for such a unique experience. He might not read my blog or really like blogging in general, but this past weekend showed him that people are blessed enough by our online presence to care what we think... and since he's the one who has to share me and my time with the online community - that meant the world to me.
Thank you so much, you-know-who-you-are. I'm glad to be on your 'advisory team' and so thrilled for all the homeschooled kids that will one day get to use your products!
Note: The links in this post are not affiliate or paid links - they are links to other blog posts about this event! If you want to get the scoop from other bloggers who were there and see their photos... by all means, click away!