Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 6 - Coming Home

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She is traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Campfire Stories Part 6

From Zion to Wisconsin

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion was less than 3 hours and we only had the following day to see the area, so we picked The Narrows hike which is considered one of the premier hikes on the Colorado Plateau. The shuttles to the trailhead were overflowing and the number of people of all ages was astounding. They recommended walking sticks which we rented and I can’t imagine attempting it without one, but people did—both young and old!

It had rained the night before so the typically clear rushing water was instead murky and brown like chocolate milk. This just made it more of an adventure because you couldn’t see the rocks under the water. The hike is slow going, and we only made the first part of the hike but it still took about 2 hours.

The following day, we were on our way to Mesa Verde when our RV started having acceleration problems. Yes, yet again, we had to change our plans. Rather than making it to Mesa Verde, we literally spent the night in the desert on an Indian Reservation on Highway 160 between Red Mesa and Teec Nos Pos, AZ. on Indian Route 5043. At this point, the boys (and all of us) were great about rolling with the changes. Most of the local folks didn’t bat an eyelash at our hard-to-miss presence, but one friendly gentleman stopped to chat. He told us that “his people” would not bother us nor be bothered by our presence. It was an interesting experience that we’ll always remember and ended with a beautiful sunset as the air cooled down.

The tow truck picked us up at 5:30am and actually kept us in the RV during the hour long tow! Once we got to Cortez, CO we were told by the service station that they couldn’t handle an RV so we had to find another place (yes, we told them we had a 24ft RV before we had it towed there). Thankfully, we did find another place and rather than another tow, we took our chances and drove 1.7 slow miles to the next place where she was eventually repaired.

Again, another rental car and motel were required. We stayed at The Retro Inn which was not bad (they had a great breakfast and even shipped my glasses to me after I left them behind). While in Cortez we were able to stick with our plan to visit Mesa Verde where we did the amazing Balcony House Tour. The tour is known as  the “adventurous cliff dwelling tour” and is a one hour ranger-lead tour that involves climbing a 32 foot ladder, crawling through at 12 foot long tunnel that is only 18 inches wide, and climbing up a 60 foot open rock face with two 10 foot ladders in order to exit the site! Yes, it was adventurous and very unique.

Since we had broken down and were unable to drive through Four Corners on the way to Mesa
Verde, we took the opportunity to drive there while staying in Cortez. It was obviously super touristy—surrounded by booths selling trinkets and jewelry, but it still makes for a fun picture and a great memory!

Unfortunately, the fuel pump problem kept us in Cortez for a couple extra days and prevented us from our next stop at Dead Horse Point State Park where we planned to visit the Moab area and do a bike ride. We just had to let that go and went on a day early to Rocky Mountain National Park—our last national park stop of the journey!

After a beautiful, but long and treacherous drive all the way through the park to our campsite at Glacier Basic Campground, we settled in for dinner and a campfire. The next day, we had planned a hike, but after taking the shuttle to the trailhead, my son and I both felt ill and after trying to start the hike, thought it would be best to skip it and take the day to adjust to the altitude. So we had a quiet day at the campground and tried a new hike the following day. Success! We enjoyed a hike to Emerald Lake and on the way passed Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. It was chilly when we got to Emerald Lake but the return trip was quick as more of it was downhill.

On the way home from Colorado, we had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with cousins in Lawrence, KS. We all had a great time and when we left, we planned to head to Dubuque, IA for one last night of camping when, you guessed it; change of plans. The fuel pump was acting up (or something seemingly related) so we decided to scratch that plan and make a B-line for HOME!
We were determined to get home and made it despite horrible weather that followed us most of the way. We all felt strange walking into the house after so long. It was immaculate (the renters had left it as I had for them) and quiet (Charlie the Beagle was still on the farm). The kids were super excited to be home and had huge smiles the entire night as they walked around in awe of each room in the house.

Oh, and guess what the final surprise was? The next morning we were unable to unlock Loretta! The lock was broken and we now have to get in and out with a ladder through the emergency exit window. Sheesh! We still love her (our RV) and had a great time, but boy, I tell you…to do it again, I think I’d find new wheels!

I personally have mixed feelings about being home. Things are pretty much as they were before we left, yet nothing will ever be the same again. We all have seen and experienced and grown so much. More on that in another blog maybe! Peace

FLG Note: This wraps up Mary's Campfire Stories blog series. If you'd like to follow her blog for any more updates on Loretta, you can find her here. We hope you enjoyed her storytelling adventure as much as we did!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 5

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She is traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Campfire Stories Part 5

Sequoia, Death Valley, Las Vegas and Sedona

After five days in the Bay Area, we headed South for Sequoia National Park. My husband and I had both been to Yosemite more than once so we decided to check out Sequoia which neither of us had seen. It was, of course, spectacular! The park has convenient, comfortable shuttles to take visitors around the park (many of the roads did not recommend vehicles as long as ours so we took advantage of the shuttles). The first day we visited Moro Rock which is a granite dome with a steep 1/4-mile staircase to the summit with a 300 foot elevation gain. At the top we had a spectacular view of the Great Western Divide and the western half of the park.

The next day, we did the Giant Forest trail hike which is known for its giant sequoia tress. We saw the HUGE General Sherman Tree and all the other “named” sequoias.

During this hike, we went off the trail a bit looking for another path and suddenly my oldest son started screaming. At the same exact moment, I experienced a sharp pain in my leg which I thought was a prickly plant. Then I felt more pain and looked down and saw a wasp on my leg. We all started running and my youngest was crying loudly. We were so surprised and had no idea what was happening at first. People we passed after the incident thought maybe we were being attacked by bears! A bit embarrassing, but between 3 of us we got eight wasp stings.

We were scheduled next for two nights in Death Valley but when we got there decided it was unbearably hot (117 degrees F) and we would instead head to Las Vegas early where we planned to stay in a hotel. While we did very little in Death Valley, we saw much of the park on our drive in and out of it. It was spectacular in a very different way from any place we’d seen. It was so barren yet beautiful due to its geologic diversity. The RV park we stayed at had a spring-fed thermal pool that we were told was 85 degrees but it had to be closer to 100. It was only refreshing for about 1 minute after you got out and let the water evaporate. Thankfully, with electricity and air conditioning we were able to cool the RV down to 75 degrees for the night. We left early the next day to beat the heat and get to Vegas (yes, Vegas was for us considered much cooler).

We tried to get an early night reservation at The Red Rock Resort where we were scheduled for the following nights, but since they were almost sold out the rate was $650 for the night. We passed on that and found a fabulous hotel (Westin Element) that had a full kitchen and refreshing pool with cabanas. We liked it so much we wanted to stay there, but on we went to the Red Rock. The room there was nice too and the hotel has a great pool for families. We had fun walking through the casino which you had to to get to anywhere. We mostly relaxed and stayed cool in the pool and went to a movie (Ant Man). One highlight for the boys was the arcade where after spending $3.00 playing one game, our youngest (with his dad’s help) won a Samsung Galaxy tablet; it almost turned our son into an arcade addict!

Our next destination was Sedona, AZ and boy were we wowed by the beauty. The drive into town on Highway 89 was amazing and gave us a good feel for the area. We got in late afternoon and settled in and had dinner. The following day, we had a tour scheduled with Pink Jeep at 8:00am. It was incredible! We did the Scenic Rim Tour which was 1.5 hrs. The boys were a bit nervous about sitting in the back and getting bounced around, but I was there immediately and eventually they joined me. We loved every minute of the tour. We had the Jeep to ourselves and a wonderful guide named John who told us about the geology and some of the native plants we were curious about: agave, juniper and prickly pear. PHOTOS I highly recommend a Pink Jeep Tour in Sedona.

After the tour, we went to a nearby restaurant called Cowboy Club and tried some local delicacies like rattlesnake, bison and prickly pear cactus fries. They were all tasty and although our youngest wouldn’t try anything, our oldest did and thought it was “okay.” We only had one full day in Sedona but on the way into town, we remembered passing Slide Rock State Park and decided to stop there on the way out. What a cool place! It was surrounded by gorgeous scenery and had slippery rocks with water flowing over them where you could just hop in and slide down. We all tried it a few times then walked upstream to enjoy another swimming hole. On the way back to the car, we stumbled on some people jumping off tall rocks into a deep pool. Mike can never resist that and eventually the boys both jumped in too.

Grand Canyon was next and I’ll be honest, it was just something I felt we had to do since none of us had ever been. I didn’t expect to be wowed for some reason, but I was! Each and every place has surpassed our expectations but I think the Grand Canyon did the most. The first views as we arrived were amazing. We visited a nearby overlook and were just overwhelmed by how vast, deep and spectacular the canyon is. To top things off, there were two huge California condors right on the other side of the railing. They eventually flew off and soared where we could watch them for a bit.

The next day, we headed out early to beat the heat and avoid the rain. We hiked down into the Canyon and while it was relatively steep, the boys did great—even on the way back up. Each and every turn gave us a new perspective on how incredible the park is. We also had a chance to chat with some other hikers and were intrigued enough to consider a future visit where we hike and camp down in the canyon. We’ll see about that!

Later that afternoon, we took a shuttle to a trail we were planning to hike but shortly after we got on (after hiking a bit to get to the shuttle) we were informed they were evacuating the South rim due to lightning storms. It was pretty crazy and the boys were nervous but it makes for quite the story. We weren’t able to get back out but we were very pleased we had managed to hike into the canyon. The following morning we left very early and Ellis and I were in the back sleeping. Unfortunately, we missed some truly unbelievable views that Mike and Owen saw and they didn’t even get photos!

• At times it got up to 100+ degrees in the RV. While I can’t say we stayed cool, we managed by putting ice into bags or bandanas and putting them around our necks and wrists. Drinking ice cold water also helps quite a bit.
• Wasps stings hurt. Stay on the trail and if you go off the trail, try to avoid stepping on a nest!
• It’s really hard to fold up a large RV mat inside the RV. Try to plan ahead before it rains so you can do it outside.

Up next: Zion, Rocky Mountains and homeward bound!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 4

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She is traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Campfire Stories Part 4

Next up after Glacier National Park, we headed to Sex Peak Lookout Tower in Kootenai National Forest (if you want to know more about how it got its name you can read it here). The drive to get there had a 12 mile grind at the end that was slow, treacherous driving, and even though it took an hour, it was worth it. It was by far the most spectacular place I’ve ever stayed. Three hundred sixty degree views above the tree line, beautiful sunrises and sunsets and total privacy for miles. The tower itself had two twin beds, a desk, a fireplace and some chairs for the deck. Since there wasn’t much to do there for the kids, two nights and one full day was just right. We mostly explored and made delicious meals and enjoyed the views.

We were scheduled for another lookout tower the following night, the Up Up Tower in Lolo National Forest, but after speaking to the ranger, it sounded like it was not passable in Loretta. The last crazy ride to Sex Peak was enough; so we decided add a second night at Hell’s Gate State Park in Idaho. We were right on the Snake River so we enjoyed a day at the beach and left early in the morning for Hood River as a stopping point on our way to the Oregon Coast. The Hood River visit was relatively uneventful, but we did find a place to swim and jump into the Columbia River and a decent place to stay (see my note about Motels below).

On to the Oregon Coast! The Pacific Ocean was definitely a highlight of the trip. Neither of our boys had been to the ocean before and they love the sand and water. We spent hours at the beach—one of which was hiking from and to our campsite a mile away. This photo shows how deserted the beach was. We had it mostly to ourselves!

Next up was Danville, CA where we spent five days visiting family and friends. We mostly visited with family: swimming at various pools, hanging with the cousins, playing chess with Grandpa and making treats with Grandma. It was the best family visit yet as my parents are aging and our boys are of an age where they will absolutely remember this visit.

Here are my siblings at a reunion in Danville. Our family tradition is when all five of the children are together we do a pyramid. We cannot believe how time is flying and we are now headed back to the Midwest!

Next Up: Sequoia, Death Valley, and Las Vegas

• Hotel beds have lots of pillows. Sometimes some are better than others so search for the best one to get a good night’s sleep.
• Motels can sometimes be very similar to hotels. Do your research and find a good one. They are often as comfortable and more affordable.
• Use travel websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to get reviews of local restaurants, things to do and places to stay.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 3

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She is traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Campfire Stories Part 3

After an expensive brake job, we managed to get back on schedule at Yellowstone where we took in what we could on our short stay. We got lucky with a fantastic first come, first served campsite at Lewis Lake Campground they referred to as as the “honeymoon suite.” It was a very large campsite with complete privacy and its own path down to a virtually private beach at Lewis Lake. We seemed to have remembered everything we needed from the camp store and set ourselves up comfortable…or so we thought. The tent was great, but the sleeping bags that were rated to 30 degrees were not adequate and both nights were COLD!

The next afternoon, we saw Old Faithful erupt just as we arrived. Then after hiking around it, we managed to get a front row seat for another close up.

While Old Faithful is very crowded and touristy, it’s still a very cool place to visit (but in my opinion just once!). There are other larger and more regular geysers in the park, but Old Faithful is the largest, most regular geyser of them all erupting every 90 minutes give or take a few. When we checked, she was predicted to erupt at 3:01pm and it happened at 3:04. Pretty accurate!
The next day was our final chance to see Yellowstone; we visited both the upper and lower falls. Again, it was very crowded with people taking selfies all around, but Artist Point in particular was amazing (photo below). It felt a little like we were checking things off the list, but we did enjoy them—it’s hard to slow down and soak it all in when you’re surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of other tourists.

Rather than staying a third night at our “honeymoon” campsite, we decided to head back to Jackson, WY so we could get going the next morning and make it to Glacier National Park in one long drive. It took us 10 hours to get to Glacier, but we quickly settled back in Loretta and took it easy the first day. From our campsite at Fishcreek Campground, we had a short walk to a fantastic glacial lake (Lake McDonald) and of course had to show how brave we were by going in for a swim! The lake is shallow to about 15 yards then it suddenly drops off and at its deepest, it’s almost 500 feet deep.
While at Glacier we did a tour on an old boat around the lake (photo below) and a full day of white water rafting on the Flathead River. The rafting in particular was memorable. We all had to paddle (which was a first for our 7 year old) and the trip was over 6 hours. We stopped for an incredible lunch prepared by the tour company and all of my boys (including dad) had to swim even though the water was 56 degrees! The second half was a bit more exciting with class 2 and 3 rapids which were thrilling. All in all, it was a huge deal because before we left home, our 7 year old was refusing to do such a thing!

(photo of McDonald Lake)

Today we are headed to Sex Peak Lookout Tower in Kootenai National Forest (if you want to know more about how it got its name you can read it here) and from there another lookout tower in the Lolo National Forest called the Up Up Tower.

Latest Tips:
• Don’t trust the warmth rating of sleeping bag; be conservative because you can’t sleep when you’re freezing!
• WalMarts aren’t too bad when you need something—and we have needed lots along the way!
• Prepare for crowds at the major National Parks and keep realistic expectations. Unless you’re really adventurous, you’ll be surrounded by lots of other people.

Next Up: Our lookout tower visits and how we get from there to California!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 2

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She is traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Campfire Stories Part 2

We are in our fourth week of our ten week journey. Our next stop after the Badlands was Custer State Park which was a mere 2 hours away. While both Custer and Badlands are stunningly beautiful, the contrast is significant. The dry, virtually treeless rocky hills of the Badlands was very different from the soft, rolling, tree-covered hills and beautiful views at Custer. Every time we get to a new place, it seems as though it becomes my favorite, but Custer really is a special place. Shortly after we drove into the park, we saw a huge bison at the side of the road. Thankfully, visitors are pretty good about slowing down and pulling over safely, so we can take it all in.

While at Custer we hiked around and swam in Sylvan Lake (below) and I got the laundry done while taking in the view.

The second day, we drove the Wildlife Loop and saw an endless number of prairie dogs, dozens of bison (some from afar, some up close) and burros. The burros were brought into the park in the nineteen century to help visitors get around. When the company closed down its business, they let the burros go free and they have lived there since. When we came upon them and got out to visit, we almost immediately felt threatened and ran back to the RV. They seemed very interested in us and wondered if we had food. A moment later another family pulled up and jumped out of their car to pet them and feed them doughnuts and fruits and vegetables! We got such a kick out of how frightened we were at first and how tame they really were. They are indeed “begging burros.”

As we left for the Grand Tetons, we suddenly had brake problems that forced us to skip Mount Rushmore and head directly to Jackson, WY. After 8 hours of skillful driving by my husband, we were able to leave Loretta to get checked and fixed. Instead of staying in the RV at the Colter Bay RV Park as planned, we rented a car and stayed at the Jackson Lake Lodge. Again, we had to consider ourselves “lucky” that we were able to get a 3 night reservation on the 4th of July and find an available rental car.

The highlight of the trip for all of us up to this point was the 2+ hour rafting trip on the Snake River. (below). Our rafting guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the area and told many stories (some surely tall tales) about the park bison and bears and its history.

We have friends moving to San Diego for a year who were at the same campgrounds as we were at Custer and we met up again in Grand Tetons and for dinner and drinks at the historic Jackson Lake Lodge. The view at the lodge is absolutely incredible, but you don’t have to spend money to eat at the restaurant or stay at the lodge—you can get it for free (below).

It seems like this blog is more about us and our troubles than the trip and sites as I had expected, but that’s sometimes how life goes. It looks like our brake problem is going to require several days to get the parts and get it fixed, so we kept the rental car and bought $600 of camping basics and went along our way to Yellowstone where we are currently. In the next couple days we will explore Yellowstone before heading back to Jackson to get Loretta.

Next up more about our visit to Yellowstone and whether or not we made it to Glacier National Park.

As we continue our journey, we’ll share pictures, tips, recommendations and more so jump in, join us and share your favorite places to camp, eat and visit. You can reach me via email at

Tips from this part of the journey:
• Take the wild animal warnings seriously. There have already been 4 bison attacks this season in Grand Tetons alone.
• Everything will take extra time. The roads can be slow and you want to have time to see the unexpected.
• Just because a sleeping bag says it’s good to 30 degrees, doesn’t mean it is. Do your homework. It’s not possible to sleep well if you’re freezing.

Highlights of our itinerary: June 13-August 20
• Badlands
• Custer State Park
• Grand Teton National Park
• Yellowstone
• Glacier National Park
• Portland
• Sequoia National Park
• Death Valley
• Las Vegas
• Sedona, AZ
• Grand Canyon
• Zion National Park
• Mesa Verde National Park
• Dead Horse Point State Park
• Moab, UT
• Rocky Mountain National Park

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Airbnb Now Specifically Targeting the Business Traveler

I am occasionally surprised by which trends really take off. For example, when fluorescent high-top sneakers and zubaz came back into style, I was shocked and horrified. Or when my Boomer CEO- who frequently describes herself as tech-incompetent and is generally weary of unregulated things- expounded the virtues of her Uber app, I was amazed.

Real, metal keys. Am I right?
However, the large-scale adoption of Airbnb as a go-to for leisure travelers was not a surprise. Many of the Millennials I know- and to some extent Xers, like myself- don’t wish to follow the prescribed course for travel but prefer to find a deeper connection to the places they visit. It made sense to want to explore a destination like a local to really gain a different perspective of a location. The best part though? Keys. Real keys to a house- not cards that lose their magnetism when they get within three feet of your phone. It seems trivial but there is something comforting and reassuring about having a cut metal key to a door. It really drives home the sense of inclusion, the feeling that you are welcomed and belong. Or perhaps that's just me. I digress.

Still, when I blogged about a new trend of people using it for business travel last October, I thought it was interesting but possibly fleeting. Frankly, we tend to think of business travel as cold and impersonal. Get on a plane, check into a hotel, have a meeting, check out, fly back. Rinse and repeat. In addition, many large companies only allow their employees to use predetermined hotel brands to control costs. Some people may even prefer the anonymity of a hotel or be swayed by loyalty programs. In spite of these hindrances, this trend towards using Airbnb and like services for business travel seems to be picking up serious steam.

Airbnb has now launched a new targeted website that gears their service specifically to the needs of the business traveler. Most leisure travel happens over the weekend whereas the majority of business travel occurs during the week. Why not leverage the same comfortable space for both uses? Airbnb has incorporated some stringent guidelines that have to be met first so not all active rentals will apply, keeping business travelers happy by meeting certain expectations. One of the best features of the site is their new "coupon" system. A company just has to set up an account and employees can book their own travel and put it to the company account. Smart move, Airbnb. 

So what do you think? Do you see this as a successful venture for Airbnb? Are you allowed to make your own travel choices for business travel? If so, is this a service you would use?

- Anjee Sorge

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Campfire Stories Part 1

Mary Zinn is a long-time consultant for FIRE Light Group and Wisconsin Meetings and Events. She will be traveling with her family this summer in an RV named Loretta and will be blogging for us from the road. She and her family will share their photos, stories, and travel tips as they adventure their way from Wisconsin to San Francisco and back on a 10 week journey.

Where the journey begins
While the travel part of our trip has just begun, the planning of our summer adventure started several months back. Once we decided to do it, we bought a used RV named Loretta. She comes with a history of having traveled across America just last summer where her owners blogged from the road just like we are doing.

We have an incredible agenda mapped out (see full itinerary below), but I was particularly excited about our first 10 days exploring Wisconsin. Maybe because it was the first part of the trip and I was anxious to get going, or maybe it's due to fun travel memories from childhood and remembering how beautiful our state is.

The trip started with 3 nights at Wyalusing State Park which is located at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. The weather was good, we were fresh, and the park was gorgeous. We had one small “emergency” when our 7 year old jumped off a rock and badly hurt his knee, but we were fortunate to find a ranger who gave us a ride back to our campsite and even transported our bikes! Wyalusing is a gem—the campsites are very nice, have all the amenities and there is lots to explore. There are biking and hiking trails and three different caves to visit which are all very accessible and great if you’re traveling with children.

From Wyalusing, we headed “Up North” to the state parks in the Superior region. We were pleasantly surprised at how grand the waterfalls were. We had a nice private campsite at Amnicon Falls and took a drive to first see the Big Manitou Falls at Pattison State Park which is the highest waterfall in Wisconsin at 165 feet. The boys were very excited as they’d never seen anything like it.

The next day, we hiked Amnicon Falls which we thought were even more spectacular! They are extensive and there are various places you can swim in the river. One word of caution: there are leeches in the river—our 7 year old got one and boy are they hard to get off!

From Wisconsin, after a five day urban detour for a work conference in Evanston, Illinois, we got back on the road and headed to Sioux Falls as a brief stop on our way to Badlands National Park. Falls Park was much more than I expected. It’s a bit touristy and crowded, but what’s great is you’re allowed to walk anywhere so you can find a place to view the falls and take pictures without the crowds.

On our way to the Badlands, we paid a visit to the almost obligatory Wall Drug. Our expectations of it were low, so we left thinking it was a pretty cool place. We had hoped to hit a few other places while in the area, but didn’t end up getting to: the drive-through wildlife park, Bear Country USA,; Lewie’s Burgers and Brews in Lead, SD (voted best burger in South Dakota); and Jewel Cave (the third largest cave in North America).

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Traveling can be tough on any family, but throw in things like a broken power steering line, which also affects the brakes and required us to leave Loretta behind for 5 days in Superior while we went to Evanston for Mike’s conference. Then, as we were ready to leave for the Badlands, the generator fell off on the highway and we had to get towed. It could have been much worse. Thankfully, we were able to get a cabin for the night, have a welder reattach it the next day, and stay in Loretta the following night.

Next up Custer State Park and Grand Tetons; until then, jump in and join us! Share your favorite places to camp, eat and visit. You can reach me via email at

Tips so far:
• Get AAA before setting off on a long trip. AAA has been invaluable!
• If you can swing it, mid-week camping is much less crowded.
• Expect bumps! Plan for the worst and hope for the best.
• If you choose to wear a skirt in South Dakota, make it a fitted skirt. It’s windy there!

Highlights of our itinerary: June 13-August 20
• Badlands
• Custer State Park
• Grand Teton National Park
• Yellowstone
• Glacier National Park
• Portland
• Sequoia National Park
• Death Valley
• Las Vegas
• Sedona, AZ
• Grand Canyon
• Zion National Park
• Mesa Verde National Park
• Dead Horse Point State Park
• Moab, UT
• Rocky Mountain National Park

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

From Anthropology to Engagementology: My first year crash course into the meeting and incentive industry

“To travel is to live.” – Hans Christian Anderson

What is anthropology? Do you dig up dinosaurs? These are two questions that I became accustomed to answering often throughout my undergraduate career. The easy answer? It’s the study of humans and no, there are no dinosaurs involved (unfortunately). I didn’t know what I was going to do with a bachelor degree in anthropology, I just knew that I loved learning about all the different cultures. My specific degree was in sociocultural anthropology, where I studied social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning. A hallmark of sociocultural anthropology is its concern with similarities and differences, both within and among societies, and its attention to race, sexuality, class, gender, and nationality. Little did I realize at the time but this training would become invaluable for my future career in employee engagement and incentives.

When I started at FIRE Light Group, I honestly had no idea what we did. I knew we did something in travel, but beyond that I had no idea what the incentive industry did or just how international it was. Thanks to LinkedIn and a fellow alumni, what started as a marketing internship turned into an account manager position doing a job that I love. I just recently celebrated my one-year anniversary with the company. This last year has been filled with confusion (wait… what does that acronym mean?), very little sleep, and sometimes frustration but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have been able to travel the world, make some amazing friends, and grow within an industry that I what to make a career in. As my boss Sandi says, I’ve been bitten by the bug. From attending a global conference in Rotterdam, running programs in New Orleans, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, a hosted buyer program in Colombia and Panama, and an amazing vacation/site inspection trip to Hawaii, I have been able to experience, observe, and take part of more cultures in one year that I could ever learn about during my studies. Every culture is different and not every culture can be engaged in the same way. What might be engaging for someone in the U.S might be a complete turnoff for someone from France and I love being able to find different ideas and ways to engage different types of people. If you pay close attention, there are certain bits and pieces that can bring anyone of any culture together.

So how has my anthropology degree helped me in the engagement industry? While I may not be conducting fieldwork on native tribes in Africa or New Guinea, I am travelling the world and learning new cultures. This helps me bring our clients out of their comfort zones to experience new food, customs, and people. It is always important to keep an open mind while travelling because that is how you can get the most out of your experience. Anthropology has helped me keep that open mind, and being able to read people and how they interact with each other not only helps me run programs but also allows me to appreciate every new experience I come across. What Sandi calls “the bug” many call wanderlust, and now that I have it I can’t wait to see what new experiences will come my way in my future at FIRE Light Group.

- Ashley Himebaugh

Friday, February 20, 2015

Community Partnership’s Circle of Hope: Optimism for the Children of Dane County

Did you know that according to a report by the Office of Children’s Mental Health, Wisconsin youths have a higher suicide rate, more psychiatric hospitalizations and less access to mental-health care in school than children in many other states? I didn’t. Or that many Wisconsin counties have few, if any, psychiatrists who treat children? A small poll of health-care providers in December found that when children are covered by Medicaid-funded health insurance such as BadgerCare — the primary funder of children’s mental-health care in Wisconsin — 81 percent had trouble locating a psychiatrist to treat them.

Schools across the state have a fraction of the recommended number of care providers. This is where the organization Community Partnerships comes in. Recently I had the privilege to sit down with the Executive Director of Community Partnerships, Scott Strong, to find out about this amazing organization and the services that they provide for children and families within our community. An hour conversation isn’t long
enough to begin to learn all about the different programs and services this organization offers. It was obvious that Strong is very passionate about his work. Strong became involved within the human services field over 30 years ago, and was brought on to Community Partnerships in 1999 when the organization took over the Children Come First program (CCF). The primary mission of CCF is to stabilize a child’s emotional and behavioral health in order to prevent or reduce the length of placement in a psychiatric hospital, residential care center or juvenile correction. Serving children from birth to 19 years old, CCF offers comprehensive case management, family advocacy and wraparound services, and operates a provider network of traditional and nontraditional mental health service providers supporting children in the community.

The success of this program comes from a great model of strength-based, flexible care that works to create an individualized plan for the children by working with their schools, families, and communities. This creates a network of support and stability around the child empowering both them and their families to be active in their support. By keeping the children out of institutions, the state is not only saving money but also keeping the children in school and within their family and community settings leading to higher success. By focusing on the children’s strengths and engaging them in positive ways CCF saves the state millions of dollars by keeping them in the community and active in society.

CCF is only one of many programs offered by Community Partnerships that use the strength-based model to connect with the community. They have the Early Childhood Initiative Program: a voluntary home visiting program for pregnant women and families with children aged 0-3, ArtSpeak: a one-of-a-kind expressive art program designed for youth who struggle with mental illness and behavioral challenges, and Transition to Independence: a program designed to recognize that between the ages of 18-30 young adults who live with a mental health diagnose have unique needs and provides specialized services to them. These are only three of nine programs currently running, with many more opportunities being presented continuously.

Since 2012, budget cuts within the organization have forced the group to reorganize their programs and have them looking for innovative ways to match the growing need within the community for their services. In order to keep up with demand, the Circle of Hope event was organized. What started as a small wine and cheese fundraiser where children could show off their artwork, this event has grown into a remarkable evening that raises funds to help support all of the incredible programs that Community Partnerships provide to the community. This year is going to be the most exciting yet. Join FIRE Light Group on Friday, May 8th at UW-Madison's Union South for "Vintage Vegas", an event that embodies an era of crooners and class where the Rat Pack reigned supreme. Help us work to promote Community Partnerships and all the valuable programs they provide... and have a great time too!

- Ashley

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Craziest Hotel Room Thefts

Yahoo posted a blog yesterday listing the craziest things taken from hotels. Some of them ARE surprising! For example, how did someone get away with an original Warhol? Was there no security on a $300k piece of art? Crazy!

Are you guilty of small hotels thefts too? Be careful, some hotels are tracking things like linens these days. You could wind up with a pretty hefty bill for a "free" robe.

- Anjee

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Economy is Back... Now What?

The word is out! The economy is back with new optimism blossoming in the corporate world, as evidenced by higher budgets, new employee focused initiatives, and record breaking years expected in hotel bookings among other things. Gas prices and unemployment are down, GDP and real estate are back up to 2008 levels, and U.S business travel spending is projected to top $310 billion in 2015.

Spending on Incentive Travel programs is also on the rise, according to the Incentive Research Foundation. By the height of the recession in late 2009, Pulse Surveys from the IRF showed over 80% of planners were decreasing their incentive travel budgets either moderately or significantly, with virtually zero growth from any side of the market. In the fall of 2014, research showed 50% of planners increasing their budgets, with 25% of them maintaining budgets of over $4,000 per person heading into 2015.

I have spoken to many companies of late who are just beginning to get approval for employee engagement strategies. For those who are just starting on this journey, you have lots of catching up to do! This field is beginning to emerge as a real discipline with many HR executives looking to figure it all out. Now that the economy is back, what are you doing to do to hold on to those stellar employees that sweated through the down times with you? If you did not keep them engaged during this time (and over 70% of companies did not), what are the odds that they will be looking for greener pastures now that with opportunities abound with all the growth happening or predicted to happen?

Employee and enterprise engagement is not just the latest trend. In fact The Engaged Company Stock Index has outpaced the S&P 500 Index by 34% since it was launched in October of 2013. This Index might well be some of the most compelling evidence we have that engaging employees can affect corporate profits and hence lead to mid- to long-term share price performance. A recent survey of CEOs by Price Waterhouse Coopers found that 90% consider customer engagement a top priority this year, and 80% hold the same view for employee engagement.

Where to start:

• FIRE Light Group's Engagement Framework and Resources pages.
• Get the Engagement Textbook and/or do other research to beef up your basic knowledge.
• Figure out where you are on the engagement continuum – what systems are in place to implement a plan.
• Find partners that can help you move your organization along this continuum. Engagement is not typically a job that has been hired into the corporate infrastructure, you may need to hire experts in the field to help you implement an effective program.

The business case is there, engaging your employees and distributors results in greater profits and happier workers. So what do you resolve to do in 2015 to capitalize on this new opportunity?


Sandra Daniel
President and CEO, FIRE Light Group

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