Last Fall, I hosted the first Eat, Love, Sandals Culinary Conference in Jamaica. I’m sharing all the details!
One thing I’ve learned in the six years that I’ve been blogging is that amazing things happen when women get together.
I have had the honor and pleasure of seeing women build businesses out of their homes in their pjs — businesses that have turned into books, product lines, television appearances, and successful websites that support their thriving families. Families that they nurture and support in the midst of running a flourishing career from a laptop in their living room.
It’s incredible and inspiring and it’s no surprise that I jump at the chance to be around these women, learn from them, and soak up some of their passion and genius.
It is with this in mind that my friend Jamie and I decided to plan our first ever food blogging conference. Neither one of us had done ANYTHING like this before — our experience with planning is pretty much limited to toddler birthday parties. But we knew that we had a unique perspective and exciting ideas to offer — what if a conference left attendees not only feeling inspired and informed, but invigorated, relaxed, and with a few new friends who will (hopefully) last a lifetime?
What if a conference was small and intimate, instead of overwhelming? What if attendees left feeling like they made actually connections from the heart, not just a pocket full of business cards? What if a diverse group of bloggers with different levels of experience and areas of expertise got to share their ideas and knowledge with one another instead of sitting in a room listening to someone else talk?
Well. We decided that was just what needed to happen.
It was with a lot of nervousness and a teensy bit of hope that we approached Sandals Resorts with our idea. And we were absolutely blown away to hear that they not only LOVED it, but wanted to work with us to create something truly memorable.
After a year of planning, a year of learning, and a LOT of emails back and forth, it was time for our very first Eat, Love, Sandals Culinary Conference at Sandals Ochi in Jamaica!
Jamie and I arrived at Sandals on October 8th, to grey skies and thunderstorms. To say that we were nervous wrecks was an understatement. But even with rain pouring down, the resort was an amazing sight to behold. The details were incredible, and the staff was friendly and kind.
After checking in, Jamie and I were escorted to our rooms, which ended up being two room suites! You heard me — EVERY ATTENDEE GOT THEIR OWN TWO ROOM SUITE.
And get this — when I opened my patio doors, I discovered that we each had OUR OWN PRIVATE POOL.
The rooms were decorated beautifully, with snacks and a minifridge full of sodas, juices, water, and even wine. Every day the staff would be by to refill the fridge — it’s part of the room. When Sandals says ALL INCLUSIVE, the obviously mean it!
Another bonus we quickly discovered? Room service! Just call and anything on the menu is delivered, free of charge. No tipping is allowed, so don’t worry about bringing cash.
The next morning was gorgeous and sunny, so Jamie and I decided to check out the beach and the rest of the resort. We were completely unprepared for how beautiful the Jamaican beach was! There was a peaceful little cove lined with comfortable chairs, and further down there was a large open bar to enjoy a drink and the view.
Later that day, 18 incredibly talented bloggers arrived, and we kicked things off that evening with a cocktail party and dinner. This was when I saw the first official Eat, Love, Sandals sign and realized that Jamie and I actually DID it. We went from talking on the phone about this crazy idea that we had NO experience with, to actually PLANNING AN EVENT WITH SANDALS RESORTS. IN JAMAICA!! I don’t think I’ve ever truly believed the phrase “anything is possible” until just at that moment. And I was incredibly proud to have this experience to share with my daughter one day.
Who runs the world? Girls.
The party was better than I could have dreamed, with perfect little appetizers, the FUNNEST dancers, and attentive waiters circling the room with refills of anything we wanted.
Everything at the resort is top shelf and part of the deal — the wine and cocktails included. Whether you want wine or beer or a specialty cocktail, they’ve got it and are happy to bring it to you.
The next day started with Breakfast and Bellini’s outside. A chef was cooking traditional Jamaican breakfast, and we had the option of a breakfast buffet as well.
After breakfast, we moved into a conference room for a round table discussion. The subject was “The Best Thing I Ever Did for My Business”, and it was a really great topic to start with. Ideas were flying around the table and I’m happy to say that people were still hanging around and talking after the round table was over! I feel like you always know things went well when no one wants to leave, and I went to my room for a short nap, feeling happy in my heart.
After a brief nap, a few of us headed to the spa for hot stone massages. Spa services is one of the ONLY things that is not included with your room, but Eat, Love, Sandals attendees got a discount! The massage was incredible and we all left feeling relaxed and happy. After massages, we went to check out a sushi restaurant on site, and sat and chatted while we watched roll after roll being made. Sandals Ochi has SIXTEEN restaurants, and they are ALL complimentary (again — no tipping either), and all top of the line.
Later that evening, we gathered for a jerk chicken cooking lesson. It was hands on and a lot of fun — we all got to try mixing up Jamaica’s famous jerk marinade! The best part was eating it afterwards — it’s SO good!
After dinner, we made our way over to the pool area where there was a massive chocolate party in session. There were SO many chocolate desserts and drinks to choose from!
I headed back to my room fairly early for a good night’s sleep. One thing I wanted to make sure of while planning the event was that all the girls had plenty of time for rest. Because of this, breakfast was never until 9am and events never ran later than about 9pm. The last thing you want is for everyone to be exhausted in paradise, and I think we did a great job of balancing learning, activities, and down time.
The next day we met for breakfast, then sat down to another round table session — this one focused on Ads and SEO (Search Engine Optimization). Jamie and I had invited our friend Eric from Mediavine to the event to offer his expertise, and he was incredibly helpful and answered a ton of great questions. Eric is not only an expert on ads and SEO (he runs several successful websites and an ad management company), but he’s also extremely patient and kind. He was a great fit for our event and everyone loved having the opportunity to pick his brain.
After the round table (again, everyone had difficulty leaving the conversation — success!), we headed to what was hands down my FAVORITE part of the entire event – a Reading Road Trip as part of the Sandal’s Foundation’s Pack for a Purpose.
Prior to the event, Sandals sent all attendees empty backpacks, as well as local recipes and lists of supplies needed for local schools. We were all invited to pack the backpacks and bring them with us to deliver to a local school that is sponsored by the Sandals Foundation.
We rode a bus to a school that was incredibly different than the schools my children go to. The playground equipment rusted and the building itself was small and simple. The school was not air conditioned, and the weather was hot and humid.
But the kids did not seem to care a bit. In uniforms that are SURELY hot and sweaty, they beamed at us, jumping up and down and grabbing our hands to show us our desks. They were so anxious to touch our hair and look at any blue eyes in the crowd…and they LOVED everything we brought. Even the plain yellow pencils were received enthusiastically. It was one of those incredible moments that puts everything into perspective and stays with you forever.
We all left reluctantly, with tears on our faces and giant smiles in our hearts. If I could experience just one aspect of this trip again…it would be that afternoon.
Without a doubt, those sweet kids affected me way more than I affected them.
That afternoon I relaxed on the beach, enjoying a cheeseburger, a glass of wine, and a brief nap before dipping into the warm water. I then headed to my room to shower and change for our last dinner together.
After dinner in a gorgeous French restaurant, we all headed to The Rabbit Hole, a speakeasy housed behind a hidden round door covered in vines. The atmosphere was so fun and authentic — even the singer seemed to be from the 20’s. After hanging out there for a bit, I hugged everyone goodbye and headed to my room for a last sleep before heading back home to Arkansas.
(another crazy thing — it was only about 3 hours of flying to get to Jamaica from Arkansas! I never would have guessed!)
I am so thankful for my friend Jamie who brainstormed this idea and planned this event with me. We spent so much time on the phone, talking, texting, emailing, and worrying, and in the end, we became better friends for it. I’m inspired by her talent and her eye for beauty every day.
I’d also like to thank Sandals Resorts for their incredible hospitality. They were an absolute dream in every aspect, from the initial emails and phone calls while planning the event, to putting everything together and being available for our every need while in Jamaica. I can absolutely say that they exceeded my expectations by infinity.
And of course, the attendees, who traveled out of the country and left their families to take a chance on this event. I truly hope everyone left happy, rested, and invigorated. I loved connecting with old friends and making new — we had such a great group!
You can find other Eat, Love, Sandals recaps on:
A very special thank-you to the following brands who sent gifts to all Eat, Love, Sandals Attendees:
Many of you may have noticed that Joan Hayes, the blogger from Chocolate, Chocolate, and More, was one of our conference attendees. Sadly, Joan passed away from a heart attack just two weeks after returning home from the event. It was incredibly hard for all of us to process — Jamie and I immediately contacted one another and were in tears and shock.
I had never had the opportunity to connect with Joan before this conference. As we emailed back and forth and later met in Jamaica, I was so drawn in by her humor and fun personality. Joan was so easy to get along with, eager to share her own experiences and secrets to success, and just a lot of fun to be around. I’m so thankful to have gotten to meet her before she passed, or I would have missed out on someone really special.
Rest in peace, precious Joan.