Attending My First Professional Convention For Dummies
October 22, 2013 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I volunteer for a local advocacy non-profit and I will be accompanying the director to a statewide convention next month. I have never attended a convention in my life. I need any and all advice you may have for a first-time attendee.
posted by entropicamericana to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to EVERYBODY. Be friendly and ask questions.
Bring business cards. That's how you remember connections.
If you have a professional Twitter account, use it. Conventions tend to love hashtags these days.
Wear comfortable shoes. You'll be walking from area to area a lot.
Find out where you can get all the convention materials (presentations, etc.)
Be prepared to write a trip report on what you learned, and how it will help you do your job in the future.
posted by xingcat at 7:52 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

1. Wear comfortable clothing. Don't be scruffy, but don't dress to the nines. Shoes are especially important as there may be significant walking involved.

2. Check out the agenda and sessions and mark which ones you'd like to attend. Check with the person you're going with, there may be overlap and you may not both want to attend the same session if you could cover two different ones.

3. Have business cards to pass out to contacts. Even if they're just your name, number and email. Take business cards from people and write something on the back of them to remember who they were and what you wanted to talk about with them.

4. Have an envelope for receipts if you will be reimbursed. Put them all in the envelope. Write any small outlays on the outside. The maid tip in the hotel. The buck you gave the shuttle driver. Etc.

5. Make notes about the sessions and take whatever materials are being offered. Put them in that totebag they gave you when you signed in.

6. Schedule some downtime. Skip one of the sessions (especially if it looks dull) so you can check email, return phone calls or just process information.

7. Have healthy snacks to munch. Conventions typically will have a bunch of garbage for food. Plan ahead with fresh fruit, powerbars, nuts, etc.

8. Drink lots and lots of water.

9. Wash your hands OFTEN! They don't call it Con-Crud for nothing.

10. Bring ear plugs (especially if you're rooming together) and a sleep aid.

11. Stay sober.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:57 AM on October 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

Follow the 5-2-1 rule: Get five hours of sleep, two meals and one shower every day. Plan for 7-3-1 to give yourself some wiggle room.
posted by Etrigan at 8:00 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some great answers so far, hope to see more! One related question: are there any iPhone apps that are de rigueur?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:04 AM on October 22, 2013

It depends on the conference. I attend Dreamforce and they have a custom ap.

Call your conference organizers and ask. They'll know.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:07 AM on October 22, 2013

Ruthless Bunny and xingcat have some great advice; I will try to remember it when I go to my conference next week.

Some things to add:
-Wear your nametag
-Don't lose your nametag after the first day
-Ask for two keys from the hotel, stash the backup in your wallet/purse/essentials bag in case you lose the primary
-Acknowledge and be nice to hotel staff, because they are people and because they can really help you if you need it
-go outside sometimes
posted by cubby at 8:10 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

It would help to know what sort of non-profit you are with and the nature of the convention.

However, a professional convention is largely about strengthening current professional connections and establishing new ones. Do you know other people attending who can introduce you to new contacts? Can you work a room? Do not be joined at the hip with the director - get into the room and meet new people by yourself. Give yourself a goal like "I am going to meet three new people". If you see a few people talking, don't be afraid to join, but first read the room to determine which groups would welcome another party. This is going to depend on your ability to read body language. Don't be socially awkward - have a good handshake, maintain eye contact, and look interested.

Use your business cards judiciously - don't give them out within the first few seconds of meeting someone because that reeks of desperation. Save them for if you think this will be a real connection, if the other person requests it, or if he offers his. I have also noticed that business cards are giving way to electronic contact forms to some extent. Have your own contact on your phone so you can easily forward it to someone if asked.

When you ask questions in conversation, try to avoid "yes/no" questions in favor of those that allow a free response.

The director whom you are accompanying will be watching to see how you handle yourself. Think of it as a live performance review. Don't come back with 20 cards from "some guy", but a few cards from "Joe Blow whom I had lunch with and thinks we might be a good fit for X". Have something to show for your attendance so your director doesn't wonder why he brought you along in the first place.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:11 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it helps, it is a bicycling advocacy conference with emphasis on health, urban planning, and transit.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:13 AM on October 22, 2013

Carry a notebook, pen, and highlighter with you all the time.

When someone gives you a business card, if you plan to follow up with them about something in particular, write it down on the back of the card. Once you get home and find 15 business cards in your wallet with only a hazy memory of why you kept them, you'll appreciate those notes.

It is actually your job at these things to be really outgoing. It's not weird, in fact it's encouraged, to introduce yourself to the total strangers around you when you are standing in a line, waiting between events, taking your seat, or whatever. You're there to network. Just say "Hi, where are you from?" and off you'll go.

Because of this kind of interaction, have your "elevator speech" ready - what's your organization, what do they do, where are you based, what do you do for them. No more than 2 sentences - no lengthy explanations, at least not to start.

Before and after dinner, gravitate toward the hotel lobby and bar, even if you don't drink. These informal spaces and times are where some of the best conversations take place. Introduce yourself and enjoy.

But one caveat to that: don't overdrink. You don't want to be super out of control like you're out with your friends, and even more important, you don't want to wake up late feeling groggy and have to sit through sessions.

Seconding following along on Twitter. It may be worth getting an account just to follow the meeting hashtags. Twitter absolutely transformed conferences for me.

If there are optional events, like evening events offsite or special lunches, try to do one or two of them. They cost extra, but they give you good opportunities to meet people, learn and network more.

Make it a priority to go outside at least once a day while there. I like to take a 2-hour slot and power-walk the center city, assuming the hotel is in a center city. It's a great way to see the sights and get the lay of the land. If you're a runner, bring your shoes, and ask the hotel info desk for safe running routes. Try a local museum or go out to lunch or dinner at a local restaurant. Escape the Conference Zone. It's fairly normal to skip at least one session a day, unless this is a small conference where your absence would be noticed as a negative.

(Just saw your note) - that sounds like a cool conference that should be friendly about making it possible for you to explore locally!

Use your cameraphone abundantly. Take pictures of useful PPT slides, nice displays, whatever it might help you to remember.

If there's a printed program, keep it with you. Highlight the sessions you want to attend, and then later, star the ones you actually did attend. Keep the program. Where I work we generally have to present on conferences afterward, and it's great to be able to reconstruct what you did, including the names of presenters in case you want to get in touch later.

A lot of people at conferences use the awful free tote bag they tend to give you. Maybe a bike conference would be cooler. But you need something to carry stuff in. I just bring my messenger bag, which contains: aforementioned highlighter, a couple pens, paper notebook, conference program, any flyers/handouts I picked up, mints/gum, wallet, phone, and laptop if I decide to carry it. Often I don't, because it's kind of a hassle to keep setting it up and shutting it down as you go session to session. If you have a tablet it's a lot easier, but I don't.

If you really like a session or a presenter, get their email address and plan to follow up later. Most people are happy to send you a copy of their PPT or remarks after the event, or stay in touch to share information some more.

I've got packing down to a science. Search AskMe for some related threads - "business travel" might be a good set of keywords. I have seen and learned from some excellent advice.

Get exercise. It's so weird how you can be programmed from 8 AM to 10 PM only to get back to your room and realize you haven't used your body all day. Check out the hotel's facilities online before you get there, and bring whatever you might need to get 30 minutes of movement in - running shoes, bathing suit, etc.

If you've got a smartphone, check for local city apps before you get there, and download in advance. Public transport, maps, etc. Fire up Yelp and similar sites by pre-seeding with your location.

If there are any facilities/orgs similar to yours in that city, check them out online to see if you could benefit from an in-person site visit. And set it up in advance so you can be sure to squeeze it in.
posted by Miko at 8:22 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Definitely seconding the comfy shoes.

On iPhone apps: a lot of conferences will use scheduling software that has some kind of mobile option (sometimes an app, sometimes a mobile site.) Handy for remembering where the next thing you're going to is.

My general goal for selecting sessions usually runs about 1/3 things I already know, going deeper, about 1/3 things I don't know much about (but are relevant to various upcoming goals/projects) and about 1/3 up in the air, including "I'm just sort of curious about this."

I generally start by going through the program and ranking each scheduling slot's items. Then I pick one or two each day I absolutely want to be at. From there, I pick others, leaving at least once slot each day open (because breaks are good, and so is time to talk to vendors or digest previous sessions/smooth out my notes)

But I also have a couple of slots that vary. Sometimes this is for logistical reasons (X sounds interesting but it's a long haul from the items on other side, and I may not be up for the weather/walk/fighting the crowds by that point in the conference). Sometimes it's "Second day of the conference, I may be sick of talking about topic A". Sometimes it's "This person is on a panel on day 1, and doing a session on day 2, let me see what I think about them on the panel."

I usually pick priority based on topic, but there are some presenters where I will go and listen to them talk about just about anything, because I know it'll be informative and useful to me somehow. (You might ask around and see who those are in your field.) There's also one particular presenter in my field where I just won't go to his stuff, because it will annoy me.

Finally, leave some space for serendipity. I try to do at least one thing each conference that's more free form (birds of a feather conversation, meeting up with people from an online professional forum, etc.) One of my regular conferences makes this trivial because of how they handle lunch seating, but those are sometimes my favourite bits of the event.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:31 AM on October 22, 2013

Will you be reimbursed for expenses? If so you might find out what their requirements/rules are for reporting said expenses. You likely don't need to do anything super fancy but it helps to have a designated pocket in your bag or an envelope where you can stash receipts and a paper or electronic diary of your expenditures.

Have fun and don't wear yourself out too much for the first day. These kinds of events have a way of being early morning and late nights all wrapped up in one.
posted by mmascolino at 8:33 AM on October 22, 2013

Grab extra swag to dole out to folks back at the home office who couldn't come.
posted by jquinby at 8:34 AM on October 22, 2013

There are a lot of good tips already but I thought I'd mention that if you have any special dietary needs, you should let the convention know ahead of time.

It's also worth knowing ahead of time if you'll be required to write up a report on your experience at the convention. Most people take good enough notes to manage it without prior warning, but some people don't, and then panic.
posted by johnofjack at 8:38 AM on October 22, 2013

Would it be ok to use my Macbook Air for taking notes or would I be better off with pen/paper?
posted by entropicamericana at 8:46 AM on October 22, 2013

People use laptops all the time at conferences these days, to the point that any good conference will tell you when you can't for whatever reason. So check for that, and have pen and paper with you just in case.
posted by Etrigan at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2013

When I attend conferences, I often need to get away and decompress mid-day (Too many people! Too much noise! Too much information!). Don't be shy about taking some downtime between sessions in an empty conference room or in another quiet nook of the building. You don't have to be ON all the time.
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:57 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

A possibly related topic came up on Hacker News a few days ago: Tips for Overcoming Shyness at Conference. These days I make a QR code with my $WORK URL and just slide it inside my nametag.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:58 AM on October 22, 2013

A lot of people at conferences use the awful free tote bag they tend to give you.

And this can actually be a good idea, particularly when you're away from the main conference area. I made one of my best conference contacts in the elevator of the nearby (but unaffiliated) hotel where I was staying because I recognised, and commented on, our matching tote bags.
posted by shelleycat at 9:15 AM on October 22, 2013

You can use your MacBook Air and people definitely do it routinely, but be aware of the following -

  • You're going to be moving from room to room every 90 minutes
  • WiFi can be surprisingly spotty in these places, and sometimes you have to pay for it. You should be able to check for this in advance.
  • There is competition for outlets to plug into wall power. There might be times you can't get near an outlet. It's a long day and batteries drain down.
  • Even if your room is right upstairs you don't get back there that often, so you have to commit to fully babysitting your laptop bag all day so you don't lose track of it.
  • You won't always have a table so you have to balance it on your knees sometimes.
  • The clicking can get annoying if you have a noisy keyboard (not sure if Airs do)

    I have a heavier laptop and, given all this, I don't usually use it unless I'm presenting. I take notes by hand. This is just what works for me, but it helps me keep my head up and pay attention, and then when I get home I transcribe the notes, which refreshes the content in my head really well and gives me a chance to process my thoughts later and add those, too.

  • Also, do check in advance. I know in some fields, information about laptop use is de rigeur, but the nonprofits I work for are still clunkier at this and access and assumptions vary.
    posted by Miko at 9:31 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

    Regarding taking notes, Miko said almost everything I wanted to say. In addition I'll say that at very popular sessions with tables you will be packed in tight with other people so it is the equivalent of trying to work on an airplane from the middle seat while the person on the aisle and window are also on their laptops.
    posted by mmascolino at 9:35 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Thanks, Miko. The reason I was specific about my Air is that it's quite small and light, and has literally all-day battery life, so I think I should be fine... Appreciate the caveats, though.
    posted by entropicamericana at 9:37 AM on October 22, 2013

    Would it be ok to use my Macbook Air for taking notes or would I be better off with pen/paper?

    I would rather gnaw off my arm than schlep a laptop around. I had to do it at my last Dreamforce and I wanted to hurl the thing into Union Square after the second day!

    Take notes the old fashioned way. Trust me, that thing is heavy and your shoulder will thank you!
    posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:47 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

    your smartphone/ipad/tablet will have a keyboard sold somewhere on the web that plugs into it, this is what you use at conferences, not a laptop for shoulder reasons. Unless you have a flunkey to carry it for you.
    posted by Mistress at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Oh yeah, the iphone Notes feature is great for this too.
    posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on October 22, 2013

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