So it is your debut at a conference! What do you absolutely need to know before you go? Here are some quick tips from experienced conference attendees Teri Lesesne, PhD and frequent conference speaker, and Laurel Bliss, President of the New Members Round Table of the American Library Association.
First, think through your goals for the conference, both from the perspective of those sending you and for your own professional development. Everything you do should contribute to an overarching goal. Are you tasked with something specific to research? Are you looking for colleagues who share your challenges? Are you looking for ways to expand your resume? Conferences can provide the solutions!
The online conference planner offered by national conferences including the American Library Association helps you think ahead and make the most of your time, notes Teri Lesesne. All the conference events are in one place including sessions (by both the sponsoring division and by time), events you may want to consider (like the presentation of major awards including the Sibert, Caldecott and Newbery), and exhibit hours.
Be sure to plan specific time for the exhibits. If you want to meet with a particular person at an important vendor set up an appointment ahead of time, clearly communicating the purpose of the appointment. That will enable the vendor to come prepared and ensure you are not disappointed.
Think geographically as well, urges Laurel Bliss. For the larger shows, events can be hosted not only at the convention center and the headquarters hotel, but hotels throughout the downtown area. This is especially necessary for the upcoming Chicago ALA Annual conference because the convention center and its adjacent hotel are not within walking distance of the majority of the downtown hotels. Map your route, build in travel time and know when you may have to leave one session early in order to catch another one a cab or shuttle ride away.
As you review your session schedule, you may be flummoxed by two equally appealing programs at the same time. Teri Lesesne suggests visiting a listserv and asking about the speakers. Do they deliver on the topic? Are they prepared? This can help you prevent “session remorse,” a sad malady that is visited on anyone who wishes they had made a different choice.
Lastly, consider joining the New Members Round Table (NMRT) if you’re planning on going to ALA. It costs a modest $10 and for the career-minded, it can be an important stepping stone and also guarantees a committee appointment if desired. The resume review service and mentoring opportunities will pay off both in short and long term benefits.
These are the must-haves for any conference attendee:
1) Comfy shoes. Not just comfortable for an hour, but comfortable for eight or ten hours. If you have evening events, pack a separate pair of shoes for that. Just changing the pressure points on your feet will bring relief.
2) A mailing tube. You cannot always depend on a creative vendor handing them out free or even being among the first 500 to visit that booth. Buy a mailing tube at an office supply store and, if you’re really into comfort on the exhibits floor, tape or tie a sling on it so you can put it over your shoulder.
3) Your schedule. If you’re prepared, you can keep the extensive program as a hotel room reference tool rather than adding to your daily burden.
4) Layers. Think in terms of layers when planning your wardrobe. Room temperatures vary widely, especially in contrast to the outside air.
5) Luggage. Wheeled carts are not permitted on the show floor so plan for takeaway items. You may find the perfect tote bag on the exhibits floor but hedge your bets by taking a durable tote with a shoulder strap. Many people nest one suitcase within another so that they can carry items home more conveniently, though in this world of extra baggage charges, you should research that option with your transportation ahead of time.
6) Address stickers and cards. Make sure that email is included. It’s helpful to have both and online business card printing services can often do 250 cards for under $10 if you order a few weeks in advance of your departure.
Laurel Bliss practiced what she preached at her first conference: She attended the New Members Orientation. This gives what Laurel calls “the lay of the land” plus helps you connect with like-minded attendees. She also suggests attending the “All Committees Meeting” that presents opportunities for anyone who wants to get involved.
When attending a program, many now take advantage of new technology to take pictures or record the session. Teri Lesesne recommends that you ask the presenters before the session starts if they permit photographs (many find the flashes distracting) and ask for permission to record. “Mind your manners,” is always a good rule to follow, notes Teri.
Scope out the convention center post office if you plan to mail items back home. On the exhibits floor, keep your goals in mind as you look at all the catalogs, books and promotional items. If a goal is to cultivate your colleagues or recover from a hot flash, you may want to pick up that cool mini-fan. If not, leave it for another attendee.
Regarding advance reading copies, Laurel Bliss suggests you take only what you know you will read and don’t fall victim to taking everything that is handed to you. Be discriminating on the front end and a good steward of the vendor resources. The vendors’ goal is not to have their expensive catalog filed in the round canister in your hotel room. If you do want an item but cannot carry it, ask them if they will mail it to you at your address and provide them with your card or sticker that you packed for just this occasion.
After the conference
First, look back at your goals and measure your success. This will help you plan for future conferences. Next, write a report-even if it is not required-summing up everything you accomplished. Follow up with notes or emails to your valued new contacts. Lastly, maintain a file of future objectives so that you’re ready when the opportunity to go to a conference rises again!