So, as I had mentioned before, the ALA conference was my first foray into large national conferences. It was overwhelming, but I also had a lot of fun.
I am also very thankful to have a mentor who is a veteran conference goer, so she was able to give me some good advice on how to prepare. You would not think it takes a lot of preparation outside of travel arrangements, but it really does. It really does…gotta study the maps, what is close to your hotel, make plans with friends and colleagues, etc.
Anyway, I thought I would share my knowledge of what I did right, what I did wrong, or…what I realized works best. So, I bring you my list of lessons learned. I hope that this will be useful for anyone who is new to conferences.
1. Get your schedule planned BEFORE you go
The best nugget of advice my mentor imparted upon me was to choose the events and times that worked best for you (i.e. no 8 AM sessions if you are a night owl like me). The conference booklet is literally the size of a small city phone book. They almost always publish a schedule of events beforehand, and you don’t want to be left floundering with said booklet, overwhelmed by so many options while at the conference. But you always want to keep your schedule flexible, and have some back-up options in case you want to meet up with your colleagues or friends.
My mentor also mentioned giving yourself plenty of time to rest and meet up with people. It is not a good idea, especially if you are introverted like myself, to go to 3-4 sessions a day and then the evening socials. I nearly ran myself ragged that Saturday…did 3 sessions, dinner with my cohort, and then took the Metro up to Bethesda to go to a friend’s party. All that walking and transportation will leave you downright ragged.
2. Comfort is important
One thing I wished I had done was carry around a water bottle with me to my conferences. I found that the convention center had very spare water fountains (plus it got to almost 100 degrees in DC). Also, all the bottled drinks at the convention center cost $3.00!
While all that walking makes you parched, it is also hard on your feet. Perhaps those “sensible shoes” can come in handy. One thing I struggled with upon packing for this conference was what to wear. Since a goal of mine was to network, I wanted to look presentable, as if I was going for an interview. I probably did overdress a little, but thankfully in my indecision I packed comfy flip-flops, as well as more dressy shoes that I carried in my tote bag to wear around the convention center.
3. Book your travel/lodging on a credit card, especially if you are being reimbursed
This was something I learned the hard way. Apparently, I had used my debit card to book my hotel room (which was very expensive in Washington). I figured they would not charge the full cost of my room until I checked out. While the hotel did not charge my room, they DID put a hold on the room (3 nights plus a $100 refundable deposit) while I was staying there. But apparently my bank interpreted that as a charge. So, for the whole conference, I had less than $100 to my name. And that goes by real fast with meals and cab rides (did I mention the $3 bottled water :p…my mojito cost $10!!! ).
4. Check conference newsletters for any revisions
At ALA, they have a daily newsletter that is distributed that lists all the changes that have been made. I wished I had done so. The Sustaining Digital Workflow event that I had volunteered to blog about for LITA), was moved from its lovely, convenient time at 10:30 AM in the convention center, to 8:00 AM the next day in a hotel that was very far out and a 20 min shuttle ride. I will be honest, I almost decided to go to another event to blog about, but I figured I could cancel an afternoon session and then do an afternoon nap since I had to get up so early. Thankfully, the event had a great turnout…though a lot of people were trickling in after 8:10 or so.
5. Don’t be shy!
OK, my last tip…and something that was extremely hard for me as a socially anxious introvert…introducing yourself to conference presenters. As a student, it was intimidated to talk to people who were more seasoned professionals. If people know you are a student, it is a great icebreaker for conversations, and if you are not quite sure of yourself, people will understand. A conference is a great place to network, and you never know who you are going to meet.