Friday, February 27, 2009

Conferences 101

Welcome to my lesson: how to attend a conference and enjoy it. It should be pretty easy. You are getting out of the office for a few days, you are escaping your burdensome spouse who always takes the left side of the bed, you can drink a lot (and it’s expected of you), and you get to go to lovely places. Conferences are held in places like San Diego, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. They are also held in places like New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Austin. Let’s just assume you are going to a transit conference in Austin – the charming college town-capital city of the great state that is neither fully eastern nor western, neither fully swampy nor desert, neither fully redneck nor Latino. Some people might find Texas to be one of the strangest states in the union.

Anyway, I’m diverging from the lesson. The most wonderful thing about a conference is that most of the decisions are made for you. You pay your attendance fee (early, please, for an advanced registration rate) and book at the pre-selected hotel and make your travel arrangements and go. Rather than trying to decide whether you should stay at the Hilton or the Sheraton or the Omni or the Four Seasons, you are told that the conference will be at the Radisson, on the north side. Well, Radisson hotels are fine in some places and not fine in others. You don’t need to worry about the fact that they’re one of the most unreliably “nice” or “not nice” hotels chains in the world (followed by Best Western and Holiday Inn, at a slightly lower start rating).

Arrival. When you arrive at the Radisson Hotel North Austin, check to see the surroundings. You should be aware that conference schedulers often like to choose these desirable suburban hotels on the outskirts of cities because they want to help you avoid the distractions of the downtown area. If your conference were downtown, you would feel under so much pressure to visit bars on 6th Street and the cupcakes on South Congress and the Lyndon Johnson Library, whereas a suburban location allows you to focus on your schmoozing and knowledge-building without distractions. Nevertheless, even suburban conference hotels can offer amenities. Are you excited to see the Radisson sits in the parking lot of a slightly decrepit mall – Highland Mall? And there’s a Sheplers across the street. Don’t they sell cowboy boots? Will that mean there will be somewhere for you to walk when you need a break from the conference festivities. Is that a Gold’s Gym across the street, too, in that mostly empty shopping center? Keep in mind that you may prefer to make use of your Gold’s Gym travel pass rather than using the Radisson facilities so you don’t have to see other conference attendees lifting 3-pound weights in their leotards and sweating beads of fried chicken grease on the stationary bike.

After you check in and go to your room, study the surroundings. Make sure it is a comfortable reprieve from the activities downstairs. Adjust your sleep number bed, turn down the air conditioning, open the sliding door to the deck (even if it doesn’t look like it will open, they built good aluminum sliding doors in the 1970’s when the hotel was built, so just give it a tug). Admire the small bottles of shampoo and drop one in your overnight bag so housekeeping will give you a new one tomorrow. Pull out the iron and get your conference clothes in good shape for tomorrow morning when the activities really begin. Be sure to run downstairs before you go to bed to register.

Registration. The first evening of the conference is usually registration. This is when you show up and pick up your nametag (and quality durable bag made in China with the conference logo screened on it). Just make small talk with the people who are at registration and you’ll be fine. Make sure you get the right ribbons hanging down from your nametag: are you on the board? Are you’re a member? A speaker? A vendor? Remember, the more little ribbons hanging on your nametag clearly demonstrates to the others at the conference that you are a very important person, and you want to make sure they don’t forget it. If they offer “zany” ribbons like “bored member” or “my feet are tired” or “hold that thought,” I recommend going for the most positive ribbon you can find: “plays well with others.”

People like a positive attitude at a conference.

Be sure to sort through your bag and see how many free pens or pads of paper your have received and then pull out the conference program to see if the schedule remains the same as it did when you registered. You may also want to look to see if your photograph appears with a bio, which can be a little embarrassing whether you expected it there or not, especially if it’s a picture you took at home and then photoshopped to make it look professional like the photos of politicians and CEOs and motivational speakers. Don’t worry if you realize it looks a little plastic-y, because that’s okay at a conference, but next time lay off on the Photoshop smear tool .

Morning dilemma. Set your alarm for an early hour and get downstairs for the breakfast buffet. Be sure to brush your teeth first (so people don’t step away from you) and wear your name badge. Also bring along any little yellow and blue tickets they might have given you at registration (you have to turn them in for meals). One of the scary things for a new conferencegoer is where to sit at meals: Do you head toward the big empty round table where nobody is seated only to hope that the most interesting people will join you and strike up a conversation? Or do you plunge yourself into a full table of talkative conference-goers and watch their discussion drop off as you claim a seat at the table?

I recommend looking for a table with two or three people already seated. Make sure they look like they have some power – avoid the interns or the secretaries. Find the board members and the general managers and prove yourself to them. Just be natural and ask lots of questions, and try to be charming and flutter your eyelashes a lot between bites of your drippy bland grits with congealed gravy.

What happens if someone unfriendly comes to sit at the table? No worries. That old crow of a woman wearing the religious jewelry – oy vey, the crosses – on her jacket may be a transit board member and well respected consultant, but you can take one look at her and know she is someone you would never want to talk to or work with. Just smile, and say good morning and go back to your undercooked potatoes.

In conference sessions, keep at least one empty seat between yourself and the person next to you. It’s impolite to crowd, especially when in windowless suburban hotel conference rooms that were creatively remodeled with pastel splashes in 1983. Watch the PowerPoint presentation and avoid the speaker’s eyes. That way, it looks like you are genuinely interested and reading important things to yourself. And that way, you can just daydream if you want to. If you do get bored, try to count how many times PowerPoint has accidentally skipped a slide and the presenter had to figure out how to go back. Or how many times a Windows Vista message popped up about some random security issue that needs to be addressed during the presentation. Or how many times the laser pointer missed its target.

Fun time. After all of the conference sessions, and the evening has rolled around, it’s time for the fun stuff: It’s called a vendor’s exhibition. Remember, it is unnecessary to leave the hotel for dinner because they will set up cash bar counters in both corners of the exhibition where you can redeem the red tickets or use cash for cocktails and beer. The middle of the room will be filled with fried cheese and spiced mushrooms and crudités and a Mexican man carving a ham! Olé! But the real food can be found around the perimeter of the room: bowls of snickers bars, chocolates, Twizzlers, hard and unappetizing candies emblazoned with the name of a transit agency, and much more. In addition, you’ll find squishy stressballs shaped as buses, pens and flashlights and pen-flashlights, envelope openers with the name of a bus engine company, squishy tire key chains, plastic coffee mugs and much more. You are supposed to run around the room and grab as much of this stuff as you can – and also chat a bit with the vendors who will sign your “visited vendors passport,” so with 30 or more signatures you can be entered to win door prizes. And if you happen to be one of those vendors, you will enjoy none of the above because you will be standing next to your display, signing hundreds of “visited vendors passports” and encouraging people to take piece of candy. And a brochure to go with that?

The morning after the festivities can be embarrassing depending on your behavior and which individuals at the conference accompanied you to the hotel bar. But keep your head held high and take the first flight out of town. By the next conference, nobody will have remembered the embarrassing things that happened at the last conference, but they will be very happy to see you.

Save your receipts so you can submit an expense report and get reimbursed for the experience. The company thanks you for your service and looks forward to sending you to more conferences in the future.

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