It’s been a loooooong time since many of us have been to a conference, and there will be lots of folks going to a professional gathering this year for the very first time. (First timers at Apra traditionally make up about a third of all attendees!)
What can you expect? What should you do to prepare?
BEFORE YOU GO
Download the conference app if they have one. If there’s a place to load in your details (and you’re comfortable doing that) add in your information so that you can share it with others you meet. Look over the agenda, pick your sessions, and get your schedule set on the app so that you’re not making hasty decisions when you arrive. If there’s no app, print out the agenda before you leave home and highlight the ones you’ve decided on.
Pre-arrange a conference buddy or meetup. If this is your first conference with a new professional association – and even if it’s not – it’s always nice to have someone to hang out with at meals. If a colleague you know through work, your local chapter, or social media is planning on being there, arrange to meet up with them for coffee or to have breakfast together.
The hotel meeting space will be cold. Or maybe it will be hot. The vendors hall will be freezing and the session rooms will be stifling. Or the other way around. Pack a sweater or a wrap of some sort. Long pants are advisable unless you’re used to chilly a/c. My go-to is a sweater or blazer over short sleeves.
Pack a lanyard. Sometimes conferences provide lanyards, sometimes they don’t, and using the alligator clip (or safety pin – ugh) to attach a nametag to a top can be awkward at best. If you have a lanyard from a previous conference, bring it along just in case. It doesn’t even have to be the same conference you’re going to! You can take your old BookCon or Comic-Con lanyard if you want to – it might spark a conversation!
If you like or need particular food/medicine, make sure to pack it. Personally, I like having Trader Joe’s nut packs with me at conferences in case I get hungry around 11:00 am. (note: I’m always hungry at 11:00). I usually pack one for each day of the conference and one for the plane in my shoulder bag. I also pack some chocolate just because no hotel room should be without chocolate. And it doesn’t have to be food – I know someone who once had a case of Red Bull delivered to their hotel room before an Apra conference – they clearly didn’t want to miss a single moment!
Pack a mask for every day of the conference. There are going to be a lot of people there and I care about you – please be as safe as you possibly can.
SOON ON ARRIVAL
Do a reconnaissance mission. If you’ve arrived early, go check out the conference venue. Where will the vendors hall and food be? Go find the room where your first session or two will be. If registration is open, go to the desk, pick up your packet, and say hi and thanks to the awesome volunteers. Don’t be shy about identifying yourself as a newbie – pick up the badge ribbon that says “First Time Attendee” and stick it onto your nametag. It will help you and others in the same boat spot each other and make friends.
Go for a walk. If the area around the hotel feels safe to you, get outside and find the closest food/coffee/outdoor space. Is there a store nearby to stock up on things you may have forgotten or want to have in your room? (spoiler alert for Apra attendees: there’s a CVS a block away from the Atlanta Marriott Marquis). The Marriott Marquis has mini-fridges in each room, so you can stock up on snacks or maybe fresh milk for your morning coffee/tea if you prefer that to packets of that white dry powder stuff.
DURING THE CONFERENCE
Go engage with the vendors and check out their products. I know that you hear board members and room monitors say this at every. single. conference, but it’s not just a bunch of words. Without vendors supporting fundraising conferences there wouldn’t be fundraising conferences. And vendors really do have cool stuff that helps us do our work better. So go say hi and don’t be shy about picking up a pen/squishy ball/cool desk item. (Insider tip: they really do want you to take them because then they don’t have to schlep them home on the plane).
Make new friends! Sit at a table with people you don’t know. Say hi to the people sitting on either side of you in the session. As an introvert, I totally get it – it’s not easy. But if you’re on social media, see if you can meet up with folks you’ve only known up to now on Twitter/LinkedIn/Insta, etc. Go to your chapter’s social event, grab a buddy and then go to a vendor party. You never know – you might meet your future colleague or presentation collaborator!
Don’t skip sessions. Seriously, go to all of the sessions you mapped out. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to take a break, but that session you skip might be the one that inspires you. Also, your organization has invested in you – show them love for supporting your continuing education.
Do something really fun. Don’t sit in your room – take advantage of the city you’re in and being with your awesome colleagues. Apra attendees: Feeling like afternoon tea at the Ritz? It’s right around the corner. Want to see the Olympic park? It’s 4 blocks away. Fancy a trip in a gondola on Sky View Atlanta, the city’s giant ferris wheel? It’s 5 blocks away. There’s generally lots to see and do within walking distance of any conference, and there’s usually someone else interested in doing it, too. If there’s nothing organized, use the message board to get up a group.
AFTER THE CONFERENCE
Welcome home! Maybe avoid seeing your old grannie or family members with compromised health for a week, and take a test to be sure you’re okay, okay?
Follow up with folks you met. Did you connect with a vendor or make a new friend? Send them a quick email or link up on LinkedIn to solidify the connection.
Report back what you learned. Here at HBG we have learning meetings every third Tuesday of the month. Our 3T in August will be all about the Apra conference and our favorite takeaways. If your department is just you, or if your organization doesn’t have a way of sharing learnings, maybe take some time to collect, write down, or synthesize the key takeaways. Make a list of books or articles that were recommended so that you can have it as a checklist to go from. Even if you’re just reporting back to yourself, it’s valuable to capture what you think is important.
What have I missed? I’ll post this on LinkedIn and you can add your pro-tips there!