[Originally published in Special Issues: Bulletin of the Canadian Association of Special Libraries and Information Services. 18, no. 1 (2008).]
by Stephen Abram
Every year I update this list of tips based on the hundreds of conferences I have attended and the feedback and tips of friends and colleagues. As we enter the main conference season for CLA, ALA and SLA, it’s time to put them out there again.
Turn your cell phone off or set it to vibrate. Relate to folks face to face!
Survival includes aspirin, Advil or ibuprofen, water bottle (conference venues tend to be very dry).
Layer your clothing so that you can go from frigid air conditioning to high humidity (temperatures and room comfort varies widely and there is precious little conference organizers can do about that). Try not to be running around complaining about the temperature of the rooms. Almost no one can do anything about it and savvy conference goers come prepared to any temperature and are usually comfortable.
It is not uncommon to get conference evaluation forms back complaining that the same room is too hot and too cold. Plan ahead.
Bring at least two pairs of shoes (you’ll need the change and variety!).
Bring an extra bag for bringing stuff home (clothes expand somehow while away!).
Bring an office prepaid courier slip to courier brochures and materials back to the office (You’re not a mule!).
You MUST have business cards – either make your own on the laser printer or photocopier or have extras made up by your employer.
Wear your nametag high so people can see it. Take it off when you leave the venues. You don’t want assorted homeless people calling you by name!
Upon arrival, orient yourself. Familiarize yourself with all of the conference locations (conference centre, hotels, and special events locations). KNOW where the coffee is – you’ll be surprised how much you’ll want it. Know where the washrooms are. Nothing’s more frustrating than being lost in a strange place. If you’re lost – ask a local. There’s usually a local map in the conference program – study it. It’s amazing how confusing big conference centres can be! It is easy to get turned around. For safety’s sake – know where you are and where you’re going. Look at the floor plans in your program; they give you a bird’s eye view of what’s usually not a simple grid floor plan. Figure ot the room naming and numbering conventions.
If you’re on a restricted budget, bring your own water and snacks. There’s always a local store nearby and you can buy it at local prices. Conference snack bar prices are on a par with airport prices.
Before the Conference
Should you wish to save on accommodation cost, use your discussion lists or blog to find a potential roommate.
Check out the local city’s web site for tourists. Book or schedule a few side trips as well. Exciting tours have been scheduled for delegates and their guests.
If you can, add a vacation day or two on to the conference and enjoy the local sights or side tours.
Look at the program before you get there and plan your day. A simple Word or Excel document makes it a lot easier. Sometimes there’s a great conference timeplanner planning software on the association site.
Make appointments in advance with those vendors you must see. Make or use an exhibit hall map in advance so you ‘work’ the hall strategically. It will result in a better conversation if you warn your vendors in advance that you want a deeper meeting.
If you work in a specialized area with information pros from around the nation, conferences are a great place to meet each other – for a meeting, coffee, lunch, dinner, drink, or just to say hi! Give these folks an e-mail or phone call and see if they’re going to the conference. Networking is so much richer when you have seen your closest contact’s face (insert Internet irony here.)
Make your schedule in advance (at least at the start of the day, but earlier if possible). Include all of the options you might like so that if one desired session is cancelled or doesn’t meet your expectations or needs then you can hop over to another. Make sure you note the room locations so you can evaluate how much time you have to get there between sessions.
Plan to attend the First Timers’ session if you’re a first-timer to make a few new friends and get an orientation! Every conference has its culture and it’s worth learning it early to get value for money.
If a session isn’t meeting your needs, leave. Your time at this conference is important and you should get the most out of your investment in time, effort and money. If you don’t see another session you want then that means head for the Exhibits.
Generally you are ‘allowed’ to attend all sessions, including business meetings of the Association, divisions, and committees unless these are specifically marked ‘in camera’ or ‘executive session’. CLA, SLA and ALA are very open associations and you should see how your association works for you. It’s also a great way to find out what you might like to get involved in and volunteer.
Make sure you get your tickets early for ticketed events. If you miss out on one event that you desperately want to attend – check out the message board area where there is often a ticket exchange for extra tickets.
If you attend a business meeting and wish to be heard on an issue, you have a right to speak as long as you are in order. Just ask permission and you will be heard. If not, get out your Rules and make them work for you.
If you want a good seat at a session, arrive a little early. If you’re late, have a little courage and take a seat. Don’t hover and shuffle at the back of the room or in the door. Librarians tend to sit in the end seat of every row and you’ll have to shuffle theatre style to get a good seat in the middle of a row. Whatever you do, don’t stand for an hour – you’ll regret it.
Always try to go to the opening plenary – then you’ll have something in common to talk about with new people you meet for the rest of the conference. The Plenaries are designed to be engaging and challenging. Don’t pre-judge the speaker – they’re almost always thought provoking.
Evaluate programs from many directions – speaker, topic, title, blurb, sponsor, or convenor. If you’re not sure it’s for you, the speaker can usually be asked what level they will be speaking at just before the session. Then again, even if you’re at an advanced level on a certain topic it’s always useful to learn how to communicate the topic at an introductory level so you can use it for users and management!
Don’t forget to take advantage of the pre-conference workshops. You get deeper training there than in some sessions designed to provide highlights.
Remember your business cards. You can enter draws. You can have materials sent to you later. You can have contacts follow up later with more detailed information. You can look professional.
Write notes on the back of the business cards you pick up to remind you what you learned or what you’d like to follow up on later – even if it’s just to visit an exhibitor’s Web site or request a product trial.
Don’t know how to approach a booth? It’s easy. Just ask the top three questions…
- What do you have that’s new?
- Can you demo something interesting for me about your new/enhanced/improved products?
- Are you making (Have you made) any announcements here this year?
Learn a stump speech about you and your employer to answer the booth staff’s questions. They are trying to learn about YOU in order to make sure that they can give you the information you need in context. Being shy or furtive about your needs denies you the right to ever complain that your vendors don’t understand you!
Some Exhibitors host hospitality suites for their best or prospective customers. If you’re invited, go. They’re often fun and you’ll meet key players in the library world.
Others invite you to workshops, demonstrations, announcements, breakfasts and parties, etc. Don’t accept the invitation and then blow them off. It’s rude.
DON’T be embarrassing! Hovering through the exhibit hall looking for free pens and avoiding eye contact with anything resembling booth staff is not the image librarians want to project.
Please remember that vendor staff are also often professional librarians. Booth staff are often not only account managers but often vendor executive teams and key training or customer service staff come to the conferences. This is your chance to develop deeper relationships with key vendors and ask specialized questions.
DO pace yourself. Look at the map and choose whom you absolutely MUST see and go there first. Better yet – make appointments in advance.
DO ask as many questions as you like. If the booth person doesn’t know the answer they will find someone who does and get back to you later. Cell phones work wonders in booths these days.
DO attend vendor demos in the booth – these give you an idea of what’s there that might be new or they might serve as mini-training sessions.
DO help yourself to the marketing materials in the booths – that’s what they’re there for! If the vendor offers a ‘goodie’, make sure you have a conversation and learn what’s new.
DON’T assume that your old familiar vendors haven’t changed and that you know everything about them. This is your opportunity to learn what’s new and different.
If you have no idea what a vendor does – they’re completely new to you – ASK. This is your opportunity to learn something new. Booth designs are notorious for not telling you WHY you’d want to talk the people there – overcome that barrier.
Remember that vendor staff are people first. Don’t stereotype. Don’t be combative just for the fun of it – vendor bashing is a sport where no one wins. Be open to their suggestions – they’ve usually seen lots of libraries and library situations and have something to share. Many see hundreds of libraries and librarians a year. They know stuff.
DO wear comfortable shoes. There are rarely many places to sit in the Hall.
DON’T be reluctant to say “No Thank You” if you’re not interested.
DO thank the vendors for sponsoring the conference in so many ways. As a result of their participation, your conference experience is definitely richer and less expensive.
Networking and Social Events
Take time for yourself on field trips, tours, or social events. You are working much longer hours at a conference than ‘average’ and it is just fine to take a break. You’ll definitely absorb more if you rest occasionally! There are no more martyr awards at the conference than there are at home.
Learn these ‘Ice Breaker Questions’. Even if you’re shy, they will often induce even the most recalcitrant and shy person to open up.
- “Hi – I’m your-name-here and I’m from your-town-or-library-here. Where are you from?”
- “What’s new at your shop?”
- “See anything new at the conference?” “Attend any great sessions?” “Learn something new?”
Come to the conference with specific people, institutions and contacts you’d like to meet. Learn the art of the nametag glance to see what networking opportunities you might find. Don’t project false cliques or status on people – ALL of the people you’ll meet were in your shoes once.
You’re going to be in lots of lines (for food, for coffee, for meetings, etc.) Take this as an advantage and network with your line buddies – don’t just stand there.
Leave the office at the office – professional networking does not ALWAYS have to have a ‘pure’ business purpose. It’s great to have professional friends and acquaintances that are outside of your normal ‘box’. It stretches you and it’s one of the great values of the CLA Conference.
Don’t horde your business cards – they’re not gold in your pocket – they’re like smiles – they only have value when they’re given away.
In general, assume anyone who’s wearing a ribbon is extra-approachable. They will tend to be people who have volunteered to make the conference a success. Help them by networking with them.
Local librarians staff the hospitality booth – ask their advice for restaurants and sights. They know. They live there!
Don’t be afraid to ask people to join you for dinner or to set up dinner groups – eating is a great networking opportunity.
Be nice to a student. Welcome them to the profession by treating them as a colleague.
Always try to go to the conference wide event party. It’s guaranteed fun and you’ll make friends for life.
Be positive – no one wants to be involved with a whiner. Librarians will listen because they’re polite but don’t take that as endorsement for bashing the association, the conference, individuals or vendors. People remember your positive contributions and interactions in a better way than negative ones.
Fill out the conference evaluation forms. That’s how your input gets to the conference planning teams who can make a difference.
You’ll probably meet your next employer at a conference. First impressions are important. Dress for the job you want.
Write a report or memo to your boss or team and explain the value of the conference to you and what you learned. Start laying the groundwork for coming back next year.
Volunteer – let people know that you’re interested in trying new things or experimenting with a role in your association, committee, unit, chapter or division. It’s the classic win/win situation!
Please make a point of attending the Annual Business Meeting. It’s where you can see the real work accomplished by the Association’s leadership and volunteers this year. You’ll also likely meet our Association’s Executive Director or CEO and staff. These folks are almost always in listening mode – so speak! Our staff works hard for us every day and at the Conference. Meet them and thank them.
Valuing Your Conference Experience
Here’s what I think are the best benchmarks that I use to value my CLA conference experience:
- I met at least one new person every day.
- I learned at least one useful thing I didn’t know in a session every day.
- I had at least one substantive discussion with a vendor about a new product that I might need.
- I had fun, every day.