The Camp Director

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Getting the Most Out of a Professional Conference like ACA, Tri-State, or SXSW

February 16th, 2012 · No Comments · ACA, Social Media, Technology

I have two conferences coming up that I am both speaking at as well as attending. First up is the American Camp Association’s (ACA) National Conference where I will be speaking about technology, social media and campers with social disorders. Then it is off to SXSW Interactive where I will be speaking about Best Practices for Supervising Millennials, a topic near and dear to camp directors world wide. I know many of you also head to the Tri-State Camp Conference. My SXSW commitments have prevented me from attending that but it used to be a favorite camp conference event of mine.

Whether you are headed to big events like SXSW or Tri-State or smaller regional conferences, a bit of preparation can make a world of difference in how much you get out of the event.  Here are some of my tips to getting the most out of a conference.

Take a look at the program guide and highlight sessions you want to attend. For fast-paced conferences where there is a lot happening, this is critical.  If I arrive without a plan I am likely to miss a session or event that I was really interested in.  If you are traveling across time zones you can use the time-zone feature in google calendar to be sure you have the correct time for events. I don’t like to change the time on my computer but the time changes on my phone. Makes for a confusing schedule if your time zones are not right. For SXSW you often need to RSVP to events and you will want to look those up in advance.

Check out the area and the hotel where you will be staying. Confirm your room, look on google maps to see what is near by. It helps to know if a drug store is around the corner or will you be stuck with $8 water at the hotel. You may also be able to save money on your transit to and from the airport. For SXSW companies often run free shuttles if you sign-up in advance. There is also a $1 bus if you are really on a budget. For the ACA conference the hotel and airport is connected to public transit and you can save $30 on the cab ride by taking MARTA. It can also help to get an idea of where the conference will be held and the overall spread. Small conferences like ACA National are likely self contained. SXSW is spread out all over Austin. Take a moment to get an idea of what it it will look like when you arrive.

Not all camp conferences are flooded with free food like SXSW. No matter what conference you are attending, look at the schedule and see what food will be provided for free at the event. Sometimes there is food at an exhibit hall or awards lunch. At SXSW there are so many options for free food that with the right planning you can avoid paying for food nearly the entire trip. Your hotel may also offer a free breakfast or happy hour with free hors d’oeuvres. Hotel food can often be costly so take a look at what you local options are first. It is also wise to pack some snacks to help when food is not near or the lines are too long.  If your conference has a lunch break, try to get a jump on the crowd. I have a favorite place to eat at SXSW across from the convention center and if I don’t beat the crowd for lunch my wait can be over an hour.

The reason you attend these conferences will vary. Some people head to SXSW to connect with people they already know where as others are trying to make new contacts.  Make a list of the people you want to meet, questions you want to get answered, or vendors you want to see.  Then you can make a plan to either attend a session the person is giving or hit the exhibit hall and find their booth. At a conference like ACA, finding a booth does not require a map and a sherpa. I went to the Consumer Electronic Show this year and finding a specific vendor among the over 35 football fields of exhibit space was challenging. In some cases, you may be able to set an appointment with people in advance. You do have to be sensitive to their time but it never hurts to ask.

It helps to know the dress code for the conference and what events may be happening. Will you be meeting potential employers? Will there be award banquets. Camp conferences tend to be more casual and regional conference are more casual than the national conference.  Will you mostly be in the hotel or do you have to cover a lot of ground going from one hotel to the next. I find I rarely leave the hotel at ACA Conferences but at SXSW you can’t get around being outside because you have to cross town to get to sessions and events.  Consider what type of bag you will need to haul around all day and if you can get back to your room to change for evening or to store your bag.  Some items always pack: refillable water bottle, umbrella, iphone battery pack, cold medicine, comfortable shoes, sleep mask for daytime naps, phone charger, heath bars for snacks, cash for tips, and sweater for layering.

Many camp conferences use online scheduling tools. I love it when conferences use because I find when they build their own app it never functions as good as Sched. That being said, do download the app if your conference offers one. You can also start to follow speakers, the event, the event hotel, etc on social sites. Often conferences have a #hastag for the event and even specific sessions that you can add to twitter posts. Set up a search to follow the back-chatter at the conference. There can be apps that are also useful for exchanging virtual business cards. I like uMe and also use 41411 (just text JENNSELKE to 41411 for my contact info). Some people like Hashable. There is also nothing wrong with paper business cards, it just can help to make a note about the person on the card so it makes some sense to why you have it and that follow-up actions you need to take.  When it comes to collecting paper I try to bring home as little as possible. Turboscan is a great app for turning paper into a PDF with your mobile device. Sites like Plancast, Lanyard, Meet-up, Eventbrite, and are sites to follow where you can see what others are doing. These are great discovery tools or ways to plan your own meet-up.

What are your tips to get the most out of conferences? What do you like to pack?

found a typo? send me an email – jennselke at gmail.  I am an awful proofreader.

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