Last week, I attended my first-ever professional conference, the Sigma Tau Delta convention, in Cincinnati. As the Sigma Tau chapter president at my university for two years, I was giddy at the prospect of attending the conference and interacting with fellow Sigma Tau Deltans. Even though I’m not in academics or pursuing a master’s degree, I wanted to experience a conference and be in an environment where books and writing were the focus all day and night.
I attended the convention with Hannah, my fellow English major and Sigma Tau officer friend from college, and we had a blast. Spending the days listening to fellow book lovers talk about themes in classic literature and exploring Cincinnati’s bookstores lived up to my expectations. But as with anything in life, I realized after further reflection that I have a lot to learn about the art of conference attending. Here are some areas I learned I need to improve on from my first conference experience:
I did not realize how packed the convention schedule was. Some days, we were in the convention center at 8 a.m. and left at 9:30 p.m. Sure, there are breaks for lunch and dinner, but it’s really hard when you’re an overachiever to feel like you can skip a session if you need a rest. I felt like I needed to attend every session because I paid to be there and it would be a waste of time and money to not get the most out of the experience. But…that’s pretty taxing, especially when you’re an introvert who melts a little just from being around people (even when you’re not talking to them).
At future conferences, I’m going to be a bit more strategic about planning breaks throughout the day, even if it means skipping a session to sit alone in a corner somewhere and refresh.
In addition to needing time to rest amid the crazy convention schedule, I also learned that in the future, I need to make time for certain aspects of my everyday life. For example, I didn’t call my husband on the phone from Tuesday to Saturday. I finally made time to call him on Saturday—and we came home on Sunday. I learned that I can’t just focus solely on the conference; I need to also schedule time to talk to family.
Additionally, for future conferences, I need to have a better plan for handling freelance work that pops up during the event. At this point in my freelance career, I have very few clients, so I try to say yes to everything. Unfortunately, a few existing and new clients wanted things edited while I was at the convention, which was very difficult to swing given the busy schedule.
I regret not planning which restaurants I wanted to try before the conference. When you arrive in a new city and have no idea where you want to eat, you end up staring at your phone a lot, scrolling through restaurant after restaurant. It’s not a good use of your time. Next time I attend a conference, I’m going to have a list of a few restaurants I want to visit before I set foot in the city.
Speaking of restaurants, I also learned it’s super expensive to eat out for every single meal when you’re at a conference. Part of the problem here was that I frequently slept in too late, meaning I didn’t have time to eat the cinnamon rolls I brought or the coffee our Airbnb host provided for us.
Hannah, on the other hand, very smartly packed sandwiches to eat for lunch throughout the conference; even though the sandwiches got a little boring by the end, this approach definitely saves money. For future conferences, I’m going to plan out a few meals that I can prep beforehand.
That said, some of the best parts of the weekend were spent at restaurants. It was worth it to spend a few bucks on a drink here and a nicer meal there; it made hanging out with Hannah and exploring a new city even more fun. I think I just need to focus on balancing restaurants with prepared food and snacks more.
It’s the most cliche advice for literally any event, but I messed up anyway: I kept forgetting to throw a water bottle in my backpack. As in, I forgot to do this every. single. day. Needless to say, I was a bit dehydrated in general throughout our stay in Cincinnati, although the convention did provide water in each room. But you probably can’t count on conventions providing water, so next time, I’m putting a water bottle in my backpack and filling it up frequently.
This is something we actually did do! Hannah and I visited some of Cincinnati’s bookstores, walked to the convention from our Airbnb when the weather allowed, and toured the Harriet Beecher Stowe house while we were in Ohio. I’m so glad we made time to walk around the city and get to know it a bit.
I’ll admit: I didn’t really talk to anyone at the conference. The only people I talked to included Hannah (obviously), the registration desk people, and the panelists at the roundtable on creating a university publication. I recognize how…bad…this is. One of the main points of conferences and conventions is to mingle, network, meet people who can later connect you to your dream job in book publishing, etc.
But in my defense, I had no idea what to expect. It was a lot of people. And I didn’t really have anything to say to anyone other than the lit mag editor panelists. That’s not a great excuse though; at future events, I’m going to push myself and set goals to talk to more people.
I did take notes consistently throughout the sessions I attended, and I can’t imagine attending a conference and NOT taking notes. I’m not the best at remembering verbal presentations, so scribbling stuff down helps me keep it in my memory. After all, there’s really no point in paying to go to hear people talk about books and writing and such if you aren’t going to remember any of it a week later.
I totally blanked and didn’t check the weather for our drive to Cincinnati. Turns out, there was a snowstorm that night, and as I hate driving in snow, we ended up staying at a hotel in Indiana instead of driving through the snow. Lesson learned: Next conference, I’m going to check the forecast.
I enjoyed attending my first conference experience and my first Sigma Tau Delta convention. I could have planned a better experience using the takeaways above, but overall, it was an excellent week, and I learned so much. I’m excited to put these takeaways into action for my next conference, the ACES Conference in Chicago in April, and I can’t wait for next year’s Sigma Tau Delta convention in St. Louis!