conference blog: survival essentials

So you’ve arrived at the conference venue and you’ve registered.

You’ve got your conference bag and had a quick look to find the printed programme. There’s other papers in there too. Publicity leaflets about forthcoming books. Publicity materials about the venue. Publicity materials about the city you’re in, often in the form of a pocket map. There may be some additional conference information, and if you’re lucky some of this will be helpful. There may even be some conference logo-ed blank paper (we got four sheets) and a biro that will last for the duration of the conference (mine lasted a few hours).

OK, that’s probably all good. But it’s not enough to get you through the next few days.

Here’s five basic conference survival essentials that won’t be in your conference pack. These certainly weren’t in our ECER bags, but several conversations I’ve had over the last few days suggest that these might be good (read this as important) things to get sorted early on in your conference.

1. Food. It’s vital to work out how to get water, coffee and lunch.
This is not simply a matter of finding the outlets, or observing where the conference organisers are setting up the tea/coffee stands. It’s also about working out how to get to these just a bit ahead of the rush. If you’re too early you look refreshment obsessed. Too late and you stay parched and empty for hours.

Being ahead of the pack requires a calculation about how far your seminar room is from the location of the food and how long it will take to get there. (It’s just like an airport really… It will take you five minutes to get to gate 43… ) Next, you need to work out how you can make a casual and nonchalant exit from the packed seminar room a touch before everyone else. (Sit near the door.) It’s got to be just offhand enough, or it’s got to seem seriously urgent. A sure strategy to achieve the latter effect is to get out your phone so it looks as if you’re leaving the room to respond to an urgent phone call. Who’d argue with a pressing call from work?

1a Free food. There’s also some calculations to be made about the evening conference events. The cheap wine. The mass catered and generally fried hors d’oeuvres. The mystery casserole.

At the end of the conference day everyone’s more than a bit tired so there’s often a very undignified and un-scholarly feeding frenzy. Of course, filling up on the free stuff so you don’t have to buy dinner isn’t an option for everyone. For a start there usually isn’t enough free food to go round (and it’s not really free, you paid for it in your eye-watering conference fees). You therefore have to work out whether you want to be one of those people who elbows their way to a good helping of what’s on offer, or be the other variety of conference goer who retains their dignity, takes what’s left after the elbows have had their way, and saves their appetite for later.

2. Loos. The general principle for conferences is that there’s never enough loos, there’s always a queue and two of the loos won’t work after the first half day. (Well that’s how it is for women. I wouldn’t know about the rest of you.) Just like the food, you have to work out when the likely loo rush time is – generally at the start of breaks, and at their end – and you need to make sure you go at other times – unless of course you’re happy standing in the long line trailing out into the corridor.

3. Clothes. You have to wear conference clothes that you feel OK about. So, do you want to appear formal? professional? laid back? Whatever you decide, you also need to be comfortable. (The conference is not the time for wearing in new shoes. Too much standing around.) And choose something that doesn’t wrinkle too much, unless you like being fashionably dishevelled – now is not the time to be worrying about getting creased. And, wear layers. You need something to put on if the air-conditioning is arctic, and something to take off if the room resembles the local sauna. And of course, when you’re actually presenting you have to wear something that you feel both good and comfortable in. It’s stressful enough doing the presentation without having to worry about how you look.

4. Getting online. All conferences have online facilities. Eduroam is everywhere, so make sure your access is already sorted before you leave home. (Unless your university IT people are on tap, it can be hard to get eduroam arranged by remote control several hundred kilometres away from base.)

Why get online? Well, being online is particularly good in those sessions where papers miss the mark. Gaze directed to your screen, you can look as if you are taking assiduous notes or tweeting cleverly, when in fact you’re doing your email, reviewing a journal article, marking an assignment or booking your next holiday.

5. Travel. Make sure you know the local travel situation. Out of town universities are always accessible by public transport and the conference will usually tell you what route to take to get from the city. However, what they don’t generally tell you is how much change you need to have, how to work the ticket machine, whether they check you’ve got a ticket at all (just in case you don’t have the money and the machine is broken, you understand) and how often the buses/trains run. Conference materials also often forget to tell you how to hail or book a cab. Don’t get stranded at the venue late at night when everyone who knows this information has disappeared.

There. That’s a small conference starter survival kit. Five things that may or may not come in handy, but as well to be prepared.

Have you got more that you’d add to this list?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conference, conference survival tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to conference blog: survival essentials

  1. Daniel says:

    Interesting topic — here are some tips I found helpful:

    Take a small (plastic) bottle of water: Easy refill, unless you’re in a country where you cannot drink the tap water.

    Bring your own bag: Never seen a conference bag I like or that was useful to me (and some smell like a petrochemical accident). I usually empty out the bag, trash the uninteresting stuff and give the bag back to the people who gave it to me (perhaps there is a conference goer who wants to bring back to bags for his/her children ;-)). But no sense walking around with two bags, even for a day. The conference badge is usually enough to show that you belong to the conference. Same applies to proceedings if they are also available as PDF (much easier to read them on a tablet — hello search function ;-)). Last minute changes are useful, but even those are usually available online.

    Take an umbrella (small telescope-like one in the bag). It might not be raining when you arrive but it might be when you leave.

    iPad instead of notebook: Unless you are presenting (and need to bring your own computer), I find an iPad much more useful during conferences. You can’t type quickly, but at least read/check eMail very well. Downside: Sometimes it’s more difficult to get online with an iPad.


  2. Megan Crawford. says:

    Occasionally, step outside your academic comfort zone. You may learn something new, or find new people to work with.


  3. etherealrose says:

    My #1 tip: museli/granola bars. Especially great if you are in a conference hotel near the conference location (which may be waaaay out of town) and in a country where you don’t speak the national language, making it harder to go out and purchase food. They do for breakfast in a pinch and a snack/nibble so your stomach isn’t growling away.


  4. Daniel says:

    Ah, when I started to do a post on this topic, I stumbled upon another essential in the form of this quotation:

    Every survival kit should include a sense of humor.

    Yes, conferences are important. Yes, some topics are serious. But no matter the planning, no matter the expectations, some things *will* go … wrong … or “differently than expected”. Keep your sense of humor. Or to put it differently (forgot who said it): Take the job seriously, but yourself lightly.


  5. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    An umbrella for sure! I learned that one THE hard way 🙂


  6. Lucis says:

    I find the above post really interesting, but I never had any problem when going to or when I was into the conference hall. Water, one should always keep a water bottle with him or her going 50 miles away from home. That should be a benchmark, 50 miles or any number you put down here. Travel is a mega one, especially who goes abroad too frequently, frequent flyers…….jetleg and all that.


  7. Lucis says:

    *jetlag, sorry!!!


  8. Rebecca says:

    Starbucks oatmeal – great cheap breakfast that fuels you for the day. If you have a coffee machine in your room you can pickup the oatmeal the night before (without hot water) and add the water from your coffee machine in the morning … conference breakfasts (esp continental breakfasts) are usually only sugar, which won’t fuel you well for the day.

    Bring business cards, but don’t feel the need to hand the out to everybody. I usually try to exchange cards with people that I actually interact with – people who might be interested in what I have to say later.

    If you happen to go to a conference with a name tag that had a little pouch with it, keep it and save it for future conferences that have sucky name badges. The pouch is a great place to store your business cards as well as cards that you collect from others (and misc drink tickets that you might acquire during the conference).

    Don’t be afraid to tear apart the paper program, so you can bring only the pages you need on a given day with you … it certainly helps to lighten your load! Often I can can tuck one days’ worth of program into the back on my name badge for easy access.


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