Most conferences have a dinner. Oh no, they don’t, I hear you say? Well yes, it’s true the giant ones don’t, that’s simply a matter of logistics. You just can’t find venues and caterers able to deal with the teeming hordes that over-populated conferences attract. And, well yes, relatively large conferences don’t even try for dinners, but they can and sometimes do put on drinks and finger food for their couple-of-thousand attendees. But the majority of conferences generally do offer a dinner as an additional optional extra, knowing that a limited number of people will sign up for it.
So should you be one of them? What’s the conference dinner about and is there any reason at all to think about going?
Well, there’s lot of reasons for thinking you mightn’t. For a start, the conference dinner is seldom cheap. It’s rarely even good value for money. And you know before even looking at the menu that it’s not going to be a taste sensation. It is mass catered after all, so it’s going to be something that can be pre-cooked, kept hot and then doled out quickly. The conference dinner also has to cater for majority tastes so it’s going to be predictable… in the UK it’s likely to be chicken ( a thick lump of relentlessly chewy beige) or perhaps pollack (don’t expect chef-fy crispy skin here) followed by something very sweet with savagely whipped cream.The wine, limited quantities thereof, will be average. In other words, the conference dinner is highly unlikely to be the kind of meal you’d choose yourself for that amount of money.
So if gourmet delight isn’t the reason to go, what is? Well, like the conference itself, the dinner is all about the networking – it’s either an opportunity to see people you don’t get a chance to catch up with very often or it might present an opportunity to get to know someone new.
But if the conference dinner is going to work as a networking occasion you might have to work at it. Plan. Think ahead. You absolutely don’t want to be a Johnny/Janie-no-mates who’s wandering around after everyone else is sitting down, still trying to find someone you know. So it’s good to organise beforehand to be with at least one or two other people who can be at the same table. You can do that bit of organisation during the day, or at the pre-dinner drinks if there are some – and there usually are. Just make sure that, towards the appointed dinner time, you’re standing with a group that you’d like to spend the evening with. You can then nonchalantly shuffle into the dinner hall with them. Or, if you’re standing with someone like a supervisor or mentor, then you ought to be able to rely on them to broker some new acquaintances and to usher you into dinner at their table. Trust me, it’s very bad form for experienced conference-dinner-goers to leave novices standing.
Now, if this planning strategy doesn’t work, don’t despair. It is actually possible to meet new people at the conference dinner. Just confidently sit down in a vacant spot, introduce yourself and talk. And here’s the rub. It’s OK to make small talk. It’s OK to talk about something other than your research and the politics of higher education and the crappy working conditions at your university. And it’s also equally acceptable to talk about research, politics and the crappy stuff if that’s where the conversation goes. Just talk, OK?
You ought not to expect, of course, that you’ll emerge from your conference dinner with a new friend; it might just be a pleasant evening and a new acquaintance. But making new friends can happen…
So this is the point in the post where I produce an anecdote to add veracity to my comments, and I try to convince you that the conference dinner needn’t be a three hour ordeal in which the conversation is as limp as the lettuce accompanying the unnaturally orange salmon roulade. And here it is.
I remember being at a conference dinner in Greece. The menu consisted primarily of lamb. Several courses of lamb. One form of lamb after another, served at a leisurely pace. Lamb kebabs, lamb stew, courgettes stuffed with lamb, lamb meatballs, roast lamb. Hardly a vegetable in sight. Just lamb. There was however quite a bit of wine. And quite a lot of time to drink in between lamb. I was sitting next to someone I didn’t know well. By the time the third course of lamb arrived we had developed a fine line of repartee, mainly lamb puns, which stopped very marginally short of us both standing on the table singing a version of the Monty Python Spam song. Lamb lamb lamb lamb… Needless to say all this lamb-i-ness was a deeply significant bonding experience, and we have remained friends ever since.
So that’s my anecdote, probably slightly embroidered in hindsight. And it was convincing, eh. Proof, in the form of n=1, that it might just be worth risking the conference dinner. Naturally, there is also a moral to the anecdote, and this post, and it goes like this: the key to the conference dinner is to be prepared to take a social risk. After all, you have nothing to lose but a few hours of your time and some hard-earned cash. And you might just get something worth much more.
And of course, you don’t have to go every time!