Conference Summit

Surviving the Summit: Arriving

Last week we debuted a new guest blogger, Geoff Hart. Geoff is a veteran of many conferences, including a number of STC Summits. We’ll be publishing a weekly post from him on Surviving the Summit: tips on how to get the most out of the Summit, or any conference you attend.

Plan to arrive early and leave late, particularly for conventions held at times of year when flights are routinely delayed (e.g., winter, hurricane season, any flights passing through Chicago’s O’Hare airport). Apart from providing flex time to recover from missed or delayed flights, to overcome jet lag, and to get to know the venue, you’ll have a chance to visit a new city at someone else’s expense. I always book a vacation day so I can see the sights or visit local friends. Exploring the host city before, between, and after presentations also provides time to absorb what you’ve learned. You can’t do that if you’re constantly accumulating new facts and not giving them time to settle into comfortable patterns, thereby transforming short-term thoughts into long-term memories.

The afternoon or evening before the conference is when you should develop your plan of attack. (Preparing a strong preliminary plan will support your business case for attending the conference, but speaker schedules often change before the program is finalized.) Pick sessions that are most relevant to you, including those you used to make your case for attending. That’s Plan A. However, be sure to have Plan B and maybe Plan C available: speakers get sick, are called away by family crises, or sometimes describe their presentation poorly. Sometimes they’re just not very inspiring. If you spot the problem early, and if you’ve found another option just down the corridor, you can jog there quickly enough to catch most of the important points.

Learn the lay of the land before the sessions. You’ll need to know where the key rooms are—including bathrooms, since you’ll probably be drinking tons of coffee—and figure out how to efficiently move between them. Well-designed conferences provide ample time to move between sessions, but speakers sometimes run long and many organizers leave insufficient time between sessions. Moreover, you might want to waylay someone before they leave, or you might get snagged yourself. It can take a few moments to arrange time to chat later before you can move on to the next session.

Plan to attend some presentations that aren’t central to your interests, and embrace serendipity. Occasionally, I’ve recorded the wrong room number or organizers shifted speakers to new rooms to accommodate overflow crowds, and I’ve found myself listening to subjects that unexpectedly became real mind-stretchers. As Robert Heinlein noted, “specialization is for insects.” The more you know about a broad range of subjects, the more mentally flexible you’ll be—and the better you’ll be able to respond to unforeseen challenges.

Next week: Getting the maximum benefit from presentations.

Geoff Hart is the grizzled veteran of dozens of conferences, and has emerged exhausted (but mostly wiser) from this experience. Visit him online at

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