by Leah Hinds, Executive Director, Charleston Hub
Attending conferences can be a great way to learn new skills and concepts, network with friends and colleagues, and get ahead in your career. But it can also be a lot of work and a little intimidating, especially if you’re not used to traveling for business. Lately I’ve had the privilege of attending several industry conferences and meetings, with more coming up on the schedule. There are a lot of you travel veterans out there who go to MANY more events than I do. I’m sure there won’t be anything that’s news for you here, but I thought it might be helpful to put together some travel tips for those who are new to the world of conference travel.
To make travel as stress-free as possible and to get better rates, book your flight, hotel, and conference registration well ahead of time. There are plenty of travel websites and resources out there for flights and hotels or other accommodations, but be sure to check the conference/event website first to see if they offer group discounts for attendees. You should also check the conference agenda closely before booking your travel; you don’t want to miss the opening keynote or reception because your flight arrives too late! Same for your departure time – don’t miss the closing keynote because you have to leave early!
Speaking of checking the agenda, conference schedules can be overwhelming, often with many sessions happening at the same time. Review the program ahead of time and create your personalized agenda so you don’t waste time on site trying to figure out where to go next.
Start thinking about the destination itself and making a plan for your down-time. When you’re checking the agenda, look to see where you can slot in some time to yourself. If you’ll have a morning or afternoon off, what are the can’t-miss sightseeing attractions you want to hit? Some popular locations require booking tickets ahead of time, so be sure you don’t miss out. And if you’re like me, you’ll also want to research the food situation: what meals are provided by the conference? What meals will need to be purchased separately? What are some good restaurants near the conference venue? What’s worth the longer walk or booking a ride service to experience? (I have celiac disease, which means I have to plan around restaurants with reliable gluten free options, so this is always one of the first things I do.)
Be sure to sign up for travel rewards programs! I’m loyal to Marriott Bonvoy and American Airlines (because I often fly out of Charlotte – look for the airport hub closest to you when deciding which airline rewards program to join). You can build points and get rewards for your travel pretty quickly if you go a few times a year. You can also look into travel rewards credit cards, but I’m not a financial advisor so do your homework to see if these are a good idea for your situation.
Bonus Tip: If you’re attending more than one conference/event in a year, keep a list, folder, or even a spreadsheet of the travel arrangements. That way you can see at a glance whether airfare/hotel has been booked, whether you need to submit for reimbursement, etc. It can get confusing when you’re making arrangements for several trips within a short time span – I’ve double booked myself in a hotel before because I forgot I’d already made reservations! You can use this same list to help keep you organized on the trip and share your details with an emergency contact.
Be strategic about what you bring with you. You want to be prepared for the conference, but not overpacked and lugging around a large heavy suitcase unnecessarily. Create a packing list based on the events you’ll be attending, and pack items that can serve double duty.
Try to stick to carry-on luggage – this will save you so much time! You don’t have to wait around to check in your bags, then wait around at the carousel for them to come out after the flight, and don’t risk them getting lost in transit. Keep it simple, pack light, and stick to carry-on. I always bring a small suitcase for the overhead bin and a backpack that will fit under the seat for my “personal item.” You can use the backpack for your laptop or tablet and personal items (read: SNACKS!) for the flight, plus your toiletries or additional clothing. It’s amazing how much you can fit in one suitcase and backpack, especially if you use packing cubes (or for a low-budget alternative use large Ziplock bags!) and roll your clothes instead of folding them.
This tip may seem counterintuitive, but it has been a game changer for me to plan my wardrobe around my shoes. (Side Note: I first heard about this concept from The Lazy Genius but I can’t find a citation, unfortunately. I’m thinking it was an Instagram story. Regardless, if you don’t already know about her corner of the internet, I highly recommend you check her out!) Traveling with carry-on luggage limits the available space for bulky things like shoes. For me, this means wearing a pair of casual shoes on the plane and packing one pair of business shoes that are appropriate for the event, plus maybe a pair of more formal shoes if needed for a fancy reception or dinner. So my shoe choice dictates my wardrobe that will go with it, and not the other way around. If I plan my outfits first then I’d end up packing a different pair of shoes for each one.
Along the same lines of letting your shoes dictate your wardrobe, the concept of a capsule wardrobe means that each item you pack can mix and match with the others to allow for more outfit combinations. If you search “business casual travel capsule wardrobe” on Pinterest or TikTok you’ll get a ton of ideas. (Check the conference website for an FAQ page or ask someone who’s attended before to see if there is a dress code, but most events in our industry are business casual.)
Bonus tip: try on your clothes before you pack them. I know, I know, this might be overkill, but I always thank myself later when I take the time to do it. And extra bonus tip: always pack a sweater or light jacket in the summer for chilly meeting rooms!
Travel can really take a toll on you, so it’s important to take care of yourself. Be sure to stay hydrated (pack a refillable water bottle), eat healthy snacks, and try to get sufficient sleep while you’re away. I don’t sleep well away from home, so I use a white noise app on my phone, a sleep mask, and lavender pillow spray to spoil myself (I never thought I’d be so “extra” but here we are). I also take multivitamins and immune boosting gummies for extra support. If you’re an introvert who needs some extra down time after being around people all day, see if the conference venue offers a Quiet Room or Prayer/Meditation Room, or schedule a solo lunch break to give yourself some space to recharge.
After the conference ends and you make it back home, take some time to go through your notes and the business cards you’ve collected. Make new connections on LinkedIn or other social media accounts with the folks you met. Send out a few “nice to meet you” emails or notes to speakers saying how you enjoyed their presentations, or what you took away from their talk. Share the conference recordings, programs, slides, or handouts with colleagues who might find them interesting. And, speaking from a conference organizer’s perspective, be sure to fill out the attendee evaluation! It really does help with shaping the next event and we love to hear your feedback.
Attending conferences can be a great way to make new connections, learn about new trends, and stay up-to-date in your career. In-person networking is especially valuable to people who are new to the industry or who have made recent job changes. Don’t let conference travel overwhelm you or stress you out. I hope these tips will help you as you prepare for your next trip. As Rick Steves says, “Keep on traveling!” And be sure to let me know in the comments if you have any tried-and-true travel tips to share!
We have found it helpful to carry a small scale to make sure your bags aren’t overweight.(Overweight charges aren’t cheap!!) Our scale is spring loaded, and you just put it through the bag handle and lift it up. Just Google “baggage scale” or “luggage scale” and you will find lots of them.
Thanks Don, that’s a great tip!
These are some great tips, Leah -especially for those just getting to their first professional conferences. Along the lines of “staying healthy” I’d add that it’s a challenge to maintain a healthy diet on the road. It can be tough to get a daily contribution of fruits, vegetables and fiber. My tip is to look beyond the restaurants in close proximity to the convention center or conference hotel. One of the first things I do is go on a map app to see what types of healthy restaurants are in walking distance. I’m looking for non-chain cafes, salad/wrap places, etc (not chains like Subway, etc). I will also do a search on “groceries/supermarkets” near me. I want to eat healthy but I don’t want to overpay to do so. I find that local grocers and supermarkets can offer affordable healthy options, some of which are pre-made and easy to grab and go (they often cater to the lunch crowd). Just as an example, for ACRL in Pittsburgh, at the lunch break the few places within 5 minutes of the convention center were immediately packed with the conference crowd. I walked 10-15 minutes to Market Square and found a great local grocery that made healthy salads and wraps and offered a selection of fresh fruits. While it can be a challenge to maintain your health dining routine, looking beyond the non-traditional options may be your best option. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but….avoid the convention center food if at all possible.
Very good information, thanks Steven!
Solid tips. I do have a small one to add. A tip I learned from my dad was if you need to wear a suit or a blazer, wear it on the plane. They can get wrinkled in your bag, and they tend to keep you the right temperature when on the plane.
Great tip! I just unpacked a wrinkled blazer from my suitcase yesterday, unfortunately. I’ll do this next time!
These are terrific tips, Leah! Planning my wardrobe around shoes is going to be a life-changer for me. In the “stay healthy” category, I’ll add a tip for responsible enjoyment of alcoholic libations. Conferencing can be exhausting and we all need to wind down at the end of a long day. Conferences may be the only time we see friends and colleagues from around the world. Many conference organizers and vendors offer sponsored happy hours and cocktail events. This can all be a lot of fun, but it can also lead to unintentional booze overload and incredibly inconvenient hangovers. What seems like a good idea at night can come back to waylay or even ruin the whole next day. This doesn’t mean you have to forego these events, but I do suggest some responsible drinking tactics. I try to plan out my evenings accordingly. If I know I’m going to happy hour, then dinner, then a drink with friends, I’ll plan my drinks for the whole evening ahead of time and then really try to stick to that plan. Also, drink lots of water in between alcoholic bevs, and make sure you eat solid foods. These may seem like no-brainers, but after a couple of harrowing hangovers in my first years of conferencing I can tell you they make all the difference. Have fun out there and enjoy those perks responsibly. You’ll have a much better conference experience all around!
Yes, this is such a great tip! And such a struggle with all the free booze available in most situations. Enjoy responsibly!