Five Tips For A Better ALA Conference Experience

It’s now mid-June and the ALA annual conference will be upon us in no time at all. If you plan to be in Chicago now is the time to start thinking about your conference strategy. I hope you followed my advice on getting the hotel you want (see the third item) – and that you actually got it. Now that the hotel is out of the way I’d like to share five ideas for having a better conference experience. I’m certainly not the first blogger to offer their tips for having a better ALA conference experience, but these tips are based on an experience I had for the first time at the 2008 ALA in Anaheim – and no – it didn’t involve any Disney characters.

For the Anaheim conference I volunteered to be an ALA Ambassador. So what do ALA Ambassadors do anyway? That means I needed to e-mail a few first-time attendees to give them my sage advice on how to have a better conference experience. I had an exchange with a first-timer from down under. I also did a two-hour stint at the Ambassador’s Desk, and I wore a badge to let first-timers know I there to help out and answer questions. It may sound dreadful but it was actually a good eye opener – seeing ALA from the perspective of the newcomer. So here are my tips – hopefully not the obvious ones you’ve heard before. You conference veterans should feel free to add your own tips.

1. You will be overwhelmed by the amount of programs and activities. Try not to be overwhelmed. You can’t do it all or even close to that. The best thing to do is plan ahead to get a sense of how to spend your time. I met one first-timer at the Ambassador’s Desk who told me she was going to figure out what to do each morning. Between the conference previews you get from ALA and Library Journal – and loads of e-mail announcements – I recommend planning your conference in advance, and making “Plan B” choices in case your first choice doesn’t work out (e.g., you realize you are two miles away and your first choice program starts in 10 minutes).

2. If you’ve never been to the exhibit hall, plan to set aside about 4 or 5 hours to cover it adequately. Yes, if you can hang around till Tuesday you are more likely to find publishers getting rid of their display books at deep discounts. Check the hours of the Exhibits. It may be ending earlier on Tuesday than you expect. [Note: I think it is over at noon on Tuesday – a few hours earlier than in past years].

3. Don’t carry the whole conference program book if you can avoid it. You’ll start feeling the weight later in the day. Just tear out the pages you need (like the hotel abbreviations page) for each day.

4. Bring some cab money with you. Believe me, this is a good reason to raid your piggy bank. I know cabs cost more than the free shuttle buses, but there may be a time when you need to get somewhere fast and it’s too far to walk – and if it’s hot – wait a minute – if it’s ALA annual you can guarantee it will be hot and humid – you’ll be a sweat puddle by the time you get there. The shuttles are great but sometimes there can be quite a wait. It’s all part of being prepared. It’s worth it. Sharing a cab may save you some money. Ask folks waiting in the bus line if anyone is interested in sharing a cab ride to your destination. All they can do is ignore you – and think you have money coming out the wazoo.

5. Another first timer asked me what programs he should attend – or what I’d recommend. I declined to make a recommendation not knowing what his interests were. The obvious choices, I suggested, were related to his work setting. But I also suggested going to at least one or two sessions completely unrelated to his library type. I’ve learned some useful things at sessions for public and school librarians. Go hear a big-name speaker you’ve never heard before. Take a chance on something different. You may be pleasantly rewarded. If you get there and the first 15 minutes are a bust, leave and go to your Plan B program.

So there are five things you can do to have a better ALA Conference experience. Use the comments to add another. If you do make it to ALA annual and you spot me, please stop and say hello. I always look forward to meeting and chatting with ACRLog readers.

10 thoughts on “Five Tips For A Better ALA Conference Experience”

  1. Thanks for writing this! I’ll be attending ALA for the first time this summer & am very excited, but also a teeny worried I’ll ‘miss’ something. Glad to hear advice from the pros.

  2. Beware the Tuesday no-shows at the Exhibits. Although there are supposed to be rules prohibiting exhibitors from packing up early, many of them begin to remove items from their tables, packing up the swag (give-aways), and even taking down their exhibits one or two — or several — hours before the exhibits end. And some just skip the last day.

  3. Wear comfortable shoes! Dress for warm weather – natural fibers! A backpack is sometimes easier to carry than a tote bag. Don’t try to fill every minute of every day – take some breaks, see something of the city besides the convention center!

  4. If possible, plan to arrive a bit early for the programs you are most interested in. Some rooms get crowded, some seats have poor sightlines. Spend the extra minutes schmoozing and networking with the other early arrivers – it’s one way to meet attending members who (obviously) share at least one interest with you.

  5. There is nothing more precious than practical and sensible information for conference goers. If I may add a few to the blog, I would apply my buffet dining rule: Scan the entire buffet area first before filling up your plate from the first table. Having a better conference experience has a direct relationship with the preparation and the environmental scanning of the conference venue. Let me elaborate:

    1. First things first: Do some environmental scanning on the first day. Pay attention to these: Where is the bulletin board? How is the program change, location change notified? Where and how can you voice your concerns about the conference? This activity would be useful in conjunction with the detailed planning guide of a conference. For example, I plan out the program, time, and location information using the MS Calendar function. This list can be an extremely handy guide complementing the conference program book.

    2. If the conference program you’re attending is not up to your expectations for whatever reasons, you may have, get up and leave for the next session. It could be awkward and uncomfortable to leave in the midst of a presentation. Strategically, I tend to sit near the door for that reason. If the program is engaging, you can always move toward the center or even sit on the floor.

    3. Lastly, all these activities would not be possible without having a sensible pair of conference shoes. Whether you are an experienced conference gore or a newbie, you will need sensible shoes because you will be walking a lot and standing on your feet for a long time and this is part of being prepared. Bring with you a bottle of water. Wear clothing with many pockets for pen, pads, business cards, etc.

  6. Thanks a million for all the information. I hope ALA has a small, summarised conference program this year in addition to the big one, as many of us do not like the big, heavy program. Once again, Thank you. See you soon, God willing.

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