It had been a long week at work but I was looking forward to my favorite annual conference, Diversity Abroad, and travel was going smoothly.
Until my suitcase broke on the security screening belt.
“Whose is this?” asked the TSA agent, holding up the stray wheel.
Even the most confident travelers like myself aren’t always prepared. But after decades of travel, including attending multiple conferences, here are 10 tips for students, professionals, and even the better-traveled of us.
Before you leave:
- Tuck extra business cards into your bag. At least 20. Why? You may run out, or worse, forget them. There’s nothing worse than the sinking feeling after leaving your office and – half way home – realizing you’ve forgotten the most important piece of paper you’ll take.
- This one’s for the students: if you don’t have a business card, design “networking cards.” Networking business cards are cards introducing you and any relevant information (e.g., “Social media expert” or “International educator”). Marketing product company Vistaprint has been printing affordable, attractive cards for as long as I can remember; my student assistant Monica printed with them and brought these cards to conferences. Another student assistant, Alesia, selected graphic-design company Canva to design her business cards. Both were excellent choices.
- Bring a safety pin, button, or magnetic name badge to attach your conference badge. Nothing is more characteristic of a conference than a name badge that hangs over your stomach. These lanyards make it impossible to see people’s names when they are sitting at a table. Avoid the awkwardness and attach your name badge to your blazer lapel with a pin, button, or your own name badge. Think of it as a way to make your name more memorable, or even political (“Black Lives Matter” button, anyone?).
- Bring multiple dollar bills. It’s the end of a long day of sessions and you are now networking with colleagues over a glass of wine or sparkling water at the evening reception open bar. Though your drink was free, the bartenders may be working without tips. If you see a tip jar, contribute a couple of dollars or more. A good rule of thumb is to bring $5 per day for events such as these. This Consumerist article breaks down open-bar etiquette.
When you’re traveling:
- Extra hour? Take a hike. While there are multiple ways to pass time during travel, few are healthier than walking. More airports should adopt Phoenix’s approach, with its “Sky Harbor Fitness Trail,” which actually encourages you to visit “the ends of all seven concourses.” And why not explore? Walking allows you to embrace curiosity. On a recent flight, I took a walk between terminals, exploring the contemporary art and sliding door entrances of elite airline lounges. It was an exciting way to spend 20 minutes, and I got in a brief cardio activity before my 6-hour flight.
- Go offline. My two most-used travel technologies are for fun and work: Google and Netflix. What do they have in common? Both can be accessed offline, critical when you’re relying on slow or expensive wifi. When I am writing a paper or editing a presentation, I’ll open the files I need in Google Docs or Slides and mark them as “available offline.” And when I need an entertainment break, I’ll open Netflix and watch a favorite show or movie that I already downloaded. Wifi may be overrated after all.
When you’ve arrived:
- Take time to travel. Choose a place to stay within walking distance of a local site. Recently I stayed at a place that required a walk across the country’s oldest park, Boston Common, to reach the conference. And in my favorite U.S. conference city, Denver, I’ve frequently extended my post-conference stay to hike locally, like I did one year at Pikes Peak. Then there’s always local excursions; once, after a conference in New York, I took the train to the Bronx and tried my first-ever plate of Ghanaian food. This may be your only time visiting this city; go and explore.
And to improve your memory:
- Annotate business cards. One of the best ways to remember a conference contact is to write identifiable information that you can refer to while following up later. For instance, I may write that one person has had experience designing embedded faculty-led programs, something I’d like to learn more about, and that another person is a hiker like me and wants trail tips for their first visit to Los Angeles. Simply writing on the back of business cards helps us boost memory recall later, essential when you meet many people.
- Meaningfully follow up when you return. The first day back in the office, you’re going to want to begin responding to the avalanche of emails and tasks that accrued. However, it is essential to take that first week to write up your notes about the conference and connect with others. I take these first few days to write notes in a Word file and reach out to two sets of contacts: 1) new people I’d like to talk to more in the future; and 2) people I’ve met in the past that I want to keep in contact with. I send LinkedIn requests, LinkedIn messages, and emails, and always refer to a specific thing I remembered from our conversation (a topic, a cup of coffee, shoes, anything really). In the Word document, I keep track of my contacts and when I messaged them. Approximately six months later (usually in November or December), I send them a second message and ask to meet up with them at the next year’s conference. If you’re like me, finding the concept of “networking” a tiring, transactional act, think of it as building a community unique to you. Sometimes you will learn from others, and sometimes they will learn from you. You’ll also make friends. Finally, please read this article on following up after a conference.
Finally, if the cost of conferences overwhelms you:
- You can attend a conference for free or next-to-free. How? First, registration costs: you can volunteer, apply as media, or present (there’s usually a presenter discount). See this excellent Penny Hoarder post for more. For example, the annual NAFSA (international education) conference allows its volunteers to attend for free if they volunteer for 40 hours, or – if they’re short on time – get 50% to 75% off the registration for 20 to 30 hours of volunteering, respectively. To save on accommodation costs, there’s always Couchsurfing (where, in Los Angeles alone, there are over 80,000 people to stay with for free). Meals and flights are typically unavoidable costs, but as a former student I made the most of receptions and air miles.
With these tips in mind, I hope you’ll be better prepared for the next conference you attend. And remember that even well-traveled people break their suitcase wheels.
Nothing a screwdriver couldn’t fix.