Friday, March 01, 2013

Training Magazine Conference Experience

     Last week, I became an official professional grown-up person and embarked on my first business trip. The Training Magazine conference held in Orlando wound up being a fantastic opportunity, and one that I am seriously grateful to have had the chance to experience. Prior to my departure, though, I'll admit I was incredibly nervous. Thoughts like - What counts as business casual attire? How would I know what to do? Who would I talk to? - swirled through my head. Thankfully, my boss, Trish Uhl, is beyond fabulous and helped me every step of the way. However, I know that there are plenty of baby minions who aren't blessed enough to have such guidance and support. That's why I'm here: to review my experience and offer some insight for those of you in the "completely lost and totally unguided" category.

     My only basis for comparison for this upcoming adventure was my experience with sorority rush in college. It sounds bananas, and I didn't want to admit it out-loud to my seasoned veteran of a mentor. I could hear it now, "Well, I'm glad that you remember talking to a number of college-aged women over the course of five days about a variety of, um, pressing social matters, but this a conference where the most important people in the field come and interact with one another." So, obviously, I kept this connection to myself, even after it proved to be immensely helpful. Rush is all about putting on a good face, learning about other people, and representing the best your organization has to offer, just like I would be required to do at the Training Mag conference. So, for survival purposes, I applied my best rush tricks (engaging other people; talking enthusiastically about my organization; attempting to be charming) over the three days, and was pretty successful. That's the secret - just be warm and open and it'll go better than you could ever expect. 

     My two biggest fears before the conference were: how do I make sure I'm dressed appropriately? and what if I can't find anyone to talk to? I erred on the side of caution with the attire. Yes, I was told business casual included khaki pants and polo shirts (two things I don't own on principle), but I knew that a pair of tailored black slacks and a shell with a sweater is always a safe bet. I was right, and was reminded of this when I saw a girl my age wearing a crop top and platform flip flops into the conference. Don't be that girl. Go with the black pants. As for my fear of awkward loneliness, I was redeemed by the fact that every single person at the conference is there to talk to strangers, and not in the way our parents warned us about when we were kids on the playground. People are there to promote themselves, their companies, and their products, and they are surprisingly interested in hearing about yours. Thankfully, I discovered this an hour in to my conference journey, as I sat alone at a very large round table, picking at a Caesar Salad that came from a box. I watched as literally hundreds of people walked by, and I saw them seeing my solo situation. As I flashed back to middle school and many lunches spent alone, I realized this was much worse because I was wearing a lanyard that advertised not only my name, but my company. I was already a failure. And then, I wasn't. A wonderful woman named Mary came and sat with me and we chatted for thirty minutes. Because of her, I realized that people didn't see me as weird, but as an opening to meet someone new.

     The most important lesson that resonated throughout my trip was that of awareness. You will meet people who are incredibly powerful, people who are disinterested in the present moment, and those who are unexpectedly fun for such a potentially stuffy environment. The key is knowing you situation, the context of what's happening, and your companions. There are things you can say over dinner after the day is over with friends that you've made, that you should not mention in the middle of a keynote address to the random person next to you. Be aware of your presence and your word choices - they will impact the perception people have of you, and the impression they will take away. Know that social media may not be appropriate in all conference situations. Some companies may not allow their employees to indulge in an adult beverage after a long day. So, tweeting a picture of them holding a birthday cake martini could be harmful to their career beyond what you may initially think. What I'm saying is, step back and really consider the possible ramifications of that status update. Finally, with this awareness, know that it is essential to reach out to the people that you met along the way. Acknowledge your interactions, thank them for their time, and don't be afraid to send that follow-up email after the conference. The relationships you initiate are why you are there, and to allow them to drop off after that first contact is a shame. By following up, you can allow these professional relationships to grow, and I promise your boss will be thrilled with the new business possibilities.

Pack your bags, leave your crop tops and insecurities at home, and enjoy your trip!

~Katelind Hays 

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