Of air-conditioned ballrooms, name tag lanyards, and drink tickets–and whether or not conference-going is worth it.
Let’s begin with the setting: an opening keynote session, held in a wide hotel ballroom, the kind created by throwing open the Godzilla-sized accordion dividers that normally parse one cavernous hall into smaller ones, filled with rows and rows of chairs, all on top of carpet patterned in inoffensive colors, all designed to hide stains and wear. A stage is set up at the front with a podium and colored LED lighting for effect, framed by two giant projection screens on either side.
There are about 500 of us, and most all of us fit into roughly one of a handful of categories: community college fundraisers or marketers, or board members, presidents or administrators with those responsibilities. We are there to learn the latest tricks of the trade, to hear stories of successful programs, to network. We are from all over the country, from big and small schools, rural, suburban, and urban, historic and new, and so forth.
Professional development of any strain has never particularly been my cup of tea. Maybe it’s my background as a teacher, but somehow the pedagogical styles of just about every training program I’ve completed reek of elementary school-aged tactics. Which is fine, of course, if you’re working with ten year-olds, but a bit demeaning otherwise.
And conferences haven’t always been my favorite things, either. When I traveled for my job, I would occasionally end up booked in a hotel that was also hosting a conference of some sort. It made for fantastic people watching, particularly in the evening. After a day full of sitting in over-air conditioned mini-ballrooms named after trees or geographic features, hundreds of lanyard-wearing attendees were released into some kind of cocktail reception, sponsored by a kind, deep-pocketed vendor. They flocked, drink tickets in hand, to the open bar. The men loosened their neckties, the women slipped on the flats they’d carried around in their pocketbooks, and everyone munched on hotel-grade appetizers.
As a completely unaffiliated hotel guest, I was never welcome at these conference events, but that never stopped me from occasionally poking my head in and glancing around. I was something of a crasher, made all the more obvious by my lack of a lanyard. Once, I found myself at a major pharmaceutical company’s annual sales conference, where they’d scheduled an honest-to-God country music star to play a private concert to the thousand or so guests who had flown in for two days of training. I courageously hung in for four or five songs before slipping back out into the overly wide hallway, filled with the rest of the conference-goers, who were sipping free wine and pecking out emails on their phones.
So it wasn’t without some experience that I found myself bearing a lanyard of my own last week, wandering about the Sheraton San Diego Marina. I was standing in an outdoor event space across from the water at the end of a long day, free drink in my hand, listening to a mariachi band and chatting with a sales guy from an integrated donor analytics company. Across the high-top table from me was a senior administrator from a community college in New York. (He was only parking there to scarf down the free food, relieved that the sales guy had already engaged me to hock his product, leaving the New York guy to simply chew and nod.)
Occasionally, I ran into people I’d engaged with during a conference session, and we would pick up with the rest of a conversation, perhaps about marketing challenges for community colleges, or remarking about something we’d heard that just didn’t make sense.
Not that the conference was a waste by any means. In the course of three days, I took something like 25 pages of notes. I like to write in meetings–a way of helping myself stay focused as a listener, but also a way of hopefully keeping the sessions straight. (After a while, you can only hear so much about community college advancement before it all blends together.) As I wrote, I would occasionally star something that seemed practical or actionable, something I could bring back and potentially plug in.
In all of those pages of notes, I found 18 things I wanted to explore further. I spent some time in a coffee shop organizing them and eyeing them more critically. There’s a sort of esprit de corps that develops among conference attendees, and Stockholm syndrome can set in sometimes and cloud your judgment. What felt like a brilliant idea in the fortieth PowerPoint slide of a late afternoon session in Walnut B can start to fall apart after you’ve flown back home and sat back down under the bright florescent office lights. About a third of the ideas I came home with were about working more efficiently and effectively; another third were about fundraising outright; the rest were tips on working with board members and marketing ideas.
Was it worth three days’ time and a cross-country trek to come home with 18 ideas? Increasingly, I think the answer is yes.
Beyond the tired cliches of conference life, there is a good opportunity to learn from one another about how to do one’s job better. Ironically, these lessons seem to come more from the questions or conversations that arise during presentations than in the slide decks themselves. Good presentations are often framed as stories, and the best are told by masterful storytellers–and it’s truly helpful here that college advancement folks are typically good narrators. But so many ideas came from the discussions around those compelling stories.
And then, of course, there are incidental things–sharing that second drink ticket with the guy from Michigan who went through a doctoral program while he had young kids, connecting with the marketing person in Pennsylvania who’d mastered the art of telling student stories, picking the brain of the Virginia community college president who had figured out a budget-sustainable way of integrating athletics–these were just as instructive to me as any conference session.
Not to mention that there was something restorative about unplugging for a few days, visiting a town I’d never been to, and indulging in an out-of-office reply. Yes, this was work, but it wasn’t my regular work, and that made it energy-additive.
But by the end, we were all ready to get home. I was surprised to see a large group skipping the closing session, opting instead to chat in the long hallway outside of Harbor C, exchanging business cards, nodding along as we talked about this planned gift or that digital promotion, making one last handshake before grabbing our rolling suitcases, jumping on the airport shuttle, and wandering off to our assigned concourses and gates.
I landed in Charlotte after dark. After finding my car and paying for parking and managing a thankfully traffic-free commute back home, I was happiest to find Kel still awake, to kiss my children’s sleeping faces, to put on a t-shirt and put down my phone and rub the dogs’ heads. And today, after our stand-up meeting to plan for the week, I find myself with an extra spark of energy about getting better, about trying new things and seeing if they work. In the midst of another year of life and career, that’s worth something for sure.