No matter who you are, any international conference can be an overwhelming experience. As with most things, the surest way to fully grasp what to do and where to go is by experiencing it. But everyone will experience a first time, so I’ve jotted down a few notes from past experience that helped me here in Istanbul, and will hopefully lower the learning curve for you at your next international conference.
Business cards. Make sure to have plenty. The moment you meet someone the cards come out, and it’s the best way to stay in touch with key people. If you’re particularly organized, you may want to sort your cards at the end of each day by field or profession.
Keep track. In line with the business cards, it’s always good to keep record: Who did you meet? What was said? You don’t have to be writing for a blog to appreciate the value of a record of the sessions you attended. You never know when that panel’s discussion might be useful for a thesis, and you'll need to dig up some notes to find exactly the quote (and hopefully contact) you’re looking for.
CSOs. The civil society crowd tends to be extremely friendly, helpful, and keen to meet. My badge said I needed to sit with the press, but I based myself in the civil society lounge instead. You get a much closer feel of which delegates are where, where the main events are being organized, and if you’ve got good hearing you can gauge the sentiment far closer to the policy makers than if you’re closed up in the press corner or on a distant sofa in the foyer.
Money. Depending on the event, spending the entire day at the conference may be quite expensive (don’t get me started on the $17 sandwiches!). But if you keep your eyes open you can also get by quite easily. Make sure to have a good breakfast at home or your hotel before starting your day. You’ll be moving around quite a bit and you’ll definitely need the energy. Water is usually offered for free throughout the halls. Many sessions will offer refreshments, snacks, and some, if they’re scheduled during the delicate 12:00 – 13:00 slot, can even offer a packed lunch, courtesy of the organizers.
A plan and an up-to-date schedule of events. Depending on your goals for the conference, your days can be completely full or completely empty. Given the relatively short space of time in which you will have to accomplish a great deal, time management is crucial. And good time management can only be assured if you have a plan for each day. If you’re with a group, make sure to meet the evening before to go over what you want to do the next day. Of course in order for this to be done effectively, make sure you have the most up-to-date schedule of events as well – schedules change all the time depending on changing availability of speakers or venues, so don’t think that because you highlighted a session last week it will still be there. And remember that once the conference starts, the online schedule is often not updated until after that day is done. Your best bet will be to ask for the most updated schedule from the civil society or information booths. Sometimes a fresh stack of the next day’s schedule will be offered in a designated spot each day around 4 – 5pm.
Make friends. Remember these events are all about who you know. Being rude, haughty or self-righteous may ease your ego, but it won’t get you into that meeting. Make friends with conference staff, and they will be happy to bend the odd rule for you. The press also often receive advance communiqués or information on guest speakers before they are fully confirmed. A few contacts in the press room can go a long way toward making your daily schedule function like clockwork.
Collect publications. Free and priced publications will certainly be available. These are often excellent resources of a myriad of interests and agendas. Try to collect a representative mix of journals, magazines, and newspapers. You never know when or how they will come in handy for a future project.
Punctuality. Better to be 15 minutes early than 5 minutes late. I don’t really think I have to elaborate on this, except to add: you wouldn’t appreciate if someone walked into the middle of your session while you were delivering a presentation, so do your best to avoid it during theirs. Besides, it increases the chances you’ll be called on during the Q&A.
Don’t take no for an answer. Think of the conference as a maze: there is always a way out. Can’t go down that elevator? Try the stairs. Escalator blocked for access? Maybe there’s a side entrance. Did someone say no? Ask their supervisor. Just remember to always be polite, explain your situation clearly, and relay the importance of your presence at that meeting. Of course it always helps to show up early. Nobody likes late-comers.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make your presence in the sessions count! If there is a question and answer session and you need clarity, ask! Just remember to be concise. Those rambling comments are no more interesting just because they’re coming from you. Many people will simply be waiting for their turn to speak, so be considerate. Also, sessions are often chaired by the same people. If one chair likes the way you asked your question, they’re more likely to give you the floor when you encounter one another again. On that note, make sure to greet and thank the chairs after sessions where they give you the floor. Don’t forget the business card!
Walk confidently. You can always tell who knows where they’re going, and who is just wandering around. The confident walkers will get where they need to go with relatively few hassles. The timid ones will get stopped, questioned, and maybe denied access. If you look like you are supposed to be there, chances are you’ll be allowed.
Be willing to strike up conversations. Nobody comes to these conferences to enjoy the scenery, everyone is there to meet and network. Did someone sit next to you and not introduce themselves? Don’t be shy and say hello! You never know who you will meet.
Have fun. The often overlooked, yet most important piece of advice! Conferences will come and go, but nothing that goes on at them is worth getting wound up, stressed out, or losing hope over. Whether you are there to learn, listen, network or whatever, just keep a positive attitude and you’ll find yourself with a wealth of incredible memories by the time of the closing session.
And with that, that’s it from me for the 2009 World Bank Meetings in Istanbul. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing. Thank you to all those who commented and contacted me, we’ll be staying in touch. Until then, keeping thinking!