Thoughts On Higher Education Conferences

Recently, I got to attend a higher education conference for our state. I was one of the presenters and had a really great time listening to what others are doing in colleges and universities around us. I’ve been to several conferences, usually as a presenter, and here are some thoughts I’ve had over the years. Let me say first, that the conference we attended this past week was really done well. For a small budget conference, we got a lot of high budget value in the talks and vendors and I would much rather attend another conference like this than some of the bigger ones I’ve been to. It was great being able to drive to the conference and have it only a couple hours from home and have the quality that we did.

Talks

This is the meat and potatoes of any conference. For those of us in higher ed, we often have two types of conferences we get. The first is the one I prefer, a conference that has others who work in higher ed talking about projects they’ve been working on. Sometimes, these are success stories, other times failures with lessons learned, but they are always informative and helpful. This is how the conference I just went to was. It was great!

The second is like a conference I went to last year. It was mostly vendors speaking. Those of us who were speaking from higher ed institutions were actually put up for speaking at the same times in the three competing tracks. That meant, they only had about 6 speakers from higher ed in two sessions and the rest of the sessions were vendors. (I’m sure I’m exaggerating slightly here, but that is how it felt at the time). Since I was one of the speakers, I only got to see one other talk from a peer and the rest were vendors.

Oftentimes, vendors have helpful things to say. They have solutions to problems we’re experiencing. But those solutions always come with a price tag attached. The difference between a vendor or a peer from another institution speaking is that they both might offer a solution, but the peer will often tell you about the solution they found that requires little to no budget. For those of us who work in higher education, we know how important it is finding a solution that is budget neutral or maybe even positive! Peers will also give talks on how to do things better, or new ideas they’re trying with training their students, or other neat ideas that just require a different way of looking at things we’re already doing than fixing a problem. Peers are the ones who challenge us to try things in new ways.

Vendors

These are the companies who often pay for the conference. These folks are invariably friendly and are a great resource for finding solutions. Yes, their solutions will cost money. But it’s often better to find a good, workable solution to a problem we’re having than to try to re-invent the wheel by doing the work ourselves. One other benefit to having the vendors attend conferences is also having a good way to talk to someone involved in a company you already do business with. These folks have heard concerns and problems we might be having with their product and they will contact the company to help us find solutions to what is going on. I’ve seen vendors who hear an issue and later, their product comes out with a feature to do exactly what attendees at conferences have been asking for. Depending on the company, sometimes the vendor attendees are the ones who actually design the solution and if you meet with them at your institution, you end up just re-kindling a previous relationship at the conference. It’s a great two-way communication that is often overlooked. Plus, they usually give away cute little toys that The Boy loves. Thank you to the vendors, we really do appreciate you.

Conference Locations

Conferences often shoot for the big cities. Vegas, Orlando, Anaheim, all come to mind as prime conference locations. But those conferences I’ve been to that were in smaller cities, such as Chattanooga or Ithaca,  have often been just as interesting. It’s the content of the conference that most people are really interested in. Yes, we’d all like to have an evening to visit and site see. But if the conference doesn’t have good quality material, it can feel like a waste of time. That being said, I do love an Orlando conference since it is fairly easy to tack on a later flight and visit Disney….. Yes, I have decided. All conferences should be in Orlando or Anaheim.

Hotels

It is always great when the conference can find a pleasant hotel where we won’t have to travel to the conference building from a separate hotel. Bonus, if the hotel is fairly large, you can still get most of your 10,000 step walking goal if you attend all the sessions. Sitting all day can be tiring and walking from one end of a large hotel to the other can help wake you up.

Food

As a general rule, conference food usually stinks. It doesn’t matter if they use the hotel or if a vendor gets a good restaurant to cater one evening, the food is not going to be great. This is nothing new. It’s almost impossible to have good, hot food for hundreds of people that is kept perfectly cooked over Sterno.

The worst conference meal I ever had was where the organizers tried going high-end. I’d been to this conference a couple years before. The meal at the first one was a boxed lunch: sub sandwich, chips, cookie, drink.  Everyone was fine with this because it let us take the lunch and find quiet corners to chat with small groups. At the second conference, we had a sit down meal. Hotel staff brought us our meals. The only entree available was cubed tofu in a brown sauce with some type of vegetable I didn’t recognize. The entire meal would have fit on the palm of my hand. The presentation of the plate was great and very fancy, but even the lone vegetarian at our table thought the food was not good. Needless to say, most of us decided to not eat our expensive, conference provided meal and went out and spent our own money to get a restaurant meal afterwards. Those of us who had been at the previous conference said we would have preferred the boxed lunch. This meal did have one positive: it brought all the conference attendees together in a common joke the rest of the time, so it was a relationship builder, but maybe not in the way it was originally intended.

Lesson for conference organizers: Don’t try to impress us. If you must feed us, feed us something simple and easy. People who are attending a conference are usually on either a per diem rate or no rate depending on if the conference provides meals or not. Personally, I would much prefer to have a conference not provide me a meal so I could get a per diem rate and go out in a small group with other attendees, or even by myself, to eat at a restaurant and get something I know I’ll like.

Free Time

Every minute of the day does not need to be scheduled. I know there are some of those really out-going folks who enjoy meeting new people and talking to them for hours. My husband is one of those. Drives me insane. Birds-of-a-feather sessions are great to attend, but for those of us who are more on the introverted end of the spectrum, we are TIRED at the end of a day meeting people. We need some downtime. Don’t make me feel guilty by ducking out of a planned social gathering because I’m to the point where I don’t want to talk to another human being for a few hours. It is exhausting being outgoing for some people. Many people who meet me are surprised when I tell them I’m an introvert because I am pretty outgoing when it comes to meeting and talking to people. That is because I’m forcing myself to be outgoing. But after doing that all day, I’m pooped. Give me some time to re-charge, guilt-free please!

Final Thoughts

Higher ed conferences have different purposes to different folks. Some, I know, see them as excuses to get out of work and do something fun. Those are the folks that you never see at the sessions. Gladly, these people are pretty rare. For the vast majority of us, the higher ed conference is one of the best ways we can connect with our peers in person, get good ideas to take back to help our students, and get a bit of a handle on some of the new things that are out there. They are professional opportunities that we see as ways to improve our schools. We really appreciate when our departments are able to send us to a conference. We see it as a great way to research improvements and find solutions to problems we’ve been having. These are huge amounts of work for the folks who organize them and all of the people who volunteer to do this have my respect. The conference might not always be perfect, but the folks who plan them have put a lot of effort into them and these are people who are doing that on top of their regular jobs at colleges and universities. Thank you to everyone who has done this!

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