Whether based in academia or industry, professionals frequently attend conferences to derive personal and professional benefits, such as a break from their routine and opportunities to network (Oppermann & Chon, 1997) or to gain feedback on projects while learning from others’ work (McCarthy, McDonald, Soroczak, Nguyen, & Rashid, 2004). Potential attendees can consider a variety of conferences and choose where to go based on several factors, such as time, money, and perceived value (Lewis & Kerr, 2012). As a 2019 first-time attendee of the Association for Business Communication international conference, I left Detroit with ideas for research and teaching plus connections with professionals in the field. However, I was able to derive such significant value from the conference by maximizing several opportunities. What follows are the auto-ethnographic impressions of a first-time ABC conference attendee, which include actionable suggestions for future newcomers. My perspective for analysis is that of current doctoral student, full-time professional and part-time instructor in higher education, and past event management professional. Reflection through multiple lenses adds to the richness of the analysis, which touches on three main themes – the welcoming ABC culture, conference organization, and access to mentorship. The positive conference experience demonstrates the power of clear visual and verbal communication, particularly in face-to-face situations.
From the time I entered the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, I felt instantly welcomed. An ABC sign greeted me almost immediately upon entering the property. The hotel employee who helped me register for my room welcomed me both to the Westin and to the ABC conference. The next morning, my own conference registration experience was seamless. I was immediately impressed with the well-organized check-in area, which offered a hard copy printed program and other helpful conference optimization tools, such as post-it notes for ease of tabbing. An electronic program was also available. Together, the two ways to access the conference offerings catered to dual preferences of attendees. I again felt welcomed when conference co-chair Dirk Remley made note that I was a first-time attendee and directed me to the special breakfast for those attending their inaugural ABC conference. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find a plant-based option on the breakfast buffet. As I recall, the sign read “tofu scramble, for our vegan guests.” I was delighted to not only see the tofu entree as well as hash browns, labeled as vegan friendly, but also observe these items displayed along with the other foods in such a welcoming way. I did not have to ask someone if there were other options available. I was not singled out nor did I have to ask if options existed for those with special dietary needs. Everything was openly accessible and easily discernible based on available signage and clear language. In the two years that I have been eating plant-based, dining experiences at conferences and events have varied widely. Even at this early juncture, ABC already was exceeding my expectations.
Open and seamless access continued throughout the morning. Sign language interpreters sat at a table near the front of the room during the opening plenary session, signing for three people who were able to sit alongside fellow conference attendees. No one was “othered” into a category of needing special assistance. The conference chairs mentioned during opening remarks that they had visited the conference site in March to personally walk through all the spaces we would be using. They wanted to get a feel for how we would move from point to point, how long it would take, and what the access would be like. They wanted to test the WiFi and imagine how we would all experience the facility. They wanted to make sure it was not only ADA compliant but also conveniently accessible for all.
The theme of access materialized in the form of informal mentorship, which has been cited as beneficial to mentees, mentors, and organizations across a variety of industries (Schwiebert, 2000). Today’s experienced workers are generally willing to help less experienced workers learn (Billett, 2003), a practice that occurred repeatedly throughout the ABC conference. At least one mentor was always inside the designated room, ready to converse, throughout the hours of the conference each day. When I stopped to say hello to members inside the room, mentors greeted me with friendliness and an eagerness to talk with me. The welcoming sentiment had become an observable norm throughout the conference.
However, to maximize this or any conference experience, it is important to actively engage in available opportunities. I offer the following suggestions to those who may wish to attend an ABC conference for the first time:
- Apply for the ABC Travel Grant, if applicable. As a funded graduate student, I gave back two hours in service to the organization by assisting with conference registration. As such, I had the additional opportunity to spend time talking with conference organizers and attendees who checked in during that time. This gave me enhanced opportunities to get to know mentors and professionals.
- Attend committee meetings. I sat in on both the Publications Committee and the Graduate Studies Committee. Members of both were very welcoming.
- Visit the mentorship room. When I visited, I had a chance to talk with Joel Whalen. Prior to the conference, we had an email exchange in which he referred to himself as “Uncle Joel.” To me, this moniker exudes warmth, and I was eager to meet the bearer.
- Sign up for any additional opportunities that are offered. I attended the Cengage workshop on “soft skills,” which offered ideas for teaching and potential research, plus additional opportunities to connect with attendees.
Studies have identified infrastructure and event organization as factors that can improve quality and therefore increase event satisfaction, and satisfaction has been found to be a predictor of return behavior (Kim & Kaewnuch, 2018). For this first-time attendee, the conference infrastructure provided clear visual and verbal communication, which established the groundwork for a positive experience. Additionally, I believe my high level of satisfaction is at least partially linked to proactively seeking opportunities to maximize the conference experience. Others may wish to use the above suggestions as a model for engaged participation in a future ABC conference.
Billett, S. (2003). Workplace Mentors: Demands and Benefits. Journal of Workplace Learning, (3), 105.
Kim, Y. H., & Kaewnuch, K. (2018). Finding the Gaps in Event Management Research: A Descriptive Meta-Analysis. Event Management, 22(3), 453–467.
Lewis, C., & Kerr, G. (2012). Towards the Development of an Evaluation Questionnaire for Academic Conferences. Event Management, 16(1), 11–23.
McCarthy, J. F., McDonald, D. W., Soroczak, S., Nguyen, D. H., & Rashid, A. M. (2004). Augmenting the Social Space of an Academic Conference. CSCW-CONFERENCE-, 39.
Oppermann, M., & Chon, K.-S. (1997). Convention Participation Decision-making Process. Annals of Tourism Research, 24(1), 178–191.
Schwiebert, V. L. (2000). Mentoring: Creating Connected, Empowered Relationships. American Counseling Association.
Mollie Hartup, MBA, is Instructor in the Honors College, Coordinator of Communications, and YSU Magazine editor at Youngstown State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication and Information with a focus on organizational communication at Kent State University. She has prior professional experience in television news, print journalism, alumni relations, and event management.
Mollie Hartup. (2020). First-time attendee impressions: maximizing the ABC conference experience. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.2.