Some Last Thoughts On Conferences For Awhile (Probably)

I know I have been harping a lot on conferences of late, but you know, ’tis the season!

Because I had been in the process of moving to a new job, I just caught up with my blog feed this weekend and read Barry Hessenius’ piece on effectively exploiting the conference experience for people at different stages in their careers. Which he wrote a few weeks before my first post on the topic, proving once again that he is at the forefront of arts management theory.

Don’t misread my previous posts about how to improve the conference attendance experience as disgruntled criticisms of any conferences I have attended or contributed to. I was approaching the topic in the same spirit as I approach arts attendance experiences: questioning what it is that conferences, like the arts orgs they serve, need to do in order to provide participants with a valuable experience.

Hessenius’ post is especially useful for first time attendees because their conference experience is going to be all about networking. He identifies common features of arts conferences and provides advice about how to exploit these dynamics to best effect.

For example, regarding the plenary luncheons:

I never sit at just any table, nor am I the first one to seat myself. I wait until the tables begin to fill, quickly identify a table occupied by people I might want to talk to and those I might want to get to know. Even if your seat mates are serendipitously determined, that’s ok, because often times you end up meeting someone who will make an excellent contact. Note too that keynote speakers are often inspiring and motivating, but few keynotes will offer you much practical advice that you can use, and thus the before, and during conversations with those at your table may be more valuable to you in the long run.

The one bit of advice I felt was valuable for people of any level of conference attendance experience was in regard to preparation:

One final piece of advice:  there is a lot of talking that goes on at conferences.  Learn to listen and listen well.  And please, if there are recommended reading materials and / or research available before the conference for a session you might want to attend, don’t put that off until you are on the plane.  Do your homework, if there is any, beforehand.  If you give yourself more time to think about the subject, you’ll get more out of the presentation, and you’ll be able to formulate good questions to raise.  Relax on the plane.

If there is one phrase I have heard at conferences over the last decade or so it is along those lines. People say they meant to review a text in advance or they downloaded the book planning to read it on the plane or listen to the audio content as they drove but didn’t get to it.

I understand that. For a whole lot of people attending a conference means cramming all the work you aren’t going to be around to do into the last few days before the conference. There is even less time than usual available to preview conference content.

But as Hessenius implies, you are carving out time to attend a conference to help yourself be better at your job. If you only have a precious few days in which to do that, it is worthwhile to prepare the soil in which this valuable content can thrive and grow.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Some Last Thoughts On Conferences For Awhile (Probably)”

  1. If everyone waits for the tables to fill up before finding a seat they would remain empty. So it seems there are different strategies that are required. You can identify the people you wish to engage with while they are still standing or make arrangements beforehand and invite them to sit with you. Someone has to take the first step. If everyone waits, no one sits. Or you can leave it to the universe and be surprised by the insights of people you never knew until sitting with them. You don’t need to know what is inside a book before starting to read it. The idea of controlling the situation to your own maximum benefit is neither universalizable nor especially helpful with only a limited amount of information. Take a chance some of the time!

    • When he delineates the motivations for people at different stages in their careers, he observes that mid and end stage people are mostly attending to reconnect with people they know and are less motivated to meet new people so they would more naturally take a seat rather than waiting at the fringes.

      This can work to the new person’s benefit if they are trying to connect with a specific person because that person can introduce them to other people of some influence that the newbie might not be aware of.

      He also notes that if the conference does assign you a place to sit as a way to keep people from clumping with their friends, there is much to be gained by that experience.

      I will say that right now I am much more apt to sit wherever I feel like it than I did in my earlier attendance experience.

      Frankly, I factor in sitting so I don’t have to crane my neck to see the speaker and where in the room I think the servers to feed first more than trying to leverage valuable connections.


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