This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Las Vegas for 5 days at the UNITY Journalists convention, a once-every-four-years joint conference among AAJA, NAHJ, NAJA and NLGJA.
My first UNITY was in 2008 in Chicago — I was still a student, looking for my next big internship, and scared as hell. UNITY is a large event and can be incredibly overwhelming.
So, with that in mind — here’s my two cents of advice to first-time convention goers:
* Talk to everyone—but be mindful of people’s time! If someone’s group of friends appears to be leaving them behind because they are still talking to you, exchange contact information and let them be on they’re way. On the flip side, if you’re a UNITY veteran and you meet a newbie who appears to not have arrived with an entourage, adopt him or her and introduce them to your crowd.
* Bring business cards, and lots of ‘em. Good places to pick them up for cheap are Vistaprint.com and Moo.com (the former is probably cheaper, though at this late date you’d have to pay rush shipping, I think; the latter creates beautiful photo-based cards and has integration with Facebook and can pull from your cover photos album to show) and pass them out like candy. Stay organized with the ones you receive.
* Dress professionally! My mentor, Benet Wilson, created a group "What to Wear at NABJ" board on Pinterest, which is a great resource for UNITY-goers. She also has a "What Not To Wear" board for folks who aren’t real clear on the line between classy and not-so-classy falls. Also, it’s usually freezing in conference rooms despite the blazing heat outside. Layers are key.
* Follow up quickly. If you meet a new contact that you hope to stay in touch with, shoot them an email to thank them for their time or ask a follow up question. If you meet someone who gave you great advice, invested a lot of time with you or helped you make another great connection, send them a thank you card. Yes, a real, cardstock, in-the-physical-post-office-mail thank you card.
* Socialize! If you’re young or new to one of the alliance organizations, the best thing you can do is meet people who are leaders, movers and shakers. Get to know folks “off the clock” and become part of the fold.
* Label your gear. A thousand tech-savvy and tech-dependent folks running around a small space for 5 days? Yeah, that’s a lot of iPads, iPhones and a sea of white chargers laying about. Put your name on yours.
* Pack snacks. If you’re watching your budget, one of the fastest ways these conferences can get expensive is by eating at the convention center every day. UNITY in Chicago was sort of isolated and there weren’t a ton of off-site, walkable lunch options. Throw some almonds or granola bars in your bag so you aren’t 100% reliant on $12-a-plate cafeteria lunches.
* Share the wealth! Not everyone can attend UNITY and once you’re there no one can attend all of the great sessions they’d love to. If you’re in a great panel, consider blogging or tweeting some of the insights you pick up (and share on the #UNITY12 hashtag, of course).
* Please, read this: How to Ask Questions at a Panel. It was floating around during SXSW this year and I hope we can apply it at UNITY. Ask questions at panels, contribute to the discussion, but please don’t waste people’s time by self-promoting or picking fights with the panelists.
See you in Vegas!