How to enjoy a large conference

A quick guide on how to minimize conference stress and enjoy conferences ever after

How do you feel when attending a conference, especially a large one like Academy of Management Annual Meeting (AOM)? Excited? Stressed? Isolated?

If you sometimes have these feelings – rest assured, you are not alone. I’ve been going to the AOM conference for over a decade, and often I have felt more stress than excitement. It’s overwhelmingly huge (over 10,000 participants), so the chances that you spontaneously meet someone you might be interested to talk to are minimal. And I’m not too natural at networking.

Last year was my first AOM conference that I properly enjoyed. Reflecting on what really made a difference for me, here are some tips and lessons learned that you may find useful to make your conference experience more productive and enjoyable at the same time. If I were to summarize these in two keywords, these would be “plan in advance” and “be proactive”. Let me explain: 

1. Plan well in advance

When I say “in advance”, I really mean months in advance. Previously, being busy (as we all are), I often left it to the last days before the conference to check the conference schedule and pick the sessions I want to attend. Sometimes I intentionally planned it as an activity to entertain myself during the long flight to the conference. As a result, I often missed some interesting sessions as they required pre-registration. And when I tried to organize some meetings, people whom I wanted to meet were often already fully booked. Hence, my suggestion is: the moment the conference program is announced, start planning your agenda for the conference.

2. Do not rely on spontaneous encounters, organize them. In advance.

If you would like to have a chat at the conference with a particular scholar, contact them in advance. When the program is announced, check if they are attending the conference, and if yes, email to ask if they might be available for a meeting. It is important to do this early enough (see my point 1 above), because a lot of people use the AOM conference as an opportunity to meet their co-authors, so the schedules get booked very quickly. If it is a scholar you don’t know personally - it’s not a problem, just be quite specific with what it is you’d like to discuss with them to give them an idea what you’re looking for.


3. Think smaller: small group interactions are easier (and deeper)

The AOM conference provides a lot of opportunities for informal socializing and networking, but often they are overwhelming: you enter the room of a division’s Social, and you see several hundreds of people already talking to each other in small groups that seem to know each other well. It’s so easy to feel isolated if you don’t know anyone. To ease yourself a bit into this, organize yourself a buddy or a few with whom you could attend these large social events. It does not have to be someone you know before the conference.

For example, ask someone who attended a conference session with you. I bet there are always a few people in the room that feel the same way as you and would be glad to partner up. Another useful tip: attend smaller, interactive events at the conference, like paper development workshops or research networking sessions. They will help you to connect with other attendees in a smaller-group format. And after the session you can organize yourselves to go together to a larger social event. To learn about such sessions in advance, sign up for your division’s mailing list: these activities are typically advertised there.

4.   Volunteer

Volunteering to help with the conference organizing is an important contribution to the community. What's more, it also has benefits for you personally: it provides you with a very natural space to get to know other people in a non-competitive, not-pressurised environment, where you don’t have to feel under stress to deliver your one-minute elevator pitch about your research to hook the interest of others. It provides you with some activity to do together, and through this, you’ll get to know each other, build trust, and start making new friends. Some volunteering roles at AOM require longer-term planning and engagement, like different roles in the division’s committees. You can start planning now for the next year. But there is always a space for ad hoc contributions for this year’s conference.

For example, many of the divisions welcome and facilitate ad hoc initiatives from members, like organizing get-togethers such as visiting a museum, going for a morning jog or even just for a coffee together. Reach out to your division’s representatives to explore how you can help and what is the best forum to organize something. Think of something that you personally would enjoy and invite others to join you. It doesn’t have to be big: even if it’s three or five of you doing something together, it’s already a start of a meaningful interaction that I personally prefer much more than the elevator pitches (“think small”). Divisions' mailing lists will keep you informed about such activities organized by others.

5.   Take care of your body

It sounds so trivial, but with the sea of interesting sessions that a large conference like AOM offers, and with activities running from 8am till late at night and no dedicated lunch breaks in the schedule, it’s easy to forget about having enough food and sleep. So, plan in advance how you will make sure you take good care of yourself. It may require having to miss some interesting paper sessions if you want a proper lunch – and that’s ok! (Though, I admit, it often means making difficult choices).

Explore in advance where you could have a quick bite around your conference locations – it will save you time searching when you have only a short break between the sessions. Alternatively, have a spare energy bar or a banana in your bag, if you know your day won’t have a proper lunch break. And, instead of thinking of a lunch break as a luxury that you can’t afford in a busy schedule, consider if you can turn it into the socializing opportunity - why not to invite someone else for a lunch together?

Last year was the first one when I tried all these things together and had an amazing experience at AOM. I hope you will enjoy it too!

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