7 Brutally Honest Marketing Conference Survival Tips

Published on August 13th, 2018

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Ladies and gentlemen, I think we can all agree that IMPACT Live 2018 was absolutely fantastic.

With more than 500 of our closest marketing and sales friends, we all experienced two very full and memorable days of learning, meeting new people, and having a total blast while doing it. (You can check out the recaps: Day 1 and Day 2.)

Heck, I even got to speak this year!

Here's the thing, though.

Marketing conferences -- especially the good ones -- are exhausting marathons that leave me at once elated and energized to take action, and completely and utterly ready to embrace a new life as a human contact-avoiding hermit.

In fact, this was me last Thursday, the day following IMPACT Live 2018:


Current status.🐻 (📸: @chrisduprey82)

A post shared by Liz Murphy (@naptownpint) on

I spent the entire day on the couch in our office, hiding behind Bear, our team's cuddle consultant, while I did work. 

This emotional and physical deflation isn't a new experience for me. This was my second IMPACT Live, and I've been to INBOUND three times. 

I also know that both INBOUND and Content Marketing World are just around the corner. So, I want to take a few minutes this morning to share with you my favorite tips for surviving conferences -- and not the usual, "Oh, yeah, don't forget to network," kind of tips.

I'm talking about my favorite ways to get the most out of these epic, inspiring events without losing your sanity.

#1: Dress with Some Sort of Layering Strategy

Conference venues are fickle, independent ecosystems that have little to no regard for seasons, weather patterns, or expectations of attendees who wish it to be not too hot or too cold.

And often, rooms within the same venue will vary drastically from one to the other in temperature.

So, plan accordingly.

Bring a blazer or wear a light sweater each day, even it's the middle of summer. It doesn't matter if it's basically Death Valley or the dead of winter outside. You may freeze or, alternatively, remain a hot, sweaty mess indoors, depending on how effective (or functional) the venue's air conditioning or heating system is. 

If you're a female -- or a particularly dapper gent -- don't forget to carry a hair clip or band with you in your bag, so you can quickly toss your hair up, as needed.

Which leads me to my next clothing-related piece of advice...

#2: Pack More Than You Think You'll Need

Like most normal people, I try to pack "lean" when I'm traveling for work. Even though I rarely take a plane -- I'm an Amtrak kind of gal, and I'll explain why later -- I just don't want to deal with the hassle of having a ton of luggage. 

But here's a fun fact: 

It was so ungodly hot in Hartford last week (and a touch on the warm side in our venue), that a few folks from the IMPACT team actually made a quick run to Target to buy some new clothes to wear while at the conference.

For the same reason, it was also not uncommon for IMPACTers and IMPACT Live attendees to perform a quick costume change during the day (or before evening festivities), because staying in the same outfit all day in 95+ degree weather would have been gross.

Here's another related truth:

I can't go a week away from home for work without at least three coffee-related shirt fatalities -- particularly if we're talking about conferences, where I'm spending at least 50% of my time rushing around. (I'm not really strong in the coffee-while-walking department.)

The moral of both stories is simple -- while you might need to put a little extra effort into closing your carry-on or suitcase, it's worth it to toss in a few extra shirts and underthings. 

Whether you're networking, sitting in an audience, or speaking in front of one, being around people comes with the territory of marketing conferences. You want to feel comfortable and at your best as much as possible.

A fresh shirt can do just the trick, so pack one -- there may not be a Target near where you are.

#3: Mind What You Carry  

Last year, when I got home from INBOUND, I had trouble bending over, or turning left or right at the waist for about a week.

Of course, I had no one to blame but myself. 

I had spent the week prior carrying a 2010 MacBook (which must have weighed 1,000 pounds), three notebooks, books I had purchased from the gift shop, pens, business cards, a hairbrush, my wallet, and much more in a tote slung over my left shoulder. 

Conferences involve a lot of walking. But because you usually don't get to go back to your hotel room until late in the evening, after the day is done, there's this compulsion to carry everything you could possibly need with you.

Learn from me. Resist this urge to be a pack mule as much as possible. If you don't, you will be miserable, and there's a good chance you could hurt yourself.

Here is what I carry now, after learning this lesson the hard way:

  • iPhone (and earbuds)
  • iPhone charging cable (and wall plug)
  • Small travel wallet (not my usual big wallet, and it only contains my ID, credit cards, and a little cash)
  • MacBook (now much smaller and only 3 pounds!)
  • Hairbrush (and clip)
  • Travel-size deodorant
  • Small body spray or perfume
  • Chapstick

That's it.

No books. No planners. No extra notebooks or water bottles. No extra weight. 

I may end up coming back each evening with additions to my daily haul -- like swag or books I've purchased, etc. -- but I spend most of my days only carrying around exactly what I need, and nothing more. And my shoulders and back are forever grateful.

What ends up going into your daily bag will likely be totally different from what goes into mine, and that's okay. My only request is that, before you walk out each morning, you take a long, hard look at what's in your bag and ask yourself, "Do I really need all of this?"

#4: Don't Skip Meals

Even though I'm a huge fan of food and an avid snacker, I'm awful at breakfast. I don't know what it is, but if you want me to put anything in my face besides black coffee before 11 a.m., you'll have to force me to do so.

The exception is when I'm at a conference. For example, every morning at each INBOUND I've attended, I've stopped by the New England mecca, Dunkin' Donuts, for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I do so under duress, but I know I'm saving myself a potential disaster later on.

In a surprise to no one, I've also learned this lesson the hard way. I won't go into details, but I was hangry and exhausted, and everyone around me suffered.

Even if meals are provided by the conference organizer, the line may be insanely long -- or you may miss a meal entirely due to conversations with your team or new contacts. 

If you hate breakfast like I do, suck it up, and eat a banana or something. If you miss lunch for some reason, don't skip it -- make it a point to take a quick break and grab a protein box from Starbucks. Finally, I don't care how tired you are at the end of the day, eat something before you go to bed. 

Conferences are an endurance test, so don't run on empty.

#5: Don't Forget Your Business Cards

I don't need a lot of explanation for this one, so I'll cut to the chase. Not so long ago, there was a 9-out-of-10 chance I would forget my business cards when packing for a work conference. And, being me, I would only discover my oversight in the middle of a conversation, when someone asked me for mine.

Don't be like me. Pack your business cards in your suitcase first. Every. Single. Time.

#6: Don't Stay Out Late Every Night

At most of these conferences, there are nightly networking events and sponsor parties. Also, if you're like us at IMPACT, you'll have client dinners, team bonding meals, and many hotel happy hour opportunities all over your calendar.

Besides eating, not running yourself into the ground (or, let's be honest, not partying too hard in the cocktails department) is the most important thing you can do to keep yourself in tip-top shape at a conference. 

While I know how awful it feels to miss out on a good time just as much as the next person, you don't have to go to every single party or event. Or, if you do, you don't need to stay until last call. 

Not only will you have a better chance of getting a good night's sleep, you'll keep your reputation intact by not accidentally going overboard in front of coworkers or valuable new connections. Given how tiring these events can be, you have to recognize your tolerance may be lower if you're sleep-deprived, dehydrated, and/0r running on an empty-ish stomach.

(My usual rule of thumb is that I'll give myself one moderately "fun" night. Otherwise, no matter what post-session events I attend, I'm in my hotel bed watching Murder, She Wrote by 10 p.m.)

#7: Finally, Try Taking the Train

While trains are not always the most efficient way to get around, they are my favorite. 

For example, it's about five hours to travel via Amtrak from my home in Annapolis, Maryland, to Connecticut, where IMPACT Live takes place every year. And it's about eight hours to Boston, the home of INBOUND.

Traveling the same distance by plane would obviously be much faster, but the benefits of train travel far outweigh any efficiencies I would gain by flying.

Instead of rushing through airports, dealing with security, and generally hating life, my travel is stress-free. There's no security. I can carry full-size toiletries. I can bring a bag larger than a carry-on with no added cost. I can bring my own meals, snacks, and full-sized beverages.

But that's nothing compared to the peace and serenity of the Amtrak quiet car. I can work. I can nap in relative comfort. I can stare out the window as we go over rivers and lakes, and through large cities. 

Most of all, I have plenty of time to mentally prepare myself for the whirlwind of activity and having to be "on" for people 24/7. And, on the way back, I have those hours to myself to decompress in a totally calm environment, before I have to deal with puppies and all of the, "So, how was it?!" conversations.

In short, thanks to the train, I am able to bookend most conference experiences (at least those on the East Coast, heh) with some much-needed me time, with no one bothering me.

I know, the train isn't for everyone. But if what I described sounds like heaven to you, I urge you to give it a shot. It may take me longer to get from point A to point B -- so, my travel mornings tend to start pretty early -- but it's 100% worth it to me. 

What are your favorite tips for surviving conferences?

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