“You need deep water to learn how to swim.”
– Expression from translated book mentioned in a session at the ATA Conference
I recently attended my first American Translators Association (ATA) Conference and found it to be a fun and educational event. This quote about learning to swim by essentially being tossed into the deep end of the pool seemed particularly apt at the moment I scribbled it down during one of the conference sessions. Your typical networking events and business happy hours are much more compartmentalized than the days-long experience of a conference where every person you run into – from the people you share an elevator with to the folks ordering lunch ahead of you in line to those you are sharing a cab with on the way to a Division dinner – are in your field.
It’s an extremely hectic several days – the word whirlwind passed through my mind repeatedly during the conference. The large gathering and busy schedule can be intimidating to a first-time attendee like myself, but I was fortunate to have support from my friends and colleagues here in ATISDA, both before and during the event.
While the event was going on, I took a few notes about tips for future conference attendees.
Educate Yourself Before You Go
We all know that the best way to get ready for an unfamiliar experience is to learn about it as much as possible beforehand.
In the weeks leading up to the conference, I read a number of blog posts and articles giving advice on attending the ATA Conference, often shared through the ATISDA Facebook page. The ATA Facebook page also published a number of helpful posts and sent out emails to help attendees get ready.
Ask past attendees about any advice they have for you. I also had some excellent advice before the conference from fellow ATISDA member Dr. Gloria M. Rivera, who gave a free informational webinar about making the most of your conference experience.
Download the App and Update Your ATA Info
The ATA Conference app had the most up to date information about everything going on at the conference. A number of sessions had been canceled or added, and the app was the best way to know about the most current session schedule.
Another good tip I read was to be sure to fill out your contact information in the app in case people want to get in touch with you but don’t have your business card. Part of the contact section includes the link to your resume on the ATA website, so make sure that it is current and matches what you have printed to hand out at the Job Fair or in any other capacity.
Wear Comfortable Shoes
Expect to be on your feet and walking all day. Unless you are a woman who can walk several miles in heels, I suggest flats with some soft gel inserts. Keep in mind also that you may be walking to Division dinners or off-site gatherings, so you will notice the difference it makes when you wear some functional shoes.
Anticipate Potential Aches or Illness
I suggest bringing some extra pain relievers and vitamin C with you. The ATA Conferences are large networking events held in late October/early November during cold season, so you should prepare for the possibility that you might get sick. You might feel a bit achy from all that walking and carrying stuff all day – even though you normally might walk or run several miles a day, you probably don’t do it in dress shoes, even if they are comfortable dress shoes.
Carry Your Supplies for the Day
Packing my dressy tote bag each day reminded me of getting my backpack ready for school when I was younger. I like to have everything I might need for the whole day in there in the morning so that I don’t have to leave a session or conversation early because I have to run to the room or the store to get something. I kept in my tote bag a notebook to take notes during sessions, extra pens, a bottle of water, some extra copies of my resume just in case, lots of business cards and a small bag to collect all the business cards I received each day.
The exception was when I would go to an off-site event at night – no need to bring any resumes or a notebook to dinner. But if you do leave your large tote bag at the room to go out for dinner, don’t forget your business cards.
Carry Your Business Cards at All Times
I made sure to have my business cards with me everywhere I went – even if you are going out to eat or take a walk around the city, you never know who you might run into while you are out.
Take Notes on the Business Cards You Get
Chances are that you will get a business card for each one you hand out. At the end of the day, make a few notes directly on the card about why you got that card: Where did you meet that person? What did you talk about? What will help you remember that interaction? What do you need to do now? For example: Met at the opening ceremony; taught English in China; send info about ATISDA.
If you are ordering new business cards for this conference, get some non-glossy ones with lots of white space on the front and/or back for people to take their own notes.
(Thank you to Dr. Rivera for the excellent business card advice.)
Then Follow Up
After the conference, send a personalized email and maybe also a LinkedIn invite to the people you met. I like to send a LinkedIn invite with a message about how we met at the ATA Conference because it’s entirely possible that that person also gets unsolicited LinkedIn invites, so be sure to refresh your colleague’s memory and stand out from the strangers who may request to connect with your new contact.
Then I will send an email to remind the person of who I am with something in the subject line about having met at the ATA Conference and a note about having sent them a LinkedIn invite, if they have an account on LinkedIn. If you spoke to a recruiter who mentioned their company is looking for your language pair and specialty, send a resume.
It’s okay if you don’t contact all your newly made connections immediately, but don’t wait too long. You can still contact them now. Everyone needs a bit of time after the conference to catch up on all the work and personal obligations that we had to put off during the week of the conference, so now is the perfect time to get in touch.
Do As Much As Possible, But Know Your Limits
It’s impossible to do everything at the conference, so plan your time strategically. If you aren’t a morning person, you don’t need to do the Zumba class at 6 in the morning. You also don’t need to attend every session about a particular topic or talk to every vendor who has a station. I recommend taking breaks when you can and need to, especially if being in large groups or talking to new people isn’t something that comes naturally to you or energizes you.
You Probably Won’t Be Able to Keep Your Schedule
If you are lucky enough to work for yourself or work from home, you might have some routines set up that work nicely for you, but you probably won’t be able to keep them up when you are at the conference. Maintaining a fixed exercise schedule or diet, for example, is difficult when you don’t have as much flexibility over your hours and restaurant options. The good thing is you will likely be walking several miles each day during the course of the conference to make up for anything you can’t control in terms of your exercise routine.
Choose A Couple Sessions Per Time Slot … and Sit Near the Back
The sessions at the conference are, unfortunately, clustered so that many of them take place at the same time, so you will have to pick which is your top choice to attend. Be sure to sit near the back in case you decide that the level is not right for you or the topic is not what you imagined from the description. If you have a second or third choice already made, it will be easy to go to another session at the same time if you need to leave your first-choice session. (Another excellent tip from Dr. Rivera.)
Networking Opportunities Are Everywhere
The Job Fair was one of the more hectic events at this conference, which meant it wasn’t the best place to make a lot of connections, unless you got a bit creative. I found that I spent the majority of my time at the Job Fair in line with other conference attendees who were also waiting to meet a handful of recruiters at employer stations, so I used that time to talk to some of the other professionals in my field who were waiting in line next to me. There’s no rule that says that only employers can do some networking at the Job Fair.
See Vendors and Employers at Your Leisure
Since the Job Fair was so chaotic and crowded, I recommend chatting with the vendors and employers in the booths during the conference, either during sessions or at the end of the day when people are not spending as much time in that room. I heard some conference attendees say that some employers were only at the Job Fair and did not have booths, so it may be worth it to attend the Job Fair and also visit the vendor booths at your convenience.
The best part if you visit during a less crowded time is you can actually have a conversation with the recruiters. My strategy was to introduce myself and ask them about their company. It was as simple as “Hi, I’m Melissa!” and a handshake. Then I asked, “What can you tell me about your company?” That way you get a sense of what that company is looking for and what fields they handle.
Attend a Division Dinner If Possible
Going to a Division dinner is a relatively easy (albeit expensive) way to network with other people who have similar specialties as you. At the Spanish Division dinner I attended, I had the opportunity to meet people seated at my table and talk in detail with them about their experiences, as well as the chance to meet people while waiting in line for the buffet service. The more relaxing part of the dinner setup is there is no pressure to try to meet everyone in a short period of time like there is at other points of the conference, since you will all be staying there for a few hours.
Get Involved in Your Local Group or Division
While the conference was going on, I was lucky enough to be in attendance at many events with my fellow ATISDA members, which made the whole conference seem less like a series of networking events and more like hanging out with friends. I am glad that I got involved in my local ATA Affiliate for many reasons, one of which was I already had people I knew at the conference. Each time I spent time with ATISDA members and some of their friends and colleagues at the conference, it broke down the huge group of 1,800 attendees into smaller groups where I already knew a few people and then was meeting a few new people.
Now that ATA 57 has ended, what other advice would you add to this list of suggestions?