Conferences give you a chance to learn about cool new technology, develop your skills, interact with your peers and get rat-faced drunk in a professionally acceptable way. Despite their benefits, they can also be a massive source of annoyance. Here's how to deal with the most common problems, from rubbish Wi-Fi to ludicrous taxi queues.
Conference picture from Shutterstock
Over the past two decades, I've attended hundreds of conferences, and what emerges from that is how much they don't vary. Yes, there have been some technological advances. Far more people take notes on tablets these days, and it's de rigeur to conduct audience polls. But the basics, and the basic problems, remain very much the same. Here, in no particular order, are the most annoying features of conferences, and the strategies you can use to minimise them.
Nothing ever runs on time
If the schedule says that the keynote is going to kick off at 9am sharp, you can guarantee that nothing is going to happen until 9:20 at the earliest. The chances are you won't even be allowed into the venue until after 9am.
Oddly enough, the more expensive and "professional" the event is, the worse this problem tends to be. Events run by volunteers (think Linux.conf.au and unconferences) usually have a much better adherence to their timetables.
Solutions: You can't do anything about the event running to schedule, but you can avoid making assumptions about how efficient it will be. Don't presume you'll have enough time in the morning break or at lunchtime to do anything useful, because that's the time period that will be hacked into.
Wi-Fi is enormously useful, but when you put hundreds of people into a room and they all connect to the same network, it's not surprising that the whole thing will fall over very quickly. I recently attended a conference which made the mistake of promising "rock solid Wi-Fi" in its brochure. We hadn't been there 10 minutes before it stopped working, and the entreaties to "please don't do any large downloads" began.
Solutions: There are two potential solutions here. The first is to use your own phone as a hotspot, thereby bypassing the need to use the supplied network. This can work fairly well, but make sure you have an adequate data allowance on your phone. Also, recognise that if everyone else in the room has the same idea, you still won't get much in the way of speed or reliability.
A more radical approach? Disconnect altogether and actually listen to the presentation. After all, you're not really there to tweet constantly, are you?
Not enough power outlets
The majority of conference venues simply weren't designed to provide a power outlet at every seat. From an OH&S point of view, that's understandable, but it's irritating if your phone is on 9 per cent and falling rapidly (or if you're a journalist trying to write a live blog of the event).
Solutions: Bring a power board with you — that way, if there are only a handful of power outlets, you'll come across as a hero. If you're regularly attending conferences, invest in a notebook (or tablet) which has decent battery life, so you're not constantly racing for the seat nearest to the wall. And if you're using your device to take notes, switch off the Wi-Fi altogether, which will improve your battery life. (After all, we've already established that it will be crap anyway.)
An unfriendly schedule
Conference law 101 dictates that you will see two sessions in the schedule at the same time which you'd really like to attend, while there's absolutely nothing of interest in the next slot. What's a geek to do?
Solutions: There's no single panacea here, but there are a range of tricks you can try:
- Check if there will be video made available for attendees during or after the conference.
- Download the slides if available so at least you have an overview.
- Team up with a colleague, split the sessions and make recordings. Many conferences ban this in theory, but no-one's likely to notice you making an audio recording.
- If there's an option to vote for repeat sessions, make sure you take part and vote for the ones you've missed.
Terrible, terrible coffee
Most Aussies won't accept that stuff that comes out of giant vats as coffee. Clever vendors will often pay for a barista at their stand, but the queues can be extensive.
Solutions: Stake out the area near the conference centre to find alternative coffee providers. Make sure you have a good coffee in the morning before you arrive, rather than relying on what will be provided. Consider giving up coffee. (That won't happen, obviously.)
Massive queues for taxis and baggage claim
The conference is over and you're keen to get home. However, the queue to reclaim luggage from the baggage check area is massive, and the queue for taxis to take you to the airport is even longer.
Solutions: Again, there are a few possibilities here:
- Choose a hotel near the conference venue, leave your luggage there, and walk back after the event. Less competition for bags and for taxis.
- Pre-book a car to pick you up. You can also try using Uber, but this can involve as much waiting as the taxi option these days.
- Check if the conference is running its own airport shuttle.
- Pack light and keep your luggage with you all day.
- Stay an extra night rather than racing home. In some cases, even with another night's accommodation, that will be cheaper than competing for packed-out flights.
The farce that is computer projection
That inevitable moment: someone has to plug in their own machine for a demonstration, and it fails to come up on the big screen. Cue much faffing around with plugs and monitor inputs.
Solutions: I have zero faith that this problem will ever be solved. We're just going to have to live with it.
What drives you nuts at conferences, and how do you cope? Tell us in the comments.