how to pack for a conference

We’ve talked before about how important writers conferences can be for building your career. Hopefully you’ve dipped your toe in the water and started making plans to go to your first conference.

But you might be a little intimidated about how to get the most from your experience. What do you do when you get there? Where do you go? What should you bring?

Take a deep breath–we’re here to help!

Here’s your three-part packing list for conference success.

Part One: Physical Items to Bring

Make a list or checklist of these items and cross them off as you put them in your bag for go time. I personally use a large whiteboard for the task, but you should use whatever works best for you.

1. Notebook

Singular. One notebook. You’ll take a lot of notes this weekend, so have the paper to do it on. Some people are tempted to bring multiple notebooks for multiple subjects, but don’t do this. One notebook lets you keep all conference information in one place.

2. Your Favorite Pens

Admit it. You have a favorite kind of pen. Bring several. Sure, you’ll get a branded gimme pen with your registration swag bag, but those pens are never any good. Use what you love. It makes a surprising difference.

3. Highlighter

For marking up the conference program and any handouts from the classes. Use in your notebook as well.

4. Business Cards

You will have countless opportunities to exchange these over the weekend. Even if you feel like you’re putting on airs by printing one up, order a hundred or so. Bonus points for putting your info on one side and your book’s info on the back. For ideas of great business card designs, check out this article.

5. Chargers

For all the electronics you plan to bring. With a wall socket adaptor in case the hotel lacks USB ports. Battery packs are good too, if you have them. Personally, I recommend spending the $50 or so to have a full set of chargers that live in your luggage, and are separate from what you use to charge things in normal life.

6. Advil or Motrin

Vital for if you get a headache (or hangover). Also, handing key people a pain reliever when they’re in need can be a huge icebreaker. That’s (indirectly) how I ended up running one of the largest conferences on the West Coast.

7. Jacket or Sweater

Hotel HVAC reality means the temperature will be very different from what’s going on outside, and vary widely from room to room and time to time. Bring a warm top you can easily take on and off to accommodate.

8. Workout or Swim Gear

At least one person you want to know better is going to be in the gym or pool during the weekend. So get in there. Don’t be stalker-esque, but do be present. At the very least you might be recognized later.

9. Mints to Share

A solid icebreaker, these are the modern equivalent of lending cigarettes while standing around. Do mints, not gum, because disposing of gum is a hassle.

10. Trail Mix

Most conferences offer snacks, but they’re usually high-sugar, low-protein snacks. Nuts and raisins mixed in a bag keep your energy and focus up even as the conference wears you down.

11. Refillable Water Bottle

You will get thirsty. Keep your water bottle close, and refill it every time you pass a drink station or drinking fountain.

12. Cash

Yes, this is the 21st century and your card will do just fine. But cash buys drinks faster, and works better in the trade show room. Include singles so you can tip well, and keep receipts because everything this weekend is a business expense.

Part Two: Mental Items to Bring

The things you need at a conference aren’t limited to physical items. You should also come with some conceptual tools ready for you to grab at a moment’s notice.

Some folks are smart enough to keep these in their heads, but I’m not one of those folks. I use note cards.

1. A Game Plan

Know what you want to do at each session of the conference, and why you want to do it. You can change your plan as you need, but remember that changing your plan is always better than not having one.

2. Research on Key Attendees

Anybody you want to pitch, approach, or otherwise make progress with, you should take a few notes on. Get to know what they’ve written or published lately, what they wish they could write or publish, common hobbies…anything that can help you have a memorable and natural conversation.

3. Your Elevator Pitch

If you can’t explain your current project in two sentences or thirty seconds (whichever is shorter), practice until you can. Head over to this post to learn how to write a great elevator pitch.

4. A Networking Game

Doesn’t matter what it is, but a little warm up game for conversational lulls can help you become the life of the after party. I used to carry a travel edition of Cards against Humanity, but a more professional friend just asks “What are you most proud of this quarter in 10 seconds or less? GO!”

Part Three: What to Leave Behind

If you’ve been camping with other people, you’ve probably been camping with that one person who brings entirely too much stuff. That extra load inconveniences him, and makes the more experienced campers think a little less of him, too.

Avoid that rookie mistake by not bringing the following items (or using them on the plane and leaving them in your room):

1. Laptop

You think you’ll use it, but typing on your laptop cuts you off from networking. Use your notebook and transcribe into your laptop later on.

2. Manuscript Copies

Nobody wants physical copies anymore, not even USB drives with the files. Get the person’s business card and permission to email your manuscript to them later.

3. Books to Read

As with your laptop, you think you’ll read them but you really won’t. Spend that time socializing and going over your notes. Except for your in-flight book, these just weigh you down.

4. Gifts for Agents

Anybody who tells you to bring gifts for agents is a rookie. They hate these. Let your work speak for itself without gimmicks the agent will have to figure out how to pack (if they even bother).

During busy years, I attend six to eight conferences. I got in the habit of keeping a special briefcase packed with all the items on my physical list, and note cards for me to practice my mental items. When conference time arrived, I’d pack a bag of clothes and grab the briefcase.

Whether you do that, or just use this as a checklist for your conference success, just remember that the right equipment makes every mission more likely to succeed. Make sure your gear is up for the challenge.

Get out there, and enjoy!

Want to learn more networking secrets to boost your career? Read on!