Maria Keenan

What to Bring to a Conference (Or, what I forgot to pack. Twice.)

At the time of writing, I've been to two conferences in seven days.

Therein I've had the pleasure of acting as both one of the hosts and one of the attendees but, in the past, I've also been privy to the speaker lifestyle.

While I know that spending 10% of my week on a plane is pittance compared to the time some business people have to commit, I've learned that there are some creature comforts that go a long way when you're living out of a suitcase for work. 

With that in mind, I wanted to chronicle what I remembered to pack for conferences and what I didn't in a bid to give you some idea of what to pack for a conference, regardless of your role there:

What to bring to a conference if you're hosting

Last month, I was part of the Tito team that headed to Chicago to host Admission, our most significant event for organisers to-date. The conference took place over two days, and I was in the United States for four.

(To jump straight to a diluted version of this checklist
that you can print or save, click here.)

What I brought:

Clothing:

  • A blazer
  • Two coats (One warm & one waterproof)
    • This is a lesson brought to you by someone born and raised in Ireland. My blood is 40% rain. 
  • Trousers (One pair comfy, the other professional)
  • Shoes (Ditto, comfy & professional)
  • Assorted shirts
  • Socks (Lucky & professional)
  • Undergarments
  • A blanket scarf
    • Which doubles as a, well, blanket in case of an unfamiliar climate and/or an under-stocked airline.  

bring to a conference

Image Source: xavieralopez via Giphy

Technology:
  • Tablet
  • Phone
  • Laptop
  • Outlet converter
    • In hindsight, I would recommend multiples of these if possible as every device seems to die at the same time when you need them. Or, as recommended by Doc, an Anker

Cosmetics and health:

  • Prescription medicines
  • Emergency medicines
    • Think over-the-counter painkillers in case you get a headache, rather than gauze and surgical aprons. 
  • Double the amount of contact lenses a human would normally need
    • It's a guarantee that, on the day of the event when you really need them, you will drop one down the sink.
  • A second pair of glasses
    • If you are hard-of-seeing enough to have to feel around on the ground Velma-style when they're lost, you are hard-of-seeing enough to warrant packing a spare set.
  • Toothpaste & brush
    • You'd be surprised how difficult it is to negotiate foreign brands when you're looking for anything medicated. I have particularly sensitive teeth after a few bouts of dental surgery over the past couple of years, so I recommend bringing your old faithful in case you get bowled over by a niggling nerve when you have to be ultra-sociable.
  • A hairbrush
    • Obviously void if you don't have head hair.

what to bring to an event

Image Source: louis16art via Giphy

Travel-specific items:

  • Neck pillow
    • To at least emulate sleep, as you'll be very busy in the coming days.
  • Passport
    • Preferably in-date so that you don't get refused entry to your destination country.
  • Printed copy of Visa waiver document
    • Replace with "Visa documentation" as required. 
  • Local currency
    • I live by the mantra of "bring half the clothes you think you'll need, and twice the money," when travelling. If you have a company card on your journey, you can skip this step if you want, but I find having at least some cash is a reassurance.

What I wish I'd brought:

  • A documents holder/folder
    • Useful not only for travel documents, but also for keeping track of receipts if you have to compile an expense report. 
  • My tablet charger
    • Get one of those multi-cable doo-dads. I overlooked the fact that this device is micro-USB while my phone is USB-C and so, wanting to have a way to call home at arrival, I didn't have anything to overshadow the screams of the toddler sat near me whose parents thought 35,000 feet in the air was a good place for her to "Cry it Out."
  • A boarding pass
    • Of course, I did eventually acquire one at the airport, but checking in early and having an aisle seat for long-haul is a small blessing your distorted, jet-lagged mind (and body) will thank you for. 
  • Exfoliator
    • The recycled air on planes makes you either over-compensate with sebum production, leading to the gift of adult acne, or turns your skin into the Atacama Desert. There is no in-between.
  • A notebook
    • As someone who primarily writes for a living, I can attest that there's a tactile pleasure in handwriting notes from talks. However, with pen and paper, there are infinite more opportunities to add character and multi-media aspects to what you bring back from a conference. For an example, see these sketchnotes from Layers

what to bring to a conference

Image Source: shanebeam via Giphy

What to bring to a conference if you're an attendee

In early October, I had the pleasure of being in the audience for Bits & Pretzels, a conference in Munich for founders and members of start-up and scale-up teams.

What I brought:

All items under "What I brought" in the "hosting" section plus:

Clothing:

  • A heavy coat
    • A tip that's not physical, though not immaterial, is to always check the weather forecast before you go to a conference in a different country. That way, you're not entirely gambling when you decide whether or not a parka is worth the space it takes up in your carry-on.

Electronics:

  • Local travel apps
    • Yes, these are software, and while you can technically download them when you arrive, there's a sense of comfort in knowing how you're going to get to your hotel when you land in case there's no airport Wi-Fi. In my case, before I went to Munich, I discovered they didn't use Citymapper (boo!) but I also discovered that the city's recommended taxi app is MyTaxi which I also use at home, and the familiarity was certainly welcome.

Cosmetics and health:

  • Chewing gum
    • Bits & Pretzels, as well as offering its attendees ample opportunities to share start-up stories, gives out a lot of beer and pretzels (as the name would suggest). Given most conferences are hubs for talking to strangers, having a minty first impression is highly preferable to the alternative. 

Travel-specific items:

  • A downloaded copy of the destination city's Google Maps
  • Throat lozenges
    • Just as the old air on planes dries your skin, so too does it dry out your throat. A packet of Strepsils (or similar) goes a long way in preventing hacking and spluttering your way across the Atlantic ocean. 

What I wish I'd brought:

  • My Keep Cup
    • I'd say most of us fall victim to four-coffee shakes at conferences. Similarly, most of us end up cursing the venue for not providing adequate recycling (or even general) waste bins. Remembering a reusable cup at least does something to prevent that cursory pile of 200 disposed, disposable cups lying in their trash graveyard. 

attending a conference checklist

Image Source: hoppip via Giphy

  • A reusable water bottle
    • For the same reasons as the Keep Cup.
  • A travel cord roll, or if I'm feeling particularly efficient, a Go Pack.
  • A dirndl (the networking event was at Oktoberfest and everyone was wearing one. Save for me.)

What to bring to a conference if you're speaking

I've spoken at several meet-ups in my time and, though I've yet to present at something at the scale of the 5000-attendee-strong conference in the previous section, there are a few universal lessons about preparation that I've learned. Beyond the fact that you should check your slides on a Windows and an Apple machine before you head to the podium, but that's a different post. Instead, here's:

What I brought:

Clothing:

  • Anything with a pocket
    • This might seem a little left-field, but between business cards (more on that shortly), a clicker, a phone, a bottle of water, any written notes, and a wallet, you have a lot of bric-a-brac to keep on your person when you're a guest speaker. 

Electronics:

  • A powerbank
    • Aside from it being 2018, thus necessitating that we always be contactable, there tends to be quite a bit of down time when you're a speaker as hosts prepare and guests arrive, so it's handy to have full battery to catch up on emails or retweet memes. 
  • Laptop
    • And please, if you only do one thing before you present, make sure that you can either a) use your own machine with the AV set up or b) check that your slides render and load correctly on the provided machine. Doing one of these saves you the headache of having to pause mid-talk and deal with technical difficulties that will distract both you and the audience. 

Cosmetics and health:

  • Eyedrops
    • I tend to wear contacts when I present so that I can see notes on a screen. I also find wearing them makes me feel like I've put in that touch of extra effort. However, I have dry eyes, and the hours spent ahead of a presentation reading and re-reading don't help with that. Hence, eyedrops.

what to bring to a business event

Image Source: Benedikt Luft via Giphy

What I wish I'd brought:

  • Business cards
    • The first time I spoke in a professional setting, I was under the false impression that meet-up speakers aren't seen as real speakers by the folks that attend them. As such, I forewent the need to bring a way for attendees to have my contact details if they weren't getting a copy of my slides. I can't overstate that, every single time I've presented, I've been asked to have a further conversation, to send over details of our software solution, or both, so please bring some BCs, no matter how outdated you think they are. Unless you're zero waste. In which case, go you. 
  • A dictaphone
    • While a lot of conferences and events will have their own AV set up and will publish your talk upon getting permission from you, being able to repurpose your presentation in your own time, with your own file comes in very handy. Whether you want to host the presentation on your own site, or if you wish to you it as collateral for applying to speak at another conference, it helps to have that file at hand, and to have a quality copy of the audio. 

A condensed, downloadable version of my packing list recommendations off the back of this post is available here and looks like this:

Conference Packing Sheet Tito

And, to learn more about the Tito event I spoke about in the first section, you can click the button below:

️ Speaker presentations from Admission will be available here