In the two and a half years I’ve worked for Hedgebrook, I’ve attended several writing conferences. Here are some observations I’ve made that I hope will help you the next time you’re hosting a table at one of these events!
1) Check out how you check in.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but pour over the registration information. Where do you load in? Print a map. Where do you park? Do you need a pass? Is there a limited window for load in?
If possible, reach out to the conference coordinator. Let them know you’re excited for the conference and clarify the aspects that aren’t clear in the registration materials. You’ll be thankful you’ve built the relationship before you arrive.
2) Pack light.
This cannot be overemphasized. If possible, consolidate all your tabling materials into a single suitcase with wheels. Hand carts are usually scarce and you can be left waiting for one for several minutes. Also, having all your tabling materials in a wheeled suitcase increases your flexibility in where you park.
Conferences often offer the option of a shipping service or have a FedEx onsite. Speaking from the personal experience of waiting two hours in a line at AWP Boston, I can tell you, you’re better off if you pack light.
3) Be social.
Starting 2-3 weeks before the conference, consider broadcasting your presence on your organization’s social networks as well as your personal feeds. See if the conference has a Facebook page or a Twitter handle and tag them in your posts.
Research if there is a conference hashtags (i.e. #AWP14). Use it!
An enticing image of you at your table can be a draw. I posted one on my personal Instagram and a friend from high school found me and brought other people with her to engage with my organization.
Bolster engagement by running a social campaign. For AWP this year, we ran an #EqualVoice campaign. We asked people to write down what they do to support women writers on a 2 x 3 label and we wallpapered room dividers with the responses. We also tweeted all the responses we received.
4) Be wary of Wi-Fi.
Some conferences will assure you that there is on-site Wi-Fi open to all participants. Others will offer Wi-Fi packages for purchase. I’ve found that in either case, the Wi-Fi is rarely reliable. If you’re running a Square off of your phone or tablet, do a test run before the conference is open to the public. Have a hard copy of a credit card order form at the ready in case the network gets overloaded. Bring your device chargers and scope out the nearest plugins to make sure you can get through the day without with a full battery!
5) Know thy neighbor.
You’ll usually have at least a couple of neighbors. Introduce yourself! Find out about their organization, sign up for their mailing list and ask them about past experiences at conferences. It’s good karma and may give you greater insight into that given conference or others you might not know about.
6) At what cost?
Having a table at a conference is rarely free. Know the rates: booth, table, and half table. Make your decision deepening on the locale, rate and audience, which leads us to…
7) Know your goals.
Be specific about what you want to get out of the conference. “Having a presence,” or “Because we’ve always gone” or “Because we should”–none of these reasons have measurable goals associated with them.
Hard goals, such as a number of mailing sign ups or total of books or merchandise sold–you’ll know when you achieve these goals.
We attach a value to each mailing list sign up (based on an average of donations and tuition for earned income programs received for each name received.) When entering conference attendees into your database, make a note of the conference so you can better track the return on your investment.
If you have a table or a booth, it’s wise to stagger shifts. Reach out locally to stakeholders who may be attending the conference and see if anyone is interested in volunteering. Note: be sure to be clear if they’ll need to have a registration badge or not. Some conference require badges at all times, while others let people come and go freely. If you’re attending alone, you may get multiple badges.
You may think that you can sit and stand at a table and talk to people about your organization, but by hour four or give, you’ll be wanting a break.
9) Snacks are important.
Tabling is the olympics of marketing for writing organizations. Be well fueled. I always bring a refillable water bottle and a couple of high-protein granola bars. Remember, you are never too busy to be well hydrated!
10) Make the rounds.
I try to set aside 1-2 hours where I can do a tour of the other tables and booths. I make note of the booth designs and tools to promote engagement that catch my eye.
Introduce yourself to like-minded organizations. Sign up for mailing lists. Pick 1-2 sessions that excite you–these can be great talking points for you when you get back to your table.
11) Meaningful Swag.
Swag, or branded take-aways, are a staple of writing conferences. Everyone wants to have the coolest stuff. Make your swag work for you! At the very least, have your website clearly printed on your swag, if not a unique url (i.e. AWP.Hedgebrook.org) so you can capture page views. Food is great and will draw people, but make sure it’s individually wrapped, or the conference food service may take it away.
12) Dress for success.
Maybe it’s the actor in me, but I carefully consider my conference attire (or costume.) Think about the kind of writer you want to attract to your table. People have a lot of ground to cover during conferences, and the way you (and your table) are dressed can influence if they stop by or not.
Personally, I opt for dressy jeans and a bold top over which I can layer a blazer or a dress dressed down with leggings. Shoes should be COMFORTABLE. You’re going to be standing on cement floors for several hours–opt for practicality over fashion.
For your table attire, consider a custom table cloth with your logo and/or a tall pop-up banner. Put posters and books in uprights or stands and make sure your mailing list signup isn’t an afterthought. A legal pad does the job, but isn’t enticing. Even a basic sign up document created in Word and printed on colored paper, framed by a clipboard classes things up a bit. As an alternative, consider creating paper slips that enter participants into a drawing.
Also, setting up your table before you travel and taking a picture can be extremely helpful in confirming that all your materials look they way you want them to.
13) Get carded.
Bring business cards. And use them. Exchange them. Collect them. I bribg my official Hedgebrook cards, but I also bring my personal writer/actor cards that point to my personal website.
14) Writers are introverts.
While this is not an overarching rule, I have found it to be a trend. Conferences are overwhelming explosions of awesome like-minded people. Be mindful that there are some people who may be out of their element. Be gentle.
I make the choice not to be aggressive when people approach my table. There will always be those who prefer to surreptitiously take a postcard to read later and then they’re on their way. I respect this.
If someone approaches the table and sticks around for longer then 5-7 seconds, I’ll ask them one of the following questions:
“Are you a writer?”
“What genre do you work in?”
“What’s your favorite session been?”
“Have you heard of us.”
15) Have a drink.
A lot of deeper connections are made off-site, at after-hours events. Attend readings and find out where the hotspots are. You’ll be glad you did!
What’s what I’ve learned while tabling. How about you?