Olivia’s Guide to Surviving a Large Conference as a Student

This year, I was granted the amazing opportunity to attend the annual Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. GDC often sees upwards of 30,000 attendees over the course of the five-day conference, which spans three massive conference buildings and includes everything from award ceremonies to discipline-specific summits to a sprawling expo floor. It’s easy to get overwhelmed: the pressure to make every minute count, the desire to attend as many events as possible, the long days on your feet, the stress of navigating an unfamiliar city, and the huge crowds are easily enough to make anyone burn out. Fear not! I have returned with tips that apply to just about every conference you might attend. Learn from my triumphs—and my mistakes.

Before the Conference

The first step towards having a good conference experience is being prepared beforehand. This means solidifying your travel plans, securing housing, getting familiar with the area where you’ll be staying, and ensuring that you know the way to and from the conference center. In my experience, planning and preparation are the hardest and most intensive parts.

  1. Travel: Hope for the best, plan for the worst. Airlines are fickle creatures, prone to weather, breakdowns, mysterious delays, and—God forbid—cancellations. To be safe, plan to arrive ahead of time rather than at the start of the conference. I recommend planning to arrive at least a day before. In addition to giving yourself a buffer in the event of an airline mishap, you will appreciate having some time to settle in before conference chaos begins, especially if you want to explore the city—believe me, once the events get rolling, there won’t be time for that! If you’re arriving from a different time zone (and particularly if you’ve lost time during travel), this additional day will also help ease jet lag.
  2. It’s never too early to book your hotel. Depending on the city, hotels can be expensive and fill up fast, especially closer to the conference. If you know anyone going, I strongly recommend rooming with them—more cost efficient! Consider what distance you’re willing to travel to get to the conference center—hotels that are closer are probably more expensive—as well as how good the public transportation is, whether you’ll have a car, and whether you’ll be staying in an area where it’s safe to walk (especially at night). In San Francisco, for example, you probably want to avoid hotels in the Tenderloin because it’s an unsafe area. If you find that you’ll be frequently walking back at night, find out if anyone else at the conference is staying at your hotel or other hotels nearby and get in touch to arrange a “walking taxi” with them for safety. At the very least, if you’re sharing a room, walk to and from the hotel with your room buddy.
  3. Seek additional funding and budget. See if your institution offers financial support for career advancement (like Denison’s Horizon Fund, which was greatly beneficial for my trip to GDC!) or if any companies have scholarships you can apply for (like Blizzard’s Women in Games scholarship, which took me to GDC last year!). If you’re part of a marginalized group, there may be funds specifically allocated to support folks like you in the industry—look for support groups and sub-communities focused around empowering your demographic (like Women in Games International for the gaming industry). You might also find competitions with conference passes as prizes, so if you feel you’ve got strong work, go ahead and submit!
    • If you can’t find extra funding, be sure you budget for the conference. Get a sense of how expensive food in the area is, especially near the conference center, because not all hotels have complimentary breakfasts or even microwaves in their rooms. You might also get invited out to dinner with new friends or business connections, so budget for potentially more expensive meals as well.
  4. Pack smartly. There are a few items that are important for any conference. Bring a water bottle, backpack, snacks, and layers. Label your items in the event that they get lost. Please, please, please bring comfortable walking shoes, and do not try to break in a pair at the conference itself—that’s a recipe for pain. You might easily walk 15k steps in a day, depending on the size of the conference, and you do not want to find out on day 1 that the shoes you packed aren’t up to the task. I wore my most comfortable, reliable shoes to GDC and still got blisters, and two weeks later, one foot is still recovering! So bring blister care as well, just in case your trusty sneakers turn on you. Do. Not. Wear. Heels.

Other inclusions will depend heavily on the conference location and industry. Ask yourself some questions because these will vary from conference to conference.

  1. How formal is your industry? For instance, the games industry is quite casual; sneakers, jeans, t-shirts, and the like are both common and expected. (I wore a pair of dragon horns for the entire conference!) While nobody will probably deny you opportunities if you wear a suit, you’ll definitely look out of place and catch some side-eye. However, if you dress like a game dev at a conference in the finance or banking industry, other attendees will find your professionalism and professional judgment severely lacking—and remember, these people could be hiring managers or even your bosses someday! Make a good impression.
  2. How common are paper business cards? At a sustainability conference, they might be completely absent, but at GDC, they’re still going strong. You may think that a QR code on your phone is enough, and perhaps it is, but it’s much more time consuming to have to dig out both of your phones, pull up a QR code, and wait for the other person’s camera to pick it up, especially if you’re trying to share with a group. I’ve found that it’s far easier to simply pass out cards. Plus, you can write notes on them about where you met the person—so be sure to leave room on your business card for that! Order them a few weeks in advance.
  3. What’s the weather like during this season in the conference area? In San Francisco, the weather can change on a dime in spring; you might have a sunny morning and then plunge into a rainy nightmare in the afternoon. In other areas, however, it might be far more predictable. Look at the weather forecast ahead of time and determine if you’ll need short sleeves, summer dresses, rain boots, a puffy coat, or an umbrella.
  4. Does your hotel have laundry facilities? This will determine how many changes of clothes you pack unless you’re fine with doing laundry in the sink. If it does have laundry facilities, find out if they are coin-operated.

Plan your schedule ahead of time. Make a schedule of the events you’d like to attend. Many might be happening simultaneously, so ensure you have a list of priorities: if one event fills up, where will you go instead? If some of the lectures and panels are recorded and viewable after the fact, you should probably prioritize the ones that are not (unless you want to meet the speakers afterward). I recommend putting these on your calendar and color coding them. Don’t forget parties, gatherings, discipline-specific meetups, and other events taking place outside of official conference hours. And feel free to schedule designated rest periods in between all the chaos—you might need them!

Frontload schoolwork. If you’ll be missing class, do as much of the makeup work ahead of time as you can. Believe me, you will not be feeling like cramming the week you get back, even if you have extensions. You will be exhausted.

During the Conference

The hard part is over—you’ve done the work of getting your hotel sorted, you know your way around, and your ducks are in a row. You’ve arrived with some time to spare, and you feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (or maybe not, if the airport gods have been cruel). You look upon the conference with excitement and nerves. On the day of the conference, you find yourself at the center, schedule in hand. Now what?

  1. Drink water. Seriously. Pack that water bottle and keep refilling it throughout the day. Coffee and energy drinks are not water; don’t use them as replacements! At big conferences, there are inevitable health emergencies and hospitalizations, and a large number of these are related to dehydration. Conference centers will often provide water cooler stations around the events, so take advantage of these as well. If you feel dizzy, sit down and chug water.
  2. Arrive early at popular events. It can sometimes be difficult to tell which events will be the most anticipated, but if you suspect one might be big, arrive at least 15 minutes early if you can. Conference centers must follow strict fire code rules and regulations, so if a room fills up, they will not let you in. Get in the line early! At GDC, hundreds of people might be turned away from the most popular sessions. If you choose, you might be able to wait outside in the hopes that someone will leave and you can replace them, but this is not a guarantee. 
  3. Take notes, if you want. Not everyone finds this helpful, but I certainly do, especially if I’m attending an unrecorded session, and doubly especially during Q&A sessions. You might have the same questions!
  4. Network! The sessions themselves will be interesting, sure, and there will be a lot of these going on. But the real gems of the experience will be the people themselves, and if you don’t take this opportunity to reach out, chat, and go beyond your comfort zone, you’ll be missing a giant part of the conference. See below for more…
  5. Talk to speakers after their presentations. It’s totally fine to feel starstruck and nervous about approaching a big industry name, but if they’re at the conference, they’re probably eager to meet people! On the whole, people love talking about what they do (especially if they’re presenting about it!) and would be happy to give students and aspiring professionals tips and industry insight. If they’re surrounded by a crowd of others with the same idea, it’s totally fine to be brief: say hello, tell them you’d love to talk later, ask if you can connect on LinkedIn, give them a business card if you brought some, then reach out to them that way once the chaos of the conference is over. Be sure you mention where you met! However, do not treat them like a walking job opportunity. Nothing turns someone off faster than feeling like they’re a means to an end. Instead, view it as an informational interview or a casual chat between acquaintances or friends. Take a genuine interest in their experiences, their path into the industry, and their advice. Connect with them as a person, not just a set of credentials. Also, remember that your whole conversation does not have to be career-focused; I spent many hours talking with professionals about their favorite games.
  6. Connect with peers. It might be tempting to only reach out to the big names, most experienced professionals, and famous personalities in the industry, but while their insight can be helpful, don’t forget about the people in your boat: other students, entry-level workers, and those still learning about the industry. These are the ones you will have the most in-depth conversations, with whom you’ll find the deepest connections, and who will most sympathize with your own struggles as a newbie in a vast industry. Look for people in your subdiscipline who attend the same events as you and who seem like generally cool folks. Don’t view them as job competitors. In addition to potentially forging lifelong friendships, someday they might provide recommendations, vouch for your character, and put in other good words for you, remembering the time you bonded over a shared love for dragons. As you move into the industry and climb its ranks, they will rise alongside you.
  7. Take time to rest. Remember those blocks of time you designated for rest? Use them! And decide what relaxing looks like for you. Is it a chill conversation with someone you clicked with? Unwinding with Wordle? Silently staring at a wall? Do it. Big conferences often have designated quiet rooms where attendees can go to escape the noisy crowds. Keep track of how you’re feeling in general—if you feel crabby or snappish, take a break. Being rude, even if it’s from hangriness, will only reflect poorly on you.
  8. Keep a record of your experience. The conference will be a whirlwind, lots will happen, and it’s easy for everything in a day to slip out of your head the moment you hit the pillow. Try to avoid this—at the moment, it might not seem important, but later you’ll want to remember! I usually try to post on LinkedIn about my day, which reminds me to connect with people I met, boosts my LinkedIn presence, and makes me think back on everything I experienced. I’m always grateful that I did.

After the Conference

Congrats, you made it! Now is the time to catch up on sleep, do laundry, and—once your brain has recharged—look back on what you learned.

  1. Reach out to people. Especially if you promised to keep in touch! Dig through your trove of business cards and send them a note through email or LinkedIn referencing where you met and what you talked about (so that they remember you). If they agreed to give you an informational interview, see about setting up a time to chat. Don’t let all that networking languish or be for naught!
  2. Reflect. While the conference is fresh in your mind, gather your thoughts somewhere. You can post them on LinkedIn, where other potential conference attendees would appreciate seeing them, write an article for Knowlton Connect (hello!), or just scribble them in a journal. Review the records you kept during the conference. Think back: what would you do differently next time? Was there anything you forgot? Anything you might have missed out on? Did your shoes hold up? Did you drink enough water? With whom did you really hit it off and want to prioritize keeping in contact? Most importantly, do you want to attend again next time? I certainly did!

Attending a conference can easily be one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of your professional life. People you meet could be future job coworkers or simply great friends. I hope this article has given you some helpful hints for making the most of your time there. 

Happy conferencing!

By Olivia Bernard
Olivia Bernard