The Theme Park Approach to Technology Conferences

What do you do when you’re vacationing with family at a theme park?  You get ideas for blog posts, of course.  Well, apparently this is what happens to me on vacation.  This week as we visited Disneyland for the first time I could not help but think that the way we approach spending time at a theme park isn’t so different from the way to approach spending time at a technology conference.  Let’s explore that idea.

Selecting a Theme Park

When you visit a theme park, everything inside is normally under a specific vendor umbrella (Disney, Six Flags, Universal Studios to name a few of the major players).  Ideas for attractions come from characters or themes in support of the vendor’s brand.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If Bugs Bunny is your absolute favorite character, chances are Six Flags will be one of your top choices for a visit despite the way rides compare to other theme parks because the brand resonates.  If you happen to be an adrenaline junkie, then maybe any theme park will do regardless of brand strength.  Personal preference of brand / specific theme park is a big factor in the decision.

Think also about why you want to visit a theme park.  Is it for the attractions, to get the kids out of the house, to show an out of town family member or friend a good time, or just part of a fun excursion to a new place?

Proximity and price come into play when selecting a theme park as well.  Maybe Disney World is too expensive due to travel and lodging costs, but a local Six Flags is only an hour from the house.  Since most people do not have an unlimited budget, travel to a theme park in another city, state, or country may be limited to special occasions since it requires planned saving efforts.

As for conferences, if you’re extremely interested in Microsoft technologies, for example, chances are Ignite will be on the short list of conferences you would attend if given the chance.  Since Microsoft (or some other vendor) is putting on the conference, the sessions and activities will have a strong emphasis on the vendor’s technologies and innovations as well as other adjacent areas.  This may encompass a number of areas in the technology space or only a few depending on the vendor’s size and intended conference audience.

Conference passes can be expensive.  Will you be paying, or will your company cover it under some sort of training budget?  If the company is paying for your conference pass, will they be covering travel as well?  Make sure you understand the answers before reserving travel, lodging, or getting a conference pass.  If you are self-paying, this may require a focused savings effort (depending on overall cost and your budget), and you will likely be required to take paid time off to attend.  If you are a blogger, consider applying for a blogger pass to the conference if available.  That would soften the cost blow and cover a pass (travel and lodging usually not included).

Think about why you attend conferences.  Are you there to party, to meet industry peers, to look for a new job, to seek help for business and technology challenges, to learn new skills in a particular area, or to become more specialized?  Consider your reason(s) for attending carefully, but think of it through the lens of your employer as well.  Are there ways your attendance will help your employer (i.e. adding more value to the team through exposure to industry experts, development as a subject matter expert, researching vendor solutions for an upcoming project, etc.)?  Keep in mind your employer may only be willing to fund a trip to a specific type of conference.  Consider making a pitch to your boss for the company to sponsor your attendance.  You can’t be turned down if you don’t at least ask, but don’t be caught without some supporting reasons for attending.


Appropriate Dress

Normally we think of a theme park visit happening in warm to hot weather and involving a lot of time outdoors. Dressing to stay cool is a must as are good walking shoes.  Don’t forget your sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses.  Bring a change of clothes if you are planning to get soaked by a water ride.

At a conference, it is likely there will be a good amount of walking (depending on the conference venue size).  Since conferences are usually indoors, facilities are often kept extremely cool to cold.  Remember to bring / wear long sleeves if you get cold easily.

Consider the attendee audience as well.  While theme parks generally draw families and friends, conferences draw technology and business professionals.  If the conference is for managers or executives specifically, business casual or better is a smart choice.  At conferences with a wide range of attendees, I have seen people in shorts and flip flops all the way up to full suits.  Be stylish and comfortable, but remember to dress for the way you want to be perceived. If any evening events will be outdoors, a spare set of clothes is a good idea.

Rides and Attractions

Many theme park attendees plan their visits around rides and attractions.  Each ride or attraction is usually geared for a specific audience.  It could be something that targets a younger audience, a more mature audience (think scary or thrill rides), or it could appeal to all ages. Rides and attractions in close proximity to one another are often a part of the same thematic category or  experiential genre (i.e. Cars Land, Adventureland, the different countries at Six Flags Over Texas, etc.).

At conferences, the sessions form the meat of the daily schedule.  Some are very specific and target a technical audience.  Some are a broad overview for audiences of all skill levels and backgrounds.  Others may be business focused but within the realm of technology to target managers, directors, or C-level audiences.  Sessions are normally part of a “track” (basically a grouping of sessions in the same category or conceptual area – Security, Cloud, SaaS applications, etc.).  Alternatively, there are tracks geared for people in a specific role (i.e. the IT Pro Track vs. the Vendor Track at Spiceworld Austin).  In cases where there are many tracks at a conference, do not limit yourself to just one.  Get some exposure to the other tracks to learn what’s happening in the industry, even if you feel like it may not be directly applicable right now.

If multiple people at your company are attending the conference, consider attending different sessions and comparing notes afterward to increase the exposure to different content for all parties.


The Fastpass

At theme parks, most rides and attractions operate all day. A Fastpass (many other names for this) holds your spot in line during a specific time slot to avoid the long wait. Normally a Fastpass can only be used on the most popular rides, and you can only hold so many Fastpasses at a time.

At a conference, some sessions happen only once, while others are repeated.  This is challenging as there may be multiple very interesting sessions happening at once.  Signing up to attend a session through a conference scheduling tool is the equivalent of a Fastpass that reserves your spot.  As long as you show up before the standby line starts moving, it is a guaranteed seat.  While rides continue to run at the theme park, you may only get one shot to get into a session.  Being early to the standby line is the only hope for attending a session which could not be booked in advance but still does not guarantee a seat.  If you do miss a session, some conferences will record the sessions for later viewing (take the sessions from VMworld as an example).

Some sessions of a particular type only allow you to select so many of them in your schedule (i.e. Design Studio sessions at VMworld).


Special Events

A number of theme parks have special shows throughout the day and evening like concerts, theatrical performances, and fireworks.  These events can be an opportune time to spend on rides or shopping if you want to beat the crowds.

I’d equate this to evening events like a concert, a party, or an exclusive vendor-sponsored event at a conference.  These types of events may require signing up in advance, so educate yourself on the what, where, and when so as not to miss out on interesting experiences.  The cost is normally included with your ticket, but these events are completely optional.    At a conference, a party or concert is often too loud for much social interaction, so some people choose to pursue a quieter spot for socializing. In general, there are too many special events at conferences to do them all.  Be selective.


Some theme parks (like the Disney parks) may have a special ceremony to open the park for the day, but there’s no specific gathering for all attendees that truly equates to a keynote at a conference.  Conferences don’t happen every day, so the keynote contains a specifically crafted message for attendees.  A keynote is usually a talk from a well-known industry speaker (or vendor executive) that contains information on technology trends and futures, announcement of new product and feature releases, some information on what to expect from the conference, or an opportunity to share an experience with the audience.  These sessions usually get the most attention from bloggers and the media.


Souvenir Shops

There is no centralized solution exchange / vendor expo at a theme park, but there are souvenir shops scattered throughout.  While they are not staffed with marketing personnel or engineers to evangelize and demo products, they are staffed with people who will take your money if you find the right souvenir.  This is your chance to look around and see what products are available for purchase. It’s likely there will be no free swag at a theme park unless you’re a season pass holder, happen to be at the park on a special day, or happen to be participating in pin trading at a Disney park.

When you visit vendor booths at a conference, get yourself some free swag.  Hopefully you have room in your suitcase or special swag bag for it.  But while at a booth, take time to learn about the products and services offered by that vendor, even if it seems unrelated to your current set of projects.  This information could come in handy at a later time, and if nothing else, it is more exposure to what is happening in the industry.  For those vendors you use and know, it can’t hurt to go over to their booth and tell the staff what you find useful and what could be improved in their products(s).  If you’re struggling with a vendor’s product, get some technical advice from the booth staff or contact information for someone who can help.  Inquire about beta testing new products if you’re fond of the vendor’s products.

If you’re on the lookout for career advancement opportunities, ask people at the booths about their background and how they made it to where they are today.  Ask what they plan to do next and why they like what they do.  This is a professional networking opportunity as well.  It’s possible to spend an entire day or more in the solutions exchange talking with vendors, but this is not an aspect of the conference that should be skipped.


The Character Breakfast

Theme parks like Disney make a killing on this.  Pay extra money to ensure you have time to eat and take pictures with characters.  This is focused networking at its best.  Sometimes it is only one or two characters for an intimate setting, while in other instances it could be an array of characters you could meet during your meal.  When taking small children to theme parks, this type of activity can be one of the most exciting times of the day.

Meal times at conferences allow meeting and networking with new people.  There may be specific people you want to meet at the conference (people well known in the industry or someone you have corresponded with on social media but have not met in person).  Be intentional in your interactions, and take an opportunity to meet people you might not normally get to meet.  Sitting with people you don’t know at meal times is a tactic I like to employ.   Additionally, having a quiet meal away from the conference is a great way to further a connection with someone you know or to make a new professional connection.  Listen to Aaron Delp’s advice for intentional networking from this  Geek Whisperers podcast episode.  But unlike a temporal character meeting at a theme park, professional networking can lead to long lasting and unexpected connections.  After all, John White and I met at Spiceworld many years ago by chance.


Pacing Yourself

For multi-day theme park visits, early mornings and late nights may be in your future (likely dependent on your energy level and that of any children you brought). It’s ok to leave the park early if needed to ensure you aren’t out of energy on the last day.  Alternatively, take a rest period in the middle of your day to get out of the heat and re-energize.

If you stay out until 3 AM on the first night of a conference, the rest of the event is going to be rough.  Days are jam packed with events, and so are evenings. I don’t recommend missing out on some of the biggest events during the day because you’re exhausted, but it’s important to be selective here. If lunch is a big window and your hotel is close, that could be a chance to rest. Or if you don’t mind catching an extremely quick breakfast, sleep in until the last possible second so there’s time to eat before events begin.  If the value of an evening event is far greater than what you would miss the next morning by sleeping in, by all means go for it.

Evening events can be fun, but you may need to skip one to turn in early.  Most of us will be tired after a multi-day conference, but don’t push so hard that you’re sick when you get home.  And for those with a family, remember that they will be excited to see you again after several days away from home.  Hopefully you can leverage a weekend to rest and recover, but in other cases it may be back to work the next day.  No one wants to go back to work exhausted or have to take a sick day after being out of office for several days.

Staying Hydrated

On a hot day at a theme park, no one can afford to get dehydrated.  You’ll find most quick service places within popular theme parks give out small cups of water at no charge, and bottled water is often expensive.  There are water fountains scattered throughout the park as well.

At a conference, you normally find water, coffee, and soft drink stations scattered throughout the halls of the venue.  Take advantage of hydrating when you get the chance.  Sitting in the chilly conference venue most of the day can easily dehydrate attendees.  Coffee is great, but if you drink too much of it without a decent amount of water as well, the benefits may not be there.  Try taking some kind of water bottle to your next conference so you don’t have to keep up with small paper or plastic cups.  Session rooms normally have water stations as well.

The worst thing about staying hydrated is having to take frequent restroom breaks.  And when does everyone take that break?  They go between sessions.  This may sound odd, but scope out the bathroom facilities at the meeting venue.  There are some areas with more foot traffic and others that normally are not that busy (i.e. the outer edges of the conference hallways or on another floor entirely).  This is something I specifically look for at theme parks as well to avoid traffic jams.  If you’re at a really big conference, finding a restroom may be a downright hassle depending on the conference facilities.  Be prepared.


Having Fun and Acting Silly

When visiting a theme park, the goal is to have fun.  And sometimes visiting brings out the kid in us.  Do people act a little silly sometimes at theme parks?  They definitely do.  People want to get their money’s worth by making the experience the best it can be while trying to relax and have fun.  In early evening you can see the weight of the day on people’s faces.  The tiredness often leads people to think and act in interesting ways (i.e. irritability with the family, making a scene over something an employee of the park told you not to do, etc.).

While attending a conference you should absolutely look to have fun as part of the experience.  But, I want to offer a word of caution.  Every interaction you have at a conference is a chance for others to see your professional reputation (or personal brand as some would say) in action.  What you do and say shows people who you are.  And what you do can easily end up on social media for people you know to see (even if you did not post it).  Make good choices as you decide how to spend your time, and get as much personal and professional value out of the conference as possible without needing to regret something you did while there.

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