By Lola Rain

I was recently asked the most wonderful question by a new graduate who was about to go to her first in-person senior living conference. “What can I expect at the conference?” I reflected on my first conference as I came up with three topics for mentoring:

  1. Traveling
  2. Networking
  3. Learning

I started working in senior living in 2012 after grad school, and my first conference was, well, stressful.

My First Conference

I was a new employee at Care Innovations, my first professional job in aging services, and I was sent to a LeadingAge Washington conference in Spokane. Now, to get from Sacramento to Spokane, I had to change planes in Seattle. From SMF to SeaTac, that early morning flight was filled with businessmen in suits. They looked like a gang of consultants going to do layoffs. This frightened me. I’ve seen Office Space and Up in the Air with George Clooney. And I had just lived through the recession while working in real estate where, literally, thousands of people were laid off in one day by men in suits — thanks to Countrywide Financial.

Although I was worried about imaginary employees about to be fired by men in suites, I had more concerning things on my mind at that moment. I was terrified by travel. At SeaTac, I fiddled in a Starbucks nervously awaiting my connecting flight while fearfully anticipating hailing a cab when I landed in Spokane. Afterall, this was before Uber and Lyft made it so easy to get around.

There I was in Spokane, at the tiniest airport with my equipment in one hand and luggage in the other. The taxi ride to the Davenport Hotel was easy. The cab driver was super nice, unlike my only other taxi experience in Vegas. That’s another story.

I got to the hotel, dropped my luggage in the room, and headed to the trade show room to set up. It was a small room. Only about 20 vendors. Except later I realized there was a different room where the majority of the booths were. I was in the less-trafficked area.

Because I had just started at the tech company, I had never used the equipment. The day before my flight I got a crash course in setting it up.

As I put out my table cloth, laid out the brochures, and opened the case of the digital reader designed for people who needed visual assistance, the curious vendors around me started asking tons of questions. I reluctantly mentioned I’d only been on the job two weeks and this was my first conference EVER.

The most amazing thing happened. Everyone around me was friendly and delighted I had joined the industry. They were supportive, telling me I was doing a great job. It was the boost of confidence I needed. At that moment I realized how special the people are who work in senior care.

The traveling worked out well. No snags. The trade show went well, even though there were no sales. What was a little more challenging was the networking.

Failed at Networking, Successful at Learning

I didn’t know what to do in between the trade show hours and the reception. I’m an introvert, so I didn’t ask anyone for advice. I just kind of slinked around the hotel corridors, then I ducked into a session. The only seat left was in the front row. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me,” I said while sidestepping as my purse knocked into people. I sat down and listened.

Although I had just completed an expensive, two-year graduate degree focused on the management of aging services, I learned the most valuable, practical knowledge in that one session than I had previously learned in school. It still inspires me when thinking about what I learned that day.

I also learned a lot from the vendors at the trade show. I spent time talking to them and learning about their products. I learned about toilet seats. Something so simple that has such a huge impact on the quality of our lives. I learned about grab bars and why physical changes make them necessary.

Today, because of that one conference, I teach every non-senior living person I encounter why they must do heel lifts to keep their ankles strong, and how they need to pay attention to the position of their feet and the shifting weight of their bodies as they stand up from the commode. It’s fascinating! Truly!

The Tough Part That Took Me Nearly 5 Years to Learn: Networking

During the reception, I was at a high-top cocktail table standing by myself, no one joined me. No one said “Hi”. No one asked my name or where I was from. I felt like I was completely alone in that room. So I walked out and went to the hotel bar.

I whined to the bartender about my lack of social skills. No one at the bar talked to me either. I was distraught. I went to my room and went to sleep. (Note to amateur travelers: Sleeping in a hotel bed during a conference is so AMAZING!)

The next few conferences got easier. I even presented a couple of sessions. Public speaking was one of my professional goals that I was working on with my mentor at the time. But I still didn’t learn the art of networking. It frustrated me. At the larger conferences it was a bit easier because people were further from home, and often traveling alone, so we had more things in common.

Then in Chicago in 2016 I got hit by a brick, metaphorically speaking. It was my first SMASH conference. I was so excited with the anticipation of being in a new city and among professional marketers like me.

At the reception, I tried so hard to talk to people. I saw someone I recognized, but she didn’t recognize me and she was more interested in talking to someone else. Then the one man who started a conversation with me was feature dumping info about his company, and never asked about me or what I do. The one other person I talked to was drunk and in a hurry to leave. Man, that was a bust!

I felt defeated. I thought: I will NEVER try this again. I’m not social enough, no one wants to hear about me, I bring no value to the conversation. As much negative self-talk you can imagine was speeding through my head. I was NEVER going to go to another conference where I traveled alone and didn’t know people. Then a phone call changed my mind.

I spoke to the organizer of SMASH. She asked my opinion. She asked me to participate in some activities to help plan for the next year’s conference. I felt important. I felt valued.

Advice for Newbies

Now that I have reflected on my experience, here are the three pieces of advice for newbies:

  • Traveling can be exhausting. If you are in a time crunch, you might have to fly in at 4 am and out on a 9 pm. Think about how you can maximize your time by arriving a day earlier and leaving a day later. Are there specific people you want to meet while there? Maybe those people won’t be at the conference, but you can invite them for coffee nearby, or stop by their office. I rarely push myself into undesirable flights anymore. You learn after awhile which flights are the best. Stay away from the Vegas airport at 5pm on a Friday.
  • Networking can be fruitful if you know how to work it. Get yourself an ice breaker question or two and ask everyone within earshot. Smile BIG while doing this. Don’t say the usual thing: “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” Try: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “If you were a farmer, what crop would you grow?” Or “What is your favorite memory about your grandma?” Get creative and people will immediately become engaged, and they will remember you.
  • Absorb every piece of information you can. You will need it. There are so many good pieces of knowledge to collect. Write down the three things that you learned that most intrigued you. Or better yet, Tweet those three things and hashtag the conference. And write those three things on your LinkedIn page and tag the speakers and people you met. This is networking. You will want to connect virtually with everyone you meet offline.

Grow your network, expand your knowledge, and enjoy every minute of it. While it may be scary now, soon you will be a pro at it!