Some of us are fortunate enough to travel for work, most commonly through all-day conferences and workshops. When these meetings take us to new places, we face a conundrum: how can we visit a city while remaining engaged in the conference itself?
I ran into this problem head on when I visited New Orleans for a social media symposium. I was looking forward to the talks. Social media, one of today’s critical frontiers, is a very important topic for the ecotourism work I do Florida. Yet, I was New Orleans for the first time! The city of music, of beignets, of Bourban Street, of Hurricane Katrina. I wanted to get to know NOLA, hopefully beyond the symbols and cliches (like the ones I just mentioned). Throughout the three days of my visit, I managed to both commit to the conference and check out the city using the three simple tips below.
Tip 1: Get up early.
Just because breakfast is scheduled doesn’t mean it has to be your first stop for the day. If the sun rises at 7 a.m. and breakfast is at 8:30 a.m., that gives you almost an hour and a half to stretch your legs and see what’s around (as long as it’s safe!).
In New Orleans I lucked out because my conference hotel was located in a cool neighborhood, only a few blocks from the famous French Quarter and the banks of the Mississippi River. The first morning I gave myself some extra time before heading to the breakfast room, and navigated myself to the riverfront. I was immediately struck by the curving form of the huge river, glittering in the morning sunlight. A large bridge crossed the watery expanse, and ferries were parked along the banks. It was my first landscape view of the city, and I was a fan.
Tip 2: Take a walk.
If your conference location is in an interesting area, take walks on your breaks. This not only wakes you up and prepares you for the next session, but can be a great networking opportunity if you invite others to explore with you.
I returned to the river for a particularly long morning break, striding past grassy squares, beautiful sculptures, and gorgeous buildings. I absolutely felt more awake when I returned, and had a few cool pictures to boot!
Tip 3: Evenings are your friend.
Let’s be honest, conferences embrace the adult beverages. They provide social lubrication, loosening people up and prompting excellent connections and, again, networking. However, staying cloistered in one bar all night prevents additional exploration. Given my other two tips, this one probably won’t surprise you: get out and about! Look up a few places you want to hit in the evening time and grab some fellow meeting-goers to hit them with you. Avoid chain restaurants – which we gravitate to when we are tired or unsure of where we are – and find a unique restaurant or grocery.
Using this plan, two fellow conference attendees and I ate delicious (and famous) beignets from Cafe du Monde, listened to a live violin duo in Jackson Square, sampled the architecture of the French Quarter during a long stroll, and scarfed down boudin balls at a local eatery. Did we discuss what we had heard at the conference? Of course! Plus a lot of other things we saw and heard in the city.
I like conferences. I always learn a lot, and enjoy connecting with others in my field. In your future meetings, don’t be afraid to take advantage of your surroundings; it can enhance the whole conference experience, as well as your relationships with the people you meet!