Conference Attendance – How do you feel?

By Matthew Holman

How do you feel about attending a conference for work? As we start out the new year we also start to fill our schedules with industry events, meetings and conferences. But how much do conferences and networking events impact our mental health? 

Over 20 years working for corporations I attended many conferences all over the world on behalf of my employer. The conference sizes ranged from 100 to over 7,000, and from a few hours to multiple days. 

On the outside you could say I was the perfect attendee for a conference, willing to learn, eager to make new connections, and had the ability to work all day and night, often with limited sleep find my way through the other side.  

In all honesty I used to really struggle with conferences, my addictive personality meant I was always drawn to the social side, the fun times and to try my best to remain part of the ‘work’ elements of the events. I struggled because deep down (and I don’t share this often) I was anxious. I was worried that I would have to do things outside of my comfort zone. 

Following most conferences I was asked to provide feedback on the quality of the event, the venue and thoughts for future event sessions. I don’t recall ever being asked how I felt about attending, how I felt about networking at the event or how I felt and recovered after it had all concluded. 

This leads us nicely to 2023. The new year and new conferences to look forwards to and plan. We are now at a unique point and opportunity to embrace a redesign of our approach to building conferences. Over the past 7 years I have been working with mental health, and now this year bringing alignment and training to support awareness raising of neurodiversity. Both of these areas are points that we can now hook into the conference design for the future. Whilst these groups maybe be represented by the minorities (1 in 4 people struggling with mental health conditions, and around 10-15% of adults with neurodivergences), it is these groups we should support first.

I am very grateful to my friends at the ITM (Institute of Travel Management) for asking me to work with them, to help improve the conference experiences for the delegates at their event taking place in April.  As part of this consultation I decided to openly offer my thoughts about how we can make simple adjustments that could support me as an attendee better (I am not saying some of these are not already in place, as many do good things already). 

So, how can we improve the conference experience? 

If I am required to participate in polls, questions or speaking publicly during sessions let me know in advance 

Information, information, information 

Provide me with all of the relevant information that can help me prepare for my participation at the event – A clearly outlined agenda, details of speakers and also times when I need to be present or networking. For breakout rooms or activities provide me with information about the size of the rooms and number of seats.

The need for quiet space

Create and encourage the use of quiet spaces at the event. If I am feeling overwhelmed by the noise or overstimulated by the environment, provide me with an easily accessible space to move away from the main event.

Clarity on expectations

If I am required to participate in polls, questions or speaking publicly during sessions let me know in advance so as to not raise any additional anxiety during sessions that may distract me from the content of the session. 

Networking is not for everyone 

Promote alternatives to the networking events that I may feel more comfortable to participate in. 

Recharging and recovering 

Provide the opportunity for me to take the time I need to recharge following the conference sessions. Don’t pressure me to leave the conference and then a quick turn-around ready for evening networking without providing enough time for me to recharge. 

Hiding in your room 

Provide better support and options for those who prefer not to participate in activities outside of the conference agenda. Many business travellers and conference attendees will struggle with social anxiety and find it easier to avoid situations that will make them feel uncomfortable. 

There are many more adjustments that can be made, and that’s where you as a reader of this blog can help. 

This year I have been working with the ITM | Institute of Travel Management to help create a more inclusive event for their annual conference. We are capturing information about conference experiences (you don’t have to attend the ITM Conference to support our research). 

Below you will find the link to a survey we have created through the ITM to help improve the experience of conferences for the delegates: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/Survey_Wellbeing

As always thank you for reading.

If you would like any help with your mental health and wellbeing programmes, or to talk about traveller wellbeing please feel free to get in touch with us: simpila@simpila.com

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