By Helen Newling Lawson
I came to the 2016 Annual Conference and Expo in Atlanta as a newbie both to the organization and as a first-time conference attendee. I might not have normally invested the time and money this early in my transition to my “dream job” as a garden communicator. But as a local, living in Suwanee about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, I had the good fortune to be spared the travel expense. This was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. So despite not knowing a soul, I headed down the road to see if this event could really measure up to the excitement I saw brewing on the Facebook page.
My first impression was one of an incredibly welcoming and encouraging group. People were so excited to greet a “new-bee,” I started to wonder if they were competing for a secret prize! I was also struck by the diversity of skills and mediums that members represented. I met podcasters, bloggers, TV videographers, editors, columnists, manufacturer reps, speakers, authors, PR pros, photographers, social media advocates, and more.
The First-time Attendees Meeting on Friday afternoon was one of my favorite events at GWA Atlanta. The odd configuration of chairs in the room was soon revealed to be a set up for a “speed date,” with newbies on one side and mentors on the other. We worked our way down the line, with just a few minutes to get to know the person opposite us. The room got loud, the oxygen got low, but it was the perfect way to break the ice. Best of all, you had a jumping off point to continue the conversation the next time you saw them.
The mentors kept up the good work the rest of the weekend. It was a thrill just to meet Brent of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, so you can imagine how I felt when he dedicated himself to making me feel welcome every time he saw me!
And then there were the opportunities. I connected with tons of people I never would have had the chutzpah to contact normally. I discovered avenues for work I never even knew existed. It took a real effort and several weeks to work my way through the stack of business cards I came home with. The best part was that I never felt like there was an “insider’s club” or a magic “open sesame” phrase you had to know to uncover these opportunities. You just introduced yourself, and the next thing you knew the person was telling you how you could help them, or introducing you to someone else you might want to know.
If I could do anything differently, I wouldn’t have pinched the pennies and forced myself to stay “off-campus.” Still, I did receive a valuable piece of advice during from one of my speed dates: “Don’t try to do it all.” So it did help to have a time away from the conference to retreat, reflect, and recharge – both myself and the camera battery. But next year in Buffalo, I’m all in!