Attending Conferences - Level 0

Posted 14 Jun 2016

This is the second in a series of five blog posts about attending academic conferences (HCI ones in particular). This post outlines some of the basics of attending a conference–what to wear, what to pack, how to travel, and so on.

What should I wear?

Conferences in the HCI domain are fairly casual affairs. You can wear what you would wear to school on a regular basis. This still means that there is a wide range in what you will see, because in some countries, people wear suits to school. This is generally not necessary. So, think of clothing as being casual to smart casual.

That said, if you want to wear something a little classier – particularly if you are going to be giving a talk, then this is a good thing. Do it. You don’t lose points if you are a bit overdressed.

You do not need to worry about dressing up for the conference reception. The same clothes you were wearing that day will be fine.

What should I pack?

Pack as lightly as possible. Remember: you’re not going on a safari or moving. In most cases, you are going to a first world country. If you forgot something, you can almost certainly buy it there (or borrow it from a friend).

I should be clear: I personally totally stink at packing. My wife, however, is a genius (and usually packs for me). As a benchmark, I usually attend conferences with a backpack and a small carry-on bag that is only about 3/4 full. The only thing I’ve managed to pick up from watching my wife pack is that she rolls my clothes rather than folding them.

If you are going on an extended trip, the trick is to do laundry while on the trip. Remember that in the old days, they would do laundry by hand! You still can do this! It is a good skill to learn. Short of that, if you are in an AirBNB, many of them have laundry facilities you can use. To get single-use laundry items, head to a dollar store before you leave home.

Conference badge

This is the most important thing to wear. It is kind of obvious, perhaps, but make sure that you are wearing your badge in a way that it prominently shows your name in the way you’d like to be addressed. If it does not have the name you like, then ask the registration desk (perhaps later on in the day when it is not too busy) to print you another one with the name you like to be called (don’t tell them I told you to do that). One dorky thing is that the conference badges sometimes have a habit of flipping around (depending on how it is worn or how the badge holders are strung up)–try to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Overseas conferences

This is perhaps the most complicated piece of the puzzle. Your best bet is to skim through the tips below, and then do some real Google research for the country you are visiting to find out the local tips and tricks. Some things to consider (and ways that I usually do it):

  • Visas. As soon as the paper is accepted, check whether you need a special visa to enter that country. If you do, then get on top of the application process ASAP. It usually takes more time that we expect. Even if you don’t need a visa, check to make sure your passport is valid for 12 mos. after the conference.
  • Money. While it is a good idea to have local currency, sometimes it is difficult to secure a lot of it locally before you head off. Usually, I try to make sure I have about $50 in either local currency or USD before I take off in the plane. Once I get into the destination airport, I will take out some money at an ATM using my bank card. Usually, it is advisable to not hold too much local currency in hand (say no more than about $150 USD worth). The $50 USD is in case I can’t find an ATM – it is usually enough to get me to the hotel, where they will almost certainly be near an ATM or have means for me get local currency.
  • Bank cards and credit cards. With either one, you will want to call ahead to tell them you are traveling (and the dates of your travel). In particular, bank cards in some countries are expected to have a 4- or 6- digit PIN. Try to make sure yours will work in the country before you get there. Bank cards: use these to get money out of the ATM – do not use your credit cards to do this, as those will usually charge a cash advance fee. Credit cards are handy because it means you do not need to carry local cash; however, it means that you are constantly paying for an exchange fee (built into the exchange rate), and many smaller places might not take a credit card (e.g. a hotdog vendor).
  • Passports. My advisor once told me to keep my passport in one jean pocket and my wallet in the other. My wife has told me not to carry my passport with me when out and about. I’m not sure who is correct, but I do know who I’m married to. Regardless, do take photos of all your important documents and have copies of these somewhere (e.g. on your phone, in your email, whatever). In the worst case scenario where everything gets stolen and you are at a Canadian embassy, you’ll need to have something that they can work from.
  • Backpacks and purses. Try to keep your backpacks and purses as empty as you can if you are in a country that is known to have pickpockets. If you are going to carry your wallet, use the front jean pocket rather than rear jean pocket. While traveling outside the conference location (e.g. on the bus), sling your backpack to your front, an your purse across your body. This makes it harder to steal from. For your backpack, rather than having it zipped to the top, zip it to the side.
  • Phones and SIM cards. Local SIM cards are the easy way to stay in touch these days. I keep a US SIM card for my US travel, and for other countries (i.e. not Canada and US), I’ve found they have very sane pre-paid data SIM cards. Usually, you can expect to spend about $20 and get around 4GB or more for 30 days (more than the duration of the conference). Use a data plan, as you can still use WhatsApp or Skype to make calls if necessary. If facing a choice between a phone SIM card and one of those “mobile internet hotspot”, my suggestion is to go for the phone SIM card: first, your phone will likely allow you to tether other devices anyway; second, having to keep two devices charged (phone and mobile internet hotspot) is a real pain.
  • Stay in groups. For my sanity, please travel in at least pairs – particularly if you are headed back to a hotel in the evening.
  • Time zone hopping. Because my super power is that I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, I have never really figured out the magic to traveling across time zones and getting the whole sleep thing right. The typical advice seems to be that you ought to try to match up with the destination time zone as soon as you can (i.e. wake up when it is morning, go to sleep when you ought to). I typically find traveling east harder than traveling west, and that about an eight- or ten-hour change is just about the worst. One of my colleagues swears by melatonin pills (taken as he gets on a plane so he can sleep during the trip), but for me, they always just seemed like placebo. Be aware that the time zone thing may hurt, and plan ahead for it. Usually, mid-afternoon is when it hits the hardest (seemingly regardless of which direction or number of time zones, I’ve found).
  • Customs. Be respectful of the customs of the setting and place, especially if you are site-seeing and in/near areas of worship/holy grounds. Dress and speak appropriately (and do your research beforehand to figure out what “appropriately” means). Females, there are still many places where the rules are different for you. For everyone, remember that you represent Canada, the University, our lab, and also me when you are out there. Should you disgrace yourself, you will be disavowed.

Flight rewards

Apply for flight rewards memberships with one (or both) of Air Canada and WestJet. The rewards memberships are free, and they can add up over time. If you have already purchased your ticket, you can still apply. When you check in, you’ll have the opportunity to add your membership number to the flight.

Credit cards

If you do not have a credit card, you should get one. Find one that does not have an annual fee, and make sure to pay off the balance in FULL when the bill comes in. I am not confident enough in my financial knowledge to do a blog post about this, and it’s largely beyond the scope of this post; however: a credit card is handy when traveling, and it is worth having one to help build your credit over time anyway.

Keep your receipts!

Keep all your receipts. For restaurants, ask in advance (when the server is taking the order) for separate checks. Also, if you are using a credit card, get an itemized receipt along with your credit card payment bill. For your flights, keep the boarding pass. Yes, this means you need to get a physical paper one.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Many hotels can provide you with toiletries (for free) if you forgot something: toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, shaving materials, tampons and pads. On the off-chance that they charge for these, consider dropping by a local grocery store or corner store where these might be cheaper.
  • If you remembered your shaving stick, but forgot shaving cream, you might find that shampoo (or even soap) will do the trick.
  • If packing dirty clothes back into your baggage, it should be separated from everything else by (at least) a plastic bag.

This post is one in a series of five about attending academic conferences.

My thanks to my colleague Carman Neustaedter who provided comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.