Doris fumbled with the room key. Looped around her left forearm was a large tote bag that contained her purse, a bulky digital camera and other numerous "necessities" she had lugged onto the plane earlier that afternoon. Around her right forearm sat the pull handle from her luggage and another strap from a large clothing bag. In her teeth, she clenched the hotel receipt and a brochure for a local museum.
She kicked the door open and careened into the darkened room. "Looks all right," she muttered. "Got to get to Registration." She dug into the tote bag, pulled out her cell phone and dialed a familiar number.
"Jamie, hey, what room are you in? I just got here ... Don't ask; I barely made the flight. And then I had no idea where the hotel was. I didn't even remember the name of the hotel at first. I told the cabbie it started with an 'M,' and he laughed and said there are 10 hotels that start with 'M' in the city. I said there was a convention center next door, and he drove me here. I had to open my luggage in the lobby to find my reservation. Thankfully, I was in the right place."
Jamie smiled on the other end. "You never could get organized," she scolded her old friend. "I realized that a long time ago in vet school."
Doris winced, and then asked, "Have you found Registration yet?"
"Sure have. I registered online and then picked up my badge and stuff earlier today. It was easy."
"Would you help me find it? Maybe we can grab a bite to eat afterward."
"No problem," Jamie said. "I'm hungry, and we can attend that speaker forum on laser surgery up in Ballroom B. There's a free catered meal with it."
"Free meal and forum?" Doris mumbled. "I didn't know about that."
Thirty minutes later Jamie was leading the way to Registration, where they found a long line. They used the time to talk shop. Since graduation several years ago, the two had met at industry conventions from time to time. Both were now seasoned small-animal clinicians and needed CE to maintain their licensure. Big meetings fit the bill.
As the wait dragged on, they ran out of ready conversation. Both fell silent until Doris finally plopped her purse on the registration desk.
Moments later, Doris sported a backpack filled with meeting information, a massive convention program and an array of promotions and dog treats.
"What time is it, Jamie?"
"It's 7:15. The dinner meeting's already half over. If we hurry we can get some food and hear the experts."
As they approached the session, they could hear laughter and applause from within. They peered through the massive double doorway and saw the hotel staff carrying away the last vestiges of the free meal.
"Drat!" exclaimed Jamie. "Missed a free meal! Let's sit in on the session anyway."
By the time they found seats, the speakers were wrapping up. They had missed all but a few moments of jovial banter.
After eating a hot dog from an outside vendor, they made plans to meet for lunch the next day and headed off to their rooms.
The next morning Doris dumped the contents of her backpack on the unmade bed. She pored over the program, looking for promising sessions. She loved feline medicine and intended to check the offerings. She stuffed it all back into the backpack and headed down to the lobby.
A couple hours later, Jamie looked at her watch. Doris was late. She sipped from her second glass of water.
Meanwhile, Doris — just yards away — was desperately unfolding a wadded-up map. She wondered if she could find the restaurant Jamie had talked about. She dialed Jamie's cell.
"Jamie, where's that restaurant you talked about?" pleaded Doris.
Jamie looked out the window and could see Doris bent over her phone spinning in circles as she spoke with a half-folded map trailing her movements.
"Right behind you!" Jamie said, laughing till her stomach hurt.
During lunch, Doris explained how she couldn't attend the feline lectures because there weren't any seats left. Her boss wanted her to visit the exhibit hall, too, but she wasn't sure what he wanted her to look for. Doris went on for some time before Jamie chimed in.
"You know, Doris, you should be able to attend any of the lectures if you arrive in time — 15 minutes before the lecture. I check the locations ahead of time online before I even leave home. The owner of our practice sits down with me before I leave, and we look at the exhibitor list together. She tells me which vendors to visit, and sometimes she lets me buy equipment. It really helps me to focus on the needs of our practice."
Doris looked bewildered.
Nobody said anything for what seemed an eternity.
Finally, Doris broke the ice.
"Do you want to go to a museum this afternoon?"
How to fight conference chaos
If you're anything like Doris, you may find yourself overwhelmed at a veterinary conference. You may wonder why anybody even attends them. After all, the same information is available online and in books and journals.
The main reasons for attending professional conferences are to acquire continuing education hours and to maintain your professional network, including your friends.
A conference also takes you out of the distracted environment we call "daily practice" and lets you focus on refreshing your knowledge. No book or online substitute can ever replace that.
Here are some sure-fire strategies for making sure you get all you can out of your next industry conference.
Prepare before you go
There is more to preparing for a conference than making hotel and airline reservations. Meetings (especially big meetings) are brutal without some organizing ahead of time. Spend time with the preconvention package you receive — don't just stuff it in your luggage the night before. Go to the conference website, look at maps and orient yourself with respect to your hotel.
Next, map out each day with sessions you want to attend and their times. Keep this information in a PDA or on a small notecard. Remember not to "over-promise" yourself; scheduling conflicts will keep you from attending every session that sounds good.
Take business casual clothing with you. Online hiring powerhouse Monster.com  defines business casual as "dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together." You represent your practice when you're away, so use good judgment. No flip-flops or sweatshirts in the convention center.
Finally, keep copies of the hotel phone number and address with you for ready reference when you arrive.
Play it smart, get an early start
An industry meeting is not a vacation. You need to get up on time, and this usually means early. If you don't, you will suffer the indignity of standing in long lines for expensive coffee and playing catch-up all day long. If you arrive at 9 a.m. for a 9 a.m. session, you'll invariably be stumbling over people's feet in a darkened room while your cell phone rings in your backpack — in other words, generally "disturbing the peace" for everyone else.
Arriving "on time" means arriving at least 10 minutes before a session starts. This not only lets you find your seat, but also the bathrooms and the free food and drink.
Use breaks as chances to learn
Don't use breaks to call your hospital; delegate duties before you leave. Breaks are for meeting and interacting with others. Learn, learn, and learn while you can. Have your own cards and ask for them from people you meet.
If you want to talk to the presenter after the session or at break time, make it brief. Ask only one or two questions. Also, try to avoid telling the presenter how you do it back home — no one cares but you.
If you especially like a session, send a handwritten thank-you to the presenter. I guarantee that a note or letter will be long remembered. I know — I still get my own handwritten thank-yous out from time to time.
Plan your exhibit hall strategy
Some never get beyond a 30,000-foot view of the hall. Each day of the conference, they walk around aimlessly, avoiding the gaze of exhibitors to hide from the hard sell. This approach is short-sighted. For one, the exhibit hall is a great place to make contact with people in the profession. Our industry is all about relationships — if you know people, they'll take care of you.
The exhibit hall is also the best place to buy equipment and books and compare medications. You can touch the merchandise and maximize your buying leverage. Why? Because their competitors are only a few aisles away.
Before you go, make a list of vendors you want to visit (by booth number) and then work your list methodically between professional sessions. Buy what you need — you'll never find better prices than at a convention — and take advantage of the opportunity to make friends. While in the sessions and after meeting with vendors, take notes. Notes help you summarize what you've found in the exhibit hall. Email this summary to yourself or your boss.
An industry meeting is a place for professionals to meet and exchange ideas. If you participate in golf outings and extracurricular activities, try not to let these events interfere with the real reason you attend. Also, remember that professionals have an obligation to attend sessions for state licensure. Fudging on attendance is a reflection of poor moral character.
Is it party time? Having a drink or two may be okay, but if you're less than professional during the conference or in the evenings, trust that news of your actions will find its way "back home." Have fun, learn and visit the vendors ... but, above all, be professional.
Dr. Lane, a DVM graduate of the University of Illinois, owns and manages two veterinary practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane also completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice-management articles in this magazine and elsewhere. He also offers a broad range of consulting services. Dr. Lane can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org