Choosing a Spring National Conference

by Josie Ahlquist

As we approach the New Year, tis the season for a restful and joyous holiday season.  But come January, early bird deadlines for spring professional association national conferences await.  If you have not already made your professional development plans, making a quick decision to save on registration fees could lead to conference attendee remorse.

There are many things to consider when choosing a conference.  Recently, I have found myself torn in choosing conferences, with the inner wish that I could attend them all.  Colleagues and I have joked that if we could attend conferences as part of our job, we’d do it.

In Student Affairs, there are number of popular conferences offered across the country each spring, which I will highlight in this post.  There may be many others I have not included, either offered in the fall or at the regional level which are also popular.  I will also provide suggestions for elements to consider when choosing to attend one or more of these, as well as how to approach your institution to receive support.

Student Affairs Related Spring Professional Association Conferences (by date)







Elements to Consider in Selecting a Conference

1.  Your Conference Goals.  

Before committing to a conference, you should have a clear purpose for attending.  For example, if you know that you will soon be taking on supervision responsibilities in the next year, you will seek out sessions that explore management, as well as network with attendees whom have experience in supervising.  Another example is if you are about to enter a job search, so attending a conference that has a job placement element should be a priority.

What is not a goal to go to a conference?  Picking a conference based upon location, such as Hawaii or Florida, even worse not being an active participant once at the conference because you are ‘vacationing’.  Be respectful to the conference planners, as well as your own resources.  While vacations can be paired with conference travel, as a professional you should separate your time, such as taking that time before or after, especially if you are bringing family.

 2.  Add Up Your Costs

I have provided the registration costs, at the early bird rate for both Member, non-member and student rates.  Keep in mind registration will always be cheaper for members.  If you are not already a member, you with pay more for registration or also pay for a costly yearly membership fee.  An easy decision, could be only attending conference to organizations you are already a member of.  In order of early bird deadline.

  • NASPA: Early Bird Ends January 10th Member $410 Student Member $125 Non-Member $585
  • ACUI: Early Deadline by January 8th Member $795 Students $395 Non Member $1,025
  • NACA: Early bird January 24th Members – $351  Non-Members – $483
  • ACPA: Early Bird February 18th Member $499 Student $215 Non-Member $700
  • NIRSA: Early bird March 12th Member $540 Nonmember $700 Student Member $350
  • ACUHO-I: Early Registration May 14th Member $560 Non-Member $760

Just the conference registration is the tip of the iceberg on your conference budget.  Additional items include: flight, hotel, ground transportation (taxi, bus, rental car, etc) and meals.

So, here are few things that can make or break conference costs:

  • Look to see if meals are included in the conference.  This could save you $50-250.  Usually larger conference, such as national ones do not.
  • Think about getting a roommate.  I have seen conference hotel rates anywhere from $150 up to $300 per night.  Splitting those costs even in half will be significant.  Some conferences have roommate matching services.
  • Look for a conference that is closer, possibly having the ability to drive or even carpool.
  • If driving or renting a car, what are the conference site parking fees.  In large cities, these can range to surprisingly high amounts.
  • Does the hotel/conference site offer complementary wifi?  If not, this could range from $10-25 per day.

3.  Conference Details

Explore the Keynote Speakers.  Conferences typically include 2-3 major speakers.  Especially for national conferences, big names are sought out and highly marketed to entice potential attendees.  For example, ACPA secured a couple big names this year: Erik Qualman and Brene Brown.

Educational Sessions.  A major part of conferences are smaller sessions for 10-60 attendees.  These sessions typically are vetted through conference reviewer’s, months prior.  At many conferences, it is very competitive to be offered an opportunity to present so the quality if typically high.  Ideally as a attendee, you would submit an educational session to any conference you are interested in attending.  However, based upon early deadlines, no conference I have mentioned still are offering submissions.

Conference Theme & Mission.  Every year, conference themes change, which will impact the type of experience such as educational sessions attendees will experience.  Also consider the target population and mission of the conference.  For example, NASPA and ACPA reach through all disciplines, while NACA and NIRSA will be more geared to Student Activities and Recreation, respectively.

Attendees. I have found the number and type of attendees can make a huge difference in helping meet conference goals.  For example, if your goal is to connect with professionals in the northeast, because that is where you are job searching, an ideal conference would be located on the east coast.  Also, there are some conferences that are geared more for undergraduate students in delegations, over professionals, which will change the feeling of the conference.  Finally, based upon the amount of attendees can make it more or less challenging to get into sessions or even restaurants.  For the large national conferences, be prepared to plan ahead and possibly be flexible in your choices.

In Person & Online Networking.   A priceless component of attending professional conferences is the networking.  While some individuals are brave enough to go up to a person they would like to meet while grabbing coffee or in-between a session, others need formal methods.  Look in the schedule for receptions, socials or networking events that will aid in building your networks.

Also just as important is the online networking of a conference.  For example NASPA 2014 conference hashtag is #NASPA14, so everyone can start the conference conversation even before the conference.

Conference Extras.  Especially if you are traveling a long distance, it may be worth looking for a conference that also offers a pre-conference ½ or full day experience.  For example, NACA has a Strengths Quest Institute directly before the conference.

Involvement & Volunteer Opportunities.  A great way to meet people and get the most out of a conference is volunteering.  For example, conferences need help at registration, gathering evaluations in sessions or directing traffic for events.  Finally, look into how to get more involved in the association in a leadership position, as a long-term commitment to the organization.


Receiving Institutional/Supervisor Support

After reviewing the costs related to attending a professional association conference, you may be overwhelmed with how everything adds up.  As in most professions, higher education typically supports employees in receiving professional development through attending these experiences.

However with budget cuts and shifting priorities, some universities or certain departments do not send professionals to conferences.  At this point in this post, I will disclose that I am a long-standing member of NASPA, attending as many regional and national conferences as I am able, and involved in many areas of the association such as the Region VI Volunteer Coordinator, Faculty Council Doctoral Student Representative and Technology Knowledge Community Emerging Practices Coordinator.

It is becoming more and more common to spend personal money on conference attendance.  In the past 10 years of fulltime student affairs positions, I have picked up a few tips for negating for professional development funds, specifically to be used on conference attendance.

  1.  Propose a yearlong professional development budget to your supervisor in the summer.  Spell out all projected costs, dates away from the office, etc.  Allow this to open the conversation for a plan for the year, early on.
  2. Submit educational sessions for all conferences you would like to attend.  This will be a selling point to your institution for being a university representative and an active attendee.
  3. If there is an association that you are committed to, by taking on a leadership position, not only does it give back to the association but also shows your institution that your conference attendance is more than a one time thing.
  4. Be flexible in negotiating for funding support.  Here are a few examples:
  • Split costs half and half.
  • Split other cost such as you will pay for the registration and food, while your institutions tacks care of travel and hotel costs.
  • If no funds are available, ensure time away from the office will not need to be taken as vacation time .

I’d love to hear other conferences to consider in Student Affairs this spring and early summer.  What helps you make a conference decision?  How have you successfully negotiated for institution support?

After considering and implementing a number of suggestions I have offered here, I have decided on attending both NASPA and ACPA.  Hope to see you there!  If you can’t attend, follow me at @josieahlquist as I’ll be tweeting out session content!

Choosing a Spring National Conference

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