Conferencing "Post"-Pandemic

Laura Laing
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

On March 16, I drove to Philadelphia for my first in-person conference in two years. Ironically, AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) was the last in-person conference I attended in 2018. I was excited to get back into the thick of things, to be inspired by interesting sessions, and to see friends that I’ve only Zoomed with over the last two years.

I was also nervous. I’m always nervous going to a conference. It’s a lot to ask this socially awkward introvert to be with people for three days, and the pandemic deepened my unease. Recognizing people has always been difficult for me. What would it be like with everyone wearing masks? And had I forgotten how to make small talk or introduce myself to strangers?

As I walked over to the conference center to have my vaccination checked and get my nametag, I ran into a woman from my writing critique group. We’ve seen each other virtually every other week for the last two years but being together in person was an absolute thrill. We talked loudly and hugged and gestured in excitement. Within an hour, I had seen three other people I know from all over the country. We chattered and stood awkwardly, talked about how we weren’t sure what it would be like to be in crowds again, and made jokes about our pandemic awkwardness.

AWP typically brings 14,000 people to its annual conference, which is held in different cities each year. This year, that number was cut in half, and I’ve got to say, I didn’t notice, except for running into people I know without having to set up meetings or make lunch or dinner plans. The sessions were no less fantastic, no less interesting, and, remarkably, no less crowded. I had some concern about being in such close contact with strangers, but we were always masked and with one exception, I could find a spot in each session that gave me a Covid-safe distance from others.

In a regular year, ASJA’s conference is much, much smaller than AWP’s, and it’s targeted to the business of being a freelance nonfiction writer. We too can expect our conference to be smaller this year than usual. Data shows that most conferences are seeing the same drop in numbers, mostly attributed to the pandemic, which is not over yet. I think this is a benefit to the folks who attend, since we’ll get more individual attention from session hosts and panelists, as well as the many editors, agents, and publishers who attend.

And you’ll have a chance to network in smaller groups—whether you’re catching up with friends you haven’t seen in a long time or meeting new people. I really love the learning opportunities at a conference, as well as the chance to make connections with others in the industry—especially those who want to publish my work—but for me, it’s the social opportunities that make an in-person conference worth it. I’ve met my best writer friends at ASJA conferences, and I look forward to seeing many of them in person this year, as well as making a few more friends.

Many of our members have decided to sit this one out and for very good reasons. We’re in a particularly tough spot of the pandemic, where some of us feel comfortable and able to be in large groups, but others of us still need or want to take greater precautions. I’ve gotten messages from members who apologize for not registering or are sad to have made the decision not to come. Believe me, we understand. We have a really good contract with our hotel, which is working with us to host a smaller group, and we’re ready to host a terrific event, no matter the size. Each and every member who attends deserves a robust and inspiring experience.

Announcement! We’re dropping our conference fees to Early Bird rates and eliminating the Client Connections fee.

If your concerns about attending have been based on cost, we are happy to announce that we’re extending our Early Bird rates all the way through the first day of the conference. We’re also eliminating the Client Connections fee. (If you’ve already registered for Client Connections and/or the conference (at the higher rate), we will refund the difference.) We want to be sure that each attendee gets the best value for their investment.

Don’t forget that we will be requiring that all attendees show proof of vaccination in order to pick up their name tag at the conference. (Please bring your vaccination card with you or be ready to provide a photo or other proof.) In addition, attendees must wear masks at all times, except when eating or drinking. Although many municipalities have lifted these requirements, we’re keeping them in place, in order help keep all of our attendees safe.

If you’ve been on the fence about coming, I invite you to take another look at our slate of sessions and masterminds. Our keynote speaker, on Sunday morning, is Alan Henry, editor at WIRED, and on Monday morning, we’ll host a our ASJA Annual Meeting. If you’re a new member or if this is your first ASJA annual conference, you can take advantage of our First-Time Attendee Orientation, where you’ll meet ASJA leaders and other members and attendees. You can register here. If you’re a member and haven’t registered for Client Connections, you still have a few days. The editors, agents, and publishers coming are fantastic!

I’m glad to see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, and I hope that if you can, you’ll join us in Jersey City to celebrate re-entry into the world—as well as get an infusion of solid business and writing advice. Don’t hesitate to say hello and introduce yourself. I’ll be the one talking loudly and gesturing awkwardly—because it’s exciting and weird to be back in public again.