Perhaps the hardest flavor of business trip to cope with as a traveler with pain (or any hidden disability, really) is a conference. Whether tiny or enormous, conferences burst with problems, trip-ups, and gnarly little knots of challenge in unexpected places.
Having screwed it up in pretty much every possible way the last time I attended a conference, I’m hoping to spare you all the agony I endured last month. (I’m also hoping to spare myself this coming May, when I attend Travel & Words, by working out what I need to do now.)
The conference is sure to have a schedule, but theirs isn’t really the one I’m concerned about. The schedule I need to pull together first is my own, because it’s got to take precedence. For me, this gets hard because I worry about missing out or not getting my money’s worth if I miss sessions. But I’m definitely going to miss sessions–conference requires sitting bolt upright in comfort-free molded plastic chairs all day long. I can’t even sit up all day like that in an ergonomic office chair.
So before the conference begins, I go through the list of speeches, panels, seminars, and breakouts carefully. I make notes on the schedule, choosing my personal Must Sees, Want to Sees, Will See Maybes, and Don’t Bothers. Because of my current physical condition, I only get one Must See per day. (And if I’m speaking, that’s it.) Everything else is optional, based on how I’m really feeling that day.
Those fun back-support-free conference room chairs are the staples of business conferences. After two days of sitting in those monsters, even the healthiest conferencegoers start complaining about backaches. For those of us starting out with chronic pain, these torture instruments can be catastrophic.
I’m not sure yet exactly what’s going to work best to mitigate the conference-chair horror. What does not work well: turning one bad chair around to create a footstool while sitting in another chair. There’s still no back support, and this technique tends to lock my knees out.
One solution might be to bring cushions for lumbar support plus a purpose-built footstool. I’m also looking at foldable, portable chaise lounges that would actually let me sit in the position(s) that are most comfortable for me. But I’d have to pack and travel with the thing.
I’ll get back to you when I figure out what works best for seating. And if anyone’s got any suggestions, please comment!
Unless the conference is catered, getting food at a conference can be a major pain in the…stomach. (So can some catering, for that matter.) There’s often no food for sale on site, and what’s considered “walking distance” may be well beyond what I’m able to manage. And getting into my car to drive to a restaurant, standing in line, and driving back to the conference location costs at least one spoon, which may well be more spoons than I have to spend if I want to attend any afternoon sessions.
I do best when I bring my own food and plenty of it. If I’m coming from home, I can pack myself a full-fledged lunch, plus snacks. If I’m operating out of a hotel room (or cruise ship stateroom), I’m limited to snack foods I can buy from nearby shops and keep in my accommodations. If I’m relegated to snack foods only, I try to go with nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits, hard-boiled eggs, and other healthy foods. Yes, I’m something of a health-food nut. But I still recommend this stuff–especially the protein-rich, easy-to-carry nuts. Protein keeps the body running well (and feeling full).
Walking & Movement
For me, conferences combine the worst of too much walking, too far, at the wrong times, with sitting rock-still for long periods of time feeling my muscle fibers harden into rock.
Before the conference events start, I need to scope out how far I’ll be walking from my hotel room, or car, to the sessions. Then I must find out how far the various sessions are from each other. And finally, there’s the exhibition floor. For a small conference, the floor-crawl isn’t any big deal. If it’s a bigger show, I should probably be doing my half-day down on the floor on an ECV (scooter) rather than on my own two staggering feet.
All too often, the real reason that business conferences are worth all the money they cost isn’t the speeches and panels during the daytime. The value actually lies in the restaurant bar or cruise ship salsa lounge or hotel room party that’s populated after-hours with people looking to network. Over overpriced underliquored cocktails, connections get made, brilliant project ideas hatched, and friendships started.
Because I desperately need to network at this stage of my business, I can’t ignore the after-hours partying…er, I mean networking. I have to plan it into at least one evening of any conference I attend, so that I’ll be remembered as fun and sociable and interesting to work with.
On average, I require 12 hours of sleep each night. Taking the aforementioned crucial networking-over-mojitos part of any business conference into account, and the fact that most conferences get their seminars rolling at about 8 a.m….I have a problem. If the con’s only one or two days, I can cheat myself out of one full night’s sleep for the sake of participating in more of the event and be okay. But if it’s a longer conference, I can’t get away with that trick–I’ve got to make hard choices about which is more important–the morning sessions or the evening schmoozing. That answer may vary from day to day, and that’s okay so long as my 11-12 hours of sleep happen sometime.