Awhile back, I attended a work conference in the D.C. area. It was massive. Around 1400+ people attended. I kept repeating this fact to others, muffled behind my mask, in amazement. I probably sounded like an overtired Muppet. That many people–in one hotel mostly–during a pandemic! What insanity, especially when Zoom and Skype are actual things. Someone responded: “Usually it’s more like 2500 people.” I fainted into the hotel fountain outside. The ducks did laps around me, quacking up at my misery.
I arrived early on a Saturday to check in and sign-up for an all-day Sunday class (which I managed to get the last spot). The actual conference started on Monday. Oh my–the whiners abounded in my class. I was transported back to elementary school: “Can we finish early? Can we get out early if we cut our lunch break back?” I felt sorry for the teachers. Apparently these fellow, young professionals had a bad case of Neverland syndrome–they never grew up.
By Monday, I felt my shoulders beginning to sag. I was getting massively tired. Imagine–1400 people with colorful lanyards milling around you, all talking at once, cheerful and hyped up on free coffee. To them, this was all a magical slumber party. To me, the hotel was a maze of escalators, elevators and hallways complete with a mission on how to find a decently priced meal in a city that charged $17 for a thrown together tuna sandwich in the hotel café. My wallet cried, I cried.
My introvert battery was beeping and giving off warning alarms by now. On Monday morning, after I managed to scavenge a meager breakfast amongst the hoards, I headed into a session and couldn’t find a seat. I felt my brain lock up, as I scanned the smallish room crammed with people, many unmasked. Part of my brain said: “Get out–these people are fools” while the responsible part of my brain said “Stand in the back–you’re here for work.”
This is where I learned it’s okay to skip some sessions at work conferences, especially if the people are crammed into the rooms like sardines. After I managed to catch an elevator (remember, the hotel was fully booked) I stayed in my room for awhile, giving my batteries time to recharge. I decided to head back down for lunch, wanting to take advantage of the free food. Oh–big mistake.
Have you ever seen the film The Shining, the version that Mr. King hates? There’s a scene near the climax of the film where Jack walks into the ballroom and goes to his bartender. The room was usually empty except for the two of them, and it was a twisted, respite spot for Jack who was a recovering alcoholic. Near the climax, Jack unexpectedly finds the room filled with people, front to back–seated at tables, couches, etc. Lots of energy, lots of people (or in his case, ghosts). The hotel was coming alive and it meant everyone harm.
I walked into the ballroom at my hotel for lunch and felt like I had stepped into that scene in The Shining. Hundreds of tables, five people to a table, stretching out as far as the eye could see in both directions. I hugged the wall like a rat and slinked my way out of there, faster than little Danny Torrance on his three wheeler.
These work conferences are interesting things to experience. Allow me to share some tips that I figured out along the way that helped me survive. I’ll be brief:
–Forget Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). These work conferences sometimes have after hour events where there is even more socializing in the evenings. Go back to your hotel room (if you want to) and recharge instead. And if you do attend these optional events? Feel free to dine and dash, or make an early escape.
–Find fellow introverts. On Tuesday (Day 4, counting Saturday) I had recharged up enough to try The Shining ballroom again for lunch. I scanned the crowd and found a woman my age sitting at the edges of the massive room at an otherwise empty table and joined her. Another woman joined us shortly afterwards. Within five minutes of talking to each other, we all said we were introverts. A man joined us later (a coworker of the first person) and we had a lovely lunch talking about vintage movies, how tired we were of the conference, and other funny reflections on life and our jobs. I was very grateful to these people.
-Don’t compare yourself to others/mindread. I made this mistake–I thought everyone was having a swell time and I was the only one dragging around like a zombie extra in Resident Evil. Nay, nay. We all had, to one degree or another, our professional masks on. But as the conference went on–I saw the stressors start to crack the mask. Some people were worried about their home offices, others were frantically answering e-mails inbetween sessions, and many became lost in the hotel or couldn’t find a seat in the overstuffed rooms for their sessions. Some used the discussion sessions to vent about their jobs, and how much stress they were under. It was illuminating.
-Find the humor. When Tuesday evening rolled around, I brought the saint (he was travelling with me) into the ballroom so he could experience The Shining Effect (TM, A.R. Clayton) as I had. The evening event was complete with “heavy hors d’oeuvres and a full bar.” I had drink tickets, but we passed on the event and did our own thing. We had found an Italian restaurant that served huge portions for a decent price–we went there at least twice for dinner, and also had leftovers. God bless Italy.
Later that night, the saint went downstairs to grab some free bottled water we found the hotel offered. He came back upstairs, wide eyed. Apparently, the hotel lobby was filled with very tipsy (some flat out drunk) professionals who had attended said Tuesday evening event and were being quite vocal. I found empty beer bottles on a table by the elevators the next morning. I was glad we had skipped.
Conclusion & Miserable Airport Stories
By Wednesday morning, we checked out after I attended one last session. We went to the airport early, sat around for a few hours, blissful that we would be returning home soon. I began hearing delay notices for our flight…which eventually turned into a cancellation. The saint and I walked out of the terminal area past the customer service line that was a mile long, 200+ people deep. We flipped out our phones and rebooked our own flights and found a hotel nearby with a free shuttle.
The next morning, we got up 4:30 AM, got the first shuttle back, went back through security and got on our plane. We SAT in said plane for over an hour. Something about a systemwide IT issue or missing paperwork. Right. We landed later, found our car, and proceeded to get the heck outta there. Ten minutes later, I was on the phone with our mechanic–my car was making unholy noises. Apparently cars can do that when sitting at airports for an extended period of time–rust dust on brake pads, that sort of thing. The sound went away after a few miles of driving, as my mechanic said it probably would. We had made it.
That was my work conference, and that is how I survived. From being told I needed to put down a $400 returnable deposit on my hotel room, to sweltering in 90+ degree heat. It was indeed a magical time, full of learning and watching people nod off across from me.
It’s no wonder that Jack became insane during his time at the Stanley Hotel. It was all those people in the ballroom, I know it. Maybe he was an introvert, too?
Cheers and happy writing.