by Candice Chapman
From the Editor: Candice Chapman is a leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Mississippi. She is also a leader in our student division, a member of the scholarship committee, and an absolute joy to be around. Here is what she says for our first-timers:
There are many ways to describe a National Federation of the Blind national convention. Convention is exciting, fun, and enlightening. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with friends, meet new people, and network with a diverse group of professionals in a variety of fields. The things that convention can be in the midst of all the connection points and interesting meetings is stressful and overwhelming. I recall feeling the excitement and the stress during my first national convention. After attending nine conventions I’ve learned a few things that make the experience a pleasant one time and time again. It’s my hope that by sharing a few tidbits with you, that you can plan well and have an altogether fun, exciting, and stress-free NFB national convention!
I’ve often been told that the best place to start is the beginning, so the beginning it is. Before you can come to national convention, you have to pack. The right clothes are an absolutely essential part of a stress-free convention. When considering what to fill your suitcase with, keep a couple of things in mind. First things first: our national convention is held in Orlando, Florida, this year. It’s very hot and often rainy in Orlando, so you want to pack clothing that will ensure your comfort in hot and rainy weather. Keep that in mind. The second point here is that our national convention is a professional conference. I’d recommend finding a balance between business and business casual for most days. The exception to this will be on our banquet night. This is a formal banquet which means formal attire is most appropriate. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying it’s a requirement to go out and buy a fancy ball gown or rent a tuxedo. I would, however, recommend wearing whatever you consider to be a level above your business casual wear.
Just to summarize, for the week of convention, save your flip-flops and tank tops for your down time, and plan for your slacks and button downs during meeting times. One last thing to mention on your convention wardrobe planning: the hotel is very large, and you’ll be doing quite a bit of walking. Make sure your footwear is good for keeping your feet comfortable
Clothing aside, you’ll also want to pay attention to a few details regarding your belongings. You’ll want to make sure that you’ve marked your luggage in such a way that you are able to locate it at baggage claim. Feel free to use whatever method works for you. Whether it be some sort of ribbon, bandana, colorful tape, or a keychain, the important thing is that you can identify your belongings when the time comes. In the same vein, you’ll want to have some sort of identifying features you can use to identify any technology or other accessories that belong to you.
You’ve crossed the hurdle of packing for convention; congratulations. Now you need to get there. Once you make it to the hotel, you’ll want to do a few things. If you’re a guide dog user, you’ll want to locate the relief areas. In the next section of this article, you will find good sources of information. Relief area information can be found there. While we’re talking about guide dogs, it’s probably a good idea to direct you to the National Association of Guide Dog Users. They will have all sorts of good information that will help to make sure that your guide dog has a stress-free convention as well.
Another thing that you will need to do after you settle in at the hotel will be to register. You will be able to find registration details in your convention agenda. One of the things you’ll receive when you register is a banquet ticket. Make sure to hang onto this ticket because you will need to exchange it for the ticket you will use on banquet night. The banquet exchange will open after general session begins. Be sure to listen for the announcement during the sessions so you won’t miss it. When they make the announcement, the entire process will be explained.
Now that you’re all packed and on your way to convention, you’ll want to know where to get good information. One of the first places to find it is the information table. On the days prior to general session, you can find the information table in the hotel lobby. Once general session begins, the information table will migrate to the designated registration area (you’ll be able to find details for registration in your convention agenda). It’s been my experience that there’s not a whole lot they don’t know at the information table, and if they don’t know, they can certainly tell you how to find out. No matter its location, the information table is one of the best sources you will have. Another place for good information is the presidential suite. The presidential suite will have all sorts of information that you might need for convention such as the location of your state caucus. Aside from useful information, the presidential suite is also a good place to meet Federation leaders, grab a snack, or just take a breather. Keep in mind that even though the presidential suite is home to the President, he is not always there. You can schedule a meeting with him by calling the Presidential Suite or stopping by and doing so in person. Expect that the meeting will likely last only a few minutes. The President is very busy during the convention, so please be understanding if you don’t get a chance to have a one-on-one meeting with him.
Other locations to get good information are the hospitality suite, which is sponsored by the host committee for the convention and the convention arrangements suite. The locations of all three of these will be found in the preface information in the convention agenda. A final source for good information is your state affiliate. If by chance you don’t come to convention knowing how to get in touch with yours, there’s a few ways to do so. You can find affiliate contact information in the presidential suite. Additionally, once general sessions begin, you can find your affiliate designated by a large sign. The sign is labeled in both print and Braille.
Alright, you’ve packed well, know where to get good information, so now what’s next? In the early days of the convention you’ll have a chance to register, explore the exhibit hall, and the independence market. When you register, you’ll get a hard copy of the convention agenda. The agenda can be overwhelming because there are a lot of things going on all at once. Here’s where things can get overwhelming; here is also where I’ll tell you a few things that I hope will help you not feel overwhelmed by this big document.
Remember that the agenda will be available online prior to convention. Having it before arriving is hugely helpful because it allows you to familiarize yourself with what will be going on all week. Going through the agenda beforehand also gives you a chance to decide what you’re interested in doing and prioritize. There’s absolutely no way that you’ll be able to do and go to everything. Making priorities before arriving will help to minimize stress. Tackling the exhibit hall and independence market can also be a stressful experience. I would suggest handling it the same way you would handle the agenda: check out what’s available online before convention and then prioritize.
One note about the independence market: Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the market is about to close; the last day it is open can be very busy, so go as early as you can.
You can expect to have to deal with crowds at our national convention; everyone’s excited to be there, so be prepared for some shout outs from old friends meeting up. Here’s a few ways that you can avoid the crowds if bumping shoulders with fellow Federationists isn’t your cup of tea. Two places that you’ll find lots of crowding are in the hallways between events and in the elevators and their waiting areas. One way to avoid the crowding in both places is to leave more than ten minutes before the event you’re attending begins. Most people will be heading out around this time. Leaving early also affords you the opportunity to take alternate routes to the meeting area. One of those alternate routes could be the stairs or perhaps following the same route to the meeting area except taking an outdoor path instead of inside. As you can imagine, this option is not always a popular one in the heat, so you are guaranteed a far less crowded commute. Similarly, the stairs are a less popular option than the elevators.
Let’s talk just for a minute about etiquette in meetings. I’ll reiterate that the national convention is a professional conference. Remember when in a meeting to silence your cell phones, and if you have to take or make a call, step out of the room until it is concluded. Another thing to note about the hotel is that smoking is not allowed. This includes e-cigarettes. A good rule of thumb for meetings is to give the respect to the speakers and fellow audience members that you would like to have in their place.
You’re likely to meet lots of friendly people who may invite you to hang out in a variety of settings. No matter what the setting, it’s important to exercise caution. Don’t leave beverages that you may have unattended, and if you find yourself in a setting where there is perhaps an “unofficial bartender,” it is probably a good idea to express even more caution and even consider obtaining your own beverage that you can verify is safe. It’s important that we all are responsible for our beverages and behavior. The expectation at our convention is that we will treat each other with civility, kindness, and respect. One other note about etiquette in the bar, outside of not leaving your drink unattended, is to remember to tip your server. Keep in mind that standard manners and conventions dictate 20 percent. Tips often are the major source of income for wait staff whether in a bar or restaurant.
Here are a few final thoughts that will help to prepare you for your national convention experience. Be sure to practice self-care. Taking care of yourself during this busy week will go a long way in helping reduce stress. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break. Be sure to eat. I know that seems like a no-brainer, but neglecting to have a decent meal is something that happens to the best of us. Wait times can be rather lengthy, so make sure to have snacks just in case you can’t get a meal right away. It’s also very important to stay hydrated. Like I said earlier, it’s hot in Orlando. Be sure to drink plenty of water around the clock.
It is my sincere hope that the information offered in this article is helpful to you. Pack well, travel safe, and we’ll see you in Orlando!