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My Experience as a First-time ATA Conference Attendee

December 4, 2016

I will share my thoughts as a first-time attendee, from the decision to attend through the event up to now, where I am still implementing all I learned.
 

Before the conference

Decision

My first impulse upon hearing about the American Translators' Association's 57th annual conference - "ATA 57" was “yes, of course I want to go!” but a few moments after I let the excitement cool off and tried to consider pros and cons objectively.

The “Pros” were the possibility of meeting colleagues from all over the world with similar interests and challenges. It would be great to go away from the computer to meet in-person. It also felt like my coming out party as a translator so I could  fully identify as a member of the profession I had chosen.

The “Cons” were mostly related to the monetary investment. I’ve only started my business in the past six months. I had lived in Argentina for 9 years and left behind many clients. At this point I am building a business from scratch, despite being in the profession for over 5 years. Is it the right time to attend a conference? How about all other investments, associations, equipment, software that I will need to make?
 

Go with a friend, ‘a partner in crime’

Discussing arguments for and against going to the conference with a colleague was the best decision. Fortunately, I had a fellow translator also initiating her business. We realized we had the same worries and anxieties, so we decided to support each other by sharing new information as we gathered it. After a few meetings, and feeling the pressure of the September 23rd early bird registration deadline, we were mutual instigators of the decision to register for all 4 days of the conference.


Preparation

We prepared for the conference like good students prepare for the first day of classes in a new school. We explored all the material we had, and checked-in with each other regularly to avoid missing any information.

We joined the yahoogroups for newbies, watched webinars on the ATA youtube channel and the atanet.org website. We wrote our profiles on atanet.org. We downloaded  the ATA57 app and uploaded our data to it. We prepared business cards and resumes following instructions from the atanet podcast and blogs – our favorites were “the savy newcomers”, “thoughtsontranslations” and “marketing tips for translators”.


Deciding on sessions to attend: have a plan. But have a backup plan!

Having prepared our tools and materials, it was time to decide which sessions to attend.

So many sessions seemed very good, and you wish you could attend all 175, because you really don’t want to miss any of them!! Then you realize that you can not be in 20 different places at the same time. I had to talk it over with my partner to try to figure out the best alternatives and to cope with accepting a lot of tough trade-offs.

We agreed on a system of having plan A, B and C preferences for each schedule time slot, to check-in with each other to avoid double-covering the same session and promising to share our respective notes afterwards.

The final schedule is handed-out on the first day of the conference, and even after that point some sessions can be canceled at the very last moment. You may have to revisit your decisions on the fly, notwithstanding the best laid plans made in advance. The A, B, C priorities system helps manage these quick readjustments. There isn't much time to run from the "Garden A" room to "Grand A" – no they are not alphabetical - neither is the "Waterfront" next to the "Seacliff", go figure! As a language person with no inner compass nor sense of direction, the words were not helping me. I thought it was a safe  approach to survey the premises and take good mental note of which room is where... ok, forget the mental notes, I was going to keep my map in hand for the duration.

 

At the conference
 

Volunteering to bond with NCTA Members

 

As the conference neared, Sonia Wichmann from NCTA approached me with an opportunity to help organize the volunteers who would be staffing our table. Having something to focus on, other than counting-down the days, was a good outlet for my anticipation.

I signed up for the very first slot available on Day 1, anticipating it would be calmer and would be a good lead-in for the rest of the conference. Spending time at the table allowed me to bond with NCTA members like Carola F. Berger and connect with other Portuguese speakers.


Buddies welcome Newbies
I had heard about the “Buddies for Newbies” program in some of the pre-conference video clips. It sounded like a great idea but the reality turned out even better than I had expected. I benefitted from having the support of somebody who had been to several conferences and could provide me guidance. My Buddy did a stellar job being present and being additional familiar face in the sea of people. I was particularly lucky in that my Buddy was also a Brazilian living and working as a language professional in the US. Jonas Nicotra was one of the best people I met during the conference, and definitely, somebody that I want to have as a friend.My piece of advice to next years’ newbies: get there early, otherwise you may not find a place at the table and would miss out on being assigned a Buddy.

After the welcome session, the conference begins. You meet so many new people! It can be intimidating.

 Photo credit Jeff Sanfacon

Familiar faces

While you walk down the escalators, corridors or halls, trying to find the room for the next session, you meet a lot of people. Everyone is charming and gregarious so you find yourself sparking new conversations at every step. In time, you get used to talking to “strangers” but it is still pleasant every time you see a “familiar face” - like your first partner, for example, that one with whom you had so many conversations about attending the conference – it is a relief, it really feels like family, and it is time to breathe and reinvigorate.


The Jungle

Of course you and everybody else is eager to participate in the Job Fair. This is the moment officially set aside for meeting companies you will do future businesses with.

The best approach, in my opinion, is to get there early with your conference partner, or with your friend, and to be prepared to jump into the jungle. 

 

Photo credit Jeff Sanfacon

 

Basement: book sellers, schools, software and tool provider – many great resources from exhibitors! -> coffee too!

 

After having spent hours planning which sessions to attend, your plans may change in seconds. Feel free to be flexible, and stay open for the surprises. You may meet somebody that you would like to spend more time with, you may spend more time at the basement with the exhibitors, you may need to have more coffee!

At the exhibitors’ hall you find book sellers, schools, CAT tool providers, some agencies… it is worth it to spend some time here to explore the stands.

It is a good way also to manage your energy, and have a coffee break. The excitement and overwhelm restrained my appetite, but you need to pay attention and manage your nourishment to avoid a breakdown during or after the conference.   Bring your own emergency supplies like a Cliff Bar or two in the purse. It’s easy to push it and to not take care of your body. I heard from a number of attendees that they came down with a cold after the conference – we may have to call it the “after-ATA-Atchoo”.

 

 

Staying at the hotel is a plus
Although being a resident of the host city was an advantage, having a room onsite would have been great too.

If you stay at the hotel where the conference is held, there are some benefits such as resting whenever you need to, lugging around less weight throughout the whole day, networking night and day, enjoying the 6:30AM Zumba class, avoiding daily travel time, etc.

I learned however that the onsite catering couldn’t be relied on 100%. Breakfast was incredibly poor, with no savory options, with only fruit and other sweet food that was not even replenished reliably. If you were not there at 7:00 sharp you might find the trays picked clean. You might have to eat out anyway if you consider breakfast the main meal of the day.

 

Brainstorm and Debrief were very good!

Photo credit Jeff Sanfacon

The brainstorm session allows you to discuss with colleagues tips on managing challenging clients, behaviors for ethically sensitive decisions and many other topics. These discussions addressed the issues and day-to-day questions that come up for a translator. It felt reassuring to know that we are part of a community and not the only one facing these quandaries.

Finally, the same team that conducted the “buddies welcome newbies” meeting led a debriefing session about how to follow-up wisely with all the contacts you made at the conference. We received advice on using LinkedIn as well as more creative ways to keep in touch.

 

In Closing:

What I did
Immediately following the conference, I made sure to tally all the names and business cards I had gathered so I could plan my outreach to them. It was good to meet with my friend 15-20 days after the conference to download our experiences, talk about the sessions we had attended, share our perceptions, and evaluate what we would repeat or do differently next time.

 

It will take yet more time to process and incorporate all of the information I picked up at the conference and to put it into practice as I build my business. For example, my eyes were opened to a lot of fresh ideas on the marketing side, which will require more research and experimentation.

 

What I would do differently next time ?

I learned that how much you can take away from a given session varies because the material may be geared to different experience levels. There may also be a limit to how much information you can take in just through speaker sessions. Next time I would look more closely at the topics and speakers list, and be more selective about top priorities so that I can allot more time for impromptu conversations and for networking with my peers. I noticed that some of the seasoned translators were dividing their time so that they were not rushing from lecture to lecture all day.

 

I also would be prepared to make my purchases at the conference, especially for software. The discounts offered at the conference are the best prices we can get. You need to take advantage of the price or negotiate while you are there.
 

What I would repeat

I would repeat the experience having a friend to plan and support each other before, during and after the conference. I would repeat the experience of focusing on people and prioritizing relationships.

 

 

My friends Fernando from MacKenzie university in São Paulo and Audrey from San Francisco, who was my partner-in-crime: 

Buddy Jonas and his newbies make new friends:

 

 

Meeting members of ABRATES (Associacao Brasileira de Tradutores) in person:

 

 

Making new Argentinean friends.

 

 

Goofing around with my buddy Jonas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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