My WritersUA Conference 2012 experience

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the WriterUA Conference in Memphis, order TN. This was my first time attending WritersUA, so I was excited, but not entirely sure what to expect. I thought I’d share my experience to help some people who may be trying to decide on a conference to attend for 2013.

Overall Impression  –  I loved this conference. I loved the tight focus on user assistance (UA) information. The vendors in the exhibition were all relevant to the work I’m doing every day. The sessions were tightly focused into three tracks, all UA related. The presentations were interesting, and while there were only three concurrent presentations, I often found myself forced to choose between two great options. This was possibly the best professional conference I’ve attended in my career.

What I liked  –  Here is a list of the things I liked about WritersUA in Memphis (in no particular order):

  • Free WiFi in the hotel rooms and in the conference area. There are other technical conferences I attend (and not just STC’s) that don’t provide WiFi access to participants, which is a serious flaw in our day and age. It was nice knowing I’d have some WiFi connectivity during the conference, both in the conference space and in my room. (Though see below for my WiFi complaint.)
  • The Venue. The Peabody Hotel in Memphis was a delightful old-style hotel. Built in the 1920’s, the hotel features a beautiful lobby with a second-floor mezzanine supported by square stone pillars. The lobby features stained-glass windows set in the ceiling, and a beautiful indoor fountain which serves as the daytime home for the Peabody Ducks.
  • Conference Staff. The WritersUA conference is staffed by great people. They were always available, and very helpful.
  • Relevant Sessions. I’ve been to conferences where there are six to ten choices in a given hour, but I’m not particularly interested in any of the topics. At WritersUA I didn’t have a single hour where I wasn’t interested in one of the topics. During most session slots, I wished I could be in at least two of them. This is pretty impressive since most of the time there are only three concurrent sessions.
  • ProBooster Certificate Program. I think it is cool that you can turn in a sheet of presentations you attended and receive a “ProBooster” certificate. This isn’t a big deal, but it is nice to show the boss that I attended sessions in an area that is related to my current work. While it isn’t a huge deal, it is a tangible piece of paper that says “this conference provided value”. Now I can use the next 12 months SHOWING the value I got from the conference.
  • Food. The food at WritersUA is great. They provide a continental breakfast every morning, and a full lunch on two days during the conference. The lunch tables are each assigned a topic, so if you get through the line quickly enough, you can choose to sit at a table where the topic of conversation should be interesting for you. Because food was provided at the conference, most of the days I was there, I only had to purchase my own dinner (which made my expense account very happy).
  • People. The attendees at the conference were interesting and fun. I knew many of them from other conferences or from the online techcomm community. Several others I met and had a great time exchanging ideas and solutions to problems we each face.
  • Focus. As I mentioned before, the tight focus on user assistance topics makes this conference directly relevant and interesting to my work. Some conferences are so broad that they have a sort of shotgun-style approach to picking topics. WritersUA is more sniper-style, with carefully selected topics from proven presenters. I felt this increased the quality of the sessions and thus increased the value I got from the sessions.

What I didn’t like  –

  • Poor WiFi coverage in my hotel room. This isn’t the conference’s fault, but the WiFi in my hotel room was terrible. Luckily I have a 4G phone with tethering, so I was able to use that to connect to the Internet in my hotel room. Other hotel guests didn’t seem to have the same issue, so maybe it was localized to my area of the building.
  • Other assorted hotel issues. Again, not the conference’s fault, but the hotel didn’t guarantee room types, and didn’t have the room I registered for when I checked in, but failed to give me any kind of discount or conciliation when I checked in. The rooms were small and the bathrooms seemed designed for a cruise ship, not a luxury hotel. I thought the hotel was slightly overrated at 4-stars (or diamonds, or whatever rating scale you follow). I also thought it wasn’t a great value (again, which is generally true of conference hotels). Someday I’ll learn my lesson and stay at a hotel that is 1/3 the price with free parking, free breakfast, free wifi (that works).
  • Mixup on the Peer Showcase. This is a minor nit, but I was a Peer Showcase presenter, and we had been promised that we would have 17-inch screens to display our work to the showcase visitors. For some reason, the monitors weren’t available, so we had to just use our laptops instead. (Though, I actually brought a projector, but I had planned to use both the projector (for a repeating slide show) and my computer (with the 17″ monitor) to show the actual work.) We muddled through, though.
  • Closing session. I actually didn’t attend the closing session, as I was trying to catch an evening flight back home, but I talked to several people who attended who felt like the closing session didn’t have a lot of “meat”. I heard at least two people say that they wouldn’t have stayed if they had know the closing session was going to be like that. A better closing session, in my opinion, would be one that has a keynote speaker that draws in the audience and makes them want to stay until the very last seconds of the conference.

What I’d love to see  –

  • A conference mobile app for iPhone and Android-based phones. This app would let me:
    • See the current schedule (including late updates, if they are on the conference site)
    • Pre-register for classes and show me my schedule
    • Write online reviews of the presentations I’ve attended
    • Give me a link to view the session material (the same content that was on the flash stick)
    • Allow me to easily connect with other people I met at the conference (maybe a QR code on the back of each attendee’s badge to act as a virtual business card)
  • Recorded sessions, similar to STC’s “Summit @ a Click” program. An investment in a tool like Camtasia Relay could provide a lot of value to conference participants, but it may take a couple of conferences to make it profitable. (I’d have even paid an extra fee to have this option, especially after I saw the value in the sessions at the conference.)
  • A nice hotel that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I know that I’m dreaming, and in fairness, the conference rate was about $100/night off the normal hotel rates.

Wrap-up  –

I’m already planning on attending this conference in 2013, wherever it is going to be held. If I could only attend a single conference each year, this just might be the one I’d pick due to the relevance of the information, the great conference staff, and the helpful presentations.

Thanks to Joe and the other folks at WritersUA for a great conference. I look forward to seeing you next year.

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