I’ve been going to work-related conferences in the US since 2001, speaking at all those I’ve attended since 2002. The first conference I went to had some 2500 attendees and the only people I knew were some I’d worked with online in a volunteer capacity for a special interest group. None of us knew many others so we hung out together a bit and we met more who we’d also only known online. This was made easier because the organisation had functions/events just for the special interest groups.
Of course, after 9/11 everything changed, and numbers for that conference declined dramatically over the next few years. I switched conferences in about 2005, choosing to speak at a conference that was smaller (about 500 people) and more focused on what I did all day. Again, numbers dropped over the years as the industry changed and the global financial crisis hit hard, until this year there were only about 130 attendees. The big advantage of such a small number is that newcomers have an opportunity to join old hands at the social and networking events, both planned and unplanned. Small conferences aren’t so good for the organisers, but they are very conducive to establishing and renewing collegiate relationships among attendees.
I recently spoke at a small conference in New Zealand (about 80 attendees) and it was great. Attendees all had lunch together every day, and there was an early social function that got everyone together and chatting to each other about shared issues as well as non work-related stuff.
Which brings me two weeks later to Houston, home of the biggest quilt show in the world. Quilting is my hobby and main interest outside work, and attending the International Quilt Festival in Houston is on many quilters’ bucket lists. It’s been on mine for a few years. So, here I am.
I’ve caught up with several people I know through attending live-in workshops in the US (another example of where a smaller group has the opportunity to get to know each other – I’m thinking of the camaraderie of ALL the attendees at Quilting Adventures in Texas, compared to the camaraderie at Asilomar (Empty Spools), where the number of classes and attendees makes it hard to get to know others who aren’t in your class just over lunch). I’m here with a group of Australians in Houston. However, I hardly know any of the group (other than the organisers) as I was only able to attend one meeting in person and as I’m doing the ‘land only’ option of the tour (my choice because of circumstances), which means I didn’t get to know any of them on the flights over or while waiting with them for hours in airports. This is not a criticism, just a statement of fact.
The organisers made it clear in the lead up to Houston that they would be working here, and except for getting us here and the group dinner on our final night in Houston before we continue with the rest of our trip together, we were on our own. After all, the organisers’ jobs and livelihoods are in quilting, while for the rest of us it’s likely just a hobby. Although we’re all staying at the same hotel, we’re all doing different classes and activities and thus all eating our breakfasts at different times, though we’ve tended to find one or two others in our group having breakfast at the same time and have sat together. Lunch and dinner are on our own as well. None of which has been a problem for me while the numbers have remained low (5000 class attendees compared to approx. 65,000 attendees over the four full days that the Festival is open to the public). I’ve mostly had dinner by myself in one of the restaurants in the hotel, and if another from our group is also there by themselves then we’ve shared a table.
But tonight – the first night of Day 1 of the Festival being open to the public – all that changed.
I headed downstairs around 6:30pm to grab a bite to eat. But almost immediately turned around and went back to my room. Why? Because both restaurants had lines extending well outside their doors… Lines that looked as though it would be a very long wait for a table. And lines that consisted of noisy, chatty groups of friends (all quilters, I presume). There didn’t appear to be anyone in line who was by themselves. There were pairs, triples, groups of 4, 5, and 6. And it was daunting.
I didn’t want to go out into the street and walk three or more city blocks to a restaurant area – it was night, I don’t know the area or neighbourhood, I’m a female waking alone… Nope. Not an option. Room service wasn’t really an option either as it was the same menu as the cafe in the hotel and as they were so busy, I could be waiting a long time for my meal. Ordering delivery was also not a viable option (pizzas in the US are HUGE).
All those chatty women made me realise very painfully that I had no-one to share a meal with, or to walk with me to another restaurant. In this massive sea of humanity and laughing, happy, joyful women, I had no-one. And that made me very sad and very lonely.
Sure, I have friends and acquaintances here, but they were likely all off with other friends, or were working, or had other commitments, and by the time I went looking for a meal it was too late to ask. I had caught up with some people during the day, but was too shy to ask them to share dinner with me, assuming that they had other plans (e.g. one is from out of state, is a multi award winning quilter, and was working on a booth, so I just assumed [perhaps erroneously] she’d have other commitments either with those she was working with, or with some of her many other friends she has in this world of ours; this assumption was so strong I didn’t even think to ask her. It wasn’t fear of rejection, but an assumption that someone so big in this world would have more invitations and commitments than she could possibly fulfil, so who was I to ask?).
So where am I going with this bit of introspection?
Really large events like this are very hard to deal with if you attend by yourself and know no-one or very few people. Perhaps the organisers of this very well run event could consider a ‘meet and greet’ time early in the week for people with similar interests within our world (the first social event I was aware of was on tonight, but it was some $40 to attend and from the program it looked like it was for those who already knew lots of people or who had attended Festival before). Or perhaps do as some large international conferences do and have a function (at a small cost) for those from other countries, or who are here by themselves. Maybe some sort of noticeboard for those looking for buddies to share a meal, a visit to a shopping mall, or similar. (If such a board exists, I’m not aware of it.)
It can be very lonely in the midst of a huge event like this.