Booze and Business Cards: How I Networked an Industry Conference for Free

Booze and Business Cards: How I Networked an Industry Conference for Free

You’re not the only one noticing your Twitter feed speckled with smiling group pictures, speaker snapshots and custom event hashtags — from yet another conference.

If you’re a little low on travel funds and feeling left out of these industry-focused gatherings, let me tell you a little story.

Spoiler: I get a comp ticket and you can steal this strategy.

How I Attended a Journalism Conference for Free

In the late 1990s, I was in super-networking mode. I was preparing to graduate from the University of Iowa with a degree in Journalism and wanted to make some contacts in the media world.

I drooled at the conference pamphlets piled neatly in the J-school office. But, I just couldn’t afford to go. So, I talked to one of my professors and he gave me an idea.

“Angie, why don’t you offer to work at one of these events? Be a volunteer.”

So, I did just that. I submitted an application for the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) annual conference with a note about volunteering to help run the check-in tables, sell merchandise or assist at the parties.

The event organizers agreed!

I ended up spending my final college spring break in Baltimore (Hello, road trip!) pouring beer and wine at the opening night reception. I met dozens of influential photographers, snagged plenty of business cards and created connections that helped guide my future career in the newspaper industry.

I was also given an all-access pass to the seminars and breakout sessions.

The lesson here is to consider working, or volunteering, at an event you’d like to attend, but just can’t afford. Personally reach out to the event organizers, explain your passion for the conference focus and offer to assist with the inner workings of the event.

Could you help write about or photograph the event? Do they need assistance setting up a trade show area? Are they looking for greeters at the registration table?

If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.

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*Note: This post was last updated on March 5, 2021.

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