WritersUA Conference 2008: Summary

March 30, 2008

At the end of each day of the conference, I posted on this blog my personal opinions about the specific sessions I went to, but I didn’t adequately cover the conference as a whole. It’s nearly two weeks since the conference started, so it’s time for me to reflect back on those whirlwind four days in Portland.

Why do I chose to attend (and present at) WritersUA?

I used to attend and present at STC Conferences, but after a couple of years I found that the sessions weren’t challenging me enough. Sessions marked ‘advanced’ weren’t advanced enough, in my opinion, and, because of the broad base of the STC membership, I just wasn’t interested in some themes or threads. Also, STC Conferences have up to 10 sessions to chose from for any one time slot, so sometimes it was hard to get the right mix when overwhelmed with such a choice.

I’d heard of WinWriters (now WritersUA) and after a bit of investigation, decided that it held much more attraction to me because it focused very much on the work that I do or am likely to do.

My first WritersUA conference was in 2005, and I was blown away by the organisation, the quality of the speakers, the relevance of the sessions (to me), the thought-provoking challenges that the sessions offered, the size of the conference (smaller than STC, which suits me better as you can meet people more easily), and the incredibly passionate people I met at the conference (yes, they’re passionate at STC too!). It was like finding my own school of fish and swimming with my own kind, for a few days at least.

With only one conference I can budget for from Australia, WritersUA was my choice in 2005 and continues to be my conference of choice.

So what makes WritersUA so good?

I’ve already mentioned some of the things that make it good for me, but I think these things I’ve listed below make it good for ANYONE working in the field of online documentation or content.

Quality of the speakers and their topics

Joe only has about 50 speakers and he vets their proposed topics very carefully to make sure that there isn’t too much focus on just one aspect of our work, and to make sure that the topics are of interest to the attendees.

The speakers are top in their fields, all are well-known within our profession, and many are the leaders and bleeding-edge people who test things out years before it becomes mainstream for everyone else.

With around five choices per time slot, the hardest decision was choosing which session to go to. The summaries help a lot, as does the reputations of the speakers, but ultimately you can’t go to them all and you have to choose.

Quality of the organisation

Joe Welinske and his team (including his delightful parents) make sure this conference runs like clockwork. I’m sure a lot goes on behind the scenes that we don’t know about, but from the outside, everything runs perfectly on time and without any hitches. And his team is always incredibly polite, ready to help, and extremely professional.

That includes the AV guys, who I believe Joe has used a few times now. As a presenter, the thing you most worry about before you get started is whether or not the equipment will work—data projector, microphone, room speakers, etc. The AV guys make sure that it works and that worry gets taken away from you straight away.

Quality of the conference materials

Unlike some conferences where the speakers have to print out and bring along their own handouts, or where attendees get given a CD of all the presentations that they may never look at again, WritersUA is different.

Joe insists that we have our presentations to him in a printable form one month before the conference, and that we don’t change our slides. As a speaker, this keeps us on our toes, but as an attendee one of the best take-aways from the conference is the three large books containing the slides of EVERY presentation. So whether you can attend a session or not, you have the slides. These books also mean that you have plenty of space to write notes as you’re listening to the speaker. And they are great for referring back to, and for referring colleagues to.

Quality of the venue

Joe’s team spends time checking out the cities and potential venues where he will hold the next WritersUA conference. Downtown Portland this year was an ideal choice as there was so much to do really close to the hotel – lots of restaurants close by, Powell’s Books only 10-15 minute walk away, metro rail (which went to the airport) only one block away, and downtown shopping only two blocks away.

Of course, there’s usually little time for these activities when the conference is in full swing, but for those who arrive early, or stay on a day or so, it was an ideal location.

As far as the hotel goes, I had a few complaints, but all were out of the control of the conference organisers. The function rooms for the sessions were more than suitable, and the catering at the hotel was superb.

Quality of the attendees and exhibitors

Finally, I couldn’t do a summary of such a conference without mentioning the attendees and the exhibitors.

A conference ultimately is a bringing together of like minds, a learning experience, a time to recharge the professional batteries, to discover new things, and an opportunity to meet with old and new friends.

The exhibition area was close to everything, and many of the networking functions were held close to the exhibitors which meant that stopping by a booth was an easy thing to do. One thing about this profession that always amazes me is the camaraderie between the competing exhibitors. They all know each other and, while they may not be friends, they all work together on making the exhibition worth attending.

The formal and informal networking opportunities during the conference were a terrific way to meet fellow attendees from all over the world, and to make connections that otherwise wouldn’t be possible—Joe’s team make sure that the formal social functions (such as the themed lunches) mix people up in ways that perhaps wouldn’t happen when you put 500 people in a room together. And some of the exhibitors sponsor certain networking events too—my thanks to them too as these were another great way to meet attendees and speakers.

Would I go again?

In a heartbeat!

Thanks Joe and team for another terrific conference.

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