jump to navigation

13 Tips to Make the Most of Your AIA 2013 Convention Experience June 8, 2013

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.

In recent years, as an author and speaker I’ve attended and participated in dozens of conferences around the country. Subsequently, I’ve picked up some tips along the way on how to get the most out of one’s limited time and resources.

With the AIA 2013 National Convention in Denver just around the corner, I thought I’d share a few hard-earned tactics on how to enhance your convention experience.

1. It’s not about the programs

I used to think that the formal presentations were what conventions were all about. No more. This is especially hard for me to admit because

  • I love to learn – I’m energized by learning – and find the cornucopia of education sessions offered at the AIA Convention to be particularly enticing; and
  • I’m presenting at this year’s convention and wouldn’t want you to be a program no-show because of something I wrote here.

But ever notice all those firm principals hanging out just outside the entry of the conference rooms – or in the lobby – while programs are in session? They know a secret that it has taken them a career to learn and that I will share with you right now:

The programs are the least important part of the convention.

It is whom you meet or see going in or out of the programs that matters. So, by all means, attend and participate in the programs – just be sure to linger on the way in and out. And when waiting for the presentation to start, introduce yourself to the speaker and strike up a conversation with those sitting nearby.

2. Don’t just sit there – participate in programs

The education programs have been designed this year to be especially engaging and interactive. No more sage on the stage, leaning on a podium, pontificating on the importance of their work. AIA has said goodbye to the old presenter’s standby and hello to Phil Donahue-style edutainment.

You should still expect to learn a lot – in fact, a great deal more than in past conventions – because each of your presenters has been trained over the past six months on how to help you learn and engage in the material, to assure learning takes place and your expectations are more than met.

3. You can’t do everything. Know your schedule and goals

There are just way too many events competing for your attention. So prioritize – and have a plan.To start, know where you’re supposed to be and when.

Author Don Peppers has some sage advice from a lifetime of “living mouth to hand.”

Before the conference starts, be clear on your goals and what you want to get our of the convention. Ask yourself:

  • Do you want to consolidate existing relationships or meet new people?
  • Do you want to acquire “how to” expertise or to gather industry insights and intelligence?
  • From a personal standpoint, are you trying to grow your “personal brand” or make connections with others?
  • Learn more in order to do your current job better, or to get to the next level?

Like AIA membership itself, what you get from attending a conference will be based on what you put into it. And as with design assignments, the time you put into the planning will pay off many times over in the end. You won’t regret it.

4. Forget networking. Just ask questions instead

The word ‘networking’ seems to put architects on edge. What it boils down to is interacting with your peers and engaging them in conversation.

Most would be thrilled to have you come up and introduce yourself, and ask a question or two, exchange cards and move on.

You never know what might become of it – and what doors may open for you on account of a simple social exchange. So, instead of networking, simply introduce yourself and ask:

  • What have you been working on lately?
  • Discuss your reactions to the last presentation.
  • Talk about what you’re working on.

And the networking – and conversation – will take care of itself.

5. Don’t be a sponge, engage

Architects so often think of themselves as sponges. Taking-in all that surrounds them.

Stop soaking. At the Expo, don’t just look at products and play who can collect the most swag.

Instead, engage with the reps. Get to know them: they can be a fount of industry wisdom and you never know when they might come to your rescue on a project.

Look around. You might see former classmates or former colleagues.

Check out this infographic explaining what to do and what not to do when visiting the convention expo.

In terms of the exception for when you should not under any circumstances engage, here’s one word of advice:

If you see a former employer cavorting with someone who is, um, not their spouse? Turn the other way. Even if you’ve caught eyes – they will appreciate it. This has happened to me three times – with three separate former employers on three separate occasions – and each time resulted in the most awkward conversations.

The difference between a convention and conference? A convention is where conventional behavior takes place. Or it at least seems to.6. Allow for some downtime

With all of this meeting, greeting, engaging, dis-engaging and participating, you’ll need to recharge your batteries.

Architects tend to be introverts. Instead of being energized by social occasions, they’re drained by all of the energy required to meet and greet.

So give yourself a break. Better yet, several of them. Perhaps steal away to your hotel room for a short nap between events, or for a walk outdoors in the fresh air.

7. Make the most of after-hours socializing

I tend to spend the evening hours putting the finishing touches on my conference presentations. Mistake. Instead of tweaking and un-tweaking, I should be out and about taking-part in after-hour activities.

Some sound suggestions on why what goes on at night is as important a part of any conference or convention as what happens by day.

8. Get to know those you interact with on social media

You’ve probably engaged in more back and forth with some of the convention attendees – on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Architizer, (fill-in-the-blank) – than you have with your own family members.

Here’s your chance to put a face to the handle and get to know your social media buds in person. Who knows? They may be your future peers, colleagues, friends or employers – you never know.

MeetUp with Your Twitter Friends at the AIA 2013 TweetUp.

9. Can’t attend in person? Attend the Virtual Convention

Face it – conventions are expensive and not every firm can afford to send everyone they would like to have represent the firm.

Nor can individuals justify the cost of attending each year. That’s what the virtual convention is for: on demand live streaming, simulcasts and the virtual expo.

When attending virtually, you’re not peering in, spying on presentations. Speakers are trained to address and engage attendees who are participating in programs from outside the classroom.

Not convinced and would still like to attend in person? Here are some ideas for how to go about convincing the powers-that-be to give you the green light – and the green – on attending.10. Approach a big-name architect

Don’t be intimidated – they’re people, too.

I wish someone had told me that before meeting Morphosis principal Thom Mayne FAIA at a past AIA convention. He couldn’t have been more friendly and patient, doing all he could to get me from just standing there making blblblblbl sounds with my lips and index finger.

Or upon approaching Peter Eisenman FAIA – suddenly at a loss for something to say – asking him to deconstruct his signature for me (he did, without hesitating, as though he were asked to do this a hundred times a day.)

Or the time I saw architect Scott Simpson going up the escalator while I was going down. Instead of catching eyes and saying hello (and gushing that I’ve read all of his articles in DesignIntelligence including this and this and this and this and this and this and this and even his books) I just kept my head down and pretended that I didn’t see him (on second thought, maybe that was best.)

Some sound advice on how to approach (and how NOT to approach) your hero.

Here’s some great tips on how to be confident, even when you’re not.

11. Leave your work at the office

You are here to learn, to engage, to converse and to have fun. And there is nothing less fun than to see a colleague doing office work at the convention – and no better way to alienate your peers. They are just not impressed that you are so busy that you can’t set your work aside for a few days.

Taking a call from back at the office now and then is unavoidable – but be sure to make every effort to plan specific times when you can address questions from your team or fires that need putting out – to assure you are getting the most from attending the convention.

12. Look for an opportunity to get involved

The convention is perhaps the one time and place where you are exposed to all the AIA does for members – and the public – and an ideal time to recalibrate your level of involvement.

Find a knowledge community to meet with upon your return from the convention. Make a commitment to get involved.

My initiation to AIA was attending knowledge community meetings, which led to serving as a local director, then vice-president, and so on. Step up your involvement a notch this year – you never know where it can lead.

13. What to do as soon as you return home

Within the first few days back, send each of those you met at the convention a brief hand-written note or email, reminding them

that you met them at the convention, saying:

  • how much you enjoyed meeting them,
  • how much you enjoyed their presentation (especially if they presented,) perhaps asking them for a copy of their presentation – or
  • just let them know that you enjoyed your conversation with them.

You do this because you authentically care about them as a person – but it also helps them remember you and your name the next time you see them.

It would be a fascinating exercise to fill-out a program for the convention – after the fact – based on how you really spent your time. Most of you would be surprised. Let me know if you have tips of your own that you’d like to share.

–       Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED-AP

Learn more about the AIA 2013 National Convention here and here.

Download the AIA 2013 Convention App for iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch, Android BlackBerry/Windows Phone.

Learn what’s new at this year’s convention.

Download a PDF version of the 2013 convention guide to review the daily schedule, exhibitors, and more.

On June 20, 2013 at the AIA 2013 Convention in Denver, I will be leading a early morning session on how to lead in the new world of practice – live in person and also on-demand for the virtual convention. To learn more, please click the link below:

TH107: (Re)Learning to Lead with BIM and IPD

2013 AIA National Convention

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM

Denver, CO Convention Center, Room 201

Earn 1.00 AIA LUs + GBCI


Also, in July 2013, I will be leading a 2-day Harvard GSD Executive Education seminar. To learn more, please click the link below:

BIM: Lessons in Leadership

July 8, 2013 – 9:00am – July 9, 2013 – 5:00pm

Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA

Earn 14 AIA/CES




1. Don Peppers (@DonPeppers) - June 9, 2013

Randy: All very good advice. I might add ONE more bit of wisdom, though, and that has to do with your choice of people to “connect” with. That is, when you are wading in to a crowd just to mingle, are there particular folks you ought to want to meet? And the answer is “yes there are.” You most want to meet those folks in a crowd who seem to be well-connected to other people you don’t already know. That is, rather than going from friend to colleague to friend, find a discussion involving NO ONE you know, in order to reach out and make connections with networks other than your own. This is the “weak ties” strategy, and it is the best way to obtain more valuable network connections as well as to generate more new and original ideas, personally.

randydeutsch - June 9, 2013

Don: What an honor to have you stop by and chime-in here. We’re all the wiser for it.

The “weak ties” strategy is an excellent suggestion. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I have several times been the ‘victim’ of meeting eyes with, and walking-toward, a familiar face in a crowd only to watch them diverge at the last moment left or right – instead of taking it personally, realizing that they were probably following this very advice. Seeing and walking up to colleagues and friends is playing it safe – like standing on a ‘base’ in the game ‘running bases.’ All of us would benefit from getting out of our comfort zones and putting ourselves out there – between the bases, if you will – for longer and longer periods of time, until we’re completely comfortable wading in a crowd finding unfamiliar, well-connected people to talk to. This might be anxiety-inducing for some architects on the introverted end of the social spectrum – but as with all new habits, we can start small and build up from there.

2. Gayle Hoffman - June 9, 2013

Volunteering is another good way to meet and engage with organizations, presenters and/ or participants.

randydeutsch - June 9, 2013

Great point. Thanks Gayle!

3. businessofarch - June 17, 2013

Randy, found your article while researching mine here: http://bit.ly/18QYWW6. I like yours better! Looking forward to meeting a bunch of great architects.

4. Dustin Bopp, AIA - June 24, 2013

My sentiments exactly.

5. leecalisti - June 25, 2013

Networking has been at the core of how I’ve developed my business. However, it doesn’t come easy and many of these suggestions are difficult for many of us to do at a Convention or just in general. I find it uncomfortable to be in a large crowd in a social setting, yet I really enjoy talking one on one with a new person. I also feel that the person trying to network with me has an ulterior motive and I wonder if they think I do too.

I just like to talk to people because their stories and backgrounds are interesting. There needs to be more said about making these connections (especially at a huge setting like a convention) than just “walk up to someone and ask them to lunch” or as you put it “strike up a conversation.” “Suck it up” or “just do it” is not sage advice for many who are not gregarious by nature. You said yourself that we are generally introverts.

After hours socializing is even worse for some of us if we are with people we don’t know well. I don’t drink and am uncomfortable being around people who think of alcohol the way they did in college. I’d rather be in a casual restaurant than a bar and I’d rather be with people who happen to have a drink than those who can’t wait to get their fill. I admit I am most comfortable with people I already know.

It is far easier for me to get to know people by working side by side on committees and similar situations where something is connecting us. We can talk confidently about things we know (I.e. the purpose of the committee) and then as we get to know each other from that point of view, when we talk socially, some of the barriers have come down.

I went to the AIA Convention in 2004 in Chicago and found it to be a miserable experience overall. I kept busy during the day with seminars and the committee for which lead me there. But only one person invited me to go somewhere later and that was …drinking with…strangers. No one offered lunch or coffee or some other sober setting. I chose to go back to my hotel room. Perhaps going alone was a mistake.

Leave a Reply to leecalisti Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: