Conference-ing with a Toddler

Playing the “lava game” in a quiet hallway of the conference hotel

Playing the “lava game” in a quiet hallway of the conference hotel

This will be my last post about our recent San Francisco trip/conference, I promise! In general, I’m not a huge fan of large conferences. All of the socializing is exhausting and a lot of the networking that happens feels fake (unless you’re getting connected through people you already know). I think the most valuable thing I got from this most recent conference was having the chance to catch up with friends and mentors from my grad school days. I hadn’t seen most of these people since I graduated and it felt like one big reunion. It seemed like every corner I turned I saw someone that I hadn’t seen in years. After 2.5 years of living across the country from everyone we know, it was nice to run into so many familiar faces.

Anyway, on to the point of this post... pre-Ellie conferences were usually something I did by myself. This time around I thought I’d make the conference experience feel less stressful by having Mike and Ellie join me. Also, who doesn’t want to take a family trip to San Francisco where most of your expenses are covered?! Having never brought a toddler to a conference, neither Mike or I were sure how it would go. Today I’m sharing what worked for us.

  • Location, location, location. There’s a ton of stuff to do in San Francisco and it’s a pretty easy city to navigate without a car. While your toddler may be fine with jumping on the hotel bed for 5 days straight (Ellie certainly would be), you will likely want to pull your hair out if that’s your only toddler friendly option. Do some location scouting before committing to a family trip. If outside entertainment and transit options seem sparse, you might think about waiting for another conference.

  • Bring your partner, or family member, or friend, or someone you trust with your kid to watch them while you’re doing conference things. While there are some things you can bring your kid to (see below), conference presentations are probably not one of them. Perhaps you could pull this off if you have the world’s most well behaved toddler! For the rest of us, I’m guessing most of our toddlers are not going to quietly sit through a conference talk. Plus, having to split your attention between your toddler and the talk is mentally taxing. For us, that meant Mike and Ellie explored the city and hotel while I went to conference sessions.

  • Have a tentative schedule mapped out before you go. This is something I would do even if my toddler wasn’t involved... but having her there made this pre-conference planning activity even more important. Once the conference agenda is available, go through it and pick out the specific sessions that you 100% want to go to and then let go of the rest. Don’t forget to leave time time to catch up with all of your people and do some sightseeing, if that’s your thing.

  • Say hello to fellow parents. We passed a mom and her toddler in the halls and stopped to chat. Ellie was eyeing up the other kid’s toys and the fellow academic mama let us in on a little “secret” - they picked all the toys up in the exhibit hall… conference provided toddler entertainment! We didn’t chat for long, but it was nice to connect with someone else who was making the conference a family affair.

  • Visit the exhibit hall. Ellie and I hit up the exhibit hall with all the booths for schools/vendors (based on the recommendation from a fellow academic mama). We purposely went during off peak hours so that it wouldn’t be super crowded. Ellie loved it! She was so excited to walk up and get all the little trinkets from each booth. Plus, the people sitting in the booths were excited to see her. It also gave Mike a chance to take a breather after running around all day with Ellie. Granted, we weren’t thrilled about the whistle she picked up (and I don’t know if anyone in our general vicinity was thrilled either), but it kept her entertained for a while... sadly, we “lost” it on our way home!

  • Visit the poster sessions. I also took Ellie to the electronic poster sessions. I didn’t go with the intent that I’d get something out of it, but more to show her what happens at conferences (I know she’s only 2, but they are always learning!). She was a bit intimidated by all the people (and also hungry) so I’m not sure how much fun she actually had. We did stop by a friend’s poster, who let Ellie swipe through the various sections of the electronic poster, which Ellie enjoyed.

  • Find secluded areas of the hotel to hang out/retreat to. The conference hotel was pretty big, with lots of random hallways. Ellie had fun exploring and running around in some of the areas that were quieter (like the picture for this post). It was nice to find some spots to retreat to (that weren’t the hotel room) when other spaces felt overwhelmingly crowded.

  • Other things we didn’t try, but might work…

    • Evening receptions. Depending on their timing (i.e., pre-toddler bedtime) and how chaotic they are (i.e., not), receptions could be a nice source of entertainment for you and your toddler, plus free snacks! We didn’t go to any with Ellie because of her earlier bedtime (due to not napping), but if she had been up late we probably would have checked a few out.

    • Umbrella stroller. We didn’t bring a stroller on the trip because Ellie isn’t normally a fan of sitting for long stretches of time, but I could see this coming in handy as you are walking around the conference, trying to juggle bags and toddler things.

What conference strategies have worked for you and your toddler?