How to survive the SSAC

I’ve been attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference since 2010, which is right around the time that the conference reached critical mass and outgrew its MIT home.  It was already a large event by that time (about 1000 attendees for a day) but is simply massive now (over 3000 attendees over two days, with pre-conference events the day before).

To navigate an event on the scale of SSAC is going to be daunting, especially if you are attending such an event for the first time.  In the spirit of the many survival guides to the South by Southwest conferences, and drawing upon my experience attending SSAC and technical conferences over the last fifteen years, here are my tips on making your SSAC experience successful.

Have a plan.  Before the conference, download the official SSAC App and check out the event schedule — the panels, the research paper track, the workshops, the attendees. You can bookmark the events that pique your interest and set alarms for the ones that you want to see.  With so many concurrent sessions, you won’t be able to see everything you want, so it’s best to have a list of three or four events that you really want to see. Your plan will not survive first contact with the conference, but the act of organizing one will make the conference a little less intimidating.

Bring business cards.  You will be giving them out, and they’re good icebreakers.

Wear comfortable shoes.  SSAC is a big event within a very large conference center, so you will have to do a lot of walking.  A comfortable pair of shoes will make the experience less painful as the day goes on.  And yes, it is possible to find comfortable dress shoes.

Drink a lot of water.  SSAC serves a lot of beverages during the day, so there’s no reason not to stay hydrated.  Even though you’ll be indoors, you will be walking around a lot and expending a lot of energy.  Stay hydrated so that you can stay alert.

Take notes.  Aside from having a written record of what was discussed in the panels and other sessions, the physical act of taking notes forces you to stay engaged.  SSAC provides some really nice notebooks to make this easier.

Don’t be afraid to strike up conversations.  You’ll meet a lot of attendees who you’ve previously seen on TV or in print.  Some of the panelists at SSAC will make a beeline for the restricted area after their session, but others will stay and chat.  Some are even accessible in the halls.  There’s a right way and wrong way to do things (barging in on someone else’s conversation to introduce yourself is rude in my opinion), but most of the panelists and attendees are friendly and will engage you in conversation.  So don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, but leave the starstruck act at home.

Be open to serendipity.  As I wrote before, all your plans will change once you step foot in the conference, and there will be a chance encounter in the halls or a booth that really interests you.  In my opinion, the chance encounters and conversations are the most valuable and memorable parts of the conference.  Having a plan is good, but go with the flow.

If you arrange a meeting, show up for it. The SSAC App makes it easy to engage fellow attendees and arrange meetings with them. If you do request a meeting, designate a location and time and then — most importantly — show up at the appointed time. There are a lot of things going on during the conference, and you are requesting that someone else take his/her time out of an event to network or answer questions. Be respectful of their time and show up. After all, you’re making the request.

Follow up.  Don’t just come to the conference to expand your business card collection.  If you meet someone and receive their business card, follow up with a short email — preferably the same day, but within 48 hours.  Those hours after the encounter are the best chance you will have to make that chance encounter a lasting relationship.  It will also put you well ahead of what most people do after conferences.

Have a productive and fun SSAC and I hope to see you in the halls!