Conference Crazy and Conference Cool

Back in the day, I used to be a conference and meetings person – professionally. Those of you who have had that job know how challenging it is, akin to herding cats while each cat is wearing a magnet. Sometimes they all line up and head off in a group. Sometimes, all those magnets face the wrong way and everyone is repelled into different directions. Sometimes, people forget to clean the litterbox.

A few people have emailed me to say, “OMG, did you HEAR about the CRAZY that went on with one of the Mr. Romance candidates?” Several emailed me eyewitness accounts of what was really a scary and altogether sad situation, and really, there’s only so much crazy that can be attributed to the the sleepless, hardworking conference organizers. RT and the folks that run it had no idea that this particular individual would cause such a scene in the midst of 1500 people causing a more entertaining scene. But, it does make me think of the more OMGWTF moments I’ve seen and heard of in conference planning.

Hotels under construction? RTsters just finished that experience, and my sources tell me the hotel assured the organizers that the reno would be completed. Yeah, that wasn’t quite true. By a longshot. As for me, I’ve been to other conferences where the hotel was under construction – and the time difference was such that I wanted to sleep while the sledgehammering was in full swing. Hotel and convention staff work hard, but one person with the wrong intentions or who’s just having a dumb moment can foul up things like damn and whoa. My very worst conference experience isn’t even remotely funny, but oh my, there have been some much, much worse happenings at conferences that would make your eyes bug out.

Heather Graham emailed me her worst-ever conference experience, back in the early days of the first Florida Romance Writers conference:

We all killed ourselves for one of our first FRW conferences, trying to make everything just right. Lunch was chicken—undercooked. But it was served, and at my table, people had taken bites of their sides, cut their chicken—many had tried it until we realized it was raw chicken.

The waiter came around and irritably picked up all the plates—then returned with them and just set them down anywhere! By then, of course, time for lunch to be over, and everyone just went ugh! drank a lot of water, and headed on back to workshops. Not good, not good at all! But I think we were all too dumbstruck to make the fuss we should have!

Holy freaking crap. If that happened today, and the fuss was made, there’d be no end to the free drinks at the hotel bar. I can’t even imagine the shades of purple the General Manager would turn upon hearing that story.

However, there are some cool concepts on the conference calendar, too, from this weekend’s Washington Romance Writer’s Retreat, and next month’s science-fiction-feminist extravaganza, WisCon. Graham also gave me the heads up about her own Writers for New Orleans Conference:

we started Writers for New Orleans right after Katrina because friends told me they were grateful for handouts, but what they really wanted was to get back to work. We managed to get it up in about four months. The Hotel Monteleone was chosen very purposely. My sister, who came to New Orleans every year, loved it, and it didn’t make any sense to go to a chain hotel. We needed a local hotel. I later discovered that we made a good call—our banquet man told us that there is still a Mr. Monteleone, and after Katrina, he paid all his people for the weeks ahead, and also picked up utility bills for them.

The French Quarter is back up as if nothing happened; it didn’t really flood. But the outlying areas are still trashed. After Hurricane Andrew, there were areas down here that stayed devastated for a decade, so that’s what we’re figuring. We’ll do it for ten years. Our proceeds go to the library foundation, but the idea was really to get people in, and get them spending money. The idea was to offer some great classes, a Friday fun dinner, and a chance for people to help out by just being there, seeing why the city (yes, Bourbon Street can be a true den of decadence) is so important to the U.S. No handouts from everyone, just everyone shopping, having lunch out, etc.

Most romance conferences I’ve attended have literacy signings or other fundraisers for local not-for-profit organizations – yet another example of how the romance community is incredibly altruistic and can move huge mountains of cash money in innovative and generous directions (two words: Brenda Novak).

So what’s your worst – and best – conference experiences? Share, share!



General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    Kalen Hughes says:


    Nora Roberts spying my FIRST SALE ribbon and saying, “Congratulations. What do you write?” Oh-my-grand-fucking-damn-ilious!

    Getting to be a “princess” when I was a Golden Heart finalist.


    Getting frostbite at a table of Inspie writers during a luncheon in Atlanta . . . they were hands down the rudest women I’ve ever encountered at an RWA function. I had on my FIRST SALE ribbon, they asked the same question Nora had, but the reaction was entirely different . . .


    Getting felt up by a major (female!) agent in the bar in Atlanta (reports of which are somewhere in the archives of this very blog). 

    OH! I’m just back from NOLA, and I’d soooooo attend any and every writers conference there!!! I’m still dreaming of crab cakes . . .

  2. 2
    Joy says:

    Oh lord.  My very first RWA conference experience happened when I was in my twenties. ( a looong time ago)  This was back when Christine Zika was an assistant something or other… My sister and I had our pitch appts with her, one after the other, so we stood in line together.  While my sister pitched, the snarky Houston romance mavens behind me chatted away, fingered their gaudy jewelry a lot, and generally snarked everything.  They even went so far as to tell dumb innocent ole me that Christine’s last name was pronounced ZY-ka.  So of course, when I introduced myself I said, thank you for meeting with me, Miss ZYka. 

    ||this|| is a conference I will never get over.

  3. 3
    Lorelie says:

    I’ve never been to a conference of any sort, writing or other job.  I’m jumping into the deep end though, with Nationals this summer.  :)

    P.S. Kalen, I was looking for your site the other day and couldn’t remember whose it was!  All I remembered was that there was a writer that comments on SBTB with handy undergarment pages.  Glad to have found it again.

  4. 4

    This year’s RWA National will be my very first romance-oriented conference, and I’m really looking forward to it.

    I’ve been attending science fiction conventions since the 1980s, so it will be interesting to see the cultural differences.

  5. 5

    And as a side note, what are the pros and cons of wearing a “first sale” ribbon at National?  My book doesn’t come out until December, so I won’t have anything to show anyone if they ask about it—should I skip that until the following year?

  6. 6
    Lorelie says:

    Dude, if I were you I’d wear that with pride.  And then try to wear it next year, too.  :D But I’m like that.

  7. 7

    My first and only conference was “Spring Into Romance” hosted by RWA San Diego.  It was great, I met Catherine Coulter and Julia Quinn.  (OMG!)  I also signed up to speak with an agent and was so nervous about my pitch that I didn’t sleep a wink the night before.  During the actual appointment, I went into this spasmodic coughing attack and couldn’t croak out more than a few words.

    Almost died of embarrassment.  Hope this entertains someone.

  8. 8
    Miri says:

    Never been to a writerscon. Hmmm, perhaps that should change…
    I wanted to post a thanks for the hotel recomendation, me and the hubby have been talking about visting New Orleans, thanks!

  9. 9

    This is not a bad experience; it’s actually funny in retrospect.

    My first time at RWA nationals was in NYC in 2003.  We were four to a room (which is tons and tons of fun, I’m doing it again this year) but that year one of the roomies had sleep apnea.  She’d start at gentle, soothing snore, which gradually builds up and up into something dramatic and scary, and all of a sudden she’d go quiet.

    I remember getting up several times to check, that first night, to make sure she hadn’t died on us. 

    Needless to say, going to sleep wasn’t easy.  In fact, one of the other roomies got up in the middle of the night one time, grabbed some blankets, and went to sleep in the BATHROOM.

    So my advice to first time conference attendees? One word: Melatonin.

  10. 10
    Mary Stella says:

    One year I chaired a big chapter conference.  The hotel screwed up numerous things.  15 minutes before the keynote breakfast, I walked in—no plates on the tables.  Someone had used them to prep the lunch salad plates.  I sent the catering manager out to find plates no matter what because she was NOT going to serve our guests on paper napkins.

    At that same conference, someone asked me to find help for a male conference attendee who had shingles and needed someone to rub ointment on his back.  They’d heard one of our speakers was also a nurse.  I was pretty sure that ointment-rubbing did not fall under my massive list of conference chair duties.  I suggested they inquire at the front desk for the closest doc-in-a-box (walk-in center).

    I got stuck in an elevator for 45 minutes at an RT in Houston in 2000 with 9 other women and cover model Sean O’Brien.  In retrospect, I can look back and laugh.

    Best moments at conferences:  Meeting terrific people.  I will never forget the first time someone brought their copy of my debut novel to me and asked me to sign it.  They’d packed it in their suitcase and brought it from home!

    Worst moments?  I honestly can’t think of one right now, so they couldn’t have been too bad.

  11. 11
    Silver James says:

    Wow…All I have to offer is beer-swigging firefighters ogling the Kansas City Chief Cheerleaders at an International Fire Chiefs convention. That and my then nine-year-old widget child disappearing from the booth I was manning on the exhibit floor and later finding her pitching robotic critters and puppets to PubEd Fire officers for a company. She ended up receiving a dragon puppet for all the sales she helped make.

    I really am going to have to find some RWA conventions to attend. And, Heather, I am checking into the New Orleans conference. I LOVE NOLA! I’d even drag the spouse to that one, if he could get away.

  12. 12

    My funniest and worst conference moment is all rolled into one.  I was organizing volunteers which I found to be a fun but challenging job.  I like people, and we surely got a lot of interesting folks.  However, one of the most charming women I was working with turned out to be interesting in a whole new way for my 21 year old self. It was right before dinner and the guests were just starting to arrive.  She ran her hand down my backside and asked, “My goodness! Are you wearing ANY underwear at all?” I was mortified but had to paste that smile on my face and go on with the show as it were.  Now adays, I never go out without a slip under my dress or skirt.

  13. 13
    Sandra D says:

    My husband is the organizer for a large computer conference here in Toronto and the first year was quite the learning experience. 1) Don’t EVER host a conference for programmers and not supply coffee, it wasn’t pretty lol, and 2) our bagged lunches were almost an hour late, not good with the tight schedule we were working with. I’m happy to say the two years since then have gone much more smoothly.

    A note for anyone going to New Orleans, if you want the BEST bar-b-que, crawfish nachos (seriously, they rock), and breakfasts you HAVE to go to J’Anitas on Magazine, mmmmmmgood.

  14. 14
    Liviania says:

    My best moment was probably at the ALA spring conference several years ago – I was one of the students who got to tell the panel which books I thought should get the BBYA award.  Whenever I see winners from that year it makes me really happy because I knew I had a part in it.  (However, I’m still confused by the fact “Inexcusable” was in the top ten – every teen who spoke about it said they hated it.)

    My worst moment at a con was, er, well . . . uh, I generally have fun with cons.  The worst part is parting with the money for a badge, I suppose.  (I prefer to volunteer.  Most places only require eight hours or so for free admission.)

  15. 15
    lijakaca says:

    Never been to a writer’s conference, but I’ve been to a couple anime/manga conventions, and one was in the same hotel with a car enthusiast convention – could have been VW?  Anyways, the enthusiasts (95% under 40 males) did NOT, in general, make nice with our attendees(80% female and under 30, many in costume), and there were many uncomfortable elevator rides, comments, as well as a few unpleasant incidents…

    Moral of the story: When organizing, ask the hotel if they are hosting any other major events that weekend…

  16. 16
    DS says:

    In the 90’s I was at a conference in the J W Marriot in D C when during the morning session the kitchen caught on fire.  Security herded us out to a small park (Freedom Park?) where we stood in the spring chill as they sorted it out.  Everyone eventually decided they would rather lunch than shiver while waiting to get back to the work shops.  A couple of conferences later the organization passed out buttons commemorating those who survived the Great Hotel Fire.

  17. 17
    Koko Brown says:

    The culprit of your story came off as a looney toon from the very beginning.  The entire week, I thought he was some poor soul’s companion or even a member of the Impalers, a band which played at Heather Graham’s Vampire Ball.  My friend thought he was hotel staff.
    But our musings were dispelled when he whipped out his guitar on Saturday afternoon in the mezzanine area outside the RT Awards Banquet.  Where he began to play and sing at the top of his lungs.  His singing was so bad, he ran us back into the banquet [yes…it was that bad!]

    So of course, you can imagine our shock when we saw him on stage Saturday night for the Mr. Romance Contest, even though I spotten him earlier in the day sporting a contestant t-shirt.  I guess I thought he stole it.  The unnamed was a poor loser as well.  When the winner and his former roommate reached out to give him a hug once the overall winner was announced, he pulled away from him. 

    His actions during the entire conference were simply bizarre….

  18. 18

    Sherry, I always bring earplugs and one of those eyemasks to conventions—helps for noise in the room as well as noise from the hallway.

    And in a weird coincidence, I started reading your book last night (PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS).  I’m liking it so far!

  19. 19
    Strategerie says:

    Worst conference experience? I was diagnosed with sleep apnea one week after I returned from National in Atlanta the year before last. To say that I was upset and embarrassed over the entire situation is an understatement, and horrified that anyone lost one minute’s sleep because I snored. I now use a CPAP machine when I sleep. I’m sharing a room with a woman from my chapter this year, and we discussed this at great length before we even agreed to be roommates. I’ll get a room alone and take the financial hit if there is any problem whatsoever. It’s not worth ruining my or anyone else’s National experience.

    Best conference experience? There are so many. Mostly, though, the opportunity to meet and talk with authors whose books I love—priceless. An agent asked for the full last year at National, which is the biggest thrill of my writing career so far!

  20. 20
    allison says:

    Worst? Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis – my hotel room was broken into before I checked in. As the hotel didn’t have another room, I went to stay at the Marriott just across the street from the convention center. Orbitz wouldn’t give me my money back for the first hotel room because I didn’t know, at least 24 hours in advance, that my room would be unliveable and that the hotel didn’t have another room for me. Thus – according to their terms of use and my agreement to them, I didn’t cancel 24 hours in advance and I was out 700 bucks. I’ve never booked through Orbitz again and I travel quite extensively.

    Best? ComicCon in San Diego every year. You meet fantastic people, the fanboys and girls are awesome fun for people watching and you get to talk to your favorite authors and artists. Plus – lots of new toys, gadgets and gizmos for the taking and buying. I love Comic Con and go every year.

  21. 21
    Gwynnyd says:

    Wait long enough and all the bad stories become the fondest ones to retell over and over.  How much time do you have?  I ran conventions, volunteering and professionally, for more than thirty years.  From 30,000 person Star Trek extravaganzas closed down by the Fire Marshall to 300 hungry hackers in a feeding frenzy on a thousand dollars of pizza delivered at midnight, from attendees keeling over from heart attacks on the show floor to hotel exhibition spaces having ceiling heights two inches too low for the modular displays when they assured me they had much more than 8 feet of clearance, to T-1 lines going down and shutting down registration with 500 people standing in line, I’ve seen it all. i still love conventions!


  22. 22
    Genevieve P. says:

    I’ve only been to a few conferences, and most of those were San Diego Comic Con.  Some memorable moments are:

    * Bumping into Joss Whedon while buying comic book art for my brother – Whedon was signing some of the comic panels (it was for the new Buffy comic)
    * Being interviewed for TV (I was dressed as Supergirl).

    All time best AND worst experience:

    My very first con, I was eighteen but I had already finished a screenplay, a story that I intended to be animated.  It wasn’t my first but I was very proud because it was definitely my best.  I loved movies so much, my awesome parents took me down to San Diego Comic Con so I could decide if that was the career I really wanted.  I went to a panel on writing for animation, very excited that a creator whose work I loved and adored would be there.  Well, sure enough, the moderator of the panel asks if there are any writers in the audience (several hands are raised) then asks if anyone has written a screenplay intended for animation.  Very excited, I kept my hand up, and I was the only one with my hand up.  Then the moderator asks the writer/director I admired if anyone in the “real” business ever actually used a screenplay for animated films, and the writer, somewhat awkwardly, replied “no.”  Moderator then says something along the lines of, “There you have it, anyone who has written a screenplay for animated films has just wasted their own time” and everyone in the room laughed.  I was humiliated.  Utterly and totally humiliated.  But I kept it together and still managed to ask a polite question or two and take notes.

    Afterwards, the writer/director I admired came up to me, apologized, said that he thought that was horrible, and invited me to a party they were having with a bunch of other writers and directors that night.  I went and had a nice conversation with him there.  And, I’ll admit, by that point?  Total puppy love.  But, it just goes to show, even horrible situations can turn out OK.  And I learned two very valuable lessons: Animation movies are always “boarded” and I’m better suited to writing live action.

  23. 23
    Kristie(J) says:

    My best conference moment was going out for lunch with Lisa Kleypas.
    My worst conference moment (totally different conference) was sharing a room with 3 other people I’d never met before.  One of the women snored SO LOUD she was twice as loud as my dad who up until that experience I didn’t think anyone could snore louder than.  I could not sleep at all and went to the hotel lobby at 3:00 in the morning to try and catch some shut eye on one of the couches.  I also assumed (wrongly) that all food would be covered and I didn’t budget for food – books yes – food no.

  24. 24
    Alyssa Day says:

    One of my funniest was at my first RT – St. Louis.  They put us in the overflow hotel even though we had paid for a room at the conference hotel in advance through RT (lesson learned) and there was a big rodeo convention in the overflow hotel.  The bellhop looked me up and down (I’m a 6 foot tall blonde and I was in a skirt and stiletto heels, so probably 6’ 3”) and said:  “Are you here for the rodeo convention?”  I just blinked and said “Yes, I’m the North American side-saddle bull riding champion.”  The rest of the time I was there, everybody was pointing at me and talking.  I even had a couple of requests for autographs!!!

  25. 25
    Lynne says:

    My first writers’ conference experience was by far the worst. It’s a wonder I ever went to any others after that. I’m glad I did, though, because most of them were halfway decent.

    I won’t bore y’all with the long list of things-gone-wrong at that first conference, but the one that took the prize was when unpublished authors were very loudly forced to leave the banquet room just as the big awards dinner was starting. For reasons unknown, the conference organizers decided at the last minute to keep unpublished authors who weren’t local chapter members out of the banquet (that we paid for) until everyone else was finishing dessert.

    I have no idea what these folks were thinking by behaving in such a rude and unprofessional manner, but I’m willing to bet that all the people who were screamed at by the organizers and then made to cool their heels in the hallway for over an hour haven’t forgotten the names of the arseholes running the show that night.

  26. 26

    My most memorable convention moment was at the Autumn Author’s convention in Chicago in… I think it was 2004.  I was in an elevator with two of my friends, and one of them was a huge Buffy fan, like I was.  We had been banned from all Buffy talk by another friend, and since she wasn’t with us, we gleefully burst into “Going Through The Motions” from the musical episode, “Once More With Feeling.”  Just as I was belting (and dancing to) the line “She ain’t got that swing!”, the elevator doors opened and there stood Chris Keeslar, an editor from Dorchester who had a manuscript of mine.  He backed away and said quickly, “I’ll grab the next one.”

    He didn’t buy the book.

  27. 27
    Kaitlin says:

    I’ve never been able to go to a convention (too poor, too whatever), but one of my friends went to a comicon somewhere & got an autograph from Mercedes Lackey for my birthday.  That was so cool!  :D Now if I could just get Nora’s, I’d be set.  he-he

  28. 28

    Worst:  I wrote YA under a different name before adult. I went to a conference with 3 other women and we shared a hotel room. One of the women snored so incredibly loudly that I spent the night trying to sleep in the bathtub.

    Another—I went to an RWA conference in Reno a couple of years ago with a woman who was clingy to me. She’d had something happen at home—I could understand why she wasn’t happy, but she passed that on to me. I totally didn’t enjoy myself because she was so negative. Can’t explain well how that came out, but it was just a real downer of an experience.

    Best: I have some great moments. My very first RT con ever was in Kansas City ini 2003. I’d been writing for less than a year, but I had about 6 books out, I think, with the e-pub I was with. What was so precious was a young woman who handed me a rose and was too nervous to talk to me so someone with her did, and took our picture together. That choked me up a bit. That same con just blew my mind, because people knew who I was and had actually read my books!

    Then was the conference when I won the reviewers’ choice RT award for best erotic, and my mom was there and I cried when I thanked her and my father. It meant so much that she was there.

    And meeting readers, booksellers, my fellow authors, my editor and agent—you just can’t beat it.

  29. 29

    Victoria J, I hope you like the rest of PA.  Plenty of time for things to fall apart! :-)

  30. 30
    Leah says:

    Hmmm….the only author’s conference I’ve been to is the 1982 Young Author’s conference when I was a freshman in hs.  A senior guy liked my piece—he compared it to Twain and I totally believed him—I mean, he was a senior!

    I worked at the Indpls Children’s Museum for several yrs, (moonlighting as a visitor aide) and we did quite a few events.  I remember on spring we did a reception for a grp from the Czech Republic, and there were several tornado warnings.  Since the reception area was surrounded by glass, we had to get them to a safer place, which was hard because they were quite soused and fascinated by the idea of seeing a tornado (this was abt the time the movie Twister was out).  They did not believe us when we told them they didn’t really want to see one.

    The best conferences I’ve attended were the medical ones my husband goes to for CME.  I love the Miami Breast Cancer conference—held at the Loew’s hotel on South Beach, and when we were newlyweds, I sat on the beach all day while he attended sessions.  We also went to an appligraf conference in Chicago and stayed at Le Meridien, where I was half afraid they’d kick us out for not being fancy enough. 

    Since we’ve had kids, DH generally goes to conferences on his own, because being stuck in a hotel room in a strange city with 3 little kids for 3-4 days looses its charm real fast!

    then46…..yep, by the time I’m 46 the kids’ll be big enough to make conferences fun again

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