AOTA Conference Countdown: First-Time Attendee Guide – What to Do Before, During, & After Conference to Have the Best Time Ever!

This post is part of my Conference Countdown series. Check out the other posts about missing classes for conference, networking, and planning your itinerary! You can also read my posts from the 2014 AOTA Conference in Baltimore HERE and HERE to learn more about the conference experience.

Me at AOTA Conference 2014 in Baltimore! Maybe this year I’ll get a picture with a guitar! 😀

Last year was my first year attending an AOTA conference, and it was easily the highlight of my not-yet-started life as an OT! I went by myself as a volunteer, but I met and talked to so many cool people it was like I was there with a bunch of old friends! Still, going for the first time was a little intimidating, so I’ve written a guide for people who are going that haven’t been before and may not be sure what to do or expect!
This post includes information about:

  • What to wear
  • What to bring
  • How to prepare
  • Which events and sessions to attend
  • Linking conference happenings to your classroom or workplace
  • How to make the most of your conference experience after returning home

There’s advice for students and practitioners, and I hope you find it helpful!


  • Pack mostly business casual and casual clothing. Most people at the conference last year wore business casual clothing; some people wore jeans and T-shirts. Since you never know who you’ll meet, I recommend business casual clothes that you’ll be comfortable and confident in. I believe in dressing for success, and there’s nothing like putting on a crisply ironed shirt or well-tailored blazer to make me feel like I can conquer the world!
    • Bring clothes that can multitask – decrease luggage weight, pack less, and simplify your suitcase. One suit can go a long way!
    • Bring comfortable WALKING SHOES!!! You will be doing a LOT of walking around, and it’s crucial that you bring footwear that won’t cripple you by the end of the week. Those 4-inch heels or shiny new dress shoes might look great, but I can promise they won’t feel great after 4+ hours of walking all over the conference center every day!
    • Check the weather and plan accordingly – if you don’t want to bring a heavy raincoat, at least pack a travel umbrella, foldable poncho, waterproof shoes, etc.
  • Plan your schedule in advance [somewhat]. There are hundreds of sessions and poster presentations that will be happening, and it can be very challenging to try and plan each day as it happens. Of course, some people may just want to wander around the conference center and see what they get into, and that’s fine! However, I would advise that you make a note of at least two or three sessions you would like to attend each day, so that you can get the most out of the experience and come away with information that is relevant to your current interests or area of practice, while still leaving plenty of time to explore! (See my previous Conference Countdown post for more tips about planning your itinerary.)
  • Set a budget and stick to it. With late night activities, sightseeing, expensive conference hall food, travel, and a plethora of things to purchase, attending the conference can get very pricey very quickly! Before you arrive, set a food, travel, entertainment, and shopping budget that you’d like to stick to, and do your best to keep track of how and where you spend your money. Additionally, food is EXPENSIVE in the conference center, and lines get very long during the day; bring snacks from your hotel and try to plan meals in advance to help keep your costs down.


  • Attend the Thursday night conference opening ceremony! It was an amazing, electrifying experience when I went last year, and being surrounded by so many optimistic and excited students and practitioners was wonderful! The speakers last year were great, and I loved the support that the audience showed for all of them and everyone’s energetic support of our profession. If you do nothing else on Thursday, go to the opening ceremony just to experience being in a room full of people who actually know what it is that you do for a living! XD
  • Bring a bag you’ll be comfortable carrying around all day. The conference guide is huge, and you’ll be collecting freebies, ribbons, handouts, and business cards wherever you go. Make sure your bag won’t weigh you down! I used a small backpack to hold my things, and here’s my list of essentials that will get you through the long days and nights!
    • Water bottle – You’ll be doing a lot of walking and talking, and it’s important to stay hydrated!
    • Extra money, like $10 or $20 in cash
    • Pen and small notebook
    • Chewing gum/breath mints
    • Phone charger (You’ll probably be on your phone a lot, and it might die on you!)
    • Tablet or laptop
    • Business cards and business card holder
    • Copies of your resume
    • Snacks (Nuts, pretzels, crackers, fruit, granola bars, trail mix, etc.)
  • Connect your classroom education, fieldwork, current interests, and future aspirations to conference content. For example, if you already know the practice setting for your next fieldwork, plan to attend a few sessions on the subject and begin gathering resources and preparing for your experience. Conference is also a great time to explore and learn more about practice areas you may be interested in pursuing after graduation, as opportunities for specialty certification (see program planner for specific sessions), or if you are changing practice populations or settings.
  • Collect cool AOTA conference ribbons! There are some ribbons you can earn for simply attending conference or walking up to a vendor’s booth, and others require that you join an organization, sign a pledge, or make a purchase. However you get them, display your fun, hard-won conference ribbons with pride!
  • Share your conference experience on social media! Use the official hashtags from AOTA like #AOTA15 or your program or make your own (I’m also a fan of the Army OT Guy’s #ottheshitoutofit), but be sure to post your pictures and stories!
  • Attend a “class reunion” event. Many programs host formal or informal meetups in the city during conference, and they’re fun opportunities to catch up with classmates or learn more about what your alma mater’s current students are doing! This can be a great way to stay connected to what’s currently happening in the profession and a way to find volunteer or other opportunities.
  • Network, network, network! I can’t say it enough – the world of OT is a fairly small one, and the more people in it you know, the more opportunities you can find! Whether you’re looking to establish a contact for a fieldwork placement, speaking with the director of a research project you’re really interested in, or just getting to meet your Twitter and social media friends in person, conference is a great time to build connections and make moves! (See my previous Conference Countdown series for more networking tips.)
  • Visit the Expo Hall. It’s TOTAL sensory overload, and it’s TOTALLY worth it! There are so many vendors, practitioners, booths, and free things! Just be sure you bring a big bag to help hold your haul. Or pick up a free one while you’re there! 😀
  • Watch a bellydancer perform at the AOTPAC Night Talent Show on Saturday night! That bellydancer will be me. Come on out to see Middle Eastern dance, live music, and lots of other cool acts while supporting a great cause! 🙂

    Have you ever seen a bellydancing OT (student)? I’ll be performing at the AOTPAC Talent Show on Saturday night in case you’d like to make Middle Eastern dance part of your 2015 Conference experience!
  • Be safety-conscious and plan to let people know where you are and where you’re going. The conference center is huge, and the city will be full of conference attendees and thousands of other people. Make safety a priority and ensure that you let your classmates or travel companions know where you are and where you’re going periodically. Although you probably already have your companions’ phone numbers, make sure that they are accurate. Avoid traveling around the city alone, and keep a close eye on your belongings.


  • Organize a presentation/meeting for classmates or coworkers who weren’t able to attend.
    • Students: If you are a student who is attending conference as your program’s ASD representative, you will already be doing this. But for students who aren’t, you can still work with your reps to decide what material should be included in the presentation and who will present it. The ASD reps can’t see and do everything, so make an effort to help them and your classmates at home!
    • Practitioners: Presenting what you learned at conference – and implementing your new knowledge to improve your practice – can be a great way to educate your coworkers who couldn’t attend and show your employers the value of supporting employees’ participation in professional development events. After attending conference you will also be better prepared to initiate important conversations with your colleagues about the latest research in your practice setting, evidence-based practices, and other professional issues of importance.

Whether you’re a student or practitioner, make sure that you make time after returning from Nashville to begin crucial conversations about OT and share your knowledge with your classmates and coworkers.

  • Share your experience. Create something that can be shared on social media, on your program’s website or Facebook page, or on a blog to showcase your experience and promote OT! Take a group picture, write a brief blog or newsletter article, or make a video of all the things you did and learned!
  • Follow up with the contacts you made. It doesn’t have to be the day after you get back, but try to follow up with people you met at conference within a week of returning.
  • Provide feedback for conference organizers. Whatever happens during your time in Nashville, when you get back make sure to complete the post-conference survey and let the event organizers know. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and your comments will help improve conference in the future. And don’t forget to include constructive suggestions for improvement with your commentary!

Happy OT Month, and happy conferencing! See you in the Volunteer State!

Additional Resources

Abby from OT Cafe wrote a great, very detailed post about the 2014 conference for Pediastaff! It’s a pretty fun narrative to read, and has great lessons she learned while attending.

Did you know that you can get a professional headshot made at conference for just $30? If not, check out AOTA’s “Already Registered” page to learn about other opportunities.

Read more advice from AOTA leaders and others about how to make the most of your first conference!

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