Advice from an NRPA Annual Conference Newbie

By Sheila Runnels | Posted on August 14, 2017

blog aug conference newbie

Conference! Oh boy, that word can hold so many meanings and embody so many emotions, especially for a conference newbie like I was for the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference in St. Louis.

I had traveled through St. Louis many times, never spending more than one day in the area, so when my boss came to me and said that my trip had been approved, you can imagine my excitement. Excitement wasn’t the only emotion that rushed over me, though. Nervousness, anxiousness, and a slight bit of panic set in as I browsed the conference schedule and tried to plan my week.

I wanted to go to all the sessions in every time slot. How in the world would I get everything out of conference that I wanted to get out of it? Luckily, I have been a part of the NRPA Young Professional Network (YPN) for a few years. Thanks to a colleague, Gerry Logan, who introduced me to the monthly conference calls, I was a little familiar with what to expect out of conference week.

As I continued my conference planning, I kept an eye on the information being shared through the YPN and low and behold someone put together a list of suggested sessions for a young professional (YP). Thank goodness for resources and experienced YP’s who put that list together because it was my lifeline at that point! Not only was 2016 my first NRPA Annual Conference, I was also the only attendee from my department so I would be traveling alone to a big city. Had I not been involved with the YPN, I would have been so lost on every level. The suggested sessions list helped me narrow down my plans for sessions to attend, and registering for the “Take a YP to Lunch” event connected me with a mentor that I still communicate with to this day.  There is no doubt that being part of the YPN was key an amazing week at my first conference.

Get Connected Prior to Conference

If I can offer any advice about planning to attend conference for the first time, it would consist of three words… GET CONNECTED EARLY! Now is the time to reach out to colleagues that have attended previously, join a network within NRPA Connect and listen to the monthly conference calls for those networks. There are so many great professionals that are more than willing to share, mentor and advise on any aspect of this profession (not just conference experiences). Don’t be afraid to reach out, you’ll be welcomed with open arms, I promise!

Plan Your Sessions

I am very grateful that I made a plan for which sessions to attend prior to arriving to conference. I spent the first hour or two when I arrived in St. Louis scoping out the conference center and familiarizing myself with where my first session of the day would be, and, most importantly, where the restrooms were! I remember being in awe of the magnitude of production that was put into each session I attended.

The NRPA Live sessions (where sessions are live-streamed on the internet – a cheaper alternative to attending the conference in-person, by the way) were especially incredible and featured some of the biggest names in the profession. Technology has advanced our profession in so many ways and I think it’s an amazing offering that NRPA makes every effort to broadcast some of the hottest topic sessions and events. I will be taking my iPad with me this year, though, because I couldn’t write as fast as I thought I could and I wanted to take in every piece of information possible.

Participate in the Extracurriculars

Because the YPN partnered with the Student Rec Challenge, I was happy to volunteer for the YPN team.  Little did I know that so much running would be involved, but it was great experience where I got to interact with young professionals, students included! What better way to be a small influence on the future of this amazing profession than hanging out with those that will come behind us (students). NRPA does a great job of planning activities outside of educational sessions, and each network within NRPA likely has a social event set up so that everyone can mingle and network with one another. Some of my favorite moments of conference week revolve around these social gatherings, both planned and unplanned. I would encourage any first-year attendee to go to as many social events as possible and make connections with the great professionals from across the country.

Take Advantage of Every Resource

Lastly, I am extremely grateful for the availability and access to resources that are provided by NRPA and each network within. I tend to be a person that utilizes resources and shares information with others, so I am very appreciative of the time spent by NRPA and network leaders to put together conference guides and advice such as blog posts like this one. Take advantage of every resource available and you’ll be glad you did. Did I retain every bit of information shared in each education session? No, but I do know exactly where to find presentations that I can reference to and use in my everyday operations.

I left St. Louis with great memories such as meeting the faces behind the voices on those conference calls. I encourage every conference attendee to plan both educational sessions and social outings, but also to be open to spur of the moment ideas. Probably my fondest memory from St. Louis is climbing through every nook and cranny that Brian Bevacqua and I could find at City Park Museum the last night we were all in town. A group of us had a great time visiting some local attractions. Exploring the city of St. Louis with fellow park and recreation professionals was probably the best part of the week outside of the plethora of amazing sessions I attended. 

All in all, had it not been for my involvement in the Young Professional Network, I wouldn’t have had such a great first conference experience. Would I have attended some amazing sessions, of course, because there are so many to choose from that you’re bound to be in a room of awesomeness at every turn! If you’re reading this and haven’t joined a network yet within NRPA Connect, that should be the next thing you do after you finish reading this. Post in the discussion board within that network, introduce yourself, and then sit back and let the extraordinary happen. You’ll be greeted and welcomed with such grace that you’ll be ready to hop on a plane tomorrow wishing that conference started this week.


Sheila Runnels is the Sports Director at Tupelo Parks and Recreation Department in Mississippi and member of NRPA’s Young Professional Network.