Top Tips from a Conference Newbie and Pro

By Jay Tryon, CPRP | Posted on August 17, 2015

The NRPA Annual Conference is quickly approaching and the Young Professional Network (YPN) is very excited to bring you another blog to help you get ready for the event. Each year thousands of park and recreation professionals come together for an amazing week filled with vast amounts of knowledge and countless memories. The week is jam packed with hundreds of educational sessions, off site institutes, networking events, an ever growing exhibit hall and most importantly a time for professionals to grow, share and learn among each other. 

The YPN has reached out to two professionals, a first time attendee and a conference veteran, to get their perspective of the annual event and insight you can use too.  

First is Daniel Leatherman from Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. Daniel is a Facility Manager II in Community Recreation Center Services and attended his first annual conference was in 2014 in Charlotte, NC.

Tryon: What were the top three things you hoped to get out of the NRPA Annual Conference last year? 


Last year I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had a few things that I hoped to get out of the whole experience. Listed in no particular order: 

  1. One idea per day. There are so many great presenters, exhibitors and vendors that it is easy to get wrapped up and overwhelmed by the information overload. I wanted to learn one solid idea each day and implement that idea into my work life. 

  2. Networking. Everyone says to do it, few do it well. Working for a large CAPRA Accredited, Gold Medal winning, NACO and NACPRO-award receiving agency I hoped to meet colleagues from other large agencies, as well as those from smaller (budget and population served) agencies. Who were these people, how were they selected to attend and how does day-to-day life differ between our agencies?

  3. Attending a conference in my hometown was great, and I wanted to share with others the love and pride I have for this city. I went into the 2014 conference hoping to show off many of our great facilities through tours, as well as introduce other attendees to the world-class staff we have in Mecklenburg County. 

Tryon: What was your best memory/experience during the NRPA Annual Conference last year? 


The exhibit hall. What a place. Imagine every item from your three favorite recreation supply catalogs all in one large room for you to try out and ask manufacturers questions directly.

Tryon: What advice would you give Young Professionals going to the conference for the first time? 


Take advantage of this opportunity. As a young professional there is a reason you were selected to attend. If your department selected you using a lottery system, enjoy the random chance of fate and bring back something to your department that reaffirms the investment they made by sending you. If you were hand selected from your peers, realize that someone recognizes the talent or potential you possess, and that by attending this conference, the ROI for both you and your employer will be great. Prove them right. Either way, appreciate and seize the opportunity to learn from park and recreation experts in both the classroom setting, and not-so-traditional learning environments.


The second young professional that was interviewed was Kara Kish. Kara is the Parks and Recreation Superintendent for Vigo County in Indiana. This year will mark the sixth consecutive year of attending the annual conference; let’s find out what keeps her coming back every year.

Tryon: What are the top three things you hope to get out of the NRPA Annual Conference this year? 


  1. Continue networking with distinguished professionals that have served as mentors to me in the past and develop new relationships with distinguished professionals. As a young professional, regardless of the title you currently hold, learning from distinguished professionals is vital to your current and future success. Distinguished professionals provide a wealth of knowledge and insight toward your current professional environment and as you determine your career path.

  2. Continue networking with other young professionals. One of the greatest advantages of networking with other YP’s at the NRPA Annual Conference is that our peers face similar challenges as we do. Our current environments are filled with similar workplace, personal and professional development challenges. As a peer group, we are also able to celebrate our successes, which often many of us are experiencing simultaneously!  

  3. Immersing myself in continuing education! As a young professional, the best thing to do is to continue to learn and grow in our profession. There are a countless number of quality educational sessions on every topic imaginable. 

Tryon: Why did you decide to go back to the NRPA Annual Conference? 


I decided to come back because the NRPA Annual Conference is unlike any professional development experience! Year after year, having the ability to continue developing relationships with distinguished professionals and peers creates a professional network around you that can help see you through any challenge and cheer for your successes. For me, these relationships are the greatest benefit to attending the NRPA Annual Conference.  

Tryon: What advice would you give Young Professionals going to the conference for the first time? 


I have two pieces of advice for a young professional:

  1. Find Mentors! There are many ways to find mentors, both distinguished professionals and other YP’s. Take advantage of the Take-A-Student/YP to lunch program, attend the YPN meetings/socials, walk up to any NRPA member and just start talking! Each mentor/mentee relationship that I have experienced in the past six years has been tremendous. Some mentoring relationships stand the test of time and continue to develop and deepen throughout the years.
  2. Experiencing education sessions does not have to be limited to only the sessions you can attend. NRPA does a great job of providing electronic handouts for almost all educational sessions. When you get home, download 10 or 100 sessions that you were unable to attend and learn, learn, learn!    


I think it is safe to say that no matter if this is your first time attending the NRPA Annual Conference or your 10th, it will be a week you will not forget.  

So I challenge you to meet 10 new professionals at the conference and ask them these same questions. Find out what they hoped to get out of attending, why they come back and what advice they would share with others. This could be the beginning of a new relationship to help you grow professionally and make a bigger impact on the people you serve. Collectively as park and recreation professionals, the NRPA Annual Conference can serve as the tool to help expand our role in each and every community.


What are the reasons you attend the NRPA Annual Conference? Have any other tips to share? Join the conversation below or tweet us @NRPA_news, using the hashtag #NRPAConference.


Jay Tryon, CPRP, is the Director of Parks and Recreation for the Town of Indian Trail, NC.


Editor's Note: A version of this blog was originally published on August 17, 2015.