Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience

Are Conferences Worth the Money?

My husband, who has been involved in educational reform for more than two decades, keeps up-to-date in his field by subscribing to several good education magazines, reading all the right books, and attending conferences. We, as homeschoolers, are professional educators too and we should do no less.

We subscribe to Heart and Mind, read all the great homeschooling books, and conference season will be upon us before we know it. Is it possible to be thrifty and still attend a conference that asks us to fork out anywhere from $20 to $40? To answer this question we must first define the difference between thrifty and cheap. Thrifty is getting the most for your money. On the other hand, cheap is getting something of little worth.

When considering whether or not to attend a homeschooling conference, make sure not to be cheap. Instead ask yourself if and how the conference will benefit you to determine if it is worth the money.

Ordering curricula sight unseen is never a safe bet. Conferences offer you the opportunity to see a lot of the great curricula available to homeschoolers, whether you plan to make a purchase that day or sometime in the future.

Conferences are also beneficial in other ways. We all have something to learn and attending the talks can give you ideas to improve your homeschool. Talks also often offer encouragement. Just being under one roof with hundreds of other homeschoolers is rejuvenating. I always come home from our Michigan conference pumped up and ready to face the next school year. To me, that alone is worth the cost of my admission ticket.

Saving Money in the Vending Area

Interestingly, when I speak at homeschooling conferences, my Thrifty Homeschooler talk is often scheduled during the final spot of the day. If I was one to dwell on conspiracy theories, I might believe that conference organizers are worried that I will tell my audience not to spend any money in the vending area. No, instead of telling my audience to pass by the vendors, I try to help them buy wisely. We all have books and curricula that we need to purchase. In a nutshell, we need to remember to distinguish the difference between our needs and our wants.

Last year my friend Karen St. John, a key figure in putting together the Michigan Catholic Home Educators' conference, helped me put together a top-ten list to make your homeschooling conference experience a successful one.

1. Come with lists of what you need, want, and would like to have, for the upcoming school year. It saves LOTS of time by asking "Do you have . . ." If the answer is no, you can move on to the next vending table. This list is especially useful when looking through the used book sales. Include any needed out of print (OOP) books on your list. Conferences give you the opportunity to check out books and curricula up close and personal! Even if you aren't buying that day, you can get a feel for what vendors, books, and curricula, fit your future needs. You may also find the new colorful curriculum that has been getting tons of hype isn't what you need after all.

2. Always make sure that you check the used book tables before buying new books, as well as checking for vendors offering discounts and "conference specials." Also look for opportunities to sell your used books and curricula. Most conferences offer such opportunities.

3. Many vendors will allow you to order ahead of time so that you can pick up and pay for your package at the conference — shipping free! Plus you don't have to worry about the vendor running out of stock before you get to their table. It's worth an email or a phone call to find out if a favorite vendor will do this. If you don't get around to ordering in advance and your favorite vendor is out of stock, many will offer free shipping and handling if you place an order at the conference.

4. Vendors are often looking for someone who will man a table. Call and see if a particular vendor would like you to work their table and then check with the vendor coordinator for that conference to see if a table can be rented through the company you wish to represent. You can negotiate for books and curricula in exchange for your time, or if you prefer — cash.

5. If you are traveling from out of town, check out campgrounds for rates cheaper than hotels. The most fun that I have had at conferences is when I have traveled with girlfriends and we split the cost of gas and lodging.

6. If you like to enter all of the free drawings at the conference, bring some return address labels with you. That way you aren't wasting time filling out your name and address over and over again. Keep in mind though, that vendors often times offer free drawings so that they can put you on their mailing list.

7. Make a budget and stick to it. Also keep in mind that smaller vendors, and often the conference organizers, do not take credit cards. You will need to bring an allotted amount of cash or your checkbook.

8. Register early for a discount. Often times, joining the state or local support group will get you a discount to the conference. (In addition to a regular newsletter, sometimes a HSLDA discount, local support, etc.).

9. Volunteers receive discounts or sometimes get in for free. There are all kinds of volunteer jobs to do. If you want to make sure to get to all of the talks, you could volunteer to be a monitor. The monitor sits in on talks and helps the speaker if a need arises. Some other fun conference jobs — pick up the speakers from the airport, open your home to speakers or vendors, take phone inquiries, registration, and so on. You can also volunteer your teenaged children. My teens enjoy assisting with setup and takedown at our state conference.

10. Leave wee ones at home so that you can focus on the conference. I'm one of those moms who takes my kids everywhere with me. But on conference day I need to concentrate on the entire next school year and need to think clearly as I shop.

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