Make the Most of Your First User Conference


By: Susan King

Esri’s User Conference is just around the corner, and I’m sure many of you first-timers must be feeling just like Charlie holding that golden ticket. The chocolate factory looked to be a wondrous place indeed, and while you are unlikely to see Oompas running about the convention center, I’d call that movie a good parallel to what I felt like experiencing my first UC thirteen lucky years ago.

Here are a few tips I’ve gathered over the years as you prepare for this one of a kind experience:


Check out the Esri UC Agenda Planning Tools to research topics of interest and find the sessions you want to attend. Mix things up too… technical workshops can be great, but so can paper sessions, demos and group meetings. Most importantly: Have back-ups! For every time slot on your agenda you should also have a back-up session or two identified. I’d also avoid ‘Introduction’ sessions unless you truly have no experience in that topic – they are pretty basic. If you are traveling in a group, then you have a wonderful opportunity to pool your resources, divide and conquer… so share agenda planners.

The sessions are really spread out and you will be walking a lot, so 1) wear comfortable shoes and 2) take a minute and look over the indoor maps for the convention center and other session venues (e.g. Marriott). Better yet, download the UC Navigation app we built for your smart phone to give you turn by turn directions to the many rooms and halls you’ll be visiting.

There are lots of networking opportunities out here so don’t forget your business cards!


The technical workshops and paper sessions are great and often the meat of a first time conference goer’s agenda. Popular sessions fill up FAST, so arrive early for those or you will not get a seat. Also, be prepared to assess the match between the agenda description and the real information being delivered quickly and don’t be afraid to bail for your back-up session early.

Don’t skip the Plenary on Monday. It is a rather interesting mix of product/new release demos, user stories and accolades. It is broken up pretty well too, so if you really need to miss a piece you can schedule around what you are most looking forward to (e.g. demos).

A great place to learn about current trends and uses of the technology is Monday’s Lightning Talks. These are built for those with a short attention span and usually take place right across from the Map Gallery and reception so you can float between them.


You are going to have access to a bunch of nerds during the week. In fact, you’ll have access to people that literally ‘wrote the book’. Jot down a list of any processes, tools or general questions that have been plaguing you and visit the Support Kiosk to pick the brains of the Esri team. (You’ll find product developers there in addition to support folks.) Any vendor of any GIS related software, tool or service is likely to be an exhibitor, so jot down your questions for them too.


Go to the Map Gallery (preferably Monday night to get the full experience and meet the creators). Truly I’m not a cartography buff but these are just so impressive and it really is a great way to see what folks are doing out there.

Leave yourself plenty of time to hit the Exhibit Hall. Of course you need to come by and visit GISi at Booth 2417, but visit the other vendors too and explore all of the new products and services emerging in our industry. The Esri Demo Theatre is also up and running constantly in the Exhibit Hall with short, targeted sessions about products, tools and processes – another great opportunity to learn about something new and then hit the accompanying product island to test drive yourself.

The Esri Store is always lovely to browse, especially if you (like me) have no qualms about hitting the floor and spending some time to peruse the Esri Press books.


Attend Special Interest and User Group Meetings (Hint: You can search those in the Agenda Planner). Many of these meetings take place in the early evening and have a social component as well so they present a great opportunity to meet folks already connected to you in some way, plus you can make plans to meet up later. There are often additional industry events in the evenings as well that you can find out about through these meetings.

On that topic, there are thousands of people attending this conference so pick a designated meeting place in the convention center that everyone will know if you are trying to meet up with folks (e.g. in front of the Esri Store or GeoLounge).

There are lots of other focused opportunities to meet fellow geeks too; for instance check out the Dev Meet-Up or Speed Geeking here.


During your busy days at the convention center, you can hit the GeoLounge upstairs in the convention center to relax and check emails.

If you are one of the few folks that aren’t going to find a lunch spot on your fave smart phone app, the Information Desk in the Foyer has hard copy maps for eateries and points of interest. If you have 1 hour or less for lunch, try the food truck options on the lawn outside the convention center or you might be able to grab a quick bite in Seaport Village; the Gaslamp Quarter gets quite busy for lunch so just plan on the time and try to veer off the main drag.

At the end of the day, you should: 1) Leave the convention center, 2) Remove Geek Badge and accompanying GIS paraphernalia (e.g. map book, bag), 3) Enjoy San Diego with some of the new folks you’ve met this week. The sense of community in our industry is one of the reasons many of us have stayed with it for so long. Thursday night‘s party is back at Balboa Park again this year and if you’ve never been to the party or the park, it is worth checking out. And remember… It is a long week with lots to do so Learn Lots, Have Fun and Pace Yourself!

Make the Most of Your First User Conference