Tales From One Association Pro’s First International Conference in Two Years

When one ASAE staffer headed to Colombia to attend an October 2021 conference—marking her first time on a plane and first event in two years—she learned that COVID changed her and some logistical aspects of events. Here’s her firsthand account.

As the wheels of the plane touched down, I noticed a slight ball of excitement mixed with anxiety forming in my stomach. I had just landed in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, for the ICCA Annual Congress—which would be my first conference, my first work trip, and my first time on a plane since November 2019.

I was pretty sure I had packed everything I needed to get through the three days of sessions, meetings, and receptions. But as the plane came to its slow stop, I realized I had a new work phone and hadn’t even thought about ensuring the international plan was connected. It was my first indication that while I knew I was ready to travel, I was rusty after 18 months of mostly staying home.  

I wanted to attend ICCA for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones was that with domestic business travel returning, I felt it was important to signal that international travel is also open for business.  But, as we all know after the past year and half, business doesn’t mean “business as usual.” I found that I had changed during the COVID experience, and some aspects of conferences had changed as well.

Travel Requirements

The first and most obvious change in attending an international conference is grappling with changing requirements for travel. Each country has different requirements when it comes to entry, whether forms, proof of vaccination or negative test results. Of course, that’s in addition to knowing what is required to get home—in my case, a negative COVID test. 

ICCA conference organizers helped schedule COVID testing for attendees who needed negative results to board their flights home. It was definitely a new experience to get a covid test during a coffee break. The tests in Colombia were approximately $70 for the PCR test and about half that for the antigen test. The process was extremely efficient—it took about 3 minutes from check-in to paying. I had my results 24 hours later and was able to submit them with enough time to be cleared to board my flight back to the U.S. 

Social Re-Acclimation

I’ve always been a bit introverted in large settings and that has only increased post-pandemic. Networking receptions, coffee breaks, and lunches required me to reacclimate. We’ve talked about grace and compassion a lot during the pandemic, and I’m finding that these are equally important as we’re re-emerging. For example, some of us will want to run up and hug everyone they’re finally able to see in person, while others will prefer to keep their masks on during photos. Over my three days at ICCA, I had to learn to extend some grace and compassion to myself. As happy as I was to be there, I was more tired from my first large-scale human interactions than I anticipated.  

I found that taking refuge in things that bring me joy helped me re-energize to get through the long conference days that feel very different than long days in front of a laptop at home. For me, this was taking advantage of any free time to take photos. I was lucky that the area around Cartagena’s convention center lent itself to a quick photo walk if I needed it during a coffee break. Sharing my love of photography with other conference participants also helped me build deeper connections. I had people coming up throughout the conference showing me the beautiful photos they took, and it was wonderful to get to see the conference and city through their eyes.

One of the things I found most interesting in getting to see people face-to-face again was hearing the perspectives of the global delegates. This was my first experience having an in-person conversation with my colleagues from Latin America, Europe, and Africa since late 2019. Hearing about how they’re returning to work, how their domestic travel is faring, and seeing their excitement to be back in person touched me deeply. When we’re literally sitting in one place for so long, it can be hard to remember that the pandemic has impacted different countries and different regions differently. There’s simply no better way to gain that broader perspective than having conversations with people who can share their personal stories and experiences. Again, this helped reinforce the human connection that everyone was so eager for.  

Relearning to Learn

After 18 months of Zoom, I also found that I had to relearn how to focus in a large general session room. The conference education was organized around several trends McKinsey identified as shaping “the next normal.” I was really interested in hearing speakers discuss sustainability, DEI, innovation, and the future of work. Yet, sitting in the room, I had to fight to focus and to not get distracted by emails and work back at the office.
This last observation may just be me: I was never graceful at the balancing of drinks and small plates, and adding a mask into the mix has upped the degree of difficulty. Let’s just say, I won’t be medaling any time soon. As I told a friend, I forgot how to conference.  

With three more international trips planned in the next few months, I’m setting an intentional goal to improve my energy level each conference and increase the feeling that I’m back on my game. I have my international data plan again, so it’s a start.

Until then, I’m remembering that we’re entering a new phase of our COVID journey—one that feels close to the time pre-pandemic, although everyone is altered by what we’ve been through. That means we all still need that grace and compassion we’ve fostered over the past 20 months—for each other, and even for ourselves.  

(guvendemir/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Amy Hissrich, CAE

By Amy Hissrich, CAE

Amy Hissrich, CAE, is vice president of global and web strategies at ASAE. MORE

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