I wrote this post after BlogHer 2012 and once all the words came out I had to insert the photos. But that was exhausting, so I gave up. This has been sitting in draft until now.
On the last night of BlogHer 2012 I met Brandee, a first-time attendee who was moved to inexplicable tears at the conference, and so she sought sanctuary in the Serenity Suite. By then, she had stopped crying and started laughing, and in the company of a dozen vibrant, incredible women, she made new friends.
During that hour I laughed so hard I cried my own happy tears, and traded business cards and stories and “WTF?” moments and left with a contented glow about me, excited to be heading back to my hotel room and bed at a decent hour.
Back in 2009 I attended my first BlogHer conference and I myself was moved to tears. I knew their source, though – I was overwhelmed by meeting so many of my people all at once after years of blogging and connecting with other bloggers only online. By the time I got to my first BlogHer, I knew maybe 1/3 of the 1500 attendees. It was incredible for me to be at that conference in Chicago and be embraced by so many people who were familiar but not yet known. And yet, I felt known. You know?
As the blogging community has become an industry that has grown and spread out and become extremely multifaceted, so has the BlogHer conference. With 4500 attendees this year, the task of providing something for everyone must have been pretty daunting for conference organizers. While several tracks of programming and the obligatory sponsored events and booths were present, keynote speakers like Katie Couric and Martha Stewart, along with a special video conference address by President Barack Obama, added new gravitas to the event. Women bloggers – it’s time to take them seriously.
Since this was my fourth BlogHer attendance, I had my events planned ahead of time. But once my schedule was in place, I floated into New York and let things happen as they would. I tried not to stress out about any of it. I welcomed chance meetings with new people and old friends. But I also kept my head down and focused on what I thought was important. It was that combination of a loose plan and an open mind that led me to this wonderful experience.
I spent a lot of money in New York, more so than at any previous conference, and I’m not even talking about hotel room costs or the ticket price. There were side events throughout the surrounding area that I wanted to attend, and I didn’t want to walk, so I spent money on car service and a taxi. I had read about Uber – a text-based car service that keeps your credit card on file so that no cash changes hands – so I signed up and enjoyed several high-priced trips in Town Cars and a Mercedes SUV (whose air conditioning was broken, so that was a fail). I found it incredibly convenient and a bit of a splurge. After one event I found myself heading back to the hotel alone, so I walked up 8th street and hailed a cab. I had to do that at least once while in NYC anyway, right?
I didn’t stick to the programming schedule, so I only ate two of BlogHer’s served meals. That meant I spent money on snacks and meals and room service coffee. I shared a hotel room for two nights with my pal Andrea Fellman, so I actually trucked a bottle of vodka into the city as a gift for her, and I made a few trips to Duane Reade and a fancy little NYC market for munchies and mixers, too. She was busy running around town planning amazing events, so I knew she needed some liquid support. It was worth it.
Also, I am apparently much vainer now than in years past, so my first stop was Drybar, where I paid $40 for a blowout. That was $40 well spent, because look at my hair before:
Contrary to the stories I have read since the event took place, I didn’t witness any swag hoarding or whiny behavior. I wonder if that was because I had lofty expectations of my fellow attendees. Everywhere I went I met lovely people, from PR reps to newbie bloggers to names I’ve known for years but met for the first time just now. Most people were quick to furnish a business card and tell me what their stories were. In many cases we’d look at each other, realize that we’ve had a long-standing alliance online, and instead of screaming with delight and hugging, we’d smile and nod with appreciation for each other’s work, happy to be forging an IRL relationship at last. I’m talking about you, Jessica Cohen, and people like you.
New contacts were just as satisfying. At one point I was following Diane Mizota around. In the dim light in a corner of The People’s Party, her friend Jenny Isenman thrust her face into mine. “These girls tell me you’re funny,” she said. “So, say something funny!” She had thrown down the gauntlet and I am not one to miss a challenge like that. So I blurted out that first thing that came to my mind.
“Crotch sweat. That’s funny.”
And she laughed. Now we’re best friends. The end.
Of course that’s not the end. Jenny Isenman and Jenny Feldon and Rachel Blaufeld and Diane Mizota traveled as a posse through the conference but they folded me into their group like I was their long lost fifth member as we drifted apart and together throughout the weekend. They were as classy as they were lively, and talented online professionals, too. As long as I left myself open to the possibility, meeting people like that happened to me the entire three days. I have a notebook full of notes and business cards, and I am looking forward to getting to know their owners better by reading their blogs and other work.
On the other hand…
Head Down, No Eye Contact
If I wanted to make it from one end of the Hilton to the other, I had to look down. I kept my eyes on the floor if I had to get anywhere by a certain time, because to look up would surely mean I would see someone I recognize or vice versa, and I would stop and talk to her. (Or him.) On Friday morning, the official beginning of the conference, I got up and quietly dressed so as not to wake my 3 super fantastic roommates who had stayed up late eating food from the halal trucks and drinking Champagne (okay, I had some too). Then I snuck out of the room and no-eye-contacted my way through the breakfast buffet line in the conference hall. I brought my plate downstairs to the lobby lounge to meet up with some other bloggers to talk strategy and success stories with hyperlocal blogs. (Mine is Agoura Hills Mom.) Our meeting time was 9:00 am, and I never would have made it there if I had chatted with folks at breakfast.
On the other hand…
She thinks Lisa brought us together. Friday afternoon I left the Voices of the Year community keynote a few minutes early because I realized I wasn’t enjoying it, which is a shame because it used to be my favorite part of BlogHer. I kept mentally scolding myself for not enjoying it, until I realized nobody was forcing me to sit there. I was. And I am the boss of me. So I left. I had to stop by the market to pick up mixers and snacks for a private cocktail hour in a hotel room anyway.
The hallway of the hotel was deserted – it was dinner time, after all, and most of the conference-goers who were still on site were back in the ballroom at the keynote I had just left. I walked down the long, garishly carpeted room, eyes down, focused. But then I looked up, and when I did I was face to face with A.V. Flox.
We both noted that in a sea of 4500+ bloggers, somehow we came together, and that can’t be a coincidence. A.V. walked with me through Duane Reade and the market next door, and I used my iPhone to help her find her dinner destination, and she left me at the door to the London Hotel. But that short walk together was enough to reconnect, to acknowledge and miss afresh our friend Lisa, and remember that blogging is how we came to find each other in the first place. That’s not just a bonus. That’s one of the reasons we do it.
And so it went like that for me. Focus on the floor and get yourself to the next thing, then look up and open wide. And that’s when the people poured in. I bumped into dozens of wonderful women and men I know and love online. I met fantastic, lovely new people. I attended sessions. I listened to Katie Couric talk about work-life balance. I made new friendships and cemented old ones in line for a makeup touchup, drinks at the bar, my “school” portrait, the elevator, my BlogHer swag bag, and the bathroom.
But I still got everywhere on time, and except for one night, I went to bed at a decent hour.
The Evolution of Swag
There were plenty of opportunities to get free samples of product, everywhere you looked. But this year I didn’t even step into the Expo Hall where all the sponsors were set up with their free product, until the very end when they were packing up. It just wasn’t important to me. I have everything I need, and if new needs arise, I can pay for them. But it’s nice to get free things. After all, I wouldn’t have tried CAbi clothing or Makeup Forever fire engine red lipstick otherwise, and I am happy they came into my life. But I’m not looking to fill Christmas stockings with free toys or stock my laundry shelves with free detergent. Especially not all the way from New York.
And so when I attended product-focused events, the giveaways were nice and I only accepted things that truly piqued my curiosity or that I knew I might like. I was pleasantly surprised that in many cases, the brands offered to ship the products to my home. At the CAbi Style Suite party, reps for Hansen’s soda exchanged business cards with me and reached out to me after the event, offering to send a case of soda to me. At the Land’s End Back to School event in the Fashion District, I tried on a dress that the brand will send to me. At a luncheon at Avon’s headquarters on 6th Avenue, I walked around a table of product displays, and was told to check of my 8 favorites and a box would be sent to my house.
Well played, brands. Well played.
At other events and even after I was given bags of free product, I took only what I liked, and even then I opted for smaller, packable items. Iconix, a brand group, had a line of bloggers queued up at the Sheraton on 7th. It was like a swag bazaar. People walked away with fuzzy blankets, blenders from Sharper Image, toys, socks, tank tops, and more. I took some socks, a few coloring books for the boys, and a tank top that says “I am fabulous.”
Because, hello. Socks are very useful.
In other cases, brands were letting us poke around at the product displays, then giving us coupons for 20% off, or raffle entries to win free product. That’s not going to do it for me either, I’m sorry to say. I would only take the coupon if the product is something I already buy all the time.
And for the first time I was uncomfortable with the hoops some of the brands had people jumping through to get their free product that they were expected to blog about later. At one party I saw a ticket blower booth like the one at Chuck E. Cheese. I don’t remember the brand or the product, but that’s worse than a raffle. At the same party my favorite soda brand had bloggers sit for a videotaped interview with a can of the soda in hand, answering questions. Those clips would be used later in the brand’s social media platforms. Not even on the blogger’s own channels. Essentially, that’s free advertising. Listen: I love that soda. I freaking live on it, and if I don’t have some for a few days I get the jones. But they don’t need my free advertising, and I certainly don’t need to give up my image and my off-the-top-of-my-head witty soundbites just for a can of soda. So I declined and walked away.
On the other hand…
I happily chatted away for the camera in my sample Land’s End jersey dress about how great the brand is and the quality of their products. I posed for a photo with Pop Chips (and Jessica Cohen) and did a 2-second lip synch for a mashup video for that brand. And I answered questions about avocados for the Avocados from Mexico campaign.
I think the difference there is that the soda brand had no personal connection for me, while the other three campaigns had hired my friends to help connect them with bloggers. Even in those cases, I was giving away advertising. I can say it was in exchange for a fabulous dress, a case of Pop Chips, and some cute avocado-shaped earrings that my mother loves, but those things don’t pay the bills, yo. It’s the age-old blogger-brand quandary. I suppose the answer is to not do those things for brands across the board if I object, but I’m not at that point yet. Sorry, Diet Pepsi.
Going Solo…and Hanging With My Girls
As usual, there were plenty of off-site parties surrounding the conference itself. The reason I got invited to certain parties is that I have been blogging forever and I know a lot of people who are old-school influential and work with the brands who hosted the parties. I wasn’t invited to that many, and over the course of the weekend I heard about a lot of other more exclusive events that people I know planned but that did not include me, and that was okay. At most of the events I attended I saw plenty of familiar faces, but there was one meal at which I barely knew anyone, which was great because it was an opportunity to make new connections.
I navigated the entire conference weekend by myself with my own agenda, but I kept coming back to my girls: Candice, Beth, Romy, and Andrea. I bunked up with the first three on Thursday night, and with Andrea on Friday and Saturday. It was like coming home to roommates after a long day at work – if my job consisted of bopping around in a sea of stimulation and inspiration and fabulous outfits and sparkling conversation and drinks and dancing. We kept tabs on each other, supported each other, and came back to each other, but were not chained to each other. That part was perfect.
And while this smaller group of women were my touchstone, the people I’ve known almost all my blogging career kept appearing in difference places too, none more obvious and concentrated than at the Hilton lobby bar on Friday night. In one of those open-hearted hallway journeys, Candice and I ran into Jeremy Pepper, who offered to buy us a drink downstairs. We went downstairs and caught Andrea on her way out. A shot of tequila and an Angie Lynch sighting later, and the bar was filled with old-school bloggers and that filled me with crazy joy. Three of us went back to our hotel room and stayed up until 3:00 AM. Like a boss.
There’s just no other way to say it. Sometimes you just have to grow a pair and step up to ask for what you want. I managed to do that in two ways at this year’s BlogHer.
Three years in a row I applied to be a speaker at the Community Keynote, fully expecting to get chosen, because my writing is so awesome, right? Never mind that thousands of other people were doing and thinking the same thing, and so of course I was never selected. And then along came the Listen To Your Mother Salon, which gives us regular, non-BlogHer-anointed folk the chance to read our posts, open-mike style. And so I fretted and read old posts and opened it up to reader feedback and begged people to read my stuff and help me choose. And I picked a cute but comfy outfit that wouldn’t show my stress sweat, and I narrowed it down to two different posts and I printed them out and I bit my nails and I was so obviously nervous that my gal Candice stuck by my side to support me whether or not my name was picked. We got there early, got ourselves some water, and settled in. I strategically placed my name in 2 of the three bowls to maximize my chances, positioning my card so that the moderator would naturally pick it.
And then we waited and listened to each blogger, one by one. One woman strolled blithely in right before the reading started, plopped her name at the top of one pile, and promptly got her name picked. Another was a woman I recognized from the Community Keynote earlier that evening, someone who had commanded an audience of possibly thousands already that day. Why was she grabbing this small spotlight again, taking that chance from someone else? But of course she was awesome and had everyone rolling around laughing hysterically.
The lighting was bad, we sat on the floor, Candice spilled water all over the place. We waited and listened and laughed and cried a little. And my name was never picked.
So, that non-happened.
Still, I am patting myself on the back for even putting my name in those bowls. I may seem like I wouldn’t be nervous speaking in front of people, but the self-doubt is there and rears up when the pressure is on. On the night before the salon, I mentioned my nerves to Marcy Massura, who said “At least be as kind to yourself as other people are to you.” Other people, especially you,are incredibly nice to me. You raise the bar high. I had to really stretch to be that nice to myself.
The other thing I did that took some sackage – but just a little bit of that and a dash of good luck – was getting a spot at Polly Pagenhart’s table at the Writer Lab session on Saturday. I was annoyed because the Writer Lab was the only thing I was truly excited about before I got to the conference, and seats for it had “sold out” on Eventbrite within seconds. I made my feelings pretty clear via Facebook, and to give them credit, BlogHer answered my concern, and I was all set to try and nab a last-minute seat when they opened up the sign up sheet at 8am on Saturday. I managed to get one that was vacated, also last-minute, by a conference attendee who actually got pulled away to do a job for the staff!
And it was awesome. The session focused on turning blog posts into full respectable essays, and following the panel discussion I had attended Friday morning that addressed the same topic, this small group meeting served to hone in on concern that all of us have as bloggers: how do we get our writing seen? How do we look credible? What is our writing practice? Who can we turn to? I met some lovely new people and meeting Polly herself for the first time in real life was quite an experience.
I Love You, Man
When it comes down to it, any real-life conference is about the relationships you make and strengthen. If not for that, we could all just do these professional development activities via webinar or Skype, right? There was magic all around us with that many bloggers in one place at one time. I witnessed some obvious new things, such as the prevalence of husbands in tow. I’m pretty sure I saw more husbands and men this time, for sure. And it was weird how, again at a conference of 4,500 people, I kept bumping into the same people over and over again. Like Jessica Cribbs, who lives in Los Angeles, and I never see her. In New York she was there every time I turned around. Either she was stalking me, or great minds simply think alike and want to go to the same sessions.
At one point I was high in an office tower, playing with makeup, eating my 345th micro mac & cheese ball, and drinking spiked lemonade. I had just had my makeup done by a fabulous artist (“Bronzer is your friend,” he said) and I was surrounded by very nice, professional, smart, and fabulous women. I had a moment of clarity. What we do here, this writing on the internet, could all just go away in a flash. We lose electricity and there’s nothing left. What do we really do? It’s smoke and mirrors. Phantoms. Busy work and navel gazing. We give people something to read and something to look at, yes, but with rare exceptions, it’s not that important. So we’d better count our lucky stars and enjoy it while it lasts.
I had an ulterior motive for volunteering to staff the Serenity Suite during its very last hour on the closing night of BlogHer ’12. I had to get up early Sunday morning to catch a train back to Connecticut. I didn’t want to be up drinking and partying until the wee hours of the morning, ensuring that I would be hung over and even more tired than the conference itself would make me. I wanted to be present with my family at the party they were planning. I knew from experience 2010 that a good night’s sleep was very necessary. An obligation to be on time and present in the Serenity Suite, which was meant to be a haven from hectic partying and noise for overwhelmed attendees and recovered addicts, would be just the thing to guilt me into good behavior.
As it turned out, I seem to have needed the Serenity Suite more than it needed me. When I arrived (after having gotten a little bit lost because the signage, by then, had started to be taken down) the room was full of women cry/laughing. They were enjoying each other’s company so much that no alcohol or drugs were ever needed to make them happy in the first place. There was no work for me to do there. I could have just left and gone back to my room right then, but I joined them, ate their cupcakes, and laughed along.
And I made some more new friends.
I declare the whole thing a smashing success, because I thought of BlogHer like an enormous pie. I knew that I would only get to experience a tiny slice of it, so I focused on making that slice as productive and worth it as possible. For me that meant a combination of professional connection, meaningful interaction, and fun.
That’s a tasty piece of pie.
*I want to thank Lisa Truong of Help a Mother Out for making me to go BlogHer and also I must mention Purpose Inc. who gave me an actual purpose to be at BlogHer beyond loose goals of professional connection and fun.
Alas, I’m not going to BlogHer ’13. But thousands of you are, and if you think this post will help others get the most out of the experience, please share it on your internets.