SAWACON 101: An Introduction to Navigating a Successful Conference

We’re getting ready to register one of our kids for her fourth semester of college. I’ve been knee-deep in course descriptions for the last few weeks, so my mind wants to translate everything into a college-level course. As we approach the 2017 SAWA Annual Conference, I can’t quite escape that grind. Much like a college course, the SAWA conference is an educational opportunity with benefits far beyond what’s going to happen in Miami.

To make sure you get the most out of the conference, it seems natural to pass along the same kind of advice appropriate for a college student:

Show up ready.

Yeah, note pads and pens are still must-haves. So are class materials, like presentation decks and tools you’ll learn about during the presentations. Presenter materials are available on the SAWA website, so be sure to download those and print them before you leave. Spend some time with the materials and prepare a few questions for the presenters. And don’t forget to download the SAWA Conference App. The app is essential to making the conference everything it can be.

Sit by a friend.

Here’s the thing: We’re all friends at SAWA. The reason you want to sit by a friend is to encourage application of the presentation concepts. It’s valuable to share a real-world experience, to find examples from everyday challenges that illustrate a point or, better yet, help solve common problems. Those connections are probably the most valuable part of the conference. That’s why SAWA uses the term “network” and why our Facebook Groups are so popular.

Do a little research on the instructor.

Just like college, it’s good to know a little about the instructor before you head to class. Check out the SAWA website for biographies of each of our presenters. Learning a little about the instructors will help you schedule your time better. You’ll also get a good idea of “where they are coming from.” You’ll find many of our presenters have similar backgrounds to your own and have become experts on solving problems you’ve probably seen.

Make sure it fits your track.

We’ve organized the conference so you can focus in on your area of expertise or learn about something new. SAWA is all about collaboration and growth. Set your sights on what will benefit you and your organization most and then design your conference to meet that criteria. We put the conference together, but you are the owner — and like the car guys say, “Ownership has its advantages.”

Take notes and refer to them later.

Ever had a class where you find yourself applying the classroom lessons over and over in real-life situations? I hope so. That’s why we engage in education — to find ways to solve problems and advance the causes, industries and professions we choose. Write names down. Grab lots of business cards. Post on the conference app. Put the sponsors to work on customized solutions for your organizations. Participate in the Facebook Groups after the conference. Again, it’s your conference and we have prepared enough tools to stuff even the biggest backpack.

Creating a successful environment for learning is something every successful student has done at some point in time. A SAWA conference is not an exception. Preparation ahead of time will make the days in Miami both productive and useful throughout your animal welfare career. And you won’t even have to learn the words to the Alma Mater. We don’t have one of those … yet.


Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.


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