Voice Over Atlanta: Is there value in attending conferences?
No matter what your profession, there is likely at least one or two conferences a year that you could attend. With the introduction of COVID it has even become common for online conferences to take place, so you can attend from the comfort of your own home.
As a voice actor there are at least five I can think of off the top of my head, VOcation Conference in New York (which focuses on the business side of Voiceover), One Voice which holds conferences both in the UK and Dallas, TX, That's Voiceover hosted by SOVAS which alternates between New York and LA, Mid Atlantic Conference which takes place somewhere in the middle of the country, but I'm trying to go off the top of my head here and I can't remember, and VO Atlanta which takes place in Atlanta, GA. I know there are more, but those require a google.
The Virtual Experience
Since I was fortunate enough to start my voice acting journey during a global pandemic, all of the conferences I attended in my first year of VO were on line. And I do say "fortunate" with both sarcasm and sincerity. I'm not big on crowds, pants with buttons, or shoes. I also have three kids and a husband who works an extremely demanding job, so online and working from home has truly been a blessing for me and my family. But it has its draw backs, like meeting people in real life.
I managed to attend three conferences, all virtually, in 2021. My first VoiceOver conference ever was VO Atlanta online. I was extremely impressed with how well they navigated it all (though I'm sure behind the scenes was much more chaotic than any of us attending could tell). It was seven days long, jammed packed with information on topics from acting to marketing to every genre you can think of. But there were also plenty of opportunities set up to mingle and just chat. I managed to make connections and friends who I actually still am in regular contact with today!
Next was eVOcation. This was an online conference held Friday through Sunday. Swag bags were sent out in advance which included a card with two custom VO drink recipes to bring to the opening which had special guest speaker Gilbert Godfrey. This conference was jam packed with classes focused on the business side of things and, while this is definitely my least favorite side of the biz, the conference was informative, fun, and all of the speakers managed to keep me engaged.
My finally conference of 2021 was That's VoiceOver hosted by SOVAS. Also Friday through Sunday this conference had some amazing guest speakers with very inspirational journeys. I was also fortunate enough to participate in "Speed Dating" where I met with 15 different agents/casting directors/producers for five minutes each, played my demo for them and got feedback. It was extremely educational.
I learned new things at each of these conferences and would likely not have been able to attend all three had I also had to pay for travel, hotel, food, etc, not to mention figuring out child care. I was also 100% confident I was not going to catch COVID or any other bug for that matter. The virtual experience has its upsides!
Real Life Voice Actors
Then in October of 2021 a decision needed to be made. VO Atlanta was going to be live and in person for 2022. And it was going to be the last one. My already meager love for crowds had shrunk significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, but I am fully vaxed, boosted, and was very eager to meet other voice artists in real life. And Atlanta is a short 4.5 hour drive from my house. Thankfully due to the 2021 conference I had a virtual friend I felt comfortable sharing a room with. I got my ticket, booked my room, and waited patiently to see if a new variant threw everything on it's head...again.
March arrived and things were a go. I reviewed the schedule, picked the courses I felt the most relevant for me, packed my bags, double and triple checked that I had everything, and away I went. I'll be honest, when I first got on the road a wave of anxiety hit me. I felt insane for heading out to meet up with 400 some odd other people while COVID was still spitting out new variants and did I really NEED to go? But the money was spent and I reminded myself that my entire household excluding myself had COVID in January, plus they are all fully vaccinated, so their immunity should still be pretty solid if I happened to bring it home.
I'm not going to give a play by play of my entire conference journey (I do TRY to keep my blogs from being tooooo lengthy), but I'm going to hit the highlights and if you have any questions I am happy to answer them in the comments or shoot me an email! Anywhozer, by the time I got to the hotel I was jazzed. My roomie was working as an ambassador (they are a group of stupendous volunteers who help make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible), so I got myself settled and found things to keep my busy until my x-session at 1:00pm.
What's an x-session? Good question! There are two types of sessions at VOAtlanta; breakout sessions, which are and hour long and included in admission, and x-sessions which cost extra and are 3 hours long. Spoiler alert, at closing it was announced that VO Atlanta will be under new ownership (I'll reveal at the end), so I don't know if this session system will stay in place, but if it does, here's a pro tip, if you are torn between a daytime x-session and an end of the day one, do the end of the day one!! If you lose time due to technical difficulties or run out of time for questions or for everyone to get a turn during the day, too bad, because someone else needs that room. However everyone I know who had and evening session ended up getting out at least 30 minutes later because they just kept going, making sure everyone got to do things and get questions answered.
Breakout sessions should not be underestimated. I admit some of them did have an annoying amount of "I go into detail on this in my x-sessions/private coaching/workshops", but for the most part the breakout sessions are full of detailed tips, tricks, practice, and are truly informative and motivating.
When I wasn't in a session I was doing my best to socialize. There were so many friends I had made online that I FINALLY got to hug in real life (yes, I gave out some hugs!). Coaches I had worked with online who I got to shake hands with (don't worry, I used sanitizer and soap regularly). And others I never knew, and likely wouldn't have met had they not just been standing around trying to decided what to do next at the same time I was.
I feel this is an important moment to take a beat. Conferences are great for networking, but if you are going to "get discovered", to meet agents and casting directors and leave with an abundance of new work, or anything along those lines, this isn't that. Yes, there were casting directors there, agents, producers, and yes, people did get noticed when they read scripts and exchanged information, but that's few and far between. Go with the intention of just meeting people. Instigate conversations without wondering who you are talking to (meaning their job title), but learning who you are talking to as a person. You will meet amazing people from all areas of the industry this way and from all over the world. And if you just can't shake that "yeah, but I'm supposed to go to conferences to elevate my career" thought, remind yourself every spark has the potential to be a blazing fire. I only actually approached one person with a "I will shake this person's hand before this conference is over" and that is because I had done a workshop with him and heard him speak a few times and I just love his vibe and his approach. I'm sure I seemed like a fan girl because it was approaching 1 am and I was brain dead, but I think it's important to tell someone when they have a positive impact on you. AND EVERYONE WAS SO NICE!! I'm sure somewhere in the crowd of 400+ people was a self righteous know it all jerk face, but I didn't meet them. I did, however, meet a wonderful gentleman from Denmark and we talked about brewing beer, I found fellow board game enthusiasts and we played some games, I learn about an amazing charity called 100 Voices Who Care, founded by the lovely Claire Dinsdale, and of course, I managed to find the Scot in the crowd, though he did kind of make his heritage know when he done a kilt. The point is, meet everyone you possibly can!
Something I think is unique to VOAtlanta, is the team challenge. Last year it was every man for himself since the conference was virtual. This year it was back to teams and the rumors were that it was a vicious, torturous activity that would make you mental and you absolutely had to do it! So of course I signed up (I'm a glutton for punishment) and miraculously made the cut. There were five teams with five VAs each all notified at noon on Friday that we were to meet with the other people on our team (all strangers to me), work together on all aspects of the project, and have a completed challenge turned in by 5pm on Saturday. Now remember, there are special x-sessions that cost extra money and take up three hours at a time and most folks do at least one or two. But somehow, this group of total strangers (Patrick Kirchner, Shelley Stephen, Finley Smith, Gene Lupo, and myself) managed to meet, come up with a script, record said script, edit the recording, add music (don't forget to name the file properly), and get it turned in with time to spare! I won't say there weren't disagreements here and there, but we bowled through them quickly (majority rules is a good policy in a party of 5), and created a commercial worthy of first place. Woot Woot!! Mad props to EVERYONE who participated because this was a time crunch and a half and everyone worked so hard and did such a great job. It really is a worthwhile experience.
Everything Else: Tips, Tricks, and Final Thoughts
I could jabber on and on, but I think it's time for a wrap up. Partially because I'm running on fumes, which seems to be a theme even with the online conferences, but it's definitely more potent after being in person. I suggest if you can stay the extra day and head home on Monday, do it. I'm not a burn the candle at both ends kinda gal, I'm a jammies by 8pm lady. But I stayed up past 1am every night and was up by 7am every morning. It was worth it. The extra day to rest and recover is nice though. I'm doing that at home, but a lot of folks stayed through Monday, so you can continue to socialize for an extra day if you choose.
Be prepared. JMC announced he and his wife Anna Collins are taking the reigns and keeping VOAtlanta alive with Anna serving as CEO of the conference. Changes will be coming, but I am uncertain as to what. They did announce that next year will be at the same hotel, the Hilton by the Airport in Atlanta. You have to pay for parking, the restaurant and bar are a bit pricy in my frugal book, but there are plenty of local places to get food and any other things you might need/want. Budget for whatever your preference is! BRING A WATER BOTTLE!! I did this because I do it everywhere I go, but a lot of folks ended up searching for water. There were water stations throughout the rooms and some in the lobby, but they did run dry from time to time. Very kindly ask a bartender or server to fill up your bottle for you. They will. And on that note, BE. KIND. TO. THE. STAFF! They were understaffed this year and may very well be next year. Have patience with people. Yes they are employees and you are a guest in the hotel, but they are human beings and they work their asses off. Say please and thank you and have some understanding.
GO AS YOURSELF. Be you. When I'm in new situation I have a tendency to people watch. Listen. Give it some time to feel things and people out and then decide how to behave. I didn't want to waste time being a fly on the wall at this conference so I vowed I would go, be me, and by the end of it some folks may hate me, but some may like me, and at the end of the day I'll have given it my all. So I ran around in my glitter shoes for as long as I could stand it and then I took them off and ran around in my socks. I put a green, yellow, AND red sticker on my name tag because I'm a complicated woman who can't be expected to agree to blanket hugging everyone! And I walked up to complete strangers and just started talking. I also went to my room to have alone time and left the large crowded areas to sit in a more open space when I felt overwhelmed. I pushed outside my comfort zone, but respected my limits at the same time. I encourage you to do this, not just at conferences, but in life. I'm home with no regrets except for the people I didn't get to meet. I genuinely would have loved to have met everyone.
When I got home my husband asked me, knowing how much this whole endeavor cost me financially, "was it worth it or was it just a money grab?" to which my response is this; of course there are a few things I would do differently (I'm a nitpicker), but it was great. I learned new things, I met so many amazing people, and it just felt awesome to be surrounded by voice actors, even though we didn't talk about voice acting the whole time, we just had a lot in common in general. I don't know if anything I got from this educationally or networking wise will help my career take off or not, but I do believe if nothing else it helped elevate ME. The sense of community and connection confirmed for me that I am in the right place, on the right path. These are my people. This is my tribe.
Have you every been to a work related conference? What are your thoughts and feelings on them?
(I did not take near enough pictures, but here are a few! If you got pictures with me please send them!)