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The Pros and Cons of Professional Conferences

pros_consAs I mentioned in my last blog post, I just returned from presenting at The Renfrew Foundation Conference.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Renfrew, it is the oldest residential program providing women treatment for Eating Disorders in the United States.  Over the years, it has expanded to include an extensive continuum of care as well as offering professional trainings and webinars.  It was a fantastic weekend filled with humor, hard work, networking, and learning opportunities.

For those of us in private practice, professional conferences can be a mixed bag requiring us to assess whether the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.  I single out private practitioners because when I was a student I was eligible for subsidies or received financial aid to attend professional conferences.  If I volunteered, I could attend for free and the rewards were enormous.  I became part of a supportive community that ultimately provided job opportunities after I graduated.  When I was employed as a professor at a university or working in psychiatric facilities I had financial support to attend a prescribed amount of conferences each year.  It was a win win for my employers and me as I increased my knowledge that I could bring back to my students and or patients, earned CEU’s, added professional contacts, and beefed up my C.V. (VERY important in academia) if I was also presenting at the conference.

The pros of going to professional conference as a clinician in private practice continue to be earning CEU’s, networking, learning new tools, and perhaps some exposure if you have a book or other products for sale.  There is also a lovely feeling reminiscent of a camp reunion if you are able to attend the same organization’s conference year after year.  Remember the movie, Same Time Next Year?  It is rather like that only, at least in my case, without the sex.

But one of the cons that is rarely discussed is the cost.  Yes the expenses are tax deductible, but even for the most successful private practitioner, the cost of attending a pro. con. can be prohibitive.  First on the list is the airfare followed by the hotel, and the meals.  Then membership dues which may be required but sometimes give you a discount on the registration fee, and of course the registration fees themselves.   One little know fact is that in most situations presenters are required to be a member in good standing which means paying annual membership dues to  be eligible to conduct a session.  Unless you are a keynote speaker, it is an anomaly to be paid for your time.  In plain old dollar and cents language this means having to cancel sessions with clients and then paying to present.

The reasoning behind this is not unreasonable.  Many of the orgs. are non-profit and many of the conferences are fundraisers.  The speaker or presenter is also reminded that if the conference is well attended, it can be a marketing opportunity.  (Although there are strict rules about not over publicizing your book or product by turning your session into an infomercial.)  Some conferences allow presenters to sell their products without having to pay for table space which is a wonderful perk, but practically all conferences take a percentage of sales made at the conference even if you pay for a vendor’s table.

It is rare to be reimbursed for the materials you provide for your participants and, hold on to your hats, it is common for presenters to have to pay the registration fees in order to gain access to the conference. Renfrew, by the way, is one of the rare exceptions that offers to copy the speakers’ handouts and waives the registration fees; some other orgs. give presenters a discount for attending the conference. (This paradigm is not common in all pro. cons btw…most tech industry conferences and other for profit companies compensate their speakers and even provide airfare and accommodations!) But in our neck of the woods, it can be a labor of love and sacrifice for speakers and attendees without a large amount of funding to take advantage of these fantastic opportunities and a challenge to decide which one of the many annual conferences to go to!!

But before you think this post is just an opportunity for me to kvetch about the negatives of the conference culture, I would like to underscore that one of the motivations that keeps me saying yes to attending at least one pro. con. each year are the professionals you get to meet in person and really interact with.  And as wonderful as Facebook and other social media outlets are, they don’t compare to joining old friends and new acquaintances on the dance floor letting off some steam after a day of attending sessions, filming an impromptu video, and hugging and high fiving in the hallways. LinkedIn serves a wonderful purpose by connecting people that may not have met any other way, but nothing replaces flesh and blood, in person, energy exchanging, brainstorming sessions that take place at conferences whether it be in the elevator, in line for the restroom, at the bar, or in the actual sessions themselves.  Those experiences are priceless and continue to enrich my life long after I have paid off my credit card conference expenses.


Angela Meadows and Dr. Deah in the UK

One example of this is Angela Meadows.  Similar to Fatima Parker, featured in my last blog post, Angela is also from the UK  and works intensely on spreading the word about Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size® via her company Never Diet Again and her involvement in an annual weight stigma awareness conference.  Angela also has a blog, writes for the Huffington Post in the UK AND, I may add, is doing all of this while working on her doctorate.  Angela is smart, dedicated, honest, tenacious, and has that dry wry sense of humor that just totally cracks me up.  I asked Angela to share some of her thoughts about the work she does, how she “found” FA and HAES®, and the Fat/Size Acceptance movement in the UK in general. Here is what Angela had to say.

Angela Meadows:  I think in the UK we’re lacking a coherent  FA ‘organisation’. We’re just a bunch of people of varying ideologies who think fat stigma is bad. Sometimes we accidentally meet each other on Facebook. But the major stumbling stone for making progress is the lack of an actual unifying movement. Any interaction with US-based FA tends to be on an individual level (e.g. me). On a personal level, I first stumbled across Health at Every Size  (HAES) while researching an assignment on exercise for weight loss for my MA degree in Weight Management!!!  It was a paper by Steven Blair’s group and totally blew me away. I started looking to see if anybody had done any follow-up work and that led me to HAES, and from there, Fat Acceptance. I can’t remember what books I read at the time but Ragen’s (Chastain) blog was the biggest influence I think. But my fat acceptance journey didn’t really start to become reality until my first in real life (IRL) meeting with other Size Activist campaigners, which was at my first Binge Eating Disorders Association (BEDA) conference in Philadelphia. That was the first time non-judgment became a reality to me and I realised what it could be like. From that point on, it’s just bits and pieces with the internet really being my lifeline. That’s where I become normed to happy self-accepting accomplished fat people. Not in books.

Dr. Deah:  I also asked Angela about how the FA message is received by the UK media and what she feels can be done to improve collaboration between the US and UK/European efforts in these areas?

Angela:  I don’t think we struggle too much getting heard because there are so few of us doing this here, that researchers do tend to find us via our websites and Facebook pages. But we face the same problem as you do in the U.S., we are up against a juggernaut.  As for collaboration – we can’t stop arguing among ourselves long enough to form a coherent unit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think a lot of people coming at it from slightly different angles in slightly different domains may well do more to create a sufficient groundswell to make a real difference. But we need to be able to come together when it’s important, rather than all this petty infighting. What was achieved re:  The Biggest Loser and the White House was a case in point. Superb activism there.

Dr. Deah: Please tell us a bit about your weight stigma conference and ways that people can contact you and keep tabs on what your are doing?

Angela:  One of the things that came about as feedback from this year’s stigma conference was, “Ok, we know there’s a problem, what can we DO about it?”  My dream would be for us all to get together and mount a proper campaign to get ‘weight’ added to the protected categories in the anti-discrimination legislation.  The stigma conference is aimed predominantly at academics and health care professionals (but mostly academics). I’d like to see more activism come out of it though. If you want more info about next year’s conference, email me at  If people want to learn more about my blog and other work that I am doing via Never Diet Again (although it isn’t particularly active at the moment while I’m studying) my website address is: I’m also on Facebook, Twitter @NeverDietAgnUK, and I blog about stigma under my own name for The Huffington Post UK.

Dr. Deah:  Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers?

Angela:  My ultimate message – fight your own fight first of all – in your own circle. Then find support from others in real life or online to help you. Form anti-stigma clusters and safe places. Keep communication channels open between your’s and other’s clusters. Perhaps we don’t need to be one big movement. We can chip away at what’s wrong from all sides. But don’t let it pass. You will never be happy and well in a world where you let others debase you. Tell people that their joke isn’t funny, that their remark isn’t appropriate. Stand up for yourself. That’s huge.Yes it is Angela, and thank you so much for taking the time, which clearly is a precious commodity in your world, to have this PROductive CONversation with us.
And some conference news to share with you:  ASDAH is accepting proposals right now for their July conference that will be in Boston, I will be presenting at the EDRS conference in California in February, and I will be the keynote speaker at the NYSTRA conference in Saratoga Springs in New York in April.  For an ongoing list of conferences check my Schmooze-letter or let me know about some that I may be unaware of by posting them on one of  my Facebook Pages or honor of Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for all of you for reading and supporting my blog!  hiddenturkeyTil next time…Dr. Deah
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