Getting Ready for the ACA Conference

Everyone is excited to attend the American Counseling Association (ACA) Conference and Expo in San Francisco March 16 to March 19. Whether you are an experienced conference-goer or a first-time attendee, these tips will help you get the best out of your conference experience. This list will be especially helpful as you prepare for San Francisco but can also be applied to other conferences.

Before the Conference

  1. Remember to register for the conference and other activities and events. You can save money on registration with early-bird registration, if it is available. The early registration rates change at a specified date and then regular rates apply. Students can receive discounted rates, so be sure to look for special rates and pay attention to dates promoted by ACA. Sometimes there are opportunities to sign up for receptions, activities, and pre-conference learning sessions.
  2. Book your flight and hotel. Another way to save money is by booking your hotel and flights early. Remember to look into transportation options from the airport to your hotel (shuttles, taxis, or public transit). ACA partners with different companies that will provide official conference hotels and airlines – be aware that the hotel spaces fill up quickly. If you cannot obtain a hotel room at the sponsored hotel, check on sites like or to find nearby options. Realize that you might have quite a distance from your hotel to the sponsored conference center, so be prepared to walk or find other transportation daily. 
  3. Read the conference program. Take time to read through the program to become familiar with the keynote speakers, educational workshops, and other activities that will be offered. Use a highlighter to mark your interest areas so that you can easily find your selections when you are at the conference. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the number of options, so take time to learn about what will be offered before you arrive. This will save time and give you the chance to think about how to divide your time and attention.
  4. Understand the layout of the area. Conference centers can be huge. Be prepared to walk a lot during the entire conference proceedings. If you plan to wear high heels or dress shoes that are not comfortable, I recommend bringing a pair of flip-flops to wear as you move around the conference center. There will be a great deal of walking between educational sessions, for meals, between conference hotels, and for entertainment locations. Conference-goers who would like to discuss special accommodations should contact the conference center directly.
  5. Learn which colleagues or graduate students will be in attendance. Talk with your colleagues and classmates to learn who will be at the conference. Many people like to find roommates to decrease the cost of staying at a hotel and to help navigate the conference. You can also plan meals together and find ways to have fun during down times—like attending a local sporting event or going to a yoga class.
  6. Pack a variety of clothing. There will be different events at the conference where different attire is appropriate. Many people wear business casual clothing during educational sessions and keynotes and wear dressier clothing, like a suit or dress, during awards ceremonies and banquets. Some presenters will dress formally as well. You will want to have comfortable clothes for traveling and casual clothes for wandering around the city for fun. I also recommend packing gym shoes and workout clothes for self-care during the conference.

At the Conference

  1. Pick up registration materials and check into the hotel. Once you check into the hotel, take time to visit the registration area (sometimes located in a sponsor hotel or at the convention center) to pick up your registration materials and goody bag. Your registration materials will include a name tag and tickets to enter receptions and banquets. Do not lose your tickets. Put them in a safe place, like behind your nametag.
  2. Organize your room. Settle into your hotel room and take some time to relax. Organize your belongings so that you can transition quickly between events. Hang your clothing in the closet instead of leaving it in suitcases. This will provide you with the ability to share space easily if you have a roommate.
  3. Finalize which activities to attend. Look at your highlighted conference book and determine which activities, workshops, and meals you will attend during the conference. Many conferences will have an app you can download to keep track of your schedule. Learn the conference center layout so that you know where your selected events are located and give yourself enough time to get to them.
  4. Organize conference notes and handouts. You will learn a lot at the conference workshops. Take notes at each session and remember to grab (or pre-print when available) handouts. Create an organization system to help you find the notes later when you need them.
  5. There will be plenty of time to network during the conference. Have your business cards ready (students should also carry business cards) and be ready to collect others’ cards as well. Take a brief note on the back of the business card to help you remember facts about the other person. Networking is about making mutually beneficial connections, so be sure to listen closely to people with whom you interact and discuss common interests that can lead to partnering on future projects.
  6. Plan time for fun and be flexible. Plan for a little downtime and be sure to have fun outside conference events. Check out popular activities and restaurants. Be flexible, because there will be times when plans change or become complicated—like when your dinner for three turns into dinner for 10 because you made new friends at the conference and have a the-more-the-merrier mentality. Many conference-goers develop professional relationships during fun, casual times.

After the Conference

  1. Send thank-you notes. You will meet a variety of people at the conference who make an impact. Take note of each occasion and remember to send a thank you for special interactions. Some people send thank-you emails, and others send traditional cards. Sending traditional thank-you cards shows that you put additional thought into acknowledging the conference interaction.
  2. Save your CE forms in a safe place. Licensed counselors will receive continuing education (CE) credits for attending approved workshops. Keep your CEs in a safe place so that they are easily accessible during licensure renewal time.
  3. Utilize your new skills. Now that you have learned new skills by attending conference workshops and activities, it is time to apply them. Be sure that you feel competent to apply them. Seek supervision and engage in case conferences with colleagues when applying new skills.
  4. Create a plan for the next conference from what you learned this time. You will have had such a wonderful time that you will want to plan for future conferences. After experiencing a conference, you will have a good idea about budgeting for registration, travel, hotel, food, and additional activities. Take a look at conference calendars and determine which ones you will attend next.
  5. Submit conference abstracts. Keep an eye out for calls for abstracts. You can submit abstracts for workshops, panels, poster presentations, and more. Contact colleagues with whom you have networked and work together to create an outstanding abstract based on ideas you would like to share with other counselors and students. 

The ACA conference and others like it are great learning and networking opportunities, but they can be overwhelming for first-time attendees. To help ease the stress of your conference experience, print a copy of this checklist to prepare for your trip, track your progress on site, and follow up afterward.