Who would have thought that keeping SHRM attendees off Bourbon Street would be the least of the worries in 2009? Yes, the Society for Human Resource Management’s 61st Annual Conference & Exposition is expecting a lot fewer attendees this year—less than 10,000 in New Orleans, compared with 13,600 last June in Chicago—but that only means everything will just be a little less crowded for those who do actually make it to the Big Easy for this year’s event.
And, New Orleans is a great town no matter why you’re there. The key to coping is the ability to juggle the decadent side of the city along with the practical things you will want to get out of the conference. Since I’m a veteran SHRM conference attendee and longtime New Orleans visitor, here are a few tips that may help you get through:
• Make sure you hear what the new guy has to say. Sunday’s opening General Session is worth sitting through for two reasons: 1) It’s the first time new SHRM president and CEO Laurence “Lon” O’Neil will address the SHRM faithful en masse, and 2) former General Electric CEO Jack Welch will follow O’Neil with some pithy and pragmatic management advice gleaned from all those years at the helm of GE. If there is a General Session worth attending at SHRM New Orleans, this is it.
• Attend at least one off-the-wall session. SHRM always seems to have a few nutty, off-the-wall-titled sessions each year, and you owe it to yourself to attend one and see if it is actually as silly as the title suggests. A couple of good choices this year are “Align Your Hamsters and Honeymooners: Practical Steps to Increasing Workforce Engagement,” with Wendy Fenel of BlessingWhite (Monday, 4 p.m.), and “Embrace Your Freakness: Perform at Your Best and Accelerate Success,” with Frank Keck of Frankly Speaking (Wednesday, 10 a.m.). My guess is that these sessions aren’t nearly as goofy as they may sound, but then again, you won’t know unless you go.
• Get out on the town or live to regret it. New Orleans is a city you have to soak up and experience. Yes, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are worth seeing (you gotta get a cup of café au lait and some beignets at Café du Monde, the original 24-hour French Market coffee stand), but the Garden District, Lower Canal Street and the Warehouse (arts) District all have plenty to see and do as well. You need to make sure you make time to get out of your SHRM mode and take it all in.
• You haven’t lived until you hear some zydeco. Everybody likes to focus on New Orleans jazz, but when I’m in the Big Easy, it’s the Cajun zydeco music that I just can’t get enough of. There are a lot of places to hear zydeco, but none better than Mulate’s Original Cajun Restaurant and Dance Hall on Julia Street just two blocks from the Morial Convention Center. There’s generally a line of people coming out the door, but it’s worth the wait for the music (every night except Tuesday) and some authentic Louisiana Cajun fare like grilled frog legs or red beans and rice.
• Staying until the bitter end? If so, then be sure to get your social media fix. Although it seems like a terribly mis-scheduled afterthought to me, there’s an interesting session at the very end of the conference on “HR Bloggers: Who Are These People and Why Should I Care?” at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. I wasn’t invited to take part, but Workforce Management blogger Kris Dunn was, and he will undoubtedly have some interesting insights to share.
I say this every year, and it’s always true: There is a lot of great information at SHRM that you can take home and use with your workforce immediately. Despite the lure of Cajun food, zydeco and the decadence of the Big Easy, that’s the real reason you should be attending in New Orleans.