Let me introduce my amazingly talented friend Julie from Julie Renee Photography, based out of Richmond, Va. Julie is an incredibly successful photographer, a warm & sweet friend and an amazing mother to a darling toddler boy. She also has an irrational phobia of penguins and belly buttons. And yes, she knows that it makes her a weirdo.
Please enjoy her stellar advice below.
My first year at WPPI was a blur. Much like ones wedding day, I went into it excited and unsure of exactly what to expect, and I came out feeling overwhelmed and not quite remembering what had just happened to me. I did a few things right, and a whole lot of things stupid, and I’m happy to share my experiences with both so that my fellow photogs can go into this festival of awesomeness and get the absolute most out of it.
Here are, in my opinion, the top 10 things that any photographer should know before their first WPPI trip:
1. Know where (and how) to save money, and when to splurge. Everyone always talks about how cheap Vegas is, but I think that has a lot to do with the kind of experience you’re going for. If you are going to WPPI solely because you desperately need to learn a ton of information, but you have limited funds and don’t really care about the “experience,” there are plenty of ways to do Vegas on the cheap. The Hooters Hotel is right next to the MGM Grand convention center and I believe it’s around $29 per night. I’ve heard that it’s “safe and clean,” but I’m sure that’s relative. You can also go to a drugstore on the strip and get a few boxes of cereal bars, granola bars, some almonds, bottled water, etc; and have some cheap lunch and breakfast (with less calories too) than the food court or local restaurants. There are definitely ways to do things cheaper, but if you’re wanting a fun and quality “experience” as well, it’s hard to find many inexpensive options. We stayed at the MGM Grand last year, because we didn’t want to have to take a cab or walk too much, but it was pricey. This year, we got a deal online for the Signature at MGM Grand where it only cost about $6 more per day than the regular MGM. The benefit is that while it’s a separate hotel, it’s actually much closer to the convention center than the rooms at the regular MGM Grand. Also, it’s a suite, so we have an extra bed that we’re sharing with a friend so we can split the cost. If you did something like that with 4 girls, it would be pretty cheap. I shared a room with a stranger when I did a Jasmine Star workshop a couple of years ago, and we became fast buddies. The relationships you build there are a big part of the experience, so finding some cool girls (or guys) to room with could really enhance your experience.
2. Meals: The restaurants are world class, but crazy expensive. Maybe treat yourself once but most people end up at the MGM Grand’s food court for most meals. They have a McDonalds, Nathan’s Hot Dog, Pizza place, Asian Fare, and I think one or two other things. There’s also a Starbucks with fresh fruit and muffins for breakfast. Although they are “fast food,” the food court is fairly pricey, so be prepared for that. I’m pretty sure a McDonalds meal there is probably double what you would pay for it in your home town. I believe I remember a typical lunch of 1 Nathan’s Hot Dog (double yuck, I know…), a side of fries, and a bottled water costing around $17. Like I said, cereal bars and a can of almonds from Walgreens are a great option for breakfasts and snacks.
3. What to Wear: Repeat after me…”Comfort, comfort, comfort.” There are some cool kats who dress to impress, but the vast majority of us are rockin’ it in jeans. Make sure your shoes are super comfy because even if you’re staying in the MGM Grand, the walk from your room to the convention center is about a 2 mile hike (yes, the hotel is HUGE) and from the Convention center to the food court is close to a mile, so 3 times per day you’ll be making that hike as well. I brought my comfiest pair of ballet flats and still ended up wearing blisters on my feet. This year I’ll be rockin’ a pair of roomy TOMS and not giving a rats tush what people think. Also, dress in light layers because some of the classes are jam-packed with 3,000 people and it gets balmy. Others are like sub-zero freezers where your lips turn blue. Light layers are your friend, people.
4. What to Take To Classes: I brought my laptop (overachiever) and didn’t use it once. Many of the notes you’re taking involve drawing diagrams and there aren’t really power sources for laptops. It’s nice to have it to surf the internet between classes (if you don’t feel like making the great hike back to your room for only an hour) but it’s probs not worth lugging it around. Bring a notebook (new–there’s honestly a good chance you’ll fill it) and a few pens (if someone next to you forgets theirs, you can be that friendly guy/gal who lends them one and you make a new friend…bonus!) Also, bring a TON of business cards. The people you meet will want to keep in touch with you. Plus, many speakers have sponsors who give them things to give away, and the way they do that is have you drop your card in a bucket and then draw a card to pick the winner. When choosing a purse to bring (or whether to bring one at all), keep in mind that they will give you a swag bag when you check in that is full of advertisements and magazines, etc. You will most likely have that bag with you every day to hold all the things you’re given in each class and at the Trade Show, so you may not want to be carrying two heavy bags on your shoulder for all those miles you walk every day. Remember that if you maximize your schedule with classes, there isn’t time to go all the way back to your room in the middle of the day so most likely what you leave the room with in the morning is what you’re carrying on your back from 7am until 8pm or later.
5. Classes: Do your homework! If you see a topic that looks interesting to you, go to the website of the speaker and make sure their works jives with your style. That having been said, keep an open mind because the 3 classes that I got the absolute most out of my first year, and changed my business in incredible ways, were all taught by photographers that I had never heard of prior to WPPI. Then make up a schedule with all the classes you DEFINITELY want to take, and then the ones you would like to take, but are open to changing if something better comes along. I’m annoyingly organized, so I plan my entire week out on a spreadsheet so if I get invited to something, I’m able to take a quick look and see if I’m able to make it. Nobody can tell you what classes are best to take, because it all depends on what you need the most. Just remember that you will get a mix of classes that you actually LEARN something in, and classes where you may not learn anything, but you leave feeling INSPIRED. If there are two classes that are at the same time, and one is taught by a big name photog that you have a crush on but the topic doesn’t interest you, and the other is taught by some guy you’ve never heard of but the topic is exactly what you really need, I’d encourage you to attend the latter. Get a nice mixture of inspirational classes, and then those where you can get some meat to chew on once you get home.
6. Rockstars: Any of the bigger speakers like Yervant, Jerry Ghionis, Jasmine Star, Bob Davis, etc will have a line that forms for their class at least 2 hours prior to the class. This year, they are offering a “Preboard” system where you can choose up to 5 classes to pre-register for. This is excellent to ensure that you get a seat, but I imagine people will still be nutty enough to hop in line hours earlier, just so they can be within arms length of Jasmine when she tosses up a “Holllaaaa.” If you can’t preboard for one of these classes, be sure to be VERY early.
7. Trade Show: Plan to give yourself at least a good 2-3 hours on Monday for the Trade Show. IMHO, the Trade Show is one of the best parts of the convention. In addition to seeing some of the most incredible products available to us, and being able to touch and feel every album, print, canvas, and (if you’re like me) every gorge-tastic purse-like camera bag; you will also get a metric ton of coupons and freebies. On the first day (Monday) there are a lot of giveaways (for example, many album companies hand out coupons to the first 100 people who hit their booth for $100 off a sample album.) You will need a good amount of time to get through all of the hundreds of vendors, but it’s worth it to see what everyone has to offer.
8. Parties, Shootouts, and Outside Events: There are TONS of these to choose from, so pick one or two that interest you and then leave yourself a lot of open time. Throughout the week, you will (hopefully) meet new folks and get invited to various fun dinners and networking events so it’s nice not to be tied down to 6 parties and 5 shootouts that you paid a bajillion dollars for collectively. With that having been said, I personally will be at the Airplanes and Blazers party on Monday night. It’s a Mad Men/Red Carpet/Vintage Vegas/”Creative Black Tie” dress code, so you can’t just decide on a whim to go and show up in jeans and a blazer. I just went out today and bought Hubs and rock-worthy bow tie and fedora to wear with his pinstripe suit. Can we say Don Draper??? ; ) If a black tie party doesn’t interest you, there are tons of other more low-key options, just plan ahead because a few of them will require you to purchase tickets in advance (like the Airplanes and Blazers party.) I hope to see you there!
9. Cabbies: When you arrive at the airport in Vegas and go out to the cabs, repeat after me “MGM Grand, and PLEASE DON’T TAKE THE TUNNEL.” This is a common scam that the cabbies pull, and it increases your fare by about double. The MGM Grand is a stone’s throw from the airport, so the trip should be a very cheap one. I had heard about this before our first trip, but our driver, “Cabbie Mike,” seemed so darn nice and above-board that we didn’t think it was necessary. A few minutes later we were happily chatting away with Cabbie Mike while I notice us driving into a…yep, you guessed it, a TUNNEL. Cabbie Mike was a crook! I learned my lesson and on the way back I very nicely told our cabbie to “please don’t take the tunnel.” He looked annoyed, but hey, I saved myself $10!
10. Have fun! Work hard to meet some cool people in those first few days, because as one speaker last year said, “WPPI is like High School, only with Alcohol.” It’s sooooo painfully true. SOME people can be a wee bit catty and unwilling to venture outside their little click to make a new friend, so if you’re there alone, you can start to feel a bit isolated toward the end of the week. Make a few friends, and invite them to go have lunch or dinner one night! Last year, on the last day of the conference, I was walking to a class and noticed a woman walking along going the opposite direction, with tears streaming down her face. Something told me to stop and ask her if she was okay, so I did. It turns out she was just very lonely and ready to go home. She had had a catty girl make a comment about her in a class and it was the final straw…she just crumbled. I could see she wasn’t in the best mood, but I went out on a limb and asked this complete stranger if I could give her a hug. She shrugged her shoulders, but I went for it anyway. The most incredible thing happened…that woman, that total stranger, wrapped her arms around me like I was her long lost mother. We stood there in the middle of hundreds of people brushing past us, hugging while she sobbed quietly on my shoulder. After she composed herself, I asked her if she needed to talk, but said she was just going to go call her husband. I told her I’d say a prayer for her, and then just before we parted ways, she grinned through teary eyes and said “Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity.” As I walked off, I felt like our brief encounter had helped me somehow too. The point of all this, is to above all else, be nice. You can do some really awesome “networking” by simply loving on people that you encounter there.
So there you have it. The Top 10 things to know before you go. I hope you have an incredible time, and that you leave feeling both inspired and encouraged, and ready to watch your business take off! If you happen to see me walking by, stop me and give me a hug (or high-five, if that’s what you’re in to!) I look forward to meeting you!