I remember my first academic conference. I was a first-year PhD student and was accepted into the International Research Society for Children's Literature on the ground of my publications (which were awful, as I see now, but nevertheless solid academic publications), and the deadline for proposals for the next conference had passed. Fortunately, there was a Swedish Board member at the time, and she encouraged me to send in a late proposal, which I did, and it was accepted. All conferences, even within the same organisation, are different, and that particualr one asked for a full paper in advance. I sent mine (which I stupidly enough hadn't shared with my supervisor), and it was rejected. I went to the conference anyway and to my dismay saw my name on the programme. I hadn't brought my paper, but the organiser had a copy, with a resolute "NO" on the top. I guess someone had cancelled.
I felt very small and lonely at that conference because I didn't know people, and I was one of the youngest, and nobody knew me. I decided then that when I grew up I would always try to encourage first-timers, and so I did. At the IRSCL conference in Stockholm in 1995, that I organised, I shook hands with every participant at the welcome drink reception. My hand hurt afterwards, and I didn't have time for drinks.
My best experience of conferences is taking a group of students to one. At ChLA conferences, they do it all the time: professors bring their students to play with the big elephants. It's much less intimidating when you are part of a group. It is unusual otherwise, but in 1999 I took my students from Finland to the IRSCL conference in Canada, and we did a double session to showcase our project. People still remember that. During the blessed five years when we had loads of money from the Nordic Foundation for Advanced Studies, we not only did our own conferences and workshops, but went to other big conferences and Created a Presence.
Looking at the programme for the conference The Child and and Book where I am going tomorrow, I feel that Cambridge presence is overwhelming. I am proud of it. Our students have presented at our own conference last year, but playing home ground is not quite the same as going away. And I am not even giving a paper myself. Am I perchance a coach?