How to Make It Through the Esri User Conference Alive (and Thriving!)

It's that time of year - when geogeeks from every industry descend on the heart of San Diego, California to soak up the sun and marvel at the latest advancements in Geographic Information System (GIS) software that Esri has to offer. You may have already guessed, but I am talking about the Esri International User Conference...or Esri UC, for short.

For those who do not know or have not yet graced the halls of the San Diego Convention Center outside of cosplaying events, Esri UC is the company's largest conference of the year bringing together 10,000 to 16,000 (or more?) of your closest geo-friends. Clients and business partners alike get to take a gander at all the latest iterations of the ArcGIS platform and see real-life user case studies play out before them on stage and in semi-spacious rooms. It is a time of glee, a time of knowledge, a time of training, and a time of purely paralyzing awe. Emphasis on paralyzing. This year's show was held July 9th to 13th and was my fourth time (maybe?) being in the fray of things. Over the last few years, my company has been stationed on the Expo floor, showing off our own technology and chatting with clients. That in itself can be its own flavor of overwhelming, but that may just be because my introvert qualities and incessant-need-to-control-things always get the best of me. This year we decided to stick with simply presenting our humble findings on developing methodology for migrating enterprise spatial data stores from ArcMap to ArcGIS Pro - which you can find out more about here. Because of this, it meant that this year was the first time since my internship at Esri that I got the chance to roam free...well, free-ish. The swarm of bodies does have its own gravitational pull.

Coming back this year with the opportunity to attend more sessions and chat with people outside of the Exhibit Hall made me remember just how crazy it can be for those who do not know what there is to dig in to at the show. For that reason - as well as a practice in pushing myself over my own hump of introvert drain - I wanted to put together a few things to make sure you do (or do not do) whether it's your first time or 20th*.

*If it's your 20th, please just go chill wherever you damn well please. You have earned this right.


1. Get your bearings before the show.

Whether or not you are attending UC alone or with your team, it is encouraged to do a quick check of your surroundings before ever stepping foot in San Diego. We'll cover figuring out your life as far as the agenda is concerned in #2, but for this point, let's stick with your social time. This show is a great time to meet new people and catch up with those you are already know. Begin skimming talks and the speaker list as well as the list of exhibits to see if there are clients or vendors you want to check in with or simply meet for the first time.

Have friends, colleagues, and clients that may be there? Start shooting off quick emails and calls to see if they'll be attending and if they'd like to pencil you in for a coffee or beer while there. Times get hectic once you're there so being even the slightest bit proactive is encouraged.

2. Know what you, your team, and your company are and are not doing as far as Esri technology is concerned.

This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget when you are presented with endless possibilities of topics and talks to attend. While showing up to UC may feel like you are the luckiest kid in the geo-geekiest candy store, the reality is that it is most beneficial if you are touching on the right topics. Introducing a new platform that you aren't too sure about? Go to a training session. Brand new to GIS and want to know the history and basics of the field? Find as many basics and 101 sessions as you can handle. ArcGIS Insights look really cool but your company would never use the thing? Maybe don't devote half your day to it.

It's simple. Know where you are before ever diving into the agenda. It will help cut down on the whiplash. Pinky promise.

3. Figure out what the different categories of sessions mean - and which apply to what you need.

This may sound silly (and again, an obvious point), but this will help you take better stock of your agenda. Esri offers summits that last the entire day, paper talks submitted by users like you, lightning talks (i.e., short bursts of information), and their own talks and workshops. I like options, and I also like having an idea of what I'm walking into. No one likes being that person ducking out of a session early because Option A wasn't what they thought it would be.

4. Attend plenary - even if it's alternatively.

I always recommended first UC'rs to go to Plenary in the main room. Get there early, grab a seat near the stage, and prepare to ooh and aah. This is a right of passage for everyone at UC to both witness the show that Esri puts together in all of its dazzling lights and dramatic music as well as see the impact of what we do. You will see GIS applied in nearly every sector imaginable - from user map submissions to project demos, it is fascinating to be reminded of the range of this technology. Another impact stands in the number of people in the room. While most GIS shows typically only have a few hundred people in attendance, UC consistently boasts 10,000 and up. It's a lot, man.

Now what do I mean by alternatively? While the show is held in the main room (aka the big room), Esri also typically has additional locations set up for viewing like a large room upstairs (formerly littered with comfy bean bag chairs, now composed of tables and chairs) as well as live-streaming on platforms like Facebook.

5. Branch out and get to know the people around you.

Speaking of a crowd of people, I always find it disappointing when attendees either stick to themselves the whole show or with just their team. While it is always advised to dance with the girl who brung ya, this is an opportunity to get to know people in and out of your industry, learn what they are doing and how they are applying ArcGIS, and open up avenues of communication.

Even better - It gives you a familiar face for the next time you attend. In a sea of strangers, it makes everyone feel less overwhelmed to recognize a few of those fish.

6. Don't stop there - Get to know one of the Red Badgers.

No, I am not talking about the animal. I'm talking about the thousands of Esri employees running sessions and hanging out in Expo. There's a chance I'm biased here since I'm still friendly with some of the people I met there during my internship, but the fact remains that they are people. They are in the flesh and not just names on an email or users on a GeoNet forum. Pick their brain about an issue you're having and exchange contact information in case you ever have a question that is not just support related.

7. Find a way to participate.

While I wouldn't advise this for your first experience since that should be reserved for imitating a deer in headlights, there are tons of ways you can participate in the event that do not always cost an extra dollar. Make a submission when the call for images comes out. Submit an entry in the map gallery, like this fun The Office themed map I made last year! You can even see about presenting an abstract.

Not only does it help you get your company's name out there, it also helps provide more direction and justification for your attendance. 

8. Take advantage of socials.

To say this is a busy week is an understatement. Esri, its industries, and professional organizations alike try to cram as many socials into the few days as possible. Free food, free drinks, and good conversation allows you a chance to break away from the long days of sitting in cold conference halls. Drop in to as many as possible to grab a bite and meet your neighbors.

9. Don't feel guilty about skipping the party.

Similar to how I said everyone should attend the Plenary, this also applies to the Thursday Night Party and Balboa Park. It's fun to see what's around and chat with colleagues outside of the confines of the convention center. It is also a chance to bring your family into the fold if they traveled with you.

Not up for more crowds after a week of bustling shoulder to shoulder from room to room? That's ok too. There are plenty of things to do on a Thursday night if you decide not to go. Perhaps set aside time with family or your team to catch up, grab dinner, see a game at Petco Park, or go sightseeing.

10. Know your limit.

If you have been anywhere near a large conference before, then you know this tip applies on a couple fronts.

First, if you are like me and have a time limit to the amount of social interaction your brain and body allow, know that it is absolutely 115% a-ok to take a break. Go find a quiet place, get out of plans by blaming "work", hide in Map Gallery, or just sit alone outside for a bit. It is a lot to take in. If you miss a session or two? Well, it is not the end of the world. There are 200 more where those came from.

Second, UC can be fun. Many teams see this as a time to let loose, and the Gaslamp District offers just as many places to do just that. Just know that you may not enjoy that 8 AM session quite as much if your 3 AM last call is just now turning into the world's worst hangover.

Even though these tips may not be for everyone, hopefully they are general enough so that you can get the most out of your next visit to Esri UC - just oh, another year to go!

​Are there any To-Dos I missed? I would love to hear them below!