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My first conference: And why I’m already planning my second

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BY LINDA WATER NELSON
For months I’d tried to track down a new Winnebago. I knew if I could just make contact with the public relations person and get in one, I’d have a story. But I was starting to worry it might never happen.
Then I arrived at demo day during OWAA’s annual conference in McAllen, Texas and there, in the parking lot, was a Winnebago, and even better — a contact with the company. I was in.
McAllen was my first OWAA conference and that moment made it worth the trip. Along with everything else I took away from Texas I was already planning my trip to the 2015 conference before I’d arrived back home.
Going into 2014 my goal was to learn and write more about the outdoors. I already reviewed sport vehicles and wrote road trip features that had outdoor elements and realized broadening my reach into the outdoor market was only a short hop away.
To help expand my outdoor writing career I created a website called bucket-list-guide.com, expected to go live in August. I grew up as a suburban kid without a mentor to take me hunting or fishing. The site is a dream-list of things I’d like to do and the stories I write after checking-off something on the list.
I had the idea for the site, but I still needed help.
What do you do when you want to expand your horizons, your contacts, and the outlets for your work? You spend money, of course.
But not just on anything.
You look for an organization that will get you to your goals or for an event that can streamline the process.
I have never written much about hunting and fishing, or birding and conservation; but I am an outdoor writer. I write about the vehicles that get you to the adventure. As a freelancer I write for a variety of publications, but most often you’ll find my byline in Texas Fish & Game Magazine.
I’m a member of auto writer and media associations and earlier this year joined the Texas Outdoor Writers Association and after a good experience at the TOWA conference I thought I’d check out OWAA’s in McAllen, Texas.
It was a fabulous decision.
I met members who knew more than I ever will about virtually every outdoor topic, and they were willing and gracious about sharing that knowledge and expertise. I got to spend time with editors and publishers who expressed interest in what I had to offer and asked me to submit queries. I gained new-found respect for the people who do what I do and for those who make it possible. I saw some of the best outdoor photography in the world.
On Demo Day I met suppliers who talked to me about their products and offered samples to get me out. The week after conference I went bass fishing with a neighbor and using handouts from Berkley Conservation Institute and Pure Fishing caught a couple.
I had never held a firearm and spent time on Shooting Day with instructors from Smith & Wesson. I’m invited to a Canadian bird hunt this fall and feel comfortable enough around firearms I’m confident in my decision to attend — and I might just get a story out of it.
There were presentations that familiarized me with topical and controversial issues, skills that I didn’t have (yet) and the ways to grow my business — especially unique in a field where people are often cagey about their contacts and tricks for making it as a writer. At the OWAA Conference, the members shared as much as the experts on the panels. Questions were never out-of-bounds, and responses were so valuable they amazed me. Hands-on sessions with new technology were extremely helpful. I already had the software on my iPhone and the session on 1-minute videos taught me how to use it more effectively.
One-on-one chatting with editors landed me at least one new gig writing about sport vehicles and I’ve already queried several other publications.
Contacts I made with representatives of convention and visitors bureaus are leading to three separate road trip stories with outdoor themes and activities that will make them relevant and marketable to a much broader audience.
Most importantly, the social activities made possible lots of one-on-one conversation — some of it serious, most of it downright silly — that let me get to know how the outdoor media industry works. Outdoor writers and photographers are amazing storytellers. There is a lot of “how big was that fish?” going on, but that’s what makes what we do special.
I left with the most business cards (most with handwritten notes on the back) that I have ever collected at a conference — and I’ve been to a lot of conferences.
Conferences are not inexpensive, and I always look at the cost/benefit relationship when I make an investment in an organization or an event. It doesn’t always end up on the plus side, but this one did. Some of the activities offset the cost of the conference, and I believe that added work will prove to make it a sound investment.
In the process of budgeting for 2015, the OWAA Conference in Tennessee is already a given on the expense side. It’s on the calendar, too, but I’ll plan in more time to take advantage of pre- and post- adventures. It will be worth it. ♦
— Linda Water Nelson, an Austin, Texas-based writer, focuses primarily on sport vehicles in her work.
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