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You may already know the deal, but as I was (and still am) pretty new to the direct response marketing industry at the time I was asked to attend, I had to Google what the Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference was.

“Bridge” — as it is more commonly known — is the world’s premier conference for the fundraising and marketing industries. Each year at Bridge, more than 2,500 of the most active, innovative, and influential industry professionals from around the world gather at the National Harbor just south of Washington, DC, for three days of dynamic keynotes, panels, workshops, and networking events focused on the most cutting-edge strategies, techniques, and innovations in every sector of fundraising and marketing.

It sounds like a pretty BIG deal, right? Well, it certainly did to me when my team leader at Nexus Direct informed me that I would be going with a few of my colleagues this year. And it seemed even BIGGER when I first walked into the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, where Bridge is held.

But by the end of the three days, I had gone full Project Manager Mode (not surprising for an Account Executive, I suppose) and pin-pointed a few simple and efficient ways to navigate this grand-scale event and come away with the most inspirational, educational, and enjoyable experience possible. And it truly was all of those things.

So from a recent first-timer to a future first-timer, here are a few tips for attending the Bridge Conference for the first time:


  1. Plan Out Your Breakout Sessions Ahead of Time … And Have Backups!


Researching and choosing your breakout sessions prior to getting to Bridge will save you so much time once you’re there. Plus, you’ll be able to better customize a course of learning that really applies to you and your particular career path.

I started by visiting the Bridge Conference website (you can also use the “Bridge Conference” app) a few weeks before to glance over the 52 sessions (13 unique topics at four time slots) offered on Thursday and the 36 sessions (12 unique topics at three time slots) on Friday. Not only did I consider the topics that interested me, but also the speakers, their organizations, and the recommended experience level of each session. As a new Account Executive at Nexus whose job involves coordinating the efforts of a number of other departments, I chose a schedule that hit on a variety of topics for people with 1–5 years of expertise. But don’t be afraid to attend a session or two with a higher experience level if it really grabs you. I did.

And be sure to have a few backups! Certain sessions will fill up to “standing room only” pretty quickly (FYI, try and arrive at least five minutes early to your sessions). This was the case for “Content Strategy in Popular Culture.” Luckily, I got a seat and ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT! Also (and don’t tell anyone I told you this), sometimes a session you thought might appeal to you turns out just not to be your cup of tea. So make the best use of your time and go see if you can grab a seat in your backup. And if you like sitting in the back and on the aisle like me, you won’t disturb anyone when you make a run for it. Wink.


  1. Get Your Badge and Learn the Lay of the Land on Wednesday!


While Bridge holds some great pre-conference events on Wednesday, especially if you happen to be nominated for a MAXI (Marketing Award for Excellence and Innovation), it’s a travel/preparation day for the majority of attendees. And part of that preparation NEEDS to be getting your Bridge badge and learning how to navigate the Gaylord National Resort.

The second you enter the Gaylord on Wednesday, you’ll realize that it’s a beautiful, multi-tiered colossus of a hotel. And once you start walking around in it, you’ll realize that it’s also a bit of a maze. So take advantage of the smaller crowds and that you have nowhere to be just yet, and enjoy the scenic route to the Exhibit Hall, where your badge (and a sweet tote bag filled with goodies) will be waiting for you. In these travels, I highly suggest locating your session rooms. This will save you a lot of frantic and aimless running around on Thursday, especially if you’re meeting people throughout the day, or if you spark up a conversation with a new contact just before your next session.

Once you finally arrive at the Exhibit Hall on Wednesday, there will be no line for badges. You’ll be in and out in two minutes easy. Trust me, you want no part of getting your badge on Thursday morning. The time you save would be much better spent locating the best possible seat for the opening keynote.


  1. Don’t You Dare Miss the Keynote Speeches!


I really can’t stress this enough … if future keynote speeches are anything like the three I experienced at the 14th Annual Bridge Conference, DO NOT MISS THE KEYNOTE SPEECHES!

My favorite was the opening keynote, “The Inclusion Revolution: How our Country’s Most Excluded Citizens Are Awakening a New Hope,” delivered by Dr. Timothy Shriver, the Chairman of the Board of the Special Olympics. Shriver, who leads the International Board of Directors and serves together with over 5.6 million Special Olympics athletes in 172 countries to promote health, education, and a more unified world through the joy of sports, completely captivated the room (just like his uncle President John F. Kennedy did back in the early 1960s). Shriver recounted some professional and personal experiences, as well as some family stories that led him to believe that inclusion is the key to our country’s future. Shiver’s words couldn’t have been better, especially given Bridge’s slogan of “Change the World with Ideals.”

In the end, these presentations will not only motivate you to learn as much as you possibly can at Bridge for your own benefit, but inspire you to leave the conference and go out into the world and do your very best to make a difference.


  1. Spend Your Free Time in the Solutions Showcase!


Here’s something you DON’T want to do: You don’t want to make it all the way to your first Bridge Conference, and simply attend a bunch of keynotes and breakout sessions. Whatever free time you have during each day (luckily there are some refreshment breaks, lunches, and networking receptions built into the schedule) needs to be spent in the Solutions Showcase, located in the Exhibit Hall where you picked up your badge.

At the Solutions Showcase, you’ll have over 100 first-class industry vendors, consultants and suppliers right in front of you. All you have to do is walk the floor, and within seconds you’ll be engaging with countless professionals eager to share their experience and innovative services. And who knows? You just may come away with some new ideas or proven solutions to incorporate into your next project. The Solutions Showcase also houses the current year’s MAXI-winning campaigns. I highly recommend taking the time to view all the Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners to physically see what is being mailed and making an impact.

P.S. Don’t miss out on all the raffles and blind auctions!


  1. Give and Take Each Day’s Experiences With Your Colleagues and New Contacts!


Ironically, the most important tip that I can give to someone attending their first Bridge Conference is also the simplest, most universal, and requires the least amount of explanation: Take what you learn and experience each day and discuss it with people. And find out what they saw and heard that you may have missed!

Whether it’s with a presenter, a vendor, someone you just met at a networking reception, or with your colleagues over dinner, just have a dialogue with people. We all have our areas of expertise within the fundraising and marketing world, as well as those areas where we are less than experts, and both can be engaged by a give-and-take with another person with differing viewpoints, opinions, and ideas. Because ideas are just that — ideas — until people connect and make them a reality.

Maybe that’s why they call it Bridge.

I hope these tips help you get the most out of attending you first Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference. Good luck and enjoy!