Conferences are all about bringing people and ideas together. They can also be fantastic networking opportunities, particularly if you are looking for a new job, or making a career change (for example, when leaving academia!). Typically, your colleagues share your (professional) interests, and more often than not you see groups of people travel together to a conference. Either from the same research group, lab, or company. There are some practical advantages to that, but there are some big advantages to travelling solo as well.
1. Solo travel results in better networking
When you are on your own, you are more likely to start conversations with other people. You will be making new connections along the way, simply because you do not have your colleagues around to talk to. Where you would typically grab coffee together and chat with each other in the line, you can now strike up conversations with others. Having people you know around can be nice, but it can also be a crutch you don’t need when you are networking.
This is even more strongly pronounced at cocktail receptions and networking sessions. It is so much easier to navigate the room and join another group when you have the “perfect excuse” of being on your own. With nobody there to fall back on for conversation, you can’t help but meet new people. Essentially you will make better use of your networking events when you are not trying to keep other people company at the same time.
2. Attend sessions at your own pace
You can be picky and attend only the sessions that are interesting to you. More often than not I’ve compromised when travelling with colleagues, sticking together and attending the talks either of us were interested in. In some cases, people have come with me to a talk they would otherwise not have attended simply because I was going to it. While that can broaden your horizons, you also risk missing out on the talks you really want to see just to be sociable with your fellow travellers. Travelling solo means you set your own conference schedule.
3. You can do some sightseeing when it suits you
Similar to number 2, you can carve our some time away from the conference during a time that works best for you. Even if you are not attending all talks together with your colleagues when you travel together, the group will likely try to find time for sightseeing together. What if that time works for everyone, but there was a talk you wanted to see at the conference? If it would be a critical talk you had to see chances are you would not go sightseeing with the group, but if it is something that would be a nice to see but not critical, then you are more likely to give it up to accommodate your travel companions. When you travel on your own, this issue goes away completely.
When travelling alone, you get the gift of time. Even if your colleagues or friends want to see the same sights, chances are you do not want to spend the exact same amount of time seeing them. You all may want to see the Tate Modern, but once there, you might just fly through the exhibits while your friend linger at the same piece of art for half an hour (or maybe you want to linger, and you would feel rushed with your travel companions). Travelling with someone else, or multiple people, is a constant game of compromise and negotiation. Even if you are well matched. When you are on your own, you are never waiting for anyone else to get ready and you do and see things at a speed that works for you.
4. Staying on track with healthy eating is easier
Take away the temptation of your colleagues really wanting to try deep dish pizza when you travel to Chicago, and you can stick to a healthy eating plan. If you are trying to watch what you eat, keeping that up during travel is notoriously difficult. There is always some sort of high calorie local cuisine you must try, but what if you don’t have to try absolutely everything? In a group, there are always a few people looking to indulge, and it is easier to stick to your own plans if you are not joining them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. It is one thing to have good intentions and resist temptation, but it is an entirely different thing having to do that while watching a group of people throwing back glasses of wine and chomping down on pizza.
You may want to indulge as well, but you can pick the one thing you really care about, and stick to your regular healthy diet the rest of the time. When I went to Edinburgh for a conference, I managed to eat healthy while travelling. This was in no small part thanks to the fact that I was calling all the shots, since I was travelling alone. Had I gone out with other people, there would have been a lot more temptation and it would have been nearly impossible to do. When I travelled to New York and Paris on business, I incorporated juicing into my routine. This again was easy because I was on my own for at least two meals a day, and if I did have a business dinner I had already gotten a healthy start to the day. Making it easier to stick to good choices at dinner as well. In Bath I took my solo travel as an opportunity to check out some gluten-free restaurants.
What is your favourite part of traveling alone? Let me know in the comments!