Lordy, has it actually been over three weeks already since we got back?

Right, well, several weeks ago, Carol (our PostRank CEO) and I hopped a plane for Chicago and our first BlogHer conferences. We attended both the half-day Business track and the two-day main conference. Whew.

It was the conference’s fifth year, and it is clearly well-organized and well-established. It’s also gotten very big (around 1500 people for the main conference, mostly women, but yes, some guys, too, and an assortment of babies of both sexes).

I admit I went into the whole thing feeling distinctly anthropological, and that feeling never entirely faded. Not in a bad way, though. While I am female and have a blog, I’m not exactly of the demographic or community a lot of the attendees were. Which is fine. I was really curious and excited to get into that world, see what they knew, what they wanted to know, what they are interested in, how they work, etc.

Last time I had much exposure to mom bloggers and the like was a couple of summers ago when I was unemployed. With more time on my hands than usual, my blogroll expanded considerably, including mom bloggers, and I had a much better grasp of the community, the members, etc. then.

There is more that could be said on the subject of the conference and all its aspects than I could cover in a dozen blog posts. And honestly? I doubt anyone cares. So I’ll comment on a few things, and it’ll all be loosely connected by the fact that it was the same event and it was me experiencing it.

You want some of the other stories about what went on, both good and bad? Just google it. Also search Twitter with the #blogher09 hashtag, and check out Flickr with the blogher09 tag. ๐Ÿ™‚

And if you’re one of those people who loves the scandalous and sordid, you can look up “blogola/blog-ola”, or Crocs, or hunt down the relevant keywords yourself. Yes, that stuff happens/happened, but you get bad apples in every barrel, and that wasn’t the flavour of the conference I experienced, so whatever.

There’s some interesting ongoing discussion about blogger ethics and the FTC’s interest in mom bloggers and the like in the US as well. (And really, it’s an issue that will affect any influential group of online publishers; moms are just a vanguard, I think.)

We got in to Chicago on Wednesday around noon, so we checked in to the hotel, then went and hunted down lunch at Heaven on Seven, which came well recommended on Chowhound, and was only a couple blocks from our hotel (it was a satellite location). Carol and I both had the shrimp po’ boy, and while I refuse to ponder the nutritional “value”, they were fantastic sandwiches. We got a free piece of cake for dessert, which was gigantic, but so good it was all we could do NOT to finish it. They also collect and sell hot sauces, and I bought a bottle of their hottest one (1.5 million Scoville units) for Andrew at work, who is a devotee of such things.

After lunch we toured Michigan Avenue and did a bit of shopping (Carol more than I), though mostly window-shopped at fancypants emporia like Neiman-Marcus (Louboutins are kinda scary in person…) then did a spot of relaxing prior to dinner.

On my friend Jan’s suggestion, we cabbed it to Cafe Ba Ba Reeba. We were most certainly not disappointed. Fabulous tapas (and I am told their paella is excellent as well. It certainly smelled great as it went by on the way to other tables…) and possibly the best sangria I’ve ever had. Carol agreed, and waxed nostalgic about it til last week, when I obtained the recipe for it from the proprietor. ๐Ÿ™‚ (Gotta love any recipe that starts with a gallon of burgundy!)

BlogHer Business took place on Thursday, July 23rd. It was single stream, and looked like there were a couple hundred people there. I’m not sure we were exactly the target demographic, as a lot of the programming had a more B2C focus, and the case studies had a more retail bent and covered how established companies were building relationships and communities with social media, and their challenges to evolve in the online space.

That said, there was some excellent networking, and we made a number of really interesting contacts with folks who are certainly our target demographic for some products we’re working on. (Including one woman who was in PR for one of Carol’s favourite retail chains. Heh.) Later in the day things got really retail-focused, so we departed and checked out our first of many events/lounges that would take place over the course of the weekend.

The Swiffer SocialLuxe Lounge happened to be at the same hotel where Obama was speaking later that afternoon. It would have been cool to see him, but I suspect would have required considerable hoop-jumping, if I could even have gotten a seat.

The Lounge itself was a bit of an eye-opener, and certainly set the stage for the swag-tasticness of the conference. There were Crocs flipflops for the taking outside the Lounge, any number of demos and giveaways inside, from cleaning products to wine to manicures, and the usual fantastic food, from shrimp appetizers to mini tiramisu to the ubiquitous (and most welcome) chocolate-covered strawberries.

We had a wander around, entered some draws, talked to a few folks, and then headed out, at which point we received our first swag bag of the conference. And holy Moses. Much would be said, and posted, about the volume of swag at BlogHer, and I admit I was a bit flabbergasted. Aside from the fact that the bag itself was really cute (my SIL owns mine now), it was packed full of some really cool stuff. I totally love the stationery that came in mine, and we used the Kodak video camera at work.

After we headed out we popped back to the hotel to freshen up, then headed over to oENOlogy, the wine bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, which we’d seen the day before and decided we had to check out as “research” for the wine bar Carol is looking to open. We were meeting up with a woman I was commanded to meet while in Chicago by the lovely Pam Slim — her oldest and dearest friend, Desiree, who happened to be in town at the same time.

A fabulous time was had by all. Great wine and even better company. Desiree is one of those wonderfully open and welcoming people, and even better, she has stories upon stories. After she had to depart, we ordered another round of wine, and realized we’d really better eat something, so we tried their cheese, meat, and chocolate sampler. Delish.

We were, however, a bit tipsy after that when we headed back over to the Sheraton for one of the pre-conference parties. (Room was much too small, it was INSANELY loud, and there was, as usual, ridiculous amounts of swag.) As a result we didn’t stay long, so headed back to our hotel to call it a night. And so ended the first day of our conference adventure.

Day 2 started much earlier, as breakfast was served before the proceedings began. Quite a nice variety of food, and it didn’t escape me how much effort had to have gone into the meals at the conference, given vegetarian, vegan, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, kosher, and other needs.

Being a bit hungover, the egg McMuffin-type foods were most welcome (as were the Bloody Marys I found downstairs shortly after breakfast…) It was cool to see how many of the attendees knew each other — many of them had already started reconnecting at parties the preceding evening. As would happen at every meal at BlogHer, we met a few new folks, everyone from a different background or company and with interesting stories.

I was quite entertained by the standard question and introduction at the conference — who you are followed by your blog name. It made me feel kind of awkward, since, yes, I do have a blog, but I was there for work (and my personal blog, obviously, isn’t on my business cards, though my personal Twitter account is). So usually I’d give my name and rush through a quick explanation that I have melle.ca, but was actually there for work, and then give a brief explanation of what PostRank’s about so it would make sense why we were at BlogHer. Plus it served for a great icebreaker to tell bloggers about our stuff.

After the morning keynote, things broke out into a number of smaller sessions on all kinds of topics under one of a few categories:

  • Identity/Passions
  • Business of You
  • Leadership
  • Mommyblogging
  • Room of Your Own #1
  • Room of Your Own #2
  • Geek Lab Beginner
  • Geek Lab Advanced

Sessions were led by a variety of bloggers, businesswomen, BlogHer staff, and community members, and covered a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to: blogging as a business, blogger ethics, how personal blogging should get, stats and metrics, body image, and tech tutorials on things like CSS and PHP.

And if you didn’t find any of the sessions to your fancy, you could visit various vendor booths, lounges, or the Exposition Hall, where the main trade show was located (and where the lion’s share of the swag came from). The hall had mostly large corporations represented, from Disney to Mary Kay to Tide. There were a few smaller ones, too, and no shortage of demonstrations, freebies, samples, contests, and draws to participate in. This is also where the various celebs, like Tim Gunn and Paula Deen, had appearances. (I admit I didn’t know who either of these people are prior to the conference…)

Some of the lounges mixed business with pleasure, like Microsoft’s MicroSpa, where you could learn about Bing and watch a demo, and also enjoy champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries or book a makeup session, hand reflexology treatment, or massage. (I had makeup done, Carol had makeup one day and reflexology the next.) Yeah, I know, other conferences ain’t like this. And they should be, dagnabbit! ๐Ÿ™‚

For someone who can easily get overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle and crowds of conferences, it was a welcome oasis. And of course there were always gatherings in the lobby and whatnot.

At lunch (Ragu-sponsored) you could eat in the main dining area with lots of folks, or, if you signed up for a “birds of a feather” lunch, you’d eat at specific assigned tables with others sharing your interest — travel bloggers, LGBT, food bloggers, etc.

After lunch there were more sessions, and then the Community Keynote, which, I gather, is a highlight. (I believe this was the second year for it.) Carol and I had to miss it, due to a dinner reservation, but the videos are online now. Basically, the community keynote consists of a number of selected bloggers reading their favourite posts, which can range from painful and deeply meaningful to very funny, and sometimes both.

Prior to dinner, we’d headed out a bit early, and I’d done some work catch-up while Carol hit Michigan Avenue again and found one of her favourite stores in a mall that I’d told her about, but which she’d forgotten. She did… some impressive retail damage. And let’s just leave it at that. ๐Ÿ™‚

Our dinner Friday evening fulfilled a life list item for Carol — we went to Charlie Trotter’s (which Melissa said was the best meal she’s ever had). There are two menus, the Vegetarian and the Grand Menu — we had the second. You can get the meal with wine pairings or without, but in for a penny… so we got that, too.

The food was excellent — delicious, innovative, and well-presented. The wines were all lovely and well matched. The service was impeccable as well, and they even personalized our menus as part of the reason we went was as an early birthday celebration for Carol. It was a cool thing to be able to check off having done, but would I say the meal was worth what it cost? (Or that any meal was?) Probably not.

And so dawned our final conference day. Breakfast again before the festivities, though oatmeal replaced the egg sandwiches, and I fell victim to the milk jugs that had lids that liked to pop open suddenly and douse the table when you tried to add any to your tea or coffee.

The morning keynote was an excellent discussion: “Traditional Media Chops meet a New Media Calling”, with Lisa Stone, Tina Brown, Donna Byrd, and Ilene Chaiken. Lisa (one of the BlogHer founders) facilitated the discussion, which ranged from moving from experiences moving from traditional publishing to online, to the recent incident with Henry Louis Gates Jr. being arrested. (He’s Editor-in-Chief of The Root, where Donna Byrd is Publisher.)

After that the breakout sessions started again, and Carol and I attended what was probably the most interesting and relevant — and frustrating — to us: “Advanced Social Media, Syndication and Stats”, with Corvida Raven, Denise Tanton, and Cathy Brooks. Interesting and relevant to hear people’s questions, ideas, and skill levels, frustrating because had one of our products been a month further along, it would have made a PERFECT demo for those women, and we could have signed up plenty of folks then and there. ๐Ÿ™‚

The other most memorable panel I attended that day was “Enough About You… Who’s Reading You?” with Laura Roeder, Ree Drummond, Twanna Hines, and Susan Getgood. Boiled down, the discussion really was about community — building it and managing it.

Discussion ranged among all kinds of topics — where new readers come from, managing haters, dealing with stalkers, being the boss of your site, individual vs. group sites, taking sites commercial, what topics are appropriate, how to know what to write about or write more about to keep your audience happy and grow it, etc. So many times I would have loved to speak up (having community management experience gave me a LOT to say, and being a fairly assertive personality gave me a lot more), but the mic never quite made it around to me.

I saw SO much evidence of the curse of niceness — people not putting what Twanna said at the beginning of the panel into practise. Essentially, that your site is not a democracy. It’s YOURS. That means no one besides you has the right to post stuff, insult you, misbehave, threaten others, etc. It’s a pretty pitiful commentary that a site like Feministing gets so much hate mail that they have their own dedicated FBI investigator.

That was definitely the panel and discussion that really drove home to me the value of a conference like BlogHer. These women NEED each other for so much, from moral support to professional skills and mentoring. (I heard more than once someone assert that their community, developed through blogging, had saved their lives.)

Anyway, I got to meet Twanna at the end of the panel, which was very cool. (Mmm… smarts and savvy…), as well as Ree, who was delightful, though it was funny to see how many people were hovering around, looking utterly starstruck. I accomplished my goal of personally thanking her for giving Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos to the world. (Amen.) Her boys were there, too, and quite clearly done with that conference stuff. Saw her husband as well, and lordy, pictures do not do that man justice. ๐Ÿ™‚

After that panel, Carol and I relaxed in the Microsoft lounge with champagne, and at one point I wandered downstairs to the lobby and got to meet Jenny from The Bloggess and thank her for nearly making me pee my pants at work. Lovely woman, and fantastic rack. ๐Ÿ™‚

Carol and I also checked with the front desk where one might procure suitcases at reasonable cost for toting one’s swag back to Canadia (yes, there was that much). We ended up getting them at Marshall’s, next to our hotel, after we left the conference. We also managed to find one bottle of a particular chardonnay Carol and her husband are very fond of at a nearby liquor emporium. (I do envy the Americans the vastness and ready procurability of their booze. Hmph.)

And then it was time to head up for the closing keynote, “Who We Will Become”, with Elisa Camahort Page, Raney Aronson-Rath, Eszther Hargittai, and danah boyd. The discussion covered both the future of BlogHer and reiteration of what was being grown and built in that community, as well as where the internets were going and the ways we use them to live and communicate. Fascinating stuff, and I’d sit down for a scotch with those ladies any time.

And lo, with that, it was done. Whew. Quite the experience, and I’m glad I went. Will we go next year? I’ve no idea. I think it would be more valuable business-wise if we could speak next year, but we’ll see. (It’s in New York, which I’ve only visited once.)

Carol and I headed back to the hotel (stopping, as noted, to buy suitcases). And then, as was necessary when one is in Chicago, we went out for pizza (Pizzeria Due was on the same block as our hotel, conveniently). There was already a considerable line, but Carol worked some mojo on a server and we got a table almost immediately. The rain even managed to hold off, which was appreciated, given we were seated outside.

After dinner, it was time to try and figure out how to pack all the crap into the suitcases, as well as head over to BowlHer, the last hurrah for BlogHer festivities. Things didn’t go optimally, though, since first we weren’t on the guest list, and once we were allowed in, it was already pretty busy, the lanes were all filled up, and it was very loud. So we took a wander around, helped ourselves to one last round of swag, and decided to call it a night. (By that point I’d pretty much exhausted my store of social energy, and really it was too loud to have much of a conversation at the bowling alley, anyway.)

So we headed back to the hotel, packed up (Carol barely managed to get her suitcases closed), and called it a night. The following morning we grabbed a quick breakfast at the Starbucks down the block, then cabbed it to the airport. Carol had a brief panic when she thought she’d left her wallet at the hotel (it was in her lap under her giant purse), but things went smoothly, including the fact that NONE of our suitcases were overweight. Which was delightful, given that we paid $100USD just to send our regular luggage home. (Fuck you, United.)

At O’Hare we found and sampled Garrett Popcorn, which came highly recommended. (The caramel and cheese kinds blended together is their specialty, and is genius.) The flight home was uneventful, which is something of a record, not having any sort of delay, cancellation, or loss on a round-trip to and from Chicago.

We passed through a fairly wild storm on the 401 on the way home, but made it home safely… to find I had no power in my bedroom and half of my kitchen. They finally got around to taking a look at my non-functional hall light while I was gone, after several months, and left the power to that breaker turned off, as well as not finishing fixing the light. It remains the same way after three weeks…

As of last evening, I’ve managed to finally get the swag suitcase emptied out and its contents dispersed. Stuff went to five different people. Where I’m going to store that extra suitcase? Not sure yet…

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