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  • Writer's pictureSophie Bostock, PhD

A Sleep Evangelist's Top 10 Guide to Conference Travel

Ola, I'm writing this in Barcelona airport, reflecting on how nice it is to have a bit of time to spare. I’ve been fortunate to travel to quite a few conferences, some more successfully than others... 

The low point was several years ago, before - I hasten to add - I became a dedicated Sleep Evangelist. After hopping multiple timezones, I sat down at the gate and rested my head in my hands, 10 feet from where boarding had started... only to wake up moments later, to find I'd missed my flight. It was quite embarrassing.

Learning from experiences like these has helped me to put together my Top 10 Tips for Surviving Conference Travel (without falling asleep in embarrassing places).

#1. Planning your flight: I always used to fly out first thing, neglecting the fact that a 7am flight probably means waking up at 4am. The stress of anticipation inevitably means that you end up waking up at 2am, 3am and 3:55am, so you’re compressing your sleep before you’ve even started. If it’s worth flying out in person for, it’s worth being well rested. Now I always fly out the day before if I’m giving a talk, that way, if your flight is delayed you get the bonus of feeling rather smug about your superior forward planning. Remember it takes ~24 hours for your body clock to adjust to each hour of timezone you've crossed. More on jetlag in a later post, but the Timeshifter app looks promising.

#2. Where to stay: conference venue hotels may be convenient, but you can easily go an entire day without seeing daylight. My preference would be somewhere 10-15 minutes walk from the venue so you build in time for a walk, but not so far you can’t pop back for a nap, or if you forget something. In addition to a decent wifi connection, my wishlist includes a gym or swimming pool, a nice park or beach nearby, and a supermarket. 

#3. Write yourself a checklist for packing: mainly so you don’t have to buy a, erm, 5th travel plug adaptor at the airport. Essentials on my list include my eye mask and ear plugs, which come with me on the plane, a bulldog clip to keep the curtains closed in the hotel room, sports gear and trainers for a jog or walk, and comfy clothes to chill out when work is over. Some folks take a pillow; if you’ve got room in your bag, it’s not a bad idea.


#4. On travel days, give yourself time: to allow for the unexpected. Trying to find an address when the wifi goes down or the battery runs out on your phone can get a bit stressful. So write it all down in black and white, just in case. Oh, and don’t leave your laptop or passport on the plane. Seriously. I’ve tried it. Twice. Stress in the evening gets your heart rate going and cortisol streaming through your bloodstream. This interferes with melatonin, that ready-for-bed hormone. 

#5. On arrival in your room: turn off the heating. It can be noisy, and is almost always too hot for good quality sleep. Obscure light sources. If the room is noisy, ask to switch rooms.

#6. On your way to the conference: fill up a water bottle, grab some healthy snacks and some chewing gum. These days most conferences have pretty healthy food but you might land at the back of the cue or get hit with a wall of croissants An apple is a good bet for slow release energy. I find gum can boost alertness if you’re a bit sleepy, and will make your breath more pleasant for all that networking ;-) If possible try and stick to your normal eating times. But it's tough when there’s a good conference dinner to come.

#7. In the coffee queue: this is prime networking space, but go easy on the caffeine. This is is a juicy topic for another day but suffice to say, too much is bad for your sleep, even 6 hours ahead of bedtime. Venues tend to be quite dehydrating, so drink more water than you normally would, and ask about decaf.

#8. Cocktails: honestly, after getting nervous all day, I was so looking forward to cocktail hour. Our very lovely hosts at Palo Alto Networks had organised an absolutely incredible dinner at the Convent Dels Angels which is now a performing arts centre. A glass of wine can help you relax, but more than two and you’re heading towards sleep disruption and next day fatigue, so pace yourself, and drink lots of water. 

#9. Getting ready for bed: When you sleep in a new place, there is a reliable 'First night effect' where your brain remains more vigilant than usual, often leading to delays falling asleep and lighter sleep. To try and overcome this, use the same wind down rituals that you use at home. A warm bath or shower, reading a familiar book, or a spot of mindfulness meditation, can help you relax. 

#10. Conference day 2. Conferences are rarely organised with sympathy for your circadian rhythm. Yes, it's hard to concentrate after lunch - and it's not your fault. Low lighting in conference venues doesn't help. Get outside and soak up some daylight whenever you can. If you can combine daylight with a of physical activity, that's even better. If you can find time for a 10-20min power nap after lunch, this can work wonders to restore concentration, lift your mood, and reset your ability to learn. 

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