The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SAMHSA, Peerlink Technical Assistance Center, or Mental Health America of Oregon.

Tips for Maximizing Your Alternatives Experience

Whether you're a newbie or a veteran, keep these tips in mind and you will be on your way to having one of the best conference experiences ever.

1. Make a plan. Whether this is your first or 20th Alternatives, chances are you will be presented with a lot more activities than you have time. It is highly recommended to create a rough schedule before you arrive or immediately when you do to ensure you see and hear everything on your list. With a little planning and foresight, you will be surprised at how much you actually can squeeze in! And don’t forget to take some time for you. As easy as it is to fill your day with action from sunrise to sunset, all that intensity isn’t sustainable. Make sure to budget in some rest or decompression time, however minimal, in order to recharge your batteries. Creating a plan doesn’t mean you can’t change it; however, it gives you a great and well-thought out place to start.

2. Take in a caucus. Caucuses could be seen as the unsung heroes in Alternatives, or in any conference for that matter. While not as formal as a workshop or keynote with set remarks, they focus more on a discussion of a topic by those who attend, but moderated by a facilitator. Normally taking place at the end of the day, you might initially be more inclined to take a nap or go to dinner. However, you would certainly be missing out if you left the conference without attending at least one caucus. Such sessions provide a great way to meet others interested in the same topic you are, and foster dialogue and a rich exchange of ideas that don’t work as well in large lecture halls with brief and hurried Q&A sessions. Give one a try, and let us know how you like it.

3. Listen to your body. More likely that not, you will be tired upon arrival. Whether you’re flying in from the opposite coast, driving for a day or two, or jet setting across the globe, you will feel the effects of just getting here. Throw in a time zone change and it’s enough for anyone to feel like they’re lagging. Remember this is natural, and take the ability to rest and relax as soon you can. Do you like baths? Have a soak when you get settled. Time for a nap? Take one. Do you need to get up early in the morning? If not, sleep in. You will have five days to explore, but if you start them burnt out, you’re not going to be able to do as much. And it certainly won’t be as much fun.

4. And while you’re at it, listen to your mind. Alternatives can be intense. There is a lot of joy, commotion, and activity. There is also a lot of sharing, whether through workshops or conversations in the hallway. Don’t forget to check in with yourself at least once a day to see how you’re doing. Did someone’s sharing of an experience trigger you? Did you disagree with someone’s opinion, but you haven’t been able to shake it all day? Don’t let comparatively small things become big things. If you feel yourself combating negative feelings, make a conscious effort to do things that make you feel better -- like getting out of the hotel or talking to someone you trust -- so you can get back to the good stuff.

5. Get some exercise. Admittedly this is one of the first things to go when we travel, but it’s so important. Being on the road, we are out of our normal routines, which usually means we let some of them fall by the wayside. Being indoors all day with lots of activity and occasionally intense material can wear you down quickly. Make sure you get your physical activity in for the day by seeking out a pool (through laps, not sipping a cocktail!), hotel gym, or just walking or running around the local surroundings. The resulting endorphins will leave you feeling energetic and with a new sense of optimism.

6. Go to social events. One of the best things about Alternatives is the conversations you have outside of the conference sessions. Get to know people from other organizations across the country. Have more in-depth sharing experiences than you could have during a session. Ask questions, give suggestions, and make a new friend. You might be surprised how much you can get out of one hour of more informal interaction.

7. Get outside of the hotel. It’s easy to stay inside ballrooms and listen to lectures all day. But there is a whole world out there, and if you go just a few blocks, you will probably get to experience a culture that you never have before. Memphis is particularly special as it is the birthplace of the civil right movement, and is known far and wide for its blues and barbecue seen. There are things you can only do and see in Memphis, so if you’re there already, don’t let the opportunity pass you by because you never know when or if you will be back! If you’re not sure where to go, ask around. The hotel staff will point you in the right direction, and there is a good chance that you will be able to tag along with a group of your conference peers.

8. Bring a few wellness tools. These are a must. If you come in prepared with your staples, you are much likelier to have a smooth and enjoyable experience. Do you have special music you enjoy? Bring a few options for different moods. Are there people you check in with when you feel down? Bring those names and phone numbers. Are there small luxuries that help you take care of yourself? Now is the time to remember them.

9. Seek support if needed. If your prep and wellness tools aren’t doing their job, that’s ok. Alternatives has a wonderful support network, and in addition to informal support channels you may find, the conference has staff on site to provide a friendly face and nonjudgmental ears to anyone who might need. While it’s not at all mandatory, it’s great to know that safe supports exist should you find yourself wanting them.

10. Bring a notebook for all your ideas. You are going to leave Alternatives with more ideas than you know what to do with. Whether it’s how you can change your county, how you can improve your organization, or things you want to be doing in your job that you aren’t, you won’t be lacking ambition. It’s a lot to remember, and with the volume of information being shared, you will likely forget if it’s not written down. Plop a notebook in your conference bag and bring it with you everywhere.

11. Hand out those business cards. If there was ever a time to network, this is it. Trade your business cards at workshops, keynotes, caucuses, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everywhere in between. Don’t be shy to hand out your own or ask for someone else’s! And to really seal the deal, be sure to send a follow-up or thank you note to the person as soon as you get home. It’s both a kind and professional gesture, and that will go a long way towards them remembering and distinguishing you from the others they met.

What tips do you have for getting the most out of Alternatives?


10 Reasons Not to Miss Alternatives

Are you a prospective Alternatives attendee? Heard a lot about the conference but not sure whether or not to splurge? Wondering what there could possibly be to talk about for five days?


With so many conferences and professional opportunities, it can be challenging to decide where to prioritize your resources. While most all conferences, talks, and seminars have their merits, Alternatives should always be at the top of your list. Here are just a few reasons.


1. It’s the largest peer support conference of its kind. With upwards of nearly 1000 attendees and five days of workshops, keynotes, caucuses, trainings, and other activities, you will be hard-pressed to find any opportunity like Alternatives. You won’t find more consumers in one place dedicated to best practices in peer support approaches.


2. It’s been tested. Alternatives is currently in its 29th year and shows no signs of slowing down. Some have even been attending since the inaugural event in 1985. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or complete newbie, you will see there is a reason that people keep coming back for more.


3. Get the biggest bang for your buck for your own professional development. (Disclaimer: this is our humble opinion.) Don’t get us wrong – we know there are a ton of amazing professional development opportunities out there. But considering the extent of what attendees receive in five days both inside and outside the meeting rooms, we think there’s no comparison. The ability to learn new approaches, converse with others across the country and world, and casually socialize after hours with some of the foremost trailblazers is an opportunity unlike any other.


4. Feel like you are a part of a national movement for change. Once you arrive in Memphis, the feeling will be undeniable. As you meet other advocates who traveled anywhere from one hour to more than one day to get there, you can’t help but feel a strong energy deriving from a common purpose. You’ll realize that whatever frustrations you face in your daily work are not unique to you, and that everything you are doing for the greater good is worth it.


5. Broaden your cultural horizons. Since Alternatives changes cities every year, you will get a unique chance to experience a new culture every year. In Memphis, the home of the civil rights movement, you will be able to learn more about the history of disenfranchised groups while reflecting on the role you play in shaping the future. You will meet many people from the area and learn from their stories and experiences. There’s no better way than seeing where it all began and how much work there still is to be done to light a fire within.


6. Share your own professional expertise on a national stage. Not only will you get to learn from everyone else, but everyone else will get to learn from you! While we’re at home or in our day-to-day routine, it’s easy to forget how much we know about our work. You might be surprised when you cross state lines to learn that folks hang on your every word about your work in your small (or large) town. Do you work on policy? Be sure to share, because maybe someone who knows nothing about policy really wants to learn, and what you consider to be basic is new to them. Are you a social media whiz? Not everyone knows how or why to Tweet, so take a few minutes and play teacher. It can make a world of difference to the other person, and establishes yourself as an expert in your area.


7. Meet leaders of the movement. Alternatives is known for attracting some of the true rock starts of the peer movement. And what’s even better is that most if not all of them love to chat whenever they can. Be sure to not only grab a seat for one of the inspiring keynotes, but say hello. Ask your questions in person and introduce yourself. Not only will you get valuable information, but you’ll make new connections that will serve you and your work for years to come.


8. Make new friends. Who doesn’t like making new friends? Whether you depart with 1 or 100 new contacts, you will leave the conference with more friends than you had coming in. Sounds good to us.


9. See old friends. If you’re a veteran, you will get the cherished opportunity to connect with friends and colleagues that you only get to see once a year. Whether it’s due to the prohibitive distance or lack of job intersection during the year, it’s not always possible to regularly get together face-to-face with everyone we want throughout the year. Take advantage of the fact that Alternatives is a hot spot for which hundreds of people make an annual pilgrimage. Catch up, learn, and laugh. Can you say “wellness tool”?


10. Get inspired. You will be in a place hearing from a lot of amazing people doing a lot of amazing things. You will hear of others making great strides in your particular field. You will hear about great successes in areas you didn’t realize were officially sanctioned or recognized. And you will hear stories of triumph in fields you didn’t even know were fields. You will hear from people who overcame all odds and are giving others the strength and courage to do the same. It will be close to impossible to not come out of such an experience without a newfound drive and dedication to your work every single day.


Convinced? Grab your ticket for Alternatives now, and we’ll see you in Memphis in October!


Introducing the Alternatives blog!

We are thrilled to be launching the official Alternatives blog, where you will get to know more about the conference, speakers, workshops, and all that goes into running the biggest peer support conference in the country.

Are there topics you'd like to see? Authors you want to hear from? Questions you have for us? Don't be a stranger. We want to hear from you!