Nothing re-energizes me professionally like attending the annual STMA Conference and Exhibition. For a professional sports field manager, student, teacher or anyone involved in the commercial aspect of the industry, it’s an opportunity to grow rapidly as a professional. I have seen this conference develop from an informal yearly gathering attached to the GCSAA show into a world-class educational conference with a phenomenal trade show complemented by a great tour and networking program. All of this set in a friendly environment that encourages the exchange of ideas.

There are many industries where knowledge and experience are kept secret, giving away nothing for free. The STMA is not one of these places. This free exchange of knowledge and ideas has been a cornerstone of our industry for three decades, and the annual STMA conference is a yearly celebration of this ideal.

Here are a few tips from my 20-some conference experiences.

  • This is a business trip. I’m here to improve professionally, not to win the biggest partier contest. There is plenty of room for fun, but you have to answer the bell in the morning, and the days are long. Dress appropriately. You are at a professional conference, and you are most likely representing your employer. Business casual seems best for an industry like ours, at least to me.
  • Go to the educational sessions! Go all day, every day. This is the meat and potatoes of the conference. Here is where you’ll see an array of speakers from fellow sports field managers to Ph.D.’s sharing their knowledge and experiences. I can’t tell you how many ideas and concepts I use every day that have been garnered from attending these educational sessions, everything from myths dispelled by university research to tips and practices from other sports field managers facing the same challenges I do. I enjoy and benefit greatly from updates on the latest research taking place at our great universities. There really is something for everybody and their particular situation. Take notes, it helps cement ideas and concepts in your memory.
  • Attend a session that is about a different grass type than yours. For example, I try to attend one warm-season grass management session each year since I manage in a cool-season zone. (I went to a transition zone panel discussion a few years ago; you folks are crazy fun!) Soils, soils, soils. I miss the late, great Dr. Henry Indyk’s basic soils class every year with Mike Schiller, CSFM, right next to me. “Doc” used to love dropping that heavy dirt clod on the table right in front of one of his students. His sponge demonstration finally gave me a good understanding of the perched water table concept so prevalent in today’s sports field designs.
  • Next up, the trade show. Walk every inch of it. The STMA really has a great trade show for attendees as well as exhibitors. It isn’t open all day every day — you don’t see empty booths with this format. There is no sales work on the floor, just a great deal of information exchange. Ours is a profession where the technology in products, equipment and services that are commercially available change rapidly. Here is where you’ll see the latest and best from our commercial suppliers. I really learn a lot each year on the trade show floor. It’s a great place to network, mine ideas and take in a great demonstration or two. It’s also a way to say hello and thank you, in one afternoon, to so many of our industry’s greatest supporters, our commercial members. In very tough economic times, they have managed to keep up their critical support of the STMA. We sports field managers really do owe them a lot.
  • Maybe the best part of the annual conference is the networking opportunities. You are immersed for several days with the who’s who of the sports turf industry. A couple thousand of the nicest, most welcoming professionals you will ever see. If you don’t have plenty of business cards, make some. It’s easy and really inexpensive nowadays, just Google it. Here is where you’ll meet people who may help you some time in the future – or some you may help. In a business like ours, where there is open sharing of knowledge, networking is important. And if you like talking turf as much as I do, you’ll get all you want in these and other casual and fun networking opportunities. Sit with someone you don’t know, politely ask about their job, and you might be amazed at what will transpire.
  • I know I may sound like a salesman for the conference, but it really is a great opportunity to accelerate your growth as a sports turf professional and make lifelong contacts and friends. After four long but rewarding days, I can’t wait to get back to work to try out some of the ideas and concepts I learned. You will get out of it everything and more than you put into it. And if you “pro-up” and put in the effort, you’ll come out a better sports field manager for it, no question.