How to Attend a Conference Sober


For many people in a wide variety of fields, professional conferences are part of life. And alcohol is almost always a central feature of these multi-day learning and networking events.

It’s fruitless to ask the question of why. Doctors and scientists and health care professionals drink like crazy at their meetings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere there is meeting of the national association of addiction researchers who throw a wild open-bar party to kick off their event.

The better question is how can I attend whatever conferences are relevant to me, avoid alcohol, and take advantage of what everyone knows is truly the most valuable part of even conference—the out-of-session elbow-rubbing and relationship-making.

When I decided to stop drinking, this loomed large in my thoughts. Conferences are a big part of my professional life. I go to them, I speak at them, and I plan them.

Also, I’ve gotten drunk at them, I’ve blacked out at them, I’ve puked at the them, and I’ve delivered talks hung over at them. 

So in short, while conferencing sober seemed like a big challenge to pull off, I also knew the payoff would be huge. Here are the six steps that have helped me conference sober—and enjoy these events more than ever before.

Make a Decision

Do you want to drink at your conference or not? I know it doesn’t always feel this way, but you decide. Think about the many reasons your conference experience will be better without booze:

  • You’ll sleep better
  • You’ll be sharper
  • You’ll look better
  • You’ll have more energy
  • You’ll save money
  • You’ll avoid gossip and saying things you regret

That’s my list. Yours might be different. Understand your reasoning, make your choice, and stop negotiating with yourself.

Make Reservations

Dinners out are an unofficial part of any conference. Research the city you’ll be in by Googling the name of the city you’ll be in and “Mocktails.” Try to do this two months in advance. This should turn up a list of restaurants that have good zero-proof options at the bar. Look at the conference schedule, make your best guess as to when dinner hour will be, and make reservations. Don’t ask around if anyone wants to join you just yet. Make reservations for tables of four to six. Have faith.

Two weeks before the conference starts, reach out to a few people you want to see at the event and ask them to join you at the dinners you planned. People will be thrilled when you do this, I promise. Few people plan ahead for this aspect of a conference. Often the person you ask will in turn say, “Can I bring a friend?” You can say yes, and still have a free seat for a person you meet at the event.

Now, just as everyone is milling about the bar anxiety-drinking because they have no dinner plans, you’ll be heading out the door with people you want to connect with and going to a place where you’re looking forward to a great alcohol-free cocktail. And you’ll be a hero for making the arrangements.

Recruit a Conference Accountability Buddy

It doesn’t have to be a teetotaler, merely someone else who’d rather not drink during the event. The first time I did this, my buddy was a woman who was abstaining because she was trying to get pregnant.

Ask around—there is likely someone in your circle who’d be up for it. If you truly can’t identify someone beforehand, make sure you hit up breakfast, and on the early side. These are the not-hung over people. There won’t be all that many of them. You may find your conference support over bacon and eggs.

Memorize Your Hotel Bar Order

The hotel bar can be hard to avoid at a conference, and there is always a mini hotel bar set up at a reception or awards event. But you can get a decent nonalcoholic beverage at even the crappiest of bars. In such situations, I order: “Tonic with a dash of bitters and lemon or lime juice.” Before I left for my first sober conference I said these words out loud over and over. You want it to roll off your tongue in the moment.

Getting a drink in your hand right away can short circuit any internal dialogue about “well, maybe just one glass of wine.” Nope, you’re already drinking something else. Diet Coke. Seltzer with a splash of cranberry. Tomato juice. Make it something simple that a bartender can mix up with common cocktail ingredients like tonic, seltzer, bitters, fruit juice, and citrus. Know what you’ll choose and be ready.

Pack Your Sneakers

I vividly recall one groggy and hung over morning during a conference in New York when I shared an elevator with Rick Bayless. It was around 7 am and I needed coffee badly. He was in his running gear and looking rested.

A while later, while I was still trying to repair myself with caffeine and grapefruit juice, he returned from his run, illuminated from within by celebrity, Mexican food, and exercise, and I thought: This is why you’ll never be successful like Rick Bayless. Rick Bayless most certainly did not have five glasses of wine last night. Joy, please be more like Rick Bayless.

Now that I don’t drink, I too bring my sneakers and exercise in the morning when I travel for conferences. It makes me feel like a world-conquering hero and is a reward for not drinking the previous night.

Give Yourself a Hall Pass

Almost everyone I know that struggles with drinking also struggles with anxiety and a conference is an anxiety-producing machine. Networking is a lot of pressure and session schedules are typically jam-packed. But you don’t need anyone’s permission to be excused, go to your room, take some deep breaths, take a midday shower, or just watch some TV.

Take time to relax and recharge when you need it. And, above all, you are allowed to skip things you don’t want to go to for whatever reason. Here are some reasons I have skipped things at conferences since I quit drinking:

  • Event is explicitly boozy
  • Old boss will be there
  • Starts too late at night for me
  • Looks boring
  • I just don’t feel like it

These are completely solid reasons. You are better off not going and getting 100% out of the things you do want to attend.

joy manning