(Last year, pretty much on a whim. I wrote the first Rookie’s Rough Guide to CPAC. was my attempt to give first-time attendees to The Conservative Woodstock a few tips to make the experience better. I admit, I wrote it on the quick and it shows. This is Version 2.0, updated with new info about the new venue and a few essential links. I hope you find it useful.)
If you’re a conservative, and haven’t been living in a dank cave far from a WiFi signal, you know that the Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC, is the biggest and baddest gathering of political conservatives in the country. CPAC is a mix of Woodstock, Mardi Gras, and ComicCon and features an All-Star roster of speakers, panels, and personalities. This year’s gathering will be my third and while that hardly makes me a seasoned veteran, it has given me the opportunity to pick up a few tips from those who are seasoned veterans. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned with you in the hope that you can use them to make your visit to CPAC more enjoyable and less stressful.
So let’s get started.
1) Dress for Success…and Comfort
More so than in years past, CPAC is spread across a pretty large hotel. The main ballroom in which most of the A-list speeches will be held is a long way from the exhibition hall, with lots of little meeting rooms in between. You are going to be on your feet for a lot of hours, so choose your clothing and especially your footwear accordingly. Women, I know those stiletto heels make you look incredible, but after a few hours in them, you will be willing to kill a bus full of elderly nuns with cute puppies on their laps for a pair of comfortable walking shoes. Guys, those brand-new squeaky dress shoes may look great, but after a couple hours, those blisters aren’t going to feel very good at all. Make sure you pack a pair of shoes that look good and can handle a few miles worth of walking. Pick outfits that will look good in a relaxed business meeting, but also give you a little room to move.
Also, pay attention to layering. Even though CPAC is a February affair, and temps are supposed to be in the low to mid 40s through the end of the week, the hotel will be quite warm and it’ll get warmer as the day goes on. You do not want to get stuck in a crowded hall with a few hundred of your closest conservative friends in a heavy sweater over nothing at all. Make sure you can adjust your clothing to the temperature as much as you can.
No shorts or tank tops, though. That’s right out. Also, thongs.
2) Get the Schedule and Set Your Schedule
Here is the agenda for CPAC 2011 (PDF download). It is 17 pages long and includes, by my count, 160 different events not including the premium dinners and after-parties. Go ahead and admit to yourself right now that you are going to miss something you really want to see. It’s happened to me the last two years and it’ll happen this year, too. CPAC is like Disneyland in that regard. You want to ride all the rides, but there isn’t enough time and there are enough clones of you to go around. Believe me, I understand.
You can save yourself a lot of time and disappointment by making a priority list up before you get there. Either print out the schedule or download the CPAC 2011 app and figure out what four things you want to see each day. You can go as high as five, but I think four is about the sweet spot. Here’s why.
While you’re whittling down your list to a very small number, you’ll find that you end up with ten or twelve second-choice events. That’s good. Now you have a pool of other things you can see if for some reason you miss one of the Big Four on your list. Also, making a list or two of events you must see will take some of the intimidation factor out of a 17-page agenda. That secondary list will be handy as well, because if it happens that you have more time than you thought, you’ll have a ready hand full of other events you can attend.
Second, these events take a bit longer than you think. Not only should you plan for the time allotted on the schedule, but you should also plan to stand on line for a while, especially for the events that feature A-list speakers. You’ll need to get there early if you’re going to get a good seat. In the case of book-signings, I’d recommend 15-20 minutes at a minimum and 30 or more for folks like Donald Rumsfeld, Ron Paul, Ann Coulter, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. For the big speeches, plan on 30 minutes.
Third, if you over-plan your day with too many events, you’re going to feel rushed and, ultimately, frustrated when you start missing speeches or panels you really wanted to see. Remember, you’re going to CPAC to enjoy yourself, first and foremost. Which brings me to…
3) Love the Nightlife, but Not too Much
One of the other reasons you won’t want to overplan your schedule is because you’re going to meet a lot of people over three days. You’ll meet your friends, who will introduce you to other friends. You’ll meet people you know only through Twitter or Facebook or their blogs. You’ll run into famous folks (more on that later). And, most importantly, you’ll catch some buzz about one of the many after-parties that happen every night.
Legends are made at CPAC after parties. Whether it’s a pre-planned affair like the Blog Bash or the Andrew Breitbart/GOProud party or an impromptu hotel suite bacchanalia, chances are you’ll get to one or two. By all means, have a blast. Like I said before, you’re going to CPAC to enjoy yourself, so don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to do just that.
You know there’s a “but” coming, right? Well, here it is. Remember that CPAC runs for three days and plan your after-hours partying accordingly. You don’t want to be one of those spent dishrags of partied-out woe slouching around the convention on Saturday afternoon, now do you? No, you want to be bright and alert so you can be in the front of the line for Ann Coulter and the keynote speech that afternoon!
You know what your limits are. Don’t exceed them.
4) Prepare for Brushes with Fame
Whether or not you intend on running into people you know from television, radio, or the internet, you will meet them. It’s inevitable, so you might as well plan on it beforehand. In my two years, I’ve had chance encounters with Michael Barone, Mark Levin, Rick Santorum, Jerry Doyle, Newt Gingrich, and Saul Anuzis. That doesn’t include the dozens of top-notch bloggers and journalist-types that wander all over CPAC throughout the day. I didn’t exactly plan to meet anyone (though I knew I’d see several bloggers there) and your experiences will be very similar to mine. When that chance meeting does happen, say hello, be polite, and don’t be afraid to ask if they’ll take a picture with you. Most folks are glad to spend a moment or two for a picture and a quick word, even if they are rushing to an interview or a speech. Some of them will take even more time to chat with you for a bit. Enjoy it and don’t freeze up!
And keep your camera handy.
5) Finishing Up.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again because it’s important. The point of CPAC, really, is to enjoy yourself and to come out with a little more knowledge in your head about being a savvy conservative than you had when you went in. If you accomplish that and are smiling on your way out the door, then you’ve had a good three days. Relax, enjoy, and don’t forget to say Hi when you see me. I’ll be the guy with the comfortable shoes trying to remember where I left Bloggers’ Row.
UPDATE: My friend Angela Lash reminded me that I left out a couple small, but critical items. Let me remedy that.
6) P.S. The First – Prepare for Swag!
CPAC is a swagfest. Nearly every exhibitor will have pamphlets, books, squeezy stress balls, coffee cups, t-shirts, and all manner of other gewgaws to hand out to eager attendeed. You, being an eager attendee, will collect quite a lot of swag almost without trying very hard. The fine CPAC folks will give you a swag bag, but you should carry something better. I recommend a medium-sized messenger bag or similarly-sized satchel — something that can hold a couple or three hardback books (which you may pick up at one of the many book-signings) and such other items as a digital camera, phone, or even a netbook if you’re feeling ambitious. You will also want to reserve a pocket of that bag for a couple small snacks, which brings me to…
7) P.S. The Second – Food!
I admit, I’m not particularly well-versed about what eateries exist around the hotel. It won’t be hard to get up to speed. The hotel staff can recommend several good eateries and the hotel restaurant serves tasty, if not exactly cheap, victuals. I recommend you throw a could or three bars to help keep your energy levels up — granola or breakfast bars will do nicely. That way you won’t have to duck into the restaurant until you absolutely have to. Also be on the lookout for breakfast and lunch seminars in the schedule and be sure to get in on them early. At CPAC there can be such a thing as a free lunch!
Let me lastly recommend a couple other CPAC guides written by friends of mine. First, if you’re concerned that your attendance at CPAC makes you an incorrigible racist, well, you’re probably right. Second, Adrienne Royer has a very good guide to what to wear while you’re there. Her advice on footwear is spot-on.