(This is the third iteration of the Rookie’s Rough Guide to CPAC. You can get the original version here and last year’s revision here. You’ll notice quite a few similarities, but also some useful differences as well.)
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. Last year’s event set a record with over 11,000 attendees and, since this is a Presidential election year, we could see that record broken again. All those people make for an awful lot of ruckus and it’s easy to get lost in the mass of people, speeches, exhibit booths, dinners, and after-parties. This will be my fourth CPAC and I’ve picked up a few pointers about how to have a good time at CPAC without getting overwhelmed. I’ll share them with you right here.
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 will do a lot of walking. Pick your shoes carefully. Women, I know those stiletto heels make your legs 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 make you feel like Mitt Romney right before he dumps a pile of venture capital cash on a grateful small business, but the blisters you get after a couple hours won’t make you happy. Pack a pair of shoes that look good and can handle a few miles worth of walking.
As for the rest of the ensemble, use good sense. Ultra-mini skirts that show off your well-toned legs are good for the after-parties, but not for six hours of sitting in speeches and panel discussions. Business or business casual is the order of the day, at least until the sun goes down. Then, break out the sharp suits and the leopard skin prints.
Also, pay attention to layering. Even though CPAC is a February affair, and temps are supposed to be in the high 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.
2) You Can’t Do It All, So Plan Ahead
Here is the agenda for CPAC 2012 (PDF download). It is 20 pages long. That’s right, 20 pages of speeches, lectures, panel discussion, book signings, training sessions, and receptions. 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. Print out the agenda (Sorry, folks, the ACU didn’t spring for an iPhone app this year, for whatever reason) 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 20-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 that you queue up 15-20 minutes beforehand or 30 minutes if it involves one of the really big names.
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
Unless you have the social skills of a dead caribou 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. Even the most committed introvert can not resist the pull of an hour or so spend with friends, new and old. Trust me on this.
Legends are made at CPAC after parties. Whether it’s a pre-planned affair (especially the ones that use the magic summoning incantation “Open Bar”) or an impromptu hotel suite bacchanalia, chances are you’ll get to one or two and they will provide you with stories to tell your friends and perhaps even generations of young conservatives for years. So have fun. 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 three years, I’ve had chance encounters with Michael Barone, Mark Levin, Rick Santorum, Jerry Doyle, Newt Gingrich, Saul Anuzis, Donald Rumsfeld, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney. That list 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!
5) The Plague, Boss! The Plague!
The past couple years, a mystery malady has struck literally dozens of my friends in the days immediately preceding CPAC. Call it a persistent cold, or some sort of winter flu bug, the illness now known as The CPAC Plague is a pretty miserable experience. Some of my friends ran fevers for a few days, some lost their voice, some ended up with a week of head or chest congestion, and a couple ended up with bronchitis. This is to be expected when you get thousands of people in a relatively enclosed area for three days, especially when a good chunk of them run on little sleep and more alcohol than wholesome meals. Resistance to sickness runs low and germs are plentiful. It’s no surprise that people get sick.
Be careful. I’m not saying you should go the full Howard Hughes, but know that all the hand-shaking, happy hugging, and close quarters partying means that a few flu germs will make their way into your lungs. Make sure you wash your hands as often as practical (or carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer), cough into your sleeve or a handkerchief, drink only from your own glass, and try not to partake in every Caligula-like orgy you encounter. Moderate yourself and think about your health. You’ll thank me for this when you’re on Twitter next week and you read the tweets from everyone who didn’t take my advice and were struck down with the CPAC Plague.
6) 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 attendees. You, as 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…
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 places and the hotel restaurant serves tasty, if not exactly cheap, victuals. In a pinch, there’s a McDonald’s not even a block from the hotel, near the entrance to the Metro Station. I recommend you throw a couple 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 andget in on them early. At CPAC there can be such a thing as a free lunch!
8) 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 and the Hazmat suit.