When freelancers need more than a "work like hell" biz plan

With the early registration deadline for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress in Canada only days away, now is the best time to decide if you’re attending. Of course, you can register after the early bird deadline, but it will cost an additional $200.

Freelance writers have a particular concern. The cost of the congress — whether it’s the Canadian guild meeting, or the international meeting — is always top of mind. The congress cost is a big expense, and when I have to pay the entire cost myself, it certainly makes me stop and look at my financial situation before dishing out any money.
As well, I live in eastern Canada, so airfare is another consideration. It usually costs me extra to fly anywhere.
But when I look at the benefit of attending either the national or international congress, I ask myself one question: Why I would I NOT attend? It’s money very well spent; in fact, the expense is an investment in my career.
Why’s that?
Well, at IFAJ 2011 in Guelph, Ont. in September — or any of the other IFAJ congresses — there will be about 300 agricultural communicators and journalists, from all around the world. By attending, I’ll have the chance to meet each one of them. We’ll dine together, sit beside each other on the bus, muck through barns in our disposable protective footware, share a table at professional development sessions, tour food processors wearing silly hair nets, toast each other over drinks, sing together and share laughs. The congresses are held in relaxed, casual settings and are the perfect forum to get to know other like-minded professionals. The experiences we share at these congresses solidify our profession.

It’s easy to look around the congresses and see the teambuilding going on. But there’s also a lot of business activity happening that we don’t see. Our national guilds (and IFAJ) include public relations professionals, journalists, communicators, broadcasters, editors, publishers — anyone involved in ag communications. Many of the people in a position to assign work or hire contract writers are often circulating among us.
All the contract work I do today is because of just one connection I made at one of our national guild meetings. That work now puts me in a situation where I subcontract to freelance writers. I know of several others within our national guild who are in the same position. It’s not unusual for me to receive phone calls from others in our guild who are looking for a freelance writer or someone to do some public relations writing for them. Last year at the IFAJ congress in Belgium, I overheard a conversation between a publisher and a foreign freelance journalist. The journalist was considering immigrating to the country where the publisher works. “Give me a call,” the publisher said, “I’m always looking for good writers.”

And even if I don’t get a call immediately after the congress for a chance at freelance work, I could very well receive a call sometime in the future, or could myself been looking for a freelancer in the months ahead. You never know for sure when it’s going to benefit you, but I feel it’s our job as freelancers to work at these gatherings to make sure we are a part of every opportunity.

The cost of a congress is a concern, and I agree that it holds merit. But think of the alternative. Lower cost accommodations, such as a university residence, could be considered. But that has its own set of complications. The congress time would be restricted to June, July or early August, a time when many people are on vacation with their families. And in many parts of the world, those months tend to bring warmer temperatures. Many university residences aren’t air conditioned. And it’s common for residences to request off season visitors bring their own linens. Is that any way to welcome visitors to our country?

The early registration cost for the IFAJ 2011 congress is $1,090, double occupancy. Sharing a room with someone you don’t know can often be a gamble, but if we’re looking at this to save money, it’s the best place to start. That price includes your hotel fee for six nights, all meals, bus transportation to farms and tickets to a dinner theatre event hotel fees. It’s certainly not a bare bones congress, but it isn’t lavish either. The hotel is modest — exactly what is to be expected of a conference of professionals.

And maybe that’s the key. As freelancers, we need to recognize the fact that we’re professionals. We’re entrepreneurs and we need to operate our businesses that way — including writing business plans, setting goals and budgeting for professional development and career boosting opportunities. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always worked this way. For many of my 20 years as a freelancer, my business plan was “work like hell.” But over time, I grew tired of working just to keep my head above water. I felt the need to have career goals and feel a sense of professional accomplishment. It’s a never-ending evolution.

Every handshake at an IFAJ or guild congress is an opportunity for future work. It pays to be open to every chance we have to develop and grow our career, even if the upfront cost might hurt a little.

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