Training conferences represent an outstanding opportunity to learn and network at an affordable price. Every year, I participate in several conferences in various places around the United States. In 2010, I will attend at least seven. Some, like the New York Law Enforcement Expo, are more focused on vendors and the exhibit hall while others, like the Northeast Shooters’ Summit, are almost entirely focused on training courses. Some, such as SWAT Round-Up International, are even centered around competitions. Regardless of which type of conference you attend, you are likely to find some things that they all have in common:
At least a couple of industry leaders are almost always going to be present at any conference worth attending. Organizers of conferences, especially those more heavily focused on training, recruit top names in the training field to give presentations or short courses to attendees. The instructors, in turn, get to meet prospective students, share their material and network with each other.
Quite often, the instructors offer abbreviated versions of their best (or most popular) material at these conferences. Attendees will find that they get a lot out of the two- to four-hour sessions that are the mainstay of the conference schedule. Any professional instructor is going to make valuable use of the time allotted to them with students who may be considering attending a full course in the future and, more importantly, might need the information the instructor is providing in a life-or-death situation that occurs after the conference.
Another benefit for the instructor who attends conferences is the opportunity to take classes from other instructors in the field. The industry is incredibly busy, and the schedule of a full-time instructor doesn’t always make it easy to attend classes. Seeking out opportunities to train can be easier if you add a few conferences to the schedule each year. Finding opportunities to learn is, of course, a mark of a lifelong student and professional. Networking with our peers at these events is one way to avoid stagnation in the constantly evolving world of tactics and techniques, as well as a good way to keep abreast of trends in the industry and learn what other instructors are doing in their courses.
Multiple Training Topics
One of the best things about well-organized training conferences is that they offer the opportunity to train in a variety of different areas over the course of a weekend or a few days. At many events, you can attend a live-fire range session, a medical training course, an unarmed combatives block, and still fit in a classroom lecture on legal issues or instructor development concepts.
This facet of conferences gives people who might not be inclined to attend a multi-day unarmed fighting course, for example, the chance to gain some skill in this area. It also might motivate them to attend a full- or multi-day course at some point in the future by making them more comfortable with the material and an instructor. Similarly, a martial artist who was primarily interested in the unarmed blocks might take the opportunity to begin training with a defensive firearm.
Understandably, the live-fire range sessions are often the most popular events at training conferences, but I can honestly say that some of the highlights of my experiences have been classroom lectures from the likes of Massad Ayoob and Tom Givens. Also, you might find a session in an area that you would never have considered training in that is worth a couple of hours to try out and yields valuable information. For example, in 2006, I attended a combatives conference that included a Fundamentals of Parkour session, which spawned the foot pursuit course that we now offer through I.C.E. Training Company.
Students with Diverse Backgrounds
When you attend a conference and select your courses, you have no idea who will be in the course with you. This is especially true if the conference you’re attending is one with national prominence that draws people from a large area and/or if the conference has a diverse slate of courses covering many topics.
When you get to your classroom or training area, you may end up sitting next to active-duty military personnel, a police officer from a neighboring state, or a concealed carry permit holder from another part of the country. I find that there is often much more diversity in a conference session than in the average full-length course.
The diversity in the student body sometimes gives you the opportunity to learn almost as much from your peers in the class and the questions or comments that they contribute as you do from the instructor’s lesson plan itself. In fact, most instructors will modify their material to fit the context of their students to some degree. Participating in a class with people whose backgrounds differ greatly from yours provides the opportunity to hear about contexts of use that you may not normally encounter. My last instructor development session at a conference featured students who were instructors for virtually every type of defensive shooter, from military intelligence operatives to urban police officers to novice shooters interested in obtaining concealed carry permits.
Up and Comers
Rarely is a conference course menu comprised totally of well-known instructors whose names and programs you are familiar with. Quite often there will be sessions being taught by people and companies whose names are new to you. This offers a great opportunity to assess the value of their material and presentation without investing significant time and money on an “unknown.” Mixing your course selections with offerings from instructors whom you consider established plus some lesser-known teachers is a great way to expand your understanding of material and might just allow you to stumble upon the next industry leader or someone with a great new idea that hasn’t quite caught on yet.
Some conferences are largely funded by the exhibitors and vendors that are there to show off their wares to potential customers. These exhibitors often take the opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities and proper use of their products. Sometimes these are formal demonstrations that are scheduled at specific times, but more often demonstrations are being done constantly at the booths themselves, whenever someone asks questions or demonstrates interest. The opportunities to understand a product from the manufacturer’s perspective and to get answers to your specific questions are valuable if you are in the market for potentially life-saving pieces of equipment.
Sometimes exhibitors will even team up with instructors to have their products featured in the course sessions. Of course, you need to be careful that you don’t sign up for a training course and end up getting a sales pitch for a product, but most of the time there will be valuable training information that just happens to feature the use of a specific product.
Some conference exhibit areas will have a gun show-like atmosphere in which you can purchase items from the vendors, while others are set up more like trade shows and will not feature many items for sale. The latter environments tend to be the best for you to interact with the company representatives and learn more about the products or services they offer.
Here is a brief overview of some of the conferences I have participated in over the past year:
1 Inch to 100 Yards Warrior Conference – Reno, Nevada
Since 2007, Wes Doss of Khyber Interactive has run several Warrior Conferences. The latest event was by far the largest and most ambitious. It featured a large exhibitor area, a banquet and, of course, a diverse collection of training opportunities. Exhibitors included US P.A.L.M., Blackhawk, XS Sight Systems, Victory Defense Consulting and OM Tactical, and covered products ranging from knives to training dummies to clothing.
The course offerings were among the most diverse I’ve seen at a conference, ranging from Dr. Robert Smith’s early-morning fitness session through the Close Protection Services K9 operations block to the expected live-fire sessions at the range. While the exhibitor area and classroom sessions took place at the Grand Sierra Resort Casino, range support and services were provided by John Chapman and his team at Last Man Standing’s Combat Development Center about 30 minutes away.
Wes Doss is one of the most connected veterans in the training industry and has been able to recruit a diverse group of instructors and professionals to attend his events and ensure that all attendees have an experience well worth their time and money.
Rangemaster Tactical Conference – Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Rangemaster Tactical Conference is organized and operated by Tom Givens’ crack staff and volunteers. Tom has been in the training business for a long time and he’s been running this event (formerly known as the “Polite Society” Conference) for many years. In 2010, the event was located for the second time at the outstanding U.S. Shooting Academy facility just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Rangemaster Conference is probably the best-run event that I attend every year. Tom recruits some of the most established names in the industry (Massad Ayoob, Marty Hayes and John Farnam have been regulars for years) and offers his attendees, many of whom attend annually, a predictably high-quality experience.
The Rangemaster event offers a shooting competition that goes on in the background of the training conference but is clearly the highlight of the event for some attendees. That said, the event is so well-organized that the games don’t interfere with the training. Tom’s event does not feature much in the way of vendors, though some participants and attending instructors have products on display or available for use during training sessions.
One of the highlights of this year’s event was a closed-door session of professional exchange among the attending instructors on the proper use and value of force-on-force training. The discussion, which was moderated by Craig Douglas, took place during the dinner that Tom throws every year to thank the participating instructors. It exemplified the spirit of peer review and development that these conferences engender.
Northeast Shooters’ Summit – Nashua, New Hampshire
The Northeast Shooters’ Summit is perhaps the most casual event I know of that truly draws instructors from around the country. Jim Conway and Mike Nastek decided to invite a handful of instructors to participate in the first conference as a way of introducing more people in New England to the opportunities to train with the instructors that they host for full courses throughout the year. The conference, which is very affordably priced, gives people the chance to train with four or five instructors over the course of a day or two, and to meet like-minded people in their region.
The Summit is all about training. No banquet, no vendor area and a tight schedule that this year featured live-fire sessions, unarmed training, a presentation on interacting with law enforcement after a defensive shooting, and a tactical medicine lecture.
New York Law Enforcement Expo – Manhattan, New York
The NYLE Expo, organized by Kelly Simon and her team of trade show experts, is unique in this list of events in that it is not open to the public and does not feature any live-fire sessions. In fact, the expo is set up more as a trade show than any other event listed here and has a very small list of instructors who are invited to give presentations or, occasionally, unarmed training courses.
The biggest draw for law enforcement, military or professional security personnel who attend this conference might be the opportunity to speak with the vendors about products and get specific product demonstrations. In fact, the NYLE Expo has some products on display, including firearms, which are not part of any other event or show in Manhattan.
The opportunity to meet with armed professionals from New York City and the surrounding region and for those officers to interact with one another in an environment of professional exchange are other key reasons why many of us attend this event.
Regardless of what part of the country you are in or what area of defensive training is your primary interest, odds are there’s a reasonably priced and conveniently located training conference for you to attend. I encourage you to do so and to consider traveling to at least one national conference every year. Look for one that offers most, if not all, of the attributes outlined above and I think you’ll get a lot out of it. The opportunities that conferences offer to train while learning about products and instructors and while being able to network within the industry are unsurpassed.