joining my boyfriend at a weekend retreat hosted by a professional association he belongs to

A reader writes:

My boyfriend invited me to join him for a weekend retreat at a resort hosted by the professional association he belongs to for work. The website mentions association members enjoying the event “with their families” so it sounds like it’s normal to bring a significant other, but I’ve never been to this sort of thing for my own work, let alone as a girlfriend, so I’m not sure what’s expected of me.

For some background: the schedule includes a reception with open bar the first night, then a lecture the second day I’d skip, followed by dinner, “games,” and “hospitality” (drinks?), then breakfast the last day. The resort has activities, a pool, and hiking trails I’d enjoy.

So 1) is it weird to go even though I’m just a girlfriend? I went to a dinner for this association earlier this year and felt like the spouses all knew each other and ignored me (and my middle school insecurities kicked in).

2) Should I be dressing more professionally than I normally do on a weekend away? Boyfriend is unhelpful with noticing/knowing unspoken dress codes, and this field can be conservative.

And 3) would it be inappropriate to do any networking for myself? I’m unhappy with my job and putting out feelers, and though the people at this event wouldn’t be hiring for my job type, you never know who knows who. But should I just take a backseat to my boyfriend’s networking needs and keep things light/just about the weekend and let him take the lead?

Oh gosh, this isn’t even for his job, it’s for an association he belongs to. Go and enjoy without worry!

I mean, obviously you shouldn’t get drunk and dance on tables or otherwise do anything else that will cause your boyfriend to be remembered for bringing someone who behaved badly, but assuming that you’re not planning on that, you’ll be fine.

Because they’ve explicitly encouraged people to enjoy the event “with families,” It’s not weird to go just because you’re a significant other. It would be weird if you’d only been dating for a month, yes, but assuming that you’re in an established relationship, you fall in the “partner” category and thus it’s appropriate.

Dress code is a little trickier. Normally I’d say that for something like this, you’d be fine in jeans or their equivalent level of casualness for the daytime and something slightly dressier for the evening stuff. And you probably are — it’s a weekend event and you’re attending as a partner rather than a “primary.” But since you mentioned that the field can be conservative, it wouldn’t hurt for your boyfriend to ask. He could either ask the association itself (“how do family members usually dress for these — is it pretty formal, or are most people dressed casually?”) or if he knows someone more attentive to dress codes who’s going or has been before, he could check with them on your behalf.

And I think it would be perfectly appropriate for you to do your own networking there if what people do seems reasonably relevant to the type of work you’re looking for. I’d just say to be attuned to people’s signals — if they don’t seem thrilled to get pulled into a conversation about field X when they’re there for field Y, you want to spot that early and adjust accordingly.

Now, if this were an event thrown by his employer — if it were more of an official work event for him — I’d tweak this advice a little bit. In that case, you’d want to be aware that you’d representing him more in that context, that your role is more about “supportive partner” than “just tagging along to have fun myself,” and to lay low on the networking unless it comes up in conversation organically.

But generally speaking, if an event is encouraging people to bring families to a weekend thing like this, it’s okay to take them at their word and assume they genuinely intend to be hospitable.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Joseph*

    Having been to professional association events for years, I can assure you that if they say “bring your family”, they almost always mean it and you certainly won’t be the only significant other there who isn’t a Chocolate Teapot Designer. Be polite, learn about teapot design, and enjoy yourself.

  2. Lucie in the Sky*

    If you can’t get a read on clothing based on your boyfriend and Alisons advice, I’d try to bring some pieces that can be dressed up / down as needed if you have them.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      +1

      I’m a big fan of nice black jeans when I don’t know how formal I should be. It’s easy to throw those on with a plain t-shirt and sneakers…. or a nice blouse and flats.

      1. OP*

        Letter writer here – can’t believe I didn’t think of black jeans myself :) A great option, and thanks for the suggestion!

        1. OhBehave*

          Definitely check out their social media platforms. There have to be pics of similar events if not this same one from previous years. This will give you an idea of the expected dress. Dark, dressy jeans are always a good option. Obviously dinner will be a bit more dressed up, but I would doubt evening wear is the norm!

          Have fun! Bring a good book and park yourself at the pool. Consider this a mini vacation for you when he is busy.

          1. Rincat*

            A very simple black dress – even a t shirt dress – with a cardigan or jacket on top is easy and looks nice, especially depending on the shoes. Another dress up/down option.

      1. Red*

        Now that I’m thinking of it, a more casual dress with some optional jewelry would probably work if that’s more your style. I’m the sort of lady that’s not even sure if I’m going to wear a dress to my own wedding, so it didn’t even occur to me at first!

        1. Newby*

          That’s my go to if I’m not sure how casual/formal to go. I pack several jewelry options that can dress it up or down and then scope out what other people are wearing.

  3. Hermione*

    Definitely agree with this. In these situations I lean towards casual dresses – with a jean jacket, scarf and keds for a casual feel, or a cardigan, flats/heels, and statement necklace for dressier occasions – but a nice pair of dark wash jeans or a well-tailored pant (like Old Navy’s pixie pant!) can be dressed up or down as needed.

    1. Hermione*

      Oops, this was meant in reply to Lucie in the Sky, meaning that I agree that OP should bring some pieces that can be dressed up/down as needed.

    2. OP*

      You’re describing my perfect fall wardrobe. (OP here – I heard back that even the “nice” dinner is more business casual, so sounds like I’ll basically be packing your comment in my bags). Thanks!

  4. AnonAnalyst*

    Former event planner for a professional association here. I will echo AAM’s advice that if they say members can bring their families they mean it, so definitely don’t worry about being out of place if you want to check out some of the events with your boyfriend.

    On the dress code, is there anything in the communications/marketing materials for the event? Often the organizer will address this somewhere since it tends to be a question a lot of people have. If there is a brochure or website, I would check there. If this is an event you need to register for, it could also be in a confirmation email or with other materials that are sent out beforehand.

    If you can’t find it anywhere, ask your boyfriend to reach out to the organization to find out – I promise you that they have gotten this question plenty of times before, even if they have spelled it out somewhere in their materials! If you really aren’t able to get an answer before the event, I agree with the advice to bring some pieces that can be dressed up or down as needed, which should give you some options once you get there and see what everyone else is wearing.

    1. OP*

      Letter writer here – thank you so much for the reassurance. The registration website didn’t mention dress code or have photos from previous years so I started overthinking things. After sending my questions to Alison, my boyfriend (after my begging) found a friend who went last year who gave him very practical dress code advice. Of course the friend was also a guy so his advice was along the lines of “nice pants, don’t bother with a tie,” but that’s enough for me to work with. Thanks so much for your suggestions!

  5. Whats In A Name*

    Someone mentioned this above, but in regards to dress I’d just say look at the website/facebook and see if you can see pictures from prior years events.

    Also, if you or your boyfriend ask and they say “oh, it’s definitely casual, jeans and tee shirt” I’d still go a step up. I’ve been in situations where people have said this and half the people are in dressy-casual. Hence the Facebook event stalking behavior.

    In regards to going as a girlfriend; not a big deal. And those spouses that ignored you before were YOU at some point. The more you go and make yourself known/see the more a part of the crowd you will feel!

    Have a great time!

    1. OP*

      (Letter writer here) Thanks for the encouragement! :) I tend to overthink & over-worry with these things, so I’ll probably end up bringing my “best” casual clothes so I don’t feel out of place with the crowd, which I think will skew older/successful/conservative. I didn’t find photos online but finally got advice through my boyfriend from a guy friend who went last year, so I’m no longer feeling quite so lost.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, “one step up” is generally pretty safe, assuming you’re wearing your own clothes that you feel comfortable in. I think it’s only when you’re already uncomfortable that feeling overdressed feels bad.

  6. irritable vowel*

    My goal at things like this is always to be neither the most casually nor the most fancily dressed. And this is usually really easy to avoid, because there’s always going to be someone else who is way under-dressed and someone who is way over-dressed, just because they either didn’t think it through or didn’t care. The process of thinking about it is usually enough to ensure that you’re going to place yourself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. As long as you don’t wear a tube top or a wedding dress, you’ll probably be fine. :)

  7. ThursdaysGeek*

    I just returned from attending a conference with my spouse, where he was one of the speakers, and spouses could attend free. I was originally going to take jeans and tshirts, and he suggested a bit better than that, so I took polos and one nice blouse instead. He took a tie for when he spoke and his normal sweater. It was a chemistry conference — that seemed appropriate clothing.

    It turns out that just about every man was wearing a suit jacket and tie, and the women wore dresses or very nice business pants. It was clear we were under dressed, especially at the evening reception. Oh well. There were a few outliers that were dressed more casually than us. But next time I’ll take nicer clothing too, just in case.

    1. Dynamic Beige*

      Yes, this can be tricky to manage. Some organisations are really into getting dressed up sharp for the evening dinner (especially if it’s a gala) and others are not. I find that generally speaking, audiences in Europe are dressed to a higher degree than North America. Also, what qualifies as “business casual” can mean different things to different people.

      The only thing I would caution OP — and I’m reasonably sure I don’t have to do this if you’re already concerned — is to not make a spectacle of yourself. There is often one person at things like this who drinks way too much and winds up… being very memorable. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to do a little low-key networking yourself, but you’re there to support your SO, I think that you should behave how you would want him to behave if he were attending one of your events.

  8. JLK in the ATX*

    I’m in non-profit and my husband is in security management. His professional association hosted their international conference in a very nice city (and is always hosted in very nice cities) and I attended. I do my own thing during the day and at night, I enjoy being attendee and conversationalist. I enjoy connecting with attendees in their language; I ask a lot of quality questions and they love sharing what they know. However I have 12 years of experience being a military spouse, so there’s my edge (and spouses ignoring one another is a sport)

    #1 Introduce yourself to everyone and anyone and if they ignore you there’s plenty of other people to converse with. Dump the middle school insecurities. You’ll find someone to connect with other some topic, even if it’s not to do with the association/industry, at first. This is your chance to get to know your boyfriends industry, and show you care by becoming familiar with it enough to hold a quality conversation in it – especially if you want to attend the events.

    #3 Networking happens through general conversation. If the conversation extends to, “I’d love to know more about what you do. Here’s my card or how can I get in touch with you?” is fine, but given this is his professional association and not yours, it would be too overt, if not awkward, that you’re fishing and casting for leads.

  9. Employment Lawyer*

    If they say guests are OK, you should go.

    The trick is to consider yourself a supporting team player, which is to say that your weekend is more about “helping your partner be professionally successful” and less about “enjoying your weekend.” That doesn’t mean you won’t have fun, but you may find that you have to make some social choices which you wouldn’t ordinarily do. As an example, you might have to gently steer people away if your boyfriend wants private time to network, or you might have to “forget names” to help him out, or as for a drink if he needs an exit plan, and so on. Presumably your boyfriend would do the same for you (if not that’s a different issue.)

    You can have fun. My wife and I always have a blast using secret codes. Mentioning “windy” is our cue to exit, for example, and it’s highly entertaining to say “it’s nice out today but I prefer it when it’s windier” and have your spouse know the code.

    With respect to dress: Unless you’re hiking in, just overpack and bring a lot of stuff. You want to aim for the middle of the range.

  10. overcaffeinatedqueer*

    I think that people do generally mean it when events say “family allowed.” Go, and have fun, but don’t be stupid.

    I have a different issue than how to act and what to wear at events and office gatherings- whether or not to go, full stop, because my wife and I are a same-sex couple.

  11. JOTeepe*

    Yup, I drag my husband to this kind of stuff all the time. We even went to one as the first part of our honeymoon a few years back. (Long story … but it was in DC and he sent me photos of pandas and tigers while I was in work sessions!)

    I would bring “smart casual” (ha, referencing my comment from the free-for-all thread a couple weeks ago … basically a notch trendier than business casual, for lack of a better quick comparison) for the dinner/”hospitality” (yes, that’s drinks), and then have whatever you are comfortable in for hanging out while he is in sessions.

  12. JxB*

    Great advice given above. One other tip is to be clear which activities include the +1. At these type of events some are members only; some are open to family members with an extra fee, and some are open to all. It really looks slimy when an attendee tries to SNEAK in his +1 because food/drink is available and member doesn’t want to pay the fee or can’t be bothered to follow the rules.

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