Most professionals have a love-hate relationship with conferences. On the one hand, they’re necessary for networking and staying informed about your industry. On the other hand, they can be time-wasters — with too many hours spent sitting in unhelpful sessions or making sales pitches that go nowhere.
Conferences also can cause a significant amount of stress. Many are pricey — especially when you factor in airfare, meals and accommodations — and bosses generally expect to experience some tangible benefit from your attendance once you return to the office.
But the truth is that despite some downsides, conferences can pay big dividends for professionals, and they’re worth your effort — if you approach them strategically and use your time well. Whether you hope to advance within your current company or you’d like to change jobs, conferences offer you multiple opportunities for continuing education that can help propel your career.
The educational opportunities you experience at conferences — along with the people you meet — can help open doors that otherwise might remain closed to you. What steps can you take to ensure that you make the most of your conference attendance?
Before You Go
Well in advance of the event, take some time to plan. First, put some thought into your hotel. Being close to the primary action can be helpful, but you also want to ensure that you’ll get a good night’s sleep to make the most of your conference time. Be sure to check reviews before you book, and consider asking for a room on the top floor and away from elevators for maximum peace and quiet.
Take a look at the conference schedule to determine which sessions and networking opportunities will benefit you most. Look for open spots in the schedule when you can plan some private or small-group get-togethers, and reach out to key contacts to book some time in advance.
Send out introductory, personalized emails to people you’d like to meet at the conference, and be sure to pack more business cards than you expect to need.
During the Conference
With all the people, noise and activity, conferences can feel overwhelming. If you’ve spent some time preparing in advance, though, you should be able to get your bearings pretty quickly. Register as soon as you arrive to avoid the crowds, and get an early jump on seeing as much as you can.
If your conference includes an expo or exhibit hall, consider taking a pass around to get a feel for the big picture, and make notes in your program about booths where you’d like to spend some time later.
Once sessions begin, consider splitting up from colleagues to cover as much territory as possible. By going your separate ways for sessions, you can gather more information and educational materials, which you can share when you reconvene later.
Keep up with the conference hashtag on all your social media channels to follow the latest news and commentary on sessions and events. In your session notes, try to focus on key points rather than getting every detail, and clearly note the session referenced.
Try to check in with as many of your customers — and prospects — as you can. Take time to meet new people, and attend at least some of the informal networking events. If you have time between sessions or in the evenings, transfer business cards and other contact information to your customer relationship management software, and enter notes about any conversations or personal observations.
To keep yourself functioning at 100 percent during the conference, try to stick to a healthy diet, get enough rest, and enjoy a little quiet time.
After You Return Home
Following a short rest-and-recovery period, take some time to process your conference information while the event remains fresh in your memory. Review your session notes, and share any information that may be valuable for your colleagues.
Within a few days post-conference, follow up with customers, prospects and new contacts you met. Send out requests to connect on LinkedIn and other social media, and stand out from the crowd by including personal notes.
By taking some time to prepare in advance and getting strategic about sessions to attend and people to meet, you can optimize your conference attendance and ensure that you — and your organization — get your money’s worth.