Here are some quick tips I’ve learned along the way to turn conference attendance into a professional development opportunity.
I always have a better conference experience when I’ve taken the time to map out a plan before I go. Some conferences have an app that makes it super-easy to fill a schedule with sessions ahead of time. I look for value-added experiences like speed mentoring, product demonstrations, and keynote speakers. Taking the time to note which vendors I most want to visit, and finding them on the literal exhibit hall map, has saved me much time and frustration.
Plan for Fun
My first few national conferences I overbooked my schedule, hurrying from one session to the next, not wanting to miss a minute and also conscientious about spending my employer’s money. Early in my career, I got some great advice given to me suggesting that I also plan for some downtime. Go shopping. See the sites of the city. Sign up for a tour or dinner. Meet up with contacts from school or old friends. The brain can only take in so much information.
Planning well also can include planning enough in advance to volunteer at the conference. Volunteering can include helping at the info desk, organizing a tour, or even working the lost and found. Personally, I consider presenting a session at a conference as a form of volunteering as well. When I make this extra effort, it always pays off in increased engagement with attendees and with the conference overall.
When I was an industry newbie, more experienced staff took me under their wings at my first conferences. They made sure I had plans for meals, was being safe in an unfamiliar city, and introduced me to others in their network. I remember being so grateful for their generosity towards me. They taught me early on to extend that same care to others.
Visit the Vendors
I will admit that at my first conference I had no idea what to do at the exhibit hall where the vendors were lined up with tchotchkes and hard candy. It seemed so intimidating, and at the time, I had no budget authority to buy what they were selling. Eventually I learned that visiting with the vendors was an opportunity for an early peek at trends in the market. Vendors often time the release of new products or upgrades for national conferences. I also learned to choose tchotchkes wisely and bring some home for staff who didn’t get to go.
Make New Friends
A colleague of mine shared advice she got from her mother from when she was a little girl and anxious about going to a new place where she wouldn’t know anyone, “They aren’t strangers; they’re just friends you haven’t met yet.” When I go to a conference with the mindset that I will meet new friends I tap into my inner extrovert and get curious. I introduce myself to the stranger next to me in the auditorium, on the conference bus, or at the hotel waiting for the elevator. I get to learn about different parts of the country, different kinds of jobs people have, and cool things they’re up to. I have a couple of starter questions in my back pocket and use them at will.
Go Trend Hunting
Whether visiting with vendors, meeting up with colleagues between sessions, or chatting with a new friend, I take advantage of the opportunity to ask a question about trends. What trends are they seeing in their city? What trends are they seeing in use of our services? What trends are they seeing in products in the market? Asking these kinds of questions helps me broaden my perspective, learn something new, and see what’s hot or up and coming.
Sometimes when I’m in a particularly engrossing session or listening to an amazing speaker, I think I’ll never forget the highlights. Then 2 hours later when someone asks me what sessions I’ve been to I draw a blank. A few simple notes to capture main points helps jog my memory.
Friends and colleagues of mine know that I am slightly fanatic about this one. When 10,000 of us who represent our profession take over a city, I think it’s good form to dress up a bit and make a good impression. I remember not being sure how to dress for my first conference and aiming for slightly below business casual. I was slightly taken aback by the number of people dressed in suits and professional attire. I came to learn that some of those dressed up were vendors, some were presenters, some were up-and-comers, and some were industry elite. I learned quickly in the value of making the effort to look my best and treat the entire conference as the professional development opportunity it is.
I used to have stars in my eyes when I went to a session, thinking that the presenters or speakers would be much too busy to talk to me. I’ve learned to keep track of speakers’ names and contact information for future conversations. It helps to capture a key point or quote from them to demonstrate the impact they had on me. Presenters are often mobbed right after a session and always happy to respond to an email inquiry a few days or weeks later. When I make a point to reach out to presenters after a conference, I find I extend my learning and expand my network. This simple and quick step (less than 10 minutes of my time) also makes it more likely that I will apply something I learned at the conference to my work.
Apply Learning with Moderation
One way I’ve learned to moderate my expectations of myself and my organization when I come back from a conference brimming with excitement and new ideas is to look through my notes for specific trends, products, or services that align with our strategic plan and see where I might apply those first. By the time I work through those, I’ve hit the high points. Other ideas can simmer a little longer to see if they bubble to the top as an emerging trend that needs attention or an idea that can stay on the back burner for a little while longer.
That being said, for me, conference attendance is always inspiring. I come away changed in some way. It might it might be from something I learn in a session, it might be a new product I can’t wait to try or it might be something a speaker says that changes my mindset or touches my heart. When I keep an open mind and stay curious, I’m certain to come back home fired up and ready to try something new.
Some of my favorite takeaways from conferences:
“Commit to using the front door; no matter what level – by using the back door, you don’t get to see what the customer sees when they walk in the front door.”
“About 1/2 of the general population is not digitally ready to take part in the online learning.” (Pew Research Center)
“Expand your comfort zone.” (Verna Myers)
“Embrace radical welcome.” (Dave Eggers)
Advice from colleagues:
“Plan your schedule ahead of time, but be flexible. Attend the keynotes. Introduce yourself to someone new at each session.” – Professional Development Consultant
“Meet as many people as you can. You never know what opportunities are sitting right in front of you.” – Small Business Owner
“All of the important interactions that happen, happen during breaks in the conference. Don’t underestimate the importance of going out to lunch.” – Planetary Scientist
“Bring lots of business cards and a portable charger for your phone because it is hard to find an outlet in the middle of the day.” – Librarian, Novelist, Artist, Rancher