Spring is in bloom in our neck of the woods (or at least it’s trying to peak through all the rain), and so is conference season! You might be overwhelmed if you’re attending or presenting for the first time, or if you’re a seasoned vet, you fear getting bored and wonder how to maximize the value you get out of attending conferences.
Understand all travel details before you go
Even if your conference is in your hometown, but especially if you have to travel by plane, train, or automobile, plan your travel schedule in order itinerary in advance. Some conferences provide an introductory call to give you a heads up about what to expect at the conference and a bit about the city (available transportation from the airport or restaurants on deck for group events). Many travel-related websites also share more about the locale, including sightseeing and restaurants to occupy your non-conference hours.
Look to the conference website to find helpful details, such as what bus or subway stop to use once you get to the conference site, or hotel check-in details (for example, can’t check in until 2 pm but can leave luggage with front desk). Plan to do some work while you’re away, or want to video chat with your family? Find out what kind of wi-fi options you have at the hotel (often, you can use a conference network for free).
Prepare your registration and conference schedule
Once you get to your conference location, even if you’re worn out from travel, do as much as you can the day before the conference starts. Can you grab your registration badge and event tickets the evening before the conference starts? If so, can you also scope out the conference venue and see where some of the sessions are located? Take advantage if you can handle those things ahead of time, because in all the hustle and bustle at a conference, you can get overwhelmed or behind schedule pretty quickly.
It’s also a good idea to look at the conference schedule and make a plan for what you most want to attend. Keep in mind that you should build in some breaks to drink some water, process your notes, or take a nap! (Just not when you’re the one presenting!) But don’t be so rigid in your planned schedule that you can’t break from it if you get there and realize a different topic, track, or speaker are more in line with your professional goals (or company’s goals if they’ve sent you). For example, while you’re networking, you might connect with a group of folks who are all interested in a topic you hadn’t considered. Or you might meet a speaker and want to learn more about their pitch or topic. So look to find a balance between topics of most interest, flexibility to learn new perspectives and topics while at the conference.
Connect with people
Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and connect with people. If you’re into social media, these connections will make your online communications much more interesting during and after the conference. And it’s fun to learn from and communicate with like-minded people. Most of the so-called “big shots” in any industry still view themselves as regular people, so they’re easy enough to talk to. The worst that can happen if you meet people you’ve followed for years is that they’re not interested in you. Whether that’s because you can’t do anything for them or they’re just jerks, you can learn from that experience, too. Perhaps when you’re a keynote speaker someday, you’d prefer to not act that way. Plus, it’s a great reminder that they’re only human, too!
When you connect with people, be genuine. If you’re a fan of theirs, that’s great, but don’t fawn all over them or start giving meaningless compliments. (I once had the same person tell me at three different conferences that I was one of her favorite “tweeters,” yet she didn’t remember that she’d met me each time…um, no.) If you tend towards the introverted side, prepare a list of potential icebreaker or follow-up questions and practice them.
After the conference, continue your networking. Make sure you connect on LinkedIn, since it’s geared to the professional side of social networking. Modify the standard connection request to tell them where you met and what you talked about, so that it shows you were paying attention and have a reason to connect. Connections create opportunities—for friendship, collaboration, or employment.
For a little tongue-in-cheek fun on what not to do at conferences, check out our old TechWhirl post, Conference Primer Conference Primer: The Sycophant’s Guide to Attending Conferences.