Conferences are a big deal. There is an entire industry involved in the planning of conferences. In fact, there is even a professional certification program that earns you the titled “Certified Meeting Professional.” Whether you are attending a relatively small conference or a large mega conference, there are a few basic steps to follow to ensure a great experience.
One of the most common mistakes people make at their first conference is not adequately planning their time before, during and after the conference.
After you’ve registered for the conference, immediately start planning your work to allow you the time off needed to participate in the conference. Yes, I said “time off.” Don’t expect to have time to do your work during the conference. While you are attending the conference for work, you should not be checking your emails and voicemails during the event. Set your out of office reply, change your voicemail message, and don’t allow yourself to get sucked into work!
During the week before the conference, read through all the conference materials and figure out what sessions you would like to attend. You likely won’t be able to make it to all the sessions that sound interesting. Reading all the full descriptions of the sessions that interest you will help you discern which sessions will be most beneficial. Make an agenda for yourself for the entire conference. And when I say entire, I mean the whole time you are away! Schedule yourself time for meals, hallway networking, coffee breaks, and exercise (if you are so inclined). Making sure that you take time for yourself – getting enough rest, getting the workouts you need to feel good, or even just taking time in the afternoon to process what you’ve learned over a cup of jo will help you have a productive conference experience.
When making your personal agenda, think about the goals you have for the conference. Are you trying to meet industry peers? Network with industry leaders? Are you trying to learn a new skill? Sharpen old skills? Are you trying to forecast what comes next in your industry for your company? What is the next step in your career? Whatever your goals may be, make sure your agenda reflects those. Make sure the sessions you choose to attend are relevant to the goals you are trying to accomplish. Never feel pressured to stay in a session that turns out to be irrelevant to you. Don’t waste your time! Get out and go to a different session – or do some hallway networking with other sessionless attendees.
Also – make sure you plan a recovery day when you return to the office. You’ll have a lot of information to digest, organize and report on after your first conference. Make sure you schedule adequate time to do so before diving back into your work. Otherwise all that conference time and energy is wasted.
Packing for your first conference may seem overwhelming, but it’s really quite simple. Don’t overthink it. If you are worried about what to wear, check out photos of previous conferences and see what people wore. A good rule of thumb is to dress nicely – and in layers. You never know if a conference room/hall will be freezing or hot.
Bring business cards! This is so important. You’ll meet lots of people (whether you want to or not). If you are attending the conference for your business, make sure to bring your business’s cards, but if you are looking for a new job, be sure to bring personal business cards as well. When you trade cards at the conference, make a quick note on the card about how/why/where you met the person… might seem silly, but most likely you won’t remember half the people you get business cards from otherwise!
Bring a backpack. (Not one of those tiny “fashion” backpacks.) As you are hurrying across the conference center from one session to another, you’ll be glad to have the comfort of a backpack, rather than a stylish laptop bag or giant purse. In the backpack, make sure you have chargers for all your electronic things. You might be out in the conference center all day, and you’ll likely be using your devices throughout the day, so make sure you’re prepared to charge when needed. And since you’ll likely be on the go most of the days, make sure your backpack is well stocked with healthy snacks and water to keep you focused and hydrated through all the sessions.
Bring earplugs! Or an ocean sounds machine, or whatever helps you sleep in hotels. Getting good rest during the conference is super important. You won’t get much out of sessions you are falling asleep during, and you won’t make a good impression on industry peers if you’re dozing off! Get good rest, take care of yourself and drink lots of coffee/tea/water to get yourself energized, focused and ready to tackle the day.
The power of positivity is a real thing. So put yourself into a positive state of mind before arriving at the conference. You’ll likely be nervous. New environments, new people, new opportunities are always a little nerve wracking. Stay positive. In the morning before your first session, do something fun – something that makes you happy – like splurge on a fancy coffee drink, or eat donuts for breakfast, or hit the gym with your favorite tunes blasting. Starting your day with positive energy will help get you through the nervousness.
When you attend sessions with a positive outlook, with a smile, and with an open attitude, you’ll be more engaging and effective in networking. You’ll also just be happier throughout the day.
You (most likely) won’t be able to do everything that seems interesting or beneficial. You’ll need to prioritize your agenda. If you did great planning work before arriving at the conference, then most of your prioritizing will be taken care of; however, you may be faced with new opportunities that may require you to do some more prioritization. For example, you may meet a great group of people in one of your sessions that you’d like to continue getting to know. They plan to skip the last session of the day to go to happy hour at a nearby pub. Do you go to your planned session, or continue the networking at the pub? You need to prioritize. What will be better for you? Is the session super relevant to your work, or just sounds interesting? Are the people you’ve met industry peers? Could you collaborate and do business with them in the future? Nine times out of ten, human relationship – the networking component – of conferences is the most productive long term. So go grab a drink and get to know your peers! (Unless, of course, that session is going to be the most important one of the conference for you.)
As I mentioned before, schedule yourself a day to fully recover from and process the conference when you return. Pull out all those business cards with your notes and make more notes for yourself of who you should follow-up with in the next few days. Don’t just drop them all into your contacts file and forget about them. If you met interesting people, let them know you’d like to stay in touch with a follow-up email or phone call.
Go over all your session notes. Yes, I know that sounds tedious. But trust me, if you go over your notes right away they will make much more sense than a month from now when you can’t remember what kind of shorthand lingo you were using. Going over your notes will also help you recognize and articulate what you learned/gained from attending the conference. It may jog your memory about an idea you had for improving your work or a vision for your company’s future.
Taking the time to fully process your experience will not only summarize your new knowledge and new ideas, it will also help you identify in what areas you might want further education. It may just start your planning for your next conference!
If you are in Utah and interested in attending a tech conference close to home, check out the Silicon Slopes 2019 Tech Summit. This is an amazing conference event that has grown from 5,000 attendees in 2017 to over 20,000 projected in 2019. This summit is focused on great keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and fantastic networking opportunities for people in Utah’s growing tech industry. Salt Lake Staffing will be there, and we can’t wait to meet you!