Backpack to Briefcase: Getting the Most from Your Conference Experience

When it comes to attending any conference, whether it’s ASAE’s Annual Meeting in August or TSAE’s New Ideas Conference in September, it’s best to be prepared. Conferences and other educational events offer tremendous learning and networking opportunities. You will be inspired by the keynote speakers, excited about the connections you make, and motivated by what you learn. As someone who has attended many industry conferences, here are some of my top ideas and tips to help you get the most from your conference experience.

For first-time attendees, I recommend that you review the online conference brochure and session guide on the conference’s website. Review the session descriptions to select your top learning choices for each time slot. It wouldn’t hurt to also select your second choice in case your first choice is already standing room only when you arrive. I find it helpful to put my session selections and all other conference events on my phone calendar, but most conferences today also have an app to help you navigate the conference. Be sure to take a notepad or a tablet for notetaking. You can also download the session slides and handouts after the event.

After selecting your sessions, consider whether you want to schedule meetings with other conference attendees during any down time you may have. Have you always wanted to meet someone you know only via email or phone calls or someone from another association of interest to you? Consider contacting others who are attending the conference to set up a time and place to meet. Many times meals are served in the expo hall, so it’s easy to set up impromptu or planned gatherings. Make it a point each day to sit with attendees you don’t already know; you’ll be surprised at the important connections you will make. Get the most out of your networking time, and follow up with your new contacts once you return to work.

Carefully review all the messages you receive about the conference. Those emails will contain important information about travel, onsite check-in, and more. I recommend that you attend the first-time attendee session. You will learn about all the activities, the tips and tools available, and special events. You’ll also make some new friends with whom you can socialize during the remainder of the conference.

Make it clear on your “out of office” messages that you will be attending a conference for several days and will only be responding to the most urgent issues while you are away. Many conference attendees miss part of the conference because they try to keep up with work. You or your employer paid for you to attend and learn – not for you to respond to emails.

There will be ample time set aside on the schedule for you to visit the expo hall. Make a list of the exhibitors you want to visit; you can even set up an appointment with an exhibitor for an in-person demo of their products. Pack plenty of business cards, not only for networking, but also for the exhibitor
prize giveaways!

When packing your suitcase for the conference, be sure to take comfortable shoes and clothing, but dress in business casual attire (no jeans or shorts). You will walk miles every day just going to and from your sessions, so be sure to have your most comfortable shoes, and you may want to take blister bandages and foot soak! Dress in layers, as it may be very warm outside and very cool inside the conference center. Don’t forget to bring your phone and laptop chargers; you should take them with you each day to ensure your batteries don’t fail!

Be sure to practice self-care during the conference, not only with your shoes and attire, but also with your sleeping, exercise and eating schedule. You might want to enjoy the local nightlife, have a few drinks or stay out late. That’s fine, but just remember that you may have a 7:30 a.m. session the next day. Stay hydrated and allow yourself time to rest.

And, finally, plan some time when you return to work to share what you learned with your coworkers who were not able to attend. Consider sharing the slides, providing your typed notes, writing an executive summary, and/or meeting with them to share your thoughts, ideas and takeaways.

I know your conference experience will be worthwhile, and if you’re like me, it will be your first of many conferences. Have a great time!

Author Shelly Trent, CAE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is a career coach, speaker and writer whose books include “Humans@Work” and “Compassion@Work: Creating Workplaces that Engage the Human Spirit.”
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/poba

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