Question: I’m planning on attending my first big conference this year. What should I do to prepare? What should I expect? And how do I get the most out of the experience?
First, determine what you want to gain from the conference. Are you looking to gain new knowledge in specific topic areas? Are you looking to gain as much new information as possible? Are you primarily attending to network with new people? Are you looking to find a new job or investigate relevant services? Maybe some or all of these reasons? Determine what your goals are and then, with those goals in mind, use these tips:
- Consider the session format when choosing sessions to attend. Conferences typically offer a variety of session formats–such as presentations, workshops, demonstrations, and progressions (where you participate in “round-table” discussions)–that each require (or invite) different levels of attendee participation. Examine the types of sessions at the conference, and choose ones that suit your preferences and needs.
- Find out what prerequisite knowledge you need for each session, and do your homework ahead of time, if necessary. You will get more out of a session if you have the knowledge base expected, rather than trying to catch up during the session itself.
- Plan which sessions you want to attend ahead of time, and have multiple backup sessions in mind in case ones you want to attend are full or canceled. Also, be sure to reevaluate your plan when you get to the conference. Sometimes sessions and speakers may change between the preliminary program and the final program, which may affect which sessions you choose to attend.
- Prioritize sessions and activities, as you likely won’t be able to do everything you hope to do. If necessary, plan breaks or a lighter schedule prior to key sessions or activities to ensure you are adequately fresh for them.
- Plan a balance of sessions and other scheduled activities that suits your needs. In addition to attending sessions, for example, you may want to attend luncheons and banquets, or find extra time to visit with vendors at the exhibition area.
- Plan your travel days carefully. For example, you may not want to arrive or depart on days that you also plan to attend sessions or activities.
- Allow room in your luggage for the materials you collect during the conference. Alternatively, you might plan to have conference materials mailed back; conferences often arrange for shipping services on site. (Thanks to Janice Gelb for this tip.)
- Know in advance where your hotel accommodations are in relation to the conference, and plan adequate time to get to conference sessions and activities.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Period.
- Bring lots of business cards, and don’t be afraid to exchange cards with people you meet. Thanks to Janice Gelb for this addition: If you exchange business cards with someone with the promise to send that person information, be sure to write the details on the back of the card when you receive it. By doing so, you can be sure to remember the specifics of each exchange and promise after you return from the conference.
- Arrive at the session rooms as early as possible. Sessions fill up quickly, and you’ll want to arrive early to help ensure you can attend the sessions you want.
- Take every opportunity to talk with people–all sorts of people, including attendees, presenters, conference coordinators, exhibit vendors, and so on. In addition to networking, you can learn as much (or more) outside of conference sessions as you can in the sessions.
- Schedule time for yourself. Attending sessions, networking, and just being “on” all day can be exhausting. Schedule time for yourself to absorb what you’ve learned, organize your thoughts, re-energize, and prepare for the next session, activity, or day.
- Enjoy the host city. Conference packets usually highlight what’s close by and easy to attend. You might also ask the hotel staff for other ideas and brochures.