How to get the most from a professional conference
By Dave Bowman

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You've signed up to attend a professional conference focused on your field or industry and, as the conference date approaches, you finalize your travel arrangements and prepare for several days of learning and exploration. With numerous educational sessions, many booths in the expo hall and evening events, you'll have a myriad of ways to broaden your industry knowledge, find new sources of products and services, and connect with colleagues. Trying to squeeze education, vendor visits and networking into three days may leave you feeling like you're drinking from a fire hose.

INDUSTRY PULSE

What is the most important tip for attending conferences?
  • 1. Identify goals
  • 2. Do your research
  • 3. Tag team
  • 4. Have an expo plan of attack
  • 5. Don't be shy

Drawing on many years of managing and attending conferences, I've pulled together some tips that will hopefully make the experience less hectic and more beneficial:

Identify Goals

There will be lots of thought-provoking educational sessions, but are they applicable to you and your organization? Before looking at the schedule, think about your current goals and challenges. Consider the aspects of your industry where you're already strong versus those where you could use a little help.

Are you being tasked with new responsibilities for which you need new knowledge? Is there an initiative you want to propose, but need more supporting evidence? Most presenters will cover successes and some will even talk about their shortfalls. Learn from the victories and mistakes of others, and target your learning to the areas where you need it most. Once you've checked those boxes, go ahead and plug a "life skills" session into your schedule.

Do Your Research

Once you've identified the topics you want to focus on, read the descriptions and speaker bios thoroughly, just to make sure you're on target and that the speakers or panelists have backgrounds that fit your needs. If the topic is right, but the examples are not relevant to you, you may not get as much out of the session.

Also, review speakers' websites, social media sites, etc. If their bio says they've previously spoken at the conference you're attending, ask colleagues if they've ever heard the speaker before. The more insight you have into the speakers, the easier it will be to determine if their session will be of value to you.

Tag Team

If you're attending the conference with a colleague (or colleagues) from your office, see if you can coordinate with them to cover more sessions that will benefit your entire organization. This is especially helpful when there are simultaneous sessions that you need to attend. Divide and conquer. Get the handouts, take good notes, and then get together at the end of the day (while it's all still fresh in your mind) to share what you've learned.

Have an Expo Plan of Attack

We all like wandering the show floor and collecting tchotchkes (and even cocktails!) from the vendors, but the exhibit hall may only be open for a few hours during the entire program. If you need to visit with someone about new software, select new equipment for your facility or find a developer who can build your new customer database for you, you'll need to use your time wisely.

As with selecting which sessions to attend, review the exhibitor list on the conference website before you leave your office and research the vendors that focus on the areas where you need help. You may even want to contact them in advance and set up a time and place to meet at the show. Either way, try to connect with the vendors you need to see on the first day of the expo. Then, you can leisurely stroll the floor and fill your goody bag with key chains and stress balls on day two.

Don't Be Shy

Still not getting the answers you need from the sessions? You can bet your next paycheck others at that meeting have information that could help you. Many conferences offer lunch in the expo hall each day. Take advantage of their generosity and, when you go, seek out people you don't know to sit with. Attend any evening events and mingle actively. Strike up conversations and, if your new BFFs seem willing to let you, pick their brains. It's fun and who couldn't use a few more friends and professional connections?

In addition to gaining information that can help you at work, there's one other key benefit to making new association friends. While you might be perfectly happy in your current position now, you never know when you might get that wandering feeling and want to look for the next stop on your career path. The professional network you form at professional conferences can be very valuable to you today and in the years to come.

Dave Bowman is a primary liaison between MultiView, the leading publisher of digital media for associations, and representatives from hundreds of partner associations with which MultiView works. He also provides guidance and support to several MultiBrief editors, and manages MultiView's satellite office in the Washington, D.C., area. Prior to joining MultiView, Dave spent nearly 10 years as the director of member services for the Society of American Florists and three years as the manager of specific industry groups for APICS — The Educational Society for Resource Management.