A professional conference can be an incredibly valuable learning experience in more ways than one. Here's how to maximize the experience.
If your job can feel like school sometimes, then conferences can feel like the equivalent of a fun and busy field trip, a chance to learn new things in a different environment, plus meet new people and have a good time while you’re at it.
But for those new to the professional conference scene, conferences can seem a little overwhelming.
With so many panels to attend, speakers to hear, and, yes, work to do, it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm and occasional stress that a work conference has to offer.
Add in that “away from home” feeling of freedom and the excitement of the event itself, and you might find it a bit hard to concentrate on all the action that’s happening.
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That’s why it’s good to go in prepared with a list of how to get the most out of your conference.
No matter what the industry or how long or short the event, there are plenty of ways that you can use your time to your advantage, whether it’s by networking, taking valuable notes, or collaborating with colleagues from out of town.
Here are some of our top tips for when you attend your next conference:
1. Get Prepared
In the weeks leading up to the event, you should explore what the conference’s current agenda looks like.
All conferences should have this info available online, although times and locations are usually subject to change, so it’s smart to check back closer to the date, which makes it easy to get an overview of what panels will be offered and what keynote speakers will be presenting.
The Hubspot blog offers a few easy steps to setting up your conference game plan ahead of time, including advising that you should “set a goal for what you’d like to learn at the conference, and use the agenda to devise a plan specifically tailored to that goal.
Make sure to attend conference-wide events like keynote addresses. Most conferences won’t hold breakout sessions during these presentations, so you won’t have to worry about missing out on anything else.”
The blog post also notes that finding out who’s presenting at the conference is a good idea, because you can then pinpoint which sessions and talks are can’t-miss for you. Plus, putting those sessions on your schedule is a great way to let people know where to find you.
Lastly, make sure to check your flight schedule and your hotel reservations, and set out-of-office notifications on your email and work phone, even if it’s just to let people know that you’re at a conference and responses may be delayed.
It’s best to keep everyone as informed of your whereabouts as possible, especially in the event of a work emergency.
2. Keep Steady Routines
Now that you’re at the conference, it can be tempting to forgo usual routines to indulge in huge meals with clients and alcoholic beverages with coworkers.
Or maybe you’re just staying seated at panels throughout the day, or cutting back on sleep and propping yourself up with too much coffee the next morning.
All of these things will zap your energy faster than even the most boring speaker at the conference, and there isn’t the chance that you’ll learn something other than your tolerance for alcohol and late nights.
Instead, try to keep things as regular as you can for the days you’re at the conference. Keep your usual wakeup and bedtime hours, eat healthy foods, and find the time to take a walk or two (or use the hotel’s gym facilities, if possible).
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It won’t do you any good to feel exhausted for the duration of the conference, so do everything you can to keep your energy levels stable and your mind sharp.
As a bonus, showing up bright-eyed for keynotes and panels will look more impressive than if you’ve appeared to have taken happy hour way too seriously.
Don’t be afraid to have fun with colleagues and new acquaintances, but remember to keep everything in moderation.
3. Decide How You Want to Network
Networking with people is one of the best parts of a conference. Whether you network with colleagues that you haven’t met yet, new clients, or potential customers, there are always a ton of people to meet and chat with at conferences.
Although you may not get to meet some of the bigger-name keynote speakers, there are still plenty of interesting individuals that you can learn from or exchange ideas with over coffee or after a panel.
Don’t forget about using social media to your advantage, join in on Twitter and Instagram and use conference hashtags to participate in the conversation.
But say you’re someone who has a hard time approaching people, or who would rather keep their head down and focus on their work instead of schmoozing over cocktails.
It’s time to break the ice a little bit by figuring out what level of networking works for you.
If you are shy or introverted, you should still make an effort to find a networking situation that makes you feel comfortable, whether that’s setting up a one-on-one session ahead of time or making a restaurant reservation for a set number of guests.
4. Stay Organized
When you’re in the midst of the conference bustle, it can seem like you’re quickly juggling notes and business cards and information booklets.
Instead of getting overwhelmed, develop a method of information-gathering that will be easy to unpack when you get home: write down memorable parts of each session, key takeaways, names of participants you networked with and how you can follow up.
It can also help to break out highlighter markers and colored tabs for notebooks as well, whatever system will help keep you best organized.
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Make Your Next Conference a Success
A professional conference can be an incredibly valuable learning experience in more ways than one.
Not only can panels and speakers teach you new tips and tricks for your business, but it’s a fantastic way to make new contacts and exchange key learnings with influencers that you never would have met otherwise.
Just make sure you stay connected, stay organized, and stay hydrated, and you’ll be a conference whiz in no time.
What’s your most valuable piece of advice for conference attendees?