Maybe you’ve scrimped and saved to budget a trip to the industry conference this year because it’s crucially important to you—or maybe your boss is making you go. Either way, you need to get as much out of the conference as you can. Conferences can be a wonderful place to learn new things, to get the early word on upcoming trends, and to network with people in your industry, but they can also be a frustrating timesink if you don’t have a plan. Here are some tips on getting the most out of your conference experience.
You may be going to the conference to network with other people facing similar problems, or to present your company’s world-shaking new technology, or to find vendors for your upcoming product cycle. It doesn’t matter exactly where you’re going, it matters that you have your priorities straight. Have a mission statement for the conference and use that mission statement to prioritize your time management choices. “I’m here to pitch people on our email solution” means you should choose taking five strong leads to lunch over attending a panel on upcoming server operating systems; “I’m here to help the CEO plan our IT strategy” means just the opposite.
There are few things worse than trying to get things done with a tired brain and body, and when you add in jet lag and travel fatigue it just gets harder. Get a good night’s sleep during the conference, but more importantly, come into the conference with a sleep surplus, not a sleep deficit. Some of us are born travelers who step off a plane well-rested and ready to party, but others are going to be a slug until the next day. If you’re in the slug camp, then try to get to the conference a day or even two days early. Take a vacation day if you have to. That way, you walk into the opening session bright-eyed and in top form.
If it is humanly possible, have a room in the same hotel where the conference is being held, or one within a block or two at most. Your time is at a premium, and being able to sleep that extra twenty minutes and still make your schedule is invaluable. In addition, the conference hotel is going to have the highest density of conference attendees, obviously, and so your networking opportunities will be maximized.
Have a schedule and a plan for the events you’re going to hit well in advance. The conference brochure and website are your allies here. Keep the geography of the event in mind. Try not to schedule yourself for a panel at 9 AM in East Siberia and a seminar at 10 AM in The Western Expanse. Print out a Google Maps-style itinerary and map showing you where everything is and when you have to be there, so that you can go directly from point A to point B without spending a half-hour wandering lost through the lobbies.
Business back at home is going to continue as usual in your absence, most likely, and if you’re spending all your time trying to manage it remotely, then why are you even bothering to go to the conference at all? Delegate your responsibilities well ahead of time and make sure that whoever is covering your beat is ready for your absence. Ideally you should get one email or text message a day from the home office, and that message should say “Everything’s fine, hope things are going well for you too.”
You’re probably going to want to post to social media about your conference experience, and taking a lot of pictures of you with people you’ve met makes for an easy and interesting post. “Here’s Dave shaking hands with Bill Gates!” It sounds cheesy, but people actually are interested to see a picture of Dave and Bill Gates. Plus, memorializing your meetings will cement those new contacts in your mind.
Everybody needs to eat, and most of us enjoy it. Use the social aspects of mealtime to network and to strengthen bonds with the people you’ve met. Don’t be obnoxious about it; nobody wants to hear your elevator pitch for the third time in between mouthfuls of lasagna. Mealtime is when people tend to lower their defenses and be more companionable. Take advantage of that and build relationships during that time.
If you’re at the conference to give out information more than to take it in, then have your pitch honed to perfection long before you get on the plane. Have an elevator pitch for those twenty-second conversations, and have a longer and more filled-out version for the people who brighten up and say “that’s fascinating, tell me more!”
Events become associated with hashtags long before the event actually opens. Know those hashtags in advance to optimize the value of your social media posts, whether you make them pre-event, during the event, or once you’re back home.
If you aren’t taking a picture, making a note, or actively posting something to your social media feed, put your phone away and concentrate on the human beings around you. (And try to save your social media posts for dead time like an empty elevator ride or a bathroom break.) You are at the conference to communicate with other people. Your phone isn’t going anywhere, but the other conference attendees are, so pay attention to them while you have them.
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