I’ve lost count of the number of conferences I’ve attended. I average five or so per year, so over 20 years, that’s at least 100 events. Here are some things I’ve learned about successful conference attendance.
Make a plan
Sometime before the conference, make a plan. Look over the program, and flag all of the presentations that you want to attend. Also identify open time slots where you’ll have time to network or visit the vendors you want to talk to.
Be open to possibilities: If a friend tells you that a speaker is great (or terrible), or you discover a new topic, change the plan.
I generally prioritize “known good” speakers over “looks interesting” topics.
At in-person events, introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. Comment on a session as you are leaving it and get to know your neighbor. At meals, sit down next to someone you do not know and start a conversation. You never know who you might meet. And conferences are tailor-made for this. Easy conversation starters include, “What’s your favorite session so far?” or “What session are you planning to attend at 10 a.m.?”
In a virtual event, make use of chat if it’s offered or a Twitter hashtag to participate in the conversation.
Don’t overlook the trade show. Here is your chance to ask vendors about products and services. Even if you are not buying this year, it makes sense to get information for future reference.
The hallway track
The hallway track refers to the side conversations, networking, discussions, and serendipitous meetings that happen outside the formal program. It is the most valuable part of a conference–and the hardest one to reproduce online. When you attend a conference, you want to maximize the hallway track. Introduce yourself to people you know only from LinkedIn or Twitter. Attend that social event that’s outside your comfort zone (karaoke, anyone?). If you are a conference veteran, help out the newbies by introducing them to the people that they need to know.
It’s the hallway track where you forge professional connections that further your career. You find out about job possibilities, or learn about new software, or hear rumors about what’s coming down the pipe from industry vendors.
Online versus in-person
The in-person conference experience offers more than the online option, with two huge caveats: physical requirements and expense.
Physical requirements: For an in-person conference, attendees must be willing and able to travel, sometimes long distances, and dedicate several days to the conference. The sheer physical demands of an in-person conference rule out attendance for some. Others have caregiving responsibilities that make travel impossible. International travel is more and more challenging–I’ve been told by a few people based in Asia that they only attend conferences in Europe because getting visas for the US has gotten so difficult in the past few years.
Expense: Most online conferences are free or very inexpensive. In-person conference attendance is pricey especially when you factor in hotel, meals, and travel.
Are in-person conferences better? Yes, but only if you can get there. If you cannot, for whatever reason, then an online event provides a great alternative.
So make a plan, talk to everyone, and especially focus on making new connections. It is so much fun to attend an event and reconnect with conference friends. At tcworld this year, I learned that someone had taken up ballroom dancing, had a lengthy discussion about branches of Protestantism (“Where are the Swedes?”), probed the complexities of German train tickets, helped a hungry vegetarian navigate a German lunch menu (it didn’t go that well), had a brief discussion about a client project, got an update on several software packages, learned a few things about iiRDS, and met two new industry consultants who are the adult sons of consultant friends (that’s how you know you are getting old).
We also discussed our plans for an online event tied to LearningDITA.com (watch this space for more on that), found out about the state of the tech comm and localization industry in Denmark, and so much more.
Finally, be safe. Travel in packs with your friends and colleagues. If you are new to the event, find a likeminded solo attendee and make your own pack.