Recently I was catching up with a colleague who was lamenting about having to attend another conference for work. I knew exactly how she felt, faced with the feeling that there is no extra time to go out of town for a few days. She had already been to a handful of conferences in the past year, and the topics and speakers were all blending together. She simply was not benefitting from the time spent away from work.
When it comes to attending conferences for professional development, be intentional about prioritizing what is most important to you and identifying what you can benefit from most. It is so easy to fall into the trap of cycling through from one obligation to the next without any purpose at all.
Conferences are expensive and time consuming. From the entry fee, travel and hotel costs, meal stipends, and entertainment, your employer is making an investment by sending you as the company’s representative, so gaining knowledge and new connections that can help grow the business should be the return.
Before the event, develop an action plan on how to tackle the conference to get the most out of it. Go online to identify the speakers you want to see ahead of time. Read topics and bios and watch videos to find out who gives dynamic presentations.
Locate the attendee list, so you can contact clients, customers, vendors, and colleagues who will also be in attendance. Schedule to meet for a break-out session, an after-hours drink, or to see a local tourist attraction during downtime. Using this trip as an opportunity to cultivate existing relationships should be a top priority.
You are also going to be meeting a lot of new people so be prepared with your elevator speech, a 30-second (or less) synopsis on who you are and what you do. Upon introduction you should be able to succinctly state your name, your title, and the company you work for, how you provide solutions for your customers, and why you enjoy what you do.
Once you have made it to your destination, checked into your hotel, and picked up your lanyard and conference materials from registration, it is time to hear those speakers you preselected. If there are more than one speaking at the same time, go to half and half, or pivot if the first you go to does not captivate your attention in the first few minutes. Be flexible. As you are listening to each presentation, jot down questions to ask during the Q&A, but be sure to keep them general so they are relevant to other attendees as well.
Take notes on key takeaways from each presentation but make them actionable so you know what to do with them when you are back in the office. Ideas for a client, additional reading on an interesting topic, or following up with a speaker or fellow attendee are all examples of next steps you might follow through on upon your return.
Focus on learning and making connections, but be on social media too. You can live tweet, post videos, create an Instagram story or a photo gallery on Facebook, all while using the conference hashtag to engage with other attendees, speakers, organizers, as well as those who were not able to attend. Connect with people you meet on LinkedIn while you are at the event so you can further the relationship after the conference.
Once you are back in the office, reach out quickly to those you met at the conference. If too much time passes, you will forget them, they will forget you, and those connections will be lost. Be timely and make a lasting impression. Send an email with an article that is relevant to a conversation you had, mail a thank-you note or set up a sales call, whatever is appropriate for that person depending on whether it is a potential customer, a speaker or an event organizer.
Invite your co-workers to a lunch and give a presentation to hit the high points from the best speakers and share your most valuable takeaways. Include photos of speakers, with fellow attendees, of the destination to illustrate how you and the company benefited through your attendance. Make a recommendation on whether you should go back to that conference again next year. If not, allocate the expense to another conference where more value will be found.
Andrea Wiley is director of account management at DCA Creative Communications Consulting, and is an adjunct professor teaching advertising at the University of Memphis. She was the 2015-2016 president of the American Advertising Federation, Memphis Chapter, and can be reached at [email protected]