As an event and meeting planner, I take it for granted that people know HOW to attend a conference. But when I recently attended an industry conference (the NACE Expo if you’re curious) and I was struck by the idea that not everyone gets to work around so many conferences and events, and might not know the do’s and don’ts. You might be thinking, how hard can it be to attend a conference? It’s not hard at all – in fact, if the conference planners did a good job then it should be easy and even fun – but there are some things you should think about ahead of time to make sure you make the most of your time. Think of this as the article that meeting planners wish they could tell conference newbies (or even veterans). Or if you’re reading this AS a meeting planner, take the time to make sure your pre-conference information covers these items if it doesn’t already.
Make a game plan: What are you hoping to get out of the conference? Are there particular sessions you want to attend? Speakers you want to hear? People you want to meet? Go through the schedule ahead of time and plan which sessions you will attend. Sounds like a simple idea, but lots of people attend conferences without opening the schedule until right before the morning general session starts. Take the time to plan ahead! If you need to preregister for certain sessions, make sure you do so. If there are certain sessions that are popular and might fill to capacity, make sure you leave time in your schedule to hustle over there (conferences are notorious for packing the schedule and not leaving enough time between sessions).
Dress for the day: My conference attendee uniform is actually pretty similar to my event planner uniform: comfy shoes, layers and pockets. Comfortable shoes because you might be on your feet (event planners are definitely on their feet) – you might have to hustle across a convention center to make it to that speaker you’ve been dying to see, or there might be limited seating at the cocktail reception. Comfortable shoes are a must. I understand that you want to be stylish too, so if you must wear heels, consider throwing a pair of flats in your bag, too. Layers are crucial because meeting rooms are notoriously freezing. Event planners would rather have some guests be cold than all the guests be hot and uncomfortable, so bring a sweater. (Pro tip: event planners tend to hate when people tell them the hotel ballroom is too cold. Just sayin’) Pockets are a great plus for easy access to business cards – more on that later. Finally, choose an outfit that will work with your conference badge. I tend to not worry about fancy necklaces when I have a badge because the badge gives me enough going on, but YMMV.
Get your devices ready: Charge your phones – cell phone reception and 4G can be spotty in hotels and convention centers, draining your battery. Charge them ahead of time. If you’re planning on using an ipad, tablet or laptop for taking notes, charge that too. There may be outlets available in the room but you’re probably not the only one who wants to use them. If you think you might need internet access, find out if it will be included ahead of time. At the most recent conference I attended, the post-conference survey asked if I used the free wifi. I had no idea there was free wifi! If this is important to you, find out if it will be available and whether you will need a password. Keep in mind that bandwidth will be limited since there will likely be tons of other people online in the same room – don’t try to stream YouTube videos no matter how boring the speaker is!
Download the conference app: It seems like every conference has an app now. Download it before you get there and play around with it. Apps range in usability and quality widely, but the best ones allow you to customize your schedule and access materials like presentations and speaker bios right on your phone. Play around with these features before you arrive.
Know where your materials will be: Before the conference starts, find out where important materials will be – schedules, presentations, continuing education credits, etc. As more companies go green, fewer are printing these out so you might need to log into the app or a website after the conference, or they might only provide paper copies on request.
Be ready for networking: Bring business cards, obviously! Have them readily accessible – I like to wear a blazer – one pocket for my cards that I’m giving out, another for cards I’m receiving.
Know where your meals will be: Not every conference includes meals! If yours doesn’t, scope out some places to eat nearby, or perhaps a bit farther away. I guarantee that the coffee shop adjacent to the convention center or the hotel restaurant will be mobbed if lunch isn’t provided, but the McDonald’s across the street might not be. If meals are provided, make sure you let the conference organizers know if you have special dietary needs, such as vegan, gluten-free, Kosher, etc. But be reasonable in your requests and the conference organizers will try to accommodate.
Be ready to be out of the office: There are always emergencies and unexpected situations that may call your attention away, but barring those, be respectful to fellow conference attendees and actually give your full attention to the conference. As the kids say, “Be who you with.” Put up an out of office auto response for your email and try not to check your phone every two minutes. Let your colleagues back at the office know that you shouldn’t be bothered unless it’s a truly urgent matter.
There you have it! Follow these tips and you’ll be ready to attend a conference like a pro! Did I forget anything? Let me know in the comments!