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26 tips to get the most out of a conference

With conference season fast approaching, use these tips to show up prepared to make the most out of your experience -- before, during and after the event.

Conferences -- those gatherings of people under the banner of a common theme or industry -- are back. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person conferences went virtual or simply went away. However, a return to normalcy means conferences are booming again.

Attending a conference can be a valuable opportunity for professionals to learn, network and grow in their respective fields, and there are conferences on nearly every technology topic imaginable, including top events for the following:

Benefits of attending conferences

Staying current with the latest topics, trends and issues is critical across industries. One effective way to accomplish this is by participating in conferences related to one's career. Conferences provide a platform for networking, learning and growth, making them an essential part of professional development.

More specifically, the benefits of conference attendance include the following:

  • Education. Informative details on new topics and technologies and how successful organizations accomplish tasks highlight the primary benefits of attending conferences. Conferences in each industry consistently focus on imparting knowledge to attendees.
  • Knowledge sharing. Beyond one-way education, in which an expert expounds on a subject, conferences provide a forum for knowledge sharing. Common to many conferences are panels featuring multiple experts bringing diverse viewpoints to a topic. Many conferences also have sessions that allow for audience questions, providing attendees an opportunity to directly ask experts about an issue.
  • Networking opportunities. Conferences bring together experts, thought leaders and professionals who share an interest in a particular topic. Beyond education, conferences provide a unique chance to expand personal or professional networks. Attendees cross paths with more experienced professionals, as well as individuals who share a similar role or interest in a given industry.
  • Business development. From a business development perspective, conferences are great places to meet potential clients, investors or partners. The connections made at conferences lead to valuable collaborations, business deals and even new job opportunities.
  • Certification. Some conferences also offer specific certification tracks, during which the certification exam for a particular topic is administered.
  • Inspiration and motivation. Many conference sessions are designed to impart life lessons and inspire attendees. These sessions typically feature someone outside of the core industry, perhaps an athlete, actor or other accomplished professional. These shared success stories provide fresh perspectives for attendees to consider in approaching challenges.

Preparing for a conference

Many modern conferences are busy affairs, with multiple tracks, rooms, speakers and types of sessions. To take full advantage of a conference, approach the event with a thoughtful plan in place.

The following are a few key tips to help prepare for a conference.

Set basic goals

Before registering for a conference, take a moment to identify what you hope to achieve. Are you eager to learn about the latest trends and technologies? Perhaps you're excited about networking with industry leaders. It's also essential to consider if you want to use the opportunity to promote your work.

Once you have a clear understanding of your objectives, tailor your conference experience to make the most of it. Remember, having a well-defined purpose maximizes the benefits you gain from attending.

Research the agenda and speakers

It's just not possible, nor is it advisable, to go to every single session at a conference. Take the time to scrutinize the agenda, speakers, panels and workshops. Based on the goals that have been set, prioritize the sessions and events. Also, consider networking events adjacent to the main conference topic tracks -- like a booth crawl or happy hour -- that provide additional networking opportunities.

Download the conference app and sync calendars

In the modern era, every conference uses some type of web or mobile application for its agenda. It is essential to download the mobile app or the conference's web agenda, which is so critical for planning.

Some conferences, to ensure sufficient seating, even require attendees to book attendance for certain sessions, usually with the conference app. In addition, the conference app or web interface often synchronizes with existing calendars, such as Outlook or Google Calendar, and provides notifications and updates.

Schedule meetings

Besides conference sessions, there are also opportunities to network with colleagues, partners or potential clients. With a planned conference agenda in hand, filling in available time slots with meetings helps attendees to optimize time.

What to bring to a conference

There are several items attendees should bring to a conference. Among the most important are the following:

  • Laptop and charging cable. Taking notes is a whole lot easier using a laptop computer than using a pen and paper. Include a charger as well to benefit from power plugs when they're available.
  • Smartphone with sufficient data. Wi-Fi at some conference venues is poor. By bringing along a smartphone with lots of data, it's possible to tether the laptop to gain connectivity with a mobile hotspot. Again, be sure to bring the charger, as well as a battery pack; tethering heavily drains batteries.
  • Comfortable shoes. With many conferences spanning multiple rooms across large venues, there can be a lot of walking. Wear comfortable yet professional shoes.
  • Printed schedule. If phones die or Wi-Fi and connectivity fail, having a printed version of your schedule can be a lifesaver in navigating sessions, locations and timing.
  • Patience. Even a well-planned conference takes a strange turn once in a while -- consider overcrowded rooms, delayed sessions or a last-minute change in speakers. Packing a bit of patience -- and unpacking it when necessary -- makes for a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

During the conference

There are a number of best practices to consider throughout the conference. The following is a list of some tips to make the most of your time:

  • Arrive early to obtain your entrance badge. The first day of a conference is when attendees typically receive a badge, and often, the line to get the badge is long -- sometimes incredibly long. Be among the first to arrive to speed up this process and ensure registration for keynote speeches and sessions of interest. In addition, early attendees typically have an easier time becoming familiar with the venue in general.
  • Take notes and get session takeaways. You brought a laptop to take notes, so be sure to do that. The long-term value of a conference session is derived from an attendee's ability to learn something new and leave with takeaways. Highlight key takeaways -- stats, ideas, quotes and actions -- that you feel resonate beyond the conference's scope.
  • Ask questions. When possible and if appropriate, ask questions of the speakers about things that aren't clear or about items of interest. Remember, that's what the knowledge-sharing part of the conference is all about.
  • Visit exhibitor booths. A core element of many conferences is an exhibit hall. Sure, visitors are bombarded with marketing and sales pitches, but the booths are a great place to see relevant vendors and learn about products and services. Many vendors also give away conference schwag and promotional items, as well as offering contests for different items.
  • Don't forget the hallway track. Many conversations and ad hoc meetings occur outside of session rooms out in the hallway. It's a phenomenon known as the hallway track. At some conferences, the hallway track can be especially valuable, providing the opportunity to meet people and discuss topics of interest.
  • Attend social events. Conferences offer networking events. Choose ones that fit your schedule and interests. Don't feel obligated to attend all of them. Use off-site events sparingly to complement learning time; be strategic in selecting among these with fellow attendees whose company you enjoy.
  • Hydrate. Conferences include long days in dry buildings, so staying hydrated is critical to feeling well and gaining the most from the experience.

After the conference

The activities and actions taken after a conference often yield some of the greatest benefits. After all, a conference is only a few days, but its impact can last a whole lot longer. Here are some after-conference actions to take:

  • Review notes and takeaways. Strong, detailed note taking, as mentioned above, enables thoughtful reflection after the conference. From there, diligent attendees can glean useful takeaways and action items.
  • Follow up. Stay connected with recent contacts by sending them a follow-up email or extending a LinkedIn invite.
  • Share with colleagues. Discuss the conference experience and key lessons from it with colleagues, especially those who did not attend. Share how takeaways could potentially impact your organization's collective work.
  • Provide feedback. Most conference organizers welcome feedback on what worked well and what could be improved. Providing thoughtful feedback helps shape the agenda for future events.

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