The Right Way to Do Conferences

Industry confabs can be a waste of time unless you have a game plan for how to network properly—and without putting your day job on hold.

Published: Jan 8, 2020


The last communications industry conference Alexandra attended didn’t leave her with much to bring back to the office. It seemed everyone she encountered was there to look for a new job. So unless you were in that camp (she wasn’t) or were a recruiter (she’s not), it was a waste of time, she says.

Alexandra’s story is all too familiar to many conference attendees, especially at a time when companies are ponying up attendance fees for their employees at record highs. In 2014, the conference industry pulled in $280 billion; today that number is a whopping $330 billion, with some 250 million people attending industry events each year.

Yes, conferences are busy. But that doesn’t mean your day job stops for them, nor should it mean you take forever to get back to people.

Of course, when you find the right one, attending a conference can be incredibly valuable, particularly when the idea of company upskilling is muddled. In one recent survey, 78% of employers said they were providing training and development opportunities to employees; but the majority of professionals—58%—disagreed. Ask yourself these questions to find the right event that’ll help you network and improve your skills.

What are you looking for?

With so many conferences to choose from, it’s difficult to understand what’s best for you if you don’t have a clear understanding of what you hope to gain. Do you need new clients? Are you looking for educational opportunities? Do you want to improve your leadership bona fides? “It’s a bit about knowing yourself,” says Frances Weir, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Once you’ve figured out your priority, look at conference reviews and reach out to folks who’ve attended to see what people say they gained. Attending the one that has breakout sessions when you want to learn about the newest technological tools in your field, for example, might make a lot of sense, while people who want ample networking opportunities should look for a schedule that has plenty of breaks built in.

Whom do you want to meet?

It’s often awkward when you show up to a conference where you don’t know anyone. “I’m not sure anyone is super psyched going on their own,” Weir says. One way to combat that feeling is to reach out to people before you get on the plane, even if you’ve met them just once or know them through someone else. This tactic gives you an ally you can turn to throughout the event, and also helps you plot your other encounters. If you don’t know anyone else who is going, use the list of attendees to find contact information and reach out to schedule a coffee break in advance. That way you’re not spinning your wheels when you get there and frantically eyeballing nametags to see whom you should or shouldn’t try to chat with.

How will you get your work done?

It can be such an obnoxious email for people to read: “I’m at a conference so I won’t be getting back to you until next week.” Yes, conferences are busy. But that doesn’t mean your day job stops for them, nor should it mean you take forever to get back to people—unless your conference is in some remote area where laptops and smartphones are banned. So before you leave, talk to your manager about their expectations while you’re away. Do they expect you to pick up every phone call? Will you have time to respond to email twice a day? Should you ask a peer to fill in for you? By having a plan, you’re ensuring that you’re able to be fully present at the conference, and not frantically responding to a problem from a hotel room when you should be networking.

How will you implement what you learn?

Think about all the times you’ve come back from a conference with a notebook full of tips and tricks and names to network with, only to stash it in your office drawer and not look at it again. One way to try and avoid this is to provide a conference debrief to your manager or team, Weir says. This allows your boss to see what you did with the company’s time and investment, and gives you the chance to draw up some action items you’d like to tackle based on your confab takeaways.

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