I LOVE going to conferences: meeting new people, getting new ideas, hearing stories about how they impact our communities, commiserating with my peers, and getting a reminder that none of us are in this alone… it’s a great refresher and reminder about why we do what we do.
Conferences can be overwhelming in a “normal” year, but if you add in social distancing, masks, and coordinating COVID tests or uploading vaccine cards, taking some time to think about how you’ll tackle your conference experience before you leave home can help you make the most of your time away! Here are a few tips to help make things go swimmingly:
Identify at least three (3) goals you have for the conference.
I know, I know – this is starting to feel like work when you’ve been looking forward to having some fun and seeing old friends. I promise if you take some time to think about what you (or your team or your organization) need for the conference, you can make sure that you don’t miss anything while you’re there. It doesn’t have to be anything monumental, but it will help guide you in selecting sessions and planning your time in the exhibit hall: maybe you’re looking for new program ideas, hoping to find some recruiting best practices, planning to connect with a mentor, or researching new vendors for rescue tubes.
Get Your Game Plan Together
Now that you have your goals start planning which sessions you’ll attend. Back in the olden days (you know. . .2015), we would open our program guides and circle the sessions we wanted to attend. Now you can peruse the website or app, but the idea is the same: choose the sessions you want to attend! Think about your goals for the conference, look for your favorite speakers, and collaborate with anyone else from your agency who is attending. (While it’s nice to attend a session with your peers, there’s a benefit to a “divide and conquer” plan.) If you’re attending on your own, reach out to professionals from other agencies and see if you can coordinate which sessions you’ll attend to get as much information as possible! Have a plan for the exhibit hall as well – hit all the vendors to see what’s out there, visit your current vendors, and make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to check out the latest innovations. Make sure to plan enough time to actually interact with vendors – they’re experts in our field and often have insight and ideas to share!
Embrace the social side of conferences – and the social media side. Once you identify the sessions, you plan to attend, connect with the speakers on LinkedIn and Twitter or follow their organizations on Instagram. Post about the conference before you leave or search the conference hashtag to find other people who are attending! Make sure that you post about your #conferenceexperience throughout the event, and don’t forget to use your agency’s social media platform to share with your community!
Remember What You Learn
Have a plan to remember what you learn. Going from session to session, chatting with your friends, and trekking through the exhibit hall can become overwhelming and make it easy to forget who said what. Whether you like a notebook or take notes on your iPad, be sure that you’re set before you arrive. I’m a huge fan of the GoodNotes app on my iPad – I can write, type, and take pictures of slides all in the same place and convert them to a PDF to share. Now, if I can only remember my charger… which brings me to my next tip!
Your Conference Survival Kit
Before you head out, make a conference survival kit. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing that you don’t have your business cards when you get to a vendor booth or approach a speaker for more information or stressing because your phone died at lunch and you need to be available if your team reaches out (more about that later). Make your survival kit meaningful by adding a stack of business cards (at least twice as many as you think you’ll need), a portable phone charger, pens, a stain stick, breath mints, some band-aids (advice from a girl who has spent way too many conferences complaining about blisters on my heels!), pain killers, and a refillable water bottle. And if we’re at a conference together, and you need any of these things (or a hair tie, antacids, single-use toothbrush with the paste already applied or tinted lip gloss) come find me – I’ve got you covered!
While At Conference, Focus on Conference
Don’t be afraid to leave work at home. A few days away from your pool can feel like an eternity, but you’ve invested a lot of time and money to attend the conference, and it’s worth it to try to disconnect. I have faith that you’ve trained your team well, and it’s time to let them fly! Coordinate with the other Supervisors who will be helping cover your staff, let your on-deck and program leaders know what you expect them to handle and when they need to call you, and then let them do their thing. It’s good for your team to feel like you trust them, and it’s good for you to know that you have a few days to focus on professional development!
Expand Your Circle
And a note from my Mom: meet three new people every day! Okay, so that bar might be a little low for a conference with hundreds (or even thousands) of people, but the idea is right regardless. You are here to learn and connect – say hello to the people sitting around you, meet people in the exhibit hall, and ask if you can sit with someone at lunch or a social. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to expand your circle!
Just as importantly, don’t let those conference connections end with the conference. Some of my dearest adult friendships and most valuable professional relationships started at conferences.
Take some time to wrap it up.
- When you get back to your office, review your goals and think about how you achieved them.
- Write a report for your board or your supervisor. Consider a list of the sessions you attended with at least three action items that came from your conference experience.
- Make a plan for your action items and post it on your whiteboard.
- Connect with speakers on social media or send them thank you notes. Speakers spend a lot of time working on content, and they love to get your feedback!
Conferences are fun and filled with learning and meeting new people, and I still have notes and lifelong friendships from conferences I’ve attended the last two decades. As you look to conferences in the coming months, I have one more tip: give yourself (and others) some grace. It’s been a long time since we were in such large social settings, and we’re approaching conferences in a way we’ve never approached them before. And don’t forget to have a little fun while you’re at it!