Whether it's a national conference or a one-day professional meeting, careful planning can enable you to get the most out of attending a conference.
First, consider yourself lucky if your employer has given you permission, or perhaps even selected you, to attend a conference. In these days of multimedia and telecommunication, the opportunity to attend a conference in person is a special event. Getting educational information firsthand is rapidly being replaced by journals, the Internet and audiovisuals. Your employer may not only be paying the registration fee, travel expenses, but also covering for your absence in the time you are gone. You need to get full value from your attendance and bring back affirmation that this was well worth the expense.1
Reasons for Attending a Conference
There are a variety of reasons and possible benefits from attending a conference1:
- To supplement your education, gain new information
- Network with others and meet share with peers and colleagues
- Allow sales personnel to thank you for your use of their products
- See new products and developments
- Get stimulated with new ideas
- To enjoy yourself.
Strategies for getting the most out of a conference begin well before the conference begins.
1. Be Sure the Conference Meets Your Needs. To find out of a conference meets your needs read the brochure thoroughly. Do the objectives really meet a need you have? Do you get to attend enough sessions that you want if you have to choose between concurrent sessions? If there are blocks of time where nothing looks appealing, then perhaps this is not the conference to attend.
Do you want a research-based conference or a content-based program? The latter is more useful if you are trying to build knowledge in a new area. Poster exhibitions/research presentations are more useful for sparking ideas in a knowledge area you are comfortable with. Conferences that combine both are very useful.
If you are looking for a conference that meets your needs it is helpful to get on mailing lists for conferences. Join list serves in areas of interest as conferences are often announced in that media. Many journals carry lists of upcoming conferences.
It is also helpful to set goals before you go. This can include making a list of the issues that are a concern in your workplace and then making a list of personal goals. This will help generate a list of what you want to bring back from the conference.
2. Plan Your Time Before You Go. Before going to a conference you must plan your time. Planning lets you decide which sessions you will attend and to select strategically from concurrent sessions. If you don't go armed with a plan, you will get caught up in the myriad of activities and just drift around. Lack of proper organization can allow you to miss the most helpful sessions and contacts.
You may want to read information provided about presenters. An author search will tell you what they have published. If possible read through their material. If it becomes very repetitive, you may find you won't learn more from a conference presentation. Reading will also stimulate questions you will want to have answered. Be sure to take your notes and questions with you. You should use your list of goals to help decide which sessions to attend.
As you plan, select the "must do" sessions, those with relevance to your job, a topic of real interest, or why you were sent to this particular conference. These will be the sessions that justify your attendance and the time and expense.
Then topics can be selected which you would really like to know more about but have not had time to bone up on. These are value-added topics.
Finally, you may want to pick a couple of sessions that are outside your area of expertise. These can be broadening sessions.
Don't spend the week before a conference frantically getting ready and staying up late to arrive at a conference exhausted. You don't want to have to spend time at the conference getting caught up on lost sleep.
Many conferences publish an "early registration" list of attendees. This will give you the opportunity to see if there are people on the list you really want to get in touch with. You may want to try to prearrange a "lunch" or other meeting times.
3. Pack Your Luggage Strategically. Pack your luggage to include items for fun as well as those that will enhance your benefit from the conference. For example, take a fun book or craft project to work on in the evenings if there are no sessions or evening activities. If you have an extended plane trip you may want to plan a "project" to work on while you are on the plane or waiting in an airport. This will help you feel you are not "wasting time."
If you need to stay connected with your workplace, take a lap top computer with Internet cord. This can decrease your concern about trying to get to a phone to call in.
Take plenty of business cards to give to persons you meet. Business cards also enable you to get a response to a question from a speaker. Business cards are great for networking. Hand your business card to everyone you meet and ask for theirs.2
If you are job-hunting, conferences are excellent places to look for a job. You may want to take an "ad" for the job you are looking for the job information board. Bringing your resume can come in handy if you find a recruiter with a job you are interested in.
Another handy item to pack is a small flashlight or book light. This will be useful in sessions where you want to take notes and the lights are turned down.
It is often useful to take one or two cloth tote bags with you as you visit exhibits. The plastic ones that are given out by vendors don't hold up well. A tote bag can easily fit in your luggage and will be useful throughout the day as you collect items.
Be sure to include comfortable shoes! A conference is not where you want to "break in" a new pair!
4. Plan to Use Conference Time Wisely. If the conference has a "Newcomers Session" plan to attend. You will get plenty of helpful tips on what's available. Even if you are not a first-timer, you can pick up useful information about what is available at the conference and in the area.
As you plan your day, it is important to pace yourself. If you are scheduled so tightly you must run from session to session, you will run out of energy. Usually, the pace is so intense that you will be wise to plan a short break in the afternoon before the evening's events. Build in your plan some "downtime." Leave enough unplanned time that you can respond to last-minute invitations without a feeling of pressure.
Don't skip sessions to shop or spend the day sightseeing. Even though the setting may be in an exciting and exotic location, conferences should be first of all "working" times with session events being your first priority.
While "sleeping in" wastes valuable time, be sure to schedule adequate sleep during the conference. Sitting in a conference room and keeping a busy conference schedule can be tiring.
Often, meals are offered by vendors or the conference organizers. While it is tempting to sit with persons you know well, you will miss out on opportunities to meet new people and hear new ideas. Don't be shy. Talking with colleagues from around the country can be fun. Strike up a conversation with a stranger and take the opportunity to expand your network. You may want to go out for a meal with someone interesting you meet.
5. Make the Most of Vendors and Sponsors. To get the most out of your conference schedule, make time for visiting the exhibits and vendors. This is where vendors will be showing off their latest developments and soon-to-be-released products. It gives you the opportunity to see where the industry is going and to assess your organization's current situation. Be sure to examine the vendor list so you can find those of most interest to you. Vendors give you the unique opportunity to talk about problems you are having with their products.
Prepare for the vendors and exhibits you will encounter by making up address labels ahead of time.2 If you make up your own address labels at home and bring them along, you can avoid the time-consuming task of filling our cards with your name and address. This will allow you to quickly move from booth to booth "filling out" those cards in seconds. You can purchase computer Avery labels at your local office supply store and you can easily use 100 at a large conference. Also take plenty of business cards. Many time vendors ask for business cards for drawings.
Beware against trying to pick up everything. It is tempting at one's first couple of conferences to pick up as many goodies as possible. You may only have room in your luggage for so many free mugs. Many free things you will never look at again. On the other hand, if you have room to load up think of taking souvenirs to your colleagues back home who are doing your work in your absence.
Many exhibitors don't want the bother of packing left over samples to take home. Don't be afraid to ask for more samples on the last day. If the exhibitor is out of samples, providing a business card will likely get you samples mailed to your door.
There will be a number of conference-, sponsor- and vendor-sponsored events. Accept invitations to activities discerningly. Don't accept more invitations than you can attend and if you change your mind, let your host know. You may not think about it in advance but attending an early-breakfast event every morning can get tiring. If the private invitations are at off-site locations, keep in mind that transportation if often provided to the event but returning from the location may not be easily done until the end of the evening.
Get the Most out of the Sessions You Select
Be sure to take advantage of the expertise of the presenters. You may want to make a list of questions ahead of time. During the sessions you have selected, be an active participant and learner. Sit in the front and don't be afraid to ask questions of a speaker. Keep questions succinct and courteous. Make your questions general enough. A question-and-answer session is not an individual consultation. Your question may open up a goldmine of other experiences that the speaker has and expand on an area you really want to know about.
When you take notes, organize them after the conference. You should either take notes on a laptop computer or rework your notes when you get home. Develop a consistent system for taking notes.
While you want to attend as many sessions as possible, don't feel guilty if you miss one or two. If it is a multi-day conference you will need some breaks. The mind can take in only what the seat can endure.
It is important to be flexible. Sometimes there are glitches that planners and speakers simply cannot overcome. If the audiovisual equipment or the microphones malfunction, maintain a sense of humor. Save your ire for the things you can really change and that are worth getting upset about.
When you return to your workplace, be generous with your information with colleagues and your employer. Thank your employer by writing a brief synopsis of key points, contacts you made and tips or handouts you think might be appreciated.
File conference notes away in a meaningful way. You may want to keep the notes for each conference attended in a folder or file. You will want to look back through folders periodically to find ideas you have forgotten. Read through the bibs provided by the speakers-it can lead you to more resources, answer questions, etc. Make a plan for doing so, or you won't ever get back to it. Don't be afraid to weed out what is not useful and pitch it. While many ideas may have seemed exciting at the time, back home in the light of reality some will seem more practical.
Try to choose one or two things that you will be able to use in your workplace. It helps you feel your money is well-spent and can add creativity to your work setting.
Take advantage of contacts you made by calling people you met and letting them know you enjoyed meeting them. You never know how this network will be helpful in a business or personal context.
- Allman-Ward M. How to make the most of attending a conference. TMA Journal l998;18(5):72-74.
- McLeod R. 10 tips for a better conference. RN 2000;63(5):24-26.
Sally Erdel is program director of the Division of Nursing at Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN. Ruth Davidhizar is Bethel College's dean of Nursing and Becky Castro is an assistant professor at Bethel College.