Posted by Thomas Baldwin
Senior Manager, Conferences - Promotion and Communications - IEEE Computer Society
A lot of value can be obtained from attending conferences, both professionally and personally. You may be going to present a paper or going to learn from those who are speaking. You likely want to see old friends and make new ones. You might be looking for solutions to problems you’re facing at work.
The Computer Society’s conference staff attends many events each year, and collaborates with scores of conference organizers who have shared their personal experiences, and some of the best advice we can share is to take the time in advance and plan to make the most out of a conference before you get there.
Our team of professional meeting planners has outlined some recommendations for how to prepare in advance to attend a conference. You might want to consider these ideas if you want to ensure your investment in time and money will return full value.
- Identify your goals. Why are you going to this conference? What are you hoping to gain? Are looking for general or specific knowledge? Who do you want to meet? Will you be reconnecting with colleagues? Give some thought to these goals and any others that should be part of your pre-event planning process.
- Plan your agenda. Look at the conference’s program/schedule ahead of time. They are usually available on the conference’s website in advance. And the last thing you want to do is wait to make a decision about which session you want to attend until you’re standing in a busy hallway, surrounded by your fellow attendees who are rushing around you to get the best seats. Take the time beforehand to create a simple outline for yourself of the sessions, social functions and other activities you don’t want to miss‡. Many larger conferences even include online scheduling tools on their web sites to assist with this effort.
- Bring lots of business cards. Yes, business cards are “old school,” but they are effective and the fastest way to exchange contact information. Conferences are great networking opportunities and you don’t want to lose out on any networking connections because you didn’t bring enough business cards. When you do receive a business card, take a moment after the card exchange to make a quick note on the back of the card about the person and how you met them. Later, you can add them to your social network, or reach out to them through e-mail or by phone.
- Make an effort. Don’t just show up at a conference and hope for the best. Be proactive in the use of your time. If you’re not learning anything new in one room, go to another room. If a social function isn’t interesting, see if someone you know, or want to know, would like to go elsewhere to talk over drinks or dinner. Before the event, if you don’t know anyone who will be at the conference, try using social media to do some pre-event networking. Don’t spend all your time with people you already know. Reach out to new people, too.
- Plan for irregular hours. Most conferences don’t just run from 9–5. Many start early in the morning and continue into late evening with social functions. These aren’t what anyone would consider to be normal hours. Once you know the schedule for the conference, try to plan for a little downtime to call home, or just take time to relax or get in a workout. You know yourself better than anyone, so pace yourself accordingly during these busy, long days.
- Don’t overbook yourself. Be realistic in scheduling your activities. A conference should leave you refreshed, simulated and energized, allowing you to return home with new ideas and professional connections. You shouldn’t be going home exhausted. If you do, you probably tried to do too much and likely missed out on some valuable opportunities while you were too busy rushing around to see what was otherwise right in front of you. And don’t forget to plan time for dealing with those critical work issues that will unexpectedly appear in your inbox or voicemail.
- Pack comfortable shoes. Even if you don’t think you’ll even get out of the hotel during a conference, it’s very likely you’ll still be doing quite a bit of walking or standing. Make sure you have comfortable shoes that will allow you to spend time on your feet!
- Pack layers of clothing. Anyone who’s spent time in a crowded meeting room will tell you that the temperature is usually either too hot or too cold. Meeting rooms are usually kept cool to compensate for a crowd’s combined body heat. Thermostat settings are rarely on target since room occupancy is never exactly as expected. Bring a sweater or jacket; though be prepared to lose layers if the room heats up.
- Plan ahead for special meals. Advise the conference organizers ahead of time if you have any special meal requirements. With sufficient notice, most organizers can usually work something out with the hotel or conference center to meet your dietary needs.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water. You’ll feel better and it will help you stay alert through the day. You might want to consider that most conferences are going green and water is now typically made available from large containers, along with small recyclable cups. Think about bringing your own reusable water bottle, something you can pack, or pick up locally, though many conferences now include reusable water bottles in attendee registration bags.
Hopefully, these tips and recommendations will help you be prepared to maximize your conference experience while remaining comfortable and able to enjoy the event.
Additional Information: ‡ Some conferences offer an assortment of technical, cultural and/or social-side tours, exhibit halls (or booths) and unique networking opportunities for yourself and your company. These shouldn’t be overlooked when scheduling your time. If you are travelling to a location with interesting tourist attractions, you might want to explore these local attractions in advance through the venue link on either the conference’s or the hotel’s web site. Plan to make the most out of your trip!