5 Tips for Maximizing Your Conference Experience

This is part two of a series on conferences. Part one highlighted some of the most popular conferences focusing on social entrepreneurship and can be found here.

People join conferences for a variety of reasons: Some join to be inspired while others join to learn, network, play, promote, raise funds, or simply have fun. Here are five approaches to achieving your goals that can be applied to any type of conference, from a social enterprise conference to the widget-makers world summit.

The Super Researcher

This organized conference goer takes a long-term planning approach to the event. Weeks before putting on their conference badge, they are systematically going through the full list of attendees, researching their bios, tracking their tweets and latest blogs, and making lists of who would be most valuable for them to meet before scheduling all of their meetings in advance.

Pros: You'll be the most prepared person in the room and more efficient with your time.

Cons: Booking all of your time in advance could mean missing out on the chance for unplanned conversations with interesting people you meet for the first time at the event.

My experience:Though I typically take a more relaxed pre-conference approach, have been extremely grateful when my team has helped me do pre-conference research (Thanks guys!) especially when I have known the exact goals I want to get out of an event such as specific fundraising, networking, or learning targets. This is especially important at larger conferences where the number of people and sessions is too vast to really tackle during the course of the event, like SOCAP.

The Vacationer

A conference in the Caribbean? Some people wouldn't care if it was for underwater basket weaving -- they'll be there! If you are signing up for a conference for a break from the stress of day to day of work, you might want to pick one where you think you can have some fun!

Pros: You are able to escape from the routine stresses of work, and that alone can often spark the creativity you need to achieve your latest goals.

Cons: If you aren't careful, you could miss out on the whole conference by spending too long on the sailboat!

My experience: I certainly wont advocate for vacationing through a conference, but I'm sure we've all joined events where the schedule was just so hectic that that you needed to take a break to be able to keep a smile on your face. If you want the best of both worlds, here are few tricks I've tried:

  • Stay later or arrive early. This gives you time to enjoy the area outside of the hectic conference frenzy and get a little R&R in as well.
  • Attend the same event year after year. You will begin to create friendship, which can make the experience much more fun! Plus, you'll get to know which parts of the event are the most valuable, and make better decisions about when to sleep in.
  • Schedule in some fun. You can't always do it all. If the conference has events all day and all night, pick the ones you think are the highest priority and make the most of your time attending those while still leaving you time to relax. A good work/play balance is easy when the event is designed for both (like a conference on a cruise ship!).

The Lurker

Some people don't even bother signing up for the event. They know that everyone in their industry will be at the conference, so they plan to be in the area at the time of the event to set up meetings with participants. You can often find them lurking around the conference exit or setting up meetings in the coffee shop around the corner from the main venue.

Pros: You get to be around the energy without all of the cost, like many non-ticket holders just did with the recent Olympics.

Cons: Watch out about tying to sneak into private events! It would be really embarrassing to get kicked out of an event amongst your peers!

My experience: I only took the "lurker" approach once, when I could only be in the area for one day of a week long event, and that worked for scheduling meetings with conference participants. For the rest of the events I have wanted to attend and couldn't afford, I've found other ways to make the conference affordable: applied for fellowships, inquired about speaking, or signed up as an event volunteer. Many conferences need volunteers to help out in event organization for few hours a day, allowing you to attend the rest of the conference for free, so if lurking is not your thing, sign up to help!

The Serendipity Seeker

"It'll all work out the way it was meant to be," says the Serendipity Seeker in the group. Some people plan to not plan. They know that a certain event will be full of like-minded individuals or potential business partners and they show up, waiting to see what connections fate will bring them. They often find that it is not the panels themselves that draw them to the conference, but the spaces in between, where any number of new ideas or connections can be formed.

Pros: By not scheduling too much of your time in advance, you are free to take advantage of whatever opportunities come your way.

Cons: Some conferences are delegate-led, like the Opportunity Collaboration, and if you don't take the time to do your research in advance, you could miss out on the chance to lead a session or sign up for a highly popular event.

My experience: I've certainly taken this approach, especially when I haven't had enough time to read all of the conference materials before the first day. Even when I have planned meetings, I try to leave space for serendipity to take its course as some of the best connections I have made have been the ones I couldn't have planned for. I recommend sitting down with a table full of people you don't know over lunch and starting up a conversation, as you never know where it could lead. If you want to fully embrace this approach, turn your email off for the day and be fully present at the conference so that you can take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. There is no point leaving your office and investing your time and money to be at an event and then spending all of your time on email with people back at the office! Unplug from the interweb and plug into the inspiration around you! Here are a few ways to increase the good vibes that come your way:

  • Ask questions, and take an interest in those around you. In this way, you can add to your mental list of what this person does and how your organization and others could help or learn from their work.
  • Go out of your way to connect people with information and ideas that might help them, not just with what might help you. You'll be paid back through the goodwill you create by improving the experiences of others, and since doing good is one of the things that brings us joy in life, you'll feel good for it!
  • Talk to everyone. Of all of the people I have met at conferences, Bill Drayton of Ashoka is one of the most egalitarian engagers I have seen in action. When he is speaking with someone, no matter if they were the keynote speaker or a high school student eager to meet him, he gives them the same attention and respect. We can all learn a lot from Bill's attitude as you never know what you can learn from the person sitting next to you in the audience.

The Big Game Hunter

Like a hunter out to capture the biggest animals in the park, these conference goers are here for the big catch. They aren't looking to chat with any old conference goer -- they want to be best buds with the keynote speaker, be that Branson, Clinton, or anyone whose name is written largest on the program.

Pros: You could make that big connection you needed to launch your latest business idea or you could get to say you talked to (insert the name of whomever it is you are stalking!) next time you need to flex your bragging rights at a cocktail hour.

Cons: You can end up embarrassing yourself, wasting your time, or stepping over others along the way.

My experience: If your "To Meet" list is full of big names, you could spend your whole conference following the paparazzi-like fans around and never get a chance to engage with the speakers, so pick your goals wisely. On the other hand, if you know there is someone you could really benefit from knowing, don't be afraid to go for it, but you might want to keep these tactics in mind:

  • Stop drooling. The most famous conference attendees are used to people singing their praises, so if you are only in line to tell them you think they are great, your conversation might not be as memorable to them as it will be to you. I've certainly been speechless when meeting people, and if shaking their hand was all I was after, then this tactic has worked fine!
  • Be conscious of your timing. There might be a long line to speak with the keynote speaker once she has received her standing ovation, so it might not be the best time to pitch your latest business idea. You could ask her the best way to share this information afterwards or set up shop at the hotel bar in the nearest fancy hotel where the big names are staying. You're much more likely to have a chance for a longer chat over a beer than in a signature line!
  • Offer help, don't just ask for it. Gary Vaynerchuk (who I did indeed serendipitously meet at a conference) wrote a book called the Thank You Economy that highlights how we should take a giving vs receiving approach to our business growth strategies. Similarly, if you are going to meet the conference bigwig, think about what information, connections, or help you might be able to give them as it will probably be refreshing for them to hear an offer of rather than a request for help!

None of these conference maximizing approaches are exclusive, nor is this list exhaustive. I have certainly used different approaches based on how I am feeling that day and the level of energy at the event. If you are heading out to your first conference and are not sure how you want to approach it, you can always embody one of the most important other strategies, the Listener, taking notes, and watching the Big Game Hunters and Connectors in action! There are lots of ways to get the most of our conference experience and if you have suggestions for a different approach to take, let us know about it below!

Daniela Papi is the founder of a hybrid social enterprise in Cambodia consisting of PEPY and PEPY Tours and is currently a Skoll Scholar at Oxford's Said Business School. She regularly shares her thoughts on her blog Lessons I Learned and, even while vacationing, might be found serendipitously making connections at conferences!