Events are a great excuse to get out of the office, meet and swap experiences with other practitioners, and get a fresh perspective on the industry. But attending a conference can be a big commitment – particularly for first timers unsure of what to expect or how to get the most out of the trip.

Whatever the event you hope to attend (Content Marketing World, anyone?), it’s worth putting in a bit of prep before you head off to the airport.

Approving the trip

Sometimes the first step to surviving an event is getting the trip approved in the first place. And if you’re the manager in question, that decision might rest with you. Let’s deal with some of the common objections.

Perception: Loss of hours when work needs to be done

Reality: The right conference can help an employee become more productive by learning from some of the leading practitioners in the industry. Plus, networking with other attendees may result in new clients, partners, or even hires for your company.

Perception: The wider team doesn’t benefit

Reality: Even if the office can only spare one person to attend, that person can bring back the best insights and actionable advice to share with the rest of the business. Read more about how to turn conference notes into an action plan and schedule time for the attendee to present the findings on their return.

Perception: Loss of agency billable hours

Reality: How many teams or employees bill the full 40 hours to clients? There’s usually some wiggle room for time out of the office – particularly if they return with insights, skills, or connections related to current clients or projects. It’s also a great way to see what other agencies are doing.

Perception: It’s expensive

Reality: Do you know what else is expensive? Hiring and onboarding a new employee because the one who left wasn’t given a chance to grow professionally. The right conference can be part of an employee’s career development or a way of showing you value that person’s hard work.

Perception: It’s one big party

Reality: Events can be really fun. People are excited to catch up with each other. Networking opportunities usually involve food and drink. And, yes, there may be jokes the following morning about who stayed out too late the night before. A conference can be all of these things – but after a long day of learning, is a couple of drinks with a room full of industry peers really a bad thing?

The bottom line: Give your team – and yourself – a budget each year to attend something that will help them grow professionally and as a person.

Of course, you shouldn’t just approve every event request. Ask the tough questions:

  • Why this conference? What differentiates it?
  • If they’ve attended before, why do they want to go back?
  • How will this conference benefit the company and/or clients in the next six to 12 months?
  • Will they present their findings and highlights to the team on their return?
  • Who else on the team might benefit from going?

Preparing for the event

Once you and/or your team are registered, the question becomes how to get the most out of the trip.

Plan and pack with purpose by thinking ahead.

How will you take notes? Do you plan to use a laptop or tablet? Decide if you’re going to take notes and capture information in an event’s mobile app, a note-taking app such as Evernote, or something else? (Notepad and pen, anyone?) Naturally, make sure you take the corresponding chargers (including an international converter if flying overseas) and a backup power bank in case access to power outlets becomes a thing.

Do you plan to capture your own content? In a conference hall packed with interesting people, there may be many opportunities to grab audio or video with other attendees, speakers, or sponsors – even if just to share with the rest of the team on your return. Adding a small external mic, audio recorder, or camera to your kit can make a huge difference when capturing audio or video. (Don’t forget headphones.) And make sure you have enough local data storage on your devices or bring an external hard drive, so you don’t become “that person” trying to livestream or upload 5GB of media files to the cloud over the conference Wi-Fi.

Will you be comfortable? This might sound trivial but feeling too hot or cold can be very distracting in an otherwise fascinating breakout session. (Pro tip: You may think the conference organizers know room 25 is chilly, but you may be the first to mention it.) The same goes for comfortable shoes. You might be surprised how much walking you will do over the course of a conference and a blister can certainly slow you down a bit.

And then there are the business cards, spare pens, mints, Band-Aids®, travel umbrella, and other items that are easy to forget, creating a genuine nuisance should you need them.

Food and drink

Most all-day or multi-day events include lunch – some even include breakfast – and usually give you the option of specifying any dietary requirements during registration, which makes at least one meal a day easy. Also, it would be an unpopular event that didn’t serve (plenty of) coffee and beverages during breaks.

However, you may want to take the opportunity to venture outside the venue for some fresh air and a walk (or perhaps a shorter coffee queue). Knowing in advance where the nearest cafés are or the location of the best artisan coffee in town reduces the risk of being late back to the conference.

Evening meals are usually your responsibility – and it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself without a great deal of time between the packed afternoon agenda and the evening entertainment. It’s worth doing a little research beforehand, including opening times and distance from where you’re staying. You don’t want to be wandering an unfamiliar city in search of a decent vegetarian menu (for example), only to give up in the hope there will be something you can eat at the networking event. If you intend to have a drink or two, it’s a good idea to have something more substantial to eat than a couple of tiny quiches between conversations at the cocktail hour.

Networking tips

Ah, the networking. Networking is so much more than hitting the evening entertainment nights and having cocktails. And it’s certainly not the overly business-like, stuffy, rubbing elbows vibe from back in the day. Networking at events can happen at any time and in so many different ways, such as:

  • Chatting with someone in the breakfast or snack lines about which sessions they’ve liked and why. Perhaps swapping business cards to share notes for a session you couldn’t attend.
  • Discovering a sponsor in a booth with a comfortable couch for that desperately needed 10-minute reprieve and listening to them talk about their technology. This may include a lightbulb moment when you realize this is exactly what you need for your job.
  • Finding a conference buddy who has also come alone to the event to meet up for lunch, bounce ideas off, and commiserate with over your latest project’s roadblocks.
  • Using the conference app to arrange an early morning run with other attendees and get the blood pumping before the sun has fully risen.
  • Meeting a speaker in the hall who genuinely wants to say hello, answer your questions, and get your feedback about their session. (Attendees aren’t the only ones looking to improve their skills, you know).

For the introverts in the room, there are some natural opportunities to strike up a conversation: in food lines, when you’re sitting waiting for a session to start, even at the restroom sinks. Find someone sitting alone at lunch because, if anyone can, you can relate to how she or he might be feeling. Overcome some of this conference anxiety by downloading the event app to start networking behind the comfort of your mobile device screen. Make plans to meet by a certain coffee station, sponsor booth, or session. And just know: You’re not alone. Many, if not most, conference attendees feel the same way you do.

For the extroverts, keep your eyes open. Whether you’re walking through the cavernous halls of a convention center, standing in a circle of pals at an evening networking event, or even walking into a session, find the person standing alone and ask if she or he would like to join. You might hear a no, but just know the person is grateful for being acknowledged.

Events are worth the time and investment, but forward thinking and preparing for events will improve your experience. Don’t just survive an event, experience it and maximize your time there.