Regular training and development is essential to keeping your skills and expertise up to date. Ideally, your employer offers learning resources in-house. If not, you can pull together a DIY development plan, including attendance at professional conferences.
Professional conferences are an excellent way to boost your skills, expand your network and hear the latest news in your field. Hopefully, your employer pays for all or some of your attendance. If not, the registration, plus travel expenses, can be a significant financial investment. In addition, there is your time spent at the conference and opportunity cost from being away from work.
Given the money and time investment, you want to get as much as you can out of your conference attendance. Here are 10 ways maximize the career benefits of a professional conference:
1 – Decide on your career goal for being there
Are you aiming to meet new people or expand existing relationships? Are you looking to advance at the company where you are, changes jobs, or build up a freelance practice? Your goals will dictate your plan of attack for the conference. Having to clarify your goals is one benefit of the conference, even before you’re there – it’s always good to take stock of your career and make a proactive choice on what’s next.
2 – Prepare your marketing material
At a minimum, you want to have sufficient business cards and an updated LinkedIn profile. Depending on who you want to meet and your career goals, you may also need to update your resume, personal website and pull together a work portfolio. Needing to prepare your marketing material is another pre-conference benefit. You always want to have updated marketing materials to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, such as being poached by a competitor.
3 – Announce your conference attendance
Post your attendance on social media. Letting your connections know you will be there achieves two things: 1) you give your network a heads-up in case they will also be there and want to catch up with you; and 2) you signal to your network that you invest in your development. In addition, let the conference organizers know you’ll be attending and offer to help promote the conference or help out at the event. You may get discounted (or free) registration, an advance look at who will be there, and a boost to your networking since you’ll distinguish yourself from a regular attendee.
4 – Send personalized messages to people you would like to meet
In addition to a general message, send personalized messages to people you hope will be there and try to set up a meeting. That otherwise hard-to-get contact may be more available since it will be more convenient to meet. If you don’t know someone well enough to invite for a 1:1 meeting, meeting them at a conference they will attend anyway may grant you an opportunistic audience.
5 – Find out what recruitment or business development opportunities are offered at the conference
Sometimes conferences have a career fair attached or specific networking events meant for business development. If your company is sponsoring your trip, you’re there to represent the company so act with integrity. But if you’re attending at your own expense and your goal is to land a new job or new business, take advantage of any special support the conference lends. There might be a chance to submit your resume in advance, sign up for onsite interviews, or upgrade to VIP events with speakers and more senior attendees.
6 – Research the speakers, companies and attendees
You probably won’t be able to get a list of registrants in advance, but you should be able to see the speakers and the sponsoring companies. Review your network for who you already know, and connect before the conference (see step 4). Create a wish list for who you would like to seek out if they attend. Think about how you will introduce yourself and what you might talk about.
7 – Plan your conference schedule
Review the overall schedule, sessions, and optional events so you can proactively decide what you will attend based on your goals. For breakout sessions, have alternative choices in case the schedule changes.
8 – Work with a buddy
If you have a friend interested in the same conference, buddy up and help each other. You can divide and conquer overlapping breakout sessions, where you each attend different sessions and then compare notes. You can introduce each other at networking events – split up so you cover more ground, but resolve to find useful contacts for each other. I find that people listen more closely when they know someone else is relying on them, and having a purpose outside yourself (you’re doing it for your buddy!) can take the anxiety out of networking.
9 – Follow up with the people you met
If the conference is multiple days, send an email or connect on social media the same day that you met your new contacts. This way, the connection is fresh on your mind (and theirs). If you promised something (e.g., you thought of a contact they should know and offered to make an e-intro), do it within the same week to maintain the momentum. Too many people make introductions at conferences and then never speak again. Distinguish yourself by actually following up.
10 – Follow up with people who did not attend the conference
In addition to following up with people from the conference, follow up with your broader network who did not attend but who could benefit from what was shared at the conference. Share what you learned, post photos, and curate key takeaways. This is a generous way of following up with your contacts. It also positions you as knowledgeable about your field.