Getting the most out of a conference

Attending a business conference is more than just a way to leave the office routine behind for a while – it is a viable opportunity to get exposed to new ways of thinking and learn more about current and future technology. In addition, a conference can provide access to a widespread network of professionals from around the globe; but some still argue it is an exhausting and somewhat overwhelming experience.

So, how do you measure the value of a conference? Is it the number of business cards collected? Old relationships rekindled? New ideas gained? And how can you justify sacrificing productivity in a time of corporate fiscal responsibility?

To help people get the most from a symposium, summit or industry gathering, Joan Getman, Director of the Centre for Scholarly Technology at the University of Southern California, and Nikki Reynolds, Director of Instructional Technology Support Services at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, authored an ‘Ideas to Action’ manuscript outlining strategies to maximize the conference experience. 

One key finding is that many a company expect an unrealistic Return On Investment. Put simply, the amount of potential leads and new people you are exposed to in a conference environment does not necessarily correlate with the volume of new business generated in hindsight.

“You might collect a hundred great ideas and act on only one. Does that reflect a lack of competence? Definitely not. What it does show is a strong grasp of reality and an ability to focus,” Getman and Reynolds say. The two argue that it is useful to develop a set of ‘organisational priorities’ ahead of a conference that will act as a roadmap when trying to structure the surge of information brought on during the event.

“If you do end up implementing even one idea and it addresses a long-standing issue or major challenge, or it launches a new initiative, the time invested in attending the conference was well spent.”

However, that does not justify putting up one’s feet during the event. According to Scott Belsky, Vice President of Community at software powerhouse Adobe, a conference should not be a creative indulgence only. “Many of us have found our passions and are searching to make an impact in what matters most to us. A simple dose of stimulation isn’t worth the price of admission. In your search for better focus and performance, attend your next conference with high expectations and make the effort to reach them.”

Effective time management is vital in that context, especially when working in a group. Getman and Reynolds recommend that splitting up is a viable option to get the most information back to an institution. “Consider the interests of each individual, as well as the needs of their team or department,” they argue. “Think about individual learning styles as well – who will get the most from the formal presentations targeted at a particular problem? Who will be able to use panels or overviews of hot topics to assist in future planning?”

While Getman and Reynolds do point out that it is important to ‘divide and conquer’ the program to ensure the best return on a conference without overtaxing anyone, they also found that getting out of one’s comfort zone is imperative to long lasting success post-conference. “Attend sessions that will introduce you to new ideas rather than those where you might feel the most comfortable,” they say, pointing out that the main goal should be finding the right balance between seeking validation for directions already taken and allowing oneself to be introduced to new or different perspectives and practices along the way.

The resulting Return on Investment, according to Getman and Reynolds, can be as subtle as a change in attitude. In that sense, the old reproach a conference would be nothing but a reason to get out of the office and away from the regular routine is not tenable anymore, as a change of scenery can actually help initiate the desired internal change.

“While most think their work environment is a dynamic and rapidly changing place, people fall into institutional ruts,” they say. “Conferences give you a chance to get out and check up on your attitudes. Immersion in, or exploration of, a timely and relevant topic … can remind you why you chose your career path in the first place. You get recharged and return with renewed enthusiasm and confidence that you are putting our efforts in the right place.” 

According to Getman and Reynolds, an employee cannot become an ‘agent of change’ if he or she is not empowered to change in the first place – ideally by being confronted with an inspiring, new environment like a professional conference.

Based on existing research, Global Trailer has therefore developed a five-step strategy to get the most out of a conference. The goal is to return home more organised and be able to share relevant information both internally and externally, all while facing a staff that will speak the same language.

1. Plan
Planning ahead is not so much about preparing a detailed timetable, but more about bridging the distance between work reality and the conference program. That’s why Getman and Reynolds strongly recommend taking the time to focus on relevant information before leaving the office. “Take inventory of current projects, concerns of senior management, potential initiatives, and professional development goals for you and your staff. Add to the list any particularly challenging issues you face,” they explain, revealing that planning ahead is more about embracing the right mind-set than putting a rigid structure in place. In fact, Scott Belsky, Vice President of Community at software powerhouse Adobe, found that it can be helpful to defy structure to mine the circumstantial – even if you miss the opening remarks in lieu of taking a breakfast meeting with a potential new client.

2. Select
According to Lou Dubois, a Philadelphia-based social media journalist, it is helpful to read the speaker and attendee list before the conference and select the people you’d like to connect with. “With the advancements in technology (namely social media and web tools), there’s no excuse for attending a conference unprepared,” he says, pointing out that pre-selection is key to being ahead of the pack. “Don’t ever try to connect with a session speaker after they’ve just spoken, because you’ll be in a group with all the other people from that session. Rather, do your homework ahead of time and figure out who makes the most sense to meet with, and reach out to them.”

3. Reflect
It may sound out-dated to some, but writing a daily summary can be a helpful tool to maximise post-conference efficiency. Without that kind of instant feedback, the risk of accumulating too much information will rise exponentially, forcing us to use office time to catch up. Getman and Reynolds have found that, “if you wait to [reflect on] your experiences and findings until you are on the plane or, worse, back in the office, it probably either won’t happen or at best will be a superficial overview.”
Given the great amount of stimuli at an international event, it can also be helpful to distil each presentation down to a central point, as Scott Belsky, has found. According to Belsky, it is important to differentiate between wisdom and action when reflecting on that key takeaway; meaning information that can lead to immediate post-show action should be captured separately.

4. Share
Part of the reflection process is sharing important information on the spot – even if it is only a rough idea. “Sometimes good ideas languish simply because we think they are not sufficiently organised to share. We should realize that our colleagues [are able to] pick up on the interesting and significant points we pass along, even if they are not polished. Pass ideas on to staff, and don’t worry about how rough they seem. It’s content and the thinking around it that counts.” In the age of instant communication, keeping the information flow up via email and social media can give a company a distinct first-mover advantage.

5. Meet
As much as information technology can help us connect and stay up to date, face-to-face communication is still key to long-term success in the business world. In that sense, a conference is the perfect place to forge new or cement existing relationships with like-minded people from around the globe. “That chance conversation in the coffee line could make all the difference. A great conference is especially fertile ground for collaboration,” says Adobe’s Scott Belsky. “[But] don’t leave these benefits up to chance. Reach out to your contacts beforehand and propose grabbing an early breakfast together, lunch, or drinks during the conference.”
To break the ice when meeting new people, Getman and Reynolds recommend making a commitment to being proactive and opening the door first. “If you decide to make the effort, the reward is a much richer and probably more fun conference experience, one that may yield references, resources, and collaborations down the road.”

6. Process
The conference experience doesn’t end abruptly back at home. When you return to the office, set up an action plan and commit yourself to reflect on, and assess, what you have learned. “Give yourself enough room and time to reflect. Create a timeline with milestones marking how and when you will take steps to share and hopefully to act on specific ideas and information.”

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