How to Make the Most of Your First Conference Experience

young professional first conference July 17, 2017 By: Katrina Dunn

For first-timers, young professionals, and those new to the industry, attending a conference can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for taking advantage of everything a meeting has to offer.

While attending a conference is both a financial and time investment, there is also a cost to not attending. After all, conferences allow us the opportunity to engage in our profession, network with colleagues, and keep track of the latest advances. But conferences can also be intimidating, especially for first-timers and those new to the industry.

But, for young professionals, conferences can also have an immediate impact on how we work and where we work. Throughout my career, and whether I'm moving into a new role, responsibility, or organization, I can count on my professional conference to be an environment of continuing learning and resources. With that in mind, here are some tips for making the most of your conference experience.

Before You Arrive

Do your homework. Read the conference materials before you get onsite and become familiar with sessions and speakers. Narrowing your schedule beforehand also helps to avoid stress and decision fatigue while in the thick of the conference. Another great resource are past attendees. Call a colleague who has attended previously and ask them about their experience.

Go big picture. Brittany Shoul, vice president at Network Media Partners, LLC, starts her planning by identifying the takeaways she's looking to get from the event. It also makes it easier for her to identify a few "can't-miss" and "must-do" items based on what she's hoping to accomplish at the event. Diligent planning also affords her some flexibility and time for exploration. "I usually leave a few holes in my schedule and let the conference onsite experience influence the rest," Shoul says.

Use technology to connect. Take advantage of digital resources to make the conference more accessible beforehand. Download the conference mobile app as soon as it's available since it likely includes scheduling and messaging capabilities, as well as preconference materials. Does the conference have a hashtag? If so, use it to engage with attendees, organizers, speakers, and vendors ahead of time.

I usually leave a few holes in my schedule and let the conference onsite experience influence the rest.—Brittany Shoul, Network Media Partners

During the Conference

Make the most of it. Once you're onsite, use your schedule as a guide—not a rule book. It's OK to leave a session that isn't what you expected. And, if you're a first-timer, plan to attend orientations, business meetings, or town halls. These sessions will enhance what you'll get out of the conference.

Participate and speak up. Making the most of a conference is also about participating. After all, you're there to share and learn, so be sure to ask questions in a session, share comments in a workshop, and post in social spaces. If you're a first-timer, embrace your newbie status and have fun with it. Pick up identifying ribbons or stickers and stay on the lookout for attendees wearing matching ones.

Venture into a new frontier. Focus on variety by attending different types of events. For example, choose at least one presentation out of your core function area, participate in a workshop, and watch a demo on the show floor.

Remember that learning doesn't only happen in sessions. Many attendees claim that their greatest conference experiences happen during "playtime" or "downtime." Social events aren't limited to receptions. Browse the agenda for activity-based networking. "I've found talking to people in line, whether it's at a concession stand or a social event, less intimidating than walking up and introducing yourself," says Heather Kyler, CMP, meeting manager at the American Society for Cell Biology. "It gives you a common ground to start a conversation and make a new connection."

After the Conference

Share what you learned. What you do after the conference matters too. First, pay it forward by sharing some of the highlights and best ideas you heard with colleagues. You can also distribute resources from thought-provoking sessions, present an idea at an all-staff meeting, or bring in a vendor you met on the show floor.

Stay connected. Review your notes from the conference and follow-up with new contacts—the sooner the better while your interaction is fresh. Also, you should consider setting up a phone call with those people you'd like to stay in touch with.

Plan ahead. If a conference was particularly valuable, make plans to attend again in the future. And, if you're looking to gain some visibility, consider submitting a session proposal or volunteering the next time around.

Katrina Dunn

Katrina Dunn is director of development at the American Fisheries Society in Bethesda, Maryland, and a member of ASAE’s Young Professionals Committee.