Professional conferences are a great way to connect with like minded professionals. Each year, I attend 2-3 professional conferences which focus on the various areas of the work I do; intercultural training, diversity, mentoring, education, and so on. I spent last week in Berlin, Germany attending a conference on Learning Mobility (the European term for international youth exchange); it was an invigorating week, discussing youth learning programs and the value of international exchange programs. I was reminded of the power of connecting with like minded people and how it reignites your passion, sparks new ideas, reinforces ties, and fosters new relationships.
Whether you are a young or seasoned professional, these types of conferences are great development opportunities. Professional conferences are held year round and all over the world, it can be difficult to decide which to attend and how to engage when you do. Here are some tips:
- Research! Gather information from your peers, professional periodicals, and online about the professional associations available for your field of work. Review their websites and join their LinkedIn or Facebook group, follow and join discussions and evaluate whether or not this group and their conference has something to offer you.
- Join! Membership to a professional association grants you certain benefits; usually it includes reduced fees for their annual conference, webinars, and trainings, and access to jobs announcements, monthly newsletters, and a network of seasoned professionals. *Sidenote: Membership also makes a good impression with potential employers.
- Be active! Attend local or regional events; most associations have local groups who host monthly or quarterly events, both face to face and virtual. This is an easy and low cost way to begin to network and access your membership benefits. National conferences can be expensive, being active in the smaller local events are not only more affordable, but also opportunities to learn, build relationships, network, and receive mentoring closer to home.
- Go Big! Once you’ve gotten some footing with the organization, attend their annual national conference. It can be expensive so if cost is a concern, there are things you can do so it is more affordable. Typically, annual conferences are hosted in a different city each year so attend when its doesn’t require you to travel too far. Scholarships and grants are also available for first time attendees; research in advance so you don’t miss the deadlines. Funding from your employer may also be an option if you can effectively demonstrate the added value it brings to the organization. Click here for more about how to communicate the value of attending a conference to your employer!
- Set goals! Conferences offer a little bit for everyone so the schedules are packed with keynote speakers, concurrent sessions, networking groups, special interest forums, and evening or cultural events. While you may want to do it all, it’s impossible, so set some clear learning goals for yourself. Use your goals to be selective about what you do and who you want to meet at the conference.
- Plan ahead! Conferences range in size and length, and yet no matter how large or small it can be overwhelming to navigate so plan ahead. View the conference schedule in advance; preview the available speakers and sessions, and note those want to hear or attend. Figure out which special interest groups, networking, and social events suit you, and put together a tentative schedule prior to the conference. Remember to be flexible with your schedule once you arrive, sometimes events are cancelled or you might just change your mind so have some backups.
- Pace yourself! Conferences events can start as early as 7 am and go late into the evening; actively participating and getting the most out of it is exhausting. Pace yourself and make time to digest, and reflect, and take it all in. Have a meal alone and offsite, plan an afternoon nap, or schedule a treatment at the hotel spa; taking a little time to rejuvenate will make a big difference.
- Network! Network! Network! When you arrive at the conference you want to know people and you want them to know YOU. Take advantage the pre-conference social networking platforms made available to introduce yourself and network early. Let people know you’re a first timer; they will be more than happy to introduce themselves and connect you to the right people. Plan to attend sessions of specific people or organizations you want to connect with, and make time to have informal conversations with people to build relationships and find connections.
- Follow up! You’ll collect a lot of business cards, it is helpful to make notations on the card about the conversation and any promises made to exchange information. Wait 5 business days, then follow up on all those cards with calls or emails. Whether you agree to meet someone for lunch, forward a link, or connect them to someone else, you build your reputation and relationships by doing what you say you are going to do.
- Plan for the future! Get back onto the social networking groups and keep building those relationships. Then begin to prepare for the next year’s conference. Once you’ve got a bit more grounding, consider presenting your own session. You will raise your professional profile, and begin to make your own contributions to your field.