For members, one of the best reasons to maintain their membership with professional associations is the frequent opportunities to interact and network with others at regular conferences and events. Many associations provide several opportunities per year, and offer numerous members-only perks of attending, such as discounted registration fees, members-only panels or parties, and private Q&A sessions with interesting speakers.

Conference Yaay

Particularly for large, multi-day conferences, many first-time attendees will feel apprehensive and overwhelmed. Where to begin? What if I don’t meet anyone or learn anything, and therefore wasted my time? These concerns are normal and common.

We’ve outlined some tips to help you navigate any event with confidence and, most importantly, get the most bang for your conference buck.

List Out Your Goals – Sure, it may seem a little geeky, but an important first step in prepping for a conference is to ask yourself the most important question: What do I hope to get out of this event? Networking, job and client opportunities, professional education and enhancement? Good old-fashioned fun? All are possibilities, which is why determining your goals in advance is so important—it will determine your course for the day(s) ahead, and best position you to get everything you want out of your registration fee and time away from the office.

Research Before You Go – This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Many people arrive at registration on the first day of a conference with no clear plan. They examine the schedule of panels, discussions, and events during breakfast or the opening remarks. This sort of thing is fine for the casual conference goer, but if you’ve set out a list of goals you hope to accomplish by attending, you need to do some preliminary legwork.

First, check out the agenda. Nearly every conference these days publishes a schedule of events and a detailed agenda online beforehand. Read through it and mark off the events that will best help you meet your goals and eliminate those that will not. Also, check the conference website to see if they are offering a conference Mobile App that you can download to help you plan your time at the conference, as well as get any updates to the schedule.

Hoping to learn about B2B marketing tactics using social media? Well look here, there’s a panel discussion on that topic on Day 2! Recently read a good book by a CEO and hoping to hear his insights on other topics? He’ll be signing copies and participating in a lunchtime Q&A! Additionally, a thorough examination of the agenda will give you time to make the tough decisions between two events you’re interested in that may be scheduled at the same time.

Use Social Media Wisely – This is a subset of doing the proper preliminary research. Prior to the day of the conference, start following the hash tags associated with the event on Twitter. This may give you a good idea of the sessions with the most “buzz.” After your arrival, you can use hash tags and other social media resources such as the event’s page on Facebook to follow along with panels you are not able to attend (this is a possible solution to the double booking issue we previously mentioned), or inspire you to use the “rule of two feet” to bail on one session that wasn’t what you hoped in favor of another.

Social media will also give you a good idea of who will be attending the conference, and provide valuable networking “intel”. Do you have professional contacts you’ve met online, but never in person? Use social media to set up a time to meet with them during the event. Notice an old client or colleague Tweeting about a panel that sounds interesting? Send them a DM asking to join them and use the time to catch up. This advice leads into our next…

Leave Free Time For the Unexpected – Yes, we’ve just spent several paragraphs urging you to plan out your conference experience. But there’s one point that’s just as important as planning: down time! If you schedule yourself for back to back events from the morning of registration to the closing remarks, you may miss out on some important networking opportunities. Schedule a “free period” for yourself during each day, which you can use to connect with others, catch up on social media, or even just stroll the halls looking for an interesting conversation. Unexpected meetings can turn into professional collaborations and more, and the downtime can give your brain the chance to rest in between sessions and an opportunity to stretch your legs.

Veteran conference attendees, let’s throw it to you—sound off in the comments and share your best advice for getting the most out of conferences!