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Whether you’re entirely new to the association industry, attending a conference for the first time or are simply rusty after a few years of virtual events, conference season is here and it’s time to get ready. 

As a first-timer myself (visit us at booth 1004 at ASAE’s Annual Meeting!), I was curious about how to prepare and make the most of attending an association conference. 

So, I posed the question to our Sidecar Scoop readers and put together some essential tips for before, during and after your next conference. 

Prepping For Your Conference 

The best way to maximize the value of a conference is to prepare. While you don’t need a daily play-by-play (although that works for some), you want to, at the very least, do some prep work before you travel, including:

  • Plan Your Schedule – While you can always go with the flow and join sessions that pique your interest, having a few targeted keynotes or presentations can help take the guesswork out of your day. This is particularly important for those going to the conference with a particular goal – like finding a solution to a problem your association is having. Work with your coworkers to target some sessions that sound like they could be particularly helpful. 
  • Check the Attendee List – Networking is integral to conferences, but it can be tough to know who to approach on the fly. “If the conference has a pre-attendee list, see who is going, who you may want to meet,” says Heidi Weber, Executive Director of Alpha Omega International Dental Society. Whether you’d like career advice or have a question perfect for their expertise, “message them on LinkedIn and briefly explain that you’re attending and would like to chat – build your network before going.”
  • Get Social – While you can expect to meet plenty of new people at a conference, there may be folks in your network going as well. Most conferences use a hashtag or app as a central location to connect with others. Not only is this an excellent chance to connect with everyone, but you can also plan meetups or have a core group before you even arrive.  

Pro Tip: Make Networking Frictionless

If you’re on the introverted side like me, the idea of walking up to random groups of people can seem terrifying. While you can have a good idea of who you want to talk to, knowing what to talk to them about is key. A simple solution is to prep some questions ahead of time. Easy conversation starters like:

  • Is this your first time at this conference? 
  • Have any sessions you’re looking forward to?
  • Did you come with anyone else from your organization?
  • Are you planning on visiting any after-parties?

Also, you can always feel free to introduce yourself – just cover the basics like your name, organization, role and the types of associations or industries you work with, then ask them for the same. 

The Business Card Conundrum 

Packing business cards is likely the norm before heading to any conference, but in changing times, you also want to make sure you’re prepared. A great and free tool you can use is Linkedin’s QR code

All you have to do is open the app, go into the search section, click the small QR symbol in the corner and you'll have a personalized code that you can save to your photos, share or bring up any time you meet someone. 

What To Do At the Conference

Whether you have a complete plan for your day or just go with the flow, the most important thing to remember is to be present. While there are plenty of important emails and notifications to keep track of, you also want a valuable and rewarding experience. 

So, before you head out for the day, be sure to set your out-of-office reply, pack your notepads and pens for a day full of learning and keep these other tips in mind: 

  • Look For Content Tailored to Newcomers – This may be your first conference, but chances are you aren’t the only one. “If there is a newcomer event or orientation, go so you can meet others like you and get an overview of what to expect,” says Deborah Walsh, National Service Manager for National PTA. “It's easy to feel lost, and it's nice to find "your crowd."
  • Talk to People at Sessions – “Talk to people when you walk into a session – those are often the best conversation,” says Nikki Golden, Strategist for Association Laboratory. “Ask them questions about their members and what they do at their association, and don't forget to connect with them on LinkedIn after to keep in contact.”  
  • Ask Speakers Questions – Many sessions will have a Q&A section that offers an opportunity to gain invaluable insights. While it can seem daunting, it’s also an excellent way to connect with the speaker and others around you. “Conference speakers are there to help – and nothing makes a good conference speaker feel better than an engaged learner, especially a new engaged learner,” Walsh said. 
  • Visit the Booths – Sessions and networking often offer the most value, but so can the tradeshow. Not only can you expect to see resources that can help your organization – like software tools – it can also be a helpful resource to see some of the ways other organizations have solved pain points you may be dealing with. 

Pro Tip: Don’t Forget Comfort Too!

While you want to look your best, you also want to make it through the day. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, pack some emergency essentials like band-aids, don’t skip out on meals and plan some downtime in your schedule! Conference days can be long, particularly if you’re attending parties or networking events after hours. 

Making Lasting Connections

The conference may be over, but that doesn’t mean your preparation ends there! A lot of the value from attending a conference stems from the follow-up you do once you’re back home. 

  • Transcribe Your Notes – While you’re in sessions, make sure you’re taking actionable notes; from stars next to important tidbits to action items you want to forward to a teammate, there are likely a lot of follow-ups you want to do right when you get back to the office. Transcribing your notes can help you recognize hidden nuggets of info from the event or ideas for your association. 
  • Recap What You’ve Learned – Not everyone in your organization will have an opportunity to attend a conference. Whether through a full-on presentation or a blog about lessons learned, take some time for a small recap with your team. 
  • Reach Out to Your New Friends – The last thing you want to do is reach out to folks weeks or months after an event. Be sure you send out LinkedIn connects when it’s fresh in everyone's mind – and take time to thank anyone you ended up meeting with one-on-one. 

Finding Value at Association Conferences

Whether your goal is to meet as many people as possible, gain insights to take back to your organization or simply get introduced to a new industry, conferences can be a valuable tool. 

However, a little preparation goes a long way for those looking to get the most value out of it. 

Whether that means identifying the sessions you want to attend ahead of time, making a QR code for your business card or outlining some of the things you hope to accomplish, the more organized you are, the more value you’ll get from the conference. 

It’s also important to remember that time is limited, so don’t feel bad about missing out on certain sessions. Also, do your best to disconnect entirely from work so you can put your best foot forward with new connections and learn as much as possible.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
August 16, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.