Turn Conference Chaos into
Monday and Tuesday of this week two of us attended the Minnesota Association for Children and Mental Health Conference held here in Duluth, Minnesota where our offices are located. The weather was nasty, but not atypical for Northern Minnesota in April. Lake Superior waves were up over 10 feet. It was pouring down rain. The temperature was only in the upper 30’s. Spring in the Northland, and no place for folks to go when they were not in a session.
Our booth was right inside the door of the Exhibit Hall. Lots of folks stopped, took advantage of the conference special and chatted about what they couldn’t find but needed for their practice. Our prime spot was also prime for people-watching. Every age group from not yet out of college to those ready-to-retire were there. Some were clearly having a good conference. They walked by with different groups of folks, chatted enthusiastically about a session, networked with the vendors, and looked relaxed and alert. Some looked confused and exhausted…and it wasn’t just the newbies that looked that way.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned over time to give you command over the conference experience.
- Study the conference materials and see if there isn’t somewhere you can participate as a volunteer, panel member, or presenter. One of the most useful things you will do is to meet influential people in your field. It is easier to do so if you stand out in some positive way.
Be sure you bring comfy shoes. Just walking from your hotel room to the Keynote venue can be quite a hike. You will take better advantage of the vendors if your feet don’t hurt too much to wander around the exhibit hall.
If you attend a session and find it is not what you thought, give it 15 minutes. Still unhappy? Quietly leave and find another that looks more interesting or use the time to check out vendors. Chat with those whose materials you like. Tell them what you are looking for and can’t find. Use the extra time to network with other attendees who skipped their session.
- When you exchange business cards with someone be sure to write a note to yourself to remember who the person is and why you were interested in him or her on the back. Make contact with them as soon as you can upon returning to your office. If I don’t write myself a note, I find the reason I kept their card has disappeared into the miasma of conferences past.
- Many experienced conference goers check out local restaurants before leaving home. They make a reservation for eight to ten people before leaving their home town. Once at the conference they invite interesting folks they meet to join them for a meal or coffee and conversation. Be prepared to start the ball rolling by introducing yourself and telling a bit about what you do and why you came to this particular conference. Then pass the ball to the next person. Draw people out. It’s your dinner…make it work for you.
- Make new friends. Don’t spend all your time with the folks from your office. You don’t know what great ideas are lurking in someone’s mind that will solve a problem whose solution has eluded you. Go to any social events scheduled by the conference. Don’t be afraid to approach a presenter that interests you and introduce yourself. They will, for the most part, but happy to talk with you about their work and pleased you want to meet with them.
Stick with these easy tips and you will be one of the happy conference goers that will go home having learned important things and made new contacts that can develop into lifelong colleagues.