At first glance, conferences may seem relatively straightforward. You buy a ticket, get to the venue, listen to speakers, network, and then return home. But it’s not that simple. There’s a right way to attend a conference and a wrong way.
With the hefty price tags on conference tickets, airfare, and accommodations, you want to ensure you get the biggest return on your investment. Aside from money, you’re also spending a lot of personal time away from your organization to attend—you want a return on that investment as well.
To make sure you’re getting the most out of your conference experience, avoid the following common mistakes.
1. You Select the Wrong Conference
This might sound simple, but it’s an easy mistake to make. First, it’s often difficult to choose the right conference because there are so many conferences that happen each year. Not to mention, many of them have similar names and acronyms.
Do you want to go to the Association of Fundraising Professionals conference (AFP), or to the Association of Financial Professionals (also, AFP) conference? Even if you feel certain, it never hurts to double, triple, and quadruple-check that the ticket you’re about to buy is in fact the ticket you need to buy.
2. You Don’t Research Attendees
Outside of the programmed content, one of the major selling points for almost every conference is the networking. While you always want to allow for some serendipitous interactions, you need to build a strategic approach to engage with the people who will be in attendance.
Before the conference, dig through the attendee list. You can usually find this on an event’s website or app. Identify the high-profile and relevant professionals, and keep an eye out for them. If you want to take it further, reach out to them before the conference and schedule time to meet face to face.
3. You Don’t Dress for the Occasion
It’s never right to judge a book by its cover, but it’s crucial you make a good first impression. Every conference has a dress code, even if it’s not explicitly stated on their website or in their marketing collateral.
Business casual is the most dressed down you should ever be. Don’t show up in ratty jeans and a T-shirt. Alternatively, make sure the clothes you’re wearing are comfortable. There’s no point in looking amazing if you can’t keep yourself together physically (think shoes).
4. You Check Your Phone Mid-Conversation
It’s happened to all of us at one point, and we’ve all done it to others. You’re in the middle of a riveting conversation with someone and they pick up their phone to start texting.
This is a cardinal sin at a conference, especially if you get precious face time with people you want to talk to. Your text, email, or phone call can wait. Take full advantage of the opportunity sitting right in front of you and be fully present in that moment and conversation.
5. You Try to Attend Every Session, Panel, and Talk
If only we could be in five places at once. Unfortunately, you simply can’t go to everything on the schedule. If you try to catch 20 minutes at one session, 30 minutes at a panel, and 15 minutes of a fireside chat, you probably won’t experience the full value of any of them.
Make it a point in your pre-event research to map out a projected path for where you want to be, where you need to be, and when. If other team members are also attending, divide and conquer the sessions so you can all share your notes afterward. Then, reconcile it all together and cut your losses. You can always try to meet up with people at the after-hours events or schedule meetings with speakers to get a debrief on content you missed.
6. You Avoid Speaking Opportunities
Sometimes conference organizers look for potential speakers all the way up to the day before a conference. Schedules change, people drop out, and last-minute additions are needed. If there’s a chance for you to step up to the plate, take advantage of this development opportunity if possible.
Don’t be afraid to engage with the organizers early in the game also. You might be surprised at how quickly they take you up on your offer. Beyond that, it’s a great way to promote your personal brand and that of your organization; you’ll likely be marketed in the pre-event materials to countless audience members.
7. You Beat Around the Bush
If you’re not transparent with what you want, you won’t get it. Remember, people can’t read your mind.
If you have an idea ask for feedback. If you’d like them to evaluate your elevator pitch, set a time to meet and deliver it to them. You’re only at this conference for a limited amount of time, so make sure you get everything you need out of it.
8. You Take, But Don’t Give
Conferences are about both taking and giving. If you only make asks, talk only about your organization, and constantly steamroll the conversation people will notice you’re not interested in contributing anything to the party.
Support those around you and listen when people talk. Anything you can do to add meaningful value to interactions will go a long way toward building your reputation as a team player.
9. You Don’t Follow Up With People You Meet
What’s the point of all your research and time spent in meetings if the relationship never lasts beyond the conference? Capitalize on the opportunities you create for yourself. After all, you never know where your next major partner, gift, powerhouse fundraiser, or devoted evangelist will come from.
As a general rule of thumb, follow up with people within 24 hours of meeting them. This helps cement your name and interaction in their brain, but it also shows that you’re a committed professional.
10. You Stay in the Wrong Hotel
Most conferences are typically held at conference centers or in hotels. While staying at the hotel hosting, or right next to the venue, can cost a little bit more money it’s worth the investment.
The bulk of your networking will take place in or near the halls of the venue—the places where sometimes thousands of people are constantly in motion. If you stay far away, you’re removing yourself from the action.
11. You Go Overboard With the Festivities
Remember, you’re still a professional trying to make other professional connections. Don’t risk making the wrong impression.
All that aside, going overboard with the festivities can negatively impact your productivity in the morning. Don’t be the person who sleeps through the early sessions or misses out on engaging content because you’re hungover.
When you prepare and work hard to avoid these mistakes, you’ll be primed and ready to enjoy a powerful conference experience. And if you’re looking for a great conference to put them into action, join us in Boston next year for our annual Collaborative event.