Arriving at a conference can feel like a whirlwind. With a jam-packed schedule and plenty of people to meet, it’s easy to stray away from your big-picture purpose: education. And there’s really no better place than a series of conference breakout sessions to get exposed to innovative ideas and discover emerging trends in modern best practices.
While it’s fun to see old friends, learn new skills, and be inspired by the latest trends, an unfocused approach can lead to information overload and social exhaustion by the end of the first day. Clearly, that’s not the best way to get the most out of the time and money spent attending a conference.
Large conferences like Catersource + The Special Event have so much to offer, as long as you have the capacity to absorb the information presented. But to do so, you first must strategize your approach.
If you play your cards right, you can maximize access to top-quality education and networking opportunities to produce a meaningful return on your investment.
As a speaker, I sometimes attend a dozen or more conferences each year. Here’s the system that helps me get the most out of the educational and networking opportunities at large national conferences.
Identify your “One Thing”
There’s a good chance this year isn’t your first time attending Catersource + The Special Event—and there’s an even better chance it won’t be your last. There are plenty of conferences in your future, so there’s no need to stretch yourself thin.
Instead of starting with the conference schedule, start with your business goals. Identify the one thing you can do in your business this year (or quarter) that will make everything else easier or irrelevant. Those familiar with Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s work will recognize this framework from their aptly-titled book, The One Thing.
The crux of this philosophy specifies that your “one thing” must meet one of two criteria:
- It must make everything else easier, or
- It must make everything else irrelevant.
Your “one thing” could influence your entire business or one important aspect, like staffing, marketing, or purchasing. For example, say you want to increase your net income by 30%. You could come up with plenty of ways to reach that goal, but if you discover that reducing staff churn and food waste goes further than increasing your marketing efforts, you will see more results by focusing your attention on the former and attending sessions that support employee relationships and operations that reduce waste.
When you’re clear on the “one thing” that will transform your business, you’ll be able to plan your conference experience with purpose and direct your attention to the education and networking opportunities that matter most.
Decide on an educational approach
Depending on your skill level, industry experience, and the complexity of your “one thing,” you’ll need to choose an
educational approach that fits your conference goals. Let’s treat it as if you were selecting college courses. You can pick one of two paths:
1. The General Education Approach: From history to physics to Congolese drumming, general education is all about sampling a diverse range of subjects. While you shouldn’t expect to advance past introductory-level content, you’ll walk away as a jack of all trades with enough knowledge to navigate many areas of business.
- This approach is ideal if you need to manage projects with many moving parts or supervise many technical contractors.
2. The College Major Track: Declaring a major is like telling the world where you want to focus your energy. Specializing on a single subject—like operations or marketing—lets you delve into a topic of interest and get a deeper understanding.
- Ideal if you want to level up specific skills or need to get up to speed on a project that demands a new skill set.
If you’re bringing your team, consider spreading your reach by assigning each to a specialized track or having them attend concurrent sessions. Together, you can compare notes across the board to form a game plan for your return to the office.
Make the most of networking opportunities
While education is the primary driving force for conference attendance, don’t overlook the valuable connections gained from networking. But for many (even extroverts) breaking the ice in-person can feel awkward. Just like with education, preparation is key to getting the most from your networking.
Start by aligning your networking strategy with your goals. Who carries experience in the areas you aim to grow? Are there speakers who might provide useful insights beyond their presentation topic? Review the conference schedule to create a shortlist of five to seven people you’d like to connect with while onsite. Then, head over to social media to connect with them. Look for personal posts and stories that can help you ease into an introduction. Do they love snowshoeing with their Australian Shepards on the weekend? Break the ice by mentioning their posts and your own Aussies. Did they just return from a trip to Chile? Ask them what they liked best about it. There’s plenty of time to talk shop. But starting with common interests, it becomes easier to transition into business talk once you’ve established a rapport.
Catersource + The Special Event offer a helpful mobile app to support your pre-conference planning. Use it to save sessions, connect with other attendees, and even make appointments with people you want to meet one-on-one.
Last but certainly not least, don’t forget the tradeshow! Find time between breakout sessions to walk the floor and browse company booths. Create a tradeshow bucket list beforehand to ensure you see the products and make the connections you need to support your “one thing.”
With a solid MVP in place—that is, Minimum Viable Plan—you can get more out of this year’s conference without succumbing to post-conference exhaustion and overwhelm.
Christie Osborne is the owner of Mountainside Media, a company that helps event industry professionals and brands develop scalable marketing strategies that bring in more inquiries and leads. Christie is a national educator with recent speaking engagements at NACE Experience, WIPA and the ABC Conference. Christie regularly shares industry insight in her Catersource column, as well as on SpecialEvents.com, Wed Altered, Rising Tide Society, WeddingIQ and NACE’s industry blog.