The first time you’re invited to attend an industry conference or trade show can be both exhilarating (My company believes in me!) and daunting (All those people! All those sessions!).
The great news is that these events can provide a career boost as you expand your network and become more immersed in your industry. It’s also a chance to show your company’s investment in your professional development — both in conference costs and time away from the office — is worthwhile. Here’s your guide for making the most of your first work conference.

Before the Conference

1. Make travel plans early.

Most conferences come with “early bird” registration, so don’t miss that discount. Booking early also allows you to have your pick of accommodations, notes Angela Smith, human resources consultant with Loft Consulting. Book a room in the hotel where the conference is taking place, or very close if it’s at a convention center or other event space. You can take advantage of time to pop up to your room to drop off vendor swag and freshen up between sessions.

2. Create a wish list of networking contacts and invite them to meet up.

Your time — and everyone else’s — will fill up fast, so review the attendee list or use the conference social media hashtag to identify people you want to network with, suggests Jodi R.R. Smith, a human resources professional and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. Identify opportunities during activities, events and breaks. For example, if it’s a peer, attend a speaker or workshop together and chat before and after the event to connect. If it’s someone more established in the field, organize an informational interview over coffee or lunch. Or for someone already in your network, meet during dinner or evening activities to build the relationship. 

3. Plan your sessions in advance.

Conferences offer a dizzying array of panels, meet-and-greets and social events, so plan your time wisely. “Think about what professional skills you want to develop or what industry insights might be most useful to you, and then identify the sessions that best map to those goals,” Angela Smith recommends. Check out the presenters as well; if there are speakers you respect or specifically want to hear from, attend their session. Once you have a schedule drafted, run your ideas by your manager for input; there may be a workshop they’d prefer you attend.

4. Pack wisely.

It’s always better to overdress a bit than appear underdressed, reminds Jodi Smith. Bring one extra outfit just in case of an unexpected spill or tear. And don’t forget a portable phone charger, sweater, hand sanitizer and lots of business cards.

During the Conference

5. Make the most of the sessions.

“Always stick around after the sessions to ask a pertinent question of the speaker or panelist,” says Angela Smith. First, it forces you to really pay attention during the presentation so you can formulate a great question. Second, it gives you a chance to increase your own visibility since you can exchange business cards and potentially set up a time to meet outside of the conference if that feels appropriate. 

6. Limit your time in the vendor hall.

"Unless you're specifically there to identify vendors, try to limit your time in the exhibitor hall,” says Angela Smith, otherwise you could spend too much time wandering around. That said, if you need a break from session overload, just be strategic about which vendors you engage with. And don't take all the free stuff just because it's there — you'll end up tossing most of it anyway.

7. Make new friends.

Be open and friendly, stay off your cell phone during a lull and interact with the people sitting around you, Angela Smith advises.
And while some of the social events can feel cringe-worthy, give them a try, she urges. “Go ahead and show up at the community volunteer event, or Fun Run, or whatever other activity the organizers have put together.”
When you meet new people, always exchange business cards and take a minute to jot down a few details about the interaction, advises Jodi Smith. You want to remember what business topics you discussed for potential follow-up, but it’s also smart to include specifics of your small talk. “Noting that they hate golf and loves corgis gives you something to refer to later. Details will fade quickly, no matter how great the interaction,” she says.

After the Conference

8. Share your learnings with your team and manager.

On the way home, organize your notes, handouts and presentation materials. Sharing them will multiply the benefits. Angela Smith recommends setting up a Google folder for uploading documents, along with a short summary of highlights and key takeaways. Then ask your boss if you can lead a lunch-and-learn to further underscore the value of the conference.

9. Follow up with the connections you made.

Take the time to follow up with your new contacts on social media and send thank-you notes to anyone who went out of their way to share time or information at a meeting, says Jodi Smith. Hopefully you’ll be back next year to meet up with them again.