You finally received approval to attend an upcoming conference. And it might even be in a great location – Orlando, Las Vegas, Seattle, San Diego – even better! However, other than booking your travel and turning on the “Out of the Office” email notification, have you thought about developing a conference strategy?  What I mean is this – you will be taking a few precious days out of your already busy work schedule, are you truly getting the “bang for the buck” for your professional career?

Most conferences are organized in a way for the attendees to be educated, network and have a bit of fun in the process. But rather than let the organization drive your day, take it upon yourself to find the most value by developing your own plan.  As a speaker, attendee and exhibitor at conferences across the nation, here are 5 Key Strategies learned throughout the years.

Strategy 1: Review the Conference Agenda BEFORE the conference.  Find out who is speaking, the topics and highlight those whom you really want to hear or meet in person.  Many people wait until they arrive, and then look at the conference schedule to start planning their attendance. Some sessions  oe activities require a sign-up or are more popular and fill the room early…make sure you know where you want to be…in advance of the crowd.

Strategy 2: Start the networking early.  If you can obtain the attendee list beforehand, then email colleagues or peers whom you want to connect with, or meet for the first time. Finding people after you’ve gotten to the conference is a lot more difficult. Wouldn’t it be nice to have their cell phone number instead of searching for their faces in the crowd?  For instance, when I was the former Purchasing Agent for the City of San Diego, I wanted to meet the Purchasing Directors for other large comparable cities – Houston, New York, Los Angeles – so I reached out to those individuals ahead of the time to meet up during the conference.

Strategy 3: Plan Your Path in the Exhibitor Hall.  Face it, the hall is full of vendors and service providers who want your business. But not all necessarily provide what you truly need and time can be wasted meandering up one row and down another. Look at the booth assignments in advance to find those whom you really want to meet. Treat it as an educational session, where you are learning from a few selected vendors who might bring a value proposition to your agency.

Strategy 4: Participate in the Fun Activities. Some of the best networking opportunities happen at the unplanned events. When joining a bowling team at one conference, I was paired with government managers from across the nation. While I was a horrible bowler and admittedly, no help to the team score, I made great professional friendships that still exist today.

Strategy 5: Follow up after the conference.  If you collected cards from vendor, attendees or made a great contact with a dynamic speaker, send out an email within a week to reconnect. Meeting these folks and learning more about their agencies, products or knowledge base was a key reason you attended the conference…don’t lose the opportunity. It’s always a shame when folks get energized and motivated with new ideas while attending a conference, but then it’s all forgotten when they return to the home office. Keep the momentum going!