Tips for Surviving and Thriving at a Professional Conference
Last week I was a super lucky duck because my company sent me to Auckland for its annual Graduate Development Conference. An all-expenses paid trip overseas to a country I’ve never been to before? It’s like winning the corporate lottery I tell ya. The conference itself was a little bit different than what you might assume conferences are like, because it was only people from my company in attendance, and more specifically it was all new graduates (from all of the Australian and NZ offices) who’d just joined the company in the last 2-8 months. The purpose of the conference was primarily for networking and getting to know our colleagues in other offices, but also to give us a good opportunity to hear from the company heads, which was pretty cool. Very informative, very jam-packed, and supremely fun!
The thing about being sent on a conference is that there’s a certain etiquette that should be followed, but since I’d never actually been sent to a work conference before, I didn’t know what that etiquette was. Luckily, neither did anyone else, so a good amount of winging it and a little bit of common sense helped me to get through the week just fine and in better shape than others (but more on that later). So upon reflecting on my whirlwind trip abroad, I thought I’d put together some guidelines for anyone else who may have the same opportunity to travel for work in the future. I’d really love any input from you as well – my one three-day trip does not an expert make, so please share your thoughts! Have you travelled for work events before? Where did you go? What did you learn? Luckily for me there were no real cultural differences, so those aside, here are my guidelines for surviving and thriving at a professional conference.
Preparation - This lesson I learned the hard way (kind of). We Melbourne people were on a flight to Auckland that didn’t get us into our hotel beds until 1:30am local time, while we had to check in to the conference at 8:15am. Yikes (and with the 2 hour time difference, that was more like a 6:15am check-in. Double yikes). Obviously it was unavoidable in this instance, but it really taught me the value of being well-rested and alert for the (extremely long) first day of a conference. Especially if many attendees are from out of town, there will likely be nighttime activities (dinner, drinks, etc.) that will require you to be awake and conversational for many hours. It’s best if you can function and be your natural friendly self at this point, and not a groggy sluggish version. It also goes without saying to make sure you do any necessary reading/writing that may be required prior to the conference. My fellow Melbourne grads and I were required to prepare a 10 minute presentation, and we were definitely glad to have had a few run-throughs back at the office. There is no time for that sort of stuff come conference time! Who wants to be practicing back at the hotel when everyone else is out socializing?
Dress Code - I also struggled with this one a bit. Our conference fell over a Friday, and at my office in Melbourne we have casual Fridays where jeans and sneakers are acceptable attire. I figured that since the actual conference was held at our company’s Auckland office, casual would be fine, but I decided to play it safe by keeping my denim a bit dressy (black jeans instead of blue) and by also bringing a spare pair of business pants in case. On Thursday I took a poll of about 6-7 other graduates and asked what they would be wearing, and decided that it was best to stick with business attire. When I showed up on Friday, there were definitely a few denim-wearers, but only about 5/150 people. Boy was I glad for my dress pants then! The moral here is that it’s probably best to dress as nicely as possible, even if the conference is at your own office. Just like in an interview, it’s better to be overdressed than under, and chances are that everyone else will be dressing up too. So going forward, I’m making a ‘no casual’ rule for conferences, unless it’s been explicitly stated to all attendees. Do you agree?
Networking - This is probably the most important part of any conference, not just ones like mine that were held for the specific purpose of networking. Even if your conference is purely about learning, the like-minded and similarly employed people you attend with are very important to get to know. Whether you make connections that will help your company or you meet people who can help you take the next step in your personal career, every connection you make at a conference can be important. For me, I’m not such a savvy ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ networker. I prefer to start the conversation by asking people where they’re from and what their background is – it just seems more honest to me. After I get to know them a little bit, that’s when I move to the work-talk; work history, aspirations, roles, etc. Try to find people who genuinely interest you, and it will motivate you to stay in touch later. And the best way to end it all is to find them on LinkedIn and stay connected after the conference is over. Because what’s the point of making the effort at the conference just to lose touch once it’s done?Representing… Yourself! - On the topic of networking, remember: you are your own commercial. If you stand out to someone as being tired, rude, or worse, you don’t stand out at all, what does that say about you professionally? I’m not the type of person who likes to be super attention-seeking in large groups, and I don’t feel super comfortable walking up to people and just introducing myself. I need to work on this, and conferences are the best place for that, because people (like me!) love it when you do this. Do your very best to be confident and courteous, and portray yourself in the best light possible (this also goes back to number 1: dress well!). If you feel comfortable, ask questions at the end of a speaker’s presentation. Don’t chit-chat during a speaker’s presentation (people did that at my conference and it drove me nuts). A conference can be like a group interview, where you’ve got the chance to make an impression on any number of senior managers. Use it to your advantage, and advertise yourself accordingly!
The Open Bar - As my conference was over two days, we had dinner and drinks with an open bar on the Thursday night, which I definitely saw as an unspoken test of the graduates’ ability to remain professional. Some people failed miserably – one guy fell asleep, I mean like head-on-table sleeping, in the front row of a client panel the following day! I ended up going home early that night because I was coming down with a cold, and based on the number of hung over colleagues I saw the next day, I was happy to have gotten my 8+ hours of sleep. The thing is, you may have made friends during the day, but professional events are really not the place to be free from inhibitions – sometimes inhibitions can be good! Personally, I feel like a few drinks is fine, enough to feel chatty and maybe a bit tipsy, but anything more than that is probably not a good idea. This is my personal preference, but I just don’t feel comfortable having my managers know as much about my drunken persona as my best friends do. She can be weird and pretty fricking loud. In the end, we’ve all been in a situation where we drink more than we intend to, and that’s fine, life goes on. But if that happens, if you’re so hung over/tired that you feel sick or like you just can’t stay awake, my take away from sleeping guy’s experience is to make an appearance for check-in the following morning and then excuse yourself out of the room to do what you need to do to get back into working order. I can’t imagine how much that sleepy grad regrets what happened last week, but I can do my very best to ensure that never happens to me.
All up, these guidelines may seem pretty intuitive, but it’s really a different thing when you’re in the room faced with the professional challenges that conferences present. Knowing what you should or shouldn’t do, and actually doing them, can be two very different things. If you’ve got your own tips or experiences to share, please do, but I think the overall lesson to be drawn from last week is primarily that I just don’t want to become ‘that loud drunk girl’ from the conference, thankyouverymuch. Because I already hold that title from university.