As part of my personal and professional development, each year I am required to attend classes, seminars, conferences, etc. Over time, I have successfully attended some of the worst conferences ever held. Stayed in some of the most horrid hotels. And been everything from enlightened and bored from the materials being presented to downright frightened by the accommodations I’ve stayed in. At this point, I consider myself to be a bit of an expert on when to travel for a conference, what to look for in the offerings, questions to ask, and how to get the most from your overall experience.
1. Do Your Homework
This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked. In the past, I have Googled the kind of conference I was looking for–email, content, whatever. Looked at the cost, date, and location, assessed if my company would pay for it and then booked. Do NOT do this. This is how I wound up in a hotel off the beaten path in Chicago, that was a 20 minute walk from the ‘conference’ that was actually a 12 person class at The University of Phoenix. (I did get a certification out of it though.)
Ask co-workers if they’ve ever attended a conference you’re interested in and what they thought of it. Google the conference and look at reviews from past events. Call the conference organizers and find out how many people are registered to attend. Google the speakers and find out about their organizations, companies, position, and credentials. (Keep in mind, the bio provided by the organizers is only going to reflect the best possible info. since they want to entice you to attend.) Ask the organizer if they offer a discount on the price of the conference. I received a 50% discount off the price of the most recent conference I attended, and they even held that discount after it supposedly expired, until my manager was back in the office to approve it.
2. Look for Reputable Area Hotels
This may see obvious, but it has gotten me in trouble on more than one ocassion. The last hotel I stayed in was recommended by the conference because it was also the conference location. They also offered a discount on the room rate. Do NOT fall for this. Now, it’s fine of it’s being held at say a Marriott. But my last conference was held at a boutique hotel that had undergone renovations 1-2 years prior to my stay. Seriously??? The fact that it had the first Vizio flat screen tv model and a blue frosted glass wall meant it was an executive room. Never mind that it was so unsafe that one of the people at the conference put a chair under her adjoining room door because the people next to her were drunk and trying to get into her room on the first night. And that was after she switched rooms! My own company offered to pay 2x the firm’s room allowance to move me to another hotel for safety reasons. Two words: Trip Advisor. When 418 people have rated a hotel ‘terrible,’ believe them.
3. Consider When You Travel
This has not been a consideration for me at all in the past. Mark my words, that has now changed. I just spent the last 4 days at a conference in Miami Beach, in March, (i.e. spring break). Not only did the time of year affect the type of people staying in my hotel–college kids–but it also affected attempts to get a cab, the crowds in restaurants, and what the weather was like. Also, be mindful of what else is going on in the city you’re staying in. There was a music festival, Miami Heat home games, and a tennis tournament all taking place the same week as the conference I was attending. Moving to another hotel wasn’t really an option. Last year, I went to a conference in Chicago during the month of November. While, everything went relatively smoothly, the weather in Chitown could have delayed my flight, impeding my travel. The Miami trip also impacted packing. It’s 20 degrees and snowing/raining at home, but 77-84 in Miami. If you don’t want to check bags, packing for two climates makes that challenging.
Of course, there may be times when you have to travel to Minneapolis in the dead of winter in order to fulfill a continuing education requirement–and seriously, if that’s the case, consider a different career(kidding!, sort of)–and you can’t employ these steps. But with a little concerted effort, you can maximize the benefits of any conference you attend. If all else fails, make the most of it; and regardless–network, network, network!!!