Conference Attendance 101

So.  You took advice from my last blog post and decided which conference to attend.  Congratulations.  But now you want to be sure that you leverage your investment by making the most of your attendance.  Here are three proven strategies for making sure you get your money’s worth.


Conferences generally have 3 types of content sessions:

  1. General Sessions:  these are sessions that are intended for the full complement of attendees.  The speakers are typically big names in the industry who speak on universal topics relevant to the conference theme or they are big celebrity names meant to draw your attendance to the conference.  Here in Orlando where I’m attending the SHRM affiliated HR Florida conference, the opening general session featured Henry Winkler.  (He was terrific, by the way.)
  2. Concurrent Sessions:  these are the main content tracks that are scheduled throughout the conference.  Each time slot will hold multiple options for your consideration.  Designed for smaller subsets of the conference attendees, these tend to be led by practitioners, consultants or academics and are focused content of a practical nature. 
  3. Sponsor Highlights:  these are sessions that feature a sponsor or exhibitor’s product or service, are marketing-focused in nature, and come as part of their sponsorship/exhibitor fee.

In a typical two and a half day conference, it’s important to select the sessions you want to attend wisely – and in advance.  But it’s also important not to over-schedule yourself (more on that later). I recommend attending all the General Sessions.  The big names generally have value and the celebrity speakers are generally engaging, entertaining and motivating.  Then attend concurrent sessions in about 75% of the time slots.

Save time for Networking

One of the particular values of attending a conference in person (as opposed to an online conference or a series of webinars) is the opportunity to meet other like minded people.  Look at the list of presenters.  Look at the list of sponsors/exhibitors.  Find out who else will be attending.  Then target 4-8 people that you’d really like to meet and talk with – and find them at the conference.  Leaving time in your session schedule to set short appointments when you find people on your target list will allow you to be thoughtful in creating new relationships.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to learn from industry pros – who, by the way, also want to network and meet people just like you!

You know how to network, right?  You prepare for these opportunities in advance by identifying what you’d like to talk about with each target and prepare 2 or 3 questions to get the conversation rolling.  You can ask everyone the same questions, or you can customize your approach to each person.  Your confidence will be strong as you introduce yourself to these folks and you’ll be surprised how amenable perfect strangers are to meet and talk with you.

Nothing is more attractive than a smile

As you walk the conference halls and expo aisles, make sure your demeanor and body language is open.  And smile.  Intentionally.  You’ll appear open, friendly, not intimidating or intimidated.  Really, there’s nothing more attractive than a smiling face.  And there’s nothing that builds your confidence to approach strangers than acting open and welcoming.

Attending a conference and getting your money’s worth isn’t hard.  But it takes some forethought and planning.  Both you and your organization want to realize the investment it took to get there.  Make sure you get the full value of the experience.



Filed under China Gorman, HR Conferences, Uncategorized

23 responses to “Conference Attendance 101

  1. Pingback: Conference Attendance 301 |

  2. This is really interesting. Kudos for sharing this article dude.

  3. Pingback: Authentic Engagement | HR whY?

  4. John Jorgensen

    China, great post. You sum up my conference experience very well. Networking is one of my top priorities in going to a conference. I am always amazed by the quality of people I meet for the first time in real life at these events, plus talking and gaining knowledge and inspiration from current friends. To add to the LinkedIn comment earlier, I find Twitter to be essential in finding people to meet.

    That doesn’t mean that the quality of concurrent and keynote sessions don’t matter, they do, big time.

    It was great seeing you at HRFL and hope to see you again soon.

    • Thanks for commenting, John. You add a twist to your networking (as I have observed on more than one occasion) that is especially effective: offering to help the conference organizers. When you’re volunteering you have a perfect excuse to talk to people and make new relationships. You’re the master at that. It was fun to be with you. I’ll give you a call the next time I’m in Chicago.

  5. Good article! Remember you are representing your company at trade shows, so appearance and body language is everything. Standing and seeming engaged in conversation with potential clients is much more inviting in the minds of trade show visitors. If you are sitting with your legs and arms crossed, it will seem as though you don’t want to be disturbed.

    Thank you for the wonderful tips!

    • Thanks for visiting and commenting. Your point about representing your company as well as yourself is an excellent one! So many of us wear our company logo when we go to conferences — it’s easy to forget that we’re walking brand representatives! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  6. Wonderful post, China! In addition to your spot-on tips, I’d add two more ideas for getting the most out of a conference experience.

    First, to your point about finding those you’d like to network with before a conference, I’ve found Linkedin to be a gem of a resource. You can reach out to people directly via Linkedin to ask whether they are attending or simply find the conference in the “events” area on Linkedin and see others who have indicated that they are attending and start networking in advance.

    Second, for anyone with the time and interest, I’d recommend volunteering with the conference organizers before or during the event. It’s an excellent way to meet incredible people who share your professional interest. After volunteering at the SHRM10 conference in San Diego this year, I walked away with an entirely new appreciation of the SHRM staff and volunteers. The SHRMStore staff team was so much fun to work with.

    • Sue: fabulous suggestions! I’m going to add them to my own list. And good for you for volunteering at SHRM10 in San Diego. It’s so appreciated and it’s a wonderful way to support your fellow professionals. I’ll be you met some really interesting people. And I agree with you about the SHRM staff: best in the business! 🙂

  7. Sue Christopher


    Thank you for the Conference Attendance 101 info! I’m on the Kansas SHRM conference committee and we’re hosting our conference 9/15 – 9/17. I loved your networking tips as we always encourage attendees to spend some time getting to know other HR professionals during the conference. You’re welcome to come back to Overland Park, Kansas and join us!

    • Hi Sue: Good luck on your conference. I’m sure it’ll be a big success. I’ve always thought that a pre-con session on the basics of networking at conferences would be a great value add at the state SHRM conferences. Would love to return to Overland Park. Give my regards to your fellow SHRM members.

  8. China,

    Good blog post and something that a lot of people don’t think about. Conferences are not just about learning and sessions, but about the relationships created.

    I make sure to spend time in the Vendor Areas. This is a great way to learn about companies and also market yourself especially if you are a consultant like me. SHRM National was great for this. It’s important to create priorities and do your homework before executing your conference networking strategy.

    Can’t wait to see you again! I think I’ll be in Vegas next month.



    • Jessica: thanks for your comments. The vendor is rich with experts and people who are there to talk to everyone! Pretty easy pickings for novice networkers. Let’s connect when you’re in town next month!

  9. Bill Kutik

    After being in the conference-creation business for 13 years for the HR Technology Conference, I’ve been impressed with your common sense approach and sound advice to your readers about these events, China.

    However, I’d like to take exception to one of your four content categories above: Sponsor Highlights. While it has become an unfortunate trend in the business to sell speaking slots to vendors — sometime explicitly labeled as such — often not, not every conference does it.

    We don’t because we think it’s cheating. Attendees are already paying to attend the conference, why should they get content not necessarily in their best interest, but designed to add to our bottom line? It’s very much like a secret product placement on a television show that already has commercials.

    No, the conference is for education, and the show floor is for advertising. And they should be kept as separate as Church and State and advertising and editorial. Sadly, a distinct that is quickly blurring.

    • Hi Bill: Thanks for stopping by — and we really should meet face to face some day! You know, I understand your point of view and agree with it completely in the for-profit world. Really large non-profits like SHRM and WaW are in much different situations than the smaller local and regional non profits that organize conferences (and I know SHRM doesn’t do this). You know that in the association world an annual conference is the primary driver of increases to net assets (non-profit speak for profit). Conference profits are what keep most small non profits in business. Almost no one charges membership dues that pay for all the services provided in the membership bundle. So conference profits make up the shortfall. With that in mind, I give the smaller non profit conference organizers a pass on this one. If the $ generated help raise the level of attendee experience in any way, I’m all for it. As you know, conferences are expensive! And even though one might call it cheating, in the end, the attendees vote with their seats. If they don’t want to attend a session — general, concurrent or sponsor highlight — there’s nothing you can do to get their you-know-whats in a seat. Eventually, the sessions/speakers that add value persist and are well attended, and the sessions/speakers that don’t provide attendee value are not attended and get eliminated.

      I know your conference is coming up soon. Reply and give us the dates, location and url! Hope to see you soon.

      • Sorry. Gotta weigh in. Bill is right and China, you are missing the critical nature associations play in offering a professional experience undiluted by third party agendas.

        Vendors can get all the credit and visibility they want by sponsoring others but, if they begin buying the right to speak even as ‘sponsor highlights’, it is all over and everyone – and I mean everyone, will leave the prof association events.

        In point of fact hundreds of HR leaders responsible for staffing have already reduced their conference activities as a direct result of the shift in speaking as a ‘sales’ tactic.

        SHRM fails miserably in marketing the distinction that they offer- I mean miserably and, as a result, MY prof assoc, SHRM, is conservatively losing 5-10 million a year in income generating (i.e professional investment) capability that is going to other folks who are selling the profession out to the vendors. I’m sad about that but can do little to affect it. The scams perpetrated on HR events by fly-by-night operations are legion and if the legitimate associations begin to compete for dollars on the same corrupt playing ground it will set us back years.

        Happy to share details anytime, anywhere. SHRM has the right mission but the wrong marketing both inside and outside its membership.

        What really must happen is the ability to deliver content to people who are not able to attend. 1000 people might have paid $100 to attend HRFL10 virtually. IMHO it would drive attendance at the next HRFL11 up not down.

        Just saying

      • Hi Gerry. I agree with you and Bill when the conference organizers are very large organizations (either for- or not-for-profit) like SHRM, or LRP. And you’re right. SHRM misses the opportunity to make sure potential attendees know that speaker slots are not for sale. You have to prove your way to a coveted concurrent session slot. But I still believe that for small not-for-profits, especially small membership associations (like SHRM affiliated state councils), having a few sponsor highlights won’t destroy the professional development opportunities for the attendees and might allow the conference organizers the ability to provide more relevant keynoters, or use more media technology, or even subsidize their membership dues to a greater extent.

        I think all conference organizers are struggling with the fear of cannibalization. Not everyone is as certain as you are that providing conference content virtually will increase in person attendance. I’m honored that you visit my bog. Thanks.

      • Bill Kutik

        Sure. Four weeks away, Sept. 29 — October 1. Chicago’s McCormick Place. Most discounts expire in a week, Sept. 10.

  10. Nicole

    Good advice on the concurrent sessions – always wise to have a plan B, or C! I suspect that’s why the SHRM conference planners have been so popular – such an easy way to see a snapshot of your top picks in each time slot.

    • I agree. The addition of conference planners by SHRM and others in the conference busines have added a great deal of convenience. Now if we could just get them to provide the planners in mobile apps we’d be all set! 🙂 Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  11. China,
    Been watching the conference tweets all day. Looks like a great time. My tip is to act like I organized the conference and be a hostess/host of the event. It may be self appointed but it includes: smiling, thanking exhibitors for spending time & money and making myself and everyone I come in contact with feel welcomed. Works 100% of the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s