"What's my motivation?"
First, decide what your purpose is for attending the conference. This willdetermine your approach to it. You will indubitably encounter, and fallinto one of, the following "types" of conference attendees:
The Octopus: Those who are there to socialize and get away from the officefor a few days under the guise of training so that they don't have to usetheir vacation days and their company will subsidize their vacation to a newand exciting city. Easily recognized by their absence at the learningsessions themselves and conspicuous looming around the vendor booths tryingto collect as many frisbees, pens, highlighters, water bottles, flashlights,and stuffed animal give-aways as will fit in the extra suitcase they broughtalong on the trip. Often overheard saying "Can I have three for mygrand-nephews twice removed back in Peoria?"
The Sponge: Those well-meaning, conscientious, driven attendees who arebrand new to the field and are looking to absorb all of the information theycan, create an instant network of experienced peers they can access onceback at the office, and generally extract every nuance and detail of theprofession's tricks of the trade that it has taken you ten years to hone andunderstand.
The Professional: Attendees who are serious about enhancing their knowledgeabout other areas of their field, benchmark against other companies abouttheir practices and solutions to current challenges, and evaluate vendors'services to determine if outsourcing certain functions would becost-effective and viable in their particular business environment. Takecopious notes at each session and distribute them to peers and bosses upontheir return to the office.
"How do I choose which courses to attend? They all sound so similar!"And you know what? They are! How many different variations on employeeretention can you stomach, all parroting the same theme that "people don'tleave companies, they leave bosses." Granted, you'll get different twistson the topic based on the expertise and services offered by the consultantspeaking on the subject. And that is a really important consideration: thespeakers aren't necessarily teaching the session out of the total goodnessof their hearts. Most likely, they are uncompensated for running the class(except, of course, for keynote speakers), except for having theirregistration fees covered. Other than that, they are there for publicityand advertising. In most cases, they will provide you with just enoughinformation for a rudimentary understanding of the topic and leave you withtheir website address, telephone number, and e-mail for future assistance(in the hopes that you will utilize their paid consulting services).
Keeping that little tidbit in the back of your mind can help you inselecting the best courses for you. If you are really interested in a topicand want to get more information about it, you may want to attend twoclasses on it. Choose one offered by a big-name vendor and one from anindependent consultant to get two different perspectives on the subject.
Session descriptions and short biographies should be available in theconference's program schedule. Ask past attendees about recommendations forspeakers. And if you've attended a speaker's class in the past, skip itthis year - you'll most likely hear the very same anecdotes, examples, andinformation with a slight twist. If you are already well-versed in a topic,it may be a waste of your time to attend a session on it, unless you want tofeel good about yourself and your knowledge by going and volunteering "wellin my company, we do it this way ..."
"What do I do if there's a time when I want to attend two (or more) sessionsconcurrently?"
If any of the sessions is offered at a second time slot, rearrange yourschedule to go then. If they're all only offered once, swing by the classand pick up the session handouts and determine which one you need to attendin person to get the most out of it, while relying on the handouts for theinformation on the other class(es). You can also team up with a peer andseparate to be able to attend all your classes of interest (or borrowsomeone's notes). Some sessions are audiotaped or videotaped; you canalways buy a tape of it after the conference.
"What do I do if there's a time slot where there are no classes of interestto me?"
If there is a time when no sessions are being offered in which you areinterested:
Look for a class that is totally new to you. You may gain insight into adifferent way of doing things as it can apply to something in which you areinterested. For example, if you are a salaried HR Manager, attend a coursefor consultants to find out their perspective on how they deal withcompanies and how they add value; it will help you have a better big pictureof how everything fits together (and how much it really costs!).
Visit the employment center and find out what's going on with thecompetition and how much they're paying. You just might find your dreamjob, interview on-site with the manager, and walk away with a job offer ...
Visit the vendors in a less crowded environment (since, ostensibly, themajority of the attendees will be in sessions). Find out about new servicesbeing offered to enhance your productivity, efficiency, and legalcompliance. Get new ideas to apply when you return to your company. Noteof caution: don't get suckered into giving your business card for thedrawings for the Palm Pilots, food baskets, and DVD players. You probablywon't win and the consolation prize is a year-long barrage of regulartelephone calls from the vendor who now has all of your contact information.My advice: If you really want the prize, it's worth it to spend the $200 andbuy one of your own to prevent the hassle.
Visit the bookstore and find materials of possible interest and use to youin your career ... at discounted prices!
Return voicemail/e-mail messages so that you are less inundated upon yourreturn to the office.
Find a group of octopuses and play tourist. Ask to see pictures of thegrand-nephews from Peoria ...
Attending a convention or conference sponsored by a professional associationin your chosen career field is an integral part of your professional andcareer development and provides myriad networking opportunities. You arelikely to find a multitude of classes, sessions, and presentations toattend, vendors hocking the latest fad cure to major organizationaldilemmas, dozens of employment opportunities, and thousands of fellowattendees at various stages of their careers. Especially at larger eventsthat draw upwards of 10,000 attendees, you will most likely experiencesensory overload and vast indecision about where to turn next. I hope thatthe guidelines I present below (garnered from ten years of attending careerfairs, trade shows, and conventions) will provide you with the ammunitionyou need to successfully navigate a conference and maximize your take-awaysin the limited amount of time you have there.