I get an average of five invitations a week to attend external events on topics relating to project management. (I’m talking about physical meetings, and not the announcements of online conferences and "Webinars," which also fill my inbox.) Project management events are a great place to do one-stop shopping for new project tools and support services and to converse with your peers in the industry.
Even if I wanted to, it would be impossible to attend all of these meetings. So how can you achieve an optimal balance between not wasting resources on "conference hopping" and still staying in touch with the people and developments in project management? I'll outline a method that has worked well for me.
Make a personal attendance plan
Before even thinking about attending a project management conference or meeting, you need to get your priorities straight.
Organizations often have a history of attending one particular convention, perhaps annually. I advocate subjecting that habitual conference to this question: What are your objectives for attending? If you're being honest, you might say, "It's an opportunity to visit with distant friends and colleagues."
While it can be a good practice to take some time to raise your head from day-to-day details, merely arranging a junket isn't going to enhance your reputation within the industry.
Choose a conference that fits
Figure out what kinds of events are available and then see how they fit in with your career, interests, and even personality.
Avoid lengthy events: Project management is frequently a major component of a wide range of IT conferences. Therefore, I've found that 24/7 undiluted project management talk at a specialized project management convention can blow my mind after about two days. I call the effect "acronym overload."
Assess networking potential: In general, the business networking potential of conferences, especially those with an international flavor, can be excellent. Or, if you're seeking a career change, these meetings can expose you to a number of different project-related job functions.
Consider conference size: Large meetings inevitably reflect a diversity of opinion in project management. This factor can help you question existing, perhaps stale, practices and become inspired to boost the quality of your work.
Ask former attendees: A particularly good way to understand whether an event is for you is to talk to attendees of the last conference.
Talk to experts: Will there be a real opportunity to get a feel for the technical advances in your profession by hearing and talking to experts whose opinions you respect?
Talk to the staff: I also find that it's valuable to talk to the conference staff in advance. Determine whether they're just trying to fill seats or if they really know what the meeting is about.
Arrange for an alternate: In case something comes up and you're unable to go, make sure you have a stand-in who is capable of gathering information and representing the organization in your place. (Sending someone else to undertake reconnaissance can also be an effective way of assessing an event before you suggest wider participation to your managers.)
Watch out for the downsides
Negative aspects to consider when selecting a conference include:
Poor organization: I’m afraid that some conferences I’ve attended have been badly organized and unclear in focus.
High costs: The costs involved can present a severe headache. I suggest coordinating your participation with some other valuable meetings in the vicinity, thus saving travel costs.
General vs. targeted events: General conferences for project managers usually aren't good places to go to sell project work itself; it’s better to think in terms of attending a meeting specifically designed to bring together IT developers and board-level customers.
E-mail overload: If you attend a conference, you may see your spam e-mail increase.
After you attend
When you return from a conference, it's important to provide meaningful feedback to the event organizers. Be sure to tell them if you found the event useful—but be careful because your comments might wind up as a quote on next year’s conference brochure.
So how can you achieve an optimal balance between staying in touch with developments in your field and minimizing the drain on your resources? Develop a personal event attendance plan like the one I describe above. Even if you decide the conference might not be the right one for you, the homework might make you realize that there's a specialized, high-quality event more suited to your needs.