Most training professionals typically attend at least one conference, seminar, and trade show each year. But do they get their money’s worth? Through observation and personal experience, I’ve picked up a few strategies for maximizing the time and money invested in such shows. Here are my top seven tips—plus a couple of bonus suggestions for the trip home.

1. Set goals for the event
Think about what you hope to gain from your attendance. Be specific and write those items down. Consider your goals for specific content areas, questions you hope to have answered, the number and the kind of people you want to meet, and the amount of new business you hope to acquire. Goal setting for an event is like it is for anything else. So make a list of your objectives and then focus on achieving them.

2. Invest some time in planning
Sit down before the event with the schedule or agenda. Think about which sessions will best help you meet your goals. Schedule your day to take best advantage of those opportunities. Often, you’ll find yourself with many good sessions to choose from. In that case, refer to your goals and let them guide you. (And don’t forget to take that list of goals with you!)

3. Schedule your meals
Conferences offer a prime opportunity to learn in a more relaxed atmosphere. Schedule your meals with key colleagues, clients, presenters, or others you would like to meet. You’ll be surprised how easy this is, even with people you don’t know, if you plan ahead just a little. Are there too many people you want to have meals with? Invite more than one! Or schedule some meetings for a slower time during the conference program.

4. Network, network, network
Consider the exposition or trade show as a networking opportunity, not only with the exhibitors, but also with your fellow participants. Who knows who you might meet standing in a line? If there are planned networking activities, be there early. Take advantage of the time before a session starts, when most people just sit and wait for something to happen. Have plenty of business cards, and spend more time listening than talking. Don’t just sit there. Network!

5. Capture ideas
Sometimes, there isn’t much room to take notes during a session. So just follow your instincts about the amount of notes you need to take. At a minimum, though, I urge you to write down the action ideas you get during a session. These ideas might not even have anything to do with what the speaker is saying—no matter! Capture those gems so you’ll have them later.

6. Have fun
All of these tips require a little bit of effort and planning—even this one. As you try to reach your goals and make the most of your time, don’t forget to have some fun and allow serendipity to happen. If at the last minute your instinct says to go to a different session from the one you had planned, or to skip a session to get to know a new person, let yourself! It may be the best time you spend during the whole event.

7. Get some sleep
Conferences and shows can be long and exhausting. You will be at your best if you get some sleep. Too much of #6 (having fun) may leave you short on this one. Find some balance and get some rest. You’ll be glad you did.

Bonus tips
Here are two additional follow-up tips for while you’re on the plane home or when you get back the office:

  • Review your notes and ideas. Compare your list of notes and ideas from the conference with your original goals. How did you do? Take the time to prioritize the ideas you generated. Schedule the most important ones with the rest of your tasks, giving them appropriate priority. If you can’t find time to implement what you learned, why did you go? Make sure you take action on at least the most beneficial of your new ideas. If you have notes beyond action ideas, consider scheduling a short amount of time each day for the next week to review them. The repetition will help solidify the new concepts and principles in your mind.
  • Send thank-you notes. You collected business cards as you networked, right? Or made a note of the really fabulous session leader(s) you listened to? When you get home, take the time to write some brief thank-you notes. It’s important to acknowledge and share your appreciation, and your notes will help the recipient remember who you are. Make the time to do it!

If you take action on these nine tips, you will gain more from your conference dollars, improve the return on your time invested, make the conference more fun, and have a better learning experience.

Kevin Eikenberry is President of The Discian Group, a learning consulting company in Indianapolis, IN.

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