Recently, I attended the AICPA ENGAGE Conference. It was a good conference with a lot of great speakers, content, new ideas and different perspectives. This year was the first ENGAGE conference where the AICPA brought together five of their well-known conferences with the Association for Accounting Marketing Summit for four days.
We knew that this conference was going to be big, with five combined groups, but didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to find and network with individuals from our separate conference. It was easier for my team because we had a booth to meet at every day and had some of our connections find our booth to talk and catch up. I could have easily been overwhelmed by the large event and was thankful for my other ten colleagues who were there.
During my conversations with some of the other attendees, I heard a lot of people say it was hard to strike up a conversation with individuals who were there with a group of coworkers. It’s sort of a Catch-22. On the one hand, attending a conference with colleagues is a great opportunity to bond and spend time together in a way that just doesn’t happen at work. On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where you spend most of your time with them and miss out on making new, valuable contacts and even friends. So, which is better? Going alone, or going as a group?
Attending a conference alone
Due to budgets or workload, your employer may send only one person from your office to a conference. In this case, you don’t have to worry about spending all of your time with your coworkers, but you do still need to make a plan to make the most of your time there.
Review the schedule
Before the conference, review the schedule and mark any sessions you think are a “must attend.” If you wind up with a couple of empty time slots, plan to spend that time in the trade show area. Chat with the people manning the booths. They are often very social and happy to answer questions.
Seek out other “lone wolves”
If you lean toward introversion, walking into a conference hall full of people can be intimidating, to say the least. Have a plan for connecting with another person attending the conference alone. You can usually find them standing on the outskirts of the room, perhaps feigning preoccupation with their phone. Go up to them and introduce yourself. Chances are, they’ll be relieved to have someone else initiate a conversation.
Ask a lot of questions
Remember that learning is a contact sport, so ask a lot of questions. People love to talk about themselves, and most enjoy being helpful. Talk to speakers, organizers, sponsors and other attendees. Ask for recommendations on books, blogs, websites or other conferences. Find out about what they’ve learned so far or what sessions they’re looking forward to. Ask if they’ve found a place to get a decent cup of coffee nearby. Anything to break the ice and get the conversation flowing.
Attending a conference with coworkers
Being at a conference with coworkers can be a fun way to bond outside of the office, but don’t use existing relationships as a crutch and avoid meeting new people. Talk to your coworkers beforehand to come up with a plan of action to maximize the conference experience for the whole team.
Divide and conquer
Before the conference, discuss the sessions with your coworkers to make sure there’s some variety to your experience. You may want to attend a few sessions as a group, but also split up and attend different sessions at times. Plan to have dinner or lunch together later to compare notes and talk through the most valuable takeaways from your sessions.
Keep your circle open
If you do attend a session with your coworkers, be cognizant of the other people at your table. Introduce yourself to other people sitting around you and make an effort to draw them into your conversation. You might even decide that certain times, like lunch, would be networking time and decide to all sit at different tables.
Make networking a team sport
Meet up with your coworkers for dinner in the evening, but set a goal to have each of you bring someone else they met at the conference to dinner. This is an excellent way to widen your circle of contacts and deepen your relationships with the people you meet.
Remember that conferences are what you make of them. While the sessions may provide new ideas, often the most valuable takeaways come from the conversations you have with other people and the connections you make. Prioritize spending time with new people. You never know who you’ll meet.
Reprinted with permission from Boomer Consulting, Inc.