Justin F. Bastin attends just a few conferences a year, but he still manages to parlay these occasional events into crucial career-building sessions.
"As far as the value return on conferences, it far exceeds going to the classroom. I'm able to look at various technologies in different fields, and I'm able to dabble in different areas," says Bastin, an IT analyst at The Sherwin-Williams Co.
That doesn't happen by chance, though.
Bastin says when he goes to a conference, he knows what he wants to get out of it and plans ahead to make sure he hits his targets. He volunteers and networks. He has given presentations, too. As he puts it: "You get out of a conference as much as you put in."
But what, exactly, does it really take to turn conference attendance into a career-enhancing opportunity? It takes more than just showing up with business cards in hand. Career coaches, networking experts and experienced IT professionals say it's really about being strategic and following some key steps:
Know Your Purpose
Conferences are great places to network, pick up new skills and learn about the latest technologies. Devora Zack, president of Only Connect Consulting, and author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, says most professionals attend for all of those reasons, as well as others, but you must still have clear, concise goals to accomplish for each specific event.
So articulate what you want to get out of attending. If you're being sent by your company, ask for your manager's input. "Ask that person in advance: 'If I get one thing out of this conference, what do you want it to be?'" Zack says.
Knowing that will help you zero in on how to spend your time while there. "Carefully pick the things that are of interest to you," she says. Determine what's useful and relevant to your goals and stick with those.
Do Your Homework in Advance
CIO Larry Bonfante says he sets an agenda based on what he wants to accomplish while attending a conference. He decides what topics he wants to learn about while there and picks events that align with that objective. He scans attendee lists and vendor rosters in advance to see whom he wants to meet, and he reaches out ahead of time to schedule one-on-one meetings. He says he also seeks out colleagues who'll be attending who can make introductions.
"Before I get off a plane to go to a conference, I have an itinerary of all the meetings I want to attend. I come to a conference prepared with an agenda of what I want to accomplish, with the people I want to meet. If you're going just to go [without a plan], then you're not going to get any good outcome," says Bonfante, CIO of the U.S. Tennis Association in White Plains, N.Y. Bonfante is also an executive coach at his own practice, CIO Bench Coach, and author of Lessons in IT Transformation: Technology Expert to Business Leader.
Thom Singer, an expert in branding, positioning and networking and author of eight books, also recommends getting online before a conference to review the event agenda and attendee lists and to connect with others through online communities and social media sites that often buzz with advance activity.
Learn to Network, the Right Way
Let's be honest: One of the biggest benefits of event attendance is making new connections. But networking isn't about how many business cards you can hand out and collect. Rather, it's about building relationships and finding ways to help others. As Zack says: "Networking is the art of building and maintaining connections for shared positive outcomes."
When you think about networking like that, Zach said he finds that you learn to approach the task differently, more strategically and ultimately more successfully.
To be successful, start by focusing on the other person. Skip your elevator pitch and ask about others' about their jobs, their objectives and their challenges.
"Find out what other people need and try to help them. You shouldn't spend too much time figuring out who you need to meet, the people up the food chain, the people who can help you. You have to be a giver," Singer explains. "As you get to know people, ask about what challenges they have. Most people will tell me and most times I can't help them but sometimes in one phone call I can do that. If you're always watching and looking for ways to help, and then, when you can, you follow through, you'll be on someone else's radar screen and if you help someone else succeed, they'll remember you."
Bonfante says he approaches networking as a way "to meet people, get to know them a bit better and establish a relationship." That's how he met a magazine editor, who in turn asked for his help on a couple of projects, including speaking at an event. Bonfante's good turn paid off: The editor later introduced him to the publisher of his book.
Put Yourself Out There
It's tempting to spend downtime fiddling with your iPhone, but checking email or downloading an app won't advance your career. So put away your smartphones and laptops and find ways to be more engaged in the event, Singer says.
He coaches clients to show up early at events, which allows time to meet new people, and to attend the keynote speakers and main-stage events. "Asking 'What did you think about that keynote speaker? I thought he made some great comments about X, Y and Z,' is a much better conversation starter than 'How's the conference going for you?'"
If you have a smart question during a Q&A session, one that will really advance the discussion, then by all means, stand up and ask. "Then people will flock to you during the breaks. They'll feel at ease to approach you," Singer says.
Meet with the organizers, because "they're a treasure trove of information," and meet the vendors, because "smart salespeople are always building long-term connections, which is what everyone should be doing," he says.
Bastin, who is a project manager for the user-driven community zNextGen, part of the IBM user group SHARE, says he volunteers at conferences as a way to be more fully engaged. He says volunteering has helped him build more connections and more visibility.
Create Your Own Opportunities
Plenty of learning can happen outside the regular training sessions, which is why Bonnie Marcus says she sought out her own learning opportunities when she worked in high tech.
"When I was in sales in technology, it was important for me to learn all about the technology that was out there. You can target who will be there, set up demos ahead of time and choose particular sessions to help you build your expertise in a certain area," says Marcus, founder and principal of Women's Success Coaching.
She says she also met with presenters one-on-one to glean even more information from them than they offered during their presentations.
Recap and Reach Out
The work doesn't end when your breakout sessions do. Marcus says it's important to organize what you learn and act on it.
If you're going to these conferences to learn about new technologies or processes, write up the information to share with your colleagues, supervisors or company executives. It will build your expertise as well as your visibility and credibility back at the office, Marcus says.
You could also blog or write an article as a way to reinforce new lessons. And, Marcus adds, you'll establish yourself as the one in the know.
But don't wait until you're on the plane home to start, she says. You might forget key points or get busy catching up on emails and missed calls.
And don't forget to organize and act on whatever contacts you made with whom you want to cultivate a relationship. (Remember: You shouldn't feel that everyone you meet will necessarily be a new contact.)
Follow up with a personal note, says networking expert Lucy Rosen. She suggests following up within 48 hours of meeting someone with a note that pertains to the conversation you had; sending along an article related to the topic you discussed or the name of a resource you had mentioned is a good way to build a relationship.
And send a handwritten note instead of an impersonal e-mail, advises Rosen, founder and president of the national networking organization Women on the Fast Track and author of Fast Track Networking: Turning Conversations into Contacts.
Have a Post-game Plan
Stacey Hanke, founder of Chicago-based 1st Impression Consulting and author of Yes You Can! Everything You Need from A to Z To Influence Others To Take Action, agrees that conference attendees need to plan in advance.
But Hanke believes just as strongly in building a plan to put into action everything you learned while away, based on the goals you outlined before you left.
She recommends putting together a 90-day plan, and building it bit by bit while still at the conference.
If you're at a session, start analyzing: What do I already know that I haven't been practicing in a while? What's new that I'm hearing and does it fit into my overall personal and professional goals? How will I apply this new information, concept and/or idea?
Do the same thing while networking, she says. Ask: "Is this someone I can partner with?" Similarly, consider whether the vendors you meet have something specific to offer you or others in your organization.
Articulate your post-game plan, putting in details on how you will actually apply your new knowledge and build up those new relationships - and then share it with someone who can support you.
"I know accountability is the toughest part to apply, so I share my plan with someone else. They might check in with me on my goals maybe weekly or daily, never just once a month," Hanke says.
It's this action plan -- for putting into practice what you took away from all those sessions and networking events -- that can really determine the value of attending the conference in the first place.
Hanke puts it this way: "Attending conferences isn't hard work. It's what you're going to do with it once you leave that makes people stand out from others."
Mary K. Pratt is a freelance writer based in Masachusetts.
Read more about careers in CIO's Careers Drilldown.