ask the readers: what do people do at conferences?

A reader writes:

I am now two months into my new job and I am really enjoying it. I am really excited about a huge conference that is coming up soon and my boss has registered both of us to go. Since this is my first professional job after college, I have never been to a conference, and really have no idea what to do at conferences. I know that there will be different sessions, discussions and networking events, but I am a little nervous because I will be mostly on my own and I am so new to the industry. What should I wear? (My industry is in philanthropy, if that helps.) What do people do at conferences? How do I use this opportunity to network?

Readers, want to lend your wisdom to help this conference novice? Weigh in with your advice in the comments section.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. Carrie in Scotland*

    What do you normally wear at work? If it’s a.nice dress/skirt and top etc, that is what I would wear. And if you usually wear more casual clothes then dress it up a bit and go for a vit more formal look. :-)

    1. Josh S*

      Dress the way you would if you were meeting clients/potential donors. To my mind, that’s definitely a shirt and tie (for a man) and possibly a suit. For a woman, the equivalent.

      Another thing–figure out how to layer. Sometimes the main halls are too hot/cold, while the seminar rooms will have the opposite problem. The ability to add or take off a sweater can be the difference between comfort and misery.

      Last — comfortable shoes. Be prepared to walk a TON, and to stand a TON.

  2. DA*

    Expect alcohol. Perhaps lots of it, especially if it’s free. Limit yourself to no more than one drink if this is the case.

    1. Sascha*

      Yes, I’d stay away from the alcohol, unless I was by myself. The last conference I went to was in Denver, and being a fan of craft beers, I was super excited to try some…but I didn’t drink anything around my boss. That would have just been awkward. I hit up the hotel bar though. In any case, it’s good to limit yourself, or just abstain altogether.

  3. Shuvon*

    Some advice I received from my mentor about conferences:
    1. Don’t get drunk, especially since you’ll be with your boss. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. Much like a holiday party at work, you still have to be professional even when it’s social.
    2. Pace yourself. You won’t be able to attend one session in every time slot on every day. You may want to pick up handouts from sessions you can’t attend because they are in a conflicting time slot with other sessions.
    3. When you get a business card from someone, write a brief note about why you have their card. Then send them a follow-up email when you are back in the office.

    1. Sharon*

      What should the followup email (in #3) say? This is the part that I always fail at; once the conference is over, I don’t know how to keep in touch with people. Contrive something… but I suck at that and it would sound contrived.

      At a conference I went to a few weeks ago, I met the vendor’s business analyst who was responsible for doing most of their analytics. That’s something I want to get into, but I don’t know how to approach her without sounding like “hey, I want to do what you do, do you have any openings?”.

      1. Rebecca*

        Maybe try- “I’m interested in doing what you do, can you tell me more about it?” Generally people like talking about themselves.

        1. fposte*

          I think that’s fine in face to face, but for a followup email I’d make it a little more specific so that it’s finite. “I’m interested in transitioning to analytics–do you have any recommendations for how I might do that?”

          1. saro*

            Yes, please keep it finite. It’s difficult to answer the I want your job questions without the context of where that particular person is in her career.

      2. Sunday's Child*

        Your follow up will depend on how you met them at the conference and how much you are interested in staying in contact. The standard, “It was a pleasure to meet you/talk with you/discuss xyz with you at the session on philanthropy for Chocolate Teapots and I would like to stay in touch.” You could also include something more specific: e.g. “We have received a request for support from the local Chocolate Teapot Cooperative. Would it be alright if I contact you for your perspective? I have a couple of questions and I would value your opinion.” Be cautious about asking for anything that would take more than a few minutes of time.
        It’s also nice if you have something you can offer or share that you think would be interesting to your contact(s), an article on a topic of common interest perhaps.

      3. Kate in Scotland*

        I try to send a LinkedIn message along the lines of ‘It was interesting to talk to you about X. Good luck with Y/I hope you enjoyed that next session/what did you think about the keynote?’ Nothing exciting but if they are at all interested in connecting it is enough to start a conversation.

      4. Yup*

        I sometime ask for their recommendations on websites/blogs/publications about their topic area. People like to be helpful, and free resources are easy. “Hi Joan, it was so nice to meet you, yadda yadda. I really enjoyed hearing about your work in maternal health. Are there any blogs or industry publications that you recommend on this topic? I’d love to learn more about the issues.”

      5. Josh S*

        “Hey! It was great to meet you at Conference! I’m always excited to meet people in my field, and the conversation we had about _______ was really relevant to me because ______. Let’s keep in touch [optional: about Topic/clients/issues/whatever]!”


        “Hi! It was great meeting you at Conference and learning about your work with Company. That’s really a direction I’m interested in going with my career, and based on what you said, it sounds like Company is a good place to work. I’ve already checked the company career website [because you have, haven’t you??], but didn’t find quite the right fit. Do you know of anything that’s coming open in a role similar to yours?”

      6. Vicki*

        You will likely meet A LOT of new people – and they will meet A LOT of new people too. When you jot your note at the time of meeting someone, make it significant. And then when you follow up say something about where you met the person and what you discussed with them. “Joe, it was great meeting you at the conference last week. Here’s a link to the Amazon page for that book I mentioned….” Give them something to remember you by – and then give them something else.

    2. Nichole*

      YES to number 3. I went to my first conference last year (leaving for the same one again tomorrow, coincidentally), and it was all very overwhelming. I met a bajazillion people, and writing a quick note on the back of their cards about what I wanted to remember about them was so helpful when I was “debriefing” afterwards. In the follow up, I just sent a quick “it was nice to meet you, enjoyed talking about X” and requested a copy of their presentation materials when it was appropriate.

  4. Lisa*

    If there are multiple tracks, I usually like going to the seminars I like then have a coworker go to diff ones. I don’t like wasting info so it may be best to look at the agenda and attendee booth list and see what and whom you want to see ahead of time and then split who makes the list. I can’t imagine following your boss around to the same seminars when most of these things cost $1400 a person. Divide and conquer.

    Ask your boss what to wear. Is this formal with me representing the biz with you or can I wear jeans and just go to everything and soak up the info?

    1. Judy*

      Every time I’ve been to conferences with at least one other person, we review the schedule together day by day and session by session. We then decide together the sessions to attend. Marking off the ones that seem less useful, and then which should be attended by more than one person.

      At 9:30 on Tuesday is the “Teapot Requirements” seminar, that’s something we both should go to, but at 1pm, it seems like one should go to “Teapot testing” and the other to “Chocolate material properties”. We can skip the “Agile Teapot methodologies” because our development process will not handle that.

  5. Unmana*

    Ha! I was at one on Saturday! I’ve only been to a few so far, and I enjoyed my first one the most, partly because I was so excited about it!

    1) Wear what’s normal for people in your industry. I wear my nicest work wear clothes.

    2) Practice introducing yourself in one sentence. You’ll need to do this over and over, so it’s good to know in advance what to say (if you’re a shy introvert like me!)

    3) Talk to people near you: people who sit next to you, people standing in queue near you. Just say hi! You might be surprised at the conversations that take off.

    4) Look approachable: don’t talk on your phone or look down at your notes when you have a free moment. Look around you, look interested. It’s more likely that someone who’s come alone or is looking for someone to talk to will approach you.

    5) Most importantly, wear comfortable shoes. I’ve never been to an event that included networking and not have my feet in PAIN halfway through.

    Best of luck!

    1. Phyllis*

      #4: Comfortable shoes are a must. You’d be amazed at how much walking you have to do. If the conference is at a large hotel, the meeting space is probably going to be well away from the elevators. If it’s at a convention center, those can seem downright endless in the amount of back-and-forth walking involved.

      As for networking with other attendees, the great thing about conferences is folks are wearing name badges, with their company name and likely the city/state they’re from. Great icebreaker- “Hello Wakeen. I see you’re from Sheyboygan. Tell me about it.”

        1. fposte*

          Additional badge note–if they’re on a cord, you can always adjust the cord length by tying a knot (or a knot and a loop) in it. I speak as the woman who doesn’t want to be identified at navel level.

          1. Kate in Scotland*

            Sometimes there is an option to clip/pin them, which is one reason it’s good to wear something with pockets.

            1. Carrie Not in Scotland*

              Nametags/badges are dreadful: you get people reading your chest, then walking away if they cannot immediately identify you or a need to talk to you. Or instead of making eye contact, smiling, and shaking your hand, they just read your nametag and consider themselves introduced.

              My advice: look people in the eye and do introductions and handshakes before ever looking at the name tag.

          2. Jessa*

            Or does not want to have someone staring at an inopportune spot (honestly I was just reading your nametag)

      1. Rana*

        Related to the comfortable shoes thing – if it’s a cold-weather conference, be sure to check your coat. The fewer things you have to lug around, and juggle if you end up shaking hands with someone, the better.

        Also, bring pens, lots of business cards, and a small notebook.

      2. ZombiesRPeopleToo*

        As a fellow Sheboyganite who now lives in the South, I can’t tell you how happy I am for the hometown reference!

  6. HB*

    I dress one step below an interview – I typically wear stuff like:
    -Black pants with a silky top and a cardigan
    -Sheath dress with a belt
    -Funky print dress with a black blazer and heels

    It’s better to be a little over dressed than too casual.

    1) Pack in one color family (usually either black, navy or brown). Then you only have to pack one belt/cardigan/pair of shoes because it will go with everything.
    2) Consider that you may have a bit of hike getting between keynote speakers, break out sessions, meals, etc. Pack dressy but comfortable shoes. If you don’t regularly wear/walk around in heels, now is not the time to commit to wearing them for 10 hours at a time.
    4) Layer! Cardigans/blazers/sweaters are your friend. Some rooms might be freezing, others might be too warm.
    5) If there are evening events, have an outfit or two that is more casual/comfortable but still looks put together.
    6) This isn’t related to clothes, but pack snacks and maybe even some breakfast food for yourself. This summer, I was at a conference at a hotel and our only breakfast options were a $20 breakfast buffet or a tiny Starbucks stand manned by 1 person. Now imagine 600 people all getting in the Starbucks line at 8:15…. I was so happy I had granola bars and bananas up in my room and didn’t have to worry with that! Also you never know how good the food is going to be or if you’ll have time to sneak away for a snack break.
    7) Check the conference schedule and see if there is a theme/dress up day. Sometimes they have a school spirit day (I work in higher ed) or a “country western” dinner or something else to be “fun.” I know, groan, but try to pack something that fits the theme so you can be a good sport and play along. :) In my experience, most people do.

    1. Sascha*

      Snacks!!! Yes, I forgot about snacks. Also I carried a water bottle with me everywhere.

      1. Jessa*

        Water totally. Never forget the water, because the fountain will be on the opposite end of the building to you. Every time.

    2. Ally*

      I second the layering! Actually, in my experience, hotels and convention halls are overly air conditioned. Layering is also a good idea because you may be going to a dinner in the evening and want to freshen up or change your clothes a bit.

      Snacks are a great idea. I always bring granola bars and my water bottle.

      It was mentioned in another comment to practice introducing yourself. I’d be ready to explain what you do, who you work for, what the organization’s goals are, so forth. And you don’t need to make contact with everyone; check out the program and booth list beforehand and get a list of people/organizations you want to reach out to. You may get lost or overwhelmed if you don’t have a strategy going in.

    3. Emily*

      Second the bringing snacks bit.
      I take snacks with me for the airport/flight, and then usually go to a local grocery store for snacks, potential meals, and drinks. Not much worse than being stuck at your booth, hungry and thirsty, but between meal times and reluctant to pay for the over-priced hotel convenience store or restaurant food. (plus, when you’re peckish between meals, the options are almost always not-enough sweets or too-filing.)

  7. Sascha*

    I’ve been to one major conference and I’m going to another later this year (free trip to Vegas, oh yeah!). I’m rather shy and have a hard time networking, and I love comfortable clothing to a fault. So that’s what is influencing my advice.

    1. Ask people who have been to this conference before what to wear. Or ask your boss. If no one has been, wear your nicest business casual. Bring a blazer for times when you might need to dress up – like a fancy dinner. For the majority of the time, business casual is fine. I like to take a few pieces that can be combined into several outfits.

    2. COMFORTABLE SHOES!!! You’ll be walking a lot, and if some sessions are really full, you’ll be standing. Pick a couple pairs that pack well and look good with every outfit.

    3. Networking – just ask people questions, especially the presenters I found that most of them are friendly and love being asked about their work. I even made some good networking connections this way. And believe me, I’m super shy and not that comfortable around strangers, but if you keep the focus on them, it’s much easier.

    4. Make sure you take some time at the end of the day for yourself. You’ll be overwhelmed with information and people. Even if you are on the extroverted side, it may be a lot for your first conference, especially big ones.

    5. You don’t have to do everything with coworkers. One dinner or a couple lunches is good.

      1. Sascha*

        That’s also a good idea, but take it with a grain of salt. There is always the one guy at the conference who will wear old shorts and sandals with socks.

    1. Chinook*

      I agree with the point about having something to wear for a fancy dinner – I do this every time I travel. Even if there is no banquet scheduled or you have no intention of going, you want to be able to go to a nice restaurant with a colleague or a last minute event with your boss without worrying about what to wear. It is better to have the option rather than be stuck buying something at the last minute.

  8. Janet*

    Another conference tip! Think of a good exit line. While you can have awesome conversations with really smart people, any networking event also means you could very well get trapped next to someone who will NOT shut up. Figuring out a way to politely extricate yourself from those conversations is going to be so valuable.

    I once went to a conference and at a networking reception got stuck next to this guy who was so boring and also so very impressed with himself. He talked at me and never asked me anything about where I worked or anything. Painful and I missed out on networking with others.

    So have a few good things to say “Oh excuse me, I just realized the time and I have to get to another session” or “Oh I am sorry, I just saw someone I used to know from college and she looks like she’s heading out of the room so I must go say something before she leaves.” Etc.

    1. Sascha*

      Ah yes, that’s a good strategy. Also works well with vendors. Another good line for vendors is, “I don’t have purchasing power but I can talk to the person who does.” They quickly lose interest in you if you don’t hold the purse strings.

  9. Rebecca*

    Does your field do anything for young professionals? At the first (and only, so far) conference I went to in my field, everyone was so excited about the young people there that I had no problem finding people to talk to.

    If you’re introverted, plan in some time to get away from the conference and take a breather. Conferences can really wear you out if you’re not used to interacting with people all the time, and it’s better to step away and regroup than attend the entire thing will your walls all the way up, not engaging with anyone.

    Ask your boss to introduce you to people early on so you recognize some faces, but don’t follow your boss around for the entire thing. If you get a few introductions you can spot a familiar face in more sessions- even a semi stranger can be a comfort in a room full of total strangers.

    Practice a dis-engagement line- I found the toughest thing was extracting myself politely from conversations (see highly enthusiastic about young professionals, above)

    I found it helpful to write a note about why I had a business card on the business card itself- consider bringing a small case or something for other peoples business cards, as they have a tendency to escape from folders and the like. Or at least they tend to escape from my folders…

  10. Rob Bird*

    I would ask your boss/co-workers what you should/shouldn’t be doing/wearing/etc. Because honestly, they are the ones you are representing and have to work with after the conference is over.

  11. majigail*

    You can pick up a lot on what to wear by looking at the conference website or facebook page- especially if there are pictures from last year.

  12. fposte*

    “I will be mostly on my own and I am so new to the industry.” Conferences are filled with people exactly like that who will be delighted to hunt for the bathroom with you or tell you they found a coffee shop around the corner with no line (anybody carrying an out-of-convention-center brand of coffee cup is fair game). Seriously, half the people there are hoping to talk to somebody and dying for an excuse.

  13. Tracey*

    Congrats on this wondeful oppportunity.

    Though yo are at a conference, consider yourself to be a work.

    Don’t let down your guard or leave your common sense and good safety/security practices at home.

    Take lots of business cards if you have one. If not, ask your boss if you could design one for this purpose.

    As you boss if the are specific objectives that s/he wants yo to accomplish by attending.

    Do you have a project working on/is there a specific thing that your company will be doing in the next few months? Think about these things I. Eliding which session to attend. Try to think of things that you can immediately implement on your job.

    I there something that you have been wanting or learnt be exposed to? Attend any session that fits into this slot also.

  14. PEBCAK*

    One word for conference attire: LAYERS. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in sessions that were uncomfortably hot or cold, at all times of year.

    For women, I strongly suggest wearing a jacket over a shirt that looks fine without the jacket (i.e. not a sleeveless shell), and possibly having a nice-looking scarf you could take on/off as needed.

    1. Sascha*

      I’m going to a conference in Las Vegas this summer where I fully expect it to be fry-your-brain hot, and I’ve been told by my coworkers that I need to bring sweaters. Because it’s just that cold in the hotels.

      Lightweight scarves are a great idea. Very fashionable, easily packed, and not as bulky as carrying around a cardigan or a jacket.

    2. perrik*

      OMG, this is important! I attended a conference one lovely spring weekend where the meeting rooms were clean, well-lit, well-stocked, and really freakin’ cold much of the time. I was not prepared.

      I’ve got two conferences scheduled this spring; for both I’m packing short-sleeved dresses with mix & match lightweight long-sleeved cardigans that can be worn buttoned or open. And a huge thank you to everyone who has recommended Clarks shoes! I love the comfort of Naots but not the price or the Velcro. Clarks are such a great alternative.

      Yes, pack snacks or look for a convenience store within walking distance of the conference hotel. Nuts and protein bars are especially great for keeping up your energy.

      Oh… breath strips or mints are handy, too. I always feel more prepared to chat with strangers when my words come out minty fresh.

      If you’re a fellow introvert, pick up Devora Zack’s book “Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts”. It was recommended by a commenter (or was it AAM herself?) some months back, and I loved it.

  15. Chocolate Teapot*

    Having a looking at the conference programme is a good idea, so you can decide in advance whether you prefer the presentation on chocolate teapots or the workshop on marzipan coffeepots.

    I haven’t attended many conferences, but the comfortable smart outfit is a good idea, and there may well be some sort of first night networking introduction event, which can be helpful.

  16. Kate in Scotland*

    I would recommend wearing something distinctive if possible. I am not always great at approaching people (depends how introvert-overwhelmed I am) but I seem to get more people approaching me if I wear my brightly patterned top, so I am easy to recognise as the person who asked the question in the first session or was in the same workshop.

  17. Lora*

    Another thing: Make yourself aware of what restaurant/food options there are outside of the conference hall. You may need them.

    It depends 100% on the conference organizers and the venues they pick, but some organizations like to boast about number of attendees and therefore over-book their venue, so that you cannot feasibly eat at the conference hall (I’m glaring at you, BIO) even if there are technically restaurants there. Others are quite good about selecting venues capable of handling the number of attendees (bless you, ASM). But it can be hit or miss and some organizations that you’d think would have their act together on that front, emphatically do not. Or they won’t have veggie options or whatever. Some conference centers are conveniently located near semi-fast restaurants (Morial in NOLA, BCC in Boston) or transit to get somewhere decent for meals; others are not (OCCC in Orlando) and you will have to have a rental car if you don’t want a lukewarm microwaved burger or rubber chicken sandwich.

    Don’t know if this is a thing in philanthropy, but in STEM it definitely is–there are sometimes individuals who take conferences as an opportunity to abdicate from accepted standards of professionalism. Do not do this and have all your anti-pickup-lines ready to rock. Also, if female, clip your badge to your briefcase/bag or belt loop on pants or somewhere similar. It is kind of creepy to have dudes staring at your chest inappropriately and “oh, heh heh, just trying to read your badge *leer*”. Become familiar with the conference organizer’s policies for how they handle harassment, if they have any at all. Don’t ask me why some people think conference == singles bar, but it happens.

      1. Lora*

        There’s decent restaurants on International Drive, which isn’t super-far. And if you bring your SO/kids you can drop em off at Disney or Kennedy Space Ctr for the day. The giant flying roaches freaked me right out and the humidity was intolerable though.

        NOLA was nice if you avoided the mall food court for lunch, but there were plenty of other options. The hotel charges were insane as I recall–several academics who were not informed of all the various taxes and charges when they booked got nasty surprises and had to pay out of pocket for them.

        Boston in a wonky spot on the Fan Pier but you can get around and if you do the bridge-walk to the other side of the highway there are some restaurants there (Sebastian’s) that are fast and have decent food.

        Trying to think…Philadelphia sucks because you just can’t get around without a car and there is NO parking and hardly any taxis. Same with Cleveland, it’s a terrible place. NYC, again with the crazy hotel charges but there’s plenty of places to eat and things to do outside of the conference and you can manage with subway and taxis. I skipped San Diego this year, but I heard it’s nice.

        1. fposte*

          I’m told International Drive has improved since we were there, but “decent” was a compliment for the walking-distance restaurants then.

          Ooh, comparing notes. I actually really like Philadelphia–it’s very walkable, and you can get food at Reading Terminal Market. San Diego is nice but the area gets overrun with suburban youths on the weekends who come in to club and party so streetside rooms are *noisy*. Dallas is creepily empty on weekends, though they have a cool sculpture installation and cemetery on the grounds. New Boston’s okay but at big conferences a lot of people will have to stay in hotels that aren’t close, and since Hynes was right in the middle of everything that makes me sad. Chicago of course has the convention center in another time zone for maximum inconvenience. Seattle is very nice and amenities-rich but if you’re a flatlander you *will* get tuckered out on the hills. DC is always so freaking hot it drives situational awareness from my brain. Which ones am I forgetting? (Never actually done New York.)

          1. Lora*

            See, I did DC in spring when the most annoying weather thing was rain. But it was mild. I always take the train into Philly and getting picked up from the station, getting to wherever is just misery. Last time I was in Philly I ate at one of the supposedly really nice restaurants (Davos) and got food poisoning, so that may be affecting my perception a bit.

            Never did Seattle. Austin was nice and very walkable to restaurants, good parking, I enjoyed it.
            Erie PA, no. Do not go there. Pittsburgh, no. I used to live in Pgh and it was a terrible place.
            Springfield MA is also terrible.
            I hear Vegas is nice but have not gone myself–have a few friends in electronics who go to the consumer electronics show every year.
            Columbus, OH wasn’t bad, although I am told it’s mostly deserted as the downtown empties out, but when I was there the OSU area was fairly nice.
            Madison WI was also decent.

            1. fposte*

              I did Vegas like two decades ago, and it’s supposedly completely different. It was hilarious–I shared a hotel with the Miss World candidates and they had to wear their sashes *everywhere*–that’s quite the elevator double-take at 7 a.m.

            2. Laura L*

              If your conference is at the convention center, I think DC is a great place for a conference. It’s ridiculously hot in June, July, and August, but there are a lot of bars and restaurants within walking distance of the convention center and it’s conveniently located on the green and yellow lines (and not far from the other three lines).

        2. Diane*

          I like comparing notes.

          DC is nice, but I’m not fond of conferences with Hill visits in July. That said, public transportation and food are great. Chicago is beautiful in the summer, and transportation and food are also great. Salt Lake City is too spread out to be comfortably walkable, but it’s cheaper than the other options I mentioned. Seattle is great, but damp. Portland is even better, and slightly less damp.

    1. Sascha*

      It’s not just STEM, it’s everywhere, I think. Nothing like watching your account manager do drunken karaoke, then see him a few weeks later in the office.

  18. Kelly*

    I work at a Foundation, so I attend a lot of philanthropy conferences. A few things I wish someone had told me:
    1) Dress for an interview, especially if you are young-ish (in philanthropy, “young” is anywhere under 50). I go with suit, heels, the whole deal. Philanthropy, as a field, tends to be pretty formal, so you’ll probably feel most comfortable if you’re dressed up.
    2) Usually, conferences release the list of attendees beforehand. Assuming you get one, review it and make a note of any people you want to meet or organizations you’re particularly interested in.
    3) Philanthropy conferences are PLUSH. Expect lots of food and alcohol. I don’t recommend skipping the bar (it’s too much of a networking scene), but DRINK IN MODERATION. If you’re worried, ask the bartender to mix you up a mocktail (ginger ale and cranberry or club soda with a lime were my go to drinks at conferences when I was pregnant).
    4) If you’re so inclined, tweeting is a great way to meet people and break the ice at philanthropy conferences. So few people do it that it’s an easy way to build your profile.
    5) The unspoken rule of a philanthropy conference: NO SOLICITATION. If you meet someone and think there’s an opportunity to work together (or ask for money), get their card, write yourself a note, and email them when you get home. DON’T ask for money at the conference.

    1. Sascha*

      I like the mocktail idea. Did many people question what you were drinking? I’m sure they wouldn’t pressure you if you say you’re pregnant, but I could see some people asking why a person isn’t drinking if they don’t have that reason. Regardless of the fact that it’s everyone’s own choice, some people are just that way.

      1. EM*

        I drank tonic and lime when I was pregnant in the summer in Texas (ungodly hot). It’s a gin and tonic, sans gin.

      2. Ruby*

        Saying you are taking medication that you can’t take with alcohol is a valid excuse even if it’s a lie.

          1. TheSnarkyB*

            They often do. Based on “I don’t drink” some people assume you’re an alcoholic in recovery, a teetotaler for political or cultish reasons, a member of a strict religious sect, or other reasons – many of which people see as a reason to judge you.

            1. fposte*

              Or they defensively decide you’re judging them.

              Interestingly, the only time I ever dealt with people who cared was when I worked in insurance–and I mean in high school and college nobody ever said a thing, but it definitely disconcerted people in insurance.

      3. Kelly*

        Believe it or not, they did! Every time someone saw me empty-handed, they tried to bring me a glass of wine (this is before I was obviously pregnant – it might have been different if I’d been round and glowing). I kept a drink in hand because I didn’t want the conversation to be about my choice of beverage or baby names – I wanted to focus on professional networking. It helped keep the focus in the right place.

  19. anon o*

    Is there anyone you deal with attending the conference (or located in the host city) that you could set up a meeting with? In my industry conferences are generally just endless days of meetings but it is helpful if you’re going to be in the same place as someone you deal with frequently to set up time for some face to face – and it can provide you with an excuse to stop and have coffee or lunch or something.

  20. Sunday's Child*

    So much great advice! (especially “wear comfortable shoes” and bring snacks and water)
    For successful networking, you want to determine your goals for networking. Perhaps these suggestions will be helpful:
    Someone already mentioned the program guide. Review it and determine the sessions or topics that are of most interest to you and/or your manager. Have a couple of questions you want to ask at the session or to the presenter(s) at a later time. Make sure you get the business cards of the interesting and helpful people you meet. They will also be most likely to respond to your follow-up contact. (Someone above mentioned making notes on the cards. Excellent way to keep track; include the date and time, too.)
    Do you want to meet specific people, or representives from specific organizations? You might find them at sessions where they or one of their representatives is speaking. Or ask your manager or the other participant if they know someone and to provide an introduction.
    Are there programs or tools you want to know more about? Find people or vendors who use/sell those programs or tools and ask a couple of questions.
    Are you seeking ideas or programs for your organization to pursue? Select those sessions most likely to provide you with ideas for your organization.
    Are you seeking other opportunities in your field? Where do you want to go or what types of organizations pique your interests?
    These are by no means the only things to consider, but perhaps they will help you as you make plans for your first conference.
    Also, enjoy the experience!

  21. Vicki*

    At Tech conferences, we go to the sessions. Take notes if you like. Smile and nod and say hello to people you’ve seen before. Join the group in the hotel bar in the evenings. Go to the receptions. Dress like you would at work. Find the comfy couch areas where people are resting between sessions. Sit there. Listen. Join conversations if they’re interesting.

  22. T*

    If you’re traveling with coworkers, make sure NOT to over share! I don’t know about other people, but I’ve gotten stuck in 3-hour car rides with that coworker who suddenly thinks we’re BFFs because we’ve been assigned to ride together. Anyone else had this?

    1. EM*

      Yeah, I used to carpool with a coworker to a conference in a city about 5 hours away, and she talked the whole time. She was a chronic oversharer and talked constantly anyhow, so this was not a deviation. :/

  23. AnnaRosa*

    You are getting excellent advice here. Plan to be on the go from early morning until late in the evening, and pace yourself accordingly. Also, you might want to take a bigger suitcase than you actually need – I always come away with a ton of printed information and giveaways. Keep business cards handy at all times. Stay open and receptive to casual conversations – I once got a job when a woman I spoke with briefly remembered me and recommended me for an open position.

  24. Sue D. O'Nym*

    The last several conferences I’ve attended, I was representing one of the exhibitors, rather than being an attendee. I was also one of the folks responsible for setting up the booth … thus, for setup/strike days, I wore “tech blacks” … black t-shirt, durable black pants (NOT dress pants), leatherman tool, etc. For the rest of the conference, my employer said khaki pants and a company-logo polo shirt were fine.

    (I also wore an elephant costume for one conference, but that was part of our marketing strategy)

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I did that when I worked for a non-profit. Everyone said I needed comfy shoes, so I went to Dillard’s and spent $100 on a pair of Eccos. Best investment ever—the venue had concrete floors and I was on my feet all day for two 12-hour days. I wore those things for eight years, until they finally fell apart.

  25. Jessie*

    If your boss recommends specific sessions that s/he is not attending , you can offer to brief them on your key take-aways over dinner/drinks/back at the office. This lets you get some good insights from your boss and you get to highlight the gret networking/learning you did. I once wrote a one page summary on conference highlights for my supervisor- took me all of 20 minutes- as a travel report & it was a hit… and I went to a lot of events from then on.

    Also, go to something that personally interests you as well as stuff directly related to your job. It’s networking time for you too! Use it as good small-talk and challenge yourself to ask a question during sessions a least once during the event. Conferences are great places to practice presentation and business interaction skills.

    As for what to wear: I agree with the commenter above who said “one step down from an interview”. If you are really young by anyone’s standards (in your twenties), go full interview. People notice young people at conferences and if you look like you take this very seriously it will only be beneficial.

    And to +1 the above: BYOsnacks. As a vegan, it can be hit and miss & I always feel better having something at the ready.

    1. Jamie H.*

      “Also, go to something that personally interests you as well as stuff directly related to your job.”

      YES! +1! Plus a thousand. Some of the better sessions I’ve been to, I went because I was interested in the topic, and I found stuff to relate to my work. If I had gone to the “Oh boy, I -should- go to this one because I ought to know about the latest development in the zzzzzzzzzz….” my brain would have fallen out of my ears from boredom. ;)

  26. anon in tejas*

    Here are things that I would consider:

    1) talk to your boss. I would at least reach out casually and ask about expectations, who’s going to what, reimbursement and what to expect. This is fairly normal, and when attending a conference that I have not been to before, I do this. Also, at our office, we have a couple of yearly conferences and my managers either send an email or have a meeting to discuss these expectations (and/or travel)
    2) plan on attending the whole thing. Don’t plan on skipping out on anything. Even if everyone is dragging on Friday afternoon, and just want to go home. Sometimes it pays to be the person that stuck to the schedule and weathered it out. If your boss says otherwise, it’s up to you whether or not to follow through.
    3) Do not make major plans with your off time. Lots of networking happens in the off time (dinner/after dinner). Your boss may want to take you and someone else out to dinner or drinks. Be available. In my experience, this can really help you find a mentor and learn about your profession/position/work.
    4) Don’t be afraid to approach. I work in a field where I am on the younger side. it took me a while to get comfortable to approach peers who were my parent’s age (or older) for networking.
    5) Bring your business cards. Lots of them.
    6) Dress in layers. I am always the person who is cold, so I always bring an extra sweater or cardigan or wrap that I can add to most of my outfits.

    1. Chinook*

      I agree about planning on attending the whole thing, especially if you are being paid by work to be there. At one point, some teachers were known to skip part of their conferences to go shopping and, as a result, the principals would stand at the main entrance to the conference Centre, taking attendance. Those that didn’t show up and didn’t have a legit excuse were fired.

  27. EM*

    I agree with all of the advice given so far. Most of the conferences I’ve attended have specific “networking break” times in between the sessions, but don’t feel like you have to attend a session during all of the session times. There might not be anything you’re particularly interested in during a given time slot, but I’ve found that some of the best networking happens when most people are in a session. You can have a more in-depth conversation with someone, if you desire.

    This thread is also bringing up memories of past conferences I attended when I was younger. I’m boring and I never did anything I regretted, but I do remember one conference (it was actually a training session for a specific software program, paid for by the developer) where about 5 or 6 of the attendees came in late and hung over because they had gone bar-hopping the night before. At another conference, one of the vendors put on a huge party for their customers at a bar. That was a good one for people watching. :)

  28. AnotherAlison*

    I’m jealous of all of you who can wear business casual to conferences. The ones I get sent to are usually finance-related or “executive” conferences and are suit & tie for the men and equiv. for the women. I don’t mind the clothes, but the shoes! I bought some Easy Spirit pumps for the last one & they worked out pretty well for 12 hr days, but definitely not cutting edge fashion.

    1. Sascha*

      I’ve seen women at conferences stomping around in platform stilettos, and it hurts to think what their feet and lower backs must feel like at the end of the day!

  29. Bonnie*

    Remember that you are always on. You are being sent there by your employer and after hours receptions, dinners and events are work events and should be treated as such.

    I saw a little bit if inconsistent advise about attire and how formal it should be. There are industry norms. Some of what I saw above would be considered overly formal in my industry and would not necessarily make you stand out in a good way. Be sure to talk to some one in your own industry like your boss to make sure you what your norms are.

    In addition to industry norms on dress there are industry norms on session attendance. In my industry it is very normal to skip a couple of conference sessions each day. Some times it is to get work done even while out of the office and other times just to network because there are no sessions of interest. In other industries this would be seen as a big mistake on your part. Make sure you know what is accepted in your industry.

    I also noticed you mentioned it was a huge conference. Networking is slightly easier at large national conferences than at small local ones. There are so many people at the national conferences that most people are expecting to spend a great deal of time speaking to someone new. If the conference provides meals, try not to sit with your boss or co-workers as some of the best contacts you will make will be at these meals but if you sit with a co-worker you might get trapped into just talking with your co-worker.

    1. Rana*

      That’s a really good point about the meals. Also, lunches and breakfasts are a great time to meet people, because usually seats are scarce and people tend to be there by themselves, so asking if you can share a table is a nice way to meet more people.

  30. Rana*

    Everyone’s pretty much covered what I would have said, but here’s an additional thing – don’t overlook the potential of the book fair/vendor room as well. Not only are the people who man the booths useful to talk to – they often have perspectives on the industry that your colleagues may lack – but the atmosphere in those places is a lot more relaxed and it may be easier to casually chat up someone who’s looking at a book or product you also find interesting.

    Oh! One other thing. Be cautious, but not too much so, about approaching pairs of people. Do they look welcoming if you approach? If not, move on to a larger group instead.

  31. Jamie H.*

    Depending on where you’re staying, give yourself plenty of time to get to and from the conference. Scout out places to eat, or see if there’s a grocery store or something near by to stock up on some snacks.

    My favorite help trick — look through the schedule book, write down my daily schedule “wish list” on a small piece of paper. I write down session times, room numbers, and the topic, for quick reference — then I stick it upside down in the back of my name tag holder! Then, rather than hauling out the whole book just to check one thing, I can just flip my name tag up and check and it takes no effort.

    I’ve also put my room key in there, or stashed a tiny stack of business cards so I can just fish one out when I meet someone spontaneously, rather than making them wait while fumbling with a separate business card holder.

    The conferences I’ve been to (6,000 people and 40,000 people, average) have always had new member mixers or quick breakfast mixers to allow new members to ask questions, or meet up with a convention veteran to get tips. See if they offer anything like that! One of my groups also has a new member roundtable (geared towards younger people, since they’re the newest) — last conference they had a spreadsheet for any member (not just new ones) to coordinate carpooling or room-sharing, and they also had one to organize outings/lunches/coffee meet-ups for anyone to join.

  32. Mary-Lynn*

    I’ve been to many many conferences, but mostly as a vendor. So here’s a few tips from someone who sees a lot of people going through:
    1. Other people have said it but I’m going to stress it again: comfortable shoes. You will be moving around a lot and this is not the time to need to go back to the hotel because your feet hurt.
    2. The most opportunities you’ll get at conferences will be from the connections you make. This is hard if you’re an introvert but if there’s any time to really just try hard to get over yourself and put yourself out there to meet people this is it. The sessions are often okay (and the more of these you go to the more you realize they’re often just terrible) but it’s about networking. So don’t skip networking events (even the breakfasts!) if you can help it. You can rest when you get back.
    3. Having said that, there’s no point in being miserable so know what makes you feel better if you’re run down and make sure you do that. For me, it’s getting at least ONE night of room service and early to bed. For other people that’s hitting the hotel gym or a nice dinner outside the conference events or exploring a new city.
    4. Bring lots and lots of business cards and hand them out. Get lots of them in return! Its cool to ask for one from basically everyone you meet or have even more than a 2 second conversation from. No one will think you’re being strange. Once you have a second, write a quick note about what you talked about.
    5. If you’re new and by yourself it’s tempting to find a ‘conference buddy’ and latch on to them. The upside is obvious. The downside is that it tends to prevent you from meeting as many other new people as you can which is really the point of these things (have I stressed that enough? Comfy shoes and networking is what conferences are all about!).
    6. Schedule some time when you get back home to a) relax and get your life back to normal and b) follow up with all of those people. I wish LinkedIn had been around when I started my career – I met SO MANY people that would be useful to keep in touch with now but it was harder to do that just in email before. But I always have a few people I reach out to from previous conferences before the next one “Are you going to X again this year? Can we grab coffee and catch up?”.
    7. Re: vendors. If there are some there/ an exhibit hall. We do appreciate it if you visit. Don’t feel you have to talk to everyone, but its good to make a point of visiting the booths of vendors you work with or might be interested in working with. We have tough skins and we know these events are busy for the attendees, but also… don’t walk right by us and pretend you don’t see us.
    8. Re: vendor swag. You can always spot a first-time conference attendee by the pack-mule like quality they exhibit at the end of a day in the hall. You don’t have to take copies of all of the glossy brochures. Do you really need yet another free crappy tote bag or some pens? Doubtful. Have some dignity. But there’s usually one vendor who has some swag that’s actually kind of cool. Grab one of those and one for your office mates as well. That kind of thing goes a long way when you’re back and dragging for a few days while you catch up.
    9. If you are interested in specific material from a vendor, give them your card and ask that they mail you a package – we’ll be more than happy to do that after the show and save you carrying crap home (or abandoning it in a hotel room when you realize your suitcase now weighs 10 extra pounds).

  33. NDR*

    As a conference planner, I’d like to add: if you enjoy yourself, found the experience rewarding, etc., please share your feedback with the hosting committee. Actually, even if you have negative feedback, like you found that the line for the vendors was too long or you hated that you couldn’t read the nametags, let them know that too, so that they can improve the next year’s meeting.

  34. Anonicorn*

    What should I wear?
    This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask your boss. Or check your email where you registered; it might list the expected attire.

    What do people do at conferences?
    It depends. The ones I’ve attended had various presentations/lectures in auditorium-type rooms. So it was mostly listening and taking notes.

    They might also have some type of expo with vendors where you can see some cool industry-related technology. Make sure you don’t take anything from vendors if you aren’t supposed to. (Again, ask your boss about this.)

    How do I use this opportunity to network?
    Take business cards with you, if you have them. Your boss might introduce you to people she knows. I try to make a point to meet the presenters and talk to people during breaks if nothing else. Ask them where they work, talk a little shop. Later, connect with them on Linkedin.

  35. Mike C.*

    So my big advice would be to talk to your boss, because you might pick up on an unexpected practice that is unique to your company or industry.

    Case in point: one of my managers travels a whole lot and before he leaves, he always buys a bunch of little company knick knacks – keychains, pins, etc. Since we work in commercial aerospace, he hands them out to the cabin crew/pilots on the way to and from where ever he’s traveling and they get a real kick out of them.

    And lets face it, those folks put up with a ton of crap, so maybe if I can do something nice for them

    *Note, these aren’t cheap little things meant to advertise, lots of folks collect these sorts of pins and whatnot. It’s an aerospace thing. :)

  36. ThursdaysGeek*

    I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, but if you go to the trade show, think of your co-workers who are not attending the conference. If you see an exhibitor showing something of possible value to a co-worker, get some information for them. And pick up the pens and other schwag to give to co-workers when you get home. If they know you were thinking of them, you all feel more like a team, and they are less jealous that you went and they didn’t. You’d be surprised at the goodwill a funky pen can create when you give it to your receptionist who never has a reason to go to a conference.

    1. clobbered*

      Take some notes, some workplaces expect you to talk about what you saw/heard when you get back to the office.

      Thank your boss for sending you, with a note about what you got out of it and how it is going to help you.

      If you genuinely liked something about a presentation, *please* mention it to the presenter if you bump into them at a later time. These days conference speaking is hard work with most of the audience looking down on their laptops and you wondering whether they are tweeting your every pearl of wisdom or bored out of their skulls and surfing the basketball scores. There’s nothing better than having somebody come up to you and say “You gave that talk about chocolate teapots, right? I am so impressed you have made them melt-proof at boiling temperatures!”. If nothing else, it’s good karma.

  37. Anonymous*

    Conferences are like college – they are exactly what you make of them.

    I am seeing a lot of focus on clothing and drinking in the comments. If that’s the part you focus on, that’s what it’ll be. You do have an alternative, though.

    Some of us go to conferences to learn about new advances in our fields, look for new solutions to problems and useful products, and generally WORK. Often, you’d also present advances at your own place of employment, but that varies by industry.

    Just like college, sometimes the people working are in the minority. However, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to network with your conference-going colleagues at happy hour if you can actually show a genuine interest in their work and how you could make use of it, rather than networking “because you’re supposed to”.

    1. fposte*

      There’s focus on clothing and drinking not because they’re more important but because people screw those up. Most people are pretty up to speed on attending a session and sitting quietly.

  38. Erika Herzog*

    I have gone to a bunch of Jewish genealogy conferences and one of the best pieces of advice I have gotten is to get a mini fridge for the hotel room. You need to request it early and then I always call and double check they have the refrigerator on my room reservation (I stay at the hotel where the conference is held). I go grocery shopping (even if it is a cab ride away), filling up the fridge with enough food for the conference week.

    The long-short of this is that I can always go back to my room and recharge, have a coffee, snack, and chill without having to go too far away from the conference activities. Or pay a lot of money and waste a lot of time standing in lines for food.

    The goal is to have as much energy to see as many panels and presentations as possible. So the food helps. By the end of the day I’m usually in a non-verbal burnt crispy state, so the fridge also helps when I just want to crawl into bed, plan the next day, and eat something healthy and sustaining.

    Of course I have done the breakfast presentations, which can be good, but are usually rushed because you are eating as well as listening to a presentation. I find these to be a real mixed bag, a bit on the stressful side because of the multi-tasking.

    So advice: fridge!

    1. Erika Herzog*

      Just wanted to add that while this suggestion sounds a bit anti-social, I have found that when I have less stress and adequate sustenance I am in a better place to network and connect with others. So….

  39. OP*

    Hi everybody,

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful advice! From the big things (networking, programs etc) to the little things (snacks! layers!) that I would have not even thought about – I can’t thank you guys enough.

    As a young person just starting up, I really appreciate all the comments, and now I am getting excited to go to the conference, and learn!

  40. Vicki*

    There is a great book by Debra Fine called “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” It’s a great and really quick read – maybe for the airplane. If you are inexperienced at networking, or just slightly introverted, I HIGHLY recommend you read it prior to attending the conference! You can find it here:

    Best advice: -Talk to EVERYONE – Have Fun – Make notes at the end of each day on who/how to follow up with folks while it is still fresh in your mind.

  41. David Smith*

    To pile on to the suggestions

    1. Make a plan. What is it that you want to accomplish at the conference? Keep it simple. Without a plan you are at risk for the “just show up and see what happens” syndrome.

    2. Save time at the end of each day to review/recap. I like to take notes each day, rather than waiting until the end of the conference or after the conference. A daily review session also gives me an opportunity to revisit my plan for the conference and make a plan for the next day.

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