A Conference Survival Guide for the Web Worker

image from web2expo.comWeb workers love conferences. Whether it’s SXSW, BlogHer, Web2.0 or something specific to your individual industry, what’s so special about a conference? For starters, it’s something different. We go from isolation and remote routine (shall I have a single or double espresso shot today?) to nonstop people and activity in what may be a new city. Even better, we are surrounded by people who have the same interests as we do.

We may pick up a tidbit of information here and there from the education sessions, but we all know that the most value of a conference comes out of the conversations you have in the hallways, with the vendors on the show floor, and at the parties or events associated with the show. You go to these things to talk to people (and get swag). Lots and lots of people. In person! Talk about a change of pace!

If you work for a company and your boss emails you a conference flyer and says, “I put this on your schedule and booked you a flight,” great…but for the rest of us, working these conferences into our lives takes careful consideration.

So let’s say you found the conference you want to go to. Be selective. There are so many of these. Decide if you want to go to a conference focused on a topic or idea, or one focused on a product or platform. Depending on your industry, you’ll know where you should be. It may be a fantastic keynote, a busy show floor, or a certain education track that you want to follow.

If you’re self-funded, these things can be expensive. You have round trip airfare, ground transportation, nights in a hotel, conference registration and you may want to eat something every now and then. To top it all off, if you’re a sole proprietor, this might as well be vacation time as work won’t get done if you’re not doing it.

Some ideas to help ease the financial burden:

Get the cheapest flight you can. Use farecast (my favorite) or a similar travel site to book your travel. Be flexible. If you’re willing to catch a 6 am flight instead of a 11 am one or make multiple connections, you might save a lot of money.

Find a roommate. Monitor message boards or blog posts where folks are talking about the conference. You may hook up with another solo traveler and cut the hotel expenses in half.

Decide early. Conferences typically offer an early bid rate if you register well in advance.

Try and get a press pass. Do you blog about the industry that is covered by the conference? That may be enough to apply for and get a free ride.

Apply for a scholarship. If you work for a nonprofit, are a full-time student or can demonstrate financial hardship you might be able to apply for savings off the regular conference rate.

Speak at the conference. Submit a breakout session idea. Some conferences are more open to these kinds of submissions than others. Some actively solicit speakers. Speakers can often get all the expenses covered.

Combine the conference with another meeting. If the conference is in Chicago, and you have a client in Chicago, how about you suggest meeting before or after the conference? If you can’t charge the travel expense directly, you will at least have an easier time writing it off.

Weeks and days before the conference:

Okay, so now your budget is set, your flight is booked, you have registered for the conference and you have a place to stay. What’s next?

Pack for comfort. Even if the dress code is business, make sure your shoes are comfortable. You can handle anything if your feet don’t hurt.

Plan for the swag. You’re going to come home with trinkets, do-dads, brochures, CDs and more pens, mugs, keychains and mousepads than any human being can use in their lifetime. There will be shopping bags available on the show floor, but those are uncomfortable to carry around and then you’re stuck with that bag at the airport. Nowadays, more and more conferences are giving shoulder bags to attendees, but to be safe pack your own. Get one of those lightweight shoulder bags that folds into itself. Takes very little room in your suitcase going to the conference, and then you can check the bag with your other luggage going home. It’s also far more comfortable when walking around the show floor.

Make a game plan. Look at the list of exhibitors and note the booths you really want to get to. Figure out the keynotes, sessions, breakouts and special meetings you want to attend. There will always be changes when you get there, but having a rough idea in advance is very helpful. You may even be able to download a show guide in advance to your phone or PDA.

Figure out who you want to meet with. Don’t wait until the day before the conference to email a friend or colleague to say you’ll be in town. Be realistic. You’re going to have very busy days. Don’t plan for hours of socializing. Maybe plan to meet for coffee in the hotel lobby. For meetings with others attending the same show, same rules apply. They’ll be running around just as much as you will be.

Talk about it. If you have blog, talk about the fact that you’re going. You may find out about a meeting or event, or be able to arrange a chat with someone that’s off the beaten path.

At the conference:

Pace yourself. My 8 year old daughter gets a certain look in her eye when she walks into a toy store. I know how she feels. You want to see and do everything. You can’t. If you’ve planned well, you know where your priorities are, so stick to it.

Plan for the wifi. If you’re going to need Internet access while at the show (and who doesn’t?), don’t count on the “Internet Cafe” the show organizers will provide. It may work, it may not. You’ll never know for sure. Try and get in to a hotel that provides wired Internet access in the rooms. That will be more reliable than the wifi. Even better, use EvDO or 3G for your Internet access and skip worrying about 802.11 connections all together.

You can eat well or on a budget, rarely both. If you think you can have lunch for under $10, then you haven’t been to an expo hall. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you want to get off your feet so that $5 can of soda and $15 sandwich look just fine. Buy a big bottle of water and carry it around with you on the show floor, refilling from a fountain when necessary. Some conferences do provide some meals…which is fine if rubber chicken is a favorite of yours. I will always request vegetarian meals which tend to be more edible.

Take lots of business cards with you. It’s a currency. You don’t get ’em unless you say, “…let me give you my card” and then they do the same. It’s all about the talking and the people. Some of the best connections I’ve ever made in my business were people I met at conferences and trade shows. Make a habit of writing some notes on the back of the card as soon as you take it. Some little cue that helps you remember why that person was important enough to take their card. Trust me, when you get home you won’t have a clue why you have that card without it.

Sort through your swag before you leave. Take the time in the hotel room to go through everything, making notes on the materials you want to follow up on while it’s still fresh in your head. Throw out those things you know you’ll never touch again. Do you really need 56 more pens?

When you get home:

After you’ve crashed for a while, it’s time to ease back into your regular web working routine. But before you do that, you need to get the most of your trip with a few wrap-up tips. Chris Brogan had some excellent suggestions on his blog, which I’ll summarize:

Deal with your business cards. Don’t let them pile up. Enter them into your contact database and get it over with.

Send emails. I have a colleague who will send a “was great to meet you” email to every single person she spoke to at these things. I’m not sure you have to go that far, but this is where the networking really begins. Take advantage of it while your conversation is still fresh in their head.

Fulfill your promises. If you said that you’d send them a sample from your portfolio, or a copy of that great article you talked about, then do it. Now.

Connect your network. If you’re on LinkedIn or Twitter, this is certainly the time to increase your connections.

Search blogs and add comments. This is a really good idea from Chris. People are talking about the conference. Add your perspective and further expand your connections based on the common experience. I’ll throw in his last tip here, since I’m not sure it really stands on its own..post your media. Write your wrap-up about the conference for your own blog, and post your pictures. If you were a presenter at the conference, then this is a must.

What conferences do you think are worth attending for the web worker? How do you budget for them and make the most of the experience?


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