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I’m getting ready to attend a national conference and in planning to do so, my desk looks a bit like the above. Every day, I’m receiving postcards, mailers, witty invitations and emails from vendors who want me to stop by their booth and win an iPad or SBUX card or other said tchatchkey. Beyond that, this is a seven-track conference so I have many excellent sessions to choose from. Oh, and there’s also the pre-conference networking dinner invitations.

How do you manage to do it all – or at least the good stuff – and get the biggest value out of your conference investment of time and dollars? Here’s a few tips:

Do map out your agenda ahead of time.

  • If there are multiple tracks, narrow in the sessions you plan to attend before you leave your office. Add the sessions to your calendar including the name of the room.
  • Likely, the conference will provide you with links to the handouts for all the sessions. Print out the handouts for the sessions you’ll be attending, but also for those you are interested in but can’t due to limited time.

Do not save your networking for the conference.

  • If you have the handouts for the sessions you plan to attend, pay attention to the contact information the speaker has provided you with. Do they list social networking sites like Twitter or LinkedIn? Reach out to them and let them know you’re looking forward to attending their session.
  • Does the conference have a hashtag? Start following it and join in the discussions before you arrive. You’ll likely be able to connect with other attendees, speakers and vendors before the conference begins.

Do strategically plan to use your downtime.

  • At many conferences, there are roundtables or reception type networking events. I used to use this time to check my email. Not a good idea. If you allow yourself to disconnect from the conference, it’s much harder to reconnect and focus on the next topic you’ll be learning.
  • You also need to make the most of your time with the vendors you’re interested in. How do you know where to start in the exhibitors hall…

Do research vendors before you arrive.

  • It’s possible you’re like me and you’re easily distracted by shiny objects. That means you need to attack the exhibition hall with a plan. Look at each piece of mail and email you receive and evaluate it based on your organizations needs and the design and content of the piece. (This may be specific to the conference I’m attending, but many of these vendors are in the marketing industry – so if the piece looks bad, I certainly don’t want them marketing my organization.)
  • Map out the vendors in the exhibition hall and put appointments on your calendar so that you know the 3-5 vendors you want to connect with during each break.
  • And when you’re there, remember you have a plan for a reason. If you detour from the roadmap, there had better be a good reason. Consider this: the roadmap was created because some vendors found value in producing a piece and targeting you for their audience. If ‘shiny-object’ vendor didn’t invest in you to begin with, why invest them with your time?

Do pack lightly.

  • Inevitably, you’ll be bringing home vendor materials and other items from the conference tote bag. Leave room in your suitcase to bring it home so it doesn’t have to stay at the hotel.
  • Consider only the essentials you need to make it through the conference. One outfit for each day (with layers to adjust to varying temperatures). Shoes that make sense for the venue and schedule. Laptop, iPad, or paper or all of the above?
  • If the conference has an app, determine what printed materials you can do without based on the app capabilities. You may not need to lug around a bag with paper handouts, schedules, maps, etc.

Hopefully you found these tips helpful. It seems like conference season is starting in full-swing. Which ones will you be attending?