How to Get the Most out of Attending a Conference Part 1 – Planning for the Conference

The very first medical conference I attended was the American College of Physicians meeting in Toronto in 2010. It was a mind-blowing experience. I’d never been to a meeting with that many people, that many presentations, and that many activities to choose from. I wanted to figure out how to make the most of the experience, but where to begin?

The best thing about these conferences is also the most frustrating thing: there are so many choices that it’s impossible to do everything. So, if you’re going to one of these national medical conferences where you know that you won’t be able to do everything that is available, you have to go with a plan if you want to maximize the experience.

I recommend using the free

to help you plan your next conference attendance. First, you need to answer a few basic questions to help you plan your strategy.

  1. What are your goals? Is it attending lectures, networking, joining a committee, getting contacts, CME, reuniting with friends and colleagues, or several of these?
  2. What is your budget? Many conferences offer bonus breakfast/lunch meetings, networking or small group sessions, hands-on activities, and affiliated programs either outside or inside the conference, but these usually cost extra.
  3. How long are you going to be at the conference? Your plan of attack will be very different if you’re there for two days vs six days.

Using these three questions as your framework, let’s discuss the practical steps to take before, during, and after the conference to maximize your experience.

Before the Conference

Most of your success at the conference comes from the planning stage.  The agenda for the conference is likely available anywhere from 2-10 months before the conference takes place, giving you ample time to plan your travel, your meeting agenda, your networking opportunities, and any fun activities.  Here are some steps to take before the conference to enhance your conference experience.

1. Plan your budget.

Some people argue that your budget may change depending on whether you’re paying for the conference activities yourself or if your company is reimbursing you.  Personally, I keep my budget the same either way.  I prefer to stay in inexpensive hotels and save money by not eating out at fancy places.  If the company allows you, I don’t think there’s a need to feel guilty about eating a nice meal some place or staying in a nicer hotel, but you need to make this decision ahead of time.  Depending on how far you have to travel and how long the conference is, the trip could cost several thousand dollars, so plan ahead. 

Some companies require you use a company credit card, which is fine.  Don’t put expenses on a personal credit card unless you have the cash saved up to pay for it.  I’ve heard stories of people who went to a conference, spent several thousand dollars, then came home to find their company out of business and unable to reimburse them.  You don’t want that debt on a credit card that you have to pay off. 

If your company doesn’t fund travel for conferences and you don’t feel you can afford the trips, consider joining a committee for the organization or volunteering to present a lecture.  Most conference faculty at least get their conference registration fees waived, and many organizations fund their trips.  

2. Register early

Many conferences have special discounts for “early bird” registration.  Many hotels in the area may also have special discounts available for conference attendees, but they usually only have a select small block of rooms at that price which will fill up fast.  Also, with early conference registration, you may receive some of your conference materials in the mail which you can peruse at your leisure prior to the conference.

3. Travel

Take the time to figure out how you are going to get to the conference center.  Larger conferences are often limited to host cities with massive convention centers like Chicago or Orlando.  Fortunately, air travel is typically readily available, but the costs can be high if you’re traveling across the country, e.g., from Seattle to Atlanta.  Look for travel discounts, consider using airline miles, and buy your tickets in advance.  

Conferences are typically at city convention centers or large hotels with big meeting spaces.  Many such centers have great transportation services, or more commonly are in a central part of town.  In most cases, you can probably find a hotel within easy walking distance of the convention center.  If not, plan on using the provided shuttle service or consider sharing cab/Uber/Lyft rides with folks.  

4. Plan your conference attendance

As we asked earlier, what are your goals?  You have to determine this beforehand as it will guide your day-to-day planning.  Additionally, you may look through the conference materials and realize that their offerings don’t actually fulfill your goals.  In that case, you probably want to consider attending a different conference.  

Smaller, one-day conferences will have a linear agenda that every attendee will follow, and there won’t be opportunities to customize the experience.  Larger conferences like the American College of Physicians meeting will have dozens of options in every presentation slot throughout each day.  This is where looking at the conference agenda will come in handy. 

When planning my conference activities, I typically print the agenda and go through and highlight every presentation or activity I think I might want to attend.  If there is only one activity highlighted in a given time slot, then that’s the activity for that time slot.  If there are multiple options, I look to see if those activities are offered a second time in the conference that doesn’t conflict with another activity.  

As you start to fill in the activities in your day’s schedule, here a few additional items that you may want to consider:

  • Do you really want to spend all day at the conference?  You will be walking a LOT.  These convention centers are huge, and you may be worn out by the end of the day.
  • Some conferences have ancillary activities, like hands-on demonstrations that you might want to attend in lieu of a presentation.
  • Do you just want to do the regular conference presentations, or are there some extra (usually an extra charge) opportunities like a “lunch ’n’ learn” that you want to fold in as well?
  • What are you doing for breakfast and lunch?
  • Do you want to have time to visit the vendor area to learn about new medications, services, and equipment that may be useful in your practice?
  • Depending on your goals, there may be “tracks” you can follow that cater to your specific interests.  For example, there may be a set of presentations recommended for residents and fellows, one recommended for young professionals, or a track recommended for special interests such as women in medicine.  

5. Learn the conference center

The big convention centers are enormous.  The conference centers in Chicago and San Diego, for example, span several city blocks and have multiple floors in multiple buildings.  It’s easy to get lost, so knowing your way around can really help you make the most of your day. 

Most conference centers have a website that has a map available.  Save a copy in your smart phone or tablet or print out a copy to bring with you so you can navigate your way through the center easily.  Depending on how tightly you schedule your day, you may want to consider going to the conference center the day before the conference starts, or early on the first day of the conference, to familiarize yourself with the layout and plan your presentation schedule.

6. What are you doing for dinner?

Most restaurants in the area fill up very quickly in the evenings, and many will be completely booked weeks in advance.  If you are planning on meeting friends or having networking or business dinners, start booking reservations a few months in advance.  You honestly can’t start this process too early. 

There will also typically be industry-sponsored dinners with guest speakers on a variety of topics.  Some of these are free and some require that you pay, but they all tend to fill up very quickly, so register early for these as well.  

7. Meetings

Depending on how long you stay at the conference each day, you may have limited time in the evenings for meeting friends or colleagues.  If you only have one or two nights, you need to plan how you will use that time.  Will you be meeting friends for just a fun evening, or are you planning to use the time for building your network?  Maybe you can arrange to meet with potential employers or recruiters if you’re looking for a job.  You’ll likely have more opportunities than you have time for, so you have to pick and choose. 

Be sure to arrange any business or networking meetings far in advance.  If the meetings will be long, it will be harder to do those at the conference as free meeting space is typically limited.  Also, there will be thousands of people walking around, which will limit privacy and hamper quiet conversations.  Don’t forget to bring plenty of business cards that you can pass out.  

Conclusion

Conferences can be a lot of fun to attend.  Plan your budget and your trip well so you can maximize the experience and enjoy the time you have.  Read part 2 of this series on attending a conference, and make sure to download the Conference Attendance Checklist to help you plan your trip.  You’ll find that a well-planned trip makes for a more productive and enjoyable experience.  Have fun!

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