Getting the most from conferences

I just spent a few days in the great State of Virginia for their Main Street Conference. Now, if you are from Virginia you would quickly correct me to tell me it is the Commonwealth. First and foremost they, like nearly every Main Streeter I’ve ever met, are great people. Their hospitality was wonderful, and scenery was breathtaking. If you haven’t been to the Shenandoah Valley I would highly recommend it. As someone who grew up in the midwest who loves the outdoors, being in the mountains is good for the soul (much like being near large bodies of water). While I was there though, I had some time to think about not just this conference, but all conferences and what people should take away from them.

Let’s start with the easy one…the sessions. If you are attending a conference you owe it to your organization (whether you are a staff member or volunteer) to attend as many sessions as possible. Yes, there is always value in experiencing a community, and many conferences have started to give you the opportunity to get out and check out their community without missing anything important in the conference. I’ve seen colleagues go to conference after conference and not attend any sessions. This does a disservice to your organization. These conferences are our opportunity for continuing education and there is always something to learn from any session.

I would suggest that in addition to attending all the sessions you can, you set a goal of bringing back three ideas that you can discuss in your community. They may not be something you can implement right away, but you want things that you can start to work on. Looking for three things from the conference also allows you to take really copious notes when you find one of them, rather than trying to write down every word every presenter says. When you hear an idea that resonates, write like crazy. The rest of the time, be in the moment. 98% of the time you’ll get the presentation later anyway, so be engaged in the moment rather than trying to take every note.

Another note about the sessions is that if you have multiple people attending the conference that you not attend the same sessions, with the exceptions being the joint sessions. If there are breakouts get to as many as possible. Even if you don’t think it applies to you, attend something different. Trust that your colleague will get the pertinent details of the session and attend as many different sessions as you can. You never know what will spark an idea or be something that correlates to an issue you are facing in your downtown. Make a plan and then divide and conquer.

What about the vendors? Many of you know that I’ve been a vendor at many shows so this may sound self-serving, but stick with me here. Visit every booth! Many of us (I’m as guilty as the next guy) blow through the vendor area to see who has the best swag, talk to the people I already do business with, and see if anything is new. Even if they are the same vendor with the same swag, stop and talk to each booth. You never know what may have changed either with your situation or with their product or pricing. Even if you say to the vendor “I’m sorry, but I am not interested at this time”, you aren’t going to hurt the vendor’s feelings. Speaking on behalf of all vendors, we’d welcome the conversation. They don’t have to be long, tedious conversations either, but stop by and give them an opportunity to tell you what they do. Just like you want to take 3 things away from the sessions, try to take 1 thing away from the expo hall. Maybe it’s a new vendor, maybe it’s an idea, maybe it’s just a new contact, but take something away besides the free notepad. You’d be surprised how often those relationships can come back to help you in the future.

Lastly, the extra stuff. No, I’m not talking about the tours, I consider those sessions. Yes, I’m talking about the socializing and the bar. Even if you don’t drink, the hotel bar at a conference can be an important place. No, you aren’t there to get drunk and be carried to your room (if you ever see me in person I have a great story about this you will want to hear). You’re there because your peers are there. It’s a great time to let your hair down, and talk about what you do. This is especially true for Executive Directors. For many of us, this was the only time we saw our peers and people that did this thing we call Main Street for a living. There’s a lot of value in sharing a drink and a story, learning from the experienced director or getting a new idea from the rookie. This bonding is really important, it’s the time we have to build our network and know who we can call when something comes up. Whether you are a volunteer or a staff member, this socialization is really networking. It’s speed dating for your organization, and it is a wonderful tool. A few things to be think of:

  • Don’t get drunk. Pace yourself. Drink water between drinks, or don’t drink at all. It isn’t about the alcohol it’s about the conversation.
  • Listen more than you talk. I don’t care how long you’ve been in Main Street there is always someone there who knows something you don’t. Listen to them. Ask questions!
  • Don’t be afraid to talk. Being the bump on a log doesn’t help either. You have something to share, so don’t be afraid to share your experiences too!

Conferences are a wonderful opportunity to get together with our colleagues and to get better at being a downtown redevelopment practitioner. Take advantage of them. Budget for them. Make sure you’re attending and learning every opportunity you have. Prepare for them, go in with a plan so that you can get the most out of them.

Conference session