How to get the most out of attending a national communications conference

During my career, I’ve attended more than a few of the national communications conferences organized by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Association of Business Communicators. The most recent one I attended was 2017 in Boston when I was among the 2,300 attendees at PRSA’s national conference.

These conferences can be overwhelming if you have never been to one before. If you don’t plan carefully, you can wind up not taking full advantage of the many benefits these conferences offer.

It struck me that I might have a few words of wisdom to share with others about how to get the most out of attending these conferences, so here goes:

  1. Most of these conferences take place in a hotel and the organizers get a special rate on a limited number of rooms. Once you decide to attend a conference and you have the funding in place (either from your employer or your own bank account), book your hotel room as soon as possible. If you’re able to nail down a room in the same hotel where the conference is taking place, the logistics will be a lot easier for you.
  2. Look at the conference schedule online as soon as it’s available. Some conferences offer pre-conference education/professional development sessions that might interest you (for an additional cost). If you decide to attend one or more of these, you will need to adjust your travel plans.
  3.  Each conference consists of these main components:
    1. The general sessions with all attendees. Each one includes a keynote speaker who is well known. At PRSA’s last conference, the keynotes included filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. I’ve also heard a presentation at a previous conference by Pandora co-founder and CEO Tim Westergren. Even though these speakers might not work in communications, you can still learn many important life lessons from them.
    2. The breakout sessions with each one accommodating about 50-75 people. There are three to four breakouts daily during the conference with a variety of speakers and topics aimed at different levels of communications expertise. Most are only offered once but some are presented multiple times. Study the schedule and decide which sessions you want to attend, based on the topic and the speaker. There is typically so much variety that the decisions are difficult to make. Take your time and choose carefully. If two sessions are going to take place at the same time and you really want to attend both, check to see if one of them will repeat on another day.
    3. The receptions and meals that are open to all attendees. These are typically great networking events so don’t pass them up, and don’t be shy. Introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met and pick their brain about what they do. And if you’re traveling on a budget, these events are one way to cut down on your meal expenses.
    4. The vendor fair that is also open to all attendees. The fair will take place for the duration of the conference. Companies that provide services to the industry will have tables or booths to hawk their wares to the attendees. The exhibitors might also include universities that offer communications degrees. Each vendor typically holds a raffle for a great prize and gives away free stuff.
    5. The PRSA conference also includes a fifth component: on-site mentoring through its College of Fellows. If you attend this conference, this is a great way to obtain career advice in person from a PRSA Fellow. You’ll probably need to sign up for a mentoring session in advance so do so as soon as you can (In case you’re not familiar with it, the College of Fellows is the equivalent to a PR Hall of Fame. Less than two percent of PRSA’s members have been admitted into the College of Fellows).
  4. Unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place, you’ve probably traveled some distance and spent a good amount of money to get there. So make sure you take full advantage of your time. Squeeze every single learning opportunity you can out of the conference. It always amazes me when attendees skip out of the conference to go sightseeing or maybe even leave early to return home.
  5. Take time to have fun and enjoy life. If the conference is going to be in a city that you’ve never visited, and if your personal budget allows for it, either arrive a day or two before the conference or stay a day or two later on your own dime. Explore the host city. This is the time for sightseeing. And if you do that before the conference begins, it also lets you adjust to a possible difference in the time zone.

These conferences are the most intensive, most enjoyable professional development and networking opportunities our industry offers. I’ve learned so much and met so many people over the years by attending them. I hope you’re able to attend a conference some year soon.

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