Professional Conferences: Worth the Effort

by Nancy Ordman

A Harvard Business School professor deems professional conferences an unavoidable fact of working life. To be sure, attending a conference requires planning an absence from the office – not always a simple task. Travel can be less than glamorous and more tiring than working overtime. Large conferences are often difficult to navigate. Just obtaining permission to attend, funding, or both can be challenging.

Despite the negatives, conference attendance yields benefits that outweigh the literal and figurative costs, for attendees and the companies they represent. Picking a conference to attend takes a bit of research. Working through the logistics take a bit of work. Squeezing all of the value from time spent conferencing takes some planning. The rest of this article looks at the whys and hows.

Why go?

In general, education and networking are the chief returns the attendee gains on the investment of conference attendance. The change of scene and exposure to new people and ideas also provide a refreshing and re-energizing break in routine. Conference attendance also looks good on a resume; for those who want to test the job market, a conference is an excellent place to learn what the job market looks like and which companies would be good future employers.

Education comes in both formal and informal settings at conferences.

  • Keynote speeches, panel discussions and seminars are often the first venue for announcements about new ideas and inventions.
  • Workshops offer continuing education credits and professional development hours towards a PE qualification.
  • Informal “water cooler” conversations offer opportunities to swap ideas with colleagues from other companies.
  • Trade shows provide an efficient means for investigating a lot of new products and services in a short time.

Conferences offer unequaled opportunities for networking – so many people with common interests gathered in close proximity. For decades, professional literature has extolled the benefits of building a professional network: finding mentors, hearing about job opportunities, and learning how others approach problems at work. Sometimes the only opportunity for far-flung colleagues to meet in person is at an annual conference, and there is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.


Some employers encourage staff to attend conferences and provide financial support. Employees who do not enjoy this benefit will need to present a justification to management for time off and travel expenses. The IEEE Women in Engineering organization offers a number of strategies to obtain permission and support.

  • List specific benefits for both the attendee and the company. Point out programs or continuing-education courses that will enhance skills that the company needs.
  • Calculate a budget and figure out ways to cut back if necessary: Stay a day less; share a room with a friend or work colleague; count on food provided by the conference or vendors to reduce meal costs. Some professional associations exchange free conference registration for help at the registration table or conference office.
  • Work out how to cover your work assignments during your absence. Who will take on specific tasks? What projects might be affected?
  • Explain how the company can benefit. Visiting the trade show and talking with vendors about relevant new technologies is a great way to use conference time. Networking could produce potential candidates for jobs.

Get the most out of a conference

Conference attendance, especially for neophytes, can be a daunting experience. Large conventions attract thousands of attendees spread over several days and multiple venues. Taking time for advanced planning and understanding what to expect will help make the experience fruitful and enjoyable.

Use the conference program to plan which sessions to attend and to note any speakers you would particularly like to meet. If two interesting programs are in the same time slot, mark them both. If the first one turns out to be less useful than expected, jump ship and head to the second one. Mark any special events – vendor demonstrations, special interest group meetings, cocktail parties – that you want to attend.

After arriving at the conference, get the most from each session you attend. Turn off the smartphone. Take notes. Think about how to summarize each talk for colleagues back in the office. Sharing what you learn later is a good memory aid. Stay after a presentation and introduce yourself to a speaker whose expertise could help solve a problem at work or whose ideas intrigue you.

After returning home, follow up on contacts and pass along information to interested colleagues. Some companies require conference attendees to write up a summary or host a lunch and learn session after they return – good ideas even if you are not required to do this.