To go or not to go? It’s a question I ask every time I see that the early bird deadline is approaching for an upcoming conference.
Conferences aren’t exactly cheap; especially when you add in airfare, lodging, ground transportation and so on. Time is usually an issue as well. I don’t know about you guys, but I always seem to be busiest the weeks I am on vacation, leading up to a Holiday, and while I’m at a conference! So, what are we to do? What criteria do you use to determine whether or not a conference is worth your time and money? Here are my top five. Here’s hoping they help you as well; and I’ll see you on the exhibit floor!
1. Will the conference lead to billable work?
I started out as a service provider so this has always been at the top of my list. When you’re running your own firm, spending always needs to engender a return. The reality is that picking up one or two days of fieldwork from any contact totally pays for most any conference. I know that makes it easy for me to justify conferences like SPAR, which are filled with attendees that are asset owners and not just competitor technicians. However, I’ve gotten plenty of work as a sub from competitors as well.
2. Will it make me better at my job?
Speaking of subcontracting for competitors, we all have our specialties and knowing who to go to when your client’s needs are outside of your specialty experience can be crucial to keeping your clients. I think I’ve made a lot of people look like they are very good at their job simply by doing my job for them!
Aside from the networking, I also look closely at the content of the presentations. I want to hear from those that are pushing farther than I am. More accurate, bigger areas, tighter timelines, larger problems! I am amazed at how many times, in my work, I’m presented with a problem I’ve seen solved in a conference presentation.
3. Could I accomplish the same things online instead?
Between Facebook, LinkedIn, scholarly documents, and webinars you can get a lot of help and information without ever leaving your desk. And let’s be honest, sometimes a conference can seem like one more task you have to endure. What I look for in conferences are the potential for emergent properties. I like Autodesk University because we all use the same tools, so we have a baseline of common understanding. However, we use those tools in dramatically different fashions for very different reasons. Meeting and learning from a person who I would never normally meet (due to our involvement in radically different industries) is just such an emergent property.
I’ll use the SPAR International Conference again as an example. Where else do you get to see multiple manufacturers from multiple market verticals side by side? Couple that with all of the attendees, who range from those the fringes of each of 3D technologies to those in more mainstream pursuits, and you have a very high probability of blending new solutions from disparate sources into your own arsenal.
4. How was last year’s?
I tend to keep notes on each presentation and meeting in a travel notebook that I carry. I always go back and look at those notes to see how I felt at a previous conference. Then I compare that to how I related to those notes in the intervening time. Sometimes it makes the decision to go or stay home a bit easier. Often it helps to sharpen my goals and expectations this time around. Either way, it’s a good habit because when you think about a conference you’ve attended, you may remember facts and not remember the emotions associated with them. And the emotions are important because I want to know…
5. Will it be fun?
I’m not looking for a company paid vacation here but I do want to have a positive emotional reaction. After all, there are plenty of other ways to spend my money that will do this for me outside of work! What I really want is to wake up looking forward to the presentations, the new tech on the exhibit floor, and all of the friends and coworkers that I may only see a few times a year. What I need is to go back to work the next week with a renewed sense of purpose and excitement about my professional future.
That’s a feeling that I have a hard time putting a price on, but I can tell you that nothing else works like a conference when I need to recharge. I particularly enjoy commiserating with “competitors.” Few things feel as good as talking with someone that truly understands what you are talking about and the problems you are experiencing. When half of the phrases you use include acronyms that you usually have to stop and define (and then explain), it’s great to find others that speak your language. It’s easy to get stuck in our own little bubbles and feel the walls closing in a bit. Seeing how much is being done by so many all over our planet is a greater reminder of what is possible; and nothing is as fun as endless possibilities.