Attending a conference can give rise to either longing or loathing, whether attending or working.
It is of course fantastic to be around people excited about the same things. Yet, going to a conference requires spending time in enormous, sterile, noisy rooms with bad light, bad air, with bathrooms hidden hundreds of yards from anywhere. It’s enough to make you want to stay home, but that would be a miscalculation.
I’ve been on both sides of the booth. To the attendee, conferences present calculated features: There are vendors in their booths to sell you a thing or a service or both. There are teachers running workshops to sell you on an idea or a skill or their thing or service. Or all four. There is the conference producer who arranged the whole event whose idea is to sell you the idea that you should come back next year – and bring your friends! Everyone wants your attention – and your money.
It’s not a one-way street, though. Conferences, conventions, and exhibitions are usually oriented towards helping you figure out how to generate more success with less effort, or at least with a more informed effort. The focus is: knowledge translates to professional advancement. Everyone is there to learn more about their field, and that includes the vendors, teachers, and producers.
On offer for people on both sides of the booth, not obvious but in plain sight and even more valuable, are people, and plenty of them.
Everyone wants to leave the event with more than they came with: more sales, more skills, and the most valuable thing you can take home: new contacts and colleagues, even friendships.
Professions are built on relationships and people skills, which can be considerably more important than technical skills. Lots of people have technical skills – those are relatively easy to acquire from school, from books and magazines, on the job, from online tutorials.
In the world of work, whether as a freelancer or employee, people get hired because of who they are and how they behave as much as what they know how to do. Careers – particularly freelance careers – are built on getting re-hired and referred. In the end (and the beginning), people want to work with people they like. Those people have soft skills.
So how does this translate to the value of attending a conference? You can’t develop soft skills – people skills – without spending time with people, in the same way you can’t develop camera skills without spending time with a camera.
That means hanging out and reaching out, exchanging business ideas and business cards (take lots of cards!), asking questions, finding out from others how they do their jobs and sharing how you do yours, and what you know or want to know. Connecting with other people in your field – including the vendors, teachers, and producers – can lead to unexpected places. It can be fun, no trivial thing when you consider that fun is an important factor in any business relationship, because…people want to work with people they like.
So go breathe the bad air, be sure to rest your eyes from the bad light, remember to find the bathroom locations well before you need them, and find some folks to hang out with. It’ll be fun.