Many young professionals, like myself, can find it intimidating to attend their first few conferences. I vividly remember standing alone and uncomfortable at my first GAWP Annual Conference in the Savannah exhibit hall, after my mentor Melanie Head forced me to finally detach from her hip. I must have been radiating the way I felt inside, because I was shortly approached by a new, but welcoming face (shout out to Sarah Skinner) who said, “Is this your first conference? I remember feeling overwhelmed with imposter syndrome my first time here, too.” So, before I go on to share what I’ve learned, remember that it is normal to feel out of your element in such a new environment. Take a deep breath, relax, and trust the judgment of those who sent you.
So, let’s get into it:
First, find the right outfits for the conference that are business casual, or business if you’re presenting. Bring a backpack or comfortable bag for your personal belongings with room to spare for all the free swag given out in the exhibit hall. You’ll be doing a decent amount of walking, exploring the exhibits, and attending sessions, so ensure you have an ergonomic pair of shoes. It must be said, Savannah in July is especially HOT with uneven, cobblestone walkways which will take additional wardrobe preparation. After the presentations are over, there will be many events ranging from chili competitions to business dinners so be prepared for those events too. Even if your company isn’t hosting something, keep your ears open. Committees will often host a happy hour or a company may cater an after party on a hotel rooftop.
Make the most of your time and prepare a schedule in advance. The conference agenda including all of the sessions and events put on by GAWP will come out in advance. Take a screenshot on your phone or print out a copy and highlight the events that pique your interest. Sessions are back-to-back, so there isn’t time to decide where to go in the moment. Take notes – there is a lot of content covered quickly. If you find a session particularly relevant, stay around after to trade business cards so you can connect with the speaker later. It may be a good strategy to take note of who will be at the conference prior to the event, so that you have an idea of who to seek out in the exhibit hall or events. For example, it’s always a good idea to know the local representative for equipment you use and check out any new technologies in person.
Another way to take advantage of this opportunity is to get involved in the conference. Participate in tours, volunteer, submit a presentation, ask to moderate a session or help plan a company event. It’s a poorly kept secret that it’s easier to strike up conversation when you have a purpose for hanging around and when you are in smaller groups. Even for an extrovert, conferences can be draining. There are so many events packed into so little time. Try scheduling breaks and remember – it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Possibly, the biggest asset of attending a conference is networking. It’s through my connections that I have found solutions of all kinds. With the water industry as specialized as it is, you can’t Google everything, so it’s good to have alternate resources to bounce off your ideas. Think of networking as quality-over-quantity. Just like building proficiency in mental math, socializing is a learned skill. Don’t expect every meeting to work out exactly the way you intend. People are often more concerned with themselves than others, which can work in your benefit when an awkward encounter occurs. Shake off the missteps and take solace in the fact that you are the only one who will remember it the next day. As long as you’re kind and genuine, you will do just fine.
Now, if you want to do more than “fine,” get comfortable being uncomfortable. Push yourself and purposefully sit next to new faces at each opportunity. Staying in a clique of your coworkers is almost guaranteed to keep your network stagnant. Leverage your existing connections and ask them to help make introductions for you. You know your network is doing well when you’re the one making connections for others.
Some more tips on successfully networking are as follows:
- Consider wearing a distinctive piece of clothing to be easily seen and remembered. Be mindful that this is your chance to make a great deal of first impressions with professionals of all different backgrounds.
- Discretely write a unique aspect or conversation topic discussed on a business card immediately after you’ve met someone to easily access your memory after the conference.
- Don’t forget to go through your newly acquired business cards shortly afterwards to connect on Linked-In or send them an email. You are sure to make a great impression if you can write a personalized message referencing something you connected on.
- Give yourself a goal to give out a certain number of business cards. Ensure to bring plenty and have them easily accessible so you can casually end a conversation by saying, “It was nice to meet you. Here is my card if you ever need it.”
- If you are feeling lost, look around for someone else standing alone, possibly uncomfortable, and make an introduction yourself.
As a YP, I wouldn’t have been able to write this alone. This has been a collection of advice I was given and found useful – alongside new tips provided by my extended network (our industry is just the best!). Here’s a big, “Thank You” to everyone who has given me this valuable feedback. Which leads me to my final sentiment – when in doubt, be friendly and try getting to know whomever you wind up next to. You’re bound to have at least a few commonalities, and at the end of the day, everyone just wants to relate to one another.
Paige Benson, PE serves as an Associate Project Manager in the Municipal Utilities Department in Croy’s Marietta office. She can be reached at email@example.com.