APTA’s NEXT conference just wrapped up in Orlando, and in case you missed it, we recently this year's Ascend business summit. As any rehab therapist will tell you, though, these two conferences are merely the tip of the trade show iceberg. In addition to the national APTA conference, there are meetings for all the different sections and state associations—we wouldn’t dare miss PPS (seriously, PPS is one of our all-time favorite physical therapy conferences, aside from Ascend, of course)–not to mention all the shows outside of the APTA. With so many conferences vying for your attention, it’s essential that you choose wisely—and make the most out of those that you do decide to attend. With that, here is your guide to making the most out of conferences:
1. Determine what, specifically, you want to get out of the conference.
Nowadays, conferences are filled to the brim with sessions, panels, exhibitors, and tracks. Once you pinpoint a show you’d actually like to attend—like Scott Hebert’s and Ryan Kleps’ presentation on patient loyalty at the 2018 PPS conference, or David Elton’s keynote at Ascend— determine what you want to get out of that show. Are you going with the intent of learning something new? If so, do you want to be a better clinician, employee, owner, director, businessperson, or a combination of all of those? Are you going to network or sell? For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to take the learner’s route. But if you have another reason in mind, I recommend reading this HubSpot blog post, which contains checklists for all the different types of show attendees. But again, assuming you’re attending to learn, you’ll ultimately want to set a goal for what you want to get out of the event.
Want to go above and beyond?
Has a conference been on your radar for a long while? Do you have knowledge or research you’re eager to share? Do you want to be involved in a greater capacity than merely attending? “A great way to maximize your conference experience is to participate in some way—like being a presenter, session facilitator, or committee volunteer,” explains Kate C. Farrar in The Muse. Being more actively involved in a conference requires a great deal of forethought and preparation. As soon as an organization announces a conference, contact the person in charge to determine how you can volunteer, speak, or otherwise participate. (For more information about presenting at PPS, check out this page on the APTA’s website.)
2. Make a plan.
Once you’ve set a goal, review the agenda and select the sessions that’ll best help you achieve your objective. Make sure you consider both the speaker and the topic. I suggest using a calendar app to build a schedule. While you’re at it, familiarize yourself with the conference space by scoping out any supplied maps. Additionally, pinpoint exhibitors you’d like to meet during unopposed exhibition times or during free slots in your schedule. For the evenings, determine which parties and meetups you’d like to attend. WebPT, for example, usually hosts a killer happy hour at PPS—and you know we line up all sorts of great networking events at Ascend. Keep in mind that some of these shindigs may require an RSVP, but don’t let that dissuade you from double- or triple-booking. In the trade show circuit, everyone expects attendees to party-hop.
Want to go above and beyond?
Above, I suggested pinpointing exhibitors you’d like to speak with. To take that a step further, make a list of the top five booths you want to visit before you leave, and create a list of questions you’d like to ask those vendors. That way, you can focus your conversations on the specific problems you’re trying to solve, thus maximizing the minutes you spend at each booth. (This is especially important at large events, like PPS, where there are hundreds of exhibitors. For more intimate events like Ascend, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know event sponsors.)
3. Get people on the books.
“A conference is the time to meet new people, but it’s also a time to build on the relationships you already have,” notes Farrar in The Muse. HubSpot takes that insight a step further: “The people you’ll attend sessions with are as important as the sessions themselves.” To that end, find out which attendees you know—and which ones you’d like to know—and get them on your calendar. I recommend putting out some feelers on your social media networks and through your email contacts. Conferences fly by quickly, so if there are people with whom you want to attend sessions or meet—whether those meetings are pure business or pure fun—contact them and get all those items on your calendar before the show. As Scott Belsky explains in this 99u article, “Conferences are more than just the programming, they are an assembly of like-minded folks with great intention...Many frequent conference-goers claim that their greatest conference experiences happened during the ‘downtime.’ Don’t leave these benefits up to chance.”
Want to go above and beyond?
If your or your employer’s budget allows, make sure two or more people from your practice attend the conference. That way, you can attend separate sessions concurrently, educate each other, and bring double the knowledge back to the office.
4. Pack accordingly.
“Conferences are multi-day affairs where you’ll be booking long hours each day,” explains this HubSpot post. Therefore, it’s imperative that you pack wisely. Here are a few must-brings:
- Your attendance materials: Whether it’s your badge or simply a confirmation number, ensure you have whatever you need to register and check in.
- Comfy shoes: This one is a PT no-brainer, but I can’t emphasize enough the importance of good walking shoes when it comes to hustling about trade shows.
- Tech gear: I’m talking chargers, cables, cords—whatever you need to ensure you’re not stuck with dead batteries.
- Business cards: Do you plan on making connections? If so, make sure you have business cards to pass out.
Oh, and don’t forget!
- Submit time off requests early.
- Nail down your employer’s expense policy; do you submit receipts, or is there a company card to use?
- Set an out-of-office message. Sure, you may check your emails at the conference, but it’s best to play it safe.
1. Get acclimated.
Register early—like, as soon as humanly possible. Lines are typically shorter the day or night before the conference actually gets underway. If time allows, walk around the venue to learn the locations of sessions, keynotes, and exhibitors.
2. Be in the here and now.
I know, I know; work never truly stops. But when you’re at a conference, your job is to attend the conference. That means putting the phone away—except for sending the occasional conference-related Tweet—and saving business or clinic work for outside of the conference venue. To quote The Muse, “You’re at a conference to have in-person interaction, and you don’t want your electronic devices to be a barrier to making those connections.”
In addition to removing any barriers to having meaningful interactions, look for opportunities to connect with speakers. While you’re listening to their presentations, jot down questions. If there’s a Q&A portion,—or an open-floor discussion like we often have at Ascend—put your public speaking fears to bed and get on the microphone. If you can’t muster that kind of courage, then:
- stay after the sessions, say hello, get a business card, and (if time allows), ask your questions then, and/or
- hit the speaker up on Twitter for the information you want.
Oh, and don’t forget!
Don’t burn yourself out logging session after session. As this blog post explains, “No matter the event destination, slate time to spend it like the locals do. Go for a stroll outside the conference center, ask for restaurant recommendations...Try something new, too, be it an out-of-your-wheelhouse seminar; a vendor after-party; a local, yet odd culinary delight; or one of the product demonstrations on the exhibitor floor.”
3. Boil it all down.
You may be tempted to take copious notes, but what I’ve found is that hurried note-taking can often distract the mind from absorbing the most valuable portions of a presentation. Instead, here’s what I recommend:
- Don’t write down anything that’s on the actual presentation. Most conferences supply presenters’ slide decks after the show. And if they don’t, you can reach out via social media to specifically request them from the presenter.
- Tweet quotes that truly speak to you, or retweet or favorite someone else who already tweeted the same quote. Only write down quotes if you plan on referencing them later.
- Make note of the concepts, initiatives, or campaigns that truly resonate with you, and add some type of symbol to those. (I use bullet points.)
- Circle or highlight any ideas that strike you during the presentation, but don’t directly relate to the presentation (i.e., the ones that came about as a result of attending the session).
- Write down action items (i.e., things you actually want to do when you return to reality), and mark them in some way. I use arrows, but Belsky of 99u uses stars: “The first thing I do after every conference is review the notes and transfer every starred item into my task management tool.”
- Summarize it all with one to three key takeaways. “After each presentation, ask yourself what struck you, what did you learn?” says Belsky. Farrar of The Muse echos Belsky: “...at the end of each session you attend, write down the three key takeaways and any follow-up you want to do on the topic or with the speakers.” Ultimately, if you take any notes during the conference, make sure it’s the key takeaway(s) from each session you attend.
Want to go above and beyond?
In addition to paying attention to sessions, you’ll want to keep an open mind on the trade show floor. You prepared yourself to meet with exhibitors; now, be open to those conversations. Not every exhibitor is there with the sole intent of closing deals; most of them genuinely want to help you be better in business and clinical practice. WebPT only sends Ascend invites to companies that align with our mission to help rehab therapists achieve greatness in practice. So, be open to what they have to say, and absorb as much knowledge as you can. Hopefully, at the end of the day, you’ll come away with all the information you need to analyze each exhibitor’s potential value for your clinic. Oh, and don’t take every goodie and giveaway with you. Only take the items that you’ll actually use.
1. Take stock, organize, and review.
You amass a lot of stuff at conferences. Following the show—before you even leave the hotel—go through everything you’ve acquired. Recycle all the paper materials that don’t need to make the trip home, and organize the materials—and trade show swag—that you do want to keep. As for all those business cards you stashed away, create three piles: “the first for those that you absolutely plan to follow up with for a specific need, and the second for those that you just want to put in your address book but don’t have any next step,” explains Belsky of 99u. And the third pile? If you have to ask who the person is or why you have his or her card, then it’s safe to say you can toss it in the recycle bin.
While you’re on the plane—or once you’ve returned home—review all your notes and collected materials. Revisit the ideas, action items, and takeaways you recorded, and develop a plan for using them in practice or in business. Reflect on the goals you set for yourself before the conference; did you achieve them? If not, what do you need to do to see them through? Conferences can cost a pretty penny, so it’s important you put the knowledge you acquired during the show to good use afterwards.
Chances are that not everyone at your practice attended the conference, so once you’ve organized everything you learned and created a plan for fulfilling the action items, meet with the leadership and staff to review.
Want to go above and beyond?
Write a blog post about your experience at the conference—explaining what you learned, what feedback you have, and what you’ll do with the knowledge you gained. Share the article on social media using the conference’s hashtag. (FYI: The hashtag for Ascend on all social media platforms is #ascendevent.)
3. Follow up.
Hopefully, you did a lot of networking at the conference. You already organized the business cards from your new connections; now, make sure you do something with them. “Within a week of returning from the event, send a personal follow-up to everyone you met to let them know you enjoyed meeting them. Also set up a phone call or face-to-face meeting with anyone you specifically want to do business or build a relationship with,” advises Farrar on The Muse. Following trade shows, attendees’ inboxes are bananas, so if you don’t want to add to the barrage of emails, I recommend connecting with folks on LinkedIn and Twitter; just make sure you remind your connection of what you talked about when you were together in person.
Lastly, brace yourself.
Communication from all the exhibitors is coming. Fortunately, you had a plan and were selective about your exhibit hall travels. Thus, the only vendors that should be contacting you are those you actually want to hear from.
And with that, you’re ready to attend conferences like a seasoned pro. Before I go, one last tip: Enjoy yourself. You’re there to learn and grow, but ultimately, you should be having fun while doing so. Don’t ever sacrifice fun.
Have additional tips? Share your conference-going experiences and wisdom in the comment section below.