Do you remember how you felt on the first day at a new school? If you were like me, it was equal parts anxiety, dread, and disorientation. Lots of people milling around, and they all seemed to know each other, but I didn't know any of them.
It was similar the first time I went to a conference. I was rushed through the check-in line, given my badge and attendee bag, and just pushed on to figure things out. I didn't know who was who - it was a blur of nametags racing by me.
But where were they all going? I had no idea. I felt like I was a stranger in a strange land.
So I sat in a corner, put on some headphones, and dug into my bag of conference information. There was a schedule with lots of things going on at the same time, and I didn't know where to begin. My eyes glazed over, and I felt sort of helpless.
When it came time for lunch, I left the hotel and grabbed some food at a local restaurant by myself. I don't think I really talked to anybody at the whole conference.
One big problem was that I went into the whole thing without a plan. I just showed up and expected I'd just magically get it. My lack of advance planning made the time spent there, as well as the money for the trip, into a big waste.
When I got back to the office, I told the boss how lame it was, and how I wouldn't recommend returning next year.
The next time I was sent to a conference, I made sure to do some homework in advance to figure out who I might want to meet, as well as educational sessions that might benefit me. It was a far more worthwhile use of my time.
I came to realize that going to a conference is an investment, rather than an expense. It's not just an investment of money, but time, too. But when you do take the time to maximize the opportunities, the experience can be fulfilling and prosperous.
After I understood that there were two reasons for me to attend these sorts of events, networking and education, I became better and better at planning and organizing my time.
The whole process of attending a conference isn't limited to the time you are physically there with a badge around your neck. In order to make the most of it, there are things you can and should be doing before, during, and after the conference.
Over the years, I've worked up lots of strategies, and learned things from other folks to get the maximum value from attending conferences.
When Missy Ward and I started up the Affiliate Summit conference in 2003, we crafted it based on our frustrations and experiences as conference attendees, and we've evolved things over the years to make it the best environment we can for the people who attend.
However, it's still up to the individual attendee to seize opportunities and get the most out of the experience.