Professional development is one of the most important investments an employee can make to stimulate and advance their own growth.
For many L&D professionals, attending events is a traditional but essential part of the role for those hoping to stay in the loop about the latest industry trends and topics, not to mention make key connections that could lead to partnerships or new business. But in-person conferences can get pricey, often requiring travel and networking time, which means significant expenses compared to online alternatives that often offer free content. So, what’s the best way to get the most out of your time and budget—flying out for the IRL experience, logging in from home or some mix of both?
To find out, “In The Know” host JD Dillon welcomed David Kelly, CEO of The Learning Guild, to discuss the current state of industry events and how to wade through the sea of invites to figure out which ones can really level up your career and why not all events are created equal.
Be curious and connect the dots
Networking events have changed over the last few years to say the least. The rise of digital experiences means many professionals are tapping into important conversations without even leaving their desks. But when it comes to making a deeper connection, there’s no alternative to in-person experiences.
“With online events, you don’t connect with people the same way you do it in person,” says Kelly. “A lot of the biggest learning and impact that a conference has doesn’t necessarily come from the content, although it’s built around the content. Most of the resources that you take with you after the conference and enable you to put the content into practice are coming from the people.”
While today there are many ways you can touch base with your peers online, being able to meet someone face-to-face is a unique experience that affords a significant opportunity to seek out the solutions you need for your specific goals—and beyond.
“When you’re at an in-person conference, you can find solutions to your problems either through people or through the expo. You can go in, browse, speak to vendors and share the challenges that your organization is having. You don’t get that quite as much in an online event,” says Kelly. “And it’s easier at an in-person conference to extend beyond your comfort zone—going outside of what you do every day and finding opportunities to indulge your curiosities and grow.”
“As someone that speaks at many events, I’ve yet to find an online experience that allows for accidental interactions,” adds Dillon. “Online you have to be very purposeful and do a lot of research to understand who’s around so you can target messaging and try to overcome the noise. You can’t just bump into somebody that just happened to be in attendance with something really cool to say.”
Virtual and hybrid events spell new opportunities—with some drawbacks
While the physical advantage of face-to-face interactions is a given, virtual events have become incredibly popular over the last few years, as the pandemic made them safe options that were also more cost-effective, flexible, data-rich and accessible, among other perks.
With the number of patrons who prefer, and are able, to attend in-person and the number of those that prefer online options divided, hybrid events have also grown in adoption. But can you take a blended approach to events without compromising either experience? Not really, says Kelly.
“I don’t believe hybrid events have a unique value proposition. We [at The Learning Guild] made the conscious decision to not do hybrid events before and there’s a very specific reason for that: they’re not as effective. I don’t think anyone’s figured out the technology component yet,” he explains.
“The majority of hybrid events are in-person events that people who are online get to watch. And that is not an equal opportunity for people. I think at an ideal hybrid event, everyone can get the same level of an experience and it’s still something that conferences have to work on delivering.”
Top 10 event tips
There are a few things you can do to improve the conference experience and squeeze the most out of the events you attend, whether it’s digital or in-person.
- Have a gameplan: Spend some time reviewing the event’s agenda and activities before it starts so you have all the important details top-of-mind from the jump.
- Be realistic about what you can get done: Not every talk track or social will be your thing. And even if they were, there are only so many hours in a day. Prioritize a first, second and third choice for speakers you’d like to hear and remember that events are about more than attending as many sessions as possible.
- Make time to connect: Want to skip a session block that doesn’t interest you or have a gap between talks? Networking, swapping solutions and jumping into the comments or a lively Q&A message board with peers who might not be listed as speakers on the program is a great opportunity to make better use of that time.
- Recharge as often as you need to: Don’t be ashamed if you need to hit pause—Zoom fatigue is real. Rest when you can so you’re at your best and ready to soak up all the knowledge. (And if you’re relying on mobile devices, make sure they’re charged and ready to last as long as you can).
- Talk with speakers: Conference speakers are there to facilitate your learning. Most would be excited to connect after their sessions to learn more about you and your work—so say hi in whatever way you’re most comfortable, if that’s a handshake, LinkedIn DM or something else!
- Explore new things: If you’re feeling adventurous, sign up for a session on a topic or two that has nothing to do with your everyday work or niche. What you learn and who you meet might surprise you.
- Avoid distractions: Fun titles and well-known companies might draw your attention, but the content of those sessions might not live up to your expectations. Do your homework and make sure the topic is relevant and the speaker is credible before signing up.
- Step onto the expo floor: Even if you’re not a buyer looking for a solution, speaking with vendors when you’re in-person is a great way to keep up with marketplace changes so that you know what’s what when it’s finally time to shop around.
- Protect your needs: Signed up for a session but find that it’s not meeting your needs? It’s okay to get up and leave or log out. The speaker won’t take it personally if you choose to seize other opportunities by trying something else.
- Prioritize comfort: Whether you’re spending hours, days or weeks at an in-person event, or if you’re planning to be a virtual attendee, prepare wisely with comfortable attire and try to create an environment that’s conducive to learning.
There are so many choices and no shortage of opportunities when it comes to industry events. Pick the format that works best for you, your career journey and business goals and use the tips outlined above to make whatever experience you choose meaningful and value-packed.