6 Tips for Attending a Conference ALONE

I just returned from a great four days at the SHRM conference, last week, where I was fortunate enough to meet several other solo conference goers. To that end, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve observed and picked up from others about attending conferences on your own.

I can totally relate to this excerpt from Peter Bregman’s article, "How to Attend a Conference as Yourself:"

“I often feel awkward when I go to a conference. Reluctant to sidle up to a stranger and introduce myself, I roam, like I did at college parties, self-conscious, seltzer water in hand, not fitting in. In the midst of a sea of people chatting away enthusiastically, I am uncomfortable and alone.”

Here are some practical tips for engaging those around you and enjoying yourself!

1) Don’t be AFRAID to LEAVE

You don’t have to be at EVERY social event or EVERY session, even if it may seem that way. As pointed out in the Forbes article “5 Ways To Survive Attending a Conference Alone,” having the energy and composure to really make an important morning session count is more important than forcing yourself to network on low energy the day before. If you find yourself in a session that isn’t grabbing you, rather than force yourself through it, leave in a polite manner and plot out your next move (this isn’t always possible when you’re with others).

2) Be genuine. No, really -- be genuine. No, really, really.

It’s often said that the true value of getting a Harvard MBA lies not with what you’ve learned, but in the connections you make along the way. As many of us know, the same can be said about conferences. 

In order to make those connections valuable ones that can be utilized for years to come, you must be genuine in how you approach people, how you interact with them and how you correspond with them during and after the conference.

A member of the press told me this at the SHRM National Conference in San Diego a couple years back: “Some of the best quotes and ideas I’ve heard from people, I never captured. Sometimes you just have to be in the moment of the conversation.” Be clear about what you aim to get out of each connection you make (even if you want nothing more than a casual conversation).

3) Wait. Wait. Wait.

I often see people stopping, at no cost, to prevent 15 to 20 minutes of waiting time, which often leads to losing valuable networking opportunities.

Never underestimate the networking potential of “waiting."  Whether you’re waiting for the shuttle, waiting for a session to begin or waiting in the lunch line, don’t be afraid to wait.

Make your waiting time effective by engaging the people around you. If you strike up a great "waiting conversation," exchange business cards -- or even better -- get some Meet MeMe cards, a conversation starter in themselves, I’ve realized. If you want to get really into it, show up to things like the hotel shuttle 20 minutes early, as people are trickling in, and engage folks that seem interesting. As long as you are genuine you will be fine.

4) Wear your conference badge…

Don’t get too crazy about it, but when you leave the conference and are headed to the hotel, try wearing your badge until you get to your hotel room. Self-identify as a conference goer. You never know who else is at the conference that may say “hi."  Try wearing your badge to dinner after the day’s sessions or wear it at the hotel bar. You can always pull the, “Oh, I didn’t realize my badge was still on -- how embarrassing” line if things get awkward.  Oh, wait, I guess that sort of goes against Tip #2 – Be Genuine.

5) Take the shuttle…

If you have a hotel shuttle, never take a cab to or from the conference and lose valuable networking opportunities. You need to immerse yourself in everything "conference" for those few days. The shuttle is a captive audience of people in your boat (well, in your shuttle) that you can engage.

6) Prep, Prep, Prep…

I couldn’t agree more with Lars’ (@thisislars) pre-network tips. The conference experience starts well before Day 1. Most conferences have great resources you can use to build a network before you even show up. Ask the conference contacts if they have a list of people from your city you can contact. Use existing channels and REACH OUT!

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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