How To Get The Most From A SHRM Conference As An Attendee, Vendor, Speaker or Volunteer


Vegas, 2007. That was the first SHRM conference I ever attended. I was 22 and had no idea what SHRM even stood for.

Since then, I’ve attended 15 annual and state SHRM conferences as a keynote speaker, vendor, volunteer and even as a SHRM contractor. I’ve seen and experienced a few things, and in this post, I’ll share my learning lessons as a vendor, speaker, volunteer and attendee to help you get the most of your SHRM conference experience.

Attendee Lessons

Lesson #1: Ask Questions

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen anxious faces in the audience who want to ask a question, don’t, and then ask me later that night after a few drinks. Each conference has windows of opportunity to get the questions you have answered. Take advantage and ask your questions, because the environment of a SHRM conference is comfortable – it’s just your peers.

Lesson #2: Learn From Vendors

The most successful HR professionals I’ve seen in the last decade aren’t the ones who drop their business card into a fishbowl and walk away. The successful ones are challenging vendors, having candid conversations, and learning how the latest advancements in the recruitment space can advance the recruiting functions at their organizations.

Take time to walk the expo hall. If you have kids at home, grab a bag and store away a stuffed animal for them. But, be sure to learn from vendors, because they have so much to offer.

Lesson #3: Get Inspired

If you attend a SHRM Conference, especially this year in Las Vegas, you’re going to leave inspired. Your inspiration can come from speakers, vendors, your peers and from the great experiences that are a part of the conference. The important thing to remember is to act on that inspiration when arriving back at the workplace. You’ll most likely be met with hundreds of emails, a few fires to be put out, and an anxious CEO who will want to know what you learned and what to implement. It’ll be easily to lose that inspiration quickly. Before you walk through the doors of your employer, take the time to put down a plan of action so you can act on your SHRM experience.

Vendor Lessons

Lesson #4: HR LOVES To Party

Almost ten years of involvement with SHRM has taught me one thing above all else: HR loves to party. Each year, the annual conference has a vendor that will spend large sums of money on the must attend party. Vegas 2007, the party was at every fantasy suite in the Palms (Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, Hardwood Suite). Vegas 2011, Madame Tussauds. Vegas 2015 - ???... Some of the best connections I’ve made as a vendor have been from attending parties – either by our own company or from a competitor – and that the conversations can continue all the way through the conference.

Lesson #5: HR Loves To Win (But Hates To Get Spammed)

From North Dakota to San Diego, I’ve seen vendors give away an iPad. Every conference is the same – one business card is picked from a fishbowl as hundreds of optimistic attendees gather around, hoping to hear their name called from a microphone that always has feedback. One attendee wins, the rest go home and find an email from the vendor appear in their inbox several days/weeks/months later.

See if you can create an experience where everyone wins (beyond free pens). Understand the importance of lead generation, but don’t make it the goal or central focus of your conversation with attendees. The best vendors know that one great experience with an attendee is worth 50 business cards in a fishbowl. 

Best examples of what HR likes to win: VIP access to conference parties, something with a dollar value that is complimentary (LinkedIn profile enhancements) or exclusive access to a speaker.

Lesson #6: Market Your Booth Before The Conference

HR arrives at the conference with a preset agenda on the breakout sessions they’re going to, and the vendors they want to speak with. Your goal is to get on that agenda before the conference starts. Participate in SHRM Twitter chats, email your existing subscribers and evaluate all of your paid advertising opportunities. If attendees and bloggers know what you’re about before they arrive at your booth, you have the opportunity to drive more visitors and have better conversations.

Speaker Lessons

Lesson #7: Stick around the conference for as long as you can

I’ve spoken at conferences where I’ve flown in and out the same day (sorry Toledo and Duluth!) and attended others where I’ve hung out for the entire conference (looking at you Fargo and Orlando). There’s a direct correlation between the time you stay at a conference and what you get out of it in the form of relationships, knowledge and honest feedback.

Stick around, learn, and take advantage of the perks afforded to speakers.

Lesson #8: HR Is Attentive and Awesome

HR is my favorite audience to speak to because they are attentive, participate, and have the power to apply learnings that positively impact their workplaces. They’re engaged. Take advantage of that engagement by giving them something to walk away with – both intangible and tangible (book, infographic, etc) that they can apply when they get back to work.

Lesson #9: Share Knowledge, Not Sales Pitches

There’s a direct correlation between sharing knowledge and generating new business. The more knowledge you share, the more people listen, and the more people who want to talk to you.

Early in my experiences of speaking at SHRM, I expected to generate new business from my speeches. I’d arm myself with business cards, work in some slides that described how our company could help solve challenges, and sat there after delivering the speech waiting for attendees to come talk to me. Very few did.

After a few speeches, I curbed this approach and instead focused solely on the knowledge I could share with attendees. A funny thing happened. The less I focused on generating leads, the more business cards I walked away with. For your speech, focus on sharing knowledge so that attendees talk about your speech, and want to talk to you afterwards.  


Lesson #10: You Meet More Influencers As A Volunteer

If I ran a recruitment company today, I’d take a couple employees out of my booth and enroll them as conference volunteers. As a volunteer, I found myself making connections with the people behind the scenes – state SHRM presidents, CEO’s of companies, influential bloggers – and made more meaningful connections in two days of volunteering than the previous two conferences combined.

Lesson #11: Find and Contribute Value

Something amazing happens when you’re wearing a volunteer shirt: people are honest. Attendees admit their feet are killing them, and ask where they can go to relax for a minute. Vendors share their experiences. Other volunteers share their learning lessons. Each conversation you have as a volunteer is candid – leaving you with a great opportunity to add value to someone’s day, and identify what’s valuable for future conferences.

Lesson #12: Volunteer If You Can’t Attend

One year I drove from Phoenix to Vegas to volunteer at the conference. I crashed at a friend’s house in Henderson (thanks Max!) and worked the conference for a couple of days. I didn’t have money to attend, so volunteering allowed me to be a part of the experience. Whether you’re looking for your next career opportunity or a student thinking about HR, volunteering is an amazing opportunity to stay in the loop of what’s happening.

To wrap things up, my first SHRM conference was in Vegas. If you’re thinking about attending a conference for the first time, or if you’re an industry veteran with plenty of SHRM ribbons, you’ll quickly find that Vegas plays a great host. Enjoy your experience, and let me know what you learn.



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