Every year in mid to late June, the SHRM Annual Conference and Expo draws thousands and thousands of HR professionals to a designated city for the mecca of all things HR-related. And every year, a fair portion of those thousands are first-time attendees. In fact, it wasn’t that awfully long ago that I was one of those first-time attendees. I was lucky that during my first annual conference, I had a lot of folks I knew there to help show me the ropes. But nonetheless, I learned very quickly that as amazing of an experience as it is, SHRM Annual can also be very overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.
Are you a newbie this year? If so, here’s my best advice about how to prepare, what to expect, and how to make the most of the experience. Because let’s face it, no one wants to be sitting on the plane ride home with his or her head spinning, thinking “Wait, what just happened?”
Tip #1: Plan Ahead
Take some time to plan out your schedule. SHRM provides great resources online and through the conference app to allow you to review and choose the sessions that most interest you. Pick out those you’d like to attend, and then pick out some backup sessions; the session planner and app do not “reserve” a spot for you, and some session rooms will tend to fill up. And while you’re planning, make sure you leave yourself some downtime. Trust me, it’s a long several days; if you fill up every available minute and don’t allow yourself some time to recharge and process what you’re learning you will burn out mid-way through the week.
Once you’re on site, if you find yourself in a session that isn’t what you thought, don’t be afraid to walk out and find a different one that will meet your expectations. And don’t feel guilty about it. Remember, this is your time and you have every right to ensure that you’re getting what you need and want.
Tip #2: Challenge Yourself
Sure, you could choose to attend sessions on topics familiar to you and stick with your comfort zone. But with so many topics across many different tracks, why not expose yourself to something new? This is your chance to expand your horizons beyond the scope of your everyday job. Why not choose a mix of sessions that both enhance your current knowledge and also stretch your mind a bit? Are you a practitioner who spends most of your time dealing with employment law or employee relations issues? Then why not attend a session on selecting and implementing HR technology? Do you focus most of your time on talent acquisition? Why not attend a compensation session? And keep in mind, there are options beyond the general and concurrent sessions. The Smart Stage offers bite-sized presentation in 15-18 minute blocks on a variety of different topics; it’s a great way to focus on something different without investing a ton of time.
There’s so much knowledge to gain in so many different ways, it’s really a shame to not use the opportunity to think about the future you, not just today’s you.
Tip #3: Network
Some of the most valuable takeaways from your conference experience could come from the connections you make in the hallways between sessions, in the expo hall, or at the multitude of social events that will take place over the course of the four days. Take advantage of the other HR pros that are there; there is a wealth of knowledge to be shared beyond the official sessions. Talk to people. Make new connections. You never know how valuable they could be some day. Instead of just going back to your hotel at the end of the day, attend some of the sponsored social events, or organize some outings of your own with new found friends; these are great ways to connect in a more meaningful way with people in a more relaxed atmosphere….and you may have a little fun while you’re at it!
Bonus Tip: Have Some Fun Too!
Did we mention that this year’s SHRM Annual is in New Orleans? Home to amazing food, amazing music, Bourbon Street nightlife, haunted history tours, and riverboat and streetcar rides? Take some time to take it in. Eat some gumbo or beignets and café au lait; grab some of your new found friends and dance to a live band on Bourbon Street; hit up the French Market; stroll along the mighty Mississippi; or simply wander around and take it the sights and sounds. Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Whatever you do, enjoy your experience. Good luck, learn a lot, and have fun! See you New Orleans!