5 tips to conquer a large industry conference

By Naki B. Mendoza 25 October 2016

Peter Thomson, president of the 71st session of the U.N. General Assembly at the High Level Roundtable: Leave No One Behind at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by: Habitat III Conference

There are industry conferences that we’ve all attended and then there are megaindustry conferences. The United Nations Habitat III summit on sustainable urbanization that took place last week easily classifies as the latter.

By official U.N. estimates, more than 30,000 accredited participants from 167 countries attended the four-day gathering. The summit had over 1,000 events, which included eight plenaries, six high-level roundtables, 157 exhibition booths and 460 networking and training sessions.

Other large events may not necessarily rival Habitat III, COP climate summits or other U.N. gatherings in size and scope, but any massive multiday industry conference can still be an equally overwhelming experience in its own right.

As you scan the schedule of activities and build an agenda in your mind, several daunting questions naturally arise: With such a wide buffet of offerings, how can you begin to narrow down the sessions to attend? And how can you make the most out of the experience knowing that your time will inevitably be stretched thin?

Fresh off the Habitat III experience, we’ve put together a quick list of some practical pointers to help you navigate the waters so you can maximize your time at large industry gatherings.

Navigating the crowds nimbly

1. Accept reality.

The truth is, you simply won’t be able to attend all of the sessions that appeal to you. At any given hour at Habitat III, for example, nearly a dozen events were taking place in different corners of the event center. If you find yourself at a similar gathering, it’s best to come to grips with it and move on.

You’ll be much more effective by devoting your energies to the sessions that you will be attending and making the most out of your time in those discussions. It might seem obvious — and a bit Zen — but removing that mental distraction of what you are missing out on goes a long way in helping you focus on the topic at hand.

You can still plug into the discussions that you’re missing. Check back for video replays on the event’s website. Email the event organizers for a copy of the speakers’ presentations. If there is a speaker who interests you, see if they are presenting at another event. Chances are, they will hit on similar talking points. And if nothing else, if you spot a presenter at the coffee and cookie table during one of the breaks, asking what you missed gives you a good intro line to network.

2. Diversify.

It’s a sound investment strategy and it can also be useful at conferences that host dozens of events. You of course attend the conference with certain interests in mind and choose the sessions that best align with them. But there’s also a benefit to stepping a bit out of your comfort zone. For every three sessions that match your core issue area, try attending one that is a bit more tangential to get perspectives that you might not otherwise come across. Sticking to your knitting at industry events has many benefits, such as allowing you to feel more deeply entrenched in the conversations. But opening up to new angles and approaches to an issue also have tremendous value. Chances are, any event you attend won’t stray too far off course as any conference has an overarching theme.

Similarly, when it comes to networking, seek out potential contacts and resources who are outside of your immediate professional circle. Especially in the case of international conferences, such as Habitat III that draw participants from all over the world, it is easy to gravitate toward professionals from your home city or country. But then again, you can do that any other time, right?

3. Commit (with a little bit of leeway).

So you’ve made your choice and committed to attend one session over a handful of others — great! But high expectations now fall on that event and an epic letdown can be in store if it doesn’t live up to the hype. You want to be committed and present, while also allowing yourself a little bit of leeway. If after the first 30 minutes of a 75 or 90-minute session you feel that you are not getting much out of it, there’s no shame in picking up and moving along if you feel that other discussions have more to offer. Time is money and you’re either spending your own to be productive at the conference or the company’s. Sliding into the next session 30 minutes late should still allow you to catch the second or third panelists’ remarks and the subsequent Q&A, depending on the format. Either way, there’s little value in sticking with a session that does not engage your interests.

4. Make a down time productive.

Too much of anything can be a bad thing and that goes for conference events. If nothing else, information overload from session after session can be taxing on the brain. Conferences are about more than attending lectures and discussions. Make use of some productive down time by going to networking events — either formal sessions that are organized to exchange ideas or one of your own making. Sitting in a communal area and striking up conversation can go a long way. If you’re tired of being talked to for hours on end, chances are the person sitting next to you in the patio area is as well. If networking isn’t your cup of tea, you can still be productive when out of official sessions. Try consolidating and organizing your notes or reading up on the many handouts that are stuffed in your free giveaway bag. You’ll be thankful when you have to report back to the office with some of the conference’s key takeaways.

5. Logistics and etiquette.

Picking and choosing sessions is just one part of attending a large conference. There is also a fair degree of planning and logistics that you should keep in mind to help things run smoothly.

Especially at U.N. conferences, security lines are long. Average wait times at Habitat III ahead of morning plenary sessions were around an hour. In some cases, some participants got caught in security lines that lasted as long as three hours. If an event is featuring a dignitary or high-level government official, budget at least one hour of wait time for security checkpoints.

And expect delays. You’re not the only one going through security. Many speakers and presenters themselves wait in the same line as you, which can cause them to run late as well. A late start to an event can have a ripple effect throughout the entire day’s proceedings. Plan accordingly.

Carry around a portable phone charger. Perhaps second only to free lunches, outlets to power up your machines are probably the most prized possessions at international forums. Batteries tend to drain faster when fighting for Wi-Fi signals among the thousands of participants. Avoid being rendered powerless by coming to the conference each morning with a fully powered phone and portable charger.

And of course, a shared sense of etiquette is always helpful in large gatherings. Hallways of conference centers can get quite crowded with thousands of participants passing through. Do your part to keep the things flowing by standing to the side and not blocking passageways and avoid clustering in large groups. Everyone wants to keep moving!

Finally, in the not-so-rare event of a buildingwide blackout, bring a flashlight!

When schedules are packed, the show must go on.

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About the author

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Naki B. Mendozamfbmendoza

Naki is a reporter for Devex Impact based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America and Australia.


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