I am super excited to share with you this week’s guest blogger Pastor Rob Cizek of Northshore Christian Church. As a career event planner I have seen and attended my share of conferences. As you all know conferences entail a material investment between travel, lodging, meals, conference fees and all the incidentals that make their way into your suitcase while away. Pastor Rob has some incredible tips for making sure you are getting your money’s worth and more from conference attending. Read On…
It just arrived – that flashy email or postcard announcing the latest conference! The hottest speakers! The latest research! The newest ways to solve your problems! Senior leaders dancing! Tempted to go? You bet!
Every year, staff members ask their organizations to spend thousands of dollars on conferences. But in the end, are these gatherings worth the money? Are there ways to get the benefits of going to a conference without shelling out the big bucks? Here’s how to know.
WHEN CONFERENCES ARE WORTH YOUR MONEY
There are several valid reasons to attend a conference. Ask yourself how much value your organization will receive from each category.
New information and resources: The world really is in a constant state of change. Conferences allow you to hear the latest research and techniques. This is especially important for older or plateaued organizations. Conferences can also help a successful organization stay on top.
Pulling away: An out-of-town meeting removes you from your current circumstance. It gives you time and fresh surroundings. It exposes you to new experiences, people and ideas. When you’re away, your mind is freed-up to think about new possibilities.
Networking: The most valuable aspect of conferences is the people you meet. You can connect with others in your circumstance. They can help you solve problems and introduce you to new resources. They can connect you to people in their circles that can help you (and you can do the same for them).
WHEN CONFERENCES ARE NOT WORTH YOUR MONEY
Organizations can waste a lot of money on conferences. Watch out for these traps:
Just a junket: Conferences that don’t legitimately offer full days of main sessions and breakouts can be little more than an excuse for an organization-paid vacation. There is a fine line between time for legitimate networking and simply playing around on the organization’s dime.
Employees who don’t engage: Just like the rest of life, you get out of conferences only what you put into them. If your employees sleep in or miss sessions they are wasting their time & the organization’s money. If an employee returns without taking notes, finding new resources or making new contacts, the trip was wasted.
Teams that don’t interact: If you send a team they should be traveling together, staying together, eating together and debriefing together during the conference. It’s a great way to build the team. If everyone acts independently, your organization is missing a lot of value.
Employees putting their own interests above those of the organization: When an employee attends a conference, they are there as a representative of their organization. Attending a conference should not be simply an excuse for an employee to travel, meet up with their friends or look for another job.
HOW TO GET THE MOST FROM CONFERENCES
The amount of value you (and your organization) gets out of conferences depends on you. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your time and money:
Prepare: Before you go, review the brochure. Do the pre-conference reading or listen to the pre-conference podcasts. Some conferences have workshops the day before the main sessions begin. You may want to arrive a day early to participate. Double check your travel plans to ensure you have enough time to comfortably make it where you need to be on time. Check your directions so you won’t be lost and frustrated. You want to be relaxed and ready to learn when you arrive. Look at the list of people attending the conference and figure out who you will be looking for. Set up meetings with those people in advance.
Take notes: Take notes in each session you attend. They are excellent to share with others and for your own reference. Offer to send your notes to people you meet at the conference as a way to further connect.
Take pictures: Grab a few shots with your phone and email them back to the office and to your family. Let everybody see what’s happening at the conference and your enthusiasm for it!
Prepare a report: When an organization spends hundreds of dollars to send you to a conference, a great way to say “thank you” is with a report. Write a brief summary sharing the main takeaways and new resources you found. Email your summary to your bosses and to anyone in the organization that might find it helpful. Mention the takeaways in your next staff meeting. Write a piece for the organization’s newsletter or blog. The more broadly you share the information you gather, the greater value it will be to the organization. This is also a great way to set you up to attend the conference again in the future (what boss doesn’t want to send a grateful employee who brings back information for everyone else?) Your report can also be shared on your personal social media streams to be of help to others and raise your profile online.
Lead a session: There is a huge difference between simply attending a conference and leading one of the sessions. As a presenter, you may receive discounted registration and access to “presenter only” privileges. People will see your name in the program and seek you out. You will connect with like-minded people when they ask questions immediately following your session. You don’t have to lead one of the main sessions, simply volunteer to lead a breakout session.
Network: Make some new friends! Most information at conferences can be obtained in articles, books or on conference videos. What you can’t get anywhere else is the opportunity to meet other people. Strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. Ask questions during panel discussions. Participate in interactive roundtables. Introduce yourself to the speakers and conference organizers. If you hit it off with someone you meet, suggest going to coffee or a meal. Evryone is in the same boat at a conference. People will be glad you took the initiative to break the ice and start a conversation. Exchange business cards and offer to help people any way you can. Write thank-you notes to them when you get back and follow them in social media. Send articles, leads or other resources that could help them.
Extend your time before or after the conference: Many conferences are intentionally held in places where there is nice weather and lots of activities. See if you can extend your stay a few days (at your own cost) and enjoy the travel. Bring a spouse or a friend with you (at your own cost).
COST SAVING ALTERNATIVES TO ATTENDING CONFERENCES
What if you could get 90% of conference information for 10% of the cost? Here are some ways to enjoy many of the benefits without the huge expense.
Send one person: Send only one staff member to a conference. They would be responsible to attend all of the sessions, gather the materials and purchase session audio/video. When that person returns, they hold a series of sessions with the entire staff to teach them what was presented at the conference. Don’t forget to go by the conference book store. Many times books and other resources will be for sale at a conference. They may seem a little expensive at the time, but don’t be afraid to pick them up. Many times there are special materials that are only available at the conference. Relative to the cost of the trip, purchasing materials only adds a small percentage to the overall bill.
Purchase conference videos and audio sessions: Don’t send anyone to the conference. Purchase the audio/video recordings and show them to your staff. Even if the recordings cost a couple of hundred dollars, it is still far cheaper than sending even one person. Sessions can be shared individually during staff meetings. You can also hold a staff training day where several of the sessions are shown sequentially.
Attend virtually: A tremendous amount of conference information is on Twitter. Simply search Twitter for the conference hash tag (usually a pound sign with the name of the conference). Watch this Twitter stream throughout the days the conference is held. Many people “live tweet” main points and key takeaways. They also write conference summary blogs. Some conferences even offer live video feeds of the sessions and backstage interviews.
Go through the book: Many times conference presentations are tied to the presenter’s new book. You can buy copies of the book and go through it together as a staff. Many times there is more information presented in the book than at the conference. A few hundred dollars spent on books is cheaper than sending one person to a conference (and everyone gets to keep a copy of the book for future reference).
The most important part of conferences is that they promote lifelong learning. Whether you’re attending conferences, watching videos of the session or reading books together, continuing education will bring far more value to your team than the costs that you incur.
Rob Cizek (@RobCizek on Twitter) is Executive Pastor at Northshore Christian Church, a non-denominational church of 1,500 and Christian academy of 950 in the greater Seattle area (www.northshorechristian.org). He oversees daily operation of the organization and its ministries. He also organizes a networking group for executive pastors in the Puget Sound area. Rob, his wife Janice and two children live in the Seattle area. He can be reached at (425) 322-2304 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rob regularly posts resources for church leaders on Twitter at: twitter.com/robcizek