Five Tips for an ASAE Annual Conference First Timer

We’re just a few weeks away from ASAE’s 2012 Annual Conference in Dallas, TX. If you’re like me, you’ve been looking forward to this since last August. I’ve already started looking at sessions I want to attend, events that look exciting, and can’t wait to connect with old and new friends in Dallas. Last year’s annual conference was my first ASAE conference and I thought I’d take some time to address some first-timer conference questions.

What do I wear?

I’ve always been really good at over packing and returning with outfits I didn’t touch. That’s just how I work and I have no plans to change that. You will probably want a few different outfits for you as a daytime conference attendee and others for evening activities. ASAE’s dress code for the conference is:

We want you to be comfortable so you can enjoy your meeting experience! Therefore, business casual dress is strongly encouraged. We suggest bringing a light sweater or jacket with you during the day as meeting rooms are air conditioned.

This means leave the suits (and ties) at home but look nice. I usually go with a dress shirt, dress slacks/khakis, and dress shoes during the day and dress down for evening events. Check out ASAE’s video, What to Wear to ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo’s Opening Reception as they’ve spelled it out for you this year:

The point is to be comfortable at the conference, so leave the suits at home. Unless you’ll be participating in the Monday Morning Awards Ceremony – you may want to consider something a little nicer for that. I’ve never been though so many someone else can chime in on this?

Do I have to have business cards?

YES! Bring more than you ever think you will ever need. You won’t believe the number of opportunities you will have to meet new people – and you will. One of the worst things that can happen is to run out of business cards at a conference.

Here’s a tip for those business cards you collect. After you’ve finished your conversation with someone, jot down a few notes on the back of the card to remind you about the conversation. Anything interesting they said, something that you want to follow up on, or a few fun facts that will help you remember them. Do it right after the conversation, or at least later that evening.

At the end of each day while I’m sitting in my hotel room I take all the cards I collected and make sure I have enough notes on the back of their card to remember them and the conversation once I’ve gotten back to the office. Most importantly, send a follow-up, “nice to meet you” email (at the least), or a hand-written card/note to thank them for their time after the conference. Isn’t the whole point of meeting someone to develop and continue the relationship? These will be the people you go to for advice, questions, resources on your day-to-day association life. For you younger association professionals, you may have even found a mentor to guide you along the way – I know I have!

What else should I bring?

This depends on your conference experience and how you work/network/learn the best. Below is my Pinterest board of items that I make sure I have when I’m on the conference floor (it’s a lot of stuff but I tend to be over-prepared).

These are just the items for my “day pack” while I’m at sessions and roaming around the conference center. Of course this means that after the daytime activities I’ll have to go back to my hotel room to drop these off before I head out for the night, which sometime can be cumbersome. If you’re looking for a good list of things to help you pack for the entire conference this Pack This Pad from Knock Knock may be useful for you.

Will I feel left out if I don’t know a lot of people?

You can feel left out if you want to be, but I don’t recommend it. Does it help to know some people at the conference already? Sure. Can you still enjoy yourself and have a great time even if you don’t know anyone? Absolutely, but it requires you be willing to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to other attendees. Introduce yourself to people at your table during sessions, in the hallways, at lunches, and evening social events (this is probably the easiest one). The conference can seem intimidating with so many people there but I promise but you’ll rarely meet someone who isn’t interested in meeting someone new.

Putting yourself out there can be scary for a lot of people, I think a great way to start is to tweet while you’re at the conference and converse using the #asae12 hashtag. It’s a great way to find out what’s happening during the conference, ask questions, and meet new people. Check out my twitter list of this year’s conference attendees and let me know if you want to be added.

How do I get the most out of attending?

It’s important to identify your current issues or questions. Pick a few and keep them in mind as you attend sessions and meet new people throughout the conference. The expo hall can be a great place to find solutions for your association as well.

Ask yourself, “Why am I attending this conference?” or “What do I want to leave this conference with?” The answers to these will be different for everyone but asking yourself is important in guiding your conference experience. Are you here for the education? Are you looking to expand your network of association professionals? You can have multiple reasons for attending, but it’s important you know all your reasons. Otherwise, you’ll spend all of your time floundering around trying to take in everything and I think most ASAE conference veterans will tell you, there’s just too much.

The people are the most important thing for me, it’s a chance for me to re-connect with people whom I don’t’ normally see regularly and to meet new people to expand my network of contacts. Expanding my network of contacts doesn’t mean just collecting a lot of business cards. With more than 5,000 association professionals at this conference, there’s just too many people for one person to meet. That shouldn’t discourage you from meeting as many people as you can though, but don’t be one of those people that just works every room. Make an effort to establish some real connections that will prove valuable to you for the rest of your association career. These are the people you will most likely be emailing and calling for advice and feedback on future projects and issues.

Did I forget anything? Ask away. If this will be your first ASAE annual conference what questions do you have? For my fellow conference attendee regulars what advice do you have for this year’s conference first timers?