Investing in professional conferences

I am writing this after the third weekend in a row of attending professional conferences. While I wouldn't suggest such a schedule (it was a fluke of the calendar I hope won't ever happen again!), I came away from the experience renewed with the belief that, no matter what your field, attending conferences — given the usual caveat that moderation in all things is important — is an extremely smart financial move.

Refresh your enthusiasm

One of the conferences I attended was career-agnostic, and one of the many “TedX” events held throughout the country. This one was a day-long series of short, highly-designed talks with a similar theme (“What If?”) that was meant more as a jumping-point than a strict theme. The talks were on such a variety of things that I was certain some of them would have no applicability to my own career goals or life plans.

And certainly, some of them were as far from my own life as can be — one, for instance, detailed the way a professional athlete had overcome attitude problems and the disadvantage of growing up in a small town, became proficient and famous and by either luck or the grace of God and then developed Parkinson's disease. However, even this one was a window into a story for me, and some of them were very inspiring.

“People are weary of being asked to do the least they can possibly do,” said one speaker, inspiring me to ask more of my community for the two non-profit organizations I help run. Naomi Pomeroy, a local chef famous for failing big and then succeeding far bigger, talked about living a life that was “not positive thinking, but positive action.” She asked, “What is it you need to stop dreaming and start being?”

I've been a bit weary and run down with my many obligations lately, and I left that day so refreshed and with a feeling of contentment about my choices — and a serious spark of energy to renew my efforts in my creative projects to transition them into financially successful endeavors.

Develop your ideas into opportunities

The conference I attended just this past weekend, the Mom 2.0 Summit, was one where I had pitched a speaking idea based on the post I wrote about crowd funding last summer. I found out I would be giving the talk only about a month ago, and by that time my thoughts on it had evolved. Having this deadline and imminent public unveiling of the idea forced me to develop my swirling thoughts into what turned out to be a very defined and cohesive philosophy of creative project finance. Whether or not I end up capitalizing upon that as a line of work (independent creative funding consulting, anyone?), the conference and the conversations I had as a result of the talk were worth my travel costs.

I saw similar ideas translated into opportunities by getting a bunch of smart, ambitious heads together; a group who organizes a digital family conference seemed a match made in heaven with an online service to collect and archive the stories and the wisdom of kids. A dad creating a database of children's activities in major cities around the country found ideas about partnering with hyperlocal parenting blogs. Lines tossed around in a workshop on “Unstoppable Girls” were fielded as new campaigns for Dove and possible advertising work for one of the teen girls there.

Make friends and influence people (into giving you work)

Within the space of about 15 minutes Saturday night, I heard two separate conversations that went something like, “I met her at the conference in 2007. And then when the job opened up, she got in touch with me.” In a few sessions, someone asked the question, “but who does social media consulting? How do you find one of those?” and half the room would raise their hands. Writers and editors sat down at lunch tables and discovered each needed the other. Charity representatives and brand representatives looking to work with charities would answer one another's questions from the audience in a session.

As we all know, the world of industry runs on connections, and we can't all go to Harvard Business School or somewhere else where simply being a graduate/member/whatever means the phone is always answered when you call. Forging real friendships at conferences of like-minded people is the next best thing (and definitely easier to access).

Make friends and influence people (who will expand your industry knowledge)

The first conference in my string of three was a small, intimate writing conference, and one of the speakers was a literary agent. I had just signed an agreement with a literary agent and had no need of her services, but I liked her. So after I got to know her I asked her a lot of questions about how the industry works from her perspective, which editors she enjoyed working with, how she had scored her big wins, and how long she was willing to work on a project that had a hard time selling. All this was invaluable for my own perspective and strategy for working with my agent to sell my book; and I also have the benefit of having made a great new friend.

Have fun (but don't overdo it)

There is something, also, about taking the opportunity to have a great time in the context of people who work in your industry. I often heard the women at the conference I attended this weekend saying, “when I went to academic conferences…” or “at the baby and child products expo I'm attending next week…” or “at the homebuilding conference, they…” and stories of mild revelry and lovely connection would follow. Having fun with the people who people your professional world is something to be cherished; it helps you remember why you enjoy your chosen career, and gives you more energy to go back to the grind (or the awesome everday of your fulfilling work life, if you're lucky).

But don't overdo it. And by “overdoing” I mean, of course, don't get smashed every night and spend your airplane ride/drive home sweaty and nauseous. But I also mean don't spend too much. Don't order room service every morning just because it's super fancy and when else do you get the chance? Don't go out every night to a $100 meal. Sure, it's ok to indulge in small ways, but going overboard is easy if you've decided all this expense is justified and deductible. Set a budget ahead of time — preferably without incurring debt — if you're planning to go to a conference, you should have time to save up and stick to it! Share cabs to and from the airport, room with friends and use other frugal tools that will keep costs down and increase the opportunity to make those awesome connections that will pay off in the future.

Do you agree that professional conferences are helpful? I'd love to hear about your industry's conferences; have you been? What has paid off for you, and what have you regretted?

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TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

Allright. But I’m not sure what some of these conferences and stuff would do for a blue collar dude. They sound pretty sweet for the white collar world, but not my world.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

Industry trade shows/fairs are a good place to get caught up with new products and technologies.

E.g.: http://www.nationalhardwareshow.com

Starts tomorrow!

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
7 years ago

Professional conferences can be a great investment. I’ve been to a conference in my field now for 3 years. I’m finally starting to get known and even got appointed to a low level committee in the organization. As I continue to build my presence in the organization, I’ll meet more people and hopefully be better networked if I ever need to find a new job.

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago

I’m interested in hearing more about the costs. Since you were presenting, were you comped a room or meals at the Mom 2.0 Summit?

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
7 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Mom of Five, this conference in particular was $400 for admission, but I was given the conference fee free for presenting. Meals were part of the conference (although, it’s often true that many people choose to go out for cozier and more expensive dinners and breakfasts at conferences!), and I paid for my room and travel. Some conferences pay for travel for their speakers, but I think generally they have to be more famous than me 🙂 — or, at least, giving keynotes (see more famous!) I usually budget about $1000 for travel, lodging, food, conference fees and childcare for… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah gilbert

Thanks!

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

I think they can be a great investment, depending on how you approach them. If it’s simply to have fun then you might not get much out of it. I think there’s a balance to going to learning more (or something new) as well as connecting with others that will give you a fairly nice return.

@debtblag
@debtblag
7 years ago

Interesting. Of course these make sense for me when paid for by my company, but I’ve been giving thought to paying for some out of pocket. Will definitely revisit this as I make some decisions…

Thanks

@debtblag
@debtblag
7 years ago

That’s odd. It said my first comment was marked as spam. Any idea why that might be?

sarah gilbert
sarah gilbert
7 years ago
Reply to  @debtblag

I’m just getting on and I saw your comment — definitely not spam 🙂 I’ll see if I can fix that!

mike
mike
7 years ago

I go to all the adult industry events. They are a great way to meet people.

Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide
Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide
7 years ago

I broke into publishing through small conference. You really have to know how to pick and choose which conferences will get you somewhere and which won’t.

Phoebe
Phoebe
7 years ago

I can see where confernces would be great for certain industries (freelance writing, blogging, etc.), but in my field they’re not personally fulfilling.

I’m in tech, and I can go to conferences as a vendor, trying to sell our stuff to potential customers, but I don’t feel these are helpful to my personal career growth as I’m not actually interacting with peers, but rather, prospects.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
7 years ago
Reply to  Phoebe

If that is the way you look at it, you are right.

If, on the other hand, you realize that each interaction with a “prospect” is an opportunity to get to know what is happening on the other side of the desk, so you can use what you learn to suggest new solutions to the problems your customers are having, then you can see the reason to go to those conferences.

Also, each “prospect” is a potential future employer, either in sales or as a professional.

Dennis Frailey
Dennis Frailey
7 years ago
Reply to  Phoebe

I’m in the technology field and have been for over 40 years. My specialty is software development and I’ve gone to professional conferences throughout my career and spoken at many of them. I’ve also organized a few of them. I find them valuable mainly for the ideas you get from presentations and from informal gatherings with peers and non-peers alike. On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into the trap of going because you went last year and finding after a while that there’s not that much new. This leads to distractions, boredom, and the kinds of excesses some… Read more »

Jake
Jake
7 years ago

These are great tips. I’ve never been to a professional conference, but I’d like to go to one in the next few years. We all know how important networking is nowadays and these conferences are a great way to get to know people.

Carla
Carla
7 years ago

When I had an ecommerce site, I used to go to Natural Products Expo West every year which was great for building my business and meeting people. Often I met people in person whom I already knew online so it was good to get a real face to a name. My first year was a bit overwhelming due to the fact that even at the beginning at the recession, you had to wade though 40K other people during that long weekend. There were tons of distractions: parties, concerts, food, booze, men(!) so you really have to plan well, get plenty… Read more »

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
7 years ago

Never eat a meal alone, either. I invite the restaurant host/hostess to invite any others with my conference badge to join me if I start out alone. You never know who you will meet, or what you will have the opportunity to learn. Or where it might lead!

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Great mention of TEDX. You can also find every TED talk given on the website! Cutting-edge stuff.

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina
7 years ago

I think conferences are very useful. I’m going to make it a goal to convince my manager to let me attend conferences this year that are related to my industry and have work reimburse the costs.

vivek gupta
vivek gupta
7 years ago

my first year was a bit overwhelming due to the fact that even at the beginning at the recession, you had to wade though 40K other people during that long weekend. There were tons of distractions: parties, concerts, food, booze, men(!) so you really have to plan well, get plenty of rest so that you can function the next day and beyond. Many people treat it like it was spring break so you really have to break away from that and focus on your business.
thanks foe sharing conference..

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