6 Ways to Tell If a Business Conference Is Worth Your Time

Last Updated Jun 3, 2011 4:25 PM EDT

I recently attended a business conference and from the minute the conference ended, I started asking myself why I had spent the time and money to attend. The conference had all the right pieces that typically make a successful conference -- big name speakers, a fabulous location, a fancy resort, and lots of like-minded people from similar industries. So why did I leave with a sense that I would have been better off just staying at home?

I realized that I had accepted the invitation without fully thinking through whether the event would be worth my time. I flew halfway across the country, lost three days in the office, and had to incur the cost of a plane ticket and three nights in a hotel. All for not much in return.

In order to not repeat this mistake again, I've laid out the six questions I'm going to ask myself before I commit to another corporate conference.

1. Who will you meet at this conference?
Will you find potential career contacts, new clients, new products, or innovations that could make your firm more efficient or more profitable? The best conferences provide plenty of time for networking at receptions, happy hours, and mixers. Some conferences will even make introductions for you before the conference begins. If the agenda shows little time for networking opportunities, be skeptical.

2. Will you learn something?
Good speakers can teach you about industries, opportunities or trends that you would never know about otherwise. Or they can stimulate your thinking in new ways and help get your creative juices flowing.

Conferences that seem to only offer a bunch of big name speakers raise a red flag for me. Recently, a conference in my area featured Bill Cosby, Laura Bush and Colin Powell all speaking at the same event. Though I'm sure they are all great speakers, what are these three disparate "celebrities" really going to teach me about how to improve my business?

The best speakers at events are often ones that might not necessarily grab the biggest headlines. Politicians, CEOs, athletes, and movie stars might get people excited, but they rarely leave audiences with the most concrete knowledge. I look at the speakers just below the headliners -- they are more likely to impart real knowledge and advice that will be most helpful.

3. Will you gain a new skill or certification?
Many conferences are geared around teaching a particular skill or offering certification to perform a particular procedure. This is most often the case in the healthcare field where doctors, dentists, or physical therapists spend a weekend learning a new procedure. If you're going to refresh your skills or learnsomething new that will help improve your bottom line and give you an advantage over your competition, go.

4. What are the intangible benefits of going?
Let's be honest -- many people use conferences as an excuse to play golf, relax by the pool, or hit the ski slopes in some fabulous location. But just because you are having fun while at a conference doesn't mean you or your team won't benefit.

Getting out of the office can promote new thinking and creativity. I know that when I've gathered with co-workers in one of these settings, our meetings seem to be much more insightful and productive than if we were all sitting in the office. Plus, riding in a golf cart together or sitting on a ski lift with a colleague can create bonding time and teambuilding without having to resort to trust falls or cheesy icebreaking exercises.

5. What is my opportunity cost if I don't attend?
Will your competition gain an advantage because you weren't there representing your product or service? Will this be the year that your dream client shows up and you won't be there to make the deal? Will all of your colleagues be talking about how much better this year's conference was than last year's?

Consider, too, the opportunity cost in the other direction. What are you going to miss by being out of the office for a few days? What will you not be able to accomplish due to your attendance at the conference? Will you miss key events at home with family or friends? A simple cost-benefit analysis works for me every time.

6. What will attending this conference do for your bottom line?
Ultimately, it all comes down to the bottom line. The most important question to ask when considering if you or your team should attend a conference is, will it have a positive impact on your bottom line. If there's no connection -- however distant -- to your bottom line, what's the point?

What criteria do you use when deciding to attend a conference?

Flickr photo courtesy of boellstiftung, CC 2.0

  • Cameron Cushman

    Cameron Cushman is a Senior Analyst at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation where he leads the Office of the President and works closely with the President and CEO, Carl Schramm. In this capacity, Cushman directs the Foundation's efforts to educate policymakers about the importance of entrepreneurs as job creators.

    Prior to joining Kauffman, Cushman served in the U.S. Department of Commerce's Market Access and Compliance division of the International Trade Administration. At Commerce, Cushman led the effort that launched the website www.entrepreneurship.gov. Prior to joining the Department of Commerce, Cushman served in the Domestic Policy Council and the Office of Presidential Correspondence at The White House.