10 ways to maximize your higher education conference experience

We’re in full higher education conference season, and university and college professionals are getting ready to attend large and smaller events to share big ideas, network, and have a little fun.

Many higher education conferences have already taken place, but there are plenty more coming up this side of the New Year.

Whether you’re learning from top leaders in higher education, making new connections, getting a little more professional visibility, finding new job opportunities, sharing winning strategies with peers, or hearing about the latest tactics and tools in the sector, conferences are great for professional and personal development.

But they can also be a little overwhelming.

Here are our tips for making the most of the conference experience while retaining your sanity.

1. Go in with a plan:

Whether it’s a small, intimate event with a few dozen participants or a supercharged conference with thousands of people at it, we always go in with a plan.

Create your business case and get approval early, so you can take advantage of early bird discounts for registration and hotel bookings. The longer you wait, the more expensive the hotel room is likely to be. 
Networking is tough, but that has to be part of the plan. We love the spontaneity of chatting to people at lunch or while queuing for coffee.

make a plan for the higher education conferenceMake a plan before you head out to your higher education conference this year

But to get the most out of our conference experience, we make it a point to meet some speakers, presenters, clients, and stakeholders. We check out the program and research beforehand to determine who’s on our top list.

Next, we start practising our elevator pitch: many conversations begin with “What do you do?” or “Why did you decide to come to the conference?” as ice-breakers, and we like to be ready with an answer.

Then, if you’ve had to build a business case to attend your higher education conference, you’ll want to start thinking about how to show a Return On Investment (ROI). Consider why you wanted to attend: what are your goals for the conference? How will you achieve them?

2. Present or volunteer

A great way to make the most of the experience is actually to participate in it. Alone or with your organization, consider volunteering for the event in some way.

This could be by hosting a social night, setting up a workshop, offering to facilitate a session, or serving on the committee.

3. Plan your schedule

Planning your schedule is key to a good experience. We make sure we have a conference plan of what we’re attending so we can dart over to the next session and get a good seat, right up front.
We highly recommend attending the keynote address and closing presentation at large conferences.

Then, we typically target the key sessions or speakers we really don’t want to miss, followed by the “nice-to-have” ones.

Aim for variety. For example, we try to balance new learnings for our specific interests with broader updates on what challenges the higher education community is facing.

Attend smaller workshops to particpate in higher education conferences

Smaller, more intimate breakout sessions or workshops often offer excellent opportunities to network and gain specific knowledge or build new skills.

FOMO is real, people. But fight the urge to try to be everywhere.

As you can’t be in two places at the same time, why not tag-team it with someone else for concurrent sessions and trade notes after the sessions?

When possible, we try to schedule some breaks in between to catch our breath, reflect on what we’ve learned, and prepare for the next session.

What if a session isn’t what you thought it would be? Don’t let guilt stop you from leaving quietly—you’ve invested in the conference, and it’s ok to skip a session if you’re not loving it.

If you feel too awkward leaving, use the session as an opportunity to improve your own presentation skills by studying the speaker’s presentation, slides, or delivery method.

4. Build connections

We don’t love the word ‘networking.’ For us, it’s about building authentic connections. They’re the ones that last, and the ones that have value.

One of the most important benefits of going to conferences is meeting kindred spirits, peers with whom you relate, and experts you can learn from.

Expanding your network with new solid relationships can help you solve problems, share insights, and be your sounding board for new ideas.

Speakers and delegates are often excited to be there and happy to speak to new people.

chat with people over coffee at higher ed conferencesTake every opportunity during breaks to chat with other attendees, even while waiting in line for coffee!

We get it, it’s hard to approach people (especially after the pandemic), but you’d be surprised just how many people feel the same way and are just waiting for someone to strike up a conversation.

So here are our tips for breaking the ice:

  • Ask your network ahead of the event if they’ll be attending and organize to meet there.
  • Email a speaker or workshop organizer you’d really like to meet ahead of the conference and see if you can offer them a 10-minute coffee to discuss something you both have in common.
  • Be brave. Don’t wait for people to come to you. Aim to speak to one new person in every session.
  • Strike up a conversation whenever you get a chance: while waiting in line for coffee, at the vendor stalls, with the people sitting next to you.
  • At lunch, find someone who’s hanging around looking for a place to sit and ask to join them or offer them a seat next to you.
  • Pose questions in smaller workshops or sessions—that will make you stand out. Often, people will come and chat with you afterward.
  • Go to social events, which are friendly and offer a more relaxed way to meet people. 

How do you break the ice? Don’t force it, just let it happen naturally. Introduce yourself, ask about their work, or what they thought of the last speaker. Ask them why they decided to choose this conference, or which sessions they think will be good (you can ask if they want to tag team with you).

Getting on well with someone? Get a photo together and tag each other and the conference on social media.

5. Participate in the conversation

There’s conversation at the conference, and there’s conversation about the conference. The latter usually takes place on social media, Twitter and LinkedIn (still) being the usual suspects.

  • Many conferences will list their event on LinkedIn, so join the Event there; if you see second or third-level connections, ask your direct connection for an introduction.
  • Check out the conference hashtag on Twitter.
  • Many conferences are also on Slack, so join the workspace there. 

Add your voice to the conversation with the conference hashtag:

  • Take pictures with other people and post them with the conference hashtag and @ mentions.
  • Summarize some of the insights from a presenter or session.
  • Post something about your surroundings, the convention space, or the city.
  • Tweet about the food and coffee.
  • Post a quote from a presenter.
  • Share your thoughts on a session’s key takeaways.

Of course, you can also participate in person: speak up in workshops, in break-out rooms, chat to other attendees in person.

6. Visit exhibitors

Here’s something we bet you didn’t know. Some of the best conversations happen at the equivalent of the ‘water coolers’: the conference exhibitor hall.

At every conference, there’s time set aside for attendees to visit sponsors and exhibitors, and it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Visit the relevant ones, and you’ll not only bump into attendees who probably have similar interests but also meet CEOs, Sales & Marketing Directors, and decision-makers who can help solve a higher ed challenge you may be facing with a bespoke solution.

Exhibitors and sponsors are usually well clued-in to recent technological advances and developments, so it’s a great way to get updated on higher education sector news.

Many suppliers offer similar services, and sometimes it really is down to people, so meeting them face-to-face can give you a natural feeling of what it would be like working with them.

7. Show the newbies the ropes

Some of the larger conferences have badges or events organized for newbies—people who are maybe new to higher education or who haven’t attended many conferences before and don’t know what to expect.

Volunteer at a higher education conference

Underrepresented communities, too, may not be entirely comfortable at times. You can offer to host or lead affinity or group events if you’re part of that community.

You can meet new people by offering to help them, whether it’s finding their way to the next session or simply getting coffee with them so they’re not on their own.

Show newbies the ropes: how to take notes, encourage them to speak up and participate, introduce them to people you’ve already met, and help make it a welcoming and safe place for them.

8. Follow-up after the conference

Have you met someone interesting? Had some good conversations and connected on similar challenges or issues?

Check out the conference hashtags and see what’s been posted about it, from any of the connections you made.

Follow up on social media: send them a message telling them you’ve enjoyed meeting them and would love to continue the conversation. Personalize the message based on your conversations with the person. We think it’s best to do this within 3 days of attending an event.

Why not also drop a line to your line manager to thank them for sending you and share some of the insights you’ve had?

After a conference, and while it’s still fresh in our minds, we get together to debrief about what we’ve learned. We organize our notes into a presentation that we share with our wider team. Some insights take time to trickle down into action, but that’s also part of the process.  

9. Practice self care

Take care of yourself at your higher education conferenceWe’re big on this one. Conferences can be pretty exciting but also exhausting, so self-care is really important.

These tips above will hopefully help you prepare in advance with a framework that you can refine as you go.

Here are some of the things we do for physical and mental wellbeing:

  • Book the conference hotel, so you can take small breaks in your room in between events.
  • Recognize that your brain’s in overdrive, and will need time to process everythign you’re learning.
  • Take the time to stretch and walk about afte every session.
  • Make the most of the hotel gym or plan to go for a walk in the morning or at the end of the day. Some conferences will set up running groups who get together in the morning for a run before the conference starts for the day.
  • Imposter syndrome is real. Recognizing this and that many people feel it around you may make you more comfortable asking that question or speaking to people.
  • Set up your OOO rules for your inbox: Let your organization know you’re at a conference, and stop checking emails. Try to be in the moment; the emails will wait until you’re back in the office.
  • Put away the phone. If you’re using it as a crutch to avoid networking, just look around and you’ll find others waiting to catch someone’s eye, eager to network themselves.
  • Dress with layers; it can be hot or cold in conference rooms.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, you’ll be in them all day.
  • Eat well, even if you need to leave the convention center to get the right food. Drink plenty of water.
  • Sleep well, even if it means you’ll miss some late-night fun or early-morning session.

Take care of yourself at your higher education conference

10. Have a little guilt-free fun

Conferences are in great locations for a reason: organizers want you to have a great experience.

Balance your professional conference experience with a bit of playtime with your new connections, exploring the city or grabbing some drinks in the evening.

Some of the best conversations happen outside the sessions. We always try to take advantage of being in a new place, take in local culture, and bond over good dinners.

It’s ok to take breaks, and it’s ok to have a little fun—that’s all part of the experience. 

We hope this post helps you truly enjoy your conferences this year.

Are you going to any higher education conferences this year? Share some tips with us on social media.

P.S. We’ll be at HighEdWeb in Little Rock, EDUCAUSE in Denver, and at the AMA Symposium for Higher Education in National Arbor this year.

Come by & say hello!