Attending a major nursing conference can provide professional growth opportunities. Follow these 12 tips to have a successful conference experience.
1. Plan early. Do some preplanning before your trip and take advantage of early discounts. Many conferences offer early registration leading to significant financial savings. Early travel planning can ensure the best choices and costs for flights and hotel accommodations.
2. Review the conference schedule. Most conferences will publish a preliminary schedule. Review this schedule before your trip. It will help with travel planning and provide information about conference topics, times, speakers, sessions, and free time.
3. Pick up registration materials upon arrival. Once you arrive at the conference site find the registration area and check in. Usually you will receive conference materials including schedules, session room locations, a name tag, and other conference related information. Quickly review these materials to get an overview of the planned activities and their location.
4. Attend the major sessions. Conferences typically have standard formats and forums. There are usually three kinds of sessions: major sessions, breakout sessions, and informal self-paced sessions. The major or plenary sessions are opportunities for all conference participants to assemble together to hear an expert speaker or conduct group business. These sessions can occur at the beginning of the conference (opening sessions), during the conference (keynote), or at the end of the conference (closing sessions). The sessions usually take place in a large room that can accommodate all conference participants. There may or may not be opportunities for audience participation. Usually the conference planners will provide an overview of the session and “rules” for the audience. Major session topics will usually have broad audience appeal and nationally recognized speakers.
5. Select the best breakout sessions. The breakout sessions usually consist of multiple concurrent sessions attended by a small portion of the audience. Typically attendees will need to select a concurrent session of interest from a selection of options. Choose a topic of interest for your personal and professional needs. These sessions are usually shorter, more informal, and may allow for audience participation and questioning.
6. Participate in self-paced sessions. Self-paced sessions provide time for attendees to engage in more informal learning. These sessions can include viewing poster displays created by peers, visiting exhibitors’ booths, or viewing other demonstrations. Self-paced sessions provide opportunities to get additional information about products and services at your own pace. Plan time to read materials and talk with the presenters. Exhibitors may include recruiters, product distributors, professional organizations, publishers or others.
7. Follow conference etiquette. Review the schedule, plan your activities, and take advantage of the rich learning opportunities. Arrive at the session early to prevent disruptions. Avoid leaving sessions early. If you do need to leave early, plan to sit in an aisle seat or exit row. Turn off cell phone ringers.
8. Take notes. Keep a list of new ideas or things to try later. Frequently conference organizers will provide a booklet of conference proceedings that include session abstracts, PowerPoint slides, or handouts that presenters will use. This is a good place to take notes during conference sessions. If a proceeding booklet is not provided, gather any handouts that might be distributed during the session.
9. Network. Another aspect of conference participation involves networking during the unstructured time. Wear your name badge during the conference so others can identify you. Take advantage of meals, refreshment breaks, and time before and after sessions to network with other conference attendees. Don’t eat meals alone. Use basic conversational small talk during these times. Use this time to get to know colleagues, establish new professional contacts, and share professional business cards to aid networking after the conference.
10. Complete evaluations. Complete conference evaluations to obtain continuing education credits (if available) while providing valuable feedback for the presenters and conference planners. Constructive suggestions for methods to improve the conference are welcome.
11. Be street smart. Follow basic safety travel tips such as keeping your hotel doors locked and not leaving valuable items unattended. Remove your name badge when outside the conference area.
12. Dress appropriately. Conference room temperature can vary, so dress in layers, with a light jacket or sweater that can be removed if needed. Appropriate professional dress is expected. Tight clothes, revealing necklines, tank tops, short pants, and flip-flops are not acceptable. Mix and match outfits that are comfortable, stylish, and pack well.
Bonus tip: Don’t forget to have some fun. Because many conferences occur in exciting cities, conference planners will schedule some free time for you to enjoy the local tourist, cultural, and shopping opportunities. Take time to appreciate the local attractions but do so during non-conference time. Respect speakers by attending the presentations rather than skipping sessions. Enjoy the city and activities in the evening.
Teresa Shellenbarger is a Professor, Department of Nursing and Allied Health Professions, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, PA.
Pagana KD. The Nurse’s Etiquette Advantage. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau International; 2008.