Of course, none of this was really free. My company had paid a handsome conference fee, which my partner reluctantly agreed to. He said, "I knew it was one big party. So tell me, did you really learn anything?"
Luckily, I went to this conference prepared with a plan in place to maximize my experience. More important, I maximized my company's return on investment.
Most vendor conferences are quite similar. There is an agenda of sessions where you can learn about customer experiences with the vendor's products. At the beginning and end of the conference, there are keynote addresses made by executives from the vendor or from industry luminaries.
Conferences are now offering hands-on sessions where you can test drive a product or preview an upcoming release. Most of these shows also include an exhibit hall where you can peruse the wares of the vendors' partners. And of course, my favorite, the final-night party.
Whether you are preparing to attend an upcoming conference or perhaps you need to prove why attending can benefit your organization, having a plan to demonstrate a return on investment will be more than worth your while.
Just as if you were going to build a project plan, you need to create a schedule that will map out your conference agenda. There are many choices to make about how you will spend your time. At a minimum, the vendor will provide a master agenda that breaks down all options including keynotes, general sessions and workshops. A new trend is to offer an online scheduler that will allow you to build and print your own agenda by clicking through the scheduling options available.
Easy Choices, Hard Choices
Let's start with the easiest choices. The keynotes are usually the first morning and last afternoon of the conference. They are easy choices because they are the only option during that time slot. At the first keynote you can expect to learn about the state of the vendor from a high-level executive, but more important this is where they lay out the future direction of the company.
The second keynote most likely will be from a well-known executive or industry expert who will put the vendor's positioning in context with the where the rest of the industry is heading. You can expect the keynotes to be very positive and upbeat. The key is to look for core messages underneath the sugar coating and determine if the vendor's direction matches future requirements of your organization.
Now the challenging part of the scheduling begins. You will have choices to make between general sessions, work shops and networking meetings. Before you start scheduling, first make a prioritized list of everything you want to learn. Treat the conference as a chance to learn more about how others implemented the vendor's products, what pitfalls they avoided, what benefits they have gained and how you can enhance your own implementation to capitalize on what you ultimately learn.