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.
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.
Based on these newly minted priorities, you can now begin piecing together a schedule.
General sessions are the bulk of the conference and are routinely divided into multiple tracks or themes. The tracks are meant to help you decide which sessions best match your interests. A systems administration track might have a session on configuring a wireless environment, whereas a technical management track would have a session on calculating total cost of ownership of a wireless implementation.
Technical workshops are becoming more common. This is your chance to participate in a training-like atmosphere where you can perform hands-on activities with existing or new products. Use this opportunity to obtain more detailed information about how to code and configure the product with regard to your organization's environment. Workshops can have multiple vendor engineers available to answer your questions (which you smartly wrote down prior to the conference). Dealing directly with the vendor experts beats calling their help desk and talking to a new employee who was just trained last week!
Understanding the Ecosystem
The exhibit hall is where vendor partners have paid for a booth to display their products. Think of the conference vendor as the whale shark and the partners as the tiny fish who feed off them. The tiny fish (partners) drive bigger fish (more business) to the whale shark (vendor). It is worthwhile for you to explore this ecosystem, usually during an opening-night session or during lunch. There are many ancillary products that enhance or fill gaps in a vendor's product features. You just may discover a partner product that resolves a problem from your prioritized list.
The potentially biggest benefit to be gained from a conference is networking. You are not doing yourself any favors if you do not interact with fellow attendees. These people are your peers who are most likely dealing with similar issues with the vendor's products. Make it a goal to return from the conference with at least three new contacts. These contacts will become alternative problem-solving resources as issues arise in the future.
Which leads me to the final-night party. This is meant to be a networking event. Sure you can blow off some steam and have a good time, but your primary focus should be to meet folks. Everyone there has some common experiences so conversations should not be hard to come by. Just lead with "What did you get out of this conference?" or "Wasn't the keynote great (or boring)?" If all else fails, try "Can I get you another drink?" After all, it is free, right?