I’ve organized my fair share of industry conferences and attended even more. And on either side, my experience has been a mixed bag — of the branded tote variety.

Sometimes you come away with meaningful connections made and lessons learned. Other times, you just get another lanyard.

Cool the Conference Email

You know the kind of sub-par experiences I’m talking about: Being on the attendee side of an over marketed small event.

Frantically searching for — and failing to find — the organizations and people you came to see and meet.

Or mass emails bombarding you — before, during, and after the conference — with information and requests that have no relevance to your work.

But still, the benefits of conferences are impossible to ignore. They’re one of the few business tools that provide face-to-face interaction and serendipitous discovery, making it all the more important to get them right, despite the challenges.

Conference Organizer to Strategic Matchmaker

To maximize the benefits and minimize the bad experiences, event organizers should try thinking of themselves as the strategic matchmakers of the business world.

That starts with asking attendees what kind of business they represent and what kind of people they’re interested in meeting. Then connect them with people they will actually want to connect with.

Ask people what their goals are. What are they hoping to learn? And then create the space where they can make it happen, even if that means making the event smaller.

Lobby Conference and Allen & Company offer one example of this model. They might be exclusive, white glove affairs, but people tend to get what they hope to get out of them in part because the organizers see their role as partnership developers, not party planners.

Pay Attention to Sponsors

Similarly, conference organizers would find more success if they approached each sponsorship with the attention of a business deal, rather than a pre-packaged sale.

For instance, if organizers were willing to negotiate and cater to the needs of their sponsors, they might be surprised by how many of us would leap at targeted marketing opportunities that fit our niche.

I, for one, would much rather host an intimate happy hour for a thoughtfully curated group than have my logo posted at the registration table.

Understand Your Motive to Attend

But here’s the rub. Even if organizers do their part, that still won’t be enough. Attendees are on the hook, too.

Too few of us ask the most basic question: is it really worth it?

We can all think of examples of big — BIG! — conferences that draw attention and crowds in the way black holes draw in all light and matter.

But too often, big conferences build unwarranted FOMO — fear of missing out. That’s why we need to replace FOMO with FOWT—fear of wasting time.

No matter how big a conference is, or how many people are talking about it, if the conference can’t meet your business needs or learning agenda, it’s not worth your time.

Learning Opportunities

Amazing Experiential Learning

That doesn’t mean you should attend conferences only in your specific field. Conferences like SXSW, for example, work well because they bring a diversity of people and fields to one place.

Closer to home: a few of my Foundational Capital colleagues went to VidCon for the first time earlier this year.

Amid the throngs of tweens crowding around YouTube stars, we actually learned more about what young people are interested in than at any other recent conference we’ve attended — and far more than we could have learned from just a dataset or dashboard.

Conferences, done well and well chosen, provide amazing experiential learning.

Temper Your Expectations

But don’t waste time looking for things that aren’t there, either. It’s important to put yourself in the organizers’ shoes and keep your expectations in line with reality.

Not every concert can be Coachella. If you go to AdWeek for something other than digital marketing, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

If you go to CES to make deep connections with people, rather than get exposure to a broad range of innovations, you may leave unhappy.

Finally, once you get to a conference, engage!

I admit it — I’m guilty of speaking and running. But I’m all too aware that it doesn’t really help anyone, especially me, the speaker.

When I take the time to prepare for a conference, I want to get the most out of it. And that has to include gathering feedback on my ideas, listening to others share their ideas, and connecting with people who are also there.

Whether you’re organizing the conference, speaking at it, or along for the ride, know that you can be the difference between a mediocre event and a meaningful experience.

Title image by Ezra Jeffrey

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.