Making the Most of a Professional Conference

Posted on November 26, 2017

AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Amarillo, Texas shares her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview.

On the heels of another successful American Planning Association (APA) Texas chapter conference, I feel compelled to write about things to keep in mind when attending a conference geared towards planning and shaping communities.
Virtually all local government professionals, at some point in their career, attend conferences, training sessions, workshops, or networking events. This is true whether your focus is city management, planning, finance, environmental health, or any other area.  

After fifteen years of going to a multitude of these events, I want to share a few takeaways that I have come to realize over time – and that I wish I had figured out sooner!

Here are my top five suggestions:

  1. Think creatively about resources. Too often, after sitting through a session on a fantastic project, it is tempting to think, “That was great, but realistically, we don’t have the resources to do that where I work.”  Don’t fall into that trap. Think big! Perhaps that exact project or approach is not feasible for your community, but that does not mean there are no opportunities to start something innovative. Is there technology that can help your organization map, monitor, track, or research that idea? Are there partnerships that can capitalize your resources to make a project realistic? Perhaps there are organizations, universities, or industries/groups that would be willing to assist.
  2. Focus on the elements and concepts. The solution for your community does not have to look like the solution for another. There are principles and best practices every city, town, village, or borough can learn from. Rather than simply getting the training and continuing education, jot down elements or concepts that could be refined and reimagined in your organization. Most importantly, note any questions or ideas as they come to you – remember that you can always build on that later, but no one remembers the content of an entire event after the fact.
  3. Scope out the offerings in advance. I’m not just telling you this because I’m a planner. Think about everything out there to partake in during the event, and for heaven’s sake, don’t overthink it! Select sessions that appeal to you right away, rather than trying to discern what will be most useful. After all, until you sit through a session, you won’t know for certain how well the description matches the content. Secondly, if it is not interesting subject matter for you, there will not be much benefit. Trust your gut and entertain your sensibilities.
  4. Be strategic and make connections. Like it or not, hiding out in the crowd will not reap dividends for your professional persona. Be friendly, introduce yourself to others. Think ahead about specific industry leaders that you want to be sure to connect with at the event, and plan to make that happen. Whether your preference is to share a business card, your Twitter handle, or your LinkedIn profile makes no difference. What does matter is that you make connections, and that you follow up with those connections post-event. Local government superstars are known and know others, and always seek out ways to connect others while staying in touch.
  5. Ask questions. The phrase, “there are no stupid questions” applies tenfold here. Pose questions to session speakers and take advantage of the opportunity. Use social media to poll or ask questions of others using the event hashtag. Take advantage of mixers and receptions, and inquire about the issues others are facing. Follow up post-conference with the connections you have made – if they do not have the answer, chances are they know someone who will – and can introduce you.

While it is tempting to kick back and relax while out of town for a training event, stay focused. You can enjoy your experience and get the most out of it. After all, if you return to work uninspired, you’re doing it wrong.
I also want to hear your best advice for professionals going to these events. What have you learned?  

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