How to Make the Most of In-Person Conferences
“I’ve lost my social skills!” I texted to a friend while en route to my first in-person conference in four years. The workshop itself wasn’t new—I’d been to the same one every other year for the past decade. But between the last live one in 2018, the virtual one in 2020, and this one in 2022, I had learned to appreciate the convenience of online learning. No flights. No dress code. No interacting with others—the perfect environment for an introvert like me.
But 10 months after registering, I left my sweatpants and slippers at home and headed to the airport, eager to connect with old and new friends.
Virtual conferences aren’t going away—not everyone is comfortable traveling and spending time in meeting rooms surrounded by strangers. But in-person events are back, and when you’re ready to mingle with those who share a common interest, these tips can help you make the most of the experience.
Understand the Safety Protocols
After a series of lockdowns, fluctuating restrictions, variants, and other communicable illnesses, committing to a convention can be daunting. Before signing up, search the organization’s website to see what to expect when you arrive. Are you required to show proof of vaccination? Will masks be mandatory during sessions? Will you have access to medical care on-site?
“For the last four years, even prior to the pandemic, we had in-house physicians on the property,” says Tanya Philyaw, a senior meeting planner with Meeting Planners International (MPI). “If anyone felt bad, we sent them to the doctor who staffed the event.”
She points those concerned about her group’s safety to the protocol on their website. The “Know Before You Go” document has a Duty of Care section that includes: “While masks are not required to attend, please respect those who wish to continue to wear masks while among crowds.” It’s common sense but a good reminder: If you’re sick, stay home.
Practice Your Social Skills in Advance
You’ve committed to the conference, and now it’s time to put yourself out there. Social skills, like any other, take continuous effort. “It’s common for people to feel out of practice and uncomfortable,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. “We tend to personalize the discomfort instead of seeing it as a normal human reaction to vulnerability and uncertainty.”
She says we tell ourselves that we should know how to navigate our friendships as adults. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing, “I should have figured this out by now”—a common thread in her work and research on friendship. “For some of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to make new friends.”
Start by making eye contact while checking out at the grocery or during walks around your neighborhood. Initiate light conversations with a barista or meet a friend for lunch or after work. The goal is to feel more comfortable interacting with others and making friends by the time you arrive at the convention.
Contact Others Before You Leave Home
The organizers for the workshop I signed up for provided a list of attendees through Dropbox. Not all organizations make a list available—it depends on compliance issues and the size of the event. But if you can locate the names by checking the group’s website, reach out to others through social media. Philyaw recommends using LinkedIn. “Follow someone or send a message: ‘Hey, I’m going to the conference too. What do you want to get out of the event?’” she says.
“If, as an introvert, we go without planning and preparation and looking at who’s going to be there, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” says Matthew Pollard, author of the Introvert’s Edge series. Liking a few of the articles and posts of the people you’d like to meet can be helpful, he suggests.