Conferences Can Be Your ‘Rocky Mountain High’

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I didn’t know what to say. A colleague couldn’t believe what he had just heard from another experienced, senior-level exec. “I just don’t get how belonging to an association, or attending a conference, benefits our team.” I, too, was shocked.

Admittedly, professional development conferences usually go one of two ways:  They’re motivating and inspiring, or they tend toward an obligatory and boring rehash of content and experiences.

No question, they’re always expensive – to attend, and certainly to host. But if workplace culture and engagement are important variables to your leadership and team, conferences can provide the “high” necessary to keeping morale up and the team producing results.

A good conference will have you and your team immersed with colleagues who share similar passions or vocations; they re-energize you, network you, and you come BACK to work with knowledge you can apply. Given how tight resources are for many individuals and organizations, it does force you to choose your development opportunities wisely.

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I just returned from a “Rocky Mountain High” of a conference in Denver, Colo., and it got me thinking about what differentiates good conferences from bad ones, and why I loved many elements of this one. (And no, this has nothing to do with Colorado’s new marijuana laws, although that got me thinking, too…just kidding.)

CASE

A leader-colleague and I were invited to keynote at a cleverly themed conference called “Higher Expectations,” hosted by an organization called CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. CASE is divided into districts, or regions, and like the other seven districts worldwide, CASE VI represents professionals across alumni relations, communications, development and marketing from colleges and universities in eight states. (I work at one of the member-institutions, Wartburg College.) This annual conference, like other district events, was part of CASE’s greater mission to educate and develop more than 64,000 professionals across 3,400 organizations in 70 countries.

So, why am I still blown away by this particular conference, and how might those reasons help you decide whether you or your team should attend yours? Here are five things to think about:

1. Getting There & Getting Settled: In this particular case, the venue and location were outstanding: the Sheraton Downtown Denver on the historic 16th Street Pedestrian Mall. This hotel was comfortable and featured true pros at hosting meetings; their staff truly knew how to tend to their guests. They also featured great meeting and technical support for all who attended. Remember the key to good real estate? “Location, location, location!”

2. Getting Connected: CASE understood the value of human contact and networking, including the use of social media beforehand to build anticipation and excitement. Many of us were connected long before we arrived. Pardon the pun, but “higher expectations” is what we all had on our minds by the time the conference rolled around. Interestingly enough, this particular conference ended up with near-record attendance as a result of online and social media pre-conference efforts.

3. Getting It Together: The conference committee and chair were exceptional, and the organization’s board was extremely supportive and “present” throughout.  This conference was about good content, top exhibitors, well-organized sessions, engaged/approachable speakers, and good entertainment. Socializing in- and outside the conference was encouraged, a “conference key”!

Kent

4. Getting Content: Quality speakers and plenary session leaders were selected early on. I knew well in advance I would be working with other speakers like Kent Stock and John Hill, and we networked beforehand, in addition to having access to many great sessions led by others, again, all closely connected to our careers. Who wouldn’t want to hear from and network with a former executive from LinkedIn, now with Techstars, or an author and subject of a great baseball movie called “The Final Season?” (Or in my case, some weird-looking professor from Iowa dressed in an Aloha shirt?)

5. Getting the Mix Right: The sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors were right for this conference, and all were relatively involved and engaged at points – it made sense for them to be there, and they were all allowed their “moment in the sun” when the time was right. Interacting with exhibitors was actually fun and rewarding.

People find their own “Rocky Mountain High” at professional development conferences for a variety of reasons; the keys are selecting the right conference and then actively participating! Know this, it’s important for you and your team to expand your thinking and meet new people in an effort to stay energized and productive in whatever it is you do. Again, you’re out of touch if you’re not clear how such development opportunities might impact your culture and engagement levels.

So go, work hard, relax some, and have fun! And instead of worrying about “cost,” perhaps think about it differently than the CEO I mentioned early on. You just might be overheard saying, I love belonging to this association and attending our annual conference; this was a great investment and a win-win for all of us!”

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