by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | July 25, 2013

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a conference as just an attendee. By that I mean I had no planning responsibility, and it wasn’t a meetings industry program. I was attending simply because the subject matter was compelling to me for reasons other than my profession.
But I can’t turn off my professional curiosity. And as it turned out, I learned a lot about attending conferences by taking on the experience myself, especially because it wasn't a meetings industry event. Experiencing meeting attendance from the other side was a potent reminder of the value of certain basics. I realized there are lessons about meetings management that can be lost in our years of experience, and sometimes we are well-served by reminders of the fundamentals. For example:
Know your audience. This is about as basic as it gets when it comes to understanding meetings management, and yet we’ve all made choices that are contrary to it. At this particular conference, a number of attendees were likely to be introverted to the point where networking might be difficult or even unwelcome. That’s clearly different from meetings industry events, and likely different from most typical conferences. One of the things the conference organizers did in response to this knowledge of their group was to create “Interaction Badges” that were color-coded, indicating the level of interaction with which the wearer would be comfortable. It was a clever response to an unusual situation, and it was contrary to conventional planning wisdom that leans toward promoting the networking rather than toning it down.
Content is everything. This event had no entertainment components, and all meals were on our own. The meeting environment was generally quiet and sedate. But the session content was fabulous: progressive, informative and thought-provoking. There probably wasn’t a lot of off-site buzz produced by the attendees’ experiences since there were no performances to tweet about or beautifully plated meals to Instagram. But I left that conference feeling as though my time had been well spent, I had learned a lot, and I had been fully engaged. Isn’t that the gold standard? Of course, sometimes the meals and entertainment are necessary for a variety of good reasons. But in this case, I was reminded that bigger and brighter doesn’t always mean better.
There are no stupid questions. We meeting professionals sometimes feel we get asked the same things, over and over again. “Where’s the bathroom?,” “Which way to meeting room 2A?,” etc.  What I learned was that not having pre-conference inspections and planning time made a huge difference in my ability to navigate the space. I can generally find my way around meeting rooms or a convention center, but I was surprised at how confusing it could seem at times after I had absorbed so much information in the sessions. I developed a new empathy for the attendees who ask these questions that seem to have such obvious answers. And finding information in the program is a lot harder when I’m not the one editing the document and sending it to the printer.
When was the last time you attended a conference you weren’t managing, one that was also completely removed from the meetings industry? I’d love to hear what the experience taught you. Please comment below, or via email to