How to Conference Like a Pro: What Would Arlene Say?

13 min read
March 29, 2018

Conferences can be so much fun. They’re a place to learn, network, grow, come up with life-changing ideas, and, of course, grab some awesome swag bags. But for some, conferences are more a source of stress than enjoyment. There are so many factors to consider. How do I choose which ones to attend (have you seen how many conferences the financial planning community has this year?!)? How do I make the most of my experience once I get there (I can’t possibly attend every breakout session!)? How do I stay on budget (wait, it’s going to cost how much?!)? Luckily, I have some tips and tricks for tackling conference season so you too can be someone who handles conferences like a total pro.

Pick Them Early

It’s good practice to pick your conferences as early as possible in the year before conference season hits full swing in the summer and fall. This helps you lock in your travel schedule for the year and save some cash with the early registration discounts. I’m a sucker for a good discount.

Looking beyond the logistical benefits of making your selections early on, I think it’s also an excellent way to set some intentional goals for your practice. It helps you to look ahead, decide what ways you want to develop personally and professionally, and align your conference choices accordingly.

Where to Go

In the interest of full disclosure, I live and die by Kitces’ conference recommendations each year. They’re always amazing and serve as a great jumping-off point. I’m sure there are other recommendation lists available, but his are by far my favorite.

They change a little bit from year to year, so you should look at a few of them to get an idea of which conferences are consistently amazing and which ones may be new to the stage. For example, the 2017 and 2018 recommendations are very different. Personally, I found the conferences on the 2017 list resonated with me more. Keep in mind, your goals and needs are unique. So find a conference (or a list of recommendations) that speaks to you; avoid registering for a bunch of conferences that may or may not have a positive impact on your business.

Before you can decide where you want to go, you need to decide what your goals are. They can be completely conference-driven, or you can look to a conference’s material to boost you toward a goal you already have. A conference-driven goal might be networking with the financial planning community. A non-conference-driven goal might be to learn more about practice management, in which case you need to find a conference to support that goal.

You can have more than one goal for each year, but it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. Typically I recommend people have one consistent goal. Better yet, stick to one theme. This means that many different micro-goals can fall under your theme’s umbrella, and you can find conferences to support them.

Finally, don’t just do what the cool kids are doing. For example, I adore FinCon. More than you could possibly know. But I haven’t gone the last few years. Why? It doesn’t really support any of my professional goals. I’m not a huge blogger or podcaster, I’m not looking for people to fill those roles in my marketing world, and I’m more plugged into the “coaching” side of planning, so it doesn’t really hit my sweet spot.

Still, every year I get major FOMO when I don’t attend. I ease my overwhelming “bummed out” feeling by participating in online discussions about the conference and wholeheartedly recommending it to financial planners who want to learn more about content marketing or who want to plug themselves into the personal finance space a little bit more. The network is phenomenal and the learning opportunities abound. For many people it’s a “can’t miss,” but I eventually had to admit to myself that it wasn’t the best use of my time.

Of course, you always reserve the right to change your mind about whether or not a conference is a good fit for you. I’d love to attend FinCon again someday! Right now it just doesn’t make sense for my professional goals. Make sure your conferences are lining up with your goals. And if you feel like missing one is in your best interest? Don’t be afraid to put it on next year’s roster. It might be a better fit for you then.

Consider All the Factors

You can’t pick a conference based on positive reviews alone. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. You have to consider every piece of the puzzle. Remember: this is a big investment in your business. You’re not only spending a lot of money to attend, you’re taking time off to work on your business rather than in it. That should be motivation enough to make the time spent worthwhile!

What’s Going On?

The first thing you should research when debating between several conferences is simple: what’s going on at that conference? Start with the conference’s theme, or vibe. Are they “everyone’s conference”? Are they gearing sessions and marketing materials toward a younger crowd à la NexGen’s Gathering? Know what you’re walking into and whether or not their messaging resonates with you. 

Next, dig a little deeper by checking out the conference’s keynote speakers and breakout sessions. If a conference has someone you’re dying to see—go! You may not get the same opportunity twice and it will be so worth it. And here’s a helpful hint: if you’re headed to a conference with a speaker you have to see, prioritize that time. I once attended a conference where the Simon Sinek was the keynote speaker… and I completely missed it. Admittedly, I was working. But I should have snuck away to see his talk. I regret it to this day.

Finally, take a look at what content tracks the conference offers. XYPN LIVE for example, has several tracks for advisors at all different stages in their practices. FinCon also has different tracks, including one that’s advisor-specific. Knowing what you’re getting into helps you plan your time wisely and make the most of the conference you’re attending. It also helps you rule out conferences that don’t have a track that meets your goals or “theme” for the year.

Pricing Matters

If we all had unlimited time and money, we could go to ALL of the conferences. Sadly, this isn’t a reality. We have to pick and choose, and sometimes that’s a good thing. You don’t want to blow your conference budget for the year because you couldn’t hone in on the one or two events that were going to have the most positive impact on your practice. You’ll also appreciate the conferences you do choose to attend that much more if you know they made the final cut after looking at several options.

I encourage you to look at the overall price for each conference you’re planning to attend and get creative. Don’t be afraid to look at the price of registration, hotel, and airfare. Then sub out variables to see if you can fit it into your budget. Maybe you rent an AirBnB to save money on your stay. You could also look at driving to a nearby conference if the price of a plane ticket is what’s pushing you over the edge.

Location, Location, Location

That’s right—I shamelessly take location into account when I’m conference-hunting. If it’s somewhere I want to go, I’ll be much more comfortable spending the money to attend. In some cases, the location might be a killer vacation spot (I love anywhere with awesome biking or skiing). But it could also be close to relatives, which would dovetail nicely into a family visit (and add additional cost savings if you can crash with them).

Location also matters because some places are just plain cheaper than others. A conference in California or Orlando will be more expensive to attend than one in St. Louis. However, if a conference is being held in a big “hub” city, you might be able to score a deal on a cheap plane ticket, and that could make it worth it!

Check Your Calendar

Look at your calendar ahead of time so that you don’t drive yourself crazy with back-to-back trips or by overbooking an already hectic time of year. For example, if you know you’re onboarding several people in the next month or two, you may want to skip conferences during that window to save yourself a headache and be able to engage in the client experience. Your calendar can have personal motivations, too. Maybe you do want to attend a conference somewhere sunny right before your anniversary because your partner wants to tag along and make a mini-vacation out of it. Either way, peruse your calendar ahead of time to make arrangements.

Stick to Your Budget

Set a budget and stick to it. That’s a lot easier said than done because there are so many amazing conferences you could attend. If there are multiple conferences you want to attend and it’s not in the budget to attend them all, alternate! Go every other year to trade off between two favorites, or leave one year open for discovering new conferences then return to an old standby the next.

Prepare Ahead of Time

If one thing is true about conferences, it’s that they get busy. There’s so much going on and so many people to meet with, you need to have a game plan ahead of time to keep yourself sane. Many people tease me because I tend to be everywhere at once when I attend a conference. I’m also tall and a hugger, so I’m tough to miss in a crowd! But you know what? The only way it’s possible for me to be engaged is because I have a schedule going into every single conference I attend. Every minute is blocked off, including scheduled “downtime” to recharge the batteries.

A few things you’ll want to put on your conference schedule:

  • Sponsors you want to see. Don’t get distracted by shiny objects here. There will be an expo hall at most conferences, and you should absolutely check it out. But you don’t need to spend five hours talking to everyone at the sponsor tables. Pick your favorites, hit them first, then use leftover time to explore.
  • Colleagues you want to meet. Have a friend or co-worker attending the conference? That’s great! Schedule them in for a dinner, lunch, coffee, or drinks after an event. Heck, go to a session together so you can discuss afterward!
  • Set specific appointments. Are you hoping that you’ll magically bump into the financial planning rockstar who’s been inspiring you? Want to sit down and chat with a mentor or coach? Book that time out in advance. Shoot them an email to see if you can get on their schedule.
  • Get the app! Almost every conference has an app nowadays, and they’re usually amazing. They typically list all of the conference sessions and events and often have a built-in calendar so you can schedule the talks you don’t want to miss. I’m that dork who always gets the app ahead of time to schedule the few sessions I absolutely have to go to. The plan may change once I’m there, but it’s nice to have a loose idea going into the event.

There are probably going to be multiple sessions you want to attend. This is where having a coach or an assistant attend the same conference can come in handy. The two of you can divide and conquer, then swap notes after the sessions end. I’ve done this for several clients, and I know many other coaches who do this too.

What to Do as the New Kid

If I could give all of the new kids on the block one piece of advice for their first time at a conference it would be: be brave! The first time I walked into FPA NorCal I didn’t know a single soul. Even the sponsor I thought I might know had sent a different representative. I was completely on my own. 

It’s incredibly intimidating to walk into a room full of strangers, especially if they all seem to know one another. You have to push through that initial barrier of awkwardness and start connecting with people. Eventually you’ll either bump into a friendly face or you’ll make a new friend.

In these situations, it’s also helpful to plan ahead. Put some feelers out into your network to see if you know anyone who is attending and connect with them. Make a plan ahead of time for when you’ll see one another and how you’ll help each other get the most out of the conference.

You can also watch for other first-time attendees and connect with them. As newbies, you already have something in common, and they’ll be glad to know that the two of you are in the same boat.

If you struggle with networking at conferences, you’re not alone. Not everybody can be Captain Extrovert. The best thing you can do is read up on some basic networking tactics that will help you thrive at your first conference. There’s no shame in falling back on a set of tried-and-true tricks!

What to Do as the “Old Guard”

Were you at XYPN 2015? Well, that makes you the “old guard.” I have a few conferences I attend regularly (and have for eons). There’s something incredibly soothing about walking into a space and knowing most people there, knowing what to expect, and getting excited to be involved in an event you love. However, there’s also a good chance that if you’re “old guard,” your conference might deteriorate into a class reunion. You might only get to see these folks once a year, so it makes sense that you’d want to buddy up with them.

As much as it’s nice to catch up, fight that urge! You should absolutely reconnect with people, and make a list ahead of time to ensure you meet up with everyone at least once. However, you also need to make a conscious effort to not spend too much time with people you see frequently, or who you know well.

As “old guard”, it’s your job to be welcoming, not just pal around with other conference regulars. Watch for first-time attendee ribbons, or make a goal to greet every face you don’t recognize. I’m incredibly competitive, so I like to ask conference organizers ahead of time how many new attendees are coming and set a personal goal to find and meet as many of them as possible. If I reach my goal, I reward myself with a margarita or a fancy coffee on the morning before my flight home. Hey, whatever works!

I also want to take a moment to suggest you focus on inclusivity when you’re a conference regular. Make introductions where you feel they’re necessary, but be conscious of everyone in the space. It’s hard to be the only woman, person of color, person under 30… you name it. If you’re the only one representing, it’s rough. Thanks to a large group of amazing professionals, the industry is pushing to be more focused on diversity and inclusivity—and you can (and should) be part of that conversation. Want to prepare ahead of time? Tune in to 2050 TrailBlazers, or read up on some big initiatives going on within the industry (think: WIN, AAAA, etc…).

Ready, Set, Go!

You’ve done all of your prep work and now it’s time to head to the conference of your choice. There are several tips I want to cover to make sure your experience is everything you want it to be and more. The first seems simple, but so many people forget it: hydrate!

You’re going to be working hard over the next several days. There will be a lot of talking. There will be a lot of excitement. There will be a lot of walking. So drink your water, people! It’s so, so important and can really help your body take the overstimulation in stride.

Next, let’s talk about clothing. You always need to follow your conference’s dress code. More importantly, though, dress for you. This goes for women and men. If you’re uncomfortable all day long, you won’t be happy. And when you’re not happy, you’re not focusing on the information being conveyed during breakout sessions, you’re not engaged within networking sessions... in short, you’re not operating at your best. Wear comfy shoes. Check the weather ahead of time to know what you’re getting into. Dress for success, whatever that may look like in your eyes. 

I also advocate for setting up a system while you’re at the conference to take note of everything you’re doing and learning. For some people, this means toting around a notebook and pen all day, every day. For other people, this means utilizing their technology. I fall into the tech-focused camp. I use my smartphone to snap pictures of vendor booths, people I’ve met, business cards, and more. Sometimes I just take a photo because I know it will trigger a memory of a conversation that I want to sit with for a while. I also use my smart pen like it’s my job. It’s one of the few tech tools I can’t live without. Do what works for you!

Finally, self-care is important. You know yourself better than anyone else, so take care of you the best way you know how. Take breaks if you need to; nobody’s going to judge you for running up to your room between sessions to breathe. Bring plenty of snacks, water, and breakfast (if it’s not provided) to help you stay well-fueled throughout the day. Grab 30 minutes in the morning or evening to exercise or get some fresh air to clear your head. Remember: you set your own boundaries. The conference will be a cruddy experience if you let other people dictate where you go, what you do, and how you involve yourself. So set boundaries and stick with them!

Have Fun!

Conferences are a ton of fun, and I’m confident that you’ll pick the best ones for you personally and professionally. And remember, if you need to see a friendly face, come find me! I attend a billion conferences each year and I’m always looking to say hello.  


About Arlene Moss, Executive Coach

Arlene gets a kick out of helping financial advisors get over being overwhelmed and take on their frustrations so their businesses soar. Arlene works to ensure XYPN members are able to help their clients prosper while creating a sustainable business model. Through XYPN Academy and one-on-one coaching, members get the support they need to grow their businesses and overcome the challenges that come their way.

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