I’d like to revisit a topic that I first wrote about a couple years ago after returning from from Austin, Texas where I spent five days attending and exploring the activities surrounding the SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive Festival.
The conference drew over 10,000 web, technology, and creative types for a variety of formal sessions as well as parties and other social gatherings. It was interesting being a photographer at a conference not specifically focused on photography; I made some interesting observations on conference behavior and the ways to make the most of such an experience.
At a large conference with multiple sessions, tracks, and panels, odds are that you’ll be really interested in some of them, and only casually intrigued by others. Don’t go to sessions that don’t excite you; use that time to connect with people.
Hang out in the hallways. If there’s a social lounge, grab a seat. Chat with a neighbor. The most important things I got out of SXSW were the personal connections made while not in one of the conference sessions. I was able to enjoy a dinner with Leah Jones, who I had “known” via Twitter for three years but never met in person. Fast forward a couple years and Leah reached out to me to go to Alaska with GoPro. I was able to chat briefly with Darren Rowse from Digital Photography School. I spent a while chatting with Trey Ratcliff as we walked in downtown Austin. I found the one empty chair in the crowded blogger’s lounge on the last day of the event at lunchtime and discovered that I was sitting next to none other than Gary Vaynerchuk (if you haven’t read Crush It!, order it now). One afternoon, I had coffee with Jack Hollingsworth to share thoughts on social media for photographers and talk about some plans.
Apologies for that last paragraph sounding like a bit of namedropping or fanboy-ism, but I wanted to note that these are the types of connections that can be made, and many of those incidental connections wouldn’t have happened if I spent all day inside of convention center conference rooms. Some of those connections were enabled by networking in advance via social media with folks that I wanted to meet. I would interact via blog comments, Twitter, or other social services with folks who I wanted to meet at the conference, and as I met them our relationship and conversation could start at a more meaningful level than if we were meeting for the first time.
How do you find value in conferences? Are the panels and classes most important, or is it the personal connections? Do you use social media to foster those connections in advance?