How to Tell if a Conference Is Travel-Worthy or a Time Waster

There are a lot of professional conferences to attend, and Nancy Lublin knows how to find the ones that are worth your while.

Confession: I'm addicted. Signs of my habit hang around my neck like a noose. Evidence is in my pockets, my tote bags, my calendar. My eyes have dark circles, and I'm distracted at work. It's true: I'm a conference junkie.

It all started quite innocently. In my twenties, I attended maybe three or four conferences a year — the Independent Sector gathering to meet colleagues; Renaissance Weekend for personal development and networking. I knew my habit had escalated from casual attendee to devotee, but until I sat down to write this, I didn't realize how my addiction had ballooned. I estimate that in 2010, I attended at least part of nearly 30 conferences. Maybe Lindsay Lohan and I can be roommates at Betty Ford?

The obvious conclusion is that not all of these events are deserving of my time. But what makes a conference worth it? I took up the issue with some friends — while we stood around chatting after a panel at a conference in New Orleans.

Andres Glusman, Meetup's vice president of strategy, said that a good conference has to include two things: social fun and actual learning. Danielle Brigida, the digital marketing manager for the National Wildlife Federation, added that warm weather helps. She also said South by Southwest is on her calendar forever, even if the content has jumped the shark.

By their standards, I don't need to go to the Skoll World Forum again. The people were terrific, but I didn't learn much. There was too much grandstanding and not enough real conversation, which is what sometimes happens when funders and fundees are in the same room. And the weather? Well, it's in England. Plus, it was expensive!

Going cold turkey isn't an option. Some of these gatherings are healthy for me and good for my organization too. But which ones? What are the criteria? The quiz below will help you determine if the one you're considering is a valuable use of your time.

One last note: I dedicate this column to my CTO, George Weiner, whom I have not seen in a month because he's been at BlogWorld & New Media Expo, Net Impact Conference, Independent Sector, and some "impact" thing at his alma mater.


Travel-Worthy or Time Waster? Take Nancy's Quiz Before Attending Your Next Conference.

1. People.
The conference is:
a) invite-only
b) open to anyone, but some of the attendees are people you are dying to meet
c) open to anyone but focused on a niche topic you love, so you might bond with a few good folks
d) the equivalent of a buffet in Atlantic City: open to everyone, cheap, and a little bit dirty.

2. Location.
The conference is in:
a) the city where you live and/or work
b) a location you're dying to visit
c) an undesirable market but within three hours' commute
d) Cleveland.

3. Timing.
The conference will take place:
a) over three workdays during a slow period at the office
b) over a non-holiday weekend and includes an open bar
c) during that Lady Gaga concert you were planning to see
d) on the same weekend as your sister's wedding.

4. Price.
The conference is:
a) all expenses paid, including travel and hotel
b) free, but you cover your own travel and lodging
c) kinda pricey
d) going to require a second mortgage.

5. Your role.
You are:
a) a featured speaker
b) like any other participant — treated equally and on lots of panels
c) hoping to ask a public question
d) encouraged to be seen but not heard.


Food. Samantha Smith is one of my favorite interns and a conference junkie in the making. She suggests a bonus of five points if the food is plentiful and free.

Scoring guide: (a)=10 points each (b)=7.5 (c)=4 (d)=2

40 - 55 points. Pack your bags and kiss the kids goodbye! Davos, TED — here you come!

30 - 40 points. Worth doing. A couple of tips to maximize the benefits: If you're on a panel, go last. Be the cleanup hitter that pulls things together. Look at the attendee list in advance. Who are these folks? Make a list of the people you'd like to meet — and schedule those meetings in advance.

20 - 30 points. This conference doesn't quite meet the bar. Invest your time and money in better bets more suited to your availability, resources, and skills.

10 - 20 points. Schedule a nice dental checkup instead, and maybe get a dog. Do something — anything — else. This is a boondoggle not worth the bother.

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  • Jenn Beard

    I realize that I am a little late to the party on this one, but I just started reading the magazine. I too am a conference junkie and love both the Independent Sector Conference and SXSW. I love the quiz, thank you!

  • Jody Urquhart

    What makes a conference worthwhile is the programming. If you can get continuing education credits and the speakers are good, with relevent content, interesting ideas and good to listen to.... than go.

  • Eric Swanson

    Here's what I've found: Certainly who is in the room is of utmost importance. First is presenters. Sure you can read the books but if their presentation is worth their salt it will stimulate conversations w/ the right attendees. Which brings us to the next point--the people in the room. If you want to be around decision makers make sure the event is not a "reward junket" for the admin staff. Last time that happened, Iditched the conference in Athens, rented a car and toured Greece with a buddy. Learned WAY more. Secondly is the content. Content that helps you accelerate your life-long always worth it. But you don't have to attend a tech conference if you are a tech person for the content to be valuable. To bring new value back to your organization you have to have different input, relationships and experiences than those you work with, so take a chance and go an event outside your field every once and a while. It is not going deeper in your domain that brings insight but cross-domain learning where the insights come from. One more thing...if you are going to so many conferences that you don't want to attend sessions / hang out for drinks or coffee...stay home! We want you to bring your passion and whole self to these events.
    Eric Swanson
    Leadership Network

  • Chris Reich

    I think this is written a bit tongue-in-cheek so I'll skip the criticism. Few of us have an unlimited conference budget.

    I would add focus to the mix. New clients can be gained nearly anywhere people are gathered. Your best clients still visit the grocery store, put gas in the car and go to Costco. Focus is the key. I work with my clients on their conference/trade-show strategies as often they want to 'shotgun' events. They want to get business cards into as many goody bags as possible. Hit everyone.

    I go to meet one person. Just one. If I meet that ideal prospect, I spend as much time as possible with her. I send a follow up email that evening.

    Then I look for another. If I come away with 2 or 3, I will gain. Clients wince when I go to a conference costing them several thousand dollars with a goal of meeting one person. But, it's not uncommon for me to close a $500,000 deal the following week while the sales people make 'cold' calls on all the cards they gathered! No focus. (True story too)

    Chris Reich

  • David Kaiser


    Very timely piece for me, I am considering a few conferences both to get new ideas and to meet prospects. It's good to have a diagnostic. The one thing I would add is, from a business perspective, can you create an ROI? If I go to a conference and get a client as a result, it's paid for itself. If not, then I need to consider other factors.

    Thanks again!

    David Kaiser
    Executive Coach and CEO, Dark Matter Consulting

  • Bruce Carlisle

    Nancy has spoken a truth in this article that many are afraid to utter.

    Going to a conference or convention can be a lot of fun. It's not just the exposure you get from being on a panel. It's not only the cool new ideas you're exposed to or the bag 'o schwag you'll later regret having to lug home with you.

    Conferences are a chance to get out of town. To change the scenery. To have a different conversation. To see a new place. To catch up with old colleagues.

    Now the reality is you won't find a whole lot of people like Nancy willing to admit this publicly. Wouldn't be prudent. Nope, we're all serious here. We go to conferences for professional advancement, to meet customers. Nothing more nothing less. Boondoggle? Not me. The thought never even crossed my mind.

    Uh, Huh. Yup. And I visit New York twice a year to breath the fresh air on Madison Avenue.

    I am so convinced that the world is full of secret Nancy's that I've staked my future on it. With some brilliant partners, I'm building a website for the secret conference boondoggler who resides in every one of us. It's at . It's made for Nancy Lubin's everywhere. It has the world's first "Ask Your Boss" if I can go to the Conference button. Check it out. We won't tell.

  • Bowen Dwelle

    Hi Nancy. Great piece, but I think there are some important aspects that you left out - at least, these are critical to me when evaluating a conference.

    The subject of the conference is:
    a) a topic that is near and dear to your heart / occupation, and not cluttered with other subjects.
    b) a topic that you're interested in, or a board industry that includes your specific field
    c) all sorts of things vaguely related to something that you're interested in
    d) hard to tell

    The overall quality of the conference agenda / sessions is:
    a) compelling and original - a unique learning experience
    b) interesting but not 100% unique - some speakers pitching their usual thing
    c) one or two useful sessions
    d) lots of hot air mixed with a bunch of thinly veiled sales pitches

    The group people who attend the conference:
    a) are a tight-knit community who stay in touch outside of the conference, and many of them consider each other friends
    b) consider each other peers, but mostly connect at the conference with people that they already know
    c) might consider each other members of the same field, but don't identify strongly with each other
    d) have no idea who each other are, in fact, are reluctant to identify themselves as having attended the conference

    What do you think?

    - Bowen Dwelle