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.
The conference is:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.