Lessons From My First Major Conference

Last week, I attended my first major IT conference in San Francisco.  I learned a few lessons from the mistakes that I made when planning my trip and scheduling my sessions that I need to keep in mind for next year.

  1. Arrive early –  When booking my flights to San Francisco, I ended up on the last flight out of Appleton on Sunday with a scheduled arrival time of 11:00 PM San Francisco time.  That flight was canceled, and I was fortunate enough to get a flight directly out of O’Hare on Monday morning so that I could arrive before my first breakout session began.  I was landing just as the general session, and the latest product announcements, were beginning.  Aside from missing out on the general session on Monday morning, I also missed out on meeting with vendors in the Solutions Exchange and some networking events like vBeers on Sunday evening. 
  2. Don’t Pack Too Much –  I packed for my trip like it was a normal business trip.  That was a mistake since I flew with carry-on sized luggage.  I didn’t realize how many vendors would be giving out t-shirts, and I had to literally cram everything into my suitcase just to get it back home.  I would have been able to get away with packing less and using some of those shirts during the conference.
  3. Don’t Schedule Yourself into a Corner –  There is a lot to do an see at the conference, and there are sessions covering almost anything you want to learn.  Don’t schedule yourself into a corner by booking yourself solid.  You need time to get lunch, work the vendor floor, take part in community generated content like vBrownbag sessions, or even follow up on emails from $work.  The schedule builder tools are nice for laying out your day, but don’t be afraid to switch things up.  Also, you need to consider travel time –  walking from Moscone West to the Marriott is a lot longer than it looks on the map.
  4. Know What You Want from Vendors – The Solutions Exchange is HUGE. It took up most of the exhibition space in Moscone South.  It was extremely overwhelming the first time I walked through it, and I didn’t know where to begin.  Having an idea of what specific needs you want to address or what would interest your co-workers/colleagues/friends/family will help you narrow down which booths to stop into.  Obviously, there isn’t enough time to stop in to all of them, so you have to be a little discerning and hit up the vendors that meet your needs or interests first before exploring. 
  5. Corollary to Last Point –  Don’t stop by a vendor (or let them scan your badge) just because they’re drawing for a cool prize.  The last thing you need is another sales call for some product that you know nothing about.  (Some vendors…cough…Veeam…cough…do offer some very interesting contests with great prizes that involve attending events or technical sessions to learn more about their product.  It’s creative and it actually teaches you about the product.)
  6. Make Time to Spend Time on the Vendor Floor – This kind of goes without saying.  Because there is so much going on at the conference, you need to make sure you schedule time to talk to the vendors that are on your list.  Work that time into your schedule, and make sure you give yourself enough time to talk as a good conversation can turn into a 20 minute demonstration.
  7. Group Discussions are Great for Networking –  Group discussions are a great opportunity to sit down with VMware engineers and other users of a particular product/service and ask questions or see how others are addressing issues in their environment.  They’re more personal than the general breakout sessions.  If I get the chance in the future, I plan on attending more of these types of sessions at future conferences.
  8. Take Time to Enjoy the Local Culture –  I’ll be honest when I say that I didn’t mind the food at the conference.  It was much better than I expected for a kitchen that had to serve over 22,000 people. But there are a lot of good places around the Moscone Center that offer good food for a reasonable price.  It’s also worth making some time in the evening to explore the city and check out the sites like Fisherman’s Wharf.