Flying solo at a business or academic conference can be exciting, but also a little nerve-racking.
You have the opportunity to adhere to your own agenda and priorities, present yourself how you want and meet new people as a representative of your brand or organization. All those things, however, can also amount to pressure and anxiety.
These five tips can help you navigate how to act, who to connect with, what to look out for and how to feel more comfortable when attending a conference alone.
Making the most of your conference experience starts by doing your homework. Since you plan to converse with strangers during the event, you should consider ahead of time what to talk about. As Yuanyuan Zhou writes in a post for the LinkedIn blog, “Good conversation starters will require some research.” She suggests locating highly rated restaurants or coffee shops nearby, learning the Wi-Fi password at the venue, looking into interesting facts or stories about the speakers or knowing the layout of the building. That is information other attendees may be seeking, and by having the answers, you also have helpful conversation starters.
Conversing with strangers varies in level of difficulty depending on your personality type. However, you should be connecting with others while at a conference no matter who you are. So, how do you go about doing that? HubSpot’s advice is to simply “address the elephant in the room” by telling people you’re alone and wish to meet others in your field or industry. Ask people if they are attending with anyone. “If they say no, you can bond over your mutual situation,” according to HubSpot. “If they say yes, they'll usually start to explain who they came with – and if their connections are nearby, this opens up an opportunity to meet others.” Another useful tip is to purposely stand in lines. Doing so gives you a chance to connect with people for several minutes in a setting that naturally compels conversation. Besides other attendees, you should make a point of introducing yourself to speakers that made an impact on you, according to an article The Muse contributed to Forbes magazine. While it may seem intimidating to do so, remember the speakers are just people and “they’re there because they want to talk with attendees,” the article states.
3. Socialize Digitally
Social media is a big deal. The conference you are attending likely has a hashtag and/or geotag you should monitor and use throughout the event. This is especially important for solo attendees because it helps you scout out potential connections and become a familiar face to others, according to HubSpot. As suggested in a post on the Idealist Careers Blog, some best practices include retweeting and replying to people; asking to meet if someone interesting shows up in your feed; attributing quotes to speakers with their Twitter handles; and even sending out a call prior to the event.
It’s okay to need a little time to yourself, as conferences often run several days, from morning until night. You can mentally retreat by keeping a phone or laptop handy and taking a few moments to check Facebook, write a personal email or browse the Internet. If you need a physical escape, head back to your hotel room during a break, hit up a nearby coffee shop, sit in your car or find a couch in a secluded part of the facility. According to The Muse, no matter where or what it is, “find somewhere you can go to freshen up, eat a quick snack and relax for a bit—and get back to the conference feeling refreshed.” Also, if you’ve made an honest effort to meet others or participate in a conversation without success, “it’s okay to head back to your ‘home base’ when things get to be too overwhelming,” HubSpot adds.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget the purpose besides networking that you’re attending the conference in the first place. Not often do you get the chance to learn by being along and absorbing everything around you, according to HubSpot. It can be easy when you attend a conference with colleagues or friends to invest time interacting with them. But when you’re alone, you are presented with the opportunity to fully engage your surroundings by taking down observations in a notebook; asking questions during Q&A segments; touring nearby attractions; and exploring the city at your own pace, HubSpot explains, adding, “When you're traveling alone, you're calling the shots.”
Attending a conference alone can be a uniquely rewarding experience if you do it right. Following these best practices when flying solo can help you return from the event with important new information and insights and having made valuable connections.