First, you need to know why you're going:
If you are paying your own way, your goal is to get hired by a company that will pay to send you next time. You should never have to pay for your tickets to an industry conference if you are gainfully employed in that industry. The good news is, conferences are a great way to skip the HR/Recruiter/cover letter nonsense and talk directly to people with hiring juice.
If your company is sending you, your goal is to sell it and by extension, you. Whether you're recruiting, selling your product, or just marketing, your goal is to get your name out there and associate it with good feelings and respect. However, if your company is sending you and you're looking to get hired elsewhere, you'll have to submarine as someone with the first goal. Discretion is advised!
Depending on which of these goals you're after, you're going to have a very different conference.
Three months before you leave or 1 month before the speaker application deadline, whichever comes first
- Apply to be a speaker. A great way to get Internet Famous in your industry is to give a lot of memorable conference talks. The best way to give a memorable conference talk is to talk about something in your industry that you're passionate about and skilled with. So figure out what that is, make a slide outline, and apply with it.
- Lock in your hotel reservation. You want to stay in the conference hotel, both so you can get the room block prices the conference negotiated, and so you can maximize your opportunity for passing interactions with notable people. Room blocks often fill up, so plan ahead.
- Start researching flights. Don't take the redeye, or take it on the return trip if you must.
- Start stalking notable industry companies and likely conference attendees from those companies. Your goal is to make a crib sheet of notable people with short bio and picture, and conversation starters for each one. This might sound creepy, but conferences are intense and you're likely to forget all your research when you're 10 feet away from someone who could change your life with a conversation.
One month before you leave
- Check out all the sponsored extracurricular events, including vendor panels, offsites, parties, etc. RSVP as necessary. See above for the crib sheet, these can be great opportunities to ask burning questions and get immediate feedback, or to meet otherwise hard to reach people. At many conferences these are where the real action is, so don't pretend like they're just fluff.
- Know your surroundings. Yelp is great for this. You should have at ready hand two restaurants, two bars, and an open-late grocery store within walking distance of your hotel. If you need to take a prospect out for drinks, or find a late night snack, you'll already know where to go. Also scope out local attractions if you're taking extra time to sightsee.
- Lock in your flights and other travel needs if you haven't already. Tripit should have everything in it to whatever level of detail you feel comfortable.
- If you've applied to speak, you should have received word of your approval by now. It's time to make your presentation sing. There's a whole curriculum worth of material on how to present well, from which I'll pull two key points: 1) Make great slides by following Zach Holman's example, and 2) practice it till it's polished, with real people. Under no circumstances should you be delivering this talk for the first time at the conference. Practice with your company, your family, and a local interest group until it's easy. Even if you got turned down, do all this anyway. You might get a chance to present it.
- If you're going to be looking for a new gig, finish up your resume updating. It should be in great shape and ready to hand to anyone in your industry. Have it in PDF to email immediately, and a few printouts for the old-fashioned types.
- Start watching the backchannel traffic (probably on Twitter) for event promotions and notable attendees.
- Get a mobile wireless solution, whether phone tethering or a dedicated device. Unless you're going to WWDC, the conference wifi is guaranteed to suck, so have a backup, especially if you're presenting.
At the conference
- Mix it up. Be sure to rope strangers into what you're doing, or be interested in what others are up to. You probably know very few people here, and the ones you don't know are the most valuable. Invite, ask, repeat.
- Be open to schedule change. Conferences are very fluid environments and there's a lot of betting on which talks will be good, but sometimes things don't work out. Don't get married to a schedule, follow the action.
- Listen on the backchannel. Most conferences use a Twitter hashtag for discussion. Pay attention and participate, especially if you're speaking.
- Take and contribute notes. An iPad or notebook should always be near at hand for jotting down that new project name or Twitter personality.
- If you're speaking, market your talk and make the material available immediately after the talk. Use the backchannel and your blog to market it.
- Stalk your important people. Parties and booths of prominent sponsors are a good place to find them. Watch activity about them on Twitter, a search can be helpful. Something like '@personality #conferencetag' can be good for sightings.
- Wear your swag. Make some if necessary. (Though if you're looking to get hired, avoid your current company's swag.) The name tag isn't nearly enough advertising for what you're about. If you're looking to get hired, make a shirt that says so, or make one with your current venture on it.
- Don't get hung over. Conferences are like a treadmill of incoming stuff and opportunities, getting too overextended is a great way to miss things. Plus, you want to be Internet Famous for the right reasons. You aren't really off the clock ever while you're there, because you're representing your name and company even at the bar.
- Don't forget to have fun. Networking 18 hours a day will leave you drained. Take time to recharge, whether it be a midday nap, a night where you tuck in early, or just take one of the parties to take off your business hat and enjoy a free cocktail.
After the conference
- Follow up. You probably collected several business cards and discovered new personalities. Sync up, follow new people, send notes of thanks to organizers and excellent presenters.
- Write a recap and publish it. Be a journalist for others in your industry that couldn't attend, and give some big ideas and highlights.
- Take the new knowledge from all the sessions you attended and all the new tools you discovered and make your daily work better.
- If you were looking for work, here's where you turn leads into interviews by completing applications and following up with contacts.
- If you were selling your wares, here's where you turn leads into sales by closing the loop and reminding them of your conversation.