We've entered that season which does not mean fall and pumpkin spice lattes, but rather conferences and the constant email and media barrage of not-to-be-missed-dynamic-keynotes-together-with-interactive-hands on-sessions. It is challenging to the mind, the work schedule, and often the pocketbook to decide what to attend. Conferences are a personal investment of time or, more frequently, of both time and money to advance your own personal growth and career. If you're fortunate to be at a company that not only strongly encourages but also pays for your attendance at outside events, you need to consider how you're maximizing the return on their investment in your professional advancement.

No, maximizing your conference experience is not as simple as an RSVP and then grabbing your name tag, swag bag, and seat. Given the investment, you need more than someone else's "awesome" recommendation or your own FOMO or the potential interaction with a broader network of peers (if you're a business owner who works alone) to make the most of any time spent away from the task or project at hand.

Here are 7 suggestions on how to get the most from a conference before you attend the conference:

1. First ask why.

Ask yourself why you should attend this conference. Create a priorities filter for screening conferences. What key performance items are you working on? Are you looking to increase your skills through hands-on workshops or simply looking for inspirational guidance from peers who have treaded the path you're currently on? Be honest about what you need from attending a conference beyond being jazzed by a keynote or an open-bar cocktail party.

2. Ask around before you RSVP.

Anyone can put up a fancy landing page and book a ballroom, but neither of those things makes for a meaningful conference experience. Check with your social network of colleagues, business peers, and industry connections to see who has attended the conference in prior years. Seek their insights on what made this conference worthwhile (was it simply the networking or extraordinary content, or both?). If they're not attending again this year, be sure to ask why. Asking around also has the added benefit of providing a little preconference networking, and by being prepared for what to expect once you arrive at the registration table, networking anxieties are reduced too.

3. Take advantage of early registration pricing and make attending the conference a work event, with a friend.

Stephanie Williams runs her business, Blue Eyes and Bare Feet, from her home in Bedford, Indiana. She relies heavily on her peers in the business community for guidance. Stephanie had followed the Savor the Success community for years online, so when one of her close friends decided to attend Savor the Success's Rock the World conference in New York City, Stephanie immediately RSVP'd and the two women made the conference a business road trip from Indiana to New York City. Stephanie admits it was extremely tough to step away from her small business for a few days but coning back with new insights, inspiration, and, most important, confirmation that she was on the right business path was well worth it. Her newfound confidence to keep making bigger and bigger decisions to leap and grow--and the accountability that resulted from sharing the conference experience with a friend--has validated the investment Stephanie made in herself to attend the conference. How do I know Stephanie's conference story? Word got out from the volunteers at the registration table to the organizer of the conference, who proceeded to call her out in front of the packed ballroom of attendees. Talk about a networking ice-breaker (and surefire way to meet everyone you need to know).

4. Refresh or update your LinkedIn profile (and Twitter bio too).

Conference interactions occur as much online as they do in person. Your first best chance to make a strong impression may not be a solid handshake after a keynote;
it may be your online profile. Does your online profile reflect the professional or thought-leader your really are and who will be networking at the upcoming conference? Be sure your profile picture is the current you, not the circa 1982 version. It is actually a compliment to be easily identifiable in a conference crowd because of a professional online profile. Updating your LinkedIn profile to indicate you are attending a particular conference (use the update feature or as I do, the Summary section) is another way to comfortably network before the big event, as it lets your existing connections know what you're up to (and they may have introductions or suggestions for you). In a recent case, one friend sent a helpful link with local cafe and sightseeing suggestions in Bloomington, Indiana, when she learned I was heading to Indiana University to speak on campus.

5. Download the conference app or study the conference website and pay particular attention to who is speaking as well as attending.

Make a point of reaching out to contacts who are also attending the conference (as well as asking for introductions to attendees) before you arrive. At a minimum, you'll have someone to sit with or compare session notes with or walk to a networking venue alongside--and you'll won't feel like a jerk when you run into them at the mid-morning networking coffee break.

6.  Remember to follow the preconference conversation online.

Every conference has its own #hashtag and Twitter account. By following the conversation, you'll get a flavor for the event. Is the pre-event conversation one-way marketing or are attendees sharing their experiences and interests (what about the speakers)? Does the dialog reveal where the information exchanges are really happening (online, in the hallways, or at the private parties)? I was fortunate to be invited on British Airways UnGrounded flight--a gathering of 100 innovators centered around a hackathon at 30,000 feet on a flight from San Francisco to London. The UnGrounded experience included preflight keynotes and a guided workshop with IDEO. Once on the ground in London, there were more conferences, tours, and receptions. The best networking however, started before the formal activities got underway. By following the #BAUnGrounded hashtag, I connected with six flight mates and, over margaritas, we planned our solution to the hackathon challenge. We're close friends, mentors, and collaborators to this day.

7. Order more business cards and remember to pack them.

This suggestion is old-school practical networking. Though it's a digital world with apps and Airdrop, business cards have not been rendered obsolete -- yet. MOO.com has come up with high-quality printed business cards that can survive the toughest back-pocket and they have even designed a selection of cards embedded with an NFC chip that, when tapped against an NFC enabled device, displays your chosen information--such as a website, or online shop or downloadable app. As you and everyone else will likely be relying heavily on mobile devices at the conference destination, remember to pack extra chargers and an extension cord too. Aiding a fellow conference attendee with a dwindling battery puts an extra easy charge into your conference networking interactions.

One final bonus thought. If you have a calendar chock full of conferences and you're still rushing to RSVP for more, I'd suggest picking up a copy of Manage Your Day-to-Day or The Crossroads of Should and Must, as the advice in these books may be more helpful than listening to another keynote or mindlessly networking through yet another sponsored happy hour.

Published on: Oct 11, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.