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The complete guide to attending a conference without paying

Let’s face it: you don’t go to conferences to watch a bunch of blowhards try to fill 50 minutes with empty talk followed by a 10-minute Q&A mostly eaten up by “this is more of a comment than a question” guy. You’re there to network. Here’s how to transform the average conference from a litany of soporific sessions into the most valuable and enjoyable work thing you’ll do all year. The best part is, tackling conferences this way means that in most cases, you won’t even have to register—just show up.

1. Don’t go to any talks, panels, demos, or sessions.

In conferences, as in life, the key to opening up space for transformative opportunities is to first get comfortable with saying “no” as many times as it takes to clear your schedule. Especially in an age in which every conference is streamed, recorded, and regurgitated by its attendees and the specialist press, there is absolutely no point in watching some famous-in-his-own-mind speaker try to fill all the minutes on either side of the handful of bon mots that will just end up on Twitter anyway.

2. Fill most of your schedule with one-on-one meetings before you arrive.

This is key. Try to figure out who is going to this conference whom you want to meet up with. It doesn’t matter how many cups of coffee you have to ingest—line them up one after another. Meetings are the one time that everyone in your field who cares to network will be in one place at one time, a singular opportunity to get in a half dozen meetings with everyone who matters to you, new and old alike.

3. Start reaching out early

Many people you really want to talk to are only going to be at the conference for one of several days, and have big chunks of their schedule filled up well in advance. The earlier you reach out, the more likely they’ll still have some time available. That doesn’t mean you need to start emailing people a year in advance, but don’t expect to book very many last-minute meetings.

4. Get introduced whenever possible

Approaching someone out of the blue is unavoidable sometimes, but is usually a good way to never hear back. A great, quick  suggestion on how to meet people comes from Brian Uzzi at Harvard Business Review. Think about the people you know and list them in a column. Then list who you met them through, if anyone, in a second column.

The names you see pop up repeatedly in the second column are the ones to reach out to about the conference. They’re likely to be the ones who can and like to introduce you to people. A few quick social media searches help as well.

5. Believe in the breakfast meeting

Things can get hectic in the middle of the day and evening at conferences. One of the best ways to meet people and actually get a bit of time rather than a rushed 15-minute coffee is to meet really early in the morning.

6. Skip (most of) the parties.

There’s little enough utility in getting drunk after hours unless that’s a sport for you or you’re really looking to hook up with someone who works in your field (rarely a good idea.) The only reason to go to an after-hours party at a conference is to meet someone whom you specifically couldn’t get to sit down with you as suggested in step 2, above. Whereas going to bed early means you’ll be fresh the next morning for all those meetings you scheduled.

7. Leave space for serendipity.

It’s probably impossible for you to book every minute of a meeting with sit-downs in advance, anyway, but in case you’re an especially talented planner, remember that you’re going to meet people whom you didn’t expect at all. Maybe they’re hanging out in the hallway between those sessions you’ve wisely avoided, desperate for something to distract them from whatever they just forced themselves to sit through. Or you encounter them in line, or one of your other contacts suggested you meet them, or your insistent tweeting about your presence at the conference inspired one of your weak ties to finally reach out.  Ask them if they have a few minutes to talk and then meet one-on-one with them the same as if you’d had a meeting scheduled.

However it happens, embrace it, and make sure you have a whole afternoon near the end of a conference set aside for these last-minute meetings.

8. Know when to approach people

The absolute worst time to approach someone is when everyone tries to do it, like immediately after a panel. Try to shoulder into that crowd, and if you manage to get a word in, you’ll probably be forgotten. It’s also fairly obvious when somebody’s edging towards the door, and trying to catch them then is probably going to irritate them.

9. Don’t eat most meals at the conference

Conference food is usually terrible. And while the line is a good place to meet people, most of the time spent in them is a waste of time. Even worse are lunches that combine food with a panel, which ensure that you lose out on the opportunity to meet people while listening to a speaker people are paying less attention to than usual. Do a bit of research to find a couple of nearby go-to spots. And eat light. There’s nothing wrong with doing two lunch meetings.

10. Do attend one thing completely outside your stated purpose at a conference.

This isn’t necessarily an official event. Ever gone to a conference and found yourself never making it out of the convention center? Off-site trips, official or not, are probably the best way to cement your connection to old and new friends.

11. Follow up quickly with the people you meet

You will and should meet a lot of new people at any conference. That means you get a business card you look at a few days or weeks later that you can’t even connect to a face. For the people that make an impression, follow up later that day. It’s as much a reminder to yourself as them.

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