Many parts of the world are knee-deep in snow, ice, and cold winter temperatures. If you’re like me, chances are you’re ready for the next season. Chirping birds, melting snow, and just a little bit of green will be a welcome sign of a warmer season.

On the business calendar, another season is showing signs of life, too. That’s the conference season. When the weather warms, many groups and trade associations plan annual sales, marketing, and media conferences.

Your conference planners put a year of work into attracting your industry in for a few days. Generally, the goal is to provide networking, education, and exposure to solutions for problems we commonly face.

This isn’t a sales pitch for any particular conference. Personally, I’ve attended dozens of conferences on topics ranging from circulation to advertising, from digital marketing to postal reform.

What I’d like to share, however, are six great ways to get more from your 2014 conferences.

It costs money to travel to conferences. Somebody is making an investment for you to attend. Hopefully, you or somebody in your organisation believes enough to make that investment.

So I’d like to share a few tips to be sure conferences in our industry continue. But more importantly, I want to increase your conference return on investment (ROI).

Conferences can be intimidating. Many contain multiple events, speakers, break-out sessions, luncheons, cocktail mixers, and meet-the-vendors opportunities. To get the most out of your conference experience, it is absolutely essential to do your homework ahead of time.

Start with a plan, so when you arrive at your conference you understand what your goals are. This helps you to make clear sense of what to do and with whom to speak, both during the conference and even after you arrive back home.

  1. Set clear goals. What do you hope to gain by attending the conference? Make a list of questions you hope to answer. If you have the opportunity to select a break-out session or a topic track, do it with your goals in mind.

    This will help you during vendor and networking sessions. Stay focused on your goals and be sure to work hard to get many perspectives on the problems you’re facing back at work. Remember, the more folks with whom you network, the more ideas you’ll take back.

  2. Get the conference list ahead of time. The best experiences are fueled by meeting conference attendees, vendors, and speakers. Armed with your goals, try to connect with folks while you’re still at home.

    Using social media and the Internet, try to determine with whom you’d like to connect. Target your networking efforts to learn more about problems you’re facing by meeting individuals whom you believe can help.

    It might be productive to reach out and set an appointment or two in advance. Set up a time for a coffee break or lunch at the conference. This really helps to keep your conference goals on track.

  3. At the conference network, learn, network. Attend your sessions with the mindset each speaker has three main points to offer you. Take note of the ones that can help you personally, by enabling you to do your job better, or help your company.

    It’s common these days for conference planners to provide the presenters’ PowerPoint presentations. You’re there for conference ROI. So, regardless, you should put your listening on the offensive and try to grab the details that make the most sense.

  4. Network with individuals sitting next to you. It’s a great way to meet a new face and reconnect later with somebody you met during the day. It’s OK to trade business cards. It’s an even better way to remember solid connections you made during your conference.

    Chances are you’re not having a full-on networking conversation during a speaker’s presentation. Take notes about your new connection and meet up with them later.

  5. Network with the business partners. Sometimes they’re called vendors. In my opinion, that’s a disservice. Business partners support your conference. They believe they can help you and others similar to you.

    In my career, some of the best ideas, advice, and tactics I received came from conversation with conference business partners. They invest in conferences, too. Business partners really bring the secret sauce. Often, they serve other industries and bring a view of best practices. Both are invaluable in helping us grow our businesses, doing our jobs better, and solving our problems.

    Remember to ask business partners for networking referrals. In my experience, partners have helped connect me with industry leaders. Knowing who to connect with and who has solved what problems is amazingly valuable.

  6. Provide feedback. Once you’re back home, it’s a must to communicate back with whoever invested in your conference experience. Business leaders shy away from investing in conference travel when they believe it’s not worth it. Review you conference plan, who you met, and ideas you gained.

    The biggest piece of conference ROI is your 30-day plan. Share this with your conference investor. It’s the best way to get your action plan converted into real ROI.

This conference season make bold investments. With the right information and networking with folks in the know, you will have a better chance at moving your company forward. When you understand how to write your conference game plan and work hard to solve big problems, you’ll quickly see the results — before, during, and after your conference.