As a professional speaker and wedding business consultant, I am obviously a big believer in the importance of taking the posture of a lifelong learner, embracing education, and seeking out insights from people who have expertise in areas you'd like to improve. Fortunately, there are tons of industry workshops and conferences that you can choose from nowadays (this was not the case even just 10 years ago).
While I've previously shared 5 things I personally look for in a business consultant, here are some questions to ask and things to consider when evaluating whether or not a particular conference is worth the investment for you:
1. How much will this conference actually cost me?
This one seems like a no brainer, but the first thing I recommend you do is set a conference budget for the year. If you feel the word "budget" is too restrictive, reframe how you think about it: a budget is just a plan for how you spend your money. So set up a plan for how you'll spend on in-person education. A conference budget should include:
Travel (including ground transportation to and from the airport, which, depending where you're flying into, can sometimes cost just as much as a plane ticket)
Meals, snacks, and everything food and beverage related, including whether or not you want to treat some new friends to a round of cocktails
New clothes (or a Rent the Runway allowance) for special conference events like awards ceremonies or galas, if necessary
Gratuities, miscellaneous fees, etc
Books, gifts, souvenirs, a visit to the hotel spa, excursions, etc
I like to use You Need A Budget to create quick “back of the napkin” budgets for figuring out how much things like conferences will really cost, but there are tons of other options out there, including good old-fashioned pen and paper. The most important part is that you figure out ahead of time whether or not a conference with a $3000 registration fee is going to end up costing you closer to $6000 when all is said and done.
Obviously, this outline is just the cost of attending the conference. You can also figure out how much money you'd not be making by spending a few days away from your desk and factor that in, if you'd like.
2. What do I hope to get out of the conference?
Write down two or three goals you hope attending the conference will help you accomplish. Be as specific as possible. Here are a few examples to get your brain going:
What areas of your business do you want to improve?
What areas do you feel bogged down by or in the weeds about?
What are you doing well that you know could do better?
Do you want to shift your mental model of how you approach certain issues?
Have you reached a certain level of success and been met with new challenges that your current group of industry peers and "friendors" haven't faced yet?
Do you want to move into serving a different target market or demographic?
Do you want to meet specific people who will refer you business?
Do you want to meet people outside your local network that you can refer business to and collaborate with?
Do you want to get published more often or in higher-caliber outlets?
Are you demotivated or in a creative rut?
Do you feel alone or like the rest of the industry seems to "get it" but your local industry doesn't?
Are you struggling with your business taking over the rest of your life and leaving no time for the people and things that matter most to you?
Again, be as specific as possible. "Book more weddings" is too general a goal. Do you want more weddings at the same price point? A higher price point? How many more weddings do you need in order to hit your financial goals yet not burn out?
Once you've outlined your goals, move on to the next question.
3. How likely is it that the insights from this list of speakers and the agenda for this conference will help me achieve my goals?
Lots of conferences and workshops have great speakers. That does not mean a particular lineup is going to be valuable to you. It's important to remember the adage, "What got you here won't get you there." Just like a child has different needs as it grows from baby to kindergartner to tween to college student, your business has different needs as it grows. It is okay if you have grown out of what a particular speaker or conference has to offer, even if you found them incredibly valuable at earlier points in your career.
Take the goals you wrote down above and weigh them against what the conference you're considering is offering.
Do the speakers a conference is bringing in tend to prepare in advance or do they cram their slides together the night before? Are they known to always click through slideshows of their own work instead of presenting useful info?
Also, if a speaker said yes to speaking for free, they still need to treat the presentation as though they were getting paid and respect the investment the attendees made to be there by not phoning it in.
Anyone who does public speaking has given a presentation or two where they were "off", but if you are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a conference, you have every right to expect the conference producers to hold their speakers to a professional standard.
Have the speakers replicated their success?
To paraphrase an old saying – once is luck, three is a pattern. For example, if someone is speaking on pricing, have they successfully landed clients using that model at least three times? If the speaker is a business consultant, have they helped a minimum of three other companies successfully do what they are telling you to do?
Do the speakers have experience not only where you've been, but where you're hoping to go?
Do the speakers tend to be generous with the information they share or do they hold back out of fear you'll one day compete with them or to get you to hire them as a coach or consultant?
I’ve signed speaking contracts for conferences that state that a speaker cannot share a plug for their own business, workshops, courses, etc in their presentation. Personally, I wish a lot more conference producers would adopt this clause.
Are the topics being covered relevant to what you are hoping to accomplish? Do the speakers tend to offer the hottest advice from 2011 (or worse, 2001) but nothing connected to current market realities? Do they share examples from companies like yours overcoming a particular set of challenges or do they only share examples from Starbucks and Apple? (Yeah, yeah, we get it, the world's first trillion dollar company is doing a few things right.)
In my opinion, it is okay if not every session at a conference is a meat-and-potatoes session. A significant factor in business success comes from mindset shift: thinking bigger, thinking more strategically, discarding old fears and perceived limitations, or approaching issues from a different angle. These are things that aren't solved with a tidy formula and that you aren’t necessarily going to learn in a how-to session. Plus, if you're demotivated or in a rut, sometimes you need a "your dreams are possible" inspirational talk to get back to the best creative version of yourself.
Having how-to sessions on marketing, finance, and skill-set improvement are important, but they're not exactly super beneficial if you're in a place where you dread going to work in the mornings. Getting fired up again can be worth spending money on and sometimes you'll want a conference with an agenda that fuels you and your business both practically and emotionally.
4. Are the speakers and attendees people I want to network with and spend time around?
I believe that every person we meet is someone we can learn from. That does not mean I want to spend several thousand dollars and several days away from my family to be around just anyone. We all have limited time and resources and I want to be intentional about who I am actively listening to and surrounding myself with.
I also believe that the value of a conference is just as much about the attendees in the room as it is the people on the stage. While you may learn a lot and hit your educational goals from the conference sessions, you will learn so much more in the conversations you have with other attendees while sitting by the pool or hanging out after dinner in the lobby bar.
If you want to consistently earn six-figures in your business*, one way to get there faster is to network with people who know how to consistently get to 7-figures (or 8!). It requires a different mindset, and you will learn a ton just from chatting during breaks or downtime. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being in the beginning stages of business, attending a conference where you are much further ahead of the rest of the attendees may not be the best use of your time.
Sometimes I hear, "Why would I pay to make new industry friends?" The answer is simple: sometimes it's what you need. I have a friend who attended a conference specifically because she wanted to get to know a planner she had long admired for her ability to balance motherhood and running a successful business. As a mom with young kids of her own, she didn't care if this planner ever ended up referring her a wedding or not, she just wanted to buy her a glass of wine and hear about how she made everything work. While she could have just called her, it would have been unlikely she would have gotten a time slot on the planner's busy calendar. The conference was a place that afforded them both the time and opportunity to network, and there was value to both of them in paying to be in the same room.
5. What else is giving me pause about attending?
Once you've set your conference budget, outlined your goals, and identified that this conference can help you reach them, you may still feel pause about signing up to attend. If that's the case, here are a few things to examine to determine whether that pause is a gut feeling you should trust or simply an unfounded fear you should ignore:
One way to determine whether a conference is relevant or mainly marketing hype and Instagram-fueled FOMO, is to take a look at the repeat attendees. Have their businesses changed for the better since they started going or do they seem to be in the same spot they always were?
Are you a conference junkie, addicted to education but never implementing anything to move the needle once you're back home? The pause you feel may be the fact that deep down you know you need to spend some time putting the answers you've already found into place before you spend more money on another educational event.
Are you avoiding a conference because a newer competitor attended in the past and you don’t want to admit that they may have discovered something good before you did?
If so, please figure out how to get over this, as you are only hurting yourself. While your ego is busy nursing that grudge, your competitors are busy learning, growing, expanding their network, and positioning themselves as the go-to in your market.
Are you hesitating because the conference opportunity seems perfect but is out of your comfort zone (maybe you're an extrovert considering an intimate retreat with lots of quiet time for reflection or perhaps you're an introvert and intimidated by the number of attendees and evening events of a larger conference)?
If this is the case, consider how you can stretch yourself and leave some room for the miracle. You should be comfortable at a conference – to a point. If you're an introvert, plan for some alone time (a morning walk by yourself, etc). If you're an extrovert, set a plan to connect with a friend or family member via FaceTime each day so that you can get some extra "people time" in, even if they are not physically present with you.
As I mentioned above, I am pro conferences and workshops – and not just because speaking at them is how I make a living. I have met people at conferences who have ended up becoming some of my best friends, who show up for me during tough times and who I show up for. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road, one often misunderstood by people who have never been on it themselves. Surrounding yourself with colleagues who "get it," who push you to be better, and who cheer for your success matters, and conferences can be a great way to make that happen, all while creating a better business for yourself and your family. Win-win.
(*A side note: please don’t believe the myth that you can’t make six-figures in the wedding industry. You can. You may have to adjust how you do some things, but the numbers are there and it is generally a doable goal.)
Originally published August 2018