Getting the Most Value From Professional Development Conferences

I recently attended the American Payroll Association’s 32nd Annual Congress in Minneapolis, where nearly 2,000 payroll and finance professionals spent 4 1/2 days updating their knowledge, earning up to 30 Recertification Credit Hours (RCHs), and networking with their peers.

To get the most value out of this information-packed Congress, veteran attendees have developed tactics to make this — or any — conference a successful learning experience. 

I’d like to share with you some of their tips — a checklist of things to do before, during, and after your educational event.


Get Boss Approval: Explain why you should go — how you, your department, and your organization will benefit from the new knowledge and contacts you will acquire. Send a memo detailing workshops you’d like to attend that address issues of concern. (APA has a template memo on its website that members adapt to request boss approval.)

Secure Funding: See if your department or organization has training dollars that could pay all or part of your conference expense. After the conference, you may receive at least partial reimbursement for expenses including travel, hotel and meals.

Strategize: Determine what you want to take away from the conference. Select workshops that cover hot topics or trends relevant to your organization and industry. Assess your department to see if there are any technology upgrades or services you want to research in the conference exhibit hall.

Take With You: Plenty of business cards, comfortable walking shoes, and an empty water bottle to help you stay hydrated during your long days on the move.


Take Notes: Write down tidbits of information you learn in the general sessions and workshops for follow-up before you forget them. If the speakers offer them, pick up handouts or make note of the link where you can download them. If presentations include Q&A, ask the speaker your pressing question. After their presentation, speakers may hold a meet-and-greet or book signing, where you can get more in-depth information on the topic.


Explore Solutions: If your conference has an exhibition with industry vendors, wear your comfortable shoes for your walking tour. You may want to meet with your current vendors to cement your relationship. Or research possible solutions to a vexing technical problem. Here too, hand out your business card to vendors so they can send you information you request. (Then you won’t have to carry it around with you. All those brochures and spec sheets can add up to a heavy briefcase.)

Mix and Mingle: At large conferences, subject matter experts are all around you among your fellow attendees. Introduce yourself and during your conversations you may find someone who has successfully dealt with a problem you are struggling with, and their experience may point you to a solution. Exchange business cards with those you may want to follow up with later. The contacts you make while networking may even lead to your next career opportunity or a lasting friendship.


Have Fun: Take time to enjoy any entertainment provided at your conference. For example, APA’s Congress features two popular evening events: a themed costume party and charity night of entertainment where APA participates in the Pay It Forward project. The Pay It Forward project is designed to give back to our community. At the 32nd Annual Congress, APA raised and donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Such fun events help you relax after a day of intensive education. Many conferences arrange for discounts for visiting local popular attractions, historic sites, etc. You might consider staying on at your conference destination after the event for a day or two of well-earned vacation.   


Thank Your Boss: Send a memo thanking your supervisor for allowing you to attend the conference and detailing a few useful items you learned. Then indicate briefly how you will follow up and/or implement these new policies, procedures or programs. (APA also has a template memo for this purpose on its website.) Verifying the value you derived from the conference will help you later justify your attendance at next year’s event.

Update Your Team: Bring your team members together to share highlights of what you learned that will immediately affect their operations. Also discuss longer-term changes that will impact them in the future. You might give them relevant handouts and notes or post them on your corporate intranet for internal access.

With some thoughtful planning, you can make the next conference you attend a most pleasant and productive experience.

0024_cropNicole Filostrat Smith is the Senior Manager of Education Services and Learning Development for American Payroll Association. She identifies and cultivates new educational programs and evaluates existing programs, curriculum, and delivery methods to enhance their value and effectiveness.

The APA has been an authority in payroll education since 1982 and is an alliance partner with Robert Half.