In order to have the best experience at conferences, it helps if you approach them with a certain attitude.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Program quality varies at conferences, retreats, etc. just as the quality of everything else in life does. You can't expect every workshop offered at every conference to be the equivalent of a semester long course at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Or if you do, you're going to be very disappointed. You know how a cookbook usually has only a few really good recipes? Yeah, that's how a conference is. The trick is to try to get to some good conference recipes.
Many people believe program content isn't that significant. The real reason to go to a conference is the networking. Why, deals are made at conferences! Connections are made that lead to jobs! In writer world, conference goer fantasies involve meeting editors who ask you to submit a manuscript and then make an offer as soon as they read it. Or, at the very least, conferences are where you will meet the AWESOME agent who clicks with you and sells your manuscripts to top editors for the rest of your life and then gives the eulogy at your funeral.
Expectations like these are why you hear those stories about editors/agents being handed manuscripts under stall doors in ladies' rooms at conferences or being trapped in elevators with participants who do, indeed, pitch. Yes, that's where the term "elevator pitch" comes from. Once upon a time, it wasn't considered a classy thing to do.
In my humble opinion, don't ever go to a conference just for the networking. That's putting a big burden on you and your ability to interact with others. Go because there really are some programs that look as if they might be useful for you. Networking is what happens between sessions and during lunch. It's the gravy of your conference experience, not the meat and potatoes.
Once Again, Maintain The Mind Of A Beginner
You have a much better chance of finding, or perhaps I should say, accepting, the good bits at a conference, if you're not focused on how much you know. If you believe there's always something you can learn from any situation, in all likelihood you will. Remember the story of how Computer Guy attended a NESCBWI conference so he could hit a workshop on making digital books? It was a two-hour event, but he got his moment within five minutes. What he got from that workshop was the knowledge that he could make an eBook. To paraphrase him, it was huge.
|Gotta get a bigger book.|
I could give you a lengthy list of these odd little things I've picked up at conferences and workshops that have made a difference in my day-to-day work life. But I had to recognize that nothing that happened around me was too minor to be useful.
But The Money And People Issues
The expense involved with attending conferences and the discomfort introverts feel with unstructured people time add to conference pressure for many. Regular conference/retreat goers can go through a lot of money, sometimes a family's money, and they can become frustrated over not seeing a quick return on that investment. Extroverts love this stuff, but introverted personalities can end up spending a lot of time at meals and evening "extras" that are tedious for them and, speaking from experience, not very productive because we just don't roll that way.
Looking for shorter events closer to home can help manage both those problems. One-day programs run by local colleges, museums, libraries, or professional organizations are less expensive than the ones that last a weekend or longer. They also won't require extensive travel and housing expenses. Bored to death at the pre-event coffee? Sleep in and skip it. A day program means you can head home at the end of the day, no motel rooms and meals to pay for, no hours watching others chat each other up.
For introverts attending multi-day events, you just don't have to go to everything. You can spend time in your room so you can decompress. I've brought yoga mats to retreats. Hell, I brought a DVD to a retreat to watch on my laptop in the evenings.
Be realistic, be open, manage your issues...There's your best chance at getting the most from a conference.