Thursday, September 10, 2009

On the Value of Professional Conferences

So, I'm at yet another conference this week -- the Governor's Conference on Economic Development. At least it's at the Hyatt Regency so I can walk there from the office.

Likewise, I attended (and technically was on a planning committee for) the National Institute of Government Purchasing (NIGP) Forum also held downtown, at America's Center about 2 1/2 weeks ago.

I really can't complain that much -- when you have zero travel expenses and you can walk to these statewide and national events, the time goes by pretty quickly.

Especially given that so many jobs have scaled back a lot on travel, you gotta take what you can get. Sometimes I wish we had less travel even.

Conferences get really tedious sometimes. I usually prefer going to training seminars where you have a lot more focus on a single topic, and get to meet new people.

For example, it took six months to get approval for me to take a Construction Contracting class through ESI International. By that time, the nearest session (in Chicago) had been canceled because of low enrollment, so I headed off to Arlington, VA instead. I made sure to minimize expenses, staying at a moderately priced suites hotel (quite reasonable for the D.C. area, really). And I got the class for about 50% off the course fee, because of discounts I had on file.

In that class, I met people from all over the U.S., as well as some USAID personnel stationed on the West Bank and in Mozambique.

In general, I've noticed that, while the structured training sessions may provide some useful information, the unstructured time like breaks, exhibit halls, etc. often leads to better conversations on a one-on-one basis with colleagues. And then of course there's the after-hours events, in which I admit I don't always take part, but which often provide much more useful information than anything else.

So many conversations happen and decisions are made at these kinds of events, that are totally unrelated to the formal agenda.

I'm sure it's a lot different in the actual business world, though, where money actually changes hands and deals are made at these kinds of events. When you are dealing with government agencies though, it's more about relationship building, since there are (at least on paper) competitive bidding processes to determine future business relationships.

But again, it does feel really weird to be participating in these kinds of activities, knowing that so many people out there -- including many close to home -- are struggling to make ends meet. Our jobs as economic development people are to help maximize the return on the public dollars invested in these programs, which hopefully will lead to job creation and retention locally.

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