Taylor Crawford

Conferences and trade shows offer opportunities to network, learn skills, and preview new products and technologies. But to get the most from these events, architects should be deliberate with their time and efforts. Here, show organizers and design practitioners offer tips for attendees.

Choose Wisely
Before setting foot in a convention center, architects must first decide how many and which events to attend in a given year. According to Christopher Gribbs, Assoc. AIA, managing director of conference strategy and operations for the AIA, designers should attend one national event annually, plus local events throughout the year. National events offer opportunities to learn from the best in the country, while local events help “build community ties that will support your career every day,” he says. Find the events that “relate most to the work you do and aspire to be involved with,” he adds, and then sign up early to attend the best sessions and event-sponsored local architecture tours.

Kate Hurst, senior vice president of conferences and events for the U.S. Green Building Council, which hosts the annual Greenbuild show, agrees that most architects and designers attend between two and four conferences a year, but that number could be higher for architects with business development responsibilities in their firm.

Plan Ahead
To reap all the benefits of a conference or trade show, Hurst recommends approaching these events as one would a client meeting. “Just like any project that you take on, think through all of your objectives and all of your goals,” she says. “[Often] people forget to think about this until they get on site.”

Though it will take some time upfront, prospective attendees should check out the conference website and schedule to reserve sessions and create an online calendar before arriving on-site, Hurst says. At large conferences, in particular, it is easy to be distracted and pulled in different directions without that plan in place, Hurst explains. That said, keep your eye on social media during the event to see what topic or speaker is hot. “Some websites can be overwhelming with all the information, so I recommend following all of the social media handles,” she says. “It distills the information down.”

or those who also attend events for CEUs, planning ahead is even more important. Hurst says that Greenbuild programming is designed for attendees to get all the CEUs necessary to maintain their LEED credentials, but it is critical to reserve sessions early, particularly if they feature renowned experts. “If you preschedule, you can make sure you don’t miss what you want to see,” she says.

Network, Network, Network
One primary reason to attend industry events is networking. “[You can] multitask and do half a dozen emails and check on some of the feeds that you’re following,” says Heather Young, AIA, a partner at Palo Alto, Calif.–based Fergus Garber Young Architects, but “is that really the best use of your time in a conference in a few down moments? Or is it the opportunity to engage with someone who is sitting next to you or to follow up with a speaker you heard, or find someone who asked a really great question?”

This year, Young attended a conference in Budapest, Hungary, hosted by local architectural software developer Graphisoft, where she met other users from Europe, Asia, and South America, who offered exposure to different architectural problems in cultures around the globe. “I not only had the chance to interact with a different group of people, but got to experience a different city and hear different perspectives that you might not always get from a local venue,” she says. Young still benefits from those relationships, following up with them when she wants fresh ideas on a problem.

Gribbs echoes this sentiment: “Talk to your neighbor in a class, say hello to someone in the Starbucks line, and attend conference networking events such as receptions and parties.” Oftentimes, it’s those serendipitous connections that bear the most fruit.

While networking is a good use of time at trade shows and events, Young and her partners recently sent their entire firm to the 2017 Monterey Design Conference, in Pacific Grove, Calif. They found that it was a great team-building moment and a way for everyone to cultivate relationships beyond the working ones. A year later, Young says, “folks in the office all see each other in a different light.”

Whether you are attending a conference abroad by yourself, or getting close with colleagues at home, taking risks is worth it. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” Hurst says. “Most of the time, everybody that is there is looking to meet other folks that are looking to make a connection. You never know who you might be sitting next to.”