Have a purpose and a goal. What are your top priorities? If it’s to party, you’ll have a different agenda and probably different hours than someone who is going to try to obtain a new client or employer. Know what you want from the conference whether it’s to find a tool to help you do your job better or learn a new technique or meet someone from a particular company. Know why you are going and plan your visit to meet your goals.
Optimize your time and organize before you go. What courses do you want to attend? What Birds of a Feather gatherings are most important to you? Do you want to attend screenings? The exhibitors and companies participating in the convention are listed on the web site of the conference before it starts. Research the participating companies before the event and make a list of the companies you want to meet. Print out the exhibition map and make a plan of whom you want to visit. If you plan to attend the job fair, get there early.
Travel out of the question? Visit virtually. In the case of SIGGRAPH visit the website www.siggraph.org/s2011.  You can also follow conferences on twitter or facebook or blogs on sites like awn.com. Many conferences also offer abstracts of courses on DVDs after the event.
Talk to everyone. If you attend in person and travel by plane, be ready to start talking to people at the airport or on the plane. Shuttle busses from the airport are likely to be populated by people attending the same conference as you are. And shuttles between meeting locations and registration lines give you ample opportunities to start conversations with others. Prepare a brief introduction. First, find out what the other person does. And if asked, smoothly and with confidence, give a thumbnail sketch of yourself. For example: “I’m Pamela Thompson. I’m a career coach and recruiter specializing in animation and visual effects.”
ILM is not the only company that does amazing visual effects work. Conferences, conventions and film festivals give you an opportunity to explore many companies in a short period of time. Visit with companies and people who are new to you. This is a good time to gather intelligence and information. Be open to sharing it with people you meet.
Pack plenty of business cards and comfortable shoes. If you are in the job market, create a disposable portfolio which includes screen shots from your demo reel, your shot breakdown (explaining what you did on every shot), and your resume. Include only your best work. Put your current contact info on every page including a phone number of where you can be reached during the conference. Include your website, if you have one. Make enough copies of your disposable portfolio (also called a “leave behind”) so you can give one to every employer you are interested in. Make a few extra copies in case you meet someone you did not expect to meet.
Submit your work before the conference–it is more likely to get a proper review if you send in your work several weeks before a large event (six weeks or more ahead is best). A few years ago I saw a recruiter friend at SIGGRAPH who estimated they receive about 4,000 applications during the week of the conference (normally when they advertise they get 250 and when they don’t advertise they get 50 in a week). When I asked him why he spent the money, time and energy to recruit at SIGGRAPH, he answered. “Because there might be two or three artists we wouldn’t find any other way.” Send follow up thank you notes and email those you want to stay in touch with after the event. Invite them to connect with you on Linkedin, facebook, google plus or other social media sites.
You’ll benefit greatly from any event you attend by viewing it as an opportunity to meet new people and start forming relationships. Use your time wisely, keep your purpose in mind, and have fun.
Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a recruiter, career coach, speaker and writer. First introduced as a course at SIGGRAPH, her Career Navigation Program is a huge hit with students all over the world. She has presented at Ringling in Florida, NBCC in Canada, and for the MDA in Singapore. You can contact Pamela at PamRecruit@q.com.