Conference Confidence

Four tips for tackling your next industry gathering with professionalism, grace and style.
illustration by Tony Healey

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to

Perhaps you are attending your first business conference this fall or winter, or maybe it’s one of many in your career. Either way, there are certain things to keep in mind that will ensure that your time away from the office, and maybe away from the state, is well spent.

Start by notifying clients and coworkers that you’ll be out of town, providing instructions in the case of urgent issues and emergencies and, of course, setting your away message.

1. Don’t Rely on Freebies

It’s likely that the organizers of your conference will offer a tote bag, which may include useful items like pens and maybe a (too small) notepad, but in conferences, as in life, there are no guarantees.

“Don’t assume there will be a decent notebook in your swag bag,” writes leadership coach and communications strategist Anna Kornick, on her blog “The Leadership Note.” “You’ll lose random pieces of paper in a flash, and the margins of conference agendas never have enough room to get down all the good stuff.”

Kornick recommends bringing a notebook to dedicate solely to the conference in order to avoid being that attendee — the poor soul constantly scrambling to borrow materials at the beginning of every session. Being prepared ensures that you can focus from start to finish and that you won’t distract your fellow attendees or the presenters.

2. Share the Wealth

In many cases, not everyone in your office who could benefit from the conference is able to attend. For this reason, Kornick advises scheduling a post-conference meeting or lunch-and-learn with colleagues.

“This meeting or presentation should take place within two weeks of your return,” she writes. “Having something on the calendar before you leave — and then sticking to it when you return — ensures that you are accountable to sharing your experience.” She says to include an overview and purpose of conference, key takeaways, personal action items and deadlines, team action items and deadlines.

3. Dress to Impress

Every industry has its own norms and expectations when it comes to attire, so if in doubt, do your research — don’t be afraid to ask colleagues who may have attended the conference before, or even conference organizers about appropriate attire for specific activities. When in doubt, dress up (formal business attire) rather than down (business casual or casual).

4. Bring Your Manners and Good Sense

At all meals — from a casual breakfast buffet to a formal, seated dinner — make sure your best table manners are on display. If you don’t know the basics, review them prior to the conference ( has everything you need to know).

At meals and cocktail receptions, avoid drinking too much. If you aren’t confident of your willpower, but don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you are abstaining, stick with club soda and a lime or some other mocktail. This also applies to when you are unsure of how “New Orleans acceptable” levels of drinking relate to what the rest of the country finds appropriate at a work function. Pro tip: It’s much lower elsewhere! (Think one or two.)


More than anything, remember that from the moment you step on the plane, throughout the entire conference — even in your free time — to the moment you disembark from the aircraft back at home, you are a representative of your company and are expected to get as much out of the experience as possible. As such, while bowing out of a couple of irrelevant sessions is probably OK, skipping too many is frowned upon. This doesn’t mean you can’t schedule downtime to rest and recharge, but be mindful of the reason you are there in the first place and plan accordingly.