When you first learn you're going to a conference alone, it's exciting. You were chosen out of all of your colleagues to attend. You get to travel to a new place and stay in a nice hotel. You get the chance to meet lots of other interesting people in your field.
... But, you've got to do it alone.
That's when the anxiety sets in. You suddenly think about the cocktail parties, the welcome keynotes, the lunch breaks -- any time it's awkward to be alone -- and suddenly, that solo trip doesn't feel so exciting after all.
The good news is there are lots of things you can do to make being a lone wolf much more enjoyable. Below are some of my team's favorite things to do when they're flying solo at a conference.
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1) Lean into your "weak ties."
Do you sit next to someone who used to live in the conference's city? Does your sister know someone from college who lives there? Does your company have some customers there?
Get introduced to them beforehand. Ask them for recommendations on what to do, and if they're free, see if they'd like to meet up. Studies show that developing these "weak ties" with acquaintances and friends-of-friends can actually be more beneficial to your career than "strong ties."
2) Set a "home base" for you to recharge.
Before you even step foot in the conference center, figure out where you're going to go if you want to get out of there. Are you staying in a hotel room? If you drove your car to the event, could you head back there for a break? Is there a nearby coffee shop you can post up in? By figuring out your "escape route" ahead of time, you can more easily focus on the task at hand: meeting new people.
3) Wear an outfit that instills confidence.
Turns out that dressing for success is a real thing. According to research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, wearing clothing associated with certain professional qualities can actually make you more successful. For some people that may be a well-fitting shirt in a color you love. For others, that's a blazer or full suit. And for others still, it might be a classic startup tee.
Wear whatever makes you feel most confident in the setting you'll be in -- it'll make it much easier for you to strike up conversations with people.
4) Keep your laptop and/or phone nearby so you can look busy and important if you're left alone all awkward.
While you shouldn't be on your phone and laptop during the entire event, having them readily accessible when you are feeling very awkward isn't always a bad thing. Just be sure that you're not over-relying on your devices -- if needed, you can try setting "limit" on how many times you can look at your phone during the session or cocktail hour.
5) Bring an extension cord.
Outlets are a hot commodity at conferences and events, so if you can offer your fellow attendees some extra charging room, they'll be very grateful. Plus, while you're waiting for your device to charge, you have a natural opportunity to chat.
6) Seek out other lone wolves for coffee, dinner, and/or drinks.
You aren't the only person attending the conference alone -- find your fellow solo attendees and make plans to meet up. Often, they'll be lurking on the conference hashtag or hanging back at the corners of sessions, looking for opportunities to connect with other attendees. If you spot them, introduce yourself. Trust me, they're just as eager to meet you as you are to meet them.
7) Regularly tweet and monitor the conference's hashtag and/or geotag.
While we'd recommend all attendees hang out on the conference's hashtag or geotag, it's especially important for solo attendees. Reading the posts on the hashtag helps you scout out potential connections, and if you're sharing content regularly on the hashtag, you can become a familiar face to others.
8) Make a point to wait in line.
Why? It's boring. Which means people will be looking for ways to occupy themselves ... maybe with a conversation with a fellow attendee.
9) Address the elephant in the room. Tell people you're all alone.
One of my favorite "opening lines" is to be really honest. I'll say, "Hey, I'm at this event all alone and I'm looking to meet other marketers. Are you here with anyone?" If they say no, you can bond over your mutual situation. If they say yes, they'll usually start to explain who they came with -- and if their connections are nearby, this opens up an opportunity to meet others.
10) Have answers for common conference-going concerns.
Everyone wants to know the answers to questions like:
- Where's the bathroom?
- What's the WiFi password?
- Would you recommend any coffee shops nearby?
So if you have answers to these questions ready to go, you'll have an easy time having conversations with other attendees.
Pro Tip: Because they're common, questions like these can also be a nice way to ease into chatting with someone nearby.
11) Avoid asking yes/no questions.
We've all experienced the following dialogue:
"Do you work nearby?"
Ah, the awkwardness of yes/no questions. Especially when you're just getting to know someone, asking these types of questions can stop conversations right in their tracks. Instead, rely on more open-ended questions on specific topics. If you want more tips on starting and keeping a conversation going with virtually anyone, I'd highly recommend reading this post.
12) Dive into the content.
We've spent a lot of this post talking about how to network while alone, but that's not the only reason you're attending the conference. You're also there to learn, and it's rare that you get a chance to be alone and absorb everything around you. So make the most out of each session. Bring a notebook and take down all your observations. Ask questions during the Q&A portions. Then, go back to your team with actionable insights and takeaways based on it all.
13) Introduce yourself to speakers after the sessions.
One of the best connections you can make at a conference is with the speakers themselves -- that is, if you introduce yourself properly. Take the time to greet them after their sessions and be sure to ask them thoughtful questions (which shouldn't be hard if you were zeroing in on the previous point). If you make a good impression, you could walk way with "weak ties" with some of the smartest folks in the industry.
14) Leave if you really need to.
We all have limits when it comes to networking. Know yours, and be honest with yourself when you've hit it. If you're uncomfortable after spending 20 minutes circling an event without one conversation, it's okay to leave. As long as you've made an honest effort and you're getting value out of the conference in other ways, it's okay to head back to your "home base" when things get to be too overwhelming.
15) Enjoy the alone time.
If the whole networking thing really isn't up your alley, you should take the time to enjoy yourself in a new place. There's something really indulgent about traveling alone -- you can do whatever you want in your free time without consulting anyone else. Hit up that restaurant you really want to try. Take a tour of a nearby attraction. Or relax and take a bubble bath in your hotel room. When you're traveling alone, you're calling the shots.
What other tips do you have for solo conference travelers?