When you get involved in association activities at a local level, eventually, if you are committed to the process, you’ll evolve to local executive responsibilities and then discover you either are expected or are invited to attend regional and ultimately national conventions and conferences. I’ve enjoyed this privilege most clearly with Construction Specifications Canada (CSC) (The US counterpart is the Construction Specifications Institute — CSI) and with the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS).
The first impression on attending these events is: “Wow” — as you discover a new level of connections, relationships and ideas/insights. It’s like a high-powered and intense networking and educational process, at the same time, and if (as I recommend) your association involvement focuses on client interests more than your own, some pretty powerful sales and business-development opportunities.
Some of this effect wears off after the first go-round. Conventions, like most other human activities, evolve into stable traditions. After you’ve been through the experience once, you’ll know what to expect, and when, and so some of the awe and shock surprise of the first time around dissipates. As well, of course, you will generally see many of the same people in the same spots; good for renewing acquaintances, of course, but not so powerful in developing new leads and opportunities. (Not surprisingly, local delegates tend to hang out with each other — but this is still worthwhile for business development, as you share insights and observations and can quickly pop a question or two that could lead to profitable business arrangements.)
There also is the less-positive “junket” aspect to these conventions. For example, I haven’t been to Canadian Construction Association conventions, held every other year in a warm and sunny spot, but observe that the convention business could be compressed in about half the time in the program schedule?– considering the many hours free for golf, sightseeing tours, and otherwise free time. Here, two forces are at work: Regional association officers and executive members receive expense-account tickets, so they are quite happy to partake in the break. Company owners and executives, meanwhile, claim tax write-offs for what would otherwise be a pleasant winter vacation. The junket aspect, I think, can inflate costs somewhat — if you are fortunate to have your dues/fees reimbursed, then of course these events are a good deal; but maybe not so much if you need to dig into your own pocket. (Of course, there is a counter-argument even to this point: When you are spending scarce and hard-earned money, you truly appreciate and absorb the experience to gain maximum value; something you don’t think so much about when it is a free ride.)
Overall, I think that you should budget and participate in at least two relevant national conferences a year. You may, like me, get some free passes or reduced costs (The local CSC chapter pays my convention fees and travel costs because i am the chapter chair, and SMPS has granted me a media pass to help in the final judging of association’s national marketing awards competition, though I must pay my own travel and accommodation costs.)
If you need to pay your own way, take a look at where you can connect with the greatest number of potential clients/colleagues and your schedule. If you plan things right, you’ll at least be able to enjoy a “convetion” (convention+vacation).