BBC Capital

Work Ethic

It’s a conference, not a vacation — right?

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

When others skip out on conference sessions, do you feel cheated? (Wavebreak Media)

When others skip out on conference sessions, do you feel cheated? (Wavebreak Media)

Q: At a recent professional conference, I was baffled by how many attendees skipped most of the sessions, which were typically half full. Instead, they all seemed to be sleeping in, or hanging out at the pool or gym. My company sends me to these conferences to learn and to network with others. By playing hooky, these no-shows are cheating me out of my attendance fee. How do I deal with this?

A: When you’ve cleared your schedule and flown out to a conference only to discover that many of the other attendees are bailing out of the event, it’s logical to feel duped. You want to meet the right people in your field, and you also don’t want to feel as though everyone else is off socializing and making connections while you’re taking notes.

But there’s a reason why industry conferences and academic meetings are held in posh resorts. People don’t just sign up to spend three days in Las Vegas because they want to sit in a darkened ballroom listening to speakers the entire time. So it’s understandable that attendees might choose the most-relevant sessions and skip some of the less-compelling presentations.

Your fellow attendees might just need a break from all that thinking.

“I tried once to listen attentively to presentations from 8 am to 6 pm for three consecutive days and found it to be impossible,” said C. Dominik Güss, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, who studies decision making.

There are other reasons you’re one of the few people in the work sessions. Some attendees might stay in town for only part of the conference, to save on hotel bills and meals. And not all the sessions are useful to every participant, Güss said.

“Conference topics are highly specialised and even a scholar from one area cannot follow the developments of the field in another area and therefore might choose not to go to these presentations,” he said.

The most useful approach is to put aside your annoyance and attend the sessions you need for your own job. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room; “during the presentations you have to listen and cannot network anyway,” Güss said.

By attending, you’ll be fulfilling your obligation to your employer, who is paying for your trip. As for the non-attendees, if they’re shirking work by not paying attention to the conference program, that’s between them and their own companies.

Try to make the most of the trip outside of the sessions by chatting up anyone you meet in the coffee line and at meals. And if there’s a time slot when the program is too far outside your area, make plans to meet up with others, even if it’s poolside. That’s networking, too.

If attending conferences isn’t helping you meet the industry leaders you want to meet, Güss suggested contacting them separately. That works well in academia, in particular, he said: “Faculty are, in my experience, very open and helpful.”

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com. 

There’s a reason why industry conferences and academic meetings are held in posh resorts.