Getting to go: how to ask for support to attend a conference

Attending a conference can seem expensive: as well as the registration fee there may be travel and accommodation expenses to pay. Your employer will want to feel confident they are getting value for their investment.

If you have never asked for this kind of professional development before, it can be a bit daunting. I’m going to outline a generic process for seeking support to attend a conference. Every organisation is different; you will need to tailor your approach to suit your own situation.

Tip: if possible, start this process early enough so that you can take advantage of earlybird registration and travel discounts. People will admire your forethought – and your responsible use of the organisation’s money!

Do some research

First, identify which conference you want to attend. Look for an event that’s relevant to your work and that offers a good mix of formal and informal learning contexts.

Think about the five main reasons to attend a conference and how this particular conference addresses them.

Figure out who is the conference’s main audience. Is it people like you, at a similar stage of their career? That’s a good choice, because the content and themes will probably be clearly related to your role and your team.

It’s also OK to select a conference that’s aimed at a more senior audience: that’s where you will learn to think more strategically, understand global trends and perspectives, or perhaps find a new mentor.

Tip: some conferences provide a ‘convince the boss’ flyer or template. Explore the conference website and have a look at any archived materials from previous events.

Open the conversation

Once you have some basic information about the conference, speak informally to your supervisor or manager about attending.

In this initial conversation you can suggest that the conference would be a good professional development opportunity for you.

It’s also a good idea at this stage to ask whether there is a formal approval process for this kind of request. If there is a formal process, make sure you follow it carefully and don’t miss deadlines.

A day or two after the initial conversation, follow up with a succinct email setting out:

  • Name, date and location of the conference
  • Brief description of the event, eg “national conference held annually; primarily for middle managers and directors in the procurement field”
  • Cost estimate (registration fee, travel, accommodation)
  • How the experience will benefit you, your team, and the organisation

Describe the benefits clearly

In conversation, and in the email, be specific about the key benefits:

The keynote by Professor X is about new technologies that relate to our current project

In the concurrent sessions I expect to learn about Topic A, which will help me to perform better in my current role; and Topic D, which could be a useful technique for our team to adopt

Meeting people in similar roles at other organisations, so that we can compare notes on best practices and techniques

When the conference program is released, highlight the sessions you think will be particularly useful. Ask your manager whether there are other topics you should explore or people you should try to meet at the conference.

By this stage you have enough information to create a personal learning plan for the conference. Set out your goals and success measures on a single page and use that document to keep notes during the event. This will help you to reflect, make sense, and get the most out of the conference experience.

Offer extra value

The more you can do to demonstrate value, the more likely you are to get organisational support to attend the conference.

Of course, you personally will benefit from the experience. And you can spread that value more widely, to your team and across the whole organisation.

When asking for support, include a plan for sharing what you learn. Consider how to deliver the maximum benefit to other staff. Here are some examples, from simple to ambitious:

  • Share your personal learning plan with your mentor or supervisor and meet for a one-to-one debrief after the conference.
  • A written report will probably be read by only one or two people.
  • To reach a wider audience you could post short snippets of information on Yammer or the intranet, or put an article in the staff newsletter.
  • For greater impact, give a short face-to-face presentation to your team or at an all-staff forum.

And finally – after you’ve been to the conference and shared your learnings, remember to say thanks to the people who helped you get there.