ATD-sam4Though I’ve attended several learning conferences in the past dozen years, this year’s visit to the ATD International Conference & Expo (ATD ICE) was certainly a perspective shift. Likely because I’ve recently started making the rounds as a speaker on the professional Learning & Development (L&D) circuit. The result is that now I’m far more picky about the events that I will continue to attend — and I also have even more appreciation for all that is ATD ICE!

Other organizations with domestic conferences like DevLearn, Training, Learning DevCamp, etc. each draw different kinds of crowds and thus provide very different experiences and impressions of our industry. Some of these may be the perfect thing for you! But realize that some may not.

ATD ICE is by far the biggest, and with this there are simply more intersections of every kind. Whether it’s the size of the expo hall or the number of presenters or the variety of roles of attendees or the diverse array of industries represented or the global draw of the event, ATD ICE seems to have something for everyone involved in any aspect of training.

Basically, whatever you’re into, there’s a lot of it here.

As I’ve written about previously, the networking IS the value of any such conference, and it’s the activities around the official schedule that yield the greatest reward.

Yes, of course you want to hear the wise words from the stars of L&D, but chatting about what you’ve learned with other attendees is inevitably the juiciest and most memorable part. Plus, you might just rub elbows and ask questions of your L&D idols informally over a meal or in the halls or at one of the many afterparties that vendors are always hosting. Never skimp on these things.

In fact, this is exactly why I have taken to speaking, to gain greater access to the unofficial events where “the cool kids” hang out. That’s how I finally met Shannon Tipton (one of my eLearning idols) and was invited to write this very post for her Learning Rebels blog (subsequently republished here). I didn’t ask her if I could write something, I just cared about what she does and made a point of saying so in a relaxed context. Then an unexpected opportunity appeared. Score!

You see, like thousands of others, I traveled to ATD2016 to listen and to learn. I want to know what challenges my peers are facing, what solutions they are leveraging. I want to hear people gripe, I want to learn what inspires them. I want to update my knowledge about what matters to whom and why, and conferences like this are the very best place to do it.

Unlike some other speakers, there’s nothing for me to sell. I’m not looking for work, and I have no product to hype. I go to conferences because I’m passionate about L&D and I want to meet to others who are too, though I’m not naturally great at initiating conversations. Upon seeing the Speaker ribbon on my nametag, people inevitably come up and talk to me about something I happen know a lot about — or at least am interested in. When that happens, all I have to do is respond. Then conversations become engaging and new professional relationships become easy.

Of course when you’re a speaker you still have to get up and present your session. When I first walked into the room to set up for mine and noticed it held about 250 people, it seemed…big. Especially being up against nearly 20 other concurrent sessions on Day 1 (a Sunday, no less!), I did not expect to good audience numbers. And yet by the time I started it was comfortably full. It went very well. Several other sessions that I tried to pop into later were filled to the brim.

Likewise, each of the keynotes spilled over into overflow rooms by their appointed start. If you were on time, you were too late. I believe this is a good thing, a subtle way of conditioning people to take the entire event seriously. ATD ICE was serious, and it was also pretty fun.

Operating an event that straddles this line at this scale is no small matter. As someone who has produced events in the past, it’s easy for me to spot when the edges are fraying. I see it all the time, but happily not at ATD ICE. I’m sure the event production team had some problems somewhere (every event does!) but I must say it was totally invisible to me. The staff was professional & friendly, the volunteers were enthusiastic & informed, and the attendees/presenters were directed clearly & consistently as things changed. Kudos to them.

From every angle, I was impressed with my #ATD2016 experience. I look forward to returning in 2017 in Atlanta, and hope to see you there!