It's no secret that people are cutting back on attending conferences. Even if your organization has a bulletproof marketing plan for enticing your membership, it won't work if prospective participants can't convince the people holding the purse strings.

All too often, people who want to attend a conference simply submit a request and cross their fingers. As a meeting professional, you can help your members by showing them how to put together a business case for why they should attend your conference—and how to get the most out of the event once they're there.  (And note this: As a meeting professional, you also can use this strategy yourself, to get approval for the meeting industry education and networking conferences you personally want to attend each year.)

All prospective conference attendees should show their leaders how conference participation will relate directly to the strategies and objectives of their own organizations. That way, they can articulate the value of their continued professional development.

Imagine your organization sending an e-mail or pamphlet to your membership that contains information like this:

How to Get Approval to Attend This Year's Annual Conference
In our current economic climate, getting approval to attend meetings may be more challenging for you now than it has been in the past. Here are three steps you can use to build a business case for attending our Annual Meeting:

1. Write down the three to five most important strategies or issues being addressed in your organization right now. Think about how you personally contribute to those strategies. How is your work aligned with the larger organization's strategy or mission? Make a list of these “personal contributions to strategy.”
2. Review our proposed agenda for the conference and mark the sessions you want to attend that relate to your list of “personal contributions to strategy,” and also make a note of speakers or other people at the meeting you would like to meet.
3. Write a short business case for how attending these sessions and meeting these people will help you contribute to the organization's strategy. Use this business case to make your request for attending the meeting.

For example, part of your business case might read as follows: “At present, our organization is highly focused on cost savings. My personal contribution to this organizational strategy is to be responsible for finding ways to reduce sales costs. At the XYZ annual conference there is a session entitled, 'Using Technology to Maximize Sales Efficiencies,' and an expert, Sarah Smith, will be running the session. I would like to attend Smith's session and also meet with her privately in order to get ideas about maximizing the cost savings we could receive from using technology in my area.”

Preparing for the Meeting
Once you get approval, you should prepare properly for the conference because you're going to need to demonstrate to the person who's paying your way that you received the benefits outlined in your business case.  Here are some things you can do to prepare for the conference:

1. Make a list of people you'd like to meet at the conference and why you want to meet them. Don't be shy about approaching presenters and other “luminaries.” They are more accessible than you might think, especially if you make plans with them in advance.
2. About one to two weeks prior to the conference, contact the people on your list. Make a specific plan for a meal, coffee, or a time and place to get together.
3. One week prior to the meeting, make a personal agenda for yourself that includes the people you're meeting as well as which sessions you'll be attending. Be sure to include cellphone numbers or any other contact information you may need for any last-minute changes to your schedule.
4. When you're at the meeting, try to stick to your schedule as much as possible and take notes during the educational sessions and during your private conversations. However, leave some “white space” on your calendar in case you encounter new people at the meeting with whom you'd like to spend some time.

After the Meeting
1. Immediately following the conference (perhaps on the airplane ride home), write or dictate a concise summary of what happened at the conference and how you will use the information you received and contacts you made to further the strategies of your organization. It's important to write this one- or two-page summary quickly, while the information is fresh in your mind. Use the notes you took at the meeting to help you.
2. Submit the summary to the person who sponsored your attendance, thanking him or her for the opportunity. The purpose of this summary is to make your next conference request even easier than the first. Once your executives understand that you mean business when you attend a conference, they'll be more likely to quickly approve your participation at future events.
3. If the knowledge you gained might also be useful to others in your organization, consider rewriting portions of your summary as a blog or Twitter post.

Attending conferences is one of the best ways of responding to times of increased uncertainty. Conferences are all about collaboration and learning—essential ingredients for innovation, economic recovery, and organizational success.

Mary Boone is president of Boone Associates, Essex, Conn. She has been an expert in interactive meeting design for over two decades. At the height of the meetings crisis in 2008, she wrote a white paper, The Four Elements of Strategic Value for Meetings and Events, which is included in the curriculum for MPI’s CMM designation. She is also the author of several books, including “Managing Interactively” (McGraw-Hill) and “Leadership and the Computer” (Prima Publishing), and numerous other award-winning articles and publications. If you have any questions about this article, please contact her at mary@maryboone.com or via Twitter @maryboone.