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I’ve been to nearly a dozen industry trade shows in my career, but never as an attendee -- always as a staffer. So I decided it was time to go undercover as an attendee at an actual trade show.

Okay, what really happened was my boss said I should register for a conference that he was attending. Something about “professional development” and “networking.” Clearly, he never got the message that I’m supposed to be the one offering insights to attendees. When I reminded him that it’s not in my job description to sit in a seminar room taking notes for three straight days, he replied: “Are you flying out of National, Dulles or BWI?”

That’s how I found myself in the Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland last month.

I resolved to make the best of it. Maybe it was my strong sense of professional duty, or maybe it was because my boss was with me (hint: the latter) but I was determined to get the most out of this conference. I would even return from Cleveland full of advice for others.

So without further ado, here are my insights for making the most of my organization's annual conference -- or any future trade show you might attend:

Fix your attitude. I wasn’t exactly resentful about going, but I did have a lot on my plate at work and that stressed me out. But I set these concerns aside, and you should too. There’s only so much work you can do while at a conference. Just focus on the event.

Gaze into the future. If you’re like me, you’re always putting out fires at the office or performing daily tasks. In Cleveland, I specifically chose sessions that offered a window into the future of my field. That helped me plan for the coming year and beyond.

Look for specific solutions. I’m struggling with new social media, so I attended a session in Cleveland on Snapchat. Voila! I left with great advice and a way forward that will help me leverage this platform.

Inspiration is everywhere. Walking the halls, I ran into a podcaster who gave me great advice on starting a podcast at my organization's annual conference. He wasn’t on the agenda; he wasn’t even an exhibitor. But happening upon him proved an invaluable discovery.

Get out of your shell. In other words, be outgoing. Meet new people. “Networking” is sometimes a dirty word but it shouldn’t be. Rather than scurry back to my hotel room, I forced myself to attend conference happy hours. I met some really nice people and we talked shop. I don’t know if they’ll ever help my career or vice versa, but it sure beat eating room service by myself.

Go see Cheap Trick if they are the conference entertainment. Okay, this is very specific advice. But my boss dragged me to see them and they rocked. Hearing Cheap Trick cover The Velvet Underground wasn’t the invaluable experience I had in mind when I registered, but it was another way that getting out of my comfort zone paid big dividends.

I came back from Cleveland armed with a bunch of great ideas that I immediately implemented -- plus I had plenty to think about for the future. I met great people. I practically stumbled across inspiration around every corner. I saw Cheap Trick. My assignment became time well spent.

I hope your conference experience is as successful as mine.

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