Coming to the AHEP Conference? Insider Tips for Maximum Impact!

Jonathan Dempsey (he/him)

AHEP Trustee – University of Bath

So, you’re coming to the AHEP conference. “Yay” you might say but whether it’s your first time coming or your tenth you may (still) feel daunted at the prospect of walking into a conference hall and seeing a sea of faces all talking away at each other and you’re standing in the corner drinking a coffee wondering how they all know each other, how do I get myself into one of these conversations?  And will this be my whole conference experience wandering around on my own?

Well, as the sage philosopher Patrick Swayze once said, “nobody puts professional services in a corner!” and lucky for you, we are a friendly and welcoming bunch of people at the conference. We’ve all been there, trying to make our way and “network” and oh, we are supposed to be there learning and possibly reporting back to our mangers and teams about our new knowledge. Hey, it isn’t easy, but hopefully I can offer some tips of how to get the most out of the conference. So, here’s my guide for before, during, and after the conference:

Before the conference

Ask yourself, what is it you want to get or learn from the conference?

Now this could be something related to your role or it could be something you’re interested in. So while you may work in compliance and you know you are definitely heading to the session with James Muray and Joanne Clement on the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act you may have your own personal goals. You might even want to consider doing doctoral studies, if so (some shameless self-promotion) come to my session about the doctoral journey for professional services. Finding that balance of work and personal exploration is really important to get the most out of the conference

With that in mind, go and login to the AHEP website and choose the sessions you want to go to. Do this sooner rather than later as sessions quickly fill up.

Once you’ve selected your sessions start checking out the speakers. You can do a bit of LinkedIn investigating and start following the speakers or even reach out and connect with them letting them know you will be attending their sessions. Not only are you increasing your network but you’re also getting some faces to know when you arrive that you can say hello to.

Also, don’t forget to sign up to get a buddy (or of this isn’t your first time become a buddy) and have someone you know before you even arrive!

It’s not only preparing for the sessions, or making buddies, make sure you pack well. There’s no need to turn up in business professional attire, wear something comfortable. You will potentially be on your feet for large portions of the day so having comfortable shoes is a must. 
Also, wear layers. This is the UK after all and in March it could either be snowing or a heatwave (sometimes in the same day) so make sure you can be comfortable in both. Plus, if like me you are little clumsy and spill coffee on yourself then you can quickly hide it!

Oh, and one more thing – pack a notebook and pen.

During the conference

So, now you’re here, checked in, and looking at the sea of faces all talking and queueing up for coffee and pastries wondering how you start that conversation.

Now for me, I’m an introverted extrovert or maybe an extroverted introvert but either way I find it uncomfortable wandering up to strangers and trying to spak a conversation. Luckily for me, I have a big badge that says “trustee” so I can use that to start a conversation – it’s my conversation starter safety blanket.

Sadly, you don’t get a big badge so while you may not see some of those speakers you connect with on LinkedIn here are some ways to get the conversation started

Remember, everyone is probably feeling a little nervous so it’s time to go super British and bring out the small talk. Now, this is an HE conference, so while the weather could be a topic starter here are some more HE ones:

“Hmph Data Futures hey…”

“Have you seen [insert new Tory policy here], this is going to make my job more difficult/interesting how about you?”

“I heard that the conference has an annual fire alarm at the dinner. Do you think it will happen again this year?”

However, you can just go as simple as “Hi, I’m … from … Where have you come from?” But if that still feels a bit daunting, then don’t worry. Keep an eye out for me (a bald bearded man with a trustee badge showing photos of his dog), the other trustees and the AHEP team. We are here to make sure you can enjoy the conference and we’’’ happily help you meet new people and get conversations started.

Also speak to the new Special Interest Groups (SIG) and vendors. These are a whole bunch of people who want to speak to you and you never know there may be a freebie or two you can grab!

Now conference is starting proper, time to head into your sessions. 
Don’t hide in the back row like a cool kid, join the busy rows and meet some more people.

And remember that notebook I said pack. Time to get it out and make notes in your sessions. A lot of information will be coming at you so it’s good to write down some key points and things you want to take back with you after the conference

If you feel comfortable to then ask questions, however if you’re not a fan of public speaking then after the sessions just go chat to the speakers. We will all love talking more about our topics including when we are walking over to get a coffee between sessions.

Another handy thing to have on you is your phone with LinkedIn ready to go so you can connect with people. Here’s a simple guide of how you can share your LinkedIn QR code so people can connect with you more easily

We could talk about lots more about what to do but let’s leave some mystery and learning to you and maybe next year you can share some of your top tips!

After the conference

So, you’re on your way home or it’s a few days later. Should the conference just remain a memory like your PDR? No. There is still much to gain.

When you have time, look through your notes and reflect what you learned at conference, how it will impact your day to day working, and your own development. Hey, you could even share these insights with Development Monthly. Either way, this is a great way to take stock of those two or three days so that it becomes more than just a few days out of the office.

Remember those people you connected with at conference? Reach out to them. You may have some ideas they can help with or you want to carry on your conference conversations. As much as the conference is learning about specific topics it also about finding your HE tribe, your community. That’s one of my favourite parts of being a member of AHEP!

So there are some of my tips.

I can’t wait to see everyone at the conference. It really is a special time in the HE calendar where we can share experiences, learn, and just have a good ol’ laugh

See you soon!

Why you should join AHEP

Jonathan Dempsey (he\him) – AHEP Member and Trustee

AHEP Trustee – University of Bath

What’s in it for me?

It’s the people I have met through being a member and a trustee.
AHEP has opened up connections and conversations across the sector and while it has improved my network it has gone beyond that and I have found friends and a community of people to share this weird journey of working in HE.

What experiences have had an impact on your career?

There is no one experience that I can pick out. However, it is the amalgamation of my whole journey through AHEP that has left an indelible mark upon me. From conversations sparked at conference, attending CPD sessions, and working with the AHEP team and trustees I have always left knowing more, what to find out more, feeling challenged but ultimately listened to and appreciated by my peers. That is just a nice feeling to have when we can often feel the opposites of this in our places of work.

What benefits have you personally found of being an AHEP member? 

My favourite benefit is having access to a hive mind of great professionals across the sector. If I’ve been stuck on something or had a challenge at work that I couldn’t figure out I knew I could pop on to Teams and send a message out to the AHEP groups and get an answer or some ideas. This alone is worth the membership fee.

The 2024 AHEP Conference warmly welcomes you to join us in an engaging and inclusive dialogue centred around the ever-evolving landscape of higher education (HE). As the UK prepares for a general election before January 2025, we explore how HE continually adapts, thrives, and innovates regardless of the prevailing political landscape. But this conference isn’t just about politics with a capital ‘P’; it’s about navigating the multifaceted world of politics with a small ‘p.’ Our inaugural conference invites professionals at all career stages, especially those who are new to the higher education sector, to be a part of this transformative experience.

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