A couple of weeks ago, I attended my second writing conference, and I promised I would process that experience here. I'm going to walk through some lessons I've learned and offer advice based on my very limited experience.
Conferences have cultures.
It probably shouldn't have come as a surprise to me that writing conferences could have such different feels to them, but it did. It probably stood out because both conferences were SCBWI regional events and within the same general geographic region. The first conference I attended a year ago was a full weekend event, including two nights, which afforded a significant amount of time for socializing. I interacted with agents and editors in that informal environment, and I even made friends in the process. However, I might argue that the sessions were also looser as a result, with less emphasis on the information and more on the networking. The second conference was very much the opposite. The schedule was packed. If I hadn't been meeting up with a friend from the previous conference, I don't know that I would have talked with anyone there. However, the sessions were stronger, and I felt like I learned more throughout the one day than I had in the entire weekend the year before.
Consider editors' sessions over agent talks.
Maybe this is intuitive to you, but last year as I'd just entered query mode, I was very focused on connecting with the agents, but I gravitated toward editors sessions this year, and I think that may have helped. Most agents have more information about them available on the web. Editors tend to focus a bit more on craft than pitch, which is always useful. This isn't to say the agent sessions aren't valuable, but branch out.
Lower your expectations
These experiences are somewhat overwhelming. I will admit that the first time I attended I had some grand vision of a "some enchanted evening" moment with an agent. I imagine many of us have heard of agent/author connections at conferences, and it seems like a good reason to attend. When I realized how unlikely that was, I went into my second conference with a different attitude which may have altered what I took away.
Skip peer critiques
Allow me to clarify. Peer critiques are always good, and it won't be an option at every conference, but I think finding a longer term, stable critique group/partner is more valuable than the snapshot you get from a one our session at the conference, and your time may be better sent in an informational session.
Take your laptop
If (and hopefully when) inspiration strikes, you'll be able to spend a few minutes organizing thoughts. I'm not afraid to skip a session if it means I can ensure I capture the idea while I've got it. At my first conference, I spent lunches and evenings beginning the process of editing my YA novel to MG, something I'd been resisting for a while. I was able to cut 10K from the novel in that weekend, which I couldn't have done if I'd left the laptop behind.
I continue to explore writing conference opportunities, and I'm very interested in hearing which conferences have been most valuable for fellow writers. Feel free to share!