Business Traveler's Guide to How to Dress for a Conference

Allison Davis

Of all the kinds of business trips you may take, a conference or trade show may be the trickiest to pack for. Due to a variety of factors, it can require some extra thought for any road warrior, from the newest to the most seasoned. Here are some important factors to consider before your next event.

Consider your situation and goals

Before you get into the logistics, take a moment to think about the big picture.

What location will you be traveling to? What is the cultural situation? What's the average climate during your stay?

What type of conference or trade show will you be attending? Is it catered to a specific industry or professional role?

What will be the activity schedule/layout of the event? Will you be centered in one venue, or will you need to do a good amount of walking around the city?

What is the professional position you will be traveling in? (Attendee, exhibitor, high-level sponsor, etc.)

What are your goals for the trip? (Generate new leads, develop partnerships, educate yourself on a topic, etc.)

Answers to these questions should guide your overall approach.

When in doubt, dress up

Many conferences and trade shows will have dress codes posted on the event website, so make sure to check that out if you're a first time attendee. You could also post in any available event forums or on social media using the conference hashtag (which can normally can be found on the event website) asking fellow attendees who have experience with the event.

But even then you may not be able to get a good idea of what the appropriate attire will be; these responses (especially on event websites) can often be vague and generic. So when in doubt, I always dress up at least for the first day. It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed when traveling on business, especially at an event like a conference, when you never know who you might meet. You'll want to be looking your best no matter what capacity you're there in.

In a situation like this, I will bring outfits that can be easily dressed up or down. Nice jackets/blazers, accessories like jewelry or scarves, and interchangeable tops or ties can easily accomplish this.

Choose your bag + shoes wisely

Your bag and shoes – two extremely important elements of your conference attire. You'll want to make sure to choose them wisely.

In terms of a bag, it's a bit of a balancing act. You'll want to make sure you have plenty of space for what you'll need to carry with you for the day (plus some extra room for the inevitable conference swag), but also want it to be professional and comfortable to carry around all day and even into the night if need be.

Avoid ones that are extremely oversized or bulky, and focus instead on bags with good options to keep everything organized and make the best out of the space offered. Think more in the midsize range with smart pockets and compartments throughout.

I also love a bag that offers you different options in terms of carrying it around. Something with a smaller shoulder or hand strap and then also a detachable longer cross-body strap is nice – if you get tired of carrying it one way in the middle of a long day, you can switch over to another.

And in terms of shoes, comfort is key just like in any form of travel. For a conference or trade show though, this factor can be even more important as you may be standing for long periods of time and/or doing a lot of walking. For women I love the option of a wedge in this situation, because you can find a lot of sleek, professional options that are still very comfortable. If you're going into an environment where you feel flats are appropriate, there are many nice options in that category as well. (There are even some great roll-up options out there that you can keep stowed in your bag if you're not sure).

Whatever you choose, always make sure they are nice and broken in before you hit the road in them!

Plan for a long day (that could turn into a long night)

Attending a conference or trade show (in any capacity) can mean especially long days. Then with conference or sponsor-hosted events that can often bleed from evening into the night, I've found it's best to always prepare to be away from your hotel room from the early morning until late night.

For me this means first of all considering pieces that can physically survive this hectic schedule. Much like a day that may involve air travel, try to avoid fabrics that wrinkle or stretch easily and focus instead on those that will hold up over a long period of time that may involve a lot of sitting, standing, walking, etc.

It's also important to think about building an outfit that can easily take you from day to night with some simple modifications. For women that may mean a simple change of blouse or jacket, the addition of a piece of statement jewelry or scarf, or swapping your daytime lipstick or eye shadow for a bolder nighttime hue. Maybe even just throwing your hair in a simple updo or bun, or adding a sophisticated barrette or hair piece. For men it could be as simple as a change of shirt, tie, or jacket.

You never know when something will arise that could prevent you from getting back to your hotel room before dinner or evening events, so it's always smart to plan ahead and make sure you're prepared to make a seamless transition.

Dress in layers

No matter what the weather is outside, you never know what the climate is going to be like inside of a hotel meeting room or convention center. There may be blasting A/C for frigid temperatures one minute, but then later as a room fills up you may find yourself uncomfortably warm. It's always best to prepare for this type of fluctuation by dressing in layers – think a shirt that can be worn with or without the jacket you tote along. I like to carry a pashmina as well that can be worn around the neck and draped over my legs in the event of a particularly chilly room. You'll want to make sure you can be comfortable, while still feeling appropriate, at any temperature.

Incorporate an item that will differentiate you from the crowd

At any given conference or trade show you're likely to encounter hundreds to thousands of people over the course of a day. In coming into contact with so many people, it can be easy to get lost in the crowd. If you want to increase your chances of being remembered, a well-chosen wardrobe selection can be just the ticket.

Now of course you want to stand out from the crowd because of impactful conversations and personal impressions, but it certainly doesn't hurt to help with an eye catching article of clothing or accessory. Think about incorporating a bright color or bold print into your outfit; perhaps a blazer or dress for women, or a tie or shirt for men. If you're unsure, try a memorable accessory - women could opt for a statement necklace, earrings, or scarf, and men could try a colorful pocket square or even a pin placed on their lapel.

Avoid anything that's too over the top and always keep it professional (the whole point is to stand out in a good way), but incorporating something that will differentiate you is a fun way to show your personal style and increase your memorability.

This article originally appeared at Travel and Transport Ultramar's blog

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