General sessions at events bring everyone together for large scale information and top level keynote presentations. These all-group sessions are, for many, an important reason to attend the event in the first place. Many involve celebrity speakers, industry titans sharing best-practices, core themed topics and thought-leadership principles that inspire.
However, others cringe at the big sessions, and avoid the main hall meetings. They go to go check email, make calls, or catch a nap during the keynote presentations. Some attendees who are focused on high level learning objectives (or other reasons for being at the meeting) see these sessions as "fluff", and think the real learning is only in the breakout sessions.
Vendors and sponsors mistakenly believe that the information shared is not for them, and miss out on a great chance to blur the line between sponsor and attendee by being involved. Since the trade show floor is closed during general sessions they see this block of time as "time off" from the work of being at an event.
A conference, trade show, convention or other industry gathering is a mini-society, and to maximize your investment in attending the event you must participate in the society. It is the keynote speakers who set the tone for the whole conference. The best meeting planners invest a lot of time in finding the right messengers to take the main stage, and thus their words become the foundation of what people talk about for the whole convention.
When you do not show up for a general session you are removing yourself from a powerful connection to others in attendance. When the hallway conversations move to quotes and innuendo from a keynote presentation, you are left out of the discussion.
People do not expect that others were in the same break-out sessions as them, or that you met the same person at the bar. They do assume you were present in the large room sessions. When you have to explain your reason for not being there ("my flight came in late", "I was on a conference call", "I don't do keynotes", "I was taking a nap", etc...) you are telling them you are an outsider to the social norms of the society, and thus not on their team.
While consulting with a company who was attending a major trade show I assigned 100% of their people who would be on site to be present at the general sessions. The rest of the day they could take turns manning the booth and attending other breakouts, networking, etc.... But everyone needed to hear all the keynotes. After the event they all agreed that it made a tangible difference in the success they achieved with their booth / sponsorship for this show. They were able to talk about the interesting points of the keynotes with everyone, and instantly found faster rapport. In the past they had not gone to these sessions, thinking the information was too technical and focused. They discovered the messages to the audience also applied to sales and marketing professionals.
Look at the keynote speakers as a leveling tool. Humans are experiential beings, and when you share an experience together you suddenly have the right to "chit-chat" about what you shared. Skipping the keynote makes you an outsider.
Connecting at a conference is hard enough, do not put yourself at a disadvantage by rationalizing that you do not want to hear a certain speaker. Do all you can to be part of the community from the beginning.
Have A Great Day.
Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. http://www.conferencecatalyst.com