Tips for how to ask for time off to attend conferences

Asking for time off to attend a conference can be nerve-racking, these tips will get you closer to attending the conferences you're interested in

Attending conferences can be an incredibly rewarding experience, it can reinvigorate you and improve the quality of your work for a very long time after the conference has ended.

We aren’t all fortunate enough to be able to afford to take time off work to attend conferences though, so often we need to ask work to pay for them.

I’ve had a pretty good hit rate at getting my various bosses to agree to pay for me to attend conferences. I could have just been incredibly lucky, but I wanted to share some tips on how I’ve went about requesting the time off.

I've always had a pretty good hit rate getting bosses to pay for conference tickets. I may have just been lucky but here are some tips;
Toby Osbourn (@tosbourn) November 1, 2017

Pick Your Medium

I try to do things like this via email, often it isn’t important enough to interrupt someone immediately. These tips aren’t really medium dependant so long as you do your research before hand, if asking face to face you have access to all the things I’m going to mention.

If you notice in that last paragraph I said “try to do things like this via email”, the reason I say try is because an important thing to consider is how your boss is going to process the request. If they are the type of person to immediately yay/nay a thing based on a gut reaction, you can ask in person and get the same result as in email. If your boss is busy, and likes time to consider things, then something off-band like email is perfect.

My point here is whilst you may have a preferred way of communicating with someone, it is important to consider how they would prefer the communication to happen, especially since you want something from them.

Provide all the information they need to say yes

The first thing someone is going to want to know is the relevant costs, both in terms of money and time. This includes things like;

  • Ticket cost
  • Travel cost
  • Hotel cost
  • Time away from work
  • How contactable you will be whilst away

These things are fairly easy to estimate or get hard figures for.

The reason I ask how contactable you will be is because if the conference doesn’t start until 10am or finishes at 4pm or something, it might be the case that you can still be available to take part in any meetings you might have in the morning or afternoon.

The reason I think you should itemise these is because instead of saying “I want 3 days off and £1000 from the budget”, which is easy to say no to, you’re asking for a small list of things, each thing can be discussed.

It might be company policy to not pay for hotels, or maybe they will cover the ticket and hotel but you have to pay for the bus/flight/whatever yourself. Splitting your request down makes it easier for someone to say no to one thing but not the entire list. Which increases your odds of a yes.

Explain the benefits

If your manager is also a practitioner of what you work in then you may not need to explain the benefits too much, if someone asked me to go to RubyConf all I need to know is how much it will cost, I’m aware of the value.

If someone asked me to go to SalesConfUSA, I’d need to know more about what it is and why it is important. I know nothing about sales.

You should break down why it is relevant, covering things such as;

  • Relevance to the work you’re currently doing
  • Relevance to the work you will be doing in the future
  • Mention anything that has a business interest (we know faster sites convert more, this conference is all about making faster sites)

You should also explain what types of things you hope to get out of it in terms of if it will be great for networking, learning, showcasing your company. Maybe your competitors are sponsoring, it might be nice to see what they’re up to.

Propose how you would share information

This is a crucial step in my opinion. This is where you explain that you can distil the value you’ve gained to other members of the team or company.

This can turn something that was maybe seen as coming out of the education budget to something that could be a marketing budget or internal training.

I normally offer to do an internal lightning talk, going over my main learnings. I will often write up a lot of what I’ve learned and offer to share on the company blog.

When I was speaking about this, Ciaran Conliffe had a great idea to come up with a TV style viewing guide for conference content that was going to publish videos online.

For a conference that was putting all of its videos online, I had myself and the other attendees create a 'TV Guide' -style set of reviews.
Cia͘r̡a̡n͞ ̛C̶ǫn͝l̡i̧ff͘e̕ (@shinyemptyhead) November 1, 2017

This is a business request

One thing to remember is that this is a business request, this isn’t you asking for a favour.

You are suggesting that in order to provide more value to the company you want to do a thing. It is no different to suggesting a process improvement.

By this point you should know all the costs and associated benefits. If worded correctly and properly thought out, hopefully the benefits outweigh the costs.

If that is the case, no astute manager should be able to deny the request without just cause.

Follow up

Once you’ve got all this information and communicated it in a good way the next thing we need to do is wait.

Wrong, follow up.

Don’t miss out on cheap flights or early bird specials because your manager didn’t get back to you in time.

If you’ve made a solid request then them not following up is reducing the overall value you can bring to the company (because the costs will increase but the value of going stays the same).

How frequently you follow up depends on a couple of things;

  • How often you normally communicate with your manager – if it is only once a week, then emailing them daily about this might be overkill!
  • How far away the conference is – something next week needs a bit more of a push than something a year from now. Bare in mind that flight prices fluctuate.

Example email

I want to end this post by sharing a sample email you could send, this is to give you an idea of the language and size I’ve used in the past. Like any sample you see on the internet, please adjust to your tastes before using

Hey Boss,

I’d like to attend WebConf5000 (link-to-webconf5000), it is a 2 day conference in London on the 22nd and 23rd March on the topic of Web Performance.

One of our targets this year is to improve conversions on the site, there is plenty of research to suggest a faster loading website would help with this.

This conference has a track that would be particularly relevant to our project and I will have a chance to speak to Speaker X and Maintainer of Project Y and ask them about some of those issues we just haven’t been able to solve.

I will need 3 days off work to attend, the tickets are £700. I’ve looked at some travel options and if I booked now flights would be £200 and hotels are about £200.

I will be taking extensive notes and my view is to update our documentation and deliver a talk to the Frontend Team on what I learned.

I can be available the two days it is on between 9am and 10am if the team needed me on the phone. The 21st I will be travelling all day.

If there is anything else you’d like to know to help make your decision let me know.

Thanks, Toby

Once you’re at the conference

Once you’ve blown your boss away with your amazingly well thought out request and have been sent to the conference you should try and make the most of it. I have two articles which might help you. One is a guide to writing up conference talks and the other is how to get spoken to at conferences.

Enjoy the conference!

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