I started my career during the early days of the Internet... well before there existed great technical resources like Stack Overflow. When you had a tricky problem with a framework or operating system, you had limited places to go to. Books were often out-of-date or too high-level, vendor support could be costly & take time to acquire and a few specialized forums like Yahoo groups where participation varied widely by topic.
Back then conferences were then a great way to get deep technical information directly from the vendors that you simply wouldn't find online. Additionally you could find that guy who hit the same kernel bug that you were facing. You'd excitedly exchange notes & email addresses and expand your view of the world.
Nowadays, in terms of cost vs. benefit sending your team members to a conference is debatable. It's become a big business... nearly doubling this decade according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registration and travel costs are high compared to a typical business trip. Additionally, any big announcements from the vendor are tweeted out immediately and often the full content becomes available via blog post & youtube in the weeks following.
However, there are still good reasons to send your team members to tech conferences or attend yourself. Here are some tips to help make the most of the investment...
At lunch/breakfast lunch, don't sit at the table with everyone else from your company... make yourself a little uncomfortable & sit at another table. If those guys aren't talking (as can happen in our industry of introverts) move to another table.
Seek out that guy who asked the question in a talk that you were going to ask - chances are he's having a similar problem.
More & more I see these conferences stealing ideas from rock concerts with light shows, huge screens, pounding bass and lavish after-parties.
All of this spectacle can create the impression that the speakers themselves are (like rock stars) unattainable celebrities. They are not. Most of these guys spend a normal day at a keyboard, just like you. If you have deeper questions not addressed in the talk, seek them out! I've had luck usually hanging around after the talk, but if that's not feasible hit them up on email or Twitter to meet-up for coffee later.
Your manager could say I want you to spend 100% of your time next week learning about technology X... but in practice, distractions will inevitably creep in.
There's a lot to be said for using the conference as a "retreat" from the daily grind and allowing yourself to focus on one topic for a few days.
Set your out-of-office to let the team know you'll be out of pocket during the day, avoid reading your emails, work with your manager to opt-out of calls/meetings unless it's an emergency.
Don't wait until you're back to write-up a trip report. Take good notes about the experience in the moment with an eye toward applicability to your product. Distill it into a blog post on the way home. Bonus points if you can demo some of the technology & techniques you learned in a live session.
Last and definitely least - is the swag. Although I'll be the first to admit I've elbowed my way through a crowd to get my hands on a plastic gadget, let's admit this stuff is usually junk. But hey free is free!
Photo is swag you probably wouldn't be caught dead wearing outside of the conference.