Academic conferences are strange beasts. The basic premise is to bring together a bunch of people working in related areas and to get them to exchange ideas. Hopefully, as the ideas flow between attendees, the resulting swirls and storms will inspire new ideas. Some people contribute to the flow by giving talks, others by presenting posters, but, after the formal sessions are done, everybody gets involved there's plenty of chatter.
That's on the face of it. If you look below the surface, you see slightly more. Most attendees combine this exchange with a skillful level of political cunning. People will cosy up to potential reviewers, if they are about to submit a manuscript, or try to establish reputations, if they're thinking of changing their position. In fact, many would say that the need for political manoeuvring is really what drives most conferences.
Needless to say, you gain the most insight into this at the bar. In fact, the more conferences I go to, the more I see the bar as providing the most important sessions to attend, particularly on the night of the conference dinner. When people are relaxing, are less inhibited and arguably have their guard down, you can learn a great deal. Far more than any amount of chit-chat over tea and biscuits will ever tell you.
I've learned a lot in the bar at my last few conferences, but it's a dangerous game to play. A few too many drinks and you end up loosing more than you gain. And for nothing, you'll have to navigate your way through the rest of the conference with a hangover.
This is a lesson I'm slowly learning.