I went to a poker game instead of my senior prom. In fact, I ditched my entire senior year and went to the community college instead. I met my husband over a broken network cable in the "geek dorm" at college. Somewhere in my life between hanging out in the school library and my technical writing job documenting why the PDP-11 with 8-inch floppy drives didn't have antivirus software, I missed learning how to deal with the whole people and networking aspect of a conference. I have learned some ways to push myself out of my comfort zone (which sitting in a corner by myself reading the expo hall magazine giveaways at lunch and watching cable tv alone in my off-site motel room after sessions) and get a lot more out of a conference.
The first steps are easy, since you can still hide behind your computer. If you haven't already, make accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Add the people you know, then go to Twitter and start following people you want to meet, whose blogs you read, or who look interesting when you do a Twitter search for people talking about the upcoming conference. Participate in the conversations, get to know people. Hey..you've just started networking and it didn't involve a long flight in a middle seat with bad food. That day will come, but you're going to be more prepared. Instead of spending the evening before the conference alone in your room, go to the mixers. You've been talking to these people on Twitter, so it'll be easier to go up and introduce yourself to them, even if you haven't met them in person before. Make friends on Twitter with a couple of people who are more outgoing than you, and ask them if they'd help introduce you to some of the people you'd like to meet. Tell them to prod you a bit and make you stick around longer than you otherwise would have at the socials. Stay an extra 20-30 minutes longer than you might have otherwise. You may not see these people again for several months, so make the most of it. You can always retreat to the corner for a bit and use your cell phone and catch up on email and Twitter.
Speaking of your lodging situation… Try to stay at or near the conference hotel. I live a 30-45 minute drive from SES San Jose and SMX West, yet it is really a pain to fight traffic, find parking, leave early each night to drive home, get up even earlier the next morning to drive back in, and miss out on the extra networking and sleep that everyone else is getting. When you've gotten too much out of your comfort zone, it's great to be able to go back to your room for 30 minutes, drop off all of your extra stuff you picked up in the expo hall, and just have some quiet time.
If your budget doesn't include the expensive conference hotel, find a roommate. It's only for a couple of nights, and you don't have to promise to be BFFs. You can even do this via Twitter. I hit paydirt when I Tweeted that I was going to spend the extra money and get a conference room at SES SJ, even though I was within commuting distance. Carolyn Shelby (cshel) saw that and offered me a bed in her room. I had never met her, yet had talked to her on Twitter so much that I didn't have a problem sharing a room with someone I had never met. I wasn't glued to her side the whole time, but she introduced me to a lot of people. I then followed those people on Twitter, and they've made the next conference full of more friendly faces.
Take a few chances, especially if they're handed to you on a platter. That person with 5,000 followers that you've wanted to meet? If they give an open invitation to all of Twitter for anyone to meet them for breakfast and talk shop, take them up on it! I saw one such request on Twitter, where the person said at least 30 people had wanted to meet her at this conference, and only two had come up to her. Only one person even bothered to come and go out to breakfast. You (or your company) pay lots of money to hear these people speak, you've taken a lot of time to come to this conference, so reach a little and actually take people up on their offers like this.
Go to some sessions that you wouldn't normally attend, you can be surprised by something that you didn't think was necessarily interesting is actually interesting and relevant to your current situation. I often liveblog at conferences, and usually cover every session. There's not always something that looks interesting in each and every timeslot, but I need to attend anyway. I've often found useful information — either things I can use, or I find out I'm real glad I don't have to deal with X in what I do on a daily basis.
Be true to yourself. Do stretch beyond your normal comfort zone and take some chances, but don't force yourself to be something you're not, don't go and get raging drunk to try to fit in if you normally have one glass of wine every other week. I pushed myself and attended more social events than usual at this last conference — but also went down to one of the parties, walked around for a bit, and decided I really needed some "me" time and went back to my room and spent the rest of the evening relaxing. I got a full night of sleep, had time for a relaxed breakfast at IHOP the next morning, and made full use of the next day at the conference.