I haven't been going to conferences for long enough to say for sure, but the past three and a half years suggest that I take the yo-yo-diet approach to conferencing: periods of binging and periods of fasting. My first binge began in my fifth year of grad school, when--not having attended a single conference up until that point--I ran out and presented at five in twelve months. Then there was a period of contraction, where I presented at only a couple each year--and now here I am, binging again: I've got three conferences in the next two months and a likely fourth and fifth over the summer and early fall.
This pattern isn't exactly intentional, being driven largely by outside factors (being on the market or not being on the market; which years biennial or triennial conferences happen to fall on), but one factor that doesn't much affect my conference attendance is the state of my bank account. That doesn't make much sense--conferences are expensive, and I've never yet held a position that came close to adequately meeting my travel needs. Right now, I'm maxing out my departmental travel budget; I'm using frequent flyer miles; I'm applying for a small internal grant; I'm sharing a hotel room in one location--and, if all goes well, I'll only be out of pocket $700 for three conferences.
Written out like that, it's ridiculous. But I feel, very strongly, that I need to be doing this conference work right now. I need to be getting my work out there, and I need to be meeting people. Some of this is about motivating myself for future projects ("if I write an abstract and it gets accepted, then I'll have to write something--and then that's the germ of a new article or book chapter"); some of it's about refining material that I'm already working on; and some of it's about trying to position myself for the possibility of being back on the market in two or three years.
But need and want have never been entirely distinct concepts for me, as those who recall the message that I once taped to my credit cards ("wants are not needs") are well aware. The truth of the matter is that I want to go to these conferences. I love conferences, particularly the ones that I attend regularly and where I know the people--but at this point, there are always at least a few people I know at every conference, and emailing back and forth to set up lunch and dinner dates or to arrange a cab or rental car share is itself a pleasurable, anticipatory act.
I know that some academics regard conferences as the one or two times a year that they're fully able to reimmerse themselves in their field and reconnect with their scholarly community--and that's probably true, to some degree, for all of us, whether we're at research institutions that support colloquia and reading groups in our field or whether we're at teaching institutions with insanely heavy teaching loads and rarely publish.
But honestly? As useful as conference-going is, and as professionally necessary as it is, it's also just a damn lot of fun. So many people, so many meals and receptions, and that nice big hotel room at the end of the day. In grad school I attended one conference with a classmate of mine whom I didn't know particularly well, but finances inspired us to rent a car together and share a room--and we then did nothing but talk all weekend long, from the tedious car drive to the nights in the hotel room to the three hours we spent drinking in the airport bar after our flight was delayed. There's one conference I attend where it's common for attendees to stay up all night on the last night before flying out early the next morning. (That's the conference that also features singing and limericks. It is not, I hasten to add, typical of conferences in my field, although I wish it were.)
And, of course, there are the panels, but the panels--as good as they may or may not be--are only a part of what conferences are about; the real information, the real exchange of knowledge, often happens elsewhere, when you learn who has a new book out, who changed jobs, and who left his wife for their grad student cat-sitter. It's talking all day and all night long, and whether or not I'm sharing a room with someone, and whether or not I have a full schedule of meal-dates, the experience reminds me of slumber parties and summer camp, where you get to know so many people, in such a short period of time, and sometimes rather intimately--but who may wind up being your BFF, or who may never cross your path again.
(Now, if only those conference papers were actually written. . .)