I think I remember it correctly. I overheard Helen Barrett offer that conferences were her favorite way to learn. I paused for a moment; we were both attending NCTE's 21st Century Literacy Institute. I have earlier confessed I have attended my share of conferences, and I consider myself very fortunate. I know there are tens of thousands of teachers who don't share my experience -- lack of resources, lack of invitation, lack of time are likely just a few barriers.
So, what is to be done? Well, increasingly folks have chosen to create parallel experiences of conferences, invite folks to follow along with streams, but is that enough? One interesting version may be EduCon.
Are the tools sufficient to guide a participant through the materials? Check out this Will Richardson post on the ultimate attendee.
What are the essentials of a conference experience that make it valuable? I would argue it is different for different folks and at different times in their career.
I take copious notes every time I attend a conference and try to share as much as I can as fast as I can once I return home.