Writing conferences, it seems to me, can be useful to new writers and poets for three distinct reasons. A writing conference, by the way, is as the term pretty much implies -- a gathering of creative writers (some veteran, some emerging, some new) who explore a variety of topics, in a concentrated way, for a day or two, though sometimes longer. Not all writing conferences are cut from the same cloth, of course. They have their unique foci, and their components and participants vary. But by and large writers and poets attending such conferences can benefit by, first, improving their writing; networking with other creative writers, editors, and publishers; and, in general, becoming more aware of the publishing world and its varied workings.
Writing conferences tend to be organized by three different (though sometimes overlapping) groups. Journals and small-press publishers put on conferences, as do universities with creative writing majors and MFA programs, and independent writing groups will often organize writing conferences. I suppose there are myriad benefits that these groups gain by hosting conferences -- including intangibles like bolstering the vibrancy of the creative arts in our global culture -- but tangible benefits include money and exposure. Organizers charge fees, and, depending on the organizer, they hope to attract new readers, contributors, and students.
Regarding the first benefit I listed for participants, writing conferences will have workshops, led by distinguished writers and poets (usually) who will attempt to improve the craft of those participating. These workshops may operate in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes participants are asked to bring a sample of their work (or send it ahead of time) to be critiqued; other times, participants compose on site, and then share their work with each other and the workshop leader(s). Or a thousand variations and related variations thereof.
It remains to be seen how much help one may be able to gain from such limited exposure (only a few hours, perhaps over several days, in most cases), but many writers and poets find themselves creating their work in isolation, with no one of value to give them any feedback on their work whatsoever, so for these lone wolves any sort of meaningful feedback can be well worth the cost of the conference. Unless you're living in a university town, so called, it may be difficult to connect with well-published authors who can give you constructive criticism and invaluable words of encouragement.
Another benefit to participants can be the chance to network with other writers, not to mention editors and publishers. On the one hand, it seems there are a lot of us writerly types in the world, but statistically we're still a pretty small slice of humanity. As such, we may not have the opportunity to interact with others who feel the need, even a sort of urgency, to write creatively, and being around others who feel this same sort of desire can be a great boon to the soul. Nowadays, online networking sites, chiefly Twitter and Facebook, allow writerly types to connect on some level, but it's a pretty superficial level compared to sitting down with someone in the actual world and chatting about things associated with creative writing -- hopes and fears, accolades and rejections, craft and mechanics.
Besides the soul-nourishing aspect of networking with other writers and poets (which is important to be sure), there is the practical benefit of connecting with others who may be able to advance your writing/publishing ambitions. I mentioned earlier that conferences often feature workshops that critique your work. In some instances, the critique is also a competition, and winning entrants are published by organizers of the conference. In other instances, publication (or some other sort of worthwhile advancement) occurs naturally. That is, somebody encounters you and your work and decides to publish you, or help you in some other way. It happens; it really does. And it may not happen immediately -- it may be a year or two or five later, when the vicissitudes of writing/publishing reconnect you with somebody you met via a conference.
Finally, conference participants benefit by just learning the ropes, as it were, of the writing/publishing world. You find out about publishing opportunities you weren't aware of before, for example. Or you learn about some trend in using social media to find outlets for your work or to draw attention to what's already been published. It's of course impossible to say what all you might learn by attending a writing conference. Writing and publishing are complex endeavors, and constant changes brought about by evolving technologies only add to the complexity. Conferences are sites of concentrated knowledge and experience, and the open-eared participant can absorb much.
I have mentioned NewPages.com in several posts already, and I find myself doing so again as the site has a writing conferences page organized by date and by location. Quite simply, it is invaluable for someone who is actively seeking a valuable conference. In addition to state by state listings, they also have links to Canadian conferences, international ones, and even online conferences. I would list a few conferences, but the truth is they are so numerous, and the individual writer/poet's interests are so varied, there isn't much point in shining a light on a handful more or less at random. You just need to check out the site and see what's available. Obviously not every single conference is listed at NewPages.com, as good as it is, so a general search via engines like Google or Bing may yield worthwhile results as well.
In any event, the new writer or poet may want to at least consider attending a writing conference. It could be a life-changing (creative life, at least) event.