Attending conferences can be an overwhelming convergence of new information, connections and business tools. While scheduling effectively and paying close attention is key, it's your preparation before you even attend that can make the real difference.
In 2009 alone, 4.5 million trade and convention show delegates traveled to Las Vegas, to attend one of nearly 20,000 meetings and conventions, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association. That alone generated $4.5 million in non-gaming related revenue for the city (which has hosted the most conferences in North America for 16 straight years), so clearly conferences and trade shows are big business.
For attendees and speakers, trade shows can be an intimidating multi-day forum where you make new business connections, learn what others in your space are succeeding with, and learn what you can do better. Particularly in a time of corporate fiscal responsibility like we are in today, individuals need to prove to their companies perhaps more than ever that trade show/conference attendance is just as important to business success as it always has been, and perhaps even more.
But when you attend a conference, how can you be sure to avoid the overwhelming number of people, events, trade booths and more? "A majority of my work in attending a conference is done before I even leave home," notes conference-goer Dennis Yu, co-founder and CEO of BlitzLocal.com, which provides Facebook advertising for brands and local businesses. "Particularly if I'm speaking, but even if I'm just an attendee, you need to study up on the conference. I mean, why are you going if you haven't properly researched it?"
This guide will explain how important pre-conference preparation is to making your conference attendance a better experience, sharing some tips once you are there as a speaker or attendee, and the best ways to follow up after everyone has gone back to their daily lives.
How to Get the Most Out of a Conference: Pre-Conference Preparation
Luckily for conference-goers in 2010, pre-conference preparation is considerably easier than it's ever been in years past. Doing your homework and preparing before you attend has always been important, but with the advancements in technology (namely social media and web tools), there's no excuse for attending a conference unprepared.
"Most people start their homework with the speakers, researching them, and maybe connecting with them," says Valeria Maltoni, a noted blogger and director of strategy at Powered, Inc., where she advises companies on social strategy. "You have plenty of tools to search on Twitter, Facebook and many other networks for the names of people who will be at the conference and what their backgrounds are. Not to mention, most conferences have their own sites with social media integrated into it, so you can connect with other attendees via those channels."
A good strategy before conferences once you've seen the speaker and attendee list is to select the people you'd like to connect with. Depending on the situation and your past attendance of similar industry-related events, that list could be relatively short or more vast. If you're well established in the topic, perhaps you want to focus on making a few really strong and solid connections. If you're just getting started and want to use the conference to get to know people, aim for a higher number.
"Now that people know who I am, it is considerably easier to meet people at a conference because they come to you, particularly when you're a speaker," says Yu. "But even if nobody knows who you are, making valuable connections is so much more important than just spreading yourself around. Don't ever try to connect with a session speaker after they've just spoken, because you'll be in a group with all the other people from that session. Rather, do your homework ahead of time and figure out who makes the most sense to meet with, and reach out to them."
When you're connecting with people, an important skill to remember is to connect with people who might not be able to only help you, but who may also be able to help other people in your network. If you can connect someone with an existing connection or relationship that might work with him or her quicker than you, you'll be seen as an important contact because of your ability to connect.
"One of my favorite strategies is to determine how many people at the conference I can connect with other people in my network that might be helpful to them or vice versa," Maltoni says. "At the end of the day, it strengthens everybody's network that much more and makes everyone's experience much more useful."
Once you've established whom you want to talk to, you can email them to set up a meeting over breakfast, lunch, or coffee. Start doing this outreach a few weeks before the conference. Another option is to tweet with them or friend request them on Facebook. Beyond the pre-conference networking, you should determine what sessions you'll want to attend before you even leave home. Take a look at the conference website, the different tracks, the speakers and figure out how your time can be spent most effectively. And then schedule the aforementioned meetings around what you can't miss.
The final thing you should think about before you lave home is conference essentials. Bring business cards, notebooks, pens, proper attire, work samples, and anything else you might need when you're meeting new potential business partners. Think about it as if someone were visiting your office, and what barebones materials you would need to properly describe your role in the business to them.
Dig Deeper: How to Survive a Las Vegas Trade Show
How to Get the Most Out of a Conference: Making the Most of Your Time
It's not a good idea to completely book your schedule before you arrive at the conference, deciding upon sessions and scheduling all of your meetings. You want to leave some free time in case things come up unexpectedly. For each session you attend, a good starting point is to aim for three takeaways or points from the presentation. Additionally, you should always aim to connect with the person sitting next to you. You have no idea what kind of knowledge might be there, and you never know how that person could help you or vice versa.
"One of my principles, particularly in conferences today, is that I don't tweet or blog during any sessions," Maltoni says. "I'm not saying that's the best strategy, but I feel like if I'm playing around with these other tools, I'm not taking in all of the information from the presentation. Rather, you're only getting individual tidbits of information rather than the larger picture."
Perhaps one of the more intimidating parts of any conference, navigating the trade booth floor can be either a great waste of time or a great way to make new contacts and learn about the companies who are presenting. It's important to take at least one solid lap around the trade show floor. For some attendees, it's all about what booths catch your eye or are flashy. For others, it's about learning more from a company that you may have heard of or learned about previously in a presentation or session.
"You need to be quick but effective as you scan the trade show floor," Maltoni says. "If you do a little research ahead of time on what companies are going to be there and then you go in with specific questions, it shows them that you're not just the average conference attendee. Those people get so tired of repeating what their company does throughout the conference, so somebody different could make a mark. And you never know who the person at the booth is and how they could help you, or vice versa."
Often, key marketing contacts from companies can be found manning trade show booths, which offers an outstanding opportunity for you as an attendee or speaker to learn more about the company, but also to connect with someone at the company you likely would not otherwise meet.
Dig Deeper: How to Boost Traffic at Your Trade Show Booth
How to Get the Most Out of a Conference: Networking Strategy
When you're killing time between sessions and making connections, don't join another conversation unless you've read the body language of the people already talking. If it is open and inviting, introduce yourself and talk about something relevant to the event (perhaps a topic of one of the recent keynote speeches). Don't use these short meetings to try and pitch yourself, because you'll quickly alienate yourself from the other people and end the relationship before it even gets started.
On the topic of business cards, it's not a good strategy to hand a business card out to everyone you come into contact with during the conference, but rather with those you make a real connections with. It's better to make a few really solid business contacts that could lead to working together than it is to collect 50 business cards from different individuals. And a good trick to keep track of people, regardless of how many contacts you meet, is to take notes about the other person on the back of their business cards. This way, when you get back to your hotel room at the end of the night, you'll remember who each person was and what made them valuable to you. Some people even include photos on their business cards, to make themselves more memorable.
"It doesn't matter if you don't get back to your hotel room until 1am and you're exhausted," says Yu. "You absolutely need to follow up with each person you had a memorable conversation with that day. If you wait, it just won't happen. And you can catch up on sleep when you're back at home. "
Dig Deeper: How to Choose the Best Business Card for Your Company
How to Get the Most Out of a Conference: After Its Over
As previously noted, following up as soon as possible is vital to building and maintaining a relationship. It's always best to follow up with someone when your conversation is fresh in your mind, regardless of whether or not you plan on doing business together immediately. Yu's strategy of following up the same night of the initial contact is a great one, but you also need to make sure that you're in touch again within a few weeks, even if you don't necessarily have work to do together.
If you are at the conference with other people from your company, and even if you're not, you will need to report back to the office with what you learned and whom you met. Laying out a strategy ahead of time on who you want to talk to, what you want to attend and being efficient but memorable during the course of the conference can make that considerably easier. And that in turn makes you look smarter not only to your present employer, but to all of those other people you met, who you may need down the road.
Dig Deeper: How to Network Effectively
LOU DUBOIS is a Philadelphia-based Social Media Editor for NBC Universal's local news affiliate (WCAU-TV). He is an experienced writer, editor and marketer who has worked with and written about Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, focusing on social media, emerging technologies, small business success, entrepreneurship, sports business and corporate policy. Previously he worked for Social Media Today, Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and SOBeFit Magazine, along with various newspapers.