For those who attend conferences and trade shows often, networking can be formulaic:
Mornings: Quick chats between sessions and meetings, usually near the registration desk/table or in the designated coffee/beverage areas.
Afternoons: Exchange of pitches on a round table with a group of attendees, quickly trying to promote your business while you nosh on an overpriced slice of pizza. (Of course, at most of the events, you are not paying for that overpriced slice of pizza!)
Early Evenings: Happy Hour events at local bars and restaurants, ranging from packed events at Spinal Tap-like level 11 noise volume to awkwardly small events. But these can be the most profitable place to be. Most of the Happy Hours are a little more intimate than the other parts of the event.
Evenings: Huge parties thrown at local nightclubs by conference sponsors, combining the elements of loud music, dark dance floors, and alcohol to create the perfect networking environment (at least that is what is listed on the flyer). These evenings are great and you at least need to show your face to show your support and show that you know what you are doing. If it is not very well attended or interesting, you can quickly leave.
However, you shouldn't have to settle for the same ol' stuff when it comes to networking opportunities at conferences. Without further ado, here they are:
5 New Ways to Network at Your Next Conference
Throw a Small Meetup: Renting out a bar or restaurant or even rent a room in the hotel where the event is being held to host a conference meetup can be quite expensive, with really no ROI guarantee. However, you can achieve many of the same goals of hosting a conference event (without the cost) by hosting a meetup.
Simply call a few local bars and restaurants to ask for some specials on food and drinks (don't ask to reserve a space, that's big bucks), create an event on Facebook or Eventbrite, and spread the word via conference social channels. Keep the meetup informal and limit it to around 20-30 people, allowing you to make deeper connections while keeping the event expectations low. If the meetup goes well, you can make some solid connections. However, if it goes poorly, you can leave and you won't be out any money.
Some people feel that your reputation may take a hit due to the event's size, but I've found that no matter the size of the event or the number of people attending there, always show up for a few minutes. This has paid off big time for me in the appreciation of different company owners and event planners who know they can always count on me to be an addition that will reflect well on them.
Hit the Hotel Bar: Every conference has a nearby watering hole. Pick the closest one to the conference and "belly up" to the bar - literally (sit at the bar). As attendees come and go, you will have an easy opportunity to strike up a conversation. However, remember that you are at the bar for business, and make sure to not go overboard with the booze and remember to eat healthy on the road.
Go Hashtag Hunting: The key to conference hashtag use isn't in what you tweet, but rather in observing what is tweeted ("whoa" in Keanu Reeves voice). Scan conference hashtags often during your conference to search for small gatherings at nearby restaurants, bars, and attractions. I also like to make a list of top events and map this out beforehand. Makes knowing what people are putting out easier.
Searching conference hashtags can lead you to more networking opportunities, including smaller meetups, unpublicized events, or just connecting with a few friends or bored conference attendees. Someone else may be bored, but it's important that you are not bored. Be interested in everything and everyone. You never know who will become important, and those who raise up will usually remember who was there for them.
Leave Your Lanyard On: As long as you are near the conference, you should have your lanyard with your conference badge on. Though it's slightly embarrassing (like leaving stickers on new jeans), leaving your lanyard on will let other attendees easily identify you. Rocking the lanyard can lead to some easy networking opportunities though, such as a quick chat while you wait in line at Starbucks, or an exchange of elevator pitches in an actual elevator!
Read Non-Verbal Cues: Not everyone at a conference is looking to connect, but it can be easy to find people who are looking to network just by their posture, how they are standing, who they are standing with and other non-verbal cues. Fast Company does a great job breaking down how to "read" a room just from using non-verbal cues.
Breaking out of the normal networking routine at conferences can easily be achieved by following the tips listed above. Requiring only a little bit of preparation (and some luck), these tips will allow you to connect with more contacts at your next conference, while your colleagues are stuck with the same ol' networking event routines.
Above all, be personally approachable. Be courteous to those who try to connect with you and be interested, even if someone doesn't seem that interesting - most people have something worth hearing or learning about. Learn to have fun anywhere you go and enjoy the whole event, no matter who you are with. Relax so everyone else around you can have fun, too. T
hese events are not the beginning and end of the world so they shouldn't be treated as such, but it is definitely more interesting to mix up your usual MO at events and conferences.