Success in business is all about connections and relationships. And with more and more people working virtually and face-to-face meetings becoming fewer and farther between, the stakes have never been higher for making a good first impression. For better or worse, conferences provide some of the best opportunities to mix with other professionals in your industry and make connections with those who can advance your business and your career. You want to make the most of any conference you attend, and you can start by preparing for the event beforehand.

Prepare Like a Pro

The average person takes just a tenth of a second to form an impression of you, so preparation can go a long way toward building your confidence. Before you leave for the conference, make sure you:

  1. Establish clear goals. Determine exactly what you want to accomplish at the conference, and tailor your schedule accordingly. Whether that means getting together with clients or attending a seminar you wouldn't have access to elsewhere, create an optimized schedule and stick to it--but leave room for flexibility and spontaneity at the same time.
  1. Identify the attendees. Review the list of conference attendees and speakers to decide which people you'd most like to meet. Consider connecting with them on LinkedIn first to schedule time for a face-to-face meeting. If you don't set up meetings ahead of time, your prospects may be unavailable at the event.I was once working to set up a meeting between a client and Sir Richard Branson, who was a keynote speaker at a conference. I was able to arrange the meeting beforehand by explaining why my client and Branson should meet; although he was bombarded after his talk, Branson kept the meeting because it had been booked in advance.
  1. Err on the side of over-packing. Take more than one change of clothes (with both casual and dressier options), and remember to pack a pair of comfortable shoes, plenty of business cards, a notepad, pens, device chargers, and anything else you'd normally take to a meeting or on a business trip to help ensure your comfort and productivity.

Make a Quick But Memorable Introduction

If you're unable to set up meetings with key individuals ahead of time, that doesn't necessarily mean you won't be able to connect with them at the conference. Even if you only have a few minutes between events, you can still put a face to the name and open the door for future conversations.

  1. Introduce yourself. Keep it brief and provide some frame of reference for the introduction, such as a mutual colleague, as well as relevant context.
  1. Personalize the introduction. Consider mentioning something the person has said or written about that really resonated with you. You can also compliment an endeavor that's really taken off for that person's business.
  1. Exchange business cards. Before walking away, hand the person your business card. She'll likely return the favor with her own. Then, tell her that you'll follow up on your discussion at another time--again, with a quick reference as to the context and value.

Follow Up Immediately

The new relationships you've established at a conference are only as good as your follow-up. Make sure you maximize your new connections by:

  1. Starting maintenance at the event. Take the time to jot down a note on the back of each connection's business card about what you discussed. Base these notes on how this person fits with your products or services and what value a mutual win could provide.
  1. Scheduling follow-ups. Without a deadline, you may put off your second point of contact. A good rule of thumb is to follow up with your new connections within 24 hours of the conference.
  1. Establishing a system. Create a scalable system for storing your contacts. This could be a self-created database on your computer or a pre-existing one within your email account.

Conferences and industry events are a great place to initiate, establish, and nurture valuable business connections, but if you do the work before and after, you're much more likely to maximize your time when you're face-to-face. Be proactive about setting up meetings with the people you want to know, and make sure you extend the relationship by following up after the conference.