Between entrance fees, hotel stays and flights, conferences can easily turn into a big expense, so you'll want to ensure you're getting the most out of them.

"In an increasingly digitized world, in-person experiences become more and more valuable," says Jeff Rosenthal, co-founder of Summit, a community for entrepreneurs, innovators and thought leaders which stages the annual Summit Outside and Summit at Sea events.

Conferences, with their packed agendas and big pricetags, can dial up the pressure to network. It's easy to take a mostly transactional view and forget that business is all about relationships.

"If I'm trying to network, that means I'm trying to extract value out of someone for my own personal gain," says Rosenthal. "If I'm trying to make friendships and meet people who share my interests, there's no cherished outcome. If you and I are friends, I'll do anything for you. I don't have to have any vested interest."

To learn how successful entrepreneurs negotiate these high-stakes waters, we spoke to the leaders of some of the fastest-growing companies in America who have attended past Inc. 5000 conference events. 

Here are their tips:

1. Settle your work affairs.

In the days leading up to a conference, get your ducks in a row. Ashley Thompson, the founder of branding agency Pressed, based in Fayetteville, N.C., suggests doing things like working ahead to meet deadlines and delegating work responsibilities to others before you leave. Otherwise, you're likely to be glued to your phone, which can make an event seem more overwhelming. It can also take a major chunk out of your networking time.

Consider taking the necessary steps to clear your schedule the day after a conference too. It'll be helpful for following up with people you met. Often, "You'll go back to your normal routine and never end up following up, which means you're wasting your time and money," says Nikki Klugh, CEO and principal designer of her eponymous design group based in Chula Vista, California. She always finds some time the next day to sort through business cards, send out emails, and schedule appointments. 

2. Map out your plan.

Do your homework and determine what you want to get out of the conference. Then, set goals to maximize your experience. Klugh, for instance, often aims to make two to three solid connections by the conclusion of every event. Specifying your desired end result pushes you to put in more effort.

Homework also entails research about the speakers, so you can pinpoint who you'd most like to hear. What it is you want to learn from each speaker? Write that down, because it's much easier to get your questions answered if you're one of the first to raise your hand.

3. Reach out beforehand.

The beauty of the digital age is that you no longer have to wait to meet someone in person. Jump the gun and make connections online.

Stacy McCowen, the founder of Candle Queen Candles gift boutique in Leavenworth, Kansas, did some digging to find out who else is attending this year's Inc. 5000 conference and has already connected with other attendees. Likes and comments were all it took. "I already have a list of people I want to network with," she says. "That helps to maximize your time there."

4. Come prepared.

Don't arrive at a conference empty-handed. Regular conference attendees, including financial payment service Echo Health CFO Kristopher Kern, recommend bringing along a big stack of business cards and a portable phone charger. You don't want to be a part of the crowd that hovers around the only available outlet.

And pack paper and pens to take notes. You also want a safe place to store the myriad of business cards you're sure to receive.

5. Change your attitude.

Rather than focus on how you can benefit from others, go in with the mindset that you're there to give. Look for ways you can help the people you meet. For Thompson at Pressed, that change in mindset has led to more genuine connections. "People at the end of the conference are sick of getting sold to and hearing about everyone else's businesses," she says. "You're going to be the person that sticks out in their memory because it's refreshing to have someone who's reaching out to try to help you."

6. Be memorable.

Take that extra step to be memorable. Creativity can go far in making you stand out among the hundreds at a conference. A case in point is WAKA Kickball & Social Sport, a provider of adult sports leagues, social activities and events. To this day, Thompson remembers the company from her very first Inc. 5000 conference. The representatives made a strong impact by wearing bright red shirts and toting kickballs, which sparked everyone's curiosity about their business. 

If props aren't your thing, you could take a variety of other approaches. Thompson makes her own business cards on ultra-thick paper with an antique letterpress. She finds that people often hang on to her card because it's special. An extra step like this could mean all the difference for your budding business.

7. Take smart notes.

At conferences, you'll hear many great things from worthwhile speakers. Still, avoid taking copious notes. "What I've found is that hurried note-taking can often distract the mind from absorbing the most valuable portions of a presentation," says Heidi Jannenga, co-founder and COO of web-based physical therapy software WebPT.

She suggests noting only the concepts, initiatives, or campaigns that truly resonate with you because presenters' slide decks are often provided during or after the show.

Also, write down action items and important ideas that don't directly relate to the presentation. Answer the questions: "What stood out to me?" and "What did I learn?" by noting several key takeaways.

8. Prepare an exit plan.

At any conference, you're bound to bump into at least one person who you just can't seem to get away from. Your time is precious and it's crucial you realize your full networking potential.

Devise an emergency exit plan. Have an excuse prepared, so you're not fumbling in the moment or if you're there with a friend, settle upon a signal to indicate you need help ending a conversation. You'll pat yourself on the back for this step when you meet an important contact as a result.

9. Network now, sleep later.

You might be tempted to slip back to your hotel room after many tiring hours at the conference. However, keep in mind that you can catch up on sleep later. You need to push yourself because this is a golden opportunity.

"Some of the best connections I've made were at the night event after the whole conference," Thompson says. In other words, sleep is worth giving up for a couple of days.

10. Follow up.

This may seem obvious, but it's very easy to fall back into your normal routine and never reach out. Jannenga suggests jotting down brief notes on each business card, including any advice, offers, and promises mentioned. You can refer back to them later, which makes it easier to follow up. 

Klugh simplifies following up even further by setting a date and time to speak then and there. That way you can skip the back and forth about when to chat.