It’s conference season again — and the internet is aflutter with tips and hacks for getting the most for your time (and the company’s money) at the next event.
Often, the advice you’ll find is vague at best, self-contradictory at worst:
“Go to Happy Hour” — but “avoid alcohol.”
“Plan ahead” — but “be spontaneous.”
“Be a teacher” — but “be a student.”
“Go to every session you can” — but “maximize your time on the floor.”
So we surveyed the experts and event planners in our office, and came up with a huge list of tips. After weeding out the “no-brainers,” we settled on these 5 strategies to try out the next time you attend a conference.
Start networking early.
Don’t wait until you’re at the convention center to start building contacts. Many conferences post attendee directories, so you can see in advance who’s going to be at the event. Still others allow you to contact registered attendees before the show — either via the conference website or through a third-party mobile event app.
Reach out to contacts you’d like to get to know (or know better), and lock in plans with them early — before they make plans with someone else.
Make plans for your downtime.
It’s tempting (and easy) to come out of a long day of sessions and settle in at the hotel bar with a few familiar faces. While this can be a valuable experience in and of itself, you’ll find that you can get more out of your downtime if you plan ahead with a purpose.
Before leaving for the conference, make plans to take someone out to dinner — reserve a table at a well-reviewed restaurant — even if you don’t yet know who you’ll be taking.
When you inevitably meet someone who you’d like to know on a more personal level, offer to take them out. Tell them you scored a table at a local hotspot.
— and if they say “no,” don’t worry. Just ask someone else!
Before you stuff that business card in your pocket…
Business cards are a lot like pennies — if you just stuff them in your pockets they’ll only end up ruining your dryer. When a potential contact gives you his or her business card, act on it right away. On the back of the card, note any important information that may have come up in your conversation. What did you talk about? Is this person a potential customer? A potential partner? Your next boss?
If you want to be a networking superstar, go a step further and note a distinguishing characteristic or an interesting fact about your contact (“tall, curly hair,” “likes hockey”). Later on, it might help you recognize her at another conference or give you an icebreaker for the next time you meet.
At the end of each day, divide your cards into three groups:
Report back to homebase.
- those you’ll absolutely follow up with on a specific need;
- those you want in your contact list, but don’t have a next step; and
- those you should just leave on the nightstand before checking out of the hotel (that way, they don’t wind up in the wash)
The sad fact is that not everybody in your office gets to go to every conference. (And some don’t go to any.) While you can’t possibly give your office-bound co-workers the full experience of being there, you can still do a lot to bring home some of the benefits — and we’re not just talking about the hotel gift bag.
Take notes. Take pictures. Take reading materials. When you get back to the office, lay everything out for your teammates to peruse. If you’re more ambitious, take a good camera and a voice recorder (or even better, a good smartphone) and score a video interview with a key presenter. Your marketing team will thank you — and the folks upstairs will be more likely to pay your way to future conferences.
After the conference, you’ll likely receive some follow-up emails with on-demand content from the conference, including videos of key sessions and presentation slides. Don’t be stingy with these — pass them around to folks in the office who you think would find them interesting.
Always be prepared.
Okay, not everyone was a scout, but the scout motto applies equally to the convention center as to the wilderness. A lot can happen at a big conference, and you never know when you or someone near you might have an unforeseen need.
Build an “emergency kit” and keep it in a backpack or a satchel. Pack snacks, over-the-counter medications, adhesive bandages, mini-toiletries, a mini-surge protector (with USB ports), universal chargers for phones and laptops, and an instant stain-removing pen for starters.
As you go to more conferences, you can tweak the contents of your kit until you’ve got the perfect mix. So whether it’s a dead phone battery or a case of indigestion, you’ve got a ready solution.
So take a tip from the scouts. You never know who you may help out of a jam — and you’ll be their hero!
In the end, every conference is different, and everybody’s conference experience is unique. Your personal strategy will ultimately depend on what you’re hoping to accomplish, and no single list is going to work for everybody.
The real key to conference success is having a goal and having a strategy for reaching it. So check your schedule and start planning!