Perhaps you’ve heard that professional conferences are soulless slogs unworthy of your time. Don’t believe the negative hype.
It doesn’t matter if you’re jump starting a new career or advancing a current one: Attending a quality industry event can be one of the most efficient, exhilarating ways to learn about current business trends, update your network and re-ignite the spark you initially had for your work. With so many industry leaders and enthusiasts from all corners of the country or globe convening in one place, how could it not be?
With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your next conference or trade show.
Pick the Right Event
Not all professional events are created equal. Before you whip out your credit card to register, think about what you’d most like to gain from your next conference or trade show. New customers? Camaraderie with like-minded professionals? Shortcuts for doing your job better? Insider knowledge about where the industry’s headed? All of the above?
Next, ask around. What regional or national events have industry friends and colleagues whose careers you admire found valuable? Which do they advise avoiding? And, given your goals and where you are in your career, which events do your contacts think will offer the biggest bang for your buck?
Reserve a Room in the Conference Hotel
Forget booking an Airbnb or crashing at your college roommate’s place. The hotel hosting the conference is where the magic happens. Talk to people in the elevator. Hit the restaurant for breakfast and the café or bar for an afternoon pick-me-up. You never know who you might run into – it could be your next employer, customer or mentor.
Besides making it easier to meet people, staying where the event is held makes life infinitely more convenient. No schlepping several blocks (or miles) to and from the convention center required. No need to carry every possible item you may want each day in your bag. Instead, you can just dash up to your room to grab a jacket, take a nap or stash the swag bag you collected that afternoon.
Plan Your Itinerary in Advance
Peruse the conference schedule a few weeks ahead of time, picking the sessions, panels and speakers you don’t want to miss, especially those you might not have access to back home or online. Read up on the featured speakers. Are there any you’re dying to meet? If so, think about arranging to meet up (more on that below).
Bring along any burning questions you’d like to ask speakers in case you have a chance to do so during or after a session. At the event, recheck the conference schedule each morning – last-minute scheduling changes and substitutions can definitely happen.
Update Your Marketing Arsenal
If you’ve been meaning to get new business cards or postcards or to update your website or social media profiles, now is the time. “Here’s my card” is a much more impressive statement than, “Here’s my card, oh, wait a sec … Let me write down my current email address and mobile number … Oops, sorry, do you have a pen?”
Also, if you haven’t figured out how to answer the question “So what do you do?” in 30 seconds or less, get practicing. Your answer should be both clear and compelling. If needed, enlist a friend you know will give you honest feedback.
Arrange to Meet Up with People at the Conference
In the weeks leading up to the conference, ask online professional groups you belong to who else is going to the event so you can plan to meet. You can also see if the conference organizers will provide an advance list of attendees you can check out.
When planning, suggest one-on-one or small meetups over coffee or a quick bite. Pin down specifics – day, time, location – as best you can. The less you have to coordinate onsite, the better. Accept that some appointments will get shuffled around or canceled. (A book or leisurely stroll makes a nice plan B.)
To sneak in conversations with busy speakers, walk them to their next destination. If it’s advice you’re after, make it easy for people to give it. And if a potential client or mentor agrees to a drink, be sure to pick up the tab.
Attend the Networking Events
People will be less rushed and more relaxed at these events, including panelists and speakers.
Hate to schmooze? Welcome to the club. A few tips even the biggest wallflowers among us can handle: Talk to the person who’s standing alone; they’ll probably appreciate the rescue. Think of three conversation starters in advance so you’re not left fumbling. (Asking what someone thought of the keynote usually does the trick.) Spend at least 5 to 10 minutes with each person you talk to, then rinse and repeat with two or three others before leaving.
And remember: Don’t complain! Unless there’s a laugh-out-loud punchline at the end of your lighthearted gripe, keep it to yourself. Be friendly, upbeat – the person who puts others at ease. Nobody wants to talk to a whiner.
If you’re shy around crowds or short on funds, ask conference organizers if they’re looking for unpaid help at the event. Many will take you up on this, and volunteering usually gets you at least one day’s free admission.
Being tasked with checking in attendees or helping speakers find their sessions gives you a purpose – a boon for those who may otherwise feel adrift, anxious or overwhelmed attending a large event alone. As a bonus, you have a bona fide reason to meet and chat with any inspiring attendees you were hoping to rub elbows with.
Make Social Media Work for You
Social media is a godsend for conference attendees. Use LinkedIn to check the bios of people you’d like to meet. (Hint: Shared hometowns, ex-employers and alma maters make great conversation starters.) After meeting people at the conference, connect on LinkedIn, Facebook or your platform of choice to stay in touch.
Be sure to follow the conference’s hashtag on Twitter or another platform to learn about other attendees and catch highlights of sessions you missed. A word of caution to those tempted to live-tweet: Dividing your attention between a session you were eager to attend and your electronic device means not giving the session your full attention; better to hit Twitter afterward.
Leave Time for Serendipity
There’s always some unannounced session, unplanned group activity or enticing local attraction to squeeze in. (The more extroverted you are, the more likely you’ll be the one wrangling others for those offsite walks, meals and outings.) And if there’s an exhibition hall, you’ll want enough time to peruse the booths and chat with people manning them.
Give yourself some breathing room. And, most importantly, save yourself some solo time to recharge each day. If you’re an introvert, you’ll need this even more.
Follow Up Immediately
Set aside a morning after the conference to reach out to anyone you promised to follow up with: people who offered to pass along your resume to their boss, potential customers interested in your company’s products, new friends you offered to send a study or article they may find useful.
Don’t wait more than two or three days to get in touch. Reconnect with people while you’re still fresh in mind. You want to come across as the kind of person who follows through.
You and (possibly) your employer are investing time, money and energy for you to attend your next professional event. With a little extra effort, you can go home inspired, invigorated and brimming with new ideas and contacts.