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Maximize Your ROI on Conference Attendance
Congratulations; you’re attending an industry conference! Whether this is your first conference or fiftieth, and whether it’s a local show in your hometown or a national conference across the country, there are a number of strategies and techniques to make sure you make the most out of the money and time you’re spending on attendance.
As with most endeavors, preparation is key to a successful conference. Knowing why you’re attending, what you plan to accomplish, and preparing schedules and materials before showing up onsite go a long way in ensuring you make the most of your experience.
Set Clear Goals
To begin your preparation, ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish at this conference?” Common reasons for attending conferences include:
Forging helpful industry connections
Clearly understanding this “why” will make the decisions surrounding the conference easier; knowing what you want to accomplish helps dictate how you spend your time and the people you seek out. It may also be helpful to put together some lists: questions you want to be answered, business problems you’d like to find solutions for, and people you’d like to meet.
Clear Your Schedule
There is nothing worse than spending five hours on an airplane, arriving at a conference excited to accomplish your goals, then end up spending your whole first (or second or third) day stuck in a hotel room fighting fires back home. While emergencies can happen, it’s best to wrap up big projects or deliverables before departure and set clear chains of command and delegation for minor issues that may arise in your absence.
Runway Cleared for Take-Off
Make sure that you’ve made travel arrangements as easy on yourself as possible. Know the best route from the airport to your hotel and your hotel to the convention center or conference site. Allow time for elevator delays and taxi lines. Make sure relevant travel apps and map routes are available on your phone. Putting a bit of time in up front on these seemingly mundane details can make the whole experience more pleasant – and therefore more productive.
For example, if you’re on your way to the National Restaurant Association conference and arriving during rush hour, it may make sense to hop on the L towards Chicago rather than sitting in traffic. A little research ahead of the conference makes for a stress-free event.
Clearly Establish a Daily Plan
While it’s inadvisable to overschedule yourself, you do want to make sure that you’ve allotted time towards the activities that will provide you the best proverbial bang for your attendance buck. There are a number of ways to build your ideal conference schedule.
A good rule of thumb for any given day is four “blocks” during the day and one social event in the evening. (This may be too much for some and not enough for others.) The important thing is to make sure the most important sessions and meetings are scheduled, with some flexibility built in.
Ohhh, the daunting show floor! Why on earth would you want to spend time walking through a giant maze full of nothing but people who want to sell you things? While that’s a common perception, exhibit halls are so much more! Here are some things to make your exhibit hall experience worthwhile:
Evaluate Potential Vendors: If you’re in the market for a new product or service for your business, it’s a unique opportunity to receive live, in-person demonstrations of products and services. If you’ve narrowed your search to final candidates, schedule appointments and put them through the ringer. If you’re still in the discovery phase, mark the possible candidates on your exhibit map or app and make sure to drive by.
There are two additional bonuses here:
Meet with Current Suppliers: Using a product you love? Subscribed to a service that you’re starting to hate? Exhibit Halls provide a unique opportunity to interact with companies you work with on a daily basis. It’s also an opportunity to speak with people you may not normally have access to; often product managers, engineers, and executives are often on-hand and looking to speak with customers so you’ll have a direct line rather than having your message to the organization translated through your account representative. (Headed to the National Restaurant Association conference? You can schedule a meeting with Revel here!)
Get a Sense of What’s Next: Often vendors announce new products or enhancements to existing products at major industry conferences. New vendors use industry conferences to introduce themselves and their products. By allowing yourself to wander through the show floor, you might see something new to solve a problem you didn’t yet know had a solution!
Identify Industry Trends: Similarly, if you’ve got questions about your industry you want answers to, the Exhibit Hall is a great place to find some answers. Exhibitors are always happy to provide their perspective.
Swag: You knew this one was coming! Nobody wants to fly home with a suitcase full of pens and mugs, but a fun game to play is to find the most interesting/unique/useful piece of swag on the show floor. Plus, at food shows, you’ve got to make sure to taste at least a couple of samples.
Selecting the sessions, happy hours, and parties to attend can be overwhelming. While you may want to do it all, there are bound to be conflicts so you’ll have to make decisions. Here are some things to consider when selecting:
For Social Events:
Industry conferences are an excellent place to make connections with people who do what you do, do what you aspire to do, people who aspire to be you, and other in-industry partners and connections that could help grow your business or your career. As with most things, a little bit of preparation helps you make the most of these interactions.
A “Dream Meeting” List: At every conference, there are a number of industry movers and shakers in attendance. Make a list of the top five or ten people that you would love to meet. In your agenda preparation, schedule some activities where you might run into these people.
An Elevator Pitch: Sounds scary, right? But, by taking the time to frame up a couple sentences about who you are, what you do, and what your business does, you’ll have a much easier time introducing yourself. “I’m Joe and I run some pizza places,” is much less impactful than, “I’m Joe of Joe’s Pizza – the fastest growing chain in the greater Cleveland area. We pair great pies with in-store technology, a recipe for success over the five years we’ve been in business.”
Business Cards: Traditional paper cards still have a lot of utility. You may also want to queue up a standard LinkedIn connection message or download an app like ScanBizCard to immediately digitize those cards that you collect, for easier follow-up.
Conversation Starters: Again, in thinking about the industry questions you have and/or your goals for the conference, it’s helpful to have two or three questions in your back pocket that will take you beyond the general “where are you from” chatter that most people engage in at conferences. Do you really want to know what next season’s hot Fro-Yo topping is going to be? Ask!
The long-term value of a conference is only as good as the ideas and connections that you bring home and then take action from. To ensure you see a return on your investment, you there are tactics you should engage in the days and weeks following a conference.
Follow-up messages to contacts: In the days after the conference, pull out those business cards and send follow-up messages to your connections. Did you learn something new from a supplier or technology company? Thank them for the tidbits you learned. Did you finally get to meet a business partner in person? Give them a friendly hello and thank you to keep your interaction top of mind.
Outline Your Learnings: Prepare a summary of your best learnings (trends, solutions, action items) for your organization. Be it in a top 10 list or a deck, use these learnings to expand the reach of your attendance throughout your organization. Just like that, one event pass turns into many!
Propose Follow-Up Actions: One of the main reasons many attend a conference is to get hands-on with a prospective technology. And if you like what you saw, it’s time to create a case. Propose and get buy-in on the technology or product.
If perhaps you learned a new best practices or realized a project that could be implemented, build a case for that too! Back your ideas by the industry knowledge you gained during the event, explain the benefits of a change/addition, point to leaders – all of these lend to building a strong case.
Don’t Forget the Housekeeping: Make sure to wrap up all loose ends following the conference. Take advantage of even the smallest wrap-up asks and opportunities.