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Guide to Making the Most of Attending an Industry Conference

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.

Contents

One:

Preparation is Key

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:

  • Evaluating new technologies for your business
  • Learning new business techniques or processes
  • Getting a handle on emerging industry trends
  • Securing new supplier or partner relationships

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.

  • The “Top Ten”: For each area of the conference (sessions, vendors, meetings, social events), create a ranked list of 10 (or 5 or 15, depending on the length of the conference and your appetite for scheduling) and use that list to dictate your schedules. Schedule your top sessions, with your ranking outlined and available to resolve scheduling conflicts. During times when there are no sessions, schedule your meetings and vendor visits using the same “rack and stack” approach.
  • The “Blended Ten”: Maybe it’s easier not to segment your priority attendance by category. In a Blended Ten (or 5 or 20, again), make a ranked list of the most important things to do regardless of category. Start at number 1 and add things to your schedule until you’ve run out of time.
  • The “Daily”: Using the conference calendar, build yourself a daily schedule based on what looks interesting. Check the daily schedule against your overarching goals to see if any adjustments need to be made.

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.

Two:

The Exhibit Hall, An Amusement Park for Your Industry!

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:

  • If a demo or conversation isn’t going well, excusing yourself to “attend a session” is a graceful exit.
  • Many vendors run “show specials” which may reduce the price on an investment you’re already excited about for your business. (Headed to the National Restaurant Association conference? You can schedule a meeting with Revel 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.

Three:

Sessions and Parties – Rock & Roll All Night and Learn Every Day!

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 Sessions:

  • Does this session address a specific content area I’m interested in learning more about?
  • Can I obtain the content of this talk elsewhere (online, via written form)?
  • What actionable items do I think I’ll be able to take away from this session?
  • How likely am I get face time with presenters or panelists?

For Social Events:

  • Will there people in attendance that are on my “must meet” list?
  • Is the event being hosted by an organization that you have interest in being affiliated with or doing business with?
  • Is the location convenient?
  • Does the event look fun or informative? (It doesn’t need to be both; it does need to be one.)

Four:

Networking! Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

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!

Five:

Following-Up for Maximum Value

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.

  • Fill out the show survey (if applicable) so that subsequent iterations of the conference will be even better
  • Thank your boss or organization for sending you (if applicable; if you’re the owner, then thank yourself)
  • Participate in the broader conversation surrounding the event. You can post a recap of your experience at the event and post photos to social media.

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