Escape the virtual world for a while
Despite the rise of hi-tech conferencing methods such as web seminars, nothing beats the real live experience of attending a conference. Whether you are a new company needing to generate your first few customers, an entrepreneur contemplating starting a new business, or a seasoned delegate, speaker or exhibitor, attending the right conference will bring you tremendous benefits.
Why attend a conference?
There are many reasons that you will benefit from attending a conference; learning about the latest developments in your field, hearing influential keynote speakers and finding out about new technologies are some of the obvious benefits. The single most important reason for attending a conference, however, is to meet people who will benefit your business. You may ask why you should bother meeting people face to face? After all, modern communications technology makes it possible to develop good working relationships with people we have never met. No matter how good a virtual relationship may be, however, connections made in person will always be stronger. And a conference venue full of like-minded people is a great way to start.
Choosing the Right Conference
Attending a big international conference can be exhilarating, but you may find that a smaller, more focussed event will be more useful. Think about the people you want to meet, and whether the conference will facilitate these meetings. Annual conferences are usually worth attending, but specialist conferences can also be very good, and may actually be better. You may find that there are scores of meetings that look relevant to your business, so ask friends, colleagues or customers for their recommendations of meetings they have attended. Check out where the competitors are going to be too, though don’t worry if they are attending something you have ruled out. They might not be as targeted as you in their approach.
Finding the ‘right’ people
Meeting the right people at a conference should not be left to chance; you need to do a bit of homework before you go. Contact the people you would like to meet at least a week before you go, and ask if you can get together with them at the conference. If you are lucky, you will have access to a delegate list beforehand. If not, then you will at least be able to see who is speaking and presenting posters. It’s not all about meeting new people either, it can be a great opportunity to get to know existing contacts better, so tell people you know that you are attending the conference. Ask your contacts to make introductions to new people for you too. And don’t forget about social media, is there a twitter #hashtag for the conference? If not, create one yourself, but make it obvious and short (and remember that some industries people are not as twitter savvy as you are, so don’t worry if the twitterverse is quiet about the event, it doesn’t mean that the event will be quiet).
Many conferences now offer the chance to participate in formal partnering sessions. They may seem a bit like being set up with a blind date but, if you plan carefully, they can be very productive. Don’t just choose people because they look important; think carefully about who you want to meet and why, then send them a targeted invitation to meet. Bigger companies often register a number of ‘technology scouts’ at partnering events and, if you are able to meet them, they can provide you useful contacts at their company as well as advise you on the right approach to take with their colleagues. When asking people to meet with you, you should make your invitation relevant to the recipient. You can write some standard introductory ‘copy and paste’ text to save time, but be very careful that you adapt the wording for each invitation. Set aside plenty of time to trawl through the names on the partnering list, and don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get prompt responses. It’s usually a bit of a waiting game, as people wait to hear from people they invited to connect with first. However there is always a flurry of activity as the deadline for partnering approaches. Don’t be obliged to accept every invitation you are sent, but do give them a polite, relevant reason for turning them down, as you might bump into them at some point over the conference.
Presenting a Poster
It’s often worth submitting a paper or abstract, as there is a good chance that your submission will be accepted as a poster presentation and you may even get accepted for an oral presentation. Whether an individual or a company, this is a great way of getting published and promoting your work. You will have to pay a registration fee for attending the meeting, even if you are presenting a poster, but you can usually submit your abstract first and register once it is accepted. Make sure that you have a few copies of your poster to give out as people often ask for a copy. Don’t forget to take plenty of business cards too.
At the Conference
Check out the programme to make sure you know which talks are most relevant, especially if the conference has several tracks. If you don’t want to raise your hand during the formal Q&A, do approach the speaker later on, as they are always willing to talk about their work and may be able to give you some expert advice. Exhibiting companies can also be a great source of information and help, so make time to have a look around and talk to some of them – don’t just think of the exhibition as a place to grab a free pen! Don’t forget to take plenty of business cards, and give them out.
Don’t be scared of the networking events. The clue is in the name, people attend because they want to meet new people and the person you chat to over a glass of wine could be a useful contact in the future. This is an opportunity to chat to people in a more social setting, and the conversation should be more social than business. If having a social chat in this environment seems more daunting than giving a presentation to an audience of hundreds, then don’t worry, you are not alone in thinking like that. Good topics to start with could be travel and places, as most people will have travelled from different places to attend the conference! You should still be able to chat a little bit about your work and what you are looking for, but keep it light and organise to contact them later if you want to discuss something in more detail. Don’t forget to take plenty of business cards, they are especially important for networking events. (Never hand out brochures at networking events: its hard enough juggling wine glasses and plates of food, and no-one wants a hard sell!). The formal networking events are often held in great venues and it might be the only chance you have to get out of the conference venue and see something of the city you are visiting. Relax and enjoy the venue and the networking, but DO NOT drink too much of the free wine.
If You are Exhibiting
Don’t take too much literature, as you will only have to ship it all back again! It’s better to take a few sample copies of catalogues etc. and mail them out after the meeting, though a small company overview brochure is useful to take in bulk. Take plenty of business cards though (have I mentioned that already?) A prize draw is a good way of encouraging people to stop at your booth and it needn’t be expensive. A bottle of malt whisky is always popular, and makes a good talking point too as you shouldn’t always jump straight to the hard sell! Work out a booth schedule so that everyone has a chance to go to talks or look round the exhibition. If you are on your own, don’t feel you have to be tied to your stand, but make sure you are there for the busy times. You might want to ask a neighbouring exhibitor to keep an eye on your stand for a while, in case anyone comes looking for you. Don’t just rely on people coming to your stand; make sure you attend all the networking events to maximise your chances of meeting the right people. Finally, never take your stand down until the official break-down!
Phew, you are exhausted but you survived, and now you can relax, right? Wrong! Returning home, make sure that you follow up on all the contacts you have made and send out all the information that you promised. If you don’t follow up on promising leads, then you have wasted your time and money attending the conference. (And if you didn’t get a chance to speak to the keynote speaker, or anyone else that you had hoped to meet, it’s not too late to send them an email, but do it quickly.)
Do let me know what you think about this article, via the comments section below. Have you any questions or advice to share?
2 thoughts on “Making the most of conferences”
All good advice here. If some readers are thinking that much of this seems obvious they would be right. The opportunity though is that many people still don’t do it right! Particularly the follow-through. I worked with an excellent colleague – we would engage in a busy visit programme for maybe a week. We would get to the airport where my inclination would be to order a G&T and put my feet up. My colleague would pull out his laptop and insist that there would be no gin until we had drafted our follow up letters, agreeing on the actions which arose from the visits.
I would swear that this apparently simple discipline, rigourously applied, made us stand out from the others who talked and then engaged in only desultory follow up, eventually losing contact. We turned some of those leads into deals, which is after all what it is all about.
Thanks Ian. As you say, a lot of it is obvious, but the key is actually putting it into practice, and from my experience of conferences, very few people do. People complain about the conference not having the right delegates, instead of making sure the conference is right for them before they commit to it. Exhibitors sit behind their stand looking bored and ignoring passers by, then complain that no-one spoke to them – why on earth would someone want to approach them when they look like that? I could go on….
I have to say though, the thought of not getting a G&T until I’d finished the follow up emails would work for me!