Spring is “conference season,” when a lot of business and law-related conferences take place. To maximize your conference experience, apply my “Before, During and After” strategy; instead of only focusing on the conference once you actually get there, begin your planning ahead of time and implement an after-conference strategy to make sure you get the most bang for your conference buck.
Before the conference
The first step is to identify your goals or purpose for attending the conference in advance. This will help you plan your overall approach. You may have several goals, but don’t try to do too much or you’ll be overwhelmed. Make your goals as concrete as possible. For example, if your main goal is networking, determine specifically who you would like to network with or what kinds of people you want to meet. In effect, define your ‘target market’ for the conference. Set a realistic goal for the number of people you want to meet.
Look at the lists of registrants, speakers and vendors/exhibitors (if available) to identify specific individuals or businesses you want to meet (and where they might be – and when – during the conference) so you can plan accordingly. Don’t wait until you arrive at the conference to review these materials.
If your main goal is learning, review the schedule of sessions/presentations and the scheduled events with that goal in mind. I’ve been to many conferences where I’ve glanced at the brochure or schedule briefly but haven’t really taken the time to look at it and plan what I want to do before I get there. That means I’m making a last minute and poorly informed decision about which session to attend (and which session to skip). Often that is based on the title of the program alone, rather than the description or the speaker (which can make or break a session). It also means I can’t take advantage of networking between sessions because I’m trying to figure out what I am going to do next.
Researching the event ahead of time can help you pack better, too. When you know where you’ll be dining and what kinds of social events are planned, you’ll know what to bring to be appropriately dressed for these occasions.
Research the speakers you don’t know to see whether you think you’d like to see them present or whether you would like to meet them at the conference.
Do a search on social media to see if anyone is talking about the event – see what they are saying. Are any of them people you would like to meet? Are there any additional events that aren’t on the official schedule? Often, regular attendees plan side-events that key off of the main conference – you’ll want to know about them before you go.
Send out your own messages on social media about the conference and your attendance; you may get responses from your own followers about meeting at the conference.
Make sure you have plenty of business cards on hand – check early so that you have time to order more if necessary. You want to make sure when you meet someone (especially someone in your target market) that you have something to leave them with.
Bring some blank cards just in case someone you meet doesn’t have their business cards with them. This way they can still give you their information. While entering their contact information into your smartphone on the spot sounds like good idea, in reality it is often awkward and wastes too much time that you could be using to have a more substantive conversation or meet a new contact.
Tell your clients and colleagues you will be attending; schedule some time to meet with local colleagues or clients in the area who may not be attending the conference. Finding out who will be attending is a good opportunity to be on the lookout for some of your ‘virtual’ friends from social networking so that you can take the relationship to the next level in person.
Create the basic outline for your conference follow up strategy. What will you do to follow up with new contacts? If you plan this out in advance, you are much more likely to carry it through. You may even want to create the beginnings of a follow up letter or email that you can simply customize when you return from the conference.
During the conference
Stay at the conference hotel. If you’re on a very tight budget, in most cities where conferences are held there are a number of local hotels that may be cheaper than the conference venue, but the difference in price can cost you significantly in terms of lost opportunities to run into other conference attendees in the elevator, the lobby, the hotel bar, etc. I learned this the hard way recently when I (accidentally) booked a nearby hotel instead of the conference venue. I was somewhat isolated and felt a little left out – not to mention that it was no fun walking back to my hotel at night after the social events rather than just getting in the elevator back to my room.
It’s OK to hang out with your friends – it’s perfectly valid to use conferences as a time to further existing relationships, especially with those you know only virtually or you don’t have an opportunity to see that often – but don’t neglect opportunities to meet new people, too. If you find yourself standing or sitting next to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself. You’ll both be glad you did.
When you receive a business card, make notes about the person on the back – it will help you remember them.
Instead of sitting with friends during sessions, split up and meet other people during the session. This works especially well if there are two competing sessions that you want to attend – you can compare notes later. You’ll improve your learning by teaching your friend what you learned.
Take note of sessions or presentations you found particularly helpful and consider purchasing recordings if they are available to extend your learning – you probably can’t absorb everything during the session, and it’s often difficult to keep up with note taking. Many conferences now post recordings, videos or other content free on their websites after the event.
If you plan to “live tweet” the conference, check out these great tips on conference tweeting from Jordan Furlong.
Attend conference related social events and meals. These can be not only some of the most fun parts of the conference, but also the best opportunities to build relationships and to learn. But even though these events are more relaxed, remember to keep it professional – these are still business contacts and you want to be sure you’re making a good impression.
Use these five quick networking tips to boost your networking effectiveness while at the conference.
After the Conference
Reinforce what you learned by holding a seminar for your firm or sharing your newly-gained insights with your networking group. Share some of what you learned on social media, on your website or in your blog.
Follow up is crucial to cementing those newly formed relationships – or starting a relationship with someone you’ve met briefly during a conference. Enter contact information into your database as soon as possible after the conference (you could even do this daily while at the conference if you have some down time) and implement that conference strategy that you planned before you left home.
Conferences are a great marketing and networking opportunity – take full advantage of them!
For more conference attendance tips, see Wendy Werner ‘s article in the March/April 2012 issue of Law Practice magazine, Get the Most from the Meeting and Matt Homann’s 10 Rules for Conference Attendees.