How to Efficiently Leverage Conferences
By Karen Geier
A conference can be an amazing way to launch a product, meet strategic partners or land an account, but if you don’t have a plan, it can be an expensive mess (and hard to explain to your boss).
If you’re lucky enough to work for an organization with a large conference budget, you’re probably able to visit any and all conferences you wish, and you can come back with a few takeaways (meetings, introductions, choice words from speakers).
If you’re like most of us, though, you are lucky to get to go to one conference a year – and you need to make it count.
Before Choosing which Conferences to Attend: Get the Scoop
Everyone has attended an event that was billed as something it didn’t live up to. If you’re lucky enough to be able to choose which events you attend, make sure you follow a few rules to make your company’s investment go farthest:
1. Don’t book a conference in its first year unless you’re dying to see one of its keynote speakers. The kinks get worked out for events in their first year, and your experience and takeaways might be minimal. Strategic partners and people you’d want to meet might not be attending either, for these same reasons, so your networking opportunities might be limited.
2. Do your research on the conference. Search online for blogs that have reviewed your conference of interest. Read notes and Storify accounts of lectures and panels from years past to make sure that what was billed is what was delivered. Ask your friends and colleagues who have been whether they saw value in attending years previously. Find vendors who attended before and ask them whether they made any significant deals or sales.
3. Investigate which networking opportunities are available. Are there parties every night? Are the parties just for attendees to let loose? Are there open lounges for business discussions? Are there enough spare hours for you or your team to schedule lunches and meet-ups? Make sure you can get answers to these questions before you begin reaching out to potential partners for meetings.
4. Investigate which companies and representatives will be in attendance. Sometimes, conferences bill themselves as being incredibly influential in a business vertical, yet the biggest names in that vertical haven’t sponsored the event, sent speakers, or otherwise participating in an official capacity.
Once you’ve chosen appropriate events for you and your organization, it’s time for more research, and building a detailed plan.
Planning your attendance is key to keeping co-workers aligned, to knowing which types of events to budget for, and to deciding whether you will be participating in a lounge, a trade show, or a custom solution for business development.
1. Research which sessions your team will attend. You should divide and conquer the sessions so that you can maximize your meeting opportunities and maximize your session notes.
2. Set up a similar schedule for all networking events, assigning team members to each session.
3. Schedule regular breaks/meet-ups with your team to download information, judge the quality of sessions, or to make schedule changes.
Networking: How to Make Your Time Spent the Most Valuable
No one wants to visit a conference and have little to show for it at the end, and that is exactly what most companies fear most when they send employees to conferences all around the world. One way to maximize your time and money spent is to schedule your free time
1. Do your research on who will be in attendance for sessions. One of the advantages of conferences is they allow you to approach high-profile people in your own industry who you might not have access to otherwise. You should still come prepared in these instances, creating lists of your goals and any questions you’d like to ask them (no more than 3). If you need more time, you should try and arrange a lunch or coffee meeting, or ask for their card, so you can follow up with them afterward.
2. If you find out in advance that someone you admire, are interested in partnering with, or are otherwise looking to do business with will be attending the conference, but not necessarily a session you will be attending, you should look him or her up. Just about anyone you need to contact is on LinkedIn, or has a published method of contact. Search for this information, and write a short, to-the-point article inviting that person to coffee, lunch, or happy hour. Offer meeting time options right in your e-mail to make it easier for them to say yes to you. Always offer at least a coffee for that person’s time. It’s not socially acceptable to pay someone directly for their time, but it’s definitely a good idea to let them know you value their time and appreciate they are spending it with you.
3. Bring any and all information with you to your scheduled meetings with guests. Make packets up in advance, which are short, simple, and personalized. No one wants to feel like they just got a health brochure from their doctor. Think of ways you can make presentations, collateral, or press kits more personal (and no, this does not mean by inserting a 3 dollar piece of swag in the packet. Be creative).
4. Make sure you follow up the same day that you meet with guests. This is another gesture that helps cement the idea that you value them as partners (or potential partners) and you want to make this partnership easy for them.
The Perils of Booths
Many companies are courted to set up booths for trade shows and conferences. Event organizers tempt attendees with promises for heavy foot traffic, the possibility of meeting fellow booth owners, and close proximity to the event action. But no event planner tells you about the thousands of dollars of add-ons you will need to pay, even just for wireless internet access or electricity to your booth, or that your booth is stuck in a corner or off to a side few people visit, or that the real action doesn’t even happen in that part of the building; and now your best sales staff are sitting around instead of pressing the flesh and making sales. When it comes to booths, the general rule is: pass.
What if you still need a place to demonstrate your product, entertain clients, or close deals? There’s a much more cost effective way: hotel suites. For $400-$1000 a day, you can rent a suite in a close by location or sometimes in the same building the event is being held, and by invitation only, entertain (and feed) potential partners. All in, you could spend $2,000 to $3,000 on room rates, food, drinks, and alcohol and come out with several new partners. You could even open the suite on the first or last day to other interested parties in attendance, and get qualified foot traffic.
The best part of this approach is the control you have over the surroundings, and your ability to make the experience comfortable and luxurious for your guests. You don’t need an electrician or an IT technician to wire your room for you, and you can make sure you’re checking guests in and out, and collecting contact information at the door. Your sales force will also be appreciative that they have a better work environment to get their deals closed in, too.
Conferences are an excellent way to enhance your business development efforts and can be incredibly efficient if you have a game plan. If you can organise your time to ensure it’s spent efficiently, do your homework, and track your progress and success, you can achieve great things at conferences while your competition toils away in the corner of a trade show floor.