Meeting Of The Minds


Meeting Of The Minds

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How To Get The Most From Your Next Business Conference

By Carrie Madren

Nearly every day of the year, conferences for every industry, every niche and every type of business convene across the world.

Attending a conference in your industry or area of interest can boost your market insight, expose you to new ideas, help you grow professionally and offer opportunities to meet new contacts.

Unlike corporate employees, who often get all-expenses-paid trips to attend conferences, micro-business owners pay their own way—and need to make every dollar and hour count. Even if an event is local, it will likely take you away from your company for the better part of a day.

With more at stake, small-business owners should strategize their attendance at any conference, taking action before, during and after.

Follow these expert tips and advice so you can make the most of the next conference you attend.

Before You Go

“When you go to a conference, you have a finite amount of time,” says Patrick Morris of the Small Business Administration’s Office of Outreach and Advocacy in Washington, D.C. “So the first thing is to do your homework: What are your objectives? What do you want to achieve?”

Perhaps you hope to make business contacts or search for potential partners or clients. Maybe you want to gain knowledge or shop for new product ideas. You might attend some conferences that give you professional continuing education credits or credits towards a license renewal.

“Know your goals going in and map out a strategy,” Morris says, “But within that, allow for flexibility.”

If you’ve never been to a specific conference, consult your network to find out if others have attended and what they gleaned from the event.

Study the conference’s website, too. Learn details, such as the number and variety of vendors, and number and types of attendees. Call conference organizers if you can’t find answers online.

Peruse the conference agenda ahead of time. Look through the schedule and highlight talks, exhibits and sessions that interest you. Register for any special sessions or meals if necessary.

In addition, “it’s a good idea to do preliminary research on the businesses or companies that will be at the conference. You can usually get a list ahead of time,” says Dannelle Shugart, director of the Business Incubation Center at the Community Business Partnership of Northern Virginia in Springfield, Va.

Prepare for networking by perfecting your elevator pitch or talking points. Be ready to tell new contacts succinctly what your business does, for whom, and what you’re looking for at the conference.

While You’re There

Once you’re at the conference, participate in as many activities as possible. And keep your business cards handy.

“If I can’t attend all the sessions, I’ll do a little of each one,” says Phil Stella, a business coach and communications consultant who runs the consulting practice Effective Training & Communication in Cleveland, Ohio.

If you know a colleague at the conference, plan to attend separate sessions and swap copies of notes to multiply the learning.

Ask questions of presenters during sessions and don’t be shy about talking to presenters afterwards. Just mention that you’d like to chat for a few minutes and ask when would be convenient to meet up again later.

If you have a social media presence, conferences create plenty to tweet about.

“Most conferences have hashtags, so if you’re on Twitter, you can start following along and entering the conversation in an additional way,” Shugart says.

Most importantly, engage with people.

At some trade shows, you can make appointments with vendors; others offer time for informal conversations. If you want to talk in more detail, ask the booth representative for the name of the best person to get in touch with later.

“Keep an eye out for possible strategic partners,” Shugart advises. “If you’re a government contractor, look for other contractors that you can do bids together with. If you’re a wedding planner, it’s always good to know photographers and cake bakers.”

When schmoozing, keep it short and sweet.

“If they do something similar, it shouldn’t take long to [decide] if this is someone you want to know better,” says business coach Stella.

If you do want to know more, exchange business cards and then move on, following up with your new contact after the conference.

“Varsity networkers really respect people’s time. Amateurs go on and on,” Stella explains.

Use lunch and session breaks to meet new contacts and browse vendor exhibits.

“I tell people you don’t network to look for business, you network to meet people who can maybe point you in the direction of business,” says Stella.

Also try to limit the time you spend talking to familiar faces.

“At the conference, spend most of your time meeting people you don’t know,” Stella continues.

Throughout the conference, work hard, but don’t push yourself to exhaustion. Try to get outside if the weather is decent, breathing in fresh air if you’ve been inside all day. If you traveled, take advantage of your new surroundings—dine out or see a bit of the city.

Above all, stay flexible: “Go with the flow,” Morris says.

After The Event

The work to make a conference or trade show pay off doesn’t end on the final day.

Back at the office, follow up promptly with new contacts who may be able to help you or whom you may be able to help, Shugart advises. Let your new contacts know you enjoyed meeting them and follow up about your conversation or any leads you offered.

“I suggest following up by email for immediacy,” says business coach Stella, who also sends a three-sentence handwritten note or postcard for impact.

Then he calls, always reintroducing himself and asking if it’s a good time to talk. Your goal, he says, is a short phone conversation. Since you’ve already met, “there’s less of a need to get together face-to-face, so it’s a lot easier to spend 15 minutes on the phone rather than 15 minutes at Starbucks,” Stella says.

Finally, sort through the piles of literature you likely accumulated and investigate or implement any new ideas, concepts or techniques that you learned about.

After all, the bottom line is putting your new knowledge, and business conference investment, to work.

Freelance writer and editor Carrie Madren knows the importance of attending industry conferences.

The NASE Can Help

The NASE can help you save money the next time you travel to a business conference.

Apply for an NASE Succeed Scholarship™ of up to $4,000 to pursue continuing education and training through university or college courses, training courses for business licensing and certification, or participation in conferences and seminars supporting business growth.

NASE Succeed Scholarships are awarded at the sole discretion of the NASE. Unfortunately, not everyone who applies will receive a scholarship. Decisions of the selection committee are final and are not subject to appeal. No application feedback will be given.

Plus, with the NASE Hotel Savings Program you can get great discounts when you book a room at any of these hotels:

  • Wyndham Hotels & Resorts
  • Ramada Worldwide
  • Days Inn
  • Super 8 Worldwide
  • Wingate by Wyndham
  • Baymont Inn & Suites/Amerihost
  • Howard Johnson
  • Travelodge
  • Knights Inn

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