Traveling to conferences, conventions, and trade shows can be a great experience, or it can be the worst thing that’s happened to you in months. Part of that is dependent on your travel and accommodation experiences, whether or not you enjoy your job, and the people you interact with. You can’t change that part of the experience, but you can change your own actions and make the most of the opportunities that are presented to you. Here is a list of twelve things—four do’s, four don’ts, and four things to bring to your next event that may help you get the most out of the experience.
1. Bring your business cards—This one would seem to be a no-brainer. However, I can’t tell you how many conferences I’ve been to where I gave my card to someone who responded with “Oh, I didn’t bring my cards.” Whether they mean they didn’t bring them to the floor that day, or that they didn’t bring them at all doesn’t matter. It’s an easy thing to forget, but it’s detrimental to your conference experience if you can’t make connections. The best way to make those connections is to exchange information with other attendees. At a conference, convention, or trade show, you’re going to be meeting dozens or even hundreds or thousands of people. You can’t possibly remember every name, so how can you expect all of them to remember yours? Bring a stack of cards and keep it with you at all times. Be prepared to hand them out to those you meet. They may never call you, but at least you’ll know that the reason wasn’t because they didn’t have your contact info.
2. Bring swag from your organization, especially pens—You’ll be spending a day or a week with people who have similar interests, and who are captives just like you. It’s a perfect opportunity to spread your organization’s name around. Swag imprinted with the name of your company or institution is an easy way to get a reminder of your brand into the hands of potential clients, partners, or assets. Pens are cheap, and invariably you’ll be in a seminar, workgroup or round table where someone will ask to borrow a pen, because they forgot one or theirs went dead. You can be the person with extra pens who says “Here, keep this one.” Later, when working at their desk back at their home base, they’ll notice your pen—and possibly reach out to you. Even if they don’t, every time your organization’s name is said or read, your brand and exposure in your professional community are being re-enforced.
3. Bring your questions—Conferences, conventions and trade shows aren’t just networking opportunities, they are also professional development opportunities. Every person you meet has something to offer to you, whether it’s just a new perspective or invaluable information that will come in handy some day in the future. Learn what others do, and how they do it. Those new perspectives may spark your own creativity and lead you to a new best practice. When you return home, don’t forget to share what you learned with colleagues who didn’t get to attend. They may also find some use from what you learned, and if so, your organization has just gotten a BOGO (buy one get one free) because you learned and shared.
4. Bring a bag to collect swag and literature in—If you’re doing it right, you’re collecting a lot of swag. Vendors and other participants will have items and information available about their products and services. Rather than sorting through everything when you’re out on the convention floor, get a comfortable bag or briefcase to put your collected items in. Bring a few plastic Ziploc bags for small items, and drop all the small stuff in one bag so it doesn’t float around and get destroyed, or drift to the bottom of the bag only to be discovered the next time you prep for a convention. If you’re really motivated—and a little OCD—bring a mini stapler, and staple the business card and literature together before you leave a vendor’s booth. That helps you keep it together until you can look it over in depth later.
5. Don’t keep it all to yourself—When you’re picking up info and swag from peers or vendors, be thinking of others in your institution you could share that information with. Is there a vendor pitching a program you think your IT Department would find useful? Take their info and give it to the appropriate person when you get home. Write up a short review of the conference for your supervisor so they know they got their moneys’ worth by sending you. And share with your colleagues any best practices or good advice you learned. It can be as simple as a fun story someone told at dinner, or as complex as pitching to your HR Director about a presenter you saw at the event who you think your organization should bring on as a guest speaker at your next event. If you show your organization that they got a great value by sending you, they’ll be more likely to approve (and fund) future trips.
6. Don’t promise or buy anything—it’s very easy to get sucked into a sales pitch at the booth, or to feel obligated to promise to give a vendor a chance. Don’t do it. If you genuinely like a product and want to learn more, give the vendor your card and let them pitch you when you’re back on your home turf, where you have distance, discretion, and support. If you are just curious and want more information, be sure to pick up all their info and tell them you’ll contact them if you want to know more. If you ARE a vendor, you’ll impress potential clients more by being informative, supportive, and listening to their needs than you will by being pushy. Ask for contact info, and tell them you’d like an opportunity to give them a full pitch tailored to their needs at a later date. The soft sell may ring true with cautious buyers, and you might earn a chance to develop a fantastic ongoing client, rather than just a one-off convention floor sale that the client might regret in the cold light of day.
7. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home—You may think you’re the life of the party, but you’re probably just embarrassing yourself. There isn’t anything wrong with letting vendors or peers buy a round or two at the local watering hole at an after-hours mixer. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with having fun. But remember that if you get too wild and lose focus, you’re not getting anything out of the experience except a hangover and a reputation. Above all, remember you’re representing your organization. Despite what they might tell you, what happens in Vegas (or Orlando, or Cincinnati) does NOT stay there. Word will not only get back to your colleagues and superiors, it will get out to your peers. The only thing worse than an embarrassing “walk of shame” moment is an embarrassing walk of shame moment that will taint your professional reputation for years hence.
8. Don’t underdress—Depending on your industry, you can probably get away with dressing slightly more casually than you do at your office. But don’t be lulled by that into making truly bad clothing decisions. Your company is paying you to be here. That means you are AT WORK. It’s the same as if you went into the office, only you’re working out of a strange hotel instead of your regular desk. Besides looking sharp so that you represent your organization well, you want to make a good personal impression on the people you meet. You never know when a contact made at a conference is going to transform into a different professional opportunity in the future. Maybe someone you met will hire you, or maybe they won’t—did you wear a t-shirt to the President’s Dinner?
9. Do network—Learn about your co-attendees. Mine them for data and useful knowledge, and offer yours. What are their best practices for projects like the ones you’re currently working on? What do they do when they encounter a hairy situation? Can you offer them any good suggestions to deal with the budget cuts they’re facing that you went through last year? Chances are you have something in common with the others in that shared space. Use that to make connections that may prove fruitful in the future, for you and them. You’ll get the most out of the experience this way, and you’ll connect with people who may be assets in the future. If you attend more than one convention in your professional life, you may bump into some of the same people. Having met and made a good impression once, you’ll have allies on future trips.
10. Do use social networking platforms— If you’re a vendor, you’ve probably already planned to do this, but if you’re an attendee, it may not have occurred to you. If you or your organization have any kind of social media presence, use it. Find out if the conference is using a specific hashtag for posts regarding that event. If so, do use them, but also SEARCH those hashtags to find out how others are getting along, and use that as an opener if you meet and recognize one of them. Blog about it on your own site and tout how this experience will inform services to your own clients or partners. Mention what you’re doing on your Facebook page. Meet with your own social media/marketing people before the event to ask for advice on how to use the organization’s social media when you’re representing them while traveling. Your company will appreciate it, and your other clients, vendors, and assets will see what you’re doing too. Maybe you’ll get an invite (or a funded scholarship) to come to a future event, because your peers know you’ll raise their profile with your social networking savvy.
11. Do take photos of people you meet with your phone—Of course you want to ask first, but when you’ve chatted with people for more than a cursory minute, ask to photograph them and their badge for your visual rolodex. Usually a conference badge has the attendee’s name, title, and organization listed. If they forgot their card, this may be the only way you’ll remember their info. Putting a face with the name is also a great way to reinforce who they are in your mind. I check these photos over in my hotel at night so that when I bump into them at breakfast the next morning, I can say “Oh, good morning Jorge!” Most people are impressed by this, especially if they didn’t wear their badge to breakfast. If you have a smart phone, put the photo right into your contact list and assign the photo to their contact info.
12. Do email after the conference to keep in touch—You probably won’t become lifelong friends with the people you meet at a conference, and I’m not suggesting you contact EVERY person you meet. However, I’ve found that for every 100 people I meet, I usually have a truly meaningful conversation with 10 of them. Email those 10 people with a brief email; don’t get stalker-ish about it. “Hi Bob, I really enjoyed getting to know you at The Conference. If you’re ever near My Organization and you want or need something from me, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Here is the recipe for vegan cookies we talked about.” Send one email and leave it at that. If they want to contact you, they will. Even if they don’t, they’ll be impressed that you took the time to touch base with them, and it gives you the opportunity to develop a long-lasting professional relationship over time. And next time you’re at a convention with one of them, they’ll introduce you to their friends and colleagues—because you’re that awesome and thoughtful person who didn’t just forget about them the minute the closing speech ended.