How To Get The Most Out of Your Business Conferences
Conferences are great. You take a whole bunch of experts, innovators and trailblazers, put them in one place and let them talk about what they’re excited about for a few days, and something amazing is bound to happen.
Going to a business conference is a wonderful opportunity for you to learn, get inspiration, meet top-level professionals in your field and make tons of connections in one weekend. However, these events can be a little overwhelming for first-time attendees. How do you choose the right one? How do you find your way through dozens (or hundreds) of talks and seminars, among thousands of other attendees? How do you make the best use of your time and energy?
The first step is finding the business conference you want to go to. Start by deciding if you’re looking for a big conference with high-level speakers from diverse fields, or a more specialized small conference.
Small business conferences
The great thing about small conferences is you can see everything. Instead of sorting through a huge catalog, dashing from one talk to another and missing stuff because two great events happen at the same time, you can get to everything you want – and still have time to talk and meet people. You’ll get more of a chance to meet speakers personally. In smaller groups, it’s much easier to ask questions, and between events you’re more likely to rub shoulders with them.
It’s quality versus quantity: you can see the big names at a big conference, or you can meet and get to know key innovators and entrepreneurs at a small conference. Small business conferences are also cheaper, usually without tier pricing. They’re easier to navigate and less intimidating if you’ve never been to one before. The drawback is that they naturally have less selection and fewer big names. They also can be pretty niche-oriented. This can be a plus if you’re in a very specialized field, but you have to find one that’s geared to your interests.
The energy and excitement of a big conference is something special. It’s worth going once in your career just for the experience. Big business conferences attract top industry leaders and thousands of marketers, developers, entrepreneurs, CEO’s and others interested in cutting-edge ideas. It’s an opportunity for you to connect with many more people, including people from outside your immediate field who you might never meet otherwise.
You can expand your network – and your horizons – in directions you couldn’t anticipate. The problem with big conferences is that they’re often too much of a good thing. All the talks you’re interested in always seem to happen at the same time. It all goes at a crazy pace and the scale can be overwhelming. Unless you’re a super-extrovert and you really know your way around, it’s easy to get lost.
Instead of meeting the speakers after they talk, you’ll probably be just another face in the crowd. Plus, big conferences usually have a tier system for tickets. If you can’t shell out a few thousand dollars for the highest access pass, you might find yourself locked out of the most interesting events.
Plan for success
Once you’ve found the perfect conference, how do you make the most out of your time there? It all starts with planning.
I strongly recommend sitting down with the catalog before you go and planning your schedule, especially for a larger conference. Choose your must-see events, mid-level important events and “would be nice if there’s time” low priorities. Check out the Facebook event page or Twitter hashtag and try to connect with other attendees online before you go. Reach out to any prospects, let them know you’ll be there and maybe set a time to meet.
This should go without saying but be sure to bring all your chargers with you! You’re going to be on your phone and laptop a lot during conference days, and the last thing you want is a dead battery.
Make the most out of your networking opportunities
Once you’re at the conference, remember that networking is your top priority. Learning and getting ideas is also important, but the connections you make here is what really stays with you and opens doors.
Remember that the more people you meet, the more people you can meet. Your professional network grows exponentially. Take notes during talks, especially of your questions. With all of the buzz, it’s easy for thoughts to go in one ear and out the other. Whenever you can, ask questions and start conversations. At a small conference, you might even get the chance to ask your questions directly to the speaker when you see them later – a great opportunity for meaningful connections! If that’s not possible, don’t be shy about asking publicly at the end of the session.
Monitor the conference hashtag throughout the event to see what other attendees are talking about. Jump into the online conversation and you might find new people to meet offline. Make it your policy to never eat alone. Meals are important social meeting points, just as important as the events.
Smaller business conferences often offer lunches and dinners where everyone can meet and get to know each other in a more intimate, low-key setting. You can usually book these with your registration and I definitely recommend it. When you meet someone, always swap contact information. You never know what connection will bear fruit later on! It’s a good idea to come with a stack of business cards so you can exchange details in a rush.
Integrate your accomplishments after the event
When you get home, you might be tired but it’s not time to rest on your laurels yet. In the days and weeks after a conference, you want to start putting what you’ve learned to use and strengthening your new connections. You should follow up with the people you met, whether by email, Facebook or a LinkedIn message. It’s a good idea to remind them what your conversation was about, since everyone will be inundated with these messages! Following up now will help you turn a brief meeting into a lasting relationship.
Finally, pass on what you learned to your coworkers. You want to start developing your new ideas while they’re still fresh in your mind.
I hope this helps you get a head start on your next conference! If you plan well and actively go after networking opportunities, you might find lots of doors opening for you. They can also be very helpful for giving inspiration. It’s refreshing to meet so many new people and hear all the new ideas in your field.