Thursday, September 15, 2016

6 Ways to get the most out of a Conference

If you have worked with a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Advisor, you are probably aware that we are part of a national network. There are SBDC's in every state and also some international locations.

We are coming up on our annual conference for America's Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) and I've been prepping for it. Over the years, I have attended many International conferences and found some completely overwhelming. Doing some homework in advance of attending a trade show or conference can help you get the most out of your time.

Here are some things I've found useful in attending past conferences.

1. Do your homework.
2. Plan ahead.
3. Go digital and social.
4. Put down the laptops.
5. Volunteer.
6. Aim for some free time!

1. Do your homework. 

It's a good idea to visit the conference website in advance. This is beneficial for many reasons. You can:

  • Learn about special pre and post conference workshops. Some are free as long as you pre-register. A conference may also offer a pre-conference orientation webinar.
  • Review the session schedule, special events and attendee, vendor and speaker lists.
  • Find out about events for niche groups: first-time attendees, millenials, marketers or guests.
  • Get a feel for the geographic area you are attending. Plan hotel and transportation routes accordingly.

IRCE - Break out session
Last year I attended the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition (IRCE) in Chicago - along with over 10,000 attendees. The exhibit floor alone was larger than a football field and housed over 800 exhibitors. I ended up spending way too much time on one row of the exhibit hall - I should have been more selective. By the time an hour was up, I realized I still had 750 booths to check out. At this point, I realized I needed a different strategy to work the room to gather the information I was seeking.

Another benefit at IRCE was that the conference offered bus transportation from a few select hotels in downtown Chicago. This turned out to be not only convenient but save a lot of time and money. The convention center was located quite a distance from downtown. If I had stayed nearby, I would have had to personally pay for a taxi if I wanted to hit the Miracle Mile or visit any sights in Chicago. The buses got through traffic efficiently and the drop off location was a short walk to my hotel.

2. Plan ahead and follow up. 

Advance contact
could get you
invited to a special event!
Set goals for attending. If your agency is sending you, perhaps they want you to focus on one track and expect you to report back to your peers. For example, this year at ASBDC, I am focusing on marketing, e-commerce and business finance sessions.

Schedule meetings ahead of time. Conferences are for networking, learning and building relationships. If you are in a purchasing or decision-making position, a conference is a good time to schedule visits with potential vendors. The vendors are there to sell services and it is an opportune time to find out about prospective vendors.

Take advantage of opportunites that can help your bottom line. At IRCE, I met some attendees that were highly courted by a few e-commerce vendors. They were there to research potential providers for a robust e-commerce site and in return, were wooed with a VIP reception by a company trying to gain the account.

As part of your planning process, make a follow up plan. Take notes on the back of his or her business card when you meet a person. Connect on LinkedIn. If you met the person in a social setting, you can make a note of what you discussed, perhaps a recent vacation or other common factor.

3. Go digital and social.

The days of taking a gigantic stack of business cards have passed. I haven't given up the habit all the way, but found that the last two conferences I attended I really only needed a few cards, not the 150+ that I packed. Pro tip: our address changed and I take my old business cards to use on drawings and raffles. As long as your email address is the same, that is sufficient.

Trade shows are equipped with QR readers and they can scan attendee badges. They are very efficient at following up, trust me.

Apps are very popular among large conferences, as well as social networking. At our last ASBDC conference, they did not have printed schedules and relied on the app for social activity, session updates and even workshop evaluations.

Most groups will have a hashtag that they encourage attendees to use across social networks. This is a great way to meet your peers as well. I've seen groups form to hit the town, go to dinner or engage speakers.

4. Put down the laptops.

A large conference can be intimidating. It might be out of your comfort zone, but try meeting new people instead of concentrating on your phone.

Unplugging can not only help you focus on the sessions and get a break from work, it may even help you retain information by taking hand-written notes.

5. Volunteer as a moderator or workshop host.

This could be a fun way to get to meet a desired speaker and even take home a special host gift. Conferences rely on numerous volunteers. With hundreds of sessions, they need a large group of volunteers to introduce speakers, moderate panels or distribute handouts.

6. Aim for some free time to recharge your batteries.

Whether it is bookending your travel with an extra vacation day or two or just taking advantage of a free evening, in my opinion, this is one of the most important take-aways from business travel. Sitting for eight hours a day in sessions, maintaining active listening skills in meetings and networking with new people can be exhausting.

Extroverts may thrive on the activity, constant interaction and busy schedule; if you are introverted you may seek out some quiet time to absorb new material or just like to have a quiet dinner alone.

Cloud Gate - Chicago
Followed by a solo dinner!

I am fortunate that the Washington SBDC is supportive of learning, professional development and also encourages employees to use time away from the office to recharge and refuel internally. It is what makes our network of advisors even stronger and valuable to our bottom line - helping our clients.