Conferences are a familiar experience for most business owners. They're a helpful way to network with others in your industry, learn some valuable information or skills, and meet other entrepreneurs.
But while conferences can indeed offer a host of benefits, it’s easy to fall into a rut with them: Perhaps you attend the same professional events year after year and approach them in a similar fashion. You collect a few business cards, listen to some speakers, eat some food, chat with the people you know. Repeat.
So how can you get out of your old routines and make conferences a more powerful, game-changing experience? And how can you get the most bang for your buck?
Here’s a comprehensive guide for small-business owners who want to learn to make conferences more worthwhile. It includes everything from how to choose the ones best suited to your needs to making sure you’re not missing out on valuable opportunities while you're at the conference.
Time is precious, so don’t waste it on unsatisfying—or downright dull—events. Each year you probably hear about or get invitations to an array of conferences and other educational and networking events both local and far from home. How do you decide which events are worth your time and money?
First, ask yourself some key questions about your goals for attending these gatherings and what you hope to get out of them:
- Which kind of information will be most useful to you in the coming weeks and months? (For example, are you mostly looking to learn about a specific subject, network with key people in your industry or find inspiration for new or better products and services?)
- What topics interest you most and which could you benefit from learning about?
- What type of people are you most eager to network with?
- What’s your budget?
Once you’ve narrowed down your criteria, the next step is figuring out which conferences fit the bill.
A common mistake is assuming that large conferences—those with hundreds or thousands of attendees and seemingly infinite numbers of workshops and other events to choose from—provide the most enriching experience, says Scott Berkun, a Seattle-based author and speaker who’s attended more than 500 conferences. Berkun says smaller, “single track” conferences where everyone watches the same speakers and attends the same events can provide attendees a better experience. A smaller conference makes it easier to meet new people, and the organizers can better focus on making sure every event and speaker is compelling and worthwhile.
“Because there's only one track, you always have something to talk about with the people you meet,” he says, adding that large conferences can often feel overwhelming and less intimate.
Another mistake, Berkun says, is continually attending the same conferences year after year. By never varying the conferences you attend, you might not experience the same level of professional growth, because you’ll likely continue to see the same people or hear about the same topics. Instead, expand your horizons by occasionally attending conferences and events in industries and fields outside your own.
Beyond hearing reviews from past attendees, one of the best ways to choose which conferences to attend is by checking out the event agendas online. Look for conferences that meet your criteria and goals while offering the most fascinating speakers and topics and ample networking time, as well as ones where the conference organizers are clearly aiming to provide an engaging and fun experience for attendees. “Conferences often fall into the trap of making it too formal and not facilitating good discussions,” he adds.
If you need some conference inspiration, here’s a list of 50 of the best conferences to attend in 2014, courtesy of career advice website The Muse.
The price of attending a conference can add up quickly. Once you tally up the registration fees; airfare or other transportation costs; hotel, meals and entertainment, a conference can easily set you back more than $1,000.
One strategy for mitigating the costs is to offer to speak or participate in a panel or other event at the conference—assuming you have something relevant to add. (This, of course, is also a terrific professional growth and networking opportunity.) Many speakers and participants get free or reduced-price conference admission. Even if you just work at the registration table, you might get some freebies.
Also look at other costs you might be able to shave and do some smart travel planning. Many conferences negotiate reduced rates for attendees at local hotels, but you might be able to find even cheaper rates at other nearby hotels.
You should also do a Google search and see if you can find reduced conference admission rates online. Some conferences offer discounts through various websites or even on Twitter. You might also be able to score an “early bird discount” by registering for the conference earlier rather than later.
Have a blog or frequently write for someone else’s? You might (read: might) be able to get a conference discount by offering to publicize the conference or write about the events you attend. Jennie Lees, a former product manager at Google and current San Francisco entrepreneur, told Mashable a few years ago that blogging has helped her save money on conference fees. “As a blogger, I've attended several conferences with a press pass (you usually get a decent amount of free food too),” she said. “It can be hard work, though … and you don't get much time to pursue your own goals and agenda.”
Of course, attending conferences in your local area can be the biggest money saver, since you won’t have to pay for airfare or hotel, but that’s not always a realistic option, depending on where you live. Never choose a conference based on location, but it's certainly smart to investigate events in your local area first if you're trying to save money.
You can’t just show up at a conference and expect everything to play out perfectly, so maximize your conference experience with some pre-planning. Review the agenda, and decide which sessions and networking events seem most relevant and interesting to you. Find out who else will be attending. If there’s anybody you’re anxious to meet, consider introducing yourself via email before the conference and arranging a quick chat over a cocktail or coffee while you're both at the event. “By having a few key meetings already set up, you'll feel less overwhelmed if you don’t know anyone there,” writes Kimberly Maul on IdealistCareers.org.
Also be sure to have the trip logistics figured out, including local transportation and restaurant options around the conference venue, so you don’t have to worry about these things once you’re there. Figure out how much time you’ll have outside of the conference itself and how you’ll use that time. Online travel-planning tools such as TripAdvisor and Google Maps can be very handy when planning out your conference trip, especially to a place you’ve never been.
Packing Right and Dressing Appropriately
What you wear to a conference can make a first and lasting impression—and you certainly don’t want to be the person showing up in a suit only to discover everyone else is wearing polo shirts and khakis, or vice versa.
You can usually get a sense of what attendees to a particular conference are most likely to wear by looking up photos online for the previous year’s conference. Beyond adhering to the typical attire of the event, think practically and professionally. Wear comfortable, yet stylishly appropriate shoes, since you'll likely be on your feet for much of the day. It’s always a good idea to have at least one blazer or suit coat along, even if you think the event will be casual. The air-conditioning in the conference hall could be on full blast, and you never know when a blazer could come in handy.
Beyond conference attire, think ahead about what else you’ll need at the conference. For instance, don’t forget to bring more than enough business cards, recommends Don Peppers, a professional speaker and founding partner of management consulting firm Peppers & Rogers Group in Stamford, Connecticut. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to a conference, and I meet somebody interesting and they don’t have a business card on them.”
If you forget your business cards or don't have any, at least make sure you have an efficient system for following up with people you meet or getting them your contact information.
One of the biggest challenges when attending conferences is maximizing your networking opportunities. This might be your one chance to get face time with key people in your industry or to meet potential business collaborators or future customers.
Being outgoing and trying to actively meet people during the course of the entire conference can be tiring and a challenge, however, especially if you aren’t a natural extrovert. Berkun, a self-professed introvert, says he mentally prepares for conferences and forces himself to introduce himself to people even at the first conference session he attends. Asking basic questions, such as “What do you do?” or “Why are you attending the conference?” can help you break the ice and meet people. “That first person you meet, they could end up being your conference friend,” Berkun says. “That could be the person you grab dinner with that evening.
“You have to approach the event kind of like dating,” Berkun adds. “You need to be a little more outgoing [than usual]. You need to give people your business card and ask people for theirs.”
If you already know people who are attending the conference, it can be tempting to spend much of your time talking with them. But that will make it difficult for you to meet new people. Instead of only hanging out with people you know, try to set a goal for meeting a certain number of new people at each event. These new contacts could be key to changes or improvements you'd like to make in your business.
If you need more tips on networking, Salary.com offers 12 tips for networking at conferences.
Improving Your Conference Experience
Much of the networking and communicating that goes on at conferences now happens via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. These can be valuable tools for finding other people at a conference who you want to connect with as well as providing valuable information about the conference as it's going on to people who weren’t able to attend.
Make sure to find out the conference hashtag on Twitter, so you can follow what other attendees are saying about the event and use it to share your own insights. Consider blogging, tweeting or sharing interesting information you learn at the conference on all the forms of social media you're linked to.
One word of caution: Don't get so caught up in social media that it takes away time you could be networking with others at the conference. You’ll have to manage any social media usage carefully and make sure you’re using it efficiently.
Doing Post-Conference Follow-Up
Networking at a conference does little good if you don’t stay in touch with the people you meet. Make a point to log any business cards you collect into your electronic contact list, and make notes to help you remember each person and what you talked about. Also connect via social media, such as on LinkedIn, with any potentially valuable contacts you made.
Consider sending a quick “thank you” or follow-up email to anyone you hope to stay in better touch with. Peppers says he makes it a point to write a quick email to almost everybody he meets. As he explains, “Just a quick email that says ‘Great meeting you’ can go a long way.”
Read more articles on networking.
Photos: Getty Images, Webstock, Don Peppers