Discover more in the Business Travel series

How to Make Meaningful Connections at Conferences

These practical tips will help you get more out of your next social networking event.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
July 25, 2012

American industrialist, John D. Rockefeller, once said: “A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.” When we set out to build a network to help us grow our business, we would be well served to keep in mind this contrarian approach. Nowhere is this more valuable than when we attend social events at conferences and trade shows. An army of delegates descend on these event, often with a predatory attitude: collect as many business cards as possible, flit from one person to the next, without establishing any meaningful connection, and get as much as you can whether it is information, leads, referrals or other help.

Consider what would happen if you use a reverse strategy: seek to develop genuine rapport with a few fellow delegates as a foundation for a mutually-beneficial relationship long after the event has ended. When we adopt this mindset, a lot of the anxiety associated with socializing at these events tends to decrease. We tend to be more relaxed and, therefore, friendlier and more approachable.

Here are some practical tips to help you derive the most benefits from socializing at conferences and trade shows.

Make use of conference networking tools. If you have an opportunity, consider using any available pre-conference applications that facilitate networking at the conference. Programs such as IntroNetworks enable participants to find meaningful connections with other attendees, both in preparation for the conference and in staying connected after the event.

Arrive early. It is easier to connect with organizers and other insiders when you arrive early than when you enter an already crowded room. People are fresh and more eager to connect. As well, some of the delegates arriving after you are more likely to gravitate towards you.

Tweet with authenticity. If you are using a hashtag to tweet about your experience at a conference, don't just tweet about a speaker you are trying to connect with. If there are other speakers at the event that are worthy of being tweeted about, include them. A desire to impress a speaker becomes very obvious when only one individual is singled out amongst a group of good speakers.

Make others talk about themselves. When you socialize with someone during a conference, ask them questions that tap into their interest on the conference topic. Ask for their opinions and truly listen to their answers. Discussions at these events take place in charged atmospheres of noise and excitement; this means that it's not uncommon for someone in the group to be interrupted before finishing a story or making a point. If you listen carefully, you can redirect the conversation to honor that person. A simple: "I believe you were about to mention what got you interested in this topic?" makes the person feel that there is a genuine interaction beyond the superficial.

Practice the spirit of generosity in all interactions. Rather than being focused on what you can get from meeting someone, focus on what you can contribute: share ideas—offer to send a useful article or a pertinent link on the subject of the conference. There is something engaging about a person who is a philanthropist of know-how. Go out of your way to introduce someone you met at the conference to someone else who is also attending if you feel that both parties would benefit from the introduction. People remember these gestures of goodwill, which help to establish trust and credibility.

Sit separately from office colleagues or friends. If you attend with someone you know, it makes sense to separate during the event so that you can meet new people. While it is comforting to stay close to those you know, you'll be robbing yourself of the opportunity to expand your network.

Handle after hours socializing with aplomb. Many of the connections and deals often occur after hours, in an informal environment, over drinks or dinner. Know the etiquette rules so that you can glide through this important phase like a pro. For example, if you are issuing an invitation to dinner, it is okay for you to suggest a location that fits within your budget. Limit the number of those you invite to 6. Anymore and it becomes too crowded and impersonal for any meaningful connection. Any less and it could be tedious.

Limit your alcohol intake to one drink before dinner and one during dinner. Order food that is not messy to eat such as spaghetti. It is not far-fetched to eat a power bar before the dinner so that you can be more focused on the discussion rather than the food. If you must talk about business, don't introduce the subject until dessert. Better still, if it is feasible, keep the entire discussion on a social level, focusing on getting to know your prospect on a human level. Follow up after the event with an invitation to discuss business.

Know “the art of the ask.” Consider, as well, that it is not always appropriate to invite someone to lunch or dinner, but it is safe to invite them to join you for coffee. In his blog post "Never Ask a Busy Person to Lunch. Here’s Why:", venture capitalist Mark Suster calls business lunches and dinners "time sucks." He advises to keep in mind "whom you're meeting, the appropriate levels, the likely business of the person, how well you know them and whether it's appropriate to even ask." And if you feel that you may be slightly out of your league in asking, then start with a soft ask, i.e. an invitation to coffee.

Conferences and trade shows provide an ideal setting to enable strategic networking. With a little preparation, and observance of some basic etiquette rules, socializing at the event can help you build valuable connections that are as important as the main event itself. Above all, having a giving mindset will pay great dividends. As Bob Burg, author of The Go-Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea put it, "The successful networkers I know, the ones receiving tons of referrals and feeling truly happy about themselves, continually put the other person's needs ahead of their own."

Do you usually network solo or go with a friend or colleague?

Photo credit: Thinkstock