You’ve been chosen, or have decided to attend your industry’s annual conference or convention. You won’t be alone. Exhibit Surveys Inc. says the exhibition industry saw meaningful upticks in 2012. And if you are a first time attendee you will have lots of counterparts: the same survey reports that 38% of attendees are first timers; and 45% of audience members at any show attend no other conferences or shows. The shows we participate in are a lot of that type, single industry in a single state which means if you want to pick up new and emerging trends, see new equipment, or connect with colleagues, you need to attend that conference.
Hopefully not all of your images of conferences/trade shows or exhibitors and attendees are based on the comedy film Cedar Rapids, but if you are attending an industry conference or trade show in the future I hope you keep in mind the suggestions I have listed below. They are based on over 25 years of attending or exhibiting at conferences and trade shows. They might not always work in every situation but they will help prepare you to get the most from the show.
1. Know Before You Go – Almost every conference nowadays has pre-conference information available on their website. Scan the presentations and speakers and mark which ones you want to attend. Scout out the trade show exhibitors beforehand as well. From the descriptions listed you may be able to discover who has new equipment that can solve a problem you are having, or find someone who has developed or improved a process your organization can take advantage of. Map out the tradeshow floor and plan a route that takes you to all those you want to see first, that way if you run out of time you won’t have missed someone it was important to see. If you can, schedule appointments with the most critical exhibitors so you know you will have the time you need for your discussions.
2. Divide and Conquer – If there are two or more of you in attendance from the same organization, see what speakers, presentations, and vendors you are interested in collectively. Spread out to maximize your experience and learn about everything. As a side note, if I’m attending for a friend I take better notes and pay more attention because I know somebody else is depending on me. Share your notes as soon as you can or commit to writing them up and forwarding them right after the conference. This approach can work for the trade show exhibits as well (you may want to have colleague’s business cards to solicit follow-up from the exhibitor for them).
3. Know Thy Competition– An industry conference or trade show is the perfect place to see what your competition may be doing. Overhearing conversations, attending industry award ceremonies or having a direct discussion with them might give you a preview of their new marketing campaign. Talking to an exhibitor that helped others in your industry may give you an insight into their business models or any new directions they are heading. The competition may also be an exhibitor and you can gather information through that technique.
4. Mingle Like Your Mean It – There are always opportunities at conferences or trade show to “mingle.” There are mid-morning breaks, lunch, afternoon breaks, and cocktail hours that give you an opportunity to meet new colleagues, get reacquainted with attendees you met at previous shows, and talk further with exhibitors. These informal sessions give you a chance for one-on-one interactions that are impossible at other times. Most of these events offer free food and beverages, so take the opportunity to relax and gather information.
5. Network, Network, Network – Take plenty of business cards with you to the conference. First, most exhibitors offer prizes or discounted services if you drop a business card in their drawing. Yes, you will probably get a follow-up call after the conference, but isn’t that a small price to pay for an iPad or a Kindle Fire? But you can also exchange cards with those in your industry who might be able to help you further your career. After all, this is the probably the largest gathering of people in your industry in one place at the same time in a calendar year. If not for career purposes, network to identify “champions” from other companies that might be able to make references or suggestions when you are looking for a new provider or service.
6. Technology is your friend – A trend I have seen this year is for a conference to offer an “App” around their show. The Indiana Bankers Association offered their Mega Conference app that not only gave you a phone size conference schedule, you could also utilize it to leave messages for colleagues. The Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities also had an App through Guidebook for their conference as well. That application even showed all the exhibitors, where they were located at the show, a description of the services they provide, and a link to the exhibitors website. K4 exhibited at both of those conferences and we were told by some attendees that they found us through the applications.
I’ve used all these techniques at various conferences and trade show over the years, but choose those that work for you and get out there and “Enjoy the Show!”