Three experts explain how to extract maximum value from every industry conference.
Attending an industry conference takes you away from valuable work hours helping clients, so a truly worthwhile convention should offer great speakers, fresh ideas and potential new business contacts. It’s up to you, however, to extract maximum value from the experience through detailed planning and by adopting a smart strategy.
Companies once sent multiple delegates to attend keynotes, breakout sessions and to network but today’s cost-cutting means there is now a good chance you alone might be responsible for obtaining the best return from the investment.
To do this, it is vital to set key takeaways. Are you primarily there to network with other professionals or thought leaders, increase awareness of your brand, or to learn more about specific tools and best practices to help your firm grow?
1. Pre-plan convention meetings
“There was a debate about a decade ago that virtual meetings technology would end face-to-face meetings, but that hasn’t happened,” says Geoff Donaghy, CEO of Australia’s largest convention centre, ICC Sydney.
“It is in the human DNA to go out and meet and gather together.”
What technology has done is provide new opportunities to research the contacts you want to make from an attendee list, to reach out to them before the conference and arrange to meet there.
According to Donaghy, the interaction at breakout conference sessions has become almost as important as the main content.
“If you do not know exactly who will be present, at least identify the types of people you want to meet, which will help you to pre-plan the best sessions to attend,” adds US-based professional master of ceremonies and conference keynote speaker Thom Singer.
It’s also a good idea to ask for introductions to be brokered by either the organiser or another attendee, advises Joyce DiMascio, CEO of the Exhibition and Event Association of Australasia.
Many organisers facilitate networking by overlaying ice-breaking functions or using event tech tools to assist with introductions.
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“Meet the presenters too – let them know what you thought about their content,” DiMascio says.
“If there is an associated exhibition, then delegates can easily meet new people by spending time visiting the trade show component.”
2. Have a strategy for conference social events
Some of the new contacts you make – as well as ones you might have previously communicated with online – could be by chance. Showing up early to social events will likely pay dividends.
“The more people who arrive, the more groups will form,” Singer explains.
“Those who arrive first to meet others who are early arrivals are at the centre of the energy. Too often people who show up fashionably late have a hard time breaking into conversation clusters.
“Also, if you do go to an event with co-workers, don’t spend the whole time together – you will meet nobody new.”
A similar no-no to socialising only with colleagues or friends is to hang out with them in the lounge area during plenary or workshop sessions. Instead, see conference time as a chance to begin relationships that could develop into new business contacts.
3. Go into the convention with an open mind
Donaghy and DiMascio agree that the worst mistake even seasoned conference attendees make is to go in with a closed mind.
“There will always be things to learn, even if they’re small gems you can go home with to develop and grow,” Donaghy says.
“Sometimes, hearing about something you’re already doing, but could do slightly differently, can be a great takeaway. Being open to new ideas that spark new thoughts about innovation is a must.”
4. Use a conference as “think time” and leverage the experience
Donaghy says one of the great benefits of attending conferences is that they give you the opportunity to spend time working on and thinking about your business. DiMascio calls this “think time”, but the value of this can be undermined by:
- Emailing or texting during sessions rather than engaging with content
- Not visiting exhibitors
- Not studying the program ahead and working out which sessions to attend
- Not having a plan to achieve what you (or your employer) want from the conference
“Don’t waste the chance to leverage the experience,” she warns. “Engage, learn and after the event reconnect. Do the follow-up.”
5. Be smart about post-conference follow-up
According to Singer, follow-up is not something many delegates do well – if at all.
“The follow-up has to be unique to each person and must be done with a plan,” he says, emphasising that effective networking does not usually take place at a conference – it’s in what you do after.
“Too many people miss the return on investment from events because they either do not follow up with people they meet, or worse, send out a bulk email.
“It can take years to build a business relationship, but most people hope a quick meeting at a conference and a follow-up on social media will constitute a meaningful connection.”
It is not, he says, ever that easy.
A smart conference strategy will give you new ideas and contacts, and make the experience much more enjoyable and thought-provoking.