I'm preparing for speaking at and staffing exhibit booths at a number of industry conferences between now and June, and I got to thinking about the art and science of how to get the most benefit from a trade show or conference.
Of course, you'll have different objectives depending on what your goals are. Are you attending the conference for professional development? Or are you going through the exhibit hall looking for new resources or new prospects?
For starters, let's assume you're attending a conference so that you can refresh your research skills. (And is this in your annual budget and built into your hourly rates? If not, it should be! If your research skills get stale, you lose clients.)
Look over the schedule ahead of time and highlight the sessions or tracks that look most useful. Plan to attend as many sessions and networking events during the day as you can, even if this means skipping lunch. (And yes, I routinely pack energy bars when I go to conferences, so I can power my way through the day without having to stop for a "real" lunch.)
Find out what the Twitter hashtag is for the conference and monitor the discussion prior to the conference to get a sense of which speakers are creating the most buzz. While you are at the conference, tweet and blog the highlights of the sessions you attend. In fact, find out if any of your clients are interested in having you write up a summary of the highlights of the conference. What a great way of highlighting your value to your clients!
While this may seem obvious, bring at least 100 business cards with you. I never cease to be amazed at the people I meet at conferences who don't have a business card to exchange with me. While your goal is to collect rather than give out cards, it's much easier to ask for someone's business card if you can offer one in exchange.
And what about working the exhibit hall? I usually set a goal for myself to talk with at least ten exhibitors. I'm not chatting them up in order to cultivate new business; remember, exhibitors are paying dearly for that booth, and they are there to sell their product or service, NOT to be hustled by a conference attendee. Rather, I talk with them to find out about services my clients haven't heard about, that I might find useful, or that I might be able to profile in a newsletter or magazine article.
One thing I learned from many years of staffing exhibit booths is that approaching a booth is a no-risk situation. The person in the booth is just there to talk with you and another three bazillion people. You can gracefully end the conversation if you find that they're not offering something you want. But you can also talk with vendors that are entirely outside your area of expertise. Find out what they offer; see if they might be of interest to your clients; ask them if they provide a trial subscription to their service. You've got nothing to lose and a lot to gain by expanding your information horizons.