I recently returned from a conference in Orlando. I went along with 120 Canadian delegates, all members of WEConnect Canada, an organization dedicated to the certification and support of women-owned businesses. The conference was an exciting and robust exchange of information, ideas and contacts – a valuable experience indeed for women of various expertise and backgrounds in entrepreneurship and business. As most conferences go, such a vast amount of content in such a short period of time requires a lots of planning and strategy in order to make the most of the fulfilling time there. A few tips can help to get you in the right mindset and can keep you focused during the conference itself, enabling the most “takeaways” from a conference rich in content. These tips can be applied to conferences of any topic or theme.
Before you even travel to the conference location, review the schedule beforehand. If you have a choice between simultaneous workshops, research and read about both the speakers and the topics, so that you can attend the talks that you know would best fit your interests and your work.
The schedule will also provide insights as to what you should wear. If you are not certain of the dress code, ask. And please err on the more formal side: even if the program recommends casual dress, as the conference may take place in a warm climate or involve lots of walking, remember that you are there to do business and you must make a good first impression.
If the conference offers an accompanying trade show, reading about organizations with booth displays as well as reviewing the trade show floor map in advance can save a significant amount of time. Instead of wandering through the show, scanning the booths and deciding which ones to visit, you can head straight to the ones that you are interested in and would like to engage with. Otherwise, the sea of booths can prove overwhelming if you spend most of your time simply processing who is represented.
Another tip: have some questions ready for the organizations or vendors you are certain you want to visit at the trade show.
Take time to reflect after each panel discussion or speech.
Following each informative talk or discussion, take just a few minutes to reflect on what you heard. What was the key message? What were one or two important points that you learned? What can you apply to your own professional growth, or the development of your company? Write these reflections down between the sessions or during breaks. With so much information exchange at a conference, even brief moments of reflection are necessary for internalization and retention of information.
Even if you are scheduled to attend back-to-back sessions, think about these points during your walk between venues. Take time at the end of the day to process and write down takeaways from each unique talk.
Actively network, both during the conference and on “off-time.”
Conferences are well known to be great networking opportunities. But don’t limit networking to simply acquiring a stack of business cards without making legitimate connections and lasting impressions. If you meet people that could be really valuable contacts, be sure to connect with them during time you set aside to chat one-on-one, not just a brief conversation between sessions or a networking cocktail.
According to the creative professional think tank Behance, “many frequent conference-goers claim that their greatest conference experiences happened in the ‘downtime,’” when they truly had a chance to sit down and discuss with peers from around the world whom they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet.
Follow up with key contacts – ASAP.
Don’t leave getting in touch with fellow conference participants as a “to-do” that will sit on your desk until you have time to get around to it in a few weeks. It’s crucial to follow up with important contacts shortly after you meet them: firstly, so that they don’t forget who you are, and secondly, so that they are aware that you value them as a connection since you have promptly reached out to them.
Be sure to call or email key contacts within a few days of returning to the office – you never know what kind of opportunity could arise from their connection. Another point to stress is to follow up on any and all promises you made, whether it is to connect people, send the title of a book or share a recipe. Follow through with your commitments, big or small.
Conferences can provide excellent spaces for development and can facilitate valuable relationships. Attending with even a minimal strategy in mind will help you gain the most a conference has to offer.
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