Most people baulk at attending national meetings and conferences. Using the too poor, too small, too busy or too shy to access the wonderful opportunities available at such gathers is a mistake.
Many complain they don’t get any business out these things. Buyers aren’t there and marketing strategies aren’t working because they can’t close a sale on the spot.
Others claim the training sessions aren’t valuable. They already know it all, the speakers aren’t that great or the material isn’t relevant to their circumstances.
Oh – the cost – travel, lodging, conference fees. This can’t be justified for my little business and doesn’t fit into the marketing concepts I live by.
Right – if you want to stay the way you are. That’s not why those smart about strategic marketing go to these events. They realize the value of these meetings is in the contacts you make.
While the title of this article notes national meetings, the techniques for making these events a great experience for you and your business will work well at the local level too.
It’s usually pretty easy to spot who’s running the show, who the board members are, which participants, speakers and exhibitors are well-connected and the people others gravitate toward. Even if you go alone and have never met anyone there, you’ll quickly start getting introductions if you get friendly with these people.
Instead of trying to meet tons of people (and shove your business card in their hands – do you really think your name will be top-of-mind when they return home with a huge stack?), spend some time early trying to identify the individuals who can really make a difference at the event and with your future goals. If you leave the event with half a dozen great contacts you’ve built a relationship with, you’ll be better for it than if you touted your elevator speech to hundreds.
Discover what networks your new contacts have access to. This is done easiest by asking questions designed to determine how you can help them (this may include pet causes, particularly at events with large numbers of women). Recognize, particularly if it’s an event planner or board member, they’ll be very busy with the logistical tasks of the program, so respect their time.
Often the best time to meet these people is prior to scheduled activities during the hour-long continental breakfasts (read stale Danish and a coffee urn) that are usually a part of such events. Arrive at the beginning and plan on staying as people filter in and out.
Lunch is another opportunity. Sometimes seating is assigned, but if not, seek out a table that has a couple of people at it that you’d like to meet.
Most of the planners don’t attend the educational sessions, unless they’re speaking. Either consider choosing some tracts that are being presented or attended by people you want to meet, or skip a few and discover some of the players hanging out in the lobby or hovering over the sign in table checking to see what needs to be done. Offer to help (it’s amazing how quickly you can make a friend when you’re willing to do some grunt work that fell through the cracks).
Becoming a respected player
At most national events, there’s discussion of future work and roles being doled out. Whether it’s a regional meeting, committee work, board slate support, advocacy activities or promotional tasks that need to be delegated, stepping forward and offering your time or expertise will not only make you memorably, but it will put and keep you in touch with industry or association leaders.
When you talk to people (often handled best one-on-one), show you’re interested in what they are doing and willing to help with their success. Of course, you need to be impressed with their work-product, but if you can provide a referral, offer a contact or agree to send along some resource material (do it within two days of your return – even better if you have computer access at the conference), you’ll stand out from everyone else trying to pitch their own stuff.
Dress right. This can make a huge difference at such events. You need to be comfortable, but usually it’s a bad idea to stand out too much, particularly if you’re sloppy or too casual. You can call ahead and ask what people will be wearing (usually you’ll get a business casual response – dig deeper to find out what that means).
If you have a lot of advance lead time and have decided you’re going, find out if they need speakers (usually there are many spots to fill). If you ask what they’re looking for relative to a presentation topic (this has usually been predetermined), you can offer your expertise in a manner that reflects the programming needs. Being introduced as a featured speaker (even if it’s only for one five sessions running simultaneously) gives you instant credibility (you have to earn it once you step on stage, of course). Your name and business will be carried through all the programming material and many of the announcements.
These events are designed to be social too. If you’re all business people will be put off. Plus, you might as well enjoy the vacation, even if it’s a working one. For introverts this may mean quiet time in your hotel room alone. Extroverts head out to dinners and parties in the evenings. Whatever helps you recharge after a long day to get ready to face the next with vigor is a smart choice.
What’s the walk away?
Ideally, at least from my experience and perspective, you leave these events with new allies that will stay with you for decades. If you make the right impression with the players, the benefits those relationships bring you over the years will be immense. It’s not just about selling, it’s about introductions, resources, influence, promotional opportunities and access.
As with anything, the Parento principle (80/20 rule) applies. The large majority of people at these events are not good alliance partners and collaborators for you. But that 20% can mean the difference between resounding success (at whatever you set for your personal or professional goals) and humble stasis.
Remember, it’s not so much about what you can get today (in fact, what you can give will get you a lot further) but how the caliber and character of certain people will serve you well over time. You don’t know what your needs will be five, ten, twenty years from now. You might be surprised at how valuable a connection at a conference decades prior that you’ve fostered over the years is when life circumstances change. I know I have.