More than 27 million people attend conferences, trade shows and conventions each year, and according to Meetings & Conventions magazine, the main reason they attend is to network. It’s no wonder then that in their brochures and on their websites, conference organizers go to great lengths to highlight the fantastic networking opportunities the event offers.

But many potential attendees shy away from the conference experience because they are intimidated by the size of the event and their lack of networking skills. While those who attend often don’t take full advantage of what the event has to offer because they don’t know who to talk to or what to say. They wander the floor without a plan and meet people by default, missing out on key opportunities to make high-impact connections that could really make a difference to your business.

Successful networking at a big event like a trade show or conference comes down to taking charge of your own experience by developing a cohesive plan, leveraging all available resources, and using your time wisely.

Here are 7 tips to maximize networking efforts at your next big event:

1) Broaden your search for non-obvious events. It may be a given that you need to appear every year at the big trade show in your industry, but you also need to expand to other events that your target market might attend. The more defined the conference, the slimmer chances your competitors will be there as well, and the more likely you’ll be able to differentiate yourself. You can choose a specific demographic niche, such as women or baby boomers, a professional niche, such as lawyers or doctors, or a special interest niche, such as sports or gourmet food.

One year, when I wanted to fill out my business consulting practice, I attended the annual conference of the American Cheese Society, which puts on a huge multi-day event for cheesemakers, retailers, and distributors that culminates in the Festival of Cheeses (if you like gourmet). cheese, believe me, it’s a must do!). Not only did I have a blast learning how a whole new industry works, but I also won a number of consulting projects from companies that had never met a business consultant before, but definitely needed one.

To find trade shows or conferences in your industry or region, check out Trade Show Week (www.tradeshowweek.com) or Trade Show News (www.tsnn.com). Also search online for associations in subject areas in which you have a personal or professional interest, then check their websites for information on their annual conference.

2) Clarify your goals. Think about what you hope to win at the conference. Most people are looking for a loose mix of information and inspiration, but the more specifically you can articulate what you’re looking for, the better you can choose how to spend your time.

Last year, for example, I attended a conference on behalf of a client and set some very clear goals: “Find out what other companies are doing to reach Hispanic audiences and identify potential partners to help my client break into that market.” “. Having such clarity of purpose helped me narrow down which breakout sessions to attend, which speakers to meet, how to introduce myself to them, what information to collect, and what questions to ask other participants.

Having clear goals makes it easier to focus on making the right connections and having meaningful conversations. Otherwise, your networking efforts will be unfocused and important conversations will go nowhere.

3) Do not sell. Unless you’re attending a true industry buying event where the purpose is to bring buyers and sellers together to place orders and close deals, most conferences are set up more to share information and connect. In those cases, people are rarely prepared to buy. No one walks around thinking, “I’m really in the mood to hire a consultant today” or “I’m not leaving until I spend millions on computer software.” So avoid turning your conversations into sales pitches, even if you know for a fact that it can help.

It’s better to use face-to-face time with other participants to make a genuine connection by asking questions and understanding what your goals are, rather than talking about your company and services. The purpose is to come across as a helpful resource, someone they’d like to continue the conversation with, not as a used car salesman ready to pounce.

4) Focus your discussions. Connections happen through conversation, but if you’re not prepared, most of your discussions will consist mostly of small talk. While some of this is necessary to get the ball rolling, too much won’t get your relationship very far. After you strike up a relationship with someone, you want to quickly move into more interesting territory. Ask questions about what brings you to the conference and what you are looking for. People love to talk about themselves and it’s easy for them to do so, so you won’t have too much work to listen to. Then, once it’s your turn, you can share your own goals about what you hope to accomplish at the conference. You may discover common ground, ways you can help each other, or possibilities to make connections with others in your respective networks.

5) Get the right people to come to you. No matter how hard you work on the event, you won’t be able to reach all the people you need to meet. However, you can be much more efficient with your time if you attract the right people. One way to do this is by asking a question in one of the presentation sessions. But don’t just ask the question. Use a quick five-second introduction as a preface.

A gentleman in one of my workshops tried this during a conference seminar Q&A session. He raised his hand, stood up and said, “My name is Bob Smith with The Mergers & Acquisitions Company (note: name and company changed). We help private companies find an exit strategy, and my question it is …”. he then he launched into the question of him. He said that after the session, five people approached him and he got business from three of them. Why? People knew what he was doing, his question was intelligent and he sounded confident. He would never have found those specific people on his own in the room of 200, so he did something to get them to search for him. They self-selected, making your job much easier.

You can do the same. All it takes is a little pre-conference prep work to pick the keynote or breakout session that is likely to appeal to your largest target audience, develop your introduction and on-topic question, and practice. to speak effortlessly and forcefully. Then go back and watch what happens.

6) Ask the organizers for help. The conference organizers want him to meet their goals, so he’ll be back next year, and hopefully he’ll bring some colleagues, too, so don’t be shy about asking for their help. It is a simple two-step process. First, you have to find one of them. One place to look is the registration desk or, better yet, if the conference is big enough, the Speaker’s Lounge, where speakers check in and hang out before and after their talks. You can also see them in the back of the seminar room making sure everything is going smoothly. They will often carry walkie-talkies.

Second, you must articulate your request. If there’s a specific person you’d like to meet, say “I’d love to say hi to Mr. X, would you mind introducing me?” Or, if you’re looking for a specific type of person but don’t have a name, you might say, “I know there are some people here from ABC Company, what’s the best way to find them?” or “I’m looking for someone in the public relations field, is there someone I can introduce myself to?”

7) Exit the seminar room. As a conference speaker, he should be inclined to encourage participants to stay in their seats at keynotes and breakout sessions and absorb as much information as possible. However, as a networker myself, I know that conversations during breaks and meals and in the hallway can be extremely valuable in building relationships that can help your business.

Be especially sure to take advantage of the unique networking opportunities offered at the conference. Increasingly, organizers are trying to facilitate connections between participants through structured networking events and other creative programs. A conference I attended a few years ago in Washington DC featured a dinner event where participants were divided into small predetermined groups (to separate people from similar businesses and professions) and prepared to dine at local restaurants. I shared wine and great food with industry leaders who are still part of my network today.

Although Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up, successful networking at conferences, trade shows and conventions takes a little more effort. Just by showing up, you’ll likely still have a good time, gain useful information, and meet some nice people, but a little focus and preparation up front can make the experience more relevant to your needs and result in a much higher reward for your team. time and investment.

© 2003-2007, Liz Lynch.

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