How do you attend a work or trade conference and ensure that you have a good time?
I’m currently back in LA after a few days in South Carolina (with my parents) and a long weekend spent in Boston, MA, attending the Women in Travel Summit. WITS was a really fantastic conference, and I’m thrilled I got to attend and honored I got to present. It was well-organized, many of the sessions were beyond helpful, and I met a lot of other wonderful bloggers and travel-lovers.
Attending a conference can be an amazing experience that enhances your business and increases your connections to others in your industry. It can also be exhausting, overwhelming, and put you out of your comfort zone. After you’ve spent money on traveling to the destination, a hotel, and other costs, though, you want to make the most of it — not just because of the money investment, but the time investment, too. No conferences offer a guarantee that you’ll have a great time, since it’s actually your responsibility to do that. Lucky you, I have some tips and networking advice to keep in mind for your next conference!
Before the main event, your number one focus should be to make sure you’re prepared, which will help you avoid any unnecessary stress . Leave plenty of time for packing, check out the schedule online, and sort out your housing well in advance. If you’re presenting (as I was) prepare early and rehearse many, many times in case there are technical issues (I encountered a few). If you spend the entire time worrying about your contribution to the event, you just will not be able to enjoy yourself. You’ll spend spare moments making tweaks to your presentation instead of meeting awesome people, and that is totally not the point!
If your schedule allows, take part in pre-conference events. Also join any conference Facebook groups or social media discussions. These are your chance to cultivate a few relationships with people so that during the event you’ll have friendly faces to turn to. You’ll also probably get to know the organizers a little better and hopefully get in good with them.
I attended a Friday night happy hour with speakers and sponsors, and I met a lot of people that I stopped to have more conversations with throughout the weekend. Not everyone attending WITS was at this event, so it was slightly less crowded and intimidating. In general, these “before” activities tend to be enjoyable and less network-y than the main event.
Oh, and speaking of networking, don’t forget to get business cards made. Moo cards have amazing quality, but if you don’t have the cash or if, like me, you decided to get them printed the day before you leave (ahem), Staples does a good job, too. No matter how you feel about them, biz cards aren’t dead. It’s a relatively small business investment that is the fastest way to give and receive contact information.
Once the conference is in full swing, you should be concerned about taking care of yourself and having a good time. Wear comfortable shoes, have a way to take notes, and an easy-to-carry bag for business cards, handouts, and swag that you get. Also, bring layers since conference rooms are rarely just the right temperature and are more likely to be unbearably stuffy or ridiculously cold.
Remember to stay hydrated. I drank so much water at WITS because dehydration is crummy enough, but top it off with cramped spaces, lots of people talking, and fluorescent lights and you will just feel awful. I’d safely say that all conferences provide water, but if you’re not sure then bring your own bottle in case.
Also, rest. Know when you need some downtime. You won’t be yourself if you’re super tired and cranky. Saturday was a doozie for me, and by the time 6pm rolled around I just wasn’t up for the Saturday night shindig. I was experiencing a ton of FOMO about it, but in the end I had to opt out, and I am SO glad I made that decision. Sunday morning I walked in refreshed and ready for more. Participate, but don’t feel like you have to do every single activity every single day.
When it comes to networking and meeting folks, there’s some general unspoken etiquette to consider. These aren’t set in stone rules, but they’re a great way to come off as a thoughtful human being that people will really like instead of someone who is merely concerned with a personal agenda.
First of all, questions and contributions during sessions should apply to the majority of the room — so over 50%. If it’s a personalized question, save it for small talk afterwards or exchange business cards to follow up. A few very smart attendees came up to me after my presentation to ask personalized questions about their blog, which was more appropriate than doing it during the open Q&A. It’s still totally fine to ask your question, of course! Just assess whether other people will benefit from it as well.
It’s also important to let speakers know you appreciate them and talk to the people you hope to connect with, but don’t monopolize anyone’s time. It can be hard to gauge, but this comes off as incredibly inconsiderate. There’s nothing worse than a smitten audience member who talks and talks and talks with a speaker after a presentation with utter disregard for the other 10 people waiting patiently in line behind them.
By all means, have meaningful discussions, but these types of events are jam-packed with information and sessions and presentations — and occupying more than 5 minutes of someone’s time in a private conversation is excessive. So when chatting up the serious movers and shakers of the event, make a little small talk, make your point, and move on. Other attendees will appreciate it, and so will the person you’re speaking to. If you’re not able to reach your main talking point within a few minutes, then you should work on your brevity and/or consider just grabbing that person’s business card and discussing things with them off-site.
In the same vein, when you’re talking with other attendees, leave them wanting more. People will remember you best for what you believe in and how you make them feel, and a lot of this has to do with how you approach networking.
Networking gets a bad reputation, but just look at it as the opportunity to meet other cool people. If the idea of networking almost makes you break out in hives, know that you’re not the only one. Talking to stranger after stranger is exhausting and takes a lot of energy. I, for one, love it. I spent much of my conference floating around to different tables introducing myself and getting to know people. You absolutely should be yourself in these situations, but if you make literally zero human connections at a conference then you’re missing out on a big part of it. There are three things you want to be able to do:
1. Say what it is that you do in a nutshell, or (even better) tell people what it is you are passionate about. So, instead of “Hi I’m Theresa and I have a travel blog,” I would say, “Hi I’m Theresa and I’m passionate about experiencing off-beat destinations and helping others create more adventure in their lives.” Which is more interesting to you? Exactly.
2. Create a few different opening lines and just keep using them with each new person you meet. Seriously! Here are some that I used the most:
“What session did you just attend?”
“Where are you from?”
”I really like your [accessory/clothing item]. Where did you get it?”
“What session do you think you’ll go to next?”
Anything will work, but avoid yes/no questions if you really want to try to connect with people.
I’d have to say my favorite is, “Hi, my name is Theresa. What’s yours?” It’s confident and simple, and when I do it and stick out my hand for a nice, hearty handshake, I almost always see people’s eyes light up. The hard intro work is done and I was the one to do it.
3. Ask questions and honestly listen. Once you’ve got a conversation started, the discussion could really go anywhere, so try to approach your chats with new people with an open mind. Just remember to ask questions and listen intently to what they have to say. People enjoy talking about themselves, and when they see that you’re genuinely interested in them they will love you for it. If things go south and you’re seriously not hitting it off with someone, then just be polite and make an exit. “Thank you, it was great meeting you. I’m going to go explore the conference hall/speak with some of the sponsors/etc.” You’re not obligated to spend more time with anyone than you want.
More than anything, just remember that you’ll get out what you put in. If you stay true to yourself and participate you’re not only going to have an amazing time but you’ll make some great connections with other people!
What advice do you have for people who are attending their first conference? What are your networking tips?
ps I’m going to be offering Being a Travel Blogger (Even When You’re Not Traveling!) as a digital course on my site soon! Stay tuned. 🙂