Getting the Most from Business Conferences

Each year, I attend close to 20 conferences across the world, from New York to Marrakesh, London, Auckland and Hong Kong, and also organise a two-day event in Melbourne each year as well.

As a result, people often come to me with the question of, ‘what are the best ways to make a conference work?’

The truth is, it’s not that hard, even if you are an introverted person, because there are a few simple tricks to success.

In the lead-up to every conference, there are a few things I like to do, including:

  • Look at the speaker list: There are always going to be companies you want to be introduced to, be it for commercial or personal gain, and the speakers will give you a list of who you can meet (we’ll get to the how to meet them later on), and if they are getting stage time, they will be an influencer in that business.
  • Review the delegate list: This is usually available in the lead-up to the event via an app, given most conferences now offer digital networking opportunities to be able to connect with other attendees (or it will be available in soft copy from the reception desk on the day). Make contact with people you want to meet before you get there if you can and try not to rely on meeting them by chance at the event.
  • Book at the room at the host hotel: Every morning at breakfast or late evenings at the bar you’ll find delegates from your conference you can connect with and the bar is always a great way to meet new business contacts.
  • Study the program: Make sure you choose the sessions you really want to be in, then plan other times of the day around them when you can make work calls or catch-up on emails. Give the sessions you want to be in 100% of your time and avoid sessions you have no interest in.
  • Plan your travel carefully: Get the earlier flight so you’re not rushed getting to the conference and don’t get the early flight home. Save some time to get a quick meeting in or to meet people at the end of the conference.

If you can put those pillars in place before you get to the conference, you’ll be able to maximise your time when you are there.

The beauty of conferences is that everyone has name tags so you know not just everyone’s names but the fact you are all there for the same reason. Reach out to them and say hello, because the best value in every conference isn’t just the learning, it’s who you meet.

The best way to meet high-flying executives from companies is right when they come off stage. Stay at the back of the room and when they head for the doors, reach out and say hi. I find that even the most successful and important CEOs will give you a couple of minutes of their time, so again don’t be shy and say hello.

At the event I organise – the Australasian Hotel Industry Conference and Exhibition (AHICE) – we have several networking opportunities each day and these are the times of the conference you need to maximise.

At our event this year, I saw two people who had just met quickly start talking about a sales deal worth around $300,000, so you never know who might be standing next to you in the line at lunch.

If there is an exhibition at the event, go around to the stands and say hi. Exhibitors are usually standing around for people to come and talk to, so give them the time and you never know what kind of deal you can do with them or who they might know in your industry.

Once the event is over, that doesn’t mean the opportunities are by any means. My LinkedIn database has reached over 8,000 now and many of my contacts have come from conferences, so I find that a quick and effective way to keep in touch immediately is to connect with who you met. Don’t let LinkedIn simply send the standard ‘join my network’ email – send something personal, including their name and end with yours.

Then a follow-up within four weeks is ideal to keep the contact going, arrange meetings and so on.

I have also made a lot of conferences work by going to the same event the next year. Many conferences have around 20 to 30 per cent repeat attendees every year, so it’s a good chance to reconnect with who you met the previous year and meet new people in your industry.

James Gregory Wilkinson is a Travel Expert for Sky News Australia and the Editor-In-Chief of Executive Travel publication Wayfarer.

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