It seems like every business you can think of has industry conferences/conventions. You might find a conference focused on specialty coffees, storage professionals or even domain names. These conferences are a great way to network, learn and grow your business.
But these events can be daunting to first-timers. Walking into many such conferences might seem like entering an exclusive country club where everyone knows each other, and you’re the outsider looking in. How do you break the ice as the new person and get the most out of attending an industry conference?
Here are some tried-and-true tips to meet new people and network at conferences, especially if it’s your first time.
Network Before You Go
Many conferences have a directory of attendees or an app with attendee information that is active before the conference begins. Look through the directory and find people you’re interested in meeting. Send an email to them explaining who you are and what you’d like to speak with them about.
Some attendee directories and apps even denote how many years the person has attended the conference. Look for other first-timers and introduce yourself:
“Hi, my name is Jennifer and I’m attending the XYZ conference next month for the first time. I see that you’re also going for the first time and it would be great to know somebody there. Are you available to meet for coffee the night before the conference?”
If you can set up a half dozen meetings before you go, you’ll quickly get to know people and will no longer feel alone.
Ask the Conference Organizer to Make a Few Introductions
Depending on the size of the meeting, you might be able to ask the conference organizer to introduce you to a few people before you attend the conference. This is especially the case with smaller conferences that are trying to sell as many passes to new attendees as possible.
Contact the conference organizer like this:
“I’m thinking about attending XYZ conference but have never attended before. If I buy a conference pass, will you introduce me to three other people attending the conference so that I may meet some people while I’m there?”
Keep in mind that organizing a conference is a lot of work, so there may be a delay in hearing back, so be patient.
Another option here is to offer to volunteer. You may need to make the request a few months in advance, but there’s no better way to meet people than to help at the registration table, stuffing bags the day before, or other similar tasks.
Attend the Orientation Session
Check if the conference has an orientation session on the first day. People who have never been to the conference before will attend, so you can find other people who have the same apprehension as you.
These orientations also include good tips on which sessions to attend and what events you should not miss.
Introduce Yourself to People Standing Alone
It can be difficult to get your nerve up to introduce yourself to other people at a conference. A simple tip is to look for other people that look nervous or alone. At the evening cocktail reception, find the person standing in a corner with a drink looking around anxiously or using their mobile phone as a social crutch.
They will likely be excited when you introduce yourself to them because they will no longer be alone. Start the conversation by saying it’s your first time at the conference and asking them how many times they’ve come. If it’s their first time then you have something in common. If it’s not, ask them what events they recommend to attend while you’re at the conference.
Wear an Attention-Getting Shirt
The first question in a conversation can be tough, so why not wear a conversation starter on your shirt?
Let’s say your business sells credit card merchant services and you’re attending a restaurant association conference. Try wearing a t-shirt that says “Ask me how to get lower credit card fees!”
Customized t-shirts are easy to create and affordable on sites like CustomInk.
Get a Booth
If you’re willing to spend a little money you can get people to introduce themselves to you rather than the other way around.
By purchasing an exhibit booth or kiosk, you can present your company and have other people walk up to your booth to get more information.
While some conferences are very expensive, some conferences offer booths or small kiosks for a thousand dollars or less. Meeting a few good prospects can make the cost worth it.
Even if you don’t get a booth, spend lots of time in the exhibit hall. Exhibitors want to meet new people and are always open if you walk up to their booth to ask questions.
Go to Speed Networking Sessions
Some conferences have speed networking sessions. These are like speed dating except that you’re meeting other people at the conference and exchanging business cards.
Many people that attend these sessions are also first-timers. And everyone at a speed networking conference wants to meet as many people as possible!
Go Year After Year
If you follow some of these tips, you’ll find that when you return to the conference the next year you’ll recognize lots of people. Go for a few years and you will be one of the exclusive members of the country club. Just don’t forget what it was like your first time—be sure to make the first-timers feel welcome!
Follow Up After the Conference
Once you get home, be sure to reach out to the people you’ve met. Depending on the conference, that might mean sending them a friendly email, following their Facebook page, friending them on social media, or following them on Twitter. However you do it, be sure to reach out and tell them you enjoyed meeting them. That way they’ll become part of your professional circle for years to come.
Do you have other helpful tips for getting the most out of an industry conference? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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