Are you a successful conference attendee?

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As you know, I recently returned from Chicago where I attended the 2012 HR Technology Conference.  Conferences continue to amaze me.  Organizers spend so much money on them and attendees are required to commit large blocks of their time (and money) and yet, in my experience, ~70% of the people don’t get the full value of the event because of their approach to conference attendance.

For the purpose of this article, I’m lumping attendees and exhibitors together.  A note for exhibitors – if your company wants to send just one person to “man the booth” and that person is you, you’ll hate it and neither you nor your company will get the full value.  You need at least two people so you can provide rest breaks for each other and so at least one of you can “work the crowd”.

I find there’s three broad categories of attendees.

1) Passive
2) Aggressive
3) Successful

Passives

The passive attendees do just that, they attend passively.  They show up to the conference and go directly to the registration desk, read all their registration materials carefully in their room and begin attending sessions bright and early the next morning.  They go to the expo floor promptly when it opens and they very likely visit every booth but will often secretly grab literature without actually engaging anyone.  They will go to the conference events and will typically sit by themselves or next to a group and listen.  The good news is that they learn a lot because they’re GREAT observers.  Passive attendees perhaps learn the most DURING the conference of the three types of attendees.  The problem is that they didn’t develop an connections.  They learned a lot but that knowledge doesn’t take them or their employer anywhere without another person or company to engage with.

Aggros

The aggressive attendees are there to meet people.  They usually don’t attend sessions but rather spend their entire time on the expo floor going from booth to booth engaging everyone.  They grab cards from everyone they can and they enter every drawing for every giveaway.  You can often spot an aggressive attendee by their approach.  If one of these folks approaches your booth directly and with purpose, looks you square in the eye and then only wants to know who you are, how big is your company and are their any openings in sales – you’ve got a classic aggro attendee on your hands 🙂

The good news is that sometimes, this is just the person you’re looking for if you’re an exhibitor or another attendee.  These folks develop leads better than anyone.  They’re fearless.  They will have 100 conversations and get 99 no’s to get just one yes.  They LOVE the hunt but if you’re an employer sending an aggro to a conference, chances are they’re benefiting themselves more than you.  Aggros belong in the field developing new sales for you, not at a conference developing new opportunities for themselves on your dime.  Something to consider.

Successfuls

Success is subjective of course so I measure this group based on my definition of success.  To be a successful conference attendee in my book you have to meet a couple criteria:

1) You need to meet people – but not everyone.  Be assertive and research the attendees and exhibitors ahead of time and pick the ones you know you want to go see and go see them.  Be a good corporate citizen though and don’t waste exhibitors time.  If you have no desire in working with a group or buying their products, leave them be.  In my opinion, you’re being a good corporate citizen because you’re not providing them with distracting false leads.

2) You need to attend sessions and observe – don’t just attend and listen to the presentation.  Watch the crowd, measure their response to the topic.  Observe their body language and of course, if people start leaving before the session is over, take note and try to figure out why.  Every presenter is different and just because people don’t seem interested in a session doesn’t necessarily mean it’s because they don’t like the content – perhaps it’s the delivery.  Conversely, if people stay until the end and seem to have a good time, follow the pack out and listen.  Some presenters are just entertaining but what they had to present was not compelling.  This is a great source of macro level market intelligence.

3) You need to mingle – but don’t be that guy.  You know who I’m talking about.  That guy who surfs the bar during the conference cocktail party endlessly.  Spend some time, engage with folks.  Don’t be afraid to hang with one group all night if you seem to gel with them.  It takes a balanced approach and in my opinion, deals are made or broken at the cocktail hour.  If you seem like you’re hunting and not really interested in people, people tend to not trust you.  If you seem like you’re clingy, people think you’re desperate for business.  Be sure to connect with anyone you said you would see later at the party and above all else, have fun – but not too much fun!  🙂

Summary

Attending conferences is fun and valuable.  You can learn a lot, make new professional (and personal) connections and you can develop great opportunities for both your employer and you but never forget the cardinal rule – you’re there representing your employer so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to tell your mother about.  🙂

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