As an entrepreneur, it’s often a tough and expensive decision to attend industry conferences. But the advantages can often far outweigh the expense in dollars and time away from your business.
But before you buy a ticket and book your flight, here’s how to determine whether a conference is worth it -- and how to get the most out of the ones you attend:
1. Do some research. Don’t rely on a conference’s brochures or marketing speak to evaluate a potential conference. Talk to past attendees you know and find out how valuable they found it. Look into the speakers and determine how much industry experience they have.
Check out who will have booths in the exhibit hall. Are they businesses you want to learn more about? Are the big guns in your industry exhibiting? Are there some businesses that are totally not connected to your industry filling up space? Ensure the conference is worth your time.
2. Look for sponsorship. Might one of your suppliers pay for some or all of your costs? Many times, suppliers look for opportunities to say thank you for your business, and this is a better choice than junkets and golf games. Sometimes sponsors who are also exhibitors may have free passes to a conference as part of their package. It’s worth a shot to see if you can get some support.
3. Make a plan. Your job starts long before you arrive at the conference. Take a look at the seminars and workshops as well as the speakers and plan your first and second choice for each timeslot. Balance topics so that you cover a number of issues of concern to your organization.
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Review the exhibitors and decide which ones you want to see. Take the map and determine your path through the exhibit hall. Choose the time when you will visit them. Most conferences have time planned for the hall, but you may want to choose another time during a seminar slot that doesn’t have anything to interest you so the hall isn’t crowded.
4. Free yourself. If you spend half of your conference time on the phone to your office or checking email you might as well have stayed home. Put an out-of-office message on your email and check phone messages at the end of the day. Assign one person to call you in case of a real emergency, and plan to only answer the phone for that person.
5. Bring supplies. If the conference is large, figure on two pairs of comfortable shoes and extra socks. You don’t want your feet to stop you from exploring. Also bring healthy snacks. Most of the food available is unappetizing and you may want to skip some meals to make the most of your time. Don’t forget your business cards.
6. Maximize your efforts. If your No. 1 seminar for a time slot is just covering what’s already in the handouts, or isn’t worth your time, head to your second choice. This is not the time to think about being polite and sitting through a bad session, it’s your time and money on the line. Similarly, don’t let yourself get dragged into a long discussion with an exhibitor that isn’t relevant to your business.
7. Connect with colleagues. Are there people you work with from other parts of the country or the world who may be at this conference? Check that out and make a point of making contact. Even if it’s just coffee in the afternoon, that personal connection could help strengthen your relationship.
8. Network, network, network. Talk to people -- in line, sitting next to you, on a shuttle bus, walking through the exhibit hall. You never know if someone you meet might have the answer to a problem or needs what you’re selling. Don’t be pushy, just friendly.
9. Use the information. It’s easy to file everything you learned and never look at it again. Instead, select information to share at staff meetings, handouts to give to someone on your team and come up with at least three ideas you can incorporate into your company. Then take a moment to consider whether you should attend again next year.
What factors do you consider before attending a conference? Let us know in the comments section below.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.