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Networking at Conferences and Trade Shows

These four tips will help you make the most out of your time at a trade show or expo.

Often, our mentality at business conferences and trade shows is that we're there to take away something, whether it's information, education or free samples. But don't overlook the potential for making connections that will further your endeavors down the road. Conferences and trade shows offer prime opportunities for networking, and if you're not intentional about it, you might overlook many of the ways you can make new contacts and get the word out about your business.

I have four suggestions to help you with your networking skills at conferences and shows. If you apply the tips in these suggestions, you'll find you gain a whole new level of networking at these events.

1. Make new friends. Conferences offer a great opportunity for making new connections. If you attend the conference with an associate or friend, don't hang out only with them during the event. Mix it up! Challenge each other by coming back together only when you've each met 10 new businesspeople and have their cards. Be sure to take at least two of each new contact's cards and share them with your associate. In effect, this doubles the number of contacts you'll both come away with.

When going into conference sessions, don't sit beside someone you've already met. Instead, sit next to different people all day long. This may mean you have to move out of your comfort zone: Attendees tend to stake out their "spot" at conference sessions, but normally, there's no assigned seating. I encourage you to move around during the day.

Be sure to speak with the people on either side of you. Break out of the tendency to just make that friendly nod and smile. If you also say, "Hi, my name is ..." while stretching your hand forward for a handshake, the other person will automatically do the same. Always ask for the business card of the person you've just met--and don't forget one for the friend you're attending with. Before moving on to the next new contact, note the name and date of the event on the back of the card, as well as anything that will help you remember the person later.

2. Meet the competition. Trade shows are events where you can meet hundreds of people if you have a booth. But don't forget about mixing and meeting the other exhibitors as well. They're all there to generate new business and meet new contacts, just like you are. Many times, I've seen more new business realized from the other exhibitors at the show than from the people attending. During the show, take time to go from booth to booth to meet the other exhibitors, collect their cards and give them yours as well. These are the people you'll want to follow up with first after the event.

In order to make the rounds, you'll need to have a partner in the booth with you. But what if you're a one-man show and don't have a partner? One thought might be to bring in a customer who's very familiar with your company to hold down the fort for an hour so you can make the rounds of the other exhibitors.

3. Let your voice be heard. If the conference has workshops, volunteer to speak. Presenting at a business conference is a marvelous way to attain more exposure for your company and your own area of expertise. In order to have this opportunity, you'll want to plan for it in advance by meeting the coordinators of the event well ahead of time.

What I recommend is, when you attend a conference for the first time, make it a point to introduce yourself to the person responsible for booking the topics and speakers for next year's event. Begin developing a relationship with this individual for the next year now.

4. Be social. If the trade show you're planning to attend puts on a mixer or other networking event, don't miss it! These types of events are wonderful ways to make initial contact with people you've never met before. It pays to be there...many times over!

Don't view these events as the chance to close a deal, but rather as the chance to take the first step down the long, profitable road of friendship and mutual benefit with a new word-of-mouth marketing partner. The most important thing I can impart to you is that you must approach this with a sense of wanting to learn as much as you can about the other people you'll meet instead of trying to tell them all about you.

Of course, all of this good advice is worthless if you don't engage in the critical follow-up process after the event. So plan a time you can make a phone call, schedule a lunch meeting or set up an e-mail exchange by way of following up. I like to use a worksheet known as the G.A.I.N.S. Exchange from the book Business by Referral I wrote with Robert Davis. I give this form to my new contact and ask them to fill it out, then we go over our forms together, sharing with each other our Goals, Achievements, Interests, Networks and Skills. After this one session, you and your new contact are ready to begin building each other's business with referrals.

Keep these points in mind when you have the chance to attend a conference or a trade show, and you'll make the most of a great opportunity.

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Ivan Misner is founder and chairman of BNI, a professional business networking organization headquartered in Upland, Calif. He is co-author, with Hazel Walker and Frank De Raffele, of Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think (Entrepreneur Press, 2012).
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