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The How-To: Using A 'Shadow Conference' To Strike Deals The connections you forge outside of crowded conference halls will make your next trip the most successful one yet.

By Zach Ferres

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


The end of March marks the sixth annual STEP Conference in Dubai. It's one of the biggest (and most fun) tech events in the Middle East and North Africa region, but it's not the conference itself that has so many entrepreneurs excited.

I've been an avid conference-goer since college. My first event was the Collegiate Entrepreneur Organization Conference in Chicago back in 2007, where I met many of my closest entrepreneur friends to this day. In the years since, I have attended some of the biggest tech conferences in the world, including the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition in Dubai. The events themselves offered great networking opportunities, but I quickly realized that the most productive meetings don't take place on the show floor.

You see, there's a hidden side to conferences- something I like to call a "shadow conference." It's in these shadows that bottles pop, deals get inked, and lasting relationships are forged.

Shadow conferences are an increasing trend among entrepreneurs, and these side events can be more fruitful than the main attraction. By planning ahead and tapping into your networks, you can unlock a whole new world for your business.

How to make the most of conference season
According to the Events Industry Council, more than 1.8 million trade shows, conferences, conventions and similar events take place every year. They aren't cheap, either, with general admission tickets frequently running attendees hundreds of dollars. You're also on the hook for travel expenses, lodging and meals.

Justifying your attendance means documenting a quantifiable return on investment. Conversions such as picking up a new client or business partner are ideal, but they don't have to happen within the confines of the conference center. I met my close friend and former business partner Ilya Pozin while taxiing in a limo at the Empact Showcase Summit in Washington, D.C.

Pozin, who co-founded Pluto TV, often never sets foot on the showroom floor of large conferences."We spend our time in back-to-back meetings with device partners, content partners and advertisers," he said. "We've had some of our most important meetings in the shadows."

Business is all about making deals, and conferences frequented by deal makers can be a huge boon. Think about your 50 closest professional relationships- if they're all within your company, it's time to leave your comfort zone and network more. These events are the perfect cure, but you have to pick the right ones.

Consider events in cities where you know people who you'd like to visit. Otherwise, look for options attended by important members of your network. While escaping the hustle and bustle of past conferences, I've bumped into Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai, shared food with countless MENA venture capitalists at a private event at the W Lounge and learned to perform circus trapeze in Texas.

In an ideal situation, look for multiday conferences with prearranged after-parties in a memorable city you want to visit. This trifecta ensures you'll have an enjoyable and fruitful trip regardless of what happens at the conference.

Related: Conferences: Are They Worth Your Precious Startup Time?

Forging bonds in the shadows
I'll admit that it probably sounds intimidating to ditch the conference halls in favor of finding these fabled shadow conferences. Breathe- it's easier than you might think. Take these four steps to leave the main course behind and feast on the side dishes:

1. Tap your network before departing.
Before attending any conference, check in with your favorite professional organizations. Tapping into your own networks can help you connect with a lot of useful people who share your interests. I've done this with Startup Weekend, the Young Entrepreneur Council, the Entrepreneurs' Organization and other groups where I'm connected.

Dubai and the United Arab Emirates house more than 42 percent of Arab startups, and that figure will only continue to grow. Given this concentration of aspiring entrepreneurs, you might want to use LinkedIn and other social media channels to find connections in these hotbeds of activity. Social media can help you see who might be attending area conferences, helping you craft a list of people you'd like to meet while there.

While you're at it, reach out to past clients or vendors in the area who might be game to connect. You're already spending the money to travel to their area, so they're more than likely willing to carve out time for you.

Related: Quantity Is Good but Quality Is King in Networking

2. Attend after-parties.
Conferences tend to have a regimented schedule- at least until the after-parties begin. These less formal festivities are where people let their hair down and show off who they truly are. It's a more relaxed setting, so turn off your phone and don't try to hand out business cards.??Instead, use these events to build authentic relationships with like-minded people. In today's social media-drenched world, these personal relationships are more valuable than ever. A recent psychology study from the University of Oxford found that only 28 percent of people's Facebook friends are genuine friends. While online connections might look impressive on paper, use these events to cultivate long-lasting personal relationships.

3. Schedule a night out.
With so much happening at any event, you can make a huge impression by arranging your own after-hours soiree. Set things in motion long before you leave (secure a venue and get it on the calendar), which will give you the ability to invite people as soon as you arrive. As you meet people during the conference, you can slowly build your guest list and give yourself an opportunity to interact with valuable new contacts. Even if you don't manage to make any new connections, you can still benefit from introducing your contacts to each other.

Related: 7 Steps for Planning a Kick-Ass Networking Event

4. Arrange a group trip.
If people in your network are planning to attend the same event, convince them to travel with you as a group. We did this for GITEX in Dubai last year by bringing six of our own Coplex accelerator startups along for the ride. It was a memorable trip during which we formed lasting friendships and fruitful partnerships. Register for the event in advance, and make travel plans that can accommodate two to three days of lodging and after-hours entertainment. According to information from Virgin Airlines, you can expect to recoup $12.50 for every dollar you spend on business travel. If you manage to close even one long-term contract during your travels, the trip will be well worth the investment.

Human relationships and shared experiences form the core of any successful shadow conference. This is where you take the time to get to know people while having some fun. No matter where technology takes us over the next century, the importance of meaningful human relationships isn't going anywhere.

Before you head out to STEP2018 or any other major business conference, spend a little time setting up your own shadow conference. Don't be afraid to piggyback on other events, steal the show and make it all about you. The connections you forge outside of crowded conference halls will make your next trip the most successful one yet.

Related: Scalability Secrets From One of America's Fastest-Growing Software Startups

Zach Ferres

Advisor, Board Member & Investor

Zach Ferres is a serial entrepreneur, speaker and technology executive passionate about developing entrepreneurial communities around the world. He built and sold his first tech company at 24 and was the CEO of Coplex for eight years, where he supported the creation of over 200 startup companies.
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