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Learn how to make the most of attending conferences.

At many business conferences, high-level executives share their secrets for success. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
At many business conferences, high-level executives share their secrets for success.

Business conferences help facilitate the exchange of ideas in a professional field or industry, but they are also about self-promotion. Conferences offer business people opportunities to talk to vendors, meet leading industry players and hand out business cards. Sponsoring some aspect of a conference -- be it a speaker, luncheon or water bottle -- is an effective way for a company to start circulating its logo. Whether a person is attending a conference alone or with a group, going to the conference prepared will help ensure that the attendee reaps the most benefits.

Making the Most of Conference Events

A typical professional conference hosts a flurry of sessions, speakers and seminars, as well as vendor exhibits. The State Library of North Carolina suggests that conference attendees craft a tentative plan of which sessions they would like to attend each morning, with backup alternatives should a session not turn out to be what the attendee expected.

In his Top 10 Tips for Attending a Conference, Bill Lampton writes that conference attendees are better off choosing sessions that are likely to advance their skills in areas related to their expertise. At the same time, selected session topics should not be so familiar that the attendee is not likely to learn anything new. Once an attendee is in a session, Lampton recommends asking questions of the presenters, as this will help the attendee better comprehend the material, and thanking presenters after the session has ended.

All conference attendees should attend the opening plenary, which acts as an introduction to the conference. The opening speaker is chosen carefully by conference organizers to set the tone of the event, and commenting on the plenary session helps break the ice when speaking to new contacts. First-time conference attendees may want to see if their conference provides a First Timers session, which helps orient newcomers with the conference and offers new attendees tips about making the most of their time there.

Winning Friends and Influencing People

One of the major benefits of conferences is that they bring together professionals from diverse locations, and meeting with business associates face-to-face is often more effective than conducting business over the phone or through email. To make the most of a conference's networking opportunities, conference attendees might want to consider scheduling meetings in advance with contacts who they know will be in attendance. This strategy of planning meetings is an effective networking tool, although it should not be overutilized. Many of the most productive meetings happen by chance, and conference goers should keep their schedules clear enough to allow time for impromptu discussions.

When it comes to meeting new contacts, the act of handing out and collecting business cards is a networking tradition. Business cards help conference attendees remember one another, and they provide contact information for personal follow-up. Attendees should spend the week after the conference sending out notes to remind new contacts of conversations and to make future appointments. During the conference, it is important that people carry plenty of cards on them at all times.

Jim Boykin, a business CEO, points out that conferences offer the chance to meet new people, and so talking only to current company associates is not the most productive use of a person's time. Instead, conference attendees should seek out opportunities to join in conversations with strangers, which may allow them access to new business endeavors.

Promotional Opportunities

For business vendors, there are a number of benefits to advertising at a conference. The chance to market a product or service to a venue full of likely buyers is invaluable. Companies may also choose to associate themselves with a key industry event, which lends legitimacy and gravitas to a brand. Purchasing exhibit space at a conference or trade show is a great way to reach out to clients, both current and prospective, and establish the company's presence within the industry.

According to Exhibitor Magazine, companies promoting themselves at an industry conference or trade show should begin preparing a year in advance. They may want to start by studying the areas of the conference that attendees congregate in most, which will help the company select a location for its booth. The company can then begin preparing a budget. Sending out an announcement prior to the conference is a good way to drive traffic to a booth, but it is also important to remind attendees to visit during the conference -- this is where promotional tools like banners, speakers and sponsorships come into play.

Normally, conferences offer a long list of events and amenities that vendors can sponsor, which may include anything from tote bags to event binders and programs. High-level sponsors, or companies that sponsor keynote speakers or special exhibits, tend to receive the most prominent billing. No matter what the company's marketing strategy is, it is ultimately the company's representatives who develop the business relationships, and their ability to network with potential clients or associates should be the focus of conference preparation.

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