Conferences. Trade shows. To me, they are all the same thing, so I’ll use those terms interchangeably. How you approach going to a conference is different depending on your motivation for being there. Are you a guest? Are you a host? Are you a business owner? Are you a buyer? An exhibitor? A speaker? If you don’t know your purpose for being at a conference, then you won’t be successful.
Before I examine the key ingredients to conference show success, I’m going to tell you about some conferences I’ve attended over the years.
My conference show experiences
- The first trade shows I remember attending as an adult were Erotica LA in 2004 and 2006. I purchased tickets with my (now) ex-husband. We were there as guests. Our number one purpose was to enjoy ourselves and to discover what ‘Erotica LA’ was. Turned out, it was a toned-down version of the famous AVN Adult Entertainment Expo held every year in Las Vegas.
- In the spring of 2007, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference, as a guest on a mission. I wanted to obtain an agent for my unfinished memoir. It was a foolhardy goal because agents treat memoirs like novels: they are not interested unless the book is finished. But I learned a lot about how the business works. A well-written, gut-wrenching, heartfelt story doesn’t mean anything to agents if they think they can’t sell it. They may love it, but they won’t represent you. It felt like three days of icy water being splashed in my face.
- In 2008, my ex-husband and I were considering going into the pet retail business. I had designed a product that I believed had incredible potential in a growing market that seemed untouched by an otherwise dismal economy. I attended the 2008 California Gift Show, which was the 147th edition of the biggest and most important gift show on the West Coast. As a potential business owner, I was looking to see what was in the general gift market as well as pricing items needed to create my product. For example, I learned metal components that seemed inconsequential but necessary were 10 times cheaper to obtain from China. Marketing our product as ‘Made in the USA’ would be impossible if we wanted to turn a profit. In this sense, I was also attending the conference as a buyer.
- A few weeks later, my ex-husband and I attended two pet-retail trade shows: LA Pet Designers: The Showroom and The Luxury Pet Pavilion. Though we were guests, our purpose was to make contacts and analyze our competition. Our product did not exist, but there seemed to be a need for it. Unfortunately, we did not move forward with our business or our product because we could not get more people to join our company.
- In the fall of 2008, my nonprofit Blue Faery exhibited at AASLD’s The Liver Meeting. As a business owner and exhibitor, we wanted to promote our mission and products to the many oncologists, hepatologists, and transplant surgeons who attended from all over the world. It was our first conference so I visited every booth and introduced myself to anyone who would give me 30 seconds of their time. Though it was expensive, that conference helped elevate our organization to another level.
- Since 2008, I’ve attended numerous conferences as a guest on behalf of Blue Faery. This past year, we were exhibitors at ASCO’s annual meeting and AASLD’s The Liver Meeting. In December 2017, I will be a speaker at a conference in Richmond, Virginia. I’m excited, thrilled, and nervous even though I have a year to plan my 15-minute presentation.
The key ingredients to conference show success
Know your purpose. Why are you there? What do you hope to gain? Who do you want to meet? What seminars/lectures do you want to attend?
Know your role. Who are you?
- Being a guest is the easiest role in many ways. You still need to know your purpose and purchase your ticket, but if you show up and accomplish your goals, you will achieve success. Tweet: When attending a #conference, being a guest is the easiest role. #BLISSStip
- Being a host may be the hardest role because you have to manage many logistics and put out constant fires. If you are the host and main contact, ask yourself: do you have enough resources (e.g., people, money, time)? Do you know the venue? Do you know and understand the goals of the conference? Do you know the key sponsors of the conference? Do you have the necessary contact information for all parties? Do you know who is representing the union workers? (There always seems to be union labor at conferences.) Whatever you do, be courteous to the host(s); they can open doors for you (see next bullet point). Tweet: When attending a #conference, be courteous to #hosts. #BLISSStip
- Being a business owner at a conference is a fantastic networking opportunity, especially if you don’t have to man a booth. Many conferences provide a list of exhibitors prior to the event so you can create a list of people to meet. If certain people are giving lectures or seminars, attend them. Sometimes, the best time to meet someone is right after they speak because they expect (and like) people to approach them. I did this at The Liver Meeting last month. I was determined to meet a particular doctor with whom we had worked with, but whom I had never met. I received special permission from the host to attend the doctor’s ticketed lecture session. Then, I introduced myself after he gave his lecture. He was thrilled that we finally met in person. Putting a face with a name makes a huge difference with most people. Tweet: #Networking at a #conference is a great opportunity for #businessowners. #BLISSStip
- Being a buyer at a conference is similar to being a business owner. If you know your purpose, you will be fine. The difference is if you are buying for your own company or buying for another company. Then, the question is … what is your goal for the conference? Are you pricing parts/products? Are you buying on site? If it’s the latter, what is your budget for buying products? What is the business owner looking for?
- Being an exhibitor at a conference comes with many responsibilities and endless to-do lists. Since I’ve been an exhibitor at four conferences, I’ll address those needs separately in the next section.
- Being a speaker at a conference is exciting, but you must be prepared. Who is your main point of contact? What is your topic? How much time do you have? Are you on a panel with other speakers? Or are you moderating a panel? Here are a few other tips:
- Become friendly with the A/V technician because you might need him.
- Are you presenting a PowerPoint presentation along with your speech? If so, arrange for a time to test your presentation prior to the event. The biggest mistake I’ve seen at most conferences, especially medical ones, is cramming too much information on one slide and having too many slides for the allotted time. I challenge everyone to adopt the Guy Kawasaki rule of 10/20/30. I’ve attended two 60-minute webinars given by Guy and he didn’t deviate from his rule. Imagine having only 10 slides over 20 minutes with 30-size font! Audiences will absorb the information better and you allow more time for discussion. Tweet: If you’re a #speaker at a #conference, check out the @GuyKawasaki 10/20/30 rule! #BLISSStip
- Also, do a microphone check. Many people speak too far away from a microphone and it hurts their presentation. If you have a loud voice (like me), you may need to speak farther away from the microphone because otherwise you will sound like you are shouting.
Know your location. Where is the conference? Where is the business office (for hosts)? Where is the exhibition hall? Where are the vendors with whom you want to connect? Where is your booth? Where are you speaking? You get the idea.
Know your budget. How much do things cost? No matter what your role is at a conference, you should know your budget. It’s easy to go nuts and spend too much money so keep all receipts and track your expenses. For our volunteers, we give cash per diems to cover meals and other incidental expenses using this Per Diem Calculator. Otherwise, I pay for everything with our business credit card, but I always know our projected budget for each conference including travel, accommodations, transportation, dining, etc. Tweet: Tracking your #conference #expenses will keep you on #budget. #BLISSStip
Be prepared. What do you need to be 100-percent ready? Conference days can be long even if you are a guest. Also, you tend to accumulate stuff as you go from booth to booth. Here are some general preparation tips no matter what your role is:
- Stay hydrated. Bring a reusable water bottle with you. Most conferences will have water coolers so you can get free refills.
- Eat small snacks often. I recommend bringing fruit (e.g., bananas, apples) and small packages of nuts. There is usually plenty of food at conferences, but the lines can be long and you may not have the time to wait. Tweet: Stay hydrated & eat small snacks often at #conferences. #BLISSStip
- Bring a backpack, laptop bag, etc. to hold all of the items you will receive. A small purse will not work and a briefcase may not have enough room.
- Bring your cell phone charger because if you are taking many photos, your battery may run down. Many conference venues have charging stations.
- Use the free wireless networks available at the conference. No sense in using your data plan when most venues provide free Wi-Fi. Tweet: Bring your #cellphone charger & use free #wireless networks at #conferences. #BLISSStip
- Wear comfortable shoes. Do not make the same mistake I did. I wore my four-inch, suede heels to one conference because they looked fabulous with my dress. My feet hated me. Tweet: Wear comfortable #shoes at #conferences. Ditch the #highheels! #BLISSStip
How to have an awesome conference as an exhibitor
Hire personable people. As an exhibitor, you want friendly, outgoing people representing your company, brand, products, and services. If I have to choose between someone who is less knowledgeable but very approachable v. someone who is very knowledgeable but not approachable, I’ll take the less knowledgeable person. Why? You can educate someone about your products/services, but you cannot change someone’s personality.
At my nonprofit, if our volunteer doesn’t know the answer to a question and I’m not at the booth, she writes it down. She gets the person’s business card, gives them my card, and assures them I will follow up via email. Think about it: if she knew the answer to every question, I wouldn’t have a reason to contact the person. She may have less knowledge about liver cancer than my board members, but she has a radiant, bubbly personality that attracts people to our booth.
Watch your body language.
- Make eye contact as people pass by. When you look someone in the eye, you ignite a spark that produces connection and curiosity. If you smile as well, I can almost guarantee at least half of the people will walk over to your booth.
- Stand up as much as possible. When you sit at your booth/table, you appear inactive and uninteresting. Take sitting breaks but otherwise, stand as much as possible. You appear more inviting, and you look like you are working.
Present an attractive booth. Exhibiting at conferences is expensive. I mean crazy expensive. However, you can still have an attractive booth on a tight budget.
- Be consistent with color. If you have a table in a small booth (like we usually do), choose drape and carpet colors that match your brand.
- Pay for the daily vacuuming and pre-vacuuming services. There is no guarantee your carpet will arrive clean. No one told me this fact at our first conference eight years ago! You will probably be snacking at your booth so crumbs will drop on the carpet as well as other items from visitors.
- Don’t pay for the daily trash pickup or for a trashcan. You can save a bit of money here by bringing your own trash bags and dumping your trash at the end of each day.
- Present brochures and business cards in upright holders so people can see them from a distance.
- Present your swag in an upright manner if possible. For example, we lay our Sharpies on the table, but we also put them in a huge mug as well.
- Have a display that shows your logo and name of your company. We bought our tabletop display from Postergarden.
Bring great swag. When people talk about swag at events, they mean free stuff. At medical conferences, pharmaceutical companies are no longer allowed to give out swag with the exception of food and drinks. The burden of having the best swag falls on the nonprofit organizations. Trust me, if you have good swag, people talk about it and will come to your booth to check it out.*
- In the past, we have had retractable ballpoint pens and post-it notepads with our logos on them. We noticed at the June conference that many people have glossy business cards now, which you cannot write on with ballpoint pens. We were almost out of our pens so for the conference last month, we bought blue Sharpie permanent markers with our logo on them. People loved them. We gave away 400 Sharpies!
- Keeping in mind that most people don’t stay hydrated and we are a health nonprofit, we bought 20-ounce, BPA-free water bottles with push/pull spouts with our blue faery logo on them. Water bottles are more expensive because they take up more space, which increases shipping costs. But it was worth it. We were the only booth giving away reusable water bottles. We gave away 300 water bottles!
- For general swag, I recommend Branders; for health conference swag, I like Health Promotions Now.
- For great swag ideas, check out Hubspot’s Event Swag Your Attendees Will Love and Loathe and The Photo Team’s Event Managers’ Guide to Event Swag.
Capture ALL leads. I don’t understand when exhibitors miss the opportunity to capture leads. Yes, it is expensive, but you want to know who stopped by your booth. The best way to do so is to pay for a lead-capturing device. I have used the handheld units, but their cameras are not as good as the ones in most cell phones. If there is a mobile option (i.e., a temporary app for your phone) choose it instead. The mobile version is usually cheaper, too. Plus, you don’t have the hassle of picking up and dropping off the handheld device before and after the conference.
Keep in mind: if you have great swag, people won’t mind if you scan their badge. They understand it’s a quid pro quo for exhibitors and guests. For example, if you wanted our water bottles and Sharpies at The Liver Meeting, you had to let us scan your badge. By taking this approach, my nonprofit’s email list doubled in three days.
If you can think of any other conference or trade show tips that you would like to share, please do so in the comments. I would love to read them!
*Giving out swag at conferences is the same as an irresistible freebie offer (IFO) on your website or blog content upgrades (e.g., cheat sheets, guides). The goal is to capture the person’s email address so you can build the relationship, continue the connection, and increase your email list with qualified contacts.